If Shadows on the Grave #1 proves anything, it confirms what should be blindingly obvious to anyone reading comics, particularly horror comics; namely that Richard Corben is a grand master comics storyteller. The issue, the first of an eight-issue series, is a beautiful throwback to the horror anthologies that have produced some of the best comics in the history of the medium. And as such, though it’s undeniably old-fashioned, it’s rendered so beautifully and brilliantly by Corben that the book is full of thrills and chills from cover to cover.
Corben cut his teeth doing underground comix in the 1960s before making a splash in the early 1970s working in horror and science-fiction anthology mags for Warren Publishing. But Corben made his name when he became an early contributor to Heavy Metal. In 1976, he published his adaptation of a Robert E Howard story, “Bloodstar”, that was among the first comics to ever utilize the description of “graphic novel.” His science-fiction/fantasy character of Den is probably his most significant creation, with his saga stretching out across different publications, iterations and decades. He also drew the album cover for Meatloaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” album. His work was unabashedly adult, gorgeously rendered, and totally unique.
So, a new miniseries by him is something I didn’t want to miss. And Corben’s work here doesn’t disappoint. Shadows on the Grave #1 is deliciously old-fashioned, its framework being the EC-styled, Warren-adopted one of utilizing creepy narrators with the Mag the Hag and Gurgy Tate to introduce each tale in the anthology. The tales themselves fit in to the old of those horror anthologies too, in that they focus on disturbing visuals and simple morality tales or vampire spooky stories. If one could criticize them for being simplistic in nature, that’s entirely by design rather than a flaw. Whether it’s the most unsettling puppet show you’ll ever see, a plane crash where things get worse after the plane goes down, or a wife who finds takes steps to fix her marriage that doesn’t work out as planned, each one would be perfect for a night around the campfire.
Corben caps Shadows on the Grave #1 off with the opening chapter of the ongoing story for the series, a tale of Denaeus, the grandnephew of his signature creation Den. The opening chapter is promising and for anyone who enjoys a good sword and sorcery tale, especially one heavy on the weirdness, it won’t disappoint.
But, of course, the main selling point is going to be Corben’s gorgeous black and white art. If you are considering staying away due to its lack of color, you will be missing out. Even at 76, he doesn’t show any signs of losing his touch. There’s a richness and wealth of detail to his blacks, whites and shades of grey that artists half his age should look at with envy. Corben’s strength has been his ability to depict heightened grotesqueries that somehow retain a realism despite his stylized approach. Faces and figures are just distorted enough to communicate an off-kilter or horrific world without losing an ounce of impact, power or emotion. Each of the tales here are subtly different in their approach but are still amazing showcases for Corben’s skill.
None of these stories in Shadows on the Grave #1 are going to break the mold in terms of horror storytelling, but I’m not sure anyone else working today could so accurately replicate those horror/weird fiction anthologies as well. And I don’t think there’s any other artist capable of doing a black and white horror comic with a level of skill on display that dazzles as much as Corben does here. 9/10
Shadows on the Grave #1 will be released tomorrow, Dec. 14, 2016.