Known for his stylish and atmospheric illustrations, Gene Colan cemented his place in comics history as a multi-faceted artist, adept in several genres and one of the true architects of the Marvel Age of Comics in the 1960’s and beyond.
After a stint in the military during World War II, Colan approached pre-Marvel Timely Comics for work. His somewhat-experimental attempts at washes in his art caught the eye of Timely editors Al Sulman and Stan Lee who gave him work in LAWBREAKERS ALWAYS LOSE #1 and ALL-TRUE CRIME #1, in the late 1940’s. As a young artist eager to hone his craft, he earned $60 a week as a penciler on several books, including covers for the legendary CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS.
The 1950’s brought Colan assignments on war stories for both DC Comics and Atlas Comics, another precursor to Marvel. It was during this time that the artist’s attention to detail and accuracy in everything he drew truly developed. This dedication to his craft would serve him well as the 1960’s and the Silver Age of comics dawned.
Silver Age Super Heroes
Lee assigned Colan to pencil the Sub-Mariner strip in TALES TO ASTONISH and then the Iron Man feature in TALES OF SUSPENSE, and fan soon began to identify him as a stand-out illustrator.
“If you look at his Iron Man compared to others in that period, his Iron Man is bigger,” notes Marvel Senior VP - Executive Editor Tom Brevoort. “His Iron Man is kind of heavier; there’s something about the proportions and the way he does that armor with the big wrist and ankle cuffs. He looks like a big metal guy. Gene would also cheat like a demon; that metal mask would bend and twist to give you expressions but it just looked good and it looked much more powerful and effecting.”
From there, Colan took on an incredible run of over eighty issues of DAREDEVIL, from 1966 to 1973, as well as seminal drafting on CAPTAIN MARVEL, DOCTOR STRANGE, the Sub-Mariner in his own title, CAPTAIN AMERICA, and the Black Widow strip in AMAZING ADVENTURES.
“There’s a page in Gene’s very first issue of DAREDEVIL, #20, and the story, and it gets told because people misremember it, is that he did a splash page of a guy turning a door knob,” explains Brevoort. “And that’s not quite what it is. It’s a two-panel page. One panel, a small inside panel is a hand on a doorknob, and the full page is a full page shot of two or three gunsels with fedoras opening the door. So it’s almost as ridiculous as that, but cinematically, it was atmospheric and cool and that’s kind of what he did and was all about.
Bats and Feathers
Not content with mastering just super heroes and their flights of fancies, in 1972 Colan also gravitated towards the darker and more off-beat corners of the Marvel Universe. He and writer Marv Wolfman sent chills down the spines of readers with the legendary TOMB OF DRACULA series, on which Colan illustrated the entire 70-issue run until 1979. The artist also joined with writer Steve Gerber on three years-worth of stories in HOWARD THE DUCK, proving to Marvelites everywhere that even water fowl and vampires were no match for Gene “The Dean” Colan, as Stan Lee dubbed him.
Colan soon became one of the few comic book artists who worked in graphite and watercolors and whose beautifully lush pencils would eventually be printed without inks.
“Everything he did was shadows,” says Brevoort. “Typically, you have guys who are penciling today, and to some degree it’s all stuff that’s very linear and line-oriented. Colan, for whatever reason, he didn’t work that way. He worked in grey tones, which meant that inkers had huge problems with it because you can’t translate his pencils into just a black and a white. There’d be like three shades of grey, ‘What do I do there? How do I handle that?’ So he was fairly unforgiving to inkers. There weren’t too many inkers who could translate the essence of what he did.
“There were plenty of guys that inked him well and other guys that didn’t ink him as well, but he was tougher to ink than the average guy, than John Romita, or John Buscema, or Don Heck, or whomever because his stuff was all about the shadow.”
As the 1970’s drew to a close, Colan returned briefly to both DAREDEVIL and DOCTOR STRANGE, then into the 1980’s took on work for DC, Dark Horse, Eclipse and even Archie Comics. Upon his return to Marvel in 1989 he joined with writer Don McGregor on a monumental Black Panther story in MARVEL COMICS PRESENTS.
“Here is just one great story about working with Gene Colan,” says McGregor. “I loved him dearly.
“There are often times when a writer seems to only have few options to the way a story can go. [In the Black Panther story] I was writing about the necklacing ceremonies done at that time in black townships. If you were a spy, and you were caught, at times the spy had a car tire placed around their neck, filled with gasoline and set afire. I could have the Panther come in and rescue the guy, but that made another kind of statement, and I wanted to keep this a very human story, about how oppressive regimes make even the search of a son for his mother almost impossible, and the brutality that it creates in its inhumane treatments.
“I struggled with it, and suddenly came up with the idea of bringing back two little boys, Theodore and Wally Olebogeng, whom I'd had no intention of using again, and that when the Panther goes to interfere with the neck-lacing, Theodore is burned. There is a single chapter devoted just to the Panther trying to get this boy to a white hospital. The doctors truly try to save Theodore. But he dies.
“The phone rings one night, around 11 PM, one Gene's favorite time to call during the 1980’s.
"‘I can't do it,’ Gene tells me.
“‘Can't do what?’ I have no clue what he is talking about.
“His voice is really agitated. ‘I can't draw that, and don't ask me to, Don!’
"‘Can't draw what?’
"‘You know. Don't pretend you don't know.’
"‘I have no idea, Gene, what we are talking about.’
"‘I tried to do it, and I can't.’
"‘Can't do what, Gene?
“Finally he delivers the telling line. ‘The kid, Don. The kid.’
"‘The kid doesn't die.’
"‘He doesn't what?’ And my voice has risen.
“Gene goes on to explain that it just tore his heart out, he cannot the scene that way, and he has drawn it so Theodore lives. I'm in a panic. I'm pleading with Gene.
"‘No, Gene, this encapsulates for me what this entire series is about. If he lives we let everyone off the hook. And I don't want them off the hook. I want the reader to feel what this is!’
“Gene continues that it is too tragic, I can't ask him to do such a thing. I plead my case 10 ways from Sunday. This must last a good 20 minutes or more. I am near hysteria by now.
“And then Gene laughs.
“He says, ‘Get out of here, Don. I just wanted to see if you'd fall for it. I drew it exactly as you wanted!’
“Man, I miss you, Gene!”
Despite ill health and failing eyesight later in life, his final comic projects brought Colan full circle back to Marvel, with another stint on MARVEL COMICS PRESENTS in 1992, more DAREDEVIL in 1997, BLADE in 2007, and on CAPTAIN AMERICA #601 in 2009. The latter earned him and writer Ed Brubaker the coveted Eisner Award for Best Single Issue.
“Ed Brubaker was writing CAPTAIN AMERICA [and] had run into and met Gene and his wife Adrienne at a convention,” Brevoort, who edited the issue, explains. “They were very complimentary to Ed’s work. They had heard about it and maybe had picked up issues and investigated it because ‘The Death of Captain America’ was in all the newspapers. And Ed was a big Colan fan so he said, as you tend to do, ‘I’d love to do a story with you,’ and Gene said, ‘That’d be great!’ So Ed came back from his convention and said, ‘Hey, I talked to Gene Colan, he’d love to do a story with us.’ And so we generated a story and got Gene to draw it.
“We put it out as CAPTAIN AMERICA #601, and we also did, because we had it, a pencil edition which was the same story but just shot from his pencils because again, you could ink his stuff but you don’t really catch all the nuance and the subtlety. Over the years, they tried to shoot from Colan’s pencils on a bunch of different things, [but] the print technology either wasn’t good enough or they would shoot from his pencils and then try to color it and it was just like pouring ink over the top of it, you didn’t see anything. But by the time we did that pencil edition, the reproduction was good enough that you could get a reasonably good representation of what his stuff looked like. And it won the Eisner award, which was nice. I’m dead certain that award was less for the brilliance of that one comic than it was [because] Gene had this enormous, long career and we had a way now of actually acknowledging that.”
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