Robert Rhine used to rent fake corpses to decorate his booth at comic-book conventions, where he would sign his graphic novels Chicken Soup for Satan and Satan Gone Wild. All day long, cute girls would come up and ask to have their picture taken with the fake corpse.
“What is it with girls and corpses?” Rhine said he wondered, which quickly led to, “God, what a great name for a magazine.”
Rhine is now publisher and self-described “deaditor in chief” of Girls and Corpses magazine. It began online before also going to print, parodying Maxim, Cosmopolitan and other sexed-up lifestyle magazines. Instead of a pretty girl posing suggestively with a bottle of shampoo, you’ll see her nuzzling a remarkably authentic fake corpse. It’s transfixing. You don’t know what to look at first, or whether to laugh or cry or vomit.
“The concept is that you can put a beautiful girl next to anything and sell it — even a corpse,” Rhine said while waiting at his friend Vidal Herrera’s autopsy lab in Alhambra. They were meeting for lunch.
“I keep a corpse in my car for shoots and stuff,” he said. “You never know when you’ll need one.” He opened the trunk of his BMW. Two severed heads rolled around.
Rhine, in his 40s, traces his morbid fixations to childhood. The neighborhood bully shoved a metal swing into Rhine’s head, fractured his skull and nearly killed him. “I still have a soft spot on my skull, which I’ll give you the opportunity to feel if you like,” he said, probing his cranium.
How dare you make a comedy magazine about death, his detractors say.
But Rhine is not insensitive to the sorrows of mortality. Last year, it struck close to home. “Stephan Miller was my business partner. He was an animal trainer. He was going to do a commercial shoot. I got a phone call. Someone was sobbing. Something about a bear.”
The grizzly, which had just finished an appearance in a Will Ferrell movie, hugged Miller, then bit him on the neck.
Rhine flipped to a page in Girls and Corpses, Volume 1, winter issue. “This is the bear that killed him,” he said, pointing to a photo of the bear. “Stephan and I used to joke that the first one of us to die, we’d put it in the magazine.”
He writes most of the features (under the nom de plume “Corpsy”), conceives the jokes, directs the photo shoots, takes the subscription orders and drives the finished product to the post office.
Nine print issues have appeared so far. Contents have included a “serious article” about cutters; a feature on virgin mummies; an essay the magazine says was written by a prisoner on death row. (“Because who would know their own mortality better?”)
Rhine insisted that most of the corpses were real, estimating the number as nine out of 10. “But you can’t tell which. There’s a certain fantasy people want to believe.”
Rhine told L.A. Weekly that he rents the bodies from “corpse stylist” Kevin Klemm, who washes them in a mixture of fructose, Spray & Wash and Coca-Cola “to remove the smell,” then preserves them in plastic. “Think of it like drying beef jerky,” Rhine explained.
But the source of the bodies changed each time he told the Weekly about it.
The corpses posing with the sexy girls are John Does, he said once, obviating the need for family consent. He claimed that his rental fee pays for a proper burial after each shoot.
Another time he said the corpses come from South America, or China, or Guam, where unclaimed bodies stack up in the hundreds in morgues.
Still another time, he said the corpses are bodies donated to science. “A few fall off the truck, and we borrow them for a photo shoot and then promptly return them where they are dissected by medical students or wind up being used on shows like CSI,” he wrote on his Web site.
State law bans photographs of a dead human body if you are not the coroner, according to Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter. Also illegal is possessing a dead body without a permit; those are granted only to family. And unclaimed, unidentified John Does belong exclusively to the coroner, who must hold them at the morgue for three years and then cremate them.
Asked about the law, Rhine said, “If the authorities want to come, let them come.”
But when pressed, he backtracked on his claims. In an e-mail to the Weekly, he said: “Everyone wants to think they’re all real, why spoil their fun?”
Kevin Klemm, it turns out, is a master prop maker, renowned for his realistic corpses.
Girls — the other part of the equation — are another matter. “The girls aren’t freaked out in the slightest. I don’t understand girls at all.”
Rhine speculated that girls know they will look good next to a corpse.
“We don’t shoot girls with tattoos,” he added. “It’s the cute, blond, wholesome, innocent girls next door that make it work.”