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Mar 10, 2022
I posted a video, about a year ago, in which I told the story of being hired by comics legend Richard Corben to do a back-up feature for him. A few days ago, I came across the offer letter from him, and thought I’d revisit that episode.
I met Corben, when I was 23, at an extremely rare convention appearance. I think it was a con in Philadelphia, but it may have been Dallas... it was nearly 30 years ago! I had a handful of the over-sized comic magazines he was publishing under his own FANTAGOR label. His drawing and painting were consistently impressive, as was Fantagor’s production quality. Surprised that there wasn’t a long line at his booth, I took the opportunity to introduce myself, and asked if I could show him my own work.
This was maybe 9 months after I’d graduated art school, so my portfolio must have still included some student work. He took particular interest in the pages of my then upcoming comic, PREY FOR US SINNERS. While perusing the pages, he casually dropped, “I’d like you to draw a back-up story for me.” “Sure!” I said, not really believing him. I didn’t take him seriously, I honestly thought he was just being nice. I think his wife Dona must have given me their card. She was MUCH more outgoing, in fact most of my conversations with Rich were actually through Dona.
Obviously, I sent the Corbens a follow up letter expressing my interest in doing a back-up down the line, whenever they had a story suitable for me... Just a week or 2 later, I was excited to find an offer letter from them, accompanied by a few scripts from frequent Corben collaborators, Bruce Jones, and Jan Strnad. They even gave me the option to pitch my own story! I wasn’t doing much writing yet, so based mostly on the fact the Jan Strnad script was a 2 parter (twice the number of pages, twice the pay, and my work would grace 2 issues of Corben’s FROM THE PIT!), I chose to illustrate “Practically Midnight.”
I photo referenced almost everything back then, too uptight and nervous to draw out of my head. (This approach had really shot me in the foot the previous winter when I tackled a long story for the massive WEIRD BUSINESS anthology. That story was so silly, and over the top, it was not well suited for that approach. I unsuccessfully veered back and forth from what reference I could find, to nervously winging it. I hated that piece and was deeply embarrassed by it, until years later, I looked at it and realized that most of the more cartoony, from my imagination, bits worked quite well. If only I had trusted myself...) I’d spent the first half of ’94 in New York, but by the end of summer I was living in Dallas, where I had more friends, and it didn’t cost so much. I owed a debt of gratitude to my friend John Stack Ross (the male lead), a very indulgent property manager (whose name I forget) at the apartment complex I lived at (female lead), and the late great artist/actor/ad man/Renaissance man Buffalo George Toomer! They very generously allowed me to light them, pose them, and shoot them with my old 35mm Nikon camera - all for a comic book story that has never seen print!
I turned the first part in pretty quickly. Rich was pleased with it, and we had a brief discussion about how it should be colored. Being so heavily cross-hatched, my thought was that it should be mostly monochromatic. Rich was noncommittal about that, saying it would be an interesting challenge for his daughter, who was to color it. I don’t know if she ever got started on it. They sent me a check immediately. I had already begun working on part 2.
That job was going so well. The Corbens were great to work for, and I had started daydreaming about doing back-ups for him semi-regularly, maybe even pitch a longer serial to him with my frequent collaborator at the time, writer Franz Henkel. I had completed 5 or 6 pages of the 2nd 10-pager when the Corbens called. They had received the latest orders from the comics distributor. The orders were so low across the board (I think they published 3 or 4 titles monthly or bi-monthly), they had decided to cease all publishing immediately. Rich was going to freelance full-time for other publishers. I was asked to stop work and invoice them for the pages I’d completed. I was gutted. But again, the Corbens paid immediately.
A year or 2 later, I was working full-time on video games at Disney in LA. In my spare time, I had compiled the anthologies SHOCK THE MONKEY, and RAW PERIPHERY, and was planning a PG-13 version, PERIPHERY. I had that stack of originals for the nearly completed 2-parter Corben had commissioned. I created this mock cover image and sent the package over to Jan Strnad, suggesting we ask Rich for permission to print the story. Jan said we would have to pay back our page rates in full, which wasn’t an option for me. The reality of indie comics publishing, even back then, was we were unlikely to make much, if any, profit. And really, the most exciting thing about the project was that I was to be published alongside Corben, in his own magazine! So I let it go.
I wish I had stayed in better touch with the Corbens. Who knows, maybe Rich had more unpublished stories of his own, maybe we could have worked something out... maybe he’d have wanted to do a Fantagor anthology... who knows.
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