Neverwhere is, I guess, the book that first got most fans into Richard Corben. That's definitely true for me. It's the first adventure for Corben's most famous character Den, and all sprang from a low budget animation that the artist produced in 1968, while working at a film studio in Kansas: " I had the visual concept of a live actor transforming into an animated drawing before the viewer's eyes. The idea fascinated me. I really wrote the entire Neverwhere film around that one scene. " When the thirty minute film was eventually released, after a year's work, it went on to win at the Japanese Film Festival of that year. You can see a few snippets from it over on youtube, but here's a couple of stills for now.
Neverwhere the book is a rambling odyssey through one of the most realistically defined fantasy worlds ever created. Like an insane mix of Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs & H.P. Lovecraft, it's a love letter to the universes those writers created, and is done with such obvious enjoyment, you can't help be swept along by it.
What makes Neverwhere great, apart from the sheer technical expertise on show, is the fact that it was never a 'deadline' project for Corben. It took him, on & off, nearly five years to complete it, plus he often did chapters out of chronological order, as a result of which, it goes all over the place in terms of styles, themes, and even plot.
It starts like a dream, as a naked, bald man finds himself in a new world, and in an unfamiliar body.
Trying to find some meaning in this strange new existence, Den experiences snatches of what might be his former life.
After meeting some of this reality's less friendly inhabitants, at least part of what happened to him is explained to our bemused hero. By the way, anyone wanting to know how to draw someone being punched in the face, that's how you do it.
Knowing a little more of his past, but not what happened to the mysterious Uncle Dan, the bald barbarian sits down to rest, in this bug-fuckingly incredible scene, when:
The creatures, and their Queen, clearly recognise Den. But no time to wonder about that, he's got a fair maiden to save!
All seems well for our hero & heroine, until Gel, another inhabitant of this realm, who also knows Den from before, rudely interrupts the couple. Gel is fighting a revolution against the Queen, and is eager to get back at Den for giving her The Loch-Nar, the source of all magic on Neverwhere.
Escaping Gel and his gang, things go from bad to worse as Den & Kath fall into the hands of Ard, the more than a little bit camp sorcerer who's also putting together a coup to oust the Queen, as well as nab The Loch-Nar for himself.
With Kath held hostage, Den has no choice but to accompany Ard's men into the Queen's castle, to steal the mystic sceptre back. Things don't go according to plan, however, and our hero is forced to satisfy the Queen's carnal desires, over and over again. Some days, nothing goes right.
Escaping yet again, Den returns to Ard, assuming that his man Kang has already racked up with The Loch-Nar. But Kang, natch, has double crossed everybody and made off with it himself. What's he going to do with it? Hey, don't ask questions like that. Pausing only to get drunk, Den is slipped a Mickey Finn by a disguised Kang, before finding out why everybody in this place knows him, yet he doesn't recognise any of them. ( I mean, the Queen? You'd remember her, am I right? )
After a few more crosses and double crosses, it all comes together for the slam-bang finale back at poolside, as Ard attempts to bring forth Uluhtc, the voracious demon god of Neverwhere, while the Queen tries to grab the glory for herself. Clearly, neither of them have ever read any Lovecraft, or they'd know this is only gonna end one way.
Den, of course, saves the day, by feeding Uluhtc the Loch-Nar, and Neverwhere is saved, at least for this millennium. Corben did great work, both before Neverwhere, and in the years since, but nothing has the feel of absolute artistic freedom and freewheeling seat-of-your-pants expressionism that this has. The story often doesn't make sense, as plot points are subsequently ignored or forgotten, and the villains' motivations change from moment to moment, but that doesn't matter. The logic is that of a dream, particularly in the early chapters, where the sense of alienation is brilliantly evoked. And the world itself, with it's vast, endless deserts, tiny ruined settlements, and insect sized people against a huge, cosmic sky is breathtaking. He clearly made up the whole thing as he was going along, but in this case, it absolutely worked. Den, of course, did make it back into the world of animation a couple of years later, as Neverwhere was adapted into a segment of the Heavy Metal movie, albeit played much more as a comedy. Still, at least that time, he finally got to put some pants on.
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