GENE COLAN - seeing comics as though they were movies

"I was mostly influenced by film. Understand film, frame by frame, is very much like panel to panel. The lighting in black and white films taught me a great deal."

 
  Eugene "Gene" Colan (nicknamed both "Gentleman" and "the Dean" at Marvel by Stan Lee) was born on 1 September 1926 in the Bronx, New York City, and passed away on 23 June 2011 in New York City.

He had grown up and received his education in the Big Apple and graduated from George Washington High School in Washington Heights (Manhattan) before going on to study at the Art Students League of New York under renowned illustrator Frank Riley and the famous surrealistic, modern Japanese painter Kuniashi (genecolan.com).

"My mother owned an antique business. (...) My father was in the insurance business. I was into art, very early on. I started at about three, and I drew everything in sight (...) That was my passion, and I didn't care about anything else, not really (...) I had my pencil and pad, and I was set." (Irving, 2010)

 
During World War II, a two year ticket with Special Services in the Army Air Corps found Corporal Colan in the Philippines where his artwork brightened the pages of the Manila Times and won him numerous awards.

"I wanted to have something to do with film making when I was very young, but I didn't think I'd really make it in that. (...) Being a very sensitive person, I wouldn't be able to handle what Hollywood dishes out. (...) I chose going into comic books because it's storytelling, and not just drawing, but telling good stories. (...) Milton Caniff was my biggest influence, and the artist who inspired me the most. There may have been better artists than he, but he had a way with shadows and blacks when he did "Terry and the Pirates" that I loved so much." (Irving, 2010)

Back in the US, Gene Colan's official career in comics began in 1944 at Fiction House, where he saw his first work - a one-page filler illustration of a P-51B Mustang - published in Wings Comics #52 (December 1944), whilst his first work on an actual comics story - a seven-page "Clipper Kirk" feature - was published in the following month's issue (genecolan.com / Best, 2003).

 
 
In 1946, Gene decided to go for a permanent job in the comic industry and submitted his work to both National (DC) and Timely (Marvel) Comics.

"I was living with my parents. I worked very hard on a war story, about seven or eight pages long, and I did all the lettering myself, I inked it myself, I even had a wash effect over it. I did everything I could do, and I brought it over to Timely (...) and [Al Sulman] came out and met me in the waiting room, looked at my work, and said 'Sit here for a minute'. And he brought the work in, and disappeared for about 10 minutes or so... then came back out and said 'Come with me'. That's how I met Stan [Lee]. Just like that, and I had a job." (Thomas, 2000)

In the end, Stan Lee was impressed enough to hire Gene for around sixty odd dollars a week (genecolan.com).

"When I first started with Timely (...) we were working in the Empire State Building and that’s where I really got the experience that I needed.  I was hired to do the work and I was paid for it and I didn’t know a heck of a lot about anything and of course there was an art director there, his name was Syd Shores and he showed me everything.(...) he was just great. Captain America, Two Gun Kid, Kid Colt, westerns, and horses - he could do anything, and he helped me a lot.  He brushed up all the bad stuff that I was doing." (Best, 2003)

But only two years later, Timely decided to use up a large inventory of accumulated unpublished artwork - with both obvious and tough results for the artists.

 


Battlefield #5
(November 1952)

 

"The bottom dropped out and we had to take what we could get. (...) It happened at a time [in 1948] when everybody in the art department was let go. (...) People would have to fend for themselves, getting freelance or whatever. (...) I decided to take the day off and decided to see what I could get. I came back with some good accounts: Quality Comics was one, and I worked for Ziff-Davis, and maybe one or two others." (Irving, 2010)

Also in 1948 Colan became a freelance artist for National (DC). Always striving for complete accuracy, Gene Colan meticulously researched his countless war stories for DC such as All-American Men at War and Our Army at War, as well as Atlas Comics' Battle, Battlefront, G.I. Tales, Marines in Battle and Navy Tales (to name only a few). His earliest confirmed credit during this time is pencilling and inking the six-page crime fiction story "Dream Of Doom" in Lawbreakers Always Lose #6 (Atlas, February 1949).

Following the Wertham scare of 1954 and the downturn the industry faced Gene Colan left comic books for good for a number of years before returning to the medium in 1962. Initally working for DC and Dell, he also began to do some occasional work for Marvel as of 1963 with mystery backups on Journey into Mystery and Western stories.

 
In 1965 Colan did his first superhero work on Sub-Mariner and Iron Man under the pseudonym of Alan Austin (as he was still primarily working for DC), a modus operandi which was quickly dropped as his style was so unique that the authorship of the artwork was too evident to be hidden behind an alter ego.

And again, Gene Colan was looking to provide his artwork with authenticity and accuracy.

"Authenticity, for me, was important, because it made the reader feel 'This is real This is not just a comic book' (...) It gave the reader the sense that he belonged in the story and wasn't just reading something. I romanced it in my head: I was into it and wanted the reader to be into it." (Irving, 2010)

"I would take stuff out of magazines, newspapers, anything that I thought would be useful. (...) Through the years I’ve compiled such a collection of pictures dealing with every conceivable subject that I very seldom ever have to go anywhere to get outside information because being in the business fifty some odd years you get quite a collection." (Best, 2003)

By 1966 Gene Colan was firmly established as the artist of several ongoing Marvel series and characters, and took on Daredevil which would become his signatory title for many.

Other Marvel titles which Gene Colan had lengthy runs on and was applauded for included Iron Man, Captain America and Doctor Strange before he took on all 70 issues of Tomb of Dracula as of 1972 - the series is one of the seminal monuments to his artistic expertise and craftmanship. He also made waves with his pencils on Marvel's satirical Howard the Duck, which kicked off in 1976.

Gene Colan won the Shazam Award for Best Penciller (Dramatic Division) in 1974, received the 1977 and 1979 Eagle Award, and was nominated for five Eagle Awards in 1978.

However, when Jim Shooter became editor-in-chief in 1978, the fun times at Marvel were coming to an end for Gene Colan.

"I knew the trouble was heading my way with Shooter. He overcorrected every single line I drew on every single panel (...) he was about tyranny just for the sake of it." (Irving, 2010)

Shooter's own take on that period in time makes it quite clear that even though they were working in the same business the two men had completely opposite views and understandings of their trade:

"I said "You've gotta do better stuff. I'm gonna make you redraw when you don't." (...) That's when Wolfman had gone over to DC, thinking fondly of the Dracula days, got him to come over [to DC]. And that was better for everybody I think." (M. Thomas, 2000)

 


Doctor Strange #172
(September 1968)


Gene Colan's Picadilly Circus sets the scene in Tomb of Dracula #25 (October 1974)


Gene Colan in 1977

 
After splitting from Marvel for both creative and professional reasons, Gene Colan thus found himself back once again at DC Comics in 1982, where he reunited with Marv Wolfman whom he had worked with so long and so successfully at Marvel.
 
DC was eager to promote this dream team which now was part of their own ranks, but their reunion project Night Force (featuring a team of individuals fighting supernatural threats) which billed Wolfman and Colan as the "Masters of the Macabre" only lasted for 14 issues before cancellation.

This was in spite of obvious attempts by the creative team to somehow continue the legacy of Tomb of Dracula - one of the main characters was Vanessa van Helsing, granddaughter of Abraham van Helsing, which would thus make her a sister of Rachel van Helsing from Tomb of Dracula.

Gene Colan was far more successful in bringing his shadowy and moody visuals to Batman, one of whose primary artists he became from 1982 to 1986 in both Detective Comics and Batman, even though his overall pencilling did become somewhat lighter due to DC's very strict art policy.

"Dick Giordano gave [Batman] to me. I enjoyed drawing Batman, but my experience working for the company and the editor on the book left something to be desired." (Klaehn, 2010)

"DC was a tough outfit. They wanted an in-house look for all of the artwork, and they wanted the artists to draw somewhat the same." (Irving, 2010)

"DC was way too controlling, and no artistic freedom (...) Marvel was like working for family, DC like working for the principal." (Klaehn, 2010)

Nonetheless, Gene Colan's visions of Batman matched up well with the character's eesentials as shaped by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams:

"[Batman is] a very mysterious figure of the night (...) [a classic Batman story is] something mystifying and unearthly, left to the reader to figure out." (Klaehn, 2010)

When Conway and Colan delved into a multi-issue story arc in mid-1982 which had Batman fighting vampires, it could have been perceived as a typecast gridlock for Gentleman Gene. However, the resulting epic story spread out across Batman #349, Batman #350, Detective Comics #517, Batman #351 and Detective Comics #518 became an instant classic which had readers in rapture.

At DC Gene Colan also pencilled Wonder Woman from 1982 to 1983, worked with Greg Potter on Jemm, Son of Saturn (1984-85), with Cary Bates on Silverblade (1987-88), and he pencilled the first six issues of Doug Moench's 1987 revival of The Spectre.

Between 1981 and 1986 Colan also managed to break free from the established comic book industry production chain of penciller and inker by creating finished drawings in graphite and watercolor on projects such as the feature "Ragamuffins" in Eclipse as well as in the DC Comics noir miniseries Nathaniel Dusk (1984) and Nathaniel Dusk II (1985–86), all of which were written by Don McGregor.

 


Gene Colan is formally introduced to the readership on the splashpage of Batman #340 (October 1981)


First and enthusiastic readers' reactions to Gene Colan's appointment to the Batman Universe on the letters page of Batman #345 (March 1982)

 

Gene Colan also did a fair amount of work for independent comic book publishers before returning to Marvel in 1990 where he once again collaborated with Marv Wolfman on a new The Tomb of Dracula series and returned to Daredevil in 1997, the title for which he had produced some of his most classic and best loved superhero artwork for Marvel in the late Silver and early Bronze Age.

In 2005, Gene Colan was inducted into the comics industry's Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame. In 2007, he pencilled the final pages of Blade (vol. 3) #12 depicting a flashback in which Blade dresses in his original outfit from the original 1970s series, and that same year, he also drew 3 pages (18-20) for the anniversary 100th issue of volume two of Daredevil.

He continued to draw occasional comics and covers throughout his retirement, his last work being for Captain America #601 (September 2009) for which he won yet another Eisner Award, this time for Best Single Issue (together with writer Ed Brubaker).

"I didn't have a deadline. (...) It took me close to two years." (Irving, 2010)

This award - together with the Comic Art Professional Society's Sergio Award which he recived in October 2009 - no doubt marked a fitting end for a unique career of an artist whose professionalism and dedication made him a legend of the comic book industry and 20th century popular culture in his own lifetime.

"You know you can draw a fine picture, but unless somebody sees it and appreciates it, it means nothing. You’ve got to get somebody to say to you “Gee that was a good picture you drew” or that was a good story you did, and you don’t get that very much in this business, you don’t get those kind of compliments all that much." (Best, 2003)

"Most of the inspiration came from films and to me the movie screen was just one gigantic comic book panel." (Best, 2003)

"You know comic book artists never sit down at a convention table to discuss how they're gonna do this and how they're gonna do that - it was always over the phone, very quickly, or in passing each other you'd spend a few minutes talking about it, maybe fifteen or so, and that would be it. It's all that was required." (Siuntres, 2005)

"It’s very hard to get a good inker to go over.  If you were a penciler and you did fabulous pencil work, or what you thought was pretty darn good and then you give it to an inker, well then you’ve got your style to begin with and then you’ve got the inkers style on top of your style.  And you’ve got two styles representing one piece of art.  And I’ve always had a problem getting a good inker." (Best, 2003)

When Gene Colan passed away on 23 June 2011, the American comic book industry lost a true giant of a legend - one of the best and most prolific artist and entertainer the medium ever had..

 


Gene Colan receiving his Eisner Award in 2005


Detective Comics #517
(August 1982)


Detective Comics #567
(October 1986)

 

Stan Lee: "Trying to describe Gene Colan's incredible artwork is like trying to describe a rainbow. The best way to appreciate it is to look at it. (...) He could do romance, horror, superheroes, whatever it was he could do it and he did it with great style." (Comic Book Profiles No. 6, Spring 1999)

Marv Wolfman: "His graphic was perfect, Gene is a brilliant artist." (Siuntres, 2006)

Jim Lee: "His ability to create dramatic, multi-valued tonal illustrations using straight India ink and board was unparalleled." (Boyle, 2011)

Kelly Jones: "There's no comics artist I can think of offhand who draws human facial expressions as well as Gene and very few who are as good as Gene at setting a mood." (Comic Book Profiles No. 6, Spring 1999)

Steve Gerber: "If I was to say one thing about Gene Colan's work, it's atmosphere and rhythm, because the lines are so musical. They flow into one another, and you can hear the snap of Dracula's cape. You can hear Daredevil whizzing by you - it's terrific. Not too many artists are capable of that." (Comic Book Profiles No. 6, Spring 1999)

Tom Spurgeon: "He was his own chapter in the history of comics." (Moore & Ilnytzky, 2011)

Gerry Conway: "I had three favorite artists that I worked with in my career and they would be Ross Andru (...) Jose Garcia-Lopez (...) and Gene Colan. Because we had two really good runs together on Daredevil in the early 70's and on Batman in the early 80's. Those are sort of the three artists who I feel happiest in terms of long relationships with (...) those were the guys I think I did some of my best work with." (Daudt, n.a.)

 
But Gene Colan was not only a master of his trade, he was also a witty and sharp observer and analyst of 20th century American comic book culture and its industry, of which he had a lengthy and seasoned first hand working knowledge. He made himself available for many interviews, and thanks to Gene Colan's willingness to put forward his thoughts - "I always have something to say about the industry" - many an information and insight on production methods and publishing politics which otherwise would have been lost in time is now on record for all who are interested in comic books and their history.
 


Daredevil #44
(September 1968)
cover signed by Gene Colan


Tomb of Dracula #7, pg 6
(March 1973)
original artwork by Gene Colan, expertly inked by Tom Palmer


Tomb of Dracula #9, pg 26
(June 1973)
original artwork by Gene Colan, inked by Vince Colletta, notorious for his tendency to "simplify" pencilwork and leave out a lot of detail


Night Force #3, pg 20
(October 1982)
original artwork by Gene Colan, inked by Bob Smith

Daredevil #363
(April 1997)
colour guide by Christie Scheele on a production stat of Gene Colan's artwork

 

"[Film] was really a black and white medium when I grew up.  Most of the films that were in the theatres were all black and white, we didn’t have very many Technicolor films then so I was brought up in a world of black and white.  Aside from that, that’s how I saw everything anyway. I wasn’t into color it never occurred to me to have anything colored, so I drew it in black and white and if they wanted to add color to it then go ahead, but that’s just how I saw things.  Most of the inspiration came from films and to me the movie screen was just one gigantic comic book panel." (Best, 2003)

"[It was] at the age of 5 when I was exposed to my first horror film. It was Frankenstein. My father wanted to see it and he took me along. Boy, did that traumatize me! That was in 1931. From then on, I was intrigued with horror. I didn’t realize it in those years, but it kind of crept up on me. I sort of took what I loved from the screen and put it on paper (...) Whatever scary movie was out, I'd see it, and a combination of things, but I always had an affinity for that stuff (...) I just love the atmosphere - you know, old castles, cemeteries, fog - all that stuff. I've always been interested in that." (Siuntres, 2005)

"[Stan Lee] would just give me - and any of the other artists that could do it - a brief thumbnail idea of what the plot was - this is the beginning, this is the middle, and that's the end - and I wouldn't come into the city with that, I would tape record him telling me the story over the phone. That way I could follow the message that he left for me, on the recorder, and space it out the way he tells it. And I would say 'well this will take just so many pages and this should take so many' and I would equal it out until I felt that it would - in my mind, I didn't make notes or anything - that it should eat up about 18 pages, and tell the story. And sometimes I would run into trouble and other times I would be right on the nailhead. I just couldn't stand doing thumbnail sketches of these things, I just wanted to get right to it - and I would start with panel one." (Siuntres, 2005)

"You know comic book artists never sit down at a convention table to discuss how they're gonna do this and how they're gonna do that - it was always over the phone, very quickly, or in passing each other you'd spend a few minutes talking about it, maybe fifteen or so, and that would be it. It's all that was required." (Siuntres, 2005)

"An artist, as a rule, is not aware of a style; he just does it.  You know when you write your name you don’t think about how you’re writing it but yet it can be spotted by everyone and they’ll know that that’s you.  When you’ve written your name out it has a style to it, it’s very hard to copy and artwork is the same thing – it has a style to it and you just don't sit down and try to develop a style it just happens.  An unconscious experience." (Best, 2003)

"There are no two artists that look at things the same way. Everybody has their method of creating a mood.  I have mine, they have theirs.  Every time I did a job I was basically entertaining myself, having a good time with it, and I enjoyed that.  And even though I would put lines down that I knew the inker wouldn’t even begin to bother with, I’d put them in anyway, because it made the final picture I’d be doing finished. I gave it all I could. Whether they inked it or not, that was something else again. Once it left my hands I didn’t even care who inked it. There was no point in arguing with trying to get a specific inker to work on your stuff because they didn’t listen to you.  If they needed to a particular job done in a hurry and all the best inkers were working on other things they would give it to somebody else." (Best, 2003)

"I worked real hard on my art, why should somebody come over and wreck it up? So, I never really had a good inker, not until Tom [Palmer] came along. (...) I liked Tom's work very much. It was weighty, and he put in all the stuff that I liked - kind of like a Caniff. My work is not easy to follow, and he must've had a helluva time with it. Tom is an illustrator himself; he's done a lot of advertising art. So, he was very well-suited to it." (Field, 2001)

"Fortunately for me the last ten years or so I’ve had a lot of my work printed only in pencil." (Best, 2003)

"The only strip I really begged for was Dracula. [Stan Lee] promised it to me, but then he changed his mind, he was going to give it to Bill Everett (...) But I didn't take that for an answer. I worked up a page of Dracula, long before Bill did anything (...) and I sent it in. I got an immediate call back. Stan said, "The strip is yours"." (Thomas, 2000)

"I don’t remember when it started but I guess it started in the ‘60’s when they began to give back to the artists, after the stories were printed, the original artwork. But if an artist, if a penciler had to share the story with an inker then the inker would get a small percentage of it and the penciler got most of it.  Out of an 18-page story an inker might get five or six pages and then the penciler would get all the rest.  So unless I inked it myself I never got the full amount of pages back at anytime, I would get most of them back, but not all of them." (Best, 2003)

"I think comic books have gotten out of hand these days because they show everything that films portray and they don’t spare anything.  They don’t leave anything to the imagination of the reader." (Best, 2003)

"I never thought my career would take on the proportions that it has (...) I was just proud of the fact that I could actually draw something and do a story. (...) So it took off and the proportion that it reached just boggles the mind. I'm very fortunate in that respect." (Best, 2010)

GENE COLAN - seeing comics as though they were movies

 

 

 
BIBLOGRAPHY

BEST Daniel (2003) "Gene Colan Interview", www.adelaidecomicsandbooks.com

BEST Daniel (2010) "Gene Colan Interview", www.ohdannyboy.blogspot.com

BOYLE Christina (2011) "Gene Colan, comic book legend and Bronx-born artist, dies at at 84", in New York Daily News, 24 June 2011

DAUDT Ron E. (N.A.) "Gerry Conway Interview", www.wtv-zone.com

FIELD Tom (2001) "The Colan Mystique, in Comic Book Artist #13

IRVING Christopher (2010) "Gene Colan: On Vampires, Shadows, and the Industry", www.nycgraphicnovelists.com

KLAEHN Jefferey (2010) "Gene Colan Interview", jefferyklaehn.blogspot.com

MATA Shiai (2007) "Gene Colan Interview", www.slayerlit.us

MOORE Matt & Ula Ilnytzky (2011) "Gene Colan: artist gave life to comic characters", in Boston Globe, 25 June 2011

SIUNTRES John (2005) Gene Colan Interview, transcribed from the podcast Word Balloon: The Comic Creator's Interview Show , available online at www.wordballoon.libsyn.com

SIUNTRES John (2006) Marv Wolfman by Night, transcribed from the podcast Word Balloon: The Comic Creator's Interview Show , available online at www.wordballoon.libsyn.com

THOMAS Michael David (2000) "Jim Shooter Interview", www.comicbookresources.com

THOMAS Roy (2000) "So you want a Job eh? The Gene Colan Interview", Alter Ego (vol. 3 issue 6), www.twomorrows.com

 
THE THOUGHT BALLOON - READ UP ON COMICS

 

The illustrations presented here are copyright material. Their reproduction for the review and research purposes of this website is considered fair use as set out by the Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. par. 107.
BATMAN and all related elements are the property of DC Comics, Inc. TM and DC Comics, Inc., a subsidiary of Time Warner Inc.
Scans of original artwork and production art are from my personal collection.

Text is (c) 2012-2016

The introductory quote by Gene Colan is from Mata (2007)

page first uploaded to the web 20 August 2016