The team of writer Jan Strnad and artist Richard Corben have collaborated on many popular stories including Mutant World, New Tales of the Arabian Nights, and Jeremy Brood, just to name a few. Now, they are back together on Ragemoor, a new horror miniseries from Dark Horse. Strnad and Corben spoke with Westfield’s Roger Ash about their new project.
Westfield: You’ve done some memorable stories with each other. What is there about your collaboration that you think makes it work so well and that you enjoy?
Jan Strnad: We go way back to the early 1970s and my fanzine Anomaly. He kindly contributed and we hit it off. We’re generally of the same era and share a lot of influences, such as the heroic fiction of the time (ERB, Robert E. Howard), the classic Universal horror movies, Poe and Lovecraft, and so forth. It helps that Richard has a great sense of humor that often doesn’t get to come out in his other collaborations. I can’t help putting a dark, wryly humorous twist on most of the stories I write, and Richard is able to capture that sick sense of humor admirably.
Richard really excels at drawing human expressions, and that means a lot to me. Working with Richard’s characters is like working with the greatest assembly of character actors you can imagine. Richard hires models, makes maquettes, renders characters in 3D modeling programs… he does whatever it takes to get the faces and lighting and such right. He’s a true original.
For my part, I try to write stuff he’ll enjoy illustrating. Of course, I can’t guarantee that every panel is going to be exciting to him, but I definitely try to keep his preferences in mind when I plot a story. He likes to draw full-figured women, for instance, so I’m not going to write him a story about a ballerina. She’d blacken her eyes with the first jump! I’m not going to require a Roy Krenkel-like cityscape or a fleet of a thousand spaceships. Some artists relish mechanical or architectural subjects, but with Richard, it’s about the people. I try to give him intriguing characters with strong emotions, knowing that the characters he draws will rise to the occasion.
In short, Richard makes me look good.
Richard Corben: Jan and I go back quite a while. I think our first collaboration was Encounter At War for Jan’s fanzine Anomaly back in the 60s. I was impressed that he was so dedicated to the possibility of comics that he published his own. Plus he could spell and knew grammar. All I could do is draw. With our series Mutant World I had done the first chapter on my own, and when I had trouble developing a coherent storyline, I went to Jan. Luckily he felt sympathetic to what I had done and it was consistent with his own goals, so he wrote the series. It went on to be syndicated in several European magazines as well as Warren’s 1984. What I like about his stories is the originality, although his characters sometimes don’t make it through all the troubles he sets up for them. Our collaborations usually go something like this: I have a great idea for a character or a set up and I pitch it to Jan. Then he sends me his story ideas that have virtually nothing to do with my original idea. But they are much better than mine and I can’t pass them up. Ragemoor worked out true to form. I wanted him to help me write a series of short Poe-esque horror stories. And as usual his counter offer was a longer horror story that had a very tenuous link with Poe. The master of the house of Usher believed in the sentience of the stones of the house. But Jan took the concept in a completely original direction, so of course I couldn’t pass it up.
Westfield: Where did the idea for Ragemoor come from?
Strnad: I don’t know. Edgar Allan Poe, certainly. H. P. Lovecraft, absolutely. Throw in some 1950s science fiction movies, a dash of 1960s Marvel monster comics, the Hammer horror films, Roger Corman, and a little Woody Allen (a man’s obsession with an unattainable woman), and you’ve got Ragemoor.
Some months before, Joey Cavalieri at DC had asked Richard to do a Spirit feature, and Richard had suggested me as a writer. Now, it had been awhile since I’d written a comic book story. I’d moved from Kansas to Los Angeles and gotten into writing TV animation, but that career imploded after fifteen years thanks to the Canadian government’s successful efforts to woo production from L.A. to Vancouver. I’d written a horror novel (Risen) that was published briefly and that I’d re-released on Kindle once the rights reverted to me, and I’d started working in theater operations for the Santa Monica-Malibu school district. I was definitely up for a fun writing project and dang, it was The Spirit! I don’t know any comics writer who wouldn’t jump at the chance to do a Spirit story. So we did it, and I had a great time, and then I wrote a Ray Bradbury-esque Weird War story for Joey called Private Parker Sees Thunder Lizards that was supposed to be illustrated by Richard. In a rare lapse of judgment, Richard passed on my story and it went to Gabriel Hardeman, who did such a fantastic job that now I’m glad… glad do you hear me, Richard, GLAD… that Richard passed on it. (Well, I’d still like to have seen Richard’s rendition of dinosaurs munching Nazis, but you can’t have everything.)
Anyway, now I had the comics-writing bug again. Writing comics is like being addicted to a drug. There really isn’t anything quite like it because it’s both visual and verbal and there’s literally nothing you can’t do in comics. So Richard asked if I’d like to write a gothic, Poe-esque, Lovecraftian story for him and I said sure. But I had one requirement: It had to be book-length. The problem with writing 7- and 8-page stories is, you have to think up the story, and then you have to cram it into a very few pages. I wanted to have some space for the story and art to breathe. So Richard agreed to a one-shot comic book, Ragemoor, and I wrote it and he illustrated it and he sent it to Scott Allie at Dark Horse as a one-shot.
Then Scott said, “I love it, but I want four issues!” Because Scott knows that if you do a one-shot comic book, it comes and goes in a week, but if you do a four-issue series, you can collect it later into a graphic album and sell it forever. This is why Scott gets the big bucks.
A writer does a lot of “writing” that never makes it to the final page. You write back story for the characters, and come up with a lot of ideas (most of which you throw out), and in this case, I came up with a whole cosmology for Ragemoor that might or might not actually appear in the final book. With all of this material in mind, which was pages and pages of scribbling on a legal pad, I knew that I could come up with four issues, so the mini-series idea was fine with me. Richard agreed and we were off and running.
Westfield: How much design work did you do on the settings and characters in Ragemoor?
Corben: Jan sent me some links to castles on the internet, particularly one that had a remote lookout station that he wanted to use. I designed Ragemoor the castle as a model in a 3d program and included the lookout station. I also assembled the dining room, and the girls bedroom similarly. I used these for visual reference of different angles and lighting set ups. The characters heads were also built in 3d, but these were less successful than the sets. Occasionally, I’ll hire models to act the parts of the characters while I make photographic reference. Because of scheduling difficulties, I was only able to get a few poses for this series.
Westfield: What can readers look forward to in the series?
Strnad: A very strange, very twisted, very black Poe-esque, Lovecraftian story, illustrated by a master of the genre. Some laughs. Some gross-outs. Some sex. Obsession, brooding, revenge, madness. Monsters. Baboons.
Westfield: Aside from Ragemoor itself, who are some of the other characters readers will meet in the book?
Strnad: Herbert Ragemoor is the “Master” of Ragemoor. His father, Machlan Ragemoor, is totally insane, runs around naked with the baboons. Herbert is ably served by his manservant, Bodrick, and they are visited by Herbert’s industrialist uncle, J. P. Ragemoor and his alleged daughter, Anoria. Later in the story a poacher named Tristano enters the picture.
Westfield: Why did you decide to do the book in black and white?
Corben: When I was conceiving this project as a whole, I wasn’t sure about its reception at Dark Horse or other publishers. I thought I might have to pitch it to some smaller publishers who couldn’t afford a color book. Also, since I would be doing all the production work myself, I didn’t want to overload myself with coloring on a book done on speculation. Probably more important to me is that I feel a black and white (and gray tones) book has a beauty and mood that seems well suited to horror stories.
Westfield: What challenges did having a living castle as a central character present to you?
Strnad: The castle can’t speak, only act, so its emotional range is limited. It can’t articulate its desires or its history or its goals, so the story revolves around the human characters’ attempts to understand it and survive within it. Ragemoor seems to lack a soul, which makes its actions amoral at best, evil at worst, but by the end of the series, understandable.
Everything we learn about Ragemoor has to come through the human characters. Ultimately, of course, it’s about Herbert and Bodrick and Anoria, etc. finding their true roles in the Ragemoor universe.
Corben: Actually I faced this challenge with some trepidation. I wanted to stay clear of any anthropomorphic personification of the Ragemoor entity because I was afraid it would make the concept silly and childish. But when it was proposed to use just such a humanized rendition on the first cover, I had to do it. Fortunately, Jan and Scott liked the finished art, so I guess my fears were groundless.
Westfield: After Ragemoor what other projects can readers look forward to from you?
Corben: At my age, it’s about time I learned what I’m good at and what I want to do. There are two Corben projects that will be coming out in due time. The first is Murky World, a sword adventure done in gray tones. The protagonist is not the average pathological brute found in this type of story. I tried to make him more friendly and human than, say Conan. He’s not so hung up on his own manhood that he feels he has to kill any potential competitor. And he has a sense of humor about it.
I still want to do Poe. So I will be adapting some of Poe’s stories and poems to comics. Poe’s stories have been done a zillion times in various media, some good, most horrible. I hope to make my version true to the spirit of his work, if not the word. The intent is to use the original stories as a springboard to my version. For instance, what if Berenice survived her ordeal at the hands of Egaeus, and she wants to have it out with him, and she’s mad as hell? Actually Poe hinted at such a possibility but he ended the story at the revelation of the teeth.
Strnad: Actually, I need to concentrate on the novel I started about ten years ago. Risen has been doing well on Kindle and I want to get more novels out there.
Westfield: Any closing comments?
Strnad: It’s a great pleasure to have the chance to write something as twisted as Ragemoor and especially to work with Richard again!
Corben: I’ve had a long career in comics, doing it the way I wanted, mostly. I’m grateful for what success I’ve had. I still love the possibility of comics, as a medium to tell the stories I want to, not just the ones that sell big. I still have some goals to achieve and skills to develop so I don’t intend to retire ever. I’m going to continue doing comics until I drop.