Is “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe the greatest poem in the English language? An impossible question. It’s certainly one of the most influential, one of the few poems the lay-reader is at least aware of; and has been quoted, homage and spoofed hundreds of times in everything from the films of Roger Corman to MAD Magazine to The Simpsons. “The Raven”– along with other works by Poe (“The Tell-Tale Heart” became “Sleep No More” for Shock Suspense Stories #10, “The Murders in Rue Morgue” was in Classics Illustrated #21) –also serves as a cornerstone of American comics history. As Poe scholar M. Thomas Inge notes in his introduction to the collection Spirits of the Dead, “Without Edgar Allan Poe and some of his fellow popular writers, there might not have been comic books or graphic novels as we know them.”
Inge refers mostly to the manner in which the early writers, desperate for material to fill the endless pages of comics magazines, plumbed (or shall we say ‘stole’?) works by American masters of the short story; and Poe, with his focus on plots of horror and mystery, was a particularly alluring target for inspiration.
There is, however, another element to consider: the visual one. While the original publication of “The Raven” in The American Review was rather plain, the poem quickly became a popular subject for illustration after Poe’s death. (John Tenniel, for example – famous for illustrating Alice in Wonderland – did a rather striking version of “The Raven” for a British collection of Poe’s work in 1858.) But for my money, nothing quite captures – and adds– to the tone of the poem quite like Gustave Dore’s 1875 illustrations, which took a tale taking place in a single small room and pushed it towards visions of cosmic macabre.
“The Raven” is an extremely visual poem. It evokes not just mood but a clear turn of events, and dozens and hundreds of illustrators have taken a crack at it. I won’t pull a Scott McCloud and refer to these illustrated poems as ‘comics,’ but certainly more than a few comics artists drew inspiration from Dore’s Poe-inspired visions. None of which was as good as Dore’s…
… until Richard Corben arrived on the scene.
Using another quote from Inge: “[Corben] may well be our most acute and creative interpreter of Poe in visual terms. All of his comic book work has been imbued with the same gothic sensibilities and keen eye for the grotesque that possessed Poe himself.”
Richard Corben (1940-2020) was a rare beast in the world of comics: An artist of idiosyncratic style (one can tell a Corben page from a glance, from the early years all the way to his last) who found success in both America and Europe. Despite never changing his style he worked in all corners of the industry, from grimy alt comix, to high prestige French science fiction to mainstream superheroes. His stock in trade, however, was in the field of horror: from Slow Death to Creepy to Haunt of Horror. Wherever Corban went, like these early pioneers of comics Inge mentioned, he brought Poe with him.
“I have a strong sympathy for Poe’s lonely, sometimes obsessive and anguished characters,” Corben said in a Comics Journal interview. And through his career Corben adapted dozens of Poe’s stories – some more than once. “The Raven” three times – in 1974, 2006 and 2013. Each take on the poem is unique, revealing another step in his development as an artist and a storyteller (as well as an interpreter of Poe). By chronicling these adaptations we can also chronicle the span of Corban’s career in comics.
Once Upon a Midnight Dreary
The first adaptation was in Creepy #67. Granted, there’s no adaptation credit on the page, but the extremely valuable Corben website says it’s by longtime Warren contributor Richard Margopoulos, who would go on to work with Corben again. This version immediately jumps at the reader, if for no other reason than being entirely in color – a rarity in the otherwise mostly black-and-white Creepy. And what colors! For all the delightful excess in his stories, Corben is an extremely subtle colorist who made sure every part of the page was carefully lit in a manner befitting the staging of the scene.
You can see it in the opening page in which the light from the narrator’s house shines through the window and illuminates the snow outside, with tree-branches in the foreground blocking small slivers of it. This astounding effect continues throughout, and in the second page a simple close-up on the Lost Lenore’s eyes shows a depth and emotion that is rare in comics form. There is no exaggeration, and the emotion is not overplayed but expressed plainly on the page.
The reason I go on and on about the colors is because the adaptation itself is as straightforward as they come. It starts and an ends with the words of Poe, quoting directly the first and last stanza, and other pieces of dialogue and narration throughout at least echo the familiar lines of the poem: “Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;” becomes “your answer holds little meaning that I can see.” It’s dramatic and both creators are playing for the cheap seats here, but the contrast with Poe’s actual words does the adaptation no good.
Likewise, the comics seems to take Poe’s word at face-value, as if he’s not describing a man already teetering on the brink of self-destruction (being pushed to the end by a simple bird croaking). Thus, the poem’s “surely that is something at my window lattice; Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—” becomes a page in where the narrator thinks his Lenore might be coming into the house through the window. Either he thinks she’s alive – which we know she is not – or he is already so maddened with grief that Raven’s coming can do no further harm.
Corben himself seems somewhat rueful about these early attempts. In the same Comics Journal interview he said “My first intent was to do so-called faithful adaptations. But now I feel a “faithful” adaptation is not possible in any medium by anybody.”
That first crack at “The Raven” treats it more like a story than as a poem. It adapts the plot, the happenstance, and the images do conjure the proper emotions, but not the progressive descent into madness. Corben claims that as a young manhe lacked the maturity to comprehend Poe’s intent: “Things you read early in life can be understood with a different meaning when revisited later. This is certainly the case for me with “The Raven.” The first time I read it, I thought, ah, this guy is sad about the loss of his girlfriend.”
In years to come Corben would take further cracks at Poe, and with each one he would unshackle himself from trying to emulate the words, while becoming closer and closer to the rhythm of the poem.
Perched and Set and Nothing More
Haunt of Horror is one of the weirder pieces of Marvel comics in the 21st century – a pair of black and white miniseries, one dedicated to H.P. Lovecraft and the other to Poe, with each issue adapting three pieces (be they poems or stories) of the author. It was the kind of thing you expect to find during the horror boom of the 1970’s but not in the year of 2006, in which Marvel long rejected almost all non-superhero adjacent titles. Corben, at this point, seems much more self-assured and less chained to the original poem: “So when I try to adapt one of Poe’s stories or poems, I don’t often try to create an accurate visual rendition based on Poe’s written words. I think I can get a better overall effect by analyzing what I really like about a story, about what the inspiration is for me, and just go with it.”
An adaptation of Lovecraft’s poem “The Canal” opens with two Black men kissing passionately – certaintlynot something Lovecraft would show in his original take. By this point, when Corben is adapting he is adapting the resonance of the piece – using the ‘plot’ as a jumping-on point.
This take on “The Raven”, the first story from Haunt of Horror: Edgar Allan Poe #1, still has some of the familiar plot-beats: A man alone in his house, a strange bird entering through the window, the bust of Pallas… but now Corben adds and twists the original. When our narrator open the window he does so while brandishing a gun, and his nervousness has more of an aggressive edge to it than previous appearances. Corben also breaks the rules of his previous adaptation by doing flashbacks, showing the narrator’s time with Lenore a series of rose-tinted memories (speaking metaphorically – the flashbacks are also in black and white).
It is during these flashbacks that we see that the narrator’s relationship with Lenore wasn’t as beautiful as he imagines it to be, and the story’s shocking moment is not his suicide (with the previously-established gun, Chekov would be proud), but the revelation of Lenore’s rotting corpse in the house. Despite not using colors, Corben still manages a great contrast between Lenore of the memories, with skin so perfect one might mistake her texture to that of the bust of Pallas, and the rotten thing that jumps at us.
Here, Poe’s melancholy words get an extra air of regret, Lenore didn’t simply perish away but was killed by the man who claimed he loved her, in what we can see is a typical mood swing for him. This is no longer a simple story of loss and regret, this is a tale of repression and violence; of a man who does not wish to see things as they are. The raven is not just “some ominous bird of yore” – it is a sign of truth, it brings back things as they were, instead of as he wants them to be.
Our sympathy in the poem is with the protagonist, even if he can be seen as a wet blanket, but now Corben inverts things. Our sympathy is with Lenore, the victim of a foul act whose very memory is desecrated by the pretense. The bird is almost like a tool of divine retribution, her ghost coming back to haunt him. Almost as if the story is about a haunt… of horror!
The final Corben adaptation of “The Raven,” – now that he is no longer with us it is no longer merely ‘the last’ but truly ‘final’ – was published in 2013 in the one-shot issue The Raven and The Red Death, part of a line of Poe adaptations he made for Dark Horse in the late 2000’s. Dark Horse was apparently a loving home for Corben, not only where they published his final works but they also did pretty nice collections of his older works (as this article being written Dark Horse announced new editions of Murky World and Dan).
And so, Corben’s final testament in the world of comics was very much akin to the works that brought him early mainstream publicity, as opposed to the more murk works that brought him into alternative glory: Poe adaptations.
This final version of “The Raven” breaks away from tradition even further. Corben gives the poem’s narrator a name (“The weather put young Arnold in a melancholy mood”) and adds a second meta layer with ‘Mag the Hag’ – a horror host akin to the Cryptkeeper or Uncle Creepy. Corben is not just paying tribute to Poe but to the Warren magazines of his early days; indeed, this version drops all pretense of ambiguity and makes the story into a full-blown supernatural thriller. By the final page the Raven would transform into a human-sized demonic being, and spends two full pages goring Arnold like a butcher.
Unlike the Haunt of Horror version of the tale, it isn’t made clear that Arnold killed Lenore– one can make this assumption but nothing more. One of the differences between the horror tales of EC and those of Creepy is that EC’s work had a strong moralist statement, evil is punished (often hoisted by its own petard), while Creepy tales often presented the world as a cruel place in which everyone suffers, and karmic justice is absent.
In this version of “The Raven” Arnold suffers because this is the way of the world: cruelty and violence. To quote another Poe poem (which Corben also adapted, by the by): “That the play is the tragedy, “Man,” / And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.”
The Raven and The Red Death is, sadly, not as visually spectacular as the previous version. The painterly style gave way for something more modern, and less vibrant, but there are moments of artistic transcendence: the shot of Arnold looking through the window, his face greyed like a statue is superbly shadowed. The various close-ups on eyes remind us that Corben is second to none at wringing out human emotion from a drawn iris (by it human or animal’s) and the final attack is satisfyingly brutal. More than the pencil work, however, what’s important about The Raven and The Red Death is that Corben finally feels free to swing for the fences.
Corben said: “I think Poe dealt largely with an internal landscape, the fears and obsessions that made up his characters.” And he’s often (but not always) right – our interest in Poe’s stories and poems is not simply what happens but the how of people reacting to them. Which leaves Corben, now self-assured, able to redraw the events to his own choosing, to his own style, to his own story.
Poe survived the test of time, or a test of time (why knows what the centuries would bring), and Corben is still too fresh a memory to make any solid claim in the matter. But I’ll make a prediction anyhow, like a dark oracle in one of his stories: Corben’s works will endure. Not trunkless legs in the desert, but the thing itself solid in human consciousness. They will survive because he might’ve started as Poe devotee, but at the end of the road he became a thing unto itself – Richard Corben. Who’s name upon human lips shall be lifted – nevermore!