Words: Christopher Irving . Pictures: Seth Kushner
Gene Colan has a secret: despite being a groundbreaking horror artist, with almost living shadows seeping through his work, despite defining the iconic comic book Dracula, despite injecting Gothic horror onto the comics page –
Gene Colan was scared of monster movies and the dark as a kid.
“Some times I’d go out in the street and see the theater marquees about those horrible, horrible pictures,” Gene joked about his childhood in New York City. “It was a Saturday, and I’d have enough money to take myself, but I couldn’t get the nerve up to go, so I’d let it pass.
“There was a theater down on 42nd Street that would play back the soundtrack and blast it out into the street to entice people to come in and see the images. I would stand there and listen to the soundtrack a little bit.”
But Gene could never get himself to go in and buy a ticket.
Now 83, Gene lives in a quiet apartment in southern Brooklyn, near Marine Park. Even though retired from a long career drawing comics, Gene still does art commissions, as well as the occasional comics job from the quiet of his cozy home.
Gene was born in the Bronx in 1926, and an only child to his parents. His father, one fateful day when Gene was still a kid, took him to see a movie that both inspired and scarred him for life:
“My father, when I was young, took me to see Frankenstein, the James Whale version from 1931. I was never the same, I really wasn’t,” Gene laughs.
“I had never seen a person on screen that looked as fearsome and frightening as Karloff,” he elaborates. “It didn’t dawn upon me that it was make-up and make believe. At five years old, you believe what you see. It didn’t go away.
“Wherever I went, I loved the country, and we had an Uncle who lived in Pennsylvania. He had a home there, and a dog, which I loved. My parents were working people and didn’t have time for one. He had a dog, and I’d go there on Easter and have a ball, have a great time.
“[But] I kept the household up at night. That was a very bad time for me: I could not be alone in the room by myself. As I grew older, I grew out of it.
“I was very impressionable. If I threw some clothes on a chair it would take a shape, and that would flip me out,” he laughs. “I think that was the artistic side of me. Some people would never think of throwing a shirt or coat on a chair and seeing anything in it, but I would see lots of things in it!”
Growing up in the Great Depression, Colan was amongst the first generation of kids who grew up on comic books.
“I never was aware of it,” Gene says of the economic turmoil of the time. “It was in the ‘30s, but my parents went through it. I never knew anything about it, because we never seemed to need. I never needed anything: my parents took good care of me.”
Coming into the world as a Bronx resident, Gene soon saw more of New York state, and lots more of the country.
“We started to move around, and then went to Long Beach in Long Island. At that time, when it snowed in winter, it snowed. Even on top of the water, it snowed. I loved that. We were there a few years, and then we went back to Manhattan, which is where my folks had to be.
“My mother owned an antique business. Very slowly, she started to collect antique steins. I don’t think anybody knows this, so you’re the first. It was a place called The Roadside Rest Stop, and people bought the steins from my mother. 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. My parents would pose, like when father would be having dinner, and I would draw away. That was my passion, and I didn’t care about anything else, not really. I’m not a sports person; my father loved baseball, but I didn’t care for it. I had my pencil and pad, and I was set. I was a very bad student in school, and I didn’t care about school, so I didn’t apply myself. All I cared about was art.”
But in the end, with the trips to his Uncle’s for Easter, and the other moving around behind them, Gene was won over by the quieter parts of society:
“I never liked Manhattan,” he admits. “I would have preferred to live in the country: there’s something special about the country, there still is, where you’re thrown back in time. It’s got to a certain point and then it stops there: you still have your telephone poles in the country, and the roads go on for miles. I love that. The winters were always the best time because they were like something out of a fairy tale: winters, Christmas (my favorite holiday). Therefore, I had a real love affair with the country. I probably could have had a dog there,” Gene laughs. “I have nothing to say but nice things about the country.”
“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,” Gene admits. “I can almost predict what my life would be and, being a very sensitive person, I wouldn’t be able to handle what Hollywood dishes out. I knew that then, but I couldn’t define it.
“I chose going into comic books because it’s storytelling, and not just drawing, but telling good stories. I grew up in the years when 98% of the films were black and white. Those are the years that I wanted to do artwork for comic books. I never read the stories, but just looked at the pictures. 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.
“He was excellent! I could smell the newsprint.”
Gene Colan was amongst the second generation of comic artists, entering the field during World War II; his generation, which included the likes of Alex Toth, Irwin Hasen and Joe Kubert, was the first to grow up around comic books.
“I tried DC, and I couldn’t get anywhere with them,” Gene remembers. “I went to the Art Student’s League for a year, prior to going into the service. The first professional job I ever got was with Fiction House, and I worked there for just one summer, and then I enlisted into the Air Force, and they shipped me over to the Philippines. The war had just ended, after Truman decided to drop the bomb on Hiroshima. Once that happened, all of the training and gunnery schools shut down, and whoever was out there in the Philippines were the occupational forces. I stayed out there, and it was a very good experience. I became very friendly with the Filippinnos, and enjoyed myself out there. There was a bad side to it, too, but it was mostly good.”
Returning to the States, Gene hooked up with editor Al Sulman at Timely Comics, and grabbed a staff job as penciller.
“Syd Shores ran the art department,” Gene recalls. “I made a couple of good friends. Rudy Lapic sat behind me, and he had a great voice and was a great mimic. Could he mimic the actors! He eventually worked for Archie Comics in the early ‘50s and stayed there for the rest of his life. Dan DeCarlo, he worked there, too.”
Still a newbie artist riffing on a Caniff-inspired style, Gene’s artistic evolution became at Timely.
“The longer you work at it, the better you get, right?” he posits. “Like anyone else, you start at the ground up. There was so much I did not know, but I got a lot of help from Syd Shores. Anything I couldn’t do, he could whip out in a second. He could make it look darn good.
“He was in the war, in the field of action, and never would talk about it. There’s another artist I met at the time, name of Bob Stuart, and I don’t know if he’s alive or dead. I learned a lot from him. He took a shine to me (I was younger, but not by much), and was like a big brother. He was wonderful, and I wish he was around today.
“Anyway, they were great years. I must have been in there for three to four years, before the bottom dropped out and we had to take what we could get.”
The comics industry’s slump began after World War II, with sales starting to sink. In 1948, Timely was hitting rock bottom and the staff was let go, Colan included.
“It happened at a time when everybody in the art department was let go. They came in on a Monday expecting to work, and there was no work. Martin Goodman, who owned Timely Comics had decided to get rid of the whole art department, and they’d save money that way. People would have to fend for themselves, getting freelance or whatever. I had heard, just before the weekend started, on a Thursday, that there was plenty of work out there, and it surprised me.
“I’d never thought of looking for freelance work. When I heard that, 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.”
The 1950s were even leaner times for the comics industry, as it suffered from a barrage of catastrophes: declining sales, censorship, and the collapse of distributor American News in 1956.
“There were some tough times, like with any business, and there are the good and the bad,” Gene notes. “You have to just get through it. I knew some editors, one or two, at DC, and they were just nightmares.”
Colan thrived on crime and war stories, particularly war, and contributed to DC titles like All-American Men of War, Mystery in Space, Hopalong Cassidy, an Star Spangled War Stories. One of the editors he worked under was the mercurial and brilliant Robert Kanigher, whose contributions included Sgt. Rock and the first appearance of the Silver Age Flash.
“He could’ve written a book, and he was a good writer,” Colan comments on Kanigher. “He was good with war stories, but was too critical and would forget (or did, at the time) that artists would spend hours on a page, and he could take a blue pencil and go over it and not even care about whether he destroyed the page or not. I was too frightened, at the time, to say anything to him. I wanted to keep my position there, so I kept my mouth shut. But I did come to a head and said to him ‘Bob, you’re a lunatic. You belong in Creedmoor.’
“I had money owed to me, and he would give me the check only if I did something. I grabbed the check out of his hand and said ‘You’re not going to get a nickel’s worth of work out of me,’ and I couldn’t get work for five or six years.”
“I knew there was something wrong with Bob Kanigher, and I felt badly, in a sense, for him,” Gene gently adds later. “He was going through a very bad period, and I did say ‘Bob, you’re in a dark place right now.’
“I owed him nothing, and I wasn’t even working for him. He thanked me later on, which was so rare, that it knocked me off of my feet. There’s a good side to everybody.”
In absolute contrast is Gene’s relationship with Stan Lee at Marvel (the former Timely), who he’d kept a freelance relationship with through the ‘50s. Come the ‘60s, he first returned to the rejuvenated publisher under the pseudonym Adam Austin. Stan’s company had gone through a few changes since Gene’s staff position there: changing their name to Atlas, and then Marvel, Stan introduced a new wave of superheroes in the pages of his small stable of comics. Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, and company were a success, kicking Marvel back into the big leagues. As superheroes were changing Marvel, Marvel would soon change Colan.
“Stan allowed the artists to be themselves,” Gene says of the legendary editor. “Stan was running the show, and whatever style they wanted to work in was all right with him. Sometimes, if a particular artist sold a lot of books, he’d want other artists to draw like him. I refused to do it, and said ‘Then get that artist, and not me.’ I wasn’t going to change, so he just left me alone. It was pretty easy to work with Stan: he was very youthful, and he still is.”
Perhaps it was the Marvel-wide influence of head artist Jack Kirby, or perhaps it was Stan’s desire for more dynamic artwork, but it was at this point that Gene Colan went from being yet another comic book artist to becoming fluid and distinctive artist he is now. Shadows melt around in his work, characters are realistically drawn, but a sketchy quality emerges that makes them come more alive. Gene maintained his old approach to visualizing comics, but there was something new and daring in his pencils, something experimental and atmospheric.
“I enjoyed the characters while I was doing them, but I sort of made believe that I was a filmmaker, and I loved to tell a good story, but not in a typical way. I would try to find something that would interest me and not the same old stuff all of the time, in the same cut and dry method of illustrating a plot.
“As a matter of fact, I never read the stories, and would only read the first three or four pages. So long as I could deal with it like that, I could deal with it. I would read the next three or four. If something came up that I needed to know about, I would sense it and read beyond that and see what it was that I needed to know about. I never wanted to be hit with a surprise, suddenly. I can handle it better the other way.”
Colan evolved even further when he took on the red-clad crimefighter Daredevil in 1966; originally drawn by Bill Everett, Wally Wood, and then John Romita, Daredevil was just another guy hopping around in tights, until Colan immersed him in a world saturated in shadows. For the first time, Daredevil became just a little bit creepy, fighting in an atmospheric noir-like world that Gene created until 1975. He also contributed heavily to Sub-Mariner and Iron Man, the latter of whom he drew the classic first issue of.
You could make a case that Gene’s Daredevil work set the stage for his signature title, the one that would further define him and his sensibilities: Tomb of Dracula, beginning in 1972.
The stifling Comics Code had just been amended to allow the presence of horror in Code-approved books, and Marvel jumped on the bandwagon with a series of new monster comics and magazines. When Gene Colan heard that a Dracula comic was in the works, he jumped on Lee for the gig.
“I had to fight for that,” Gene admits. “I heard that Marvel was going to do it. At that time, horror books were selling well for Marvel, and they decided to do Dracula. I went to Stan and said ‘Stan, you have to give me this book to do. This is made for me, because it’s all atmosphere and moon.’ He said ‘Okay, sure.’ He told me, a day later ‘Gene, I can’t. I promised it to Bill Everett.’
“I said ‘Bill Everett? It’s not his baliwick, it’s mine. It’s not that he isn’t a good artist, but this is my kind of book.’ I couldn’t talk Stan out of it, because he’d promised it to Bill. I went home and, on my own, auditioned for it and drew a page of Dracula. I sent it to Stan and he called me up immediately and said ‘It’s yours,’ just like that.”
A year after The Tomb of Dracula debuted, actor Jack Palance played the infamous Count; Colan was prescient in casting the tough guy as the famous vampire for Tomb.
“I felt, being a big film buff, who would fashion into a good Dracula? What actor would be good?” Gene poses. “I thought Jack Palance, without a doubt, had to be Dracula: he’s really tall. He played him later.
“Jack Palance had a way,” Gene comically shivers. “Oh, God. He had a soft voice. He’s a good actor.”
Wolfman and Colan created an army of vampire hunters, many related to the characters from Bram Stoker’s original novel. The Tomb of Dracula followed their pursuit of the vampire; of course, you can’t put a good monster down, and the book went for years with the goodguys only “almost” getting him.
Gene’s pencils became more loose, giving an energy to his realistic style, keeping it from looking too photographic or stiff. Fortunately, he was paired with inker Tom Palmer on Tomb, and the inker was a perfect fit for Gene’s distinctive style.
“Tom Palmer is the best inker I ever had,” Gene reflects. “He’s good with the blacks but, first of all, he’s a painter first and doesn’t have to put ink over anyone. He paints in oils, does a lot of commercial work, so he knows what he’s doing. Most of the inkers who ink over an artist’s work don’t have the kind of background Tom has, and Tom is way ahead of them in that respect. He could make any work look good, and would go through any troubles to do it: if he wanted a half-tone effect he’d take the pen and give crosshatch work to give that impression of half-tones. He really worked on it.”
Gene, himself, was no slouch on his half of the art chores: his work had become heavily referenced and realistic, giving a real world tinge to the book that grounded it enough to be believable.
“Authenticity, for me, was important, because it made the reader feel ‘This is real This is not just a comic book,’” he points out. “Places played an important part. With superheroes, I would show many landmarks, so that people reading the books would recognize them. I think Dracula was set in Boston once, so I went to Boston and took photographs of the streets, and introduced it into the plot. 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.”
While The Tomb of Dracula lasted until 1980, Gene had already started work on another future cult comic: the satirical Howard the Duck with writer Steve Gerber, in 1976. The wise-cracking, cigar-chomping duck (transported to our Earth from his own duck-populated parallel) grew beyond a comic book and into a syndicated comic strip, as well. It was too much for the meticulous Colan.
“I was burning the candle at both ends,” Gene admits. “I didn’t want to, but Howard the Duck became a syndicated strip and, once it became syndicated, I wanted to get in on it. I found I just couldn’t physically do it: it was too much. I was up until four in the morning trying to do this stuff, and it was murder. Then, there was the Sunday page, so I got out of it. The syndicate was raising such hell over it, and I don’t blame them, because they put money into advertising and everything. Steve Gerber was about the funniest writer I ever worked with, and I would read his stuff to make me laugh.”
Howard was a great fit for Gene: his realistic pencils provided a real world basis for the cartoony and animated Howard to waddle around in. Gene stayed on the art chores for Howard until the series cancellation in 1981, at which point the color comic was switched over to a short-lived new life as a black and white magazine.
But, as far as Gene is concerned, it all still comes back to Dracula:
“Tomb of Dracula is the one I concentrated on the most, and for the longest time,” Gene comes back to later. “Marv Wolfman was easy to work with. He wrote it and, if there was anything in there I couldn’t understand, I just gave him a call. I lived out in New Jersey and he was in the city somewhere. He would talk about it and make some changes. He was an easy person to work with: there’s nothing worse than an artist has to be uptight with an editor, because then you don’t know what to give them, because you want to give them the right thing.
“Jim Shooter was the worst,” Gene deviates, bringing up Marvel’s former Editor-in-Chief. "I knew the trouble was heading my way with Shooter.”
“He overcorrected every single line I drew on every single panel,” Gene elaborates. “It was not uncommon for him to return every story submitted with corrections on each panel. What made it worse, his comments and critiques were incomprehensible. My last job for him before I quit was 32 pages long. He sent back the entire job corrections on every page. I sent back the work exactly as is with no corrections, only told him ‘I've done all the corrections Jim! The work is in the mail’. When he got the package, he told me ‘That's More Like it’. That's when I proved to myself he was about tyranny just for the sake of it. He destroyed a lot of lives of talented up and coming artists at the time. But not me!”
Then, Gene pauses and asks how Shooter’s doing. When Shooter’s latest project, the new Gold Key line of superheroes for Dark Horse, comes up, Gene graciously adds:
“I’m glad to hear that he at least has work. It’s a terrible thing not to have when you’re trying to make a living.”
After splitting from Marvel for creative and professional reasons, Gene found himself back at DC Comics, where he had runs on both Batman (completely up his alley) and Wonder Woman (not such a good fit).
“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. They were difficult, always were. But it was a publication that I worked for, and I worked for others.”
“I didn’t like [drawing] Wonder Woman,” he admits. “And didn’t think it was anything I should’ve been doing, but I didn’t want to turn anything down, either. Being a freelance artist, you grab what you can get, so I took it on for that reason and didn’t enjoy it.”
In 1981 Gene drew the Depression-era period comic Ragamuffins for writer Don McGregor for small publisher Eclipse Comics. It was the first time Gene’s art was shot directly from pencils. In 1984, DC worked straight from Gene’s pencils on the noir series Nathaniel Dusk.
“[DC] didn’t have a handle on it, and there were a lot of dropouts on the printed page, things that were not connected,” Colan says of the first few issues. “They finally got a handle on it by the third issue.”
By this point, Gene’s work evolved into his trademark “painting with pencils”, the lines looser, creating a gradient in pencil line to evoke gray tones and sinister atmosphere. Where the Marvel revolution of the ‘60s allowed Gene’s work to start getting a bit funkier and stylized, the ‘70s allowed him to become darker. The ‘80s finally allowed him to break loose as a penciller.
“It’s a realistic style,” Gene points out when discussing his trademark look. “My stuff is more straightforward, more like ‘This is my impression, an illustration but of real life.’ There’s nothing animated about it. I would have loved to draw comics only in pencil, but they didn’t have the processes at the time, or the printing press to do it. Eventually it came along, and everything I do for comics, is all in pencil.”
“I think artists change as they go along, and it’s all in an experiment: How can I do it different than I did before, and how can I turn it out quicker? Can I do quantity with quality? I could never do that, I couldn’t.
“There were some artists who could: John Buscema was one of them, and he could carry on a conversation and have a page done. They looked so good. Another artist, Jack Kirby, did that, too. He’d get a job done almost overnight. Another was Mike Sekowsky. I didn’t know him at all, but I loved his work. His work moves.”
Now in retirement, Gene continues to draw occasional comics and covers, most recently an issue of Captain America, written by Ed Brubaker and featuring a World War II adventure of Cap and his sidekick Bucky against -- naturally -- vampires. In his early 80s, Gene Colan proves he still has his artistic chops.
“I didn’t have a deadline,” he notes. “There was no deadline, and the answer when I asked about a deadline was ‘None, just do it.’ It took me close to two years. I had way too much, but had already taken it on. Since I didn’t have a deadline, I worked on it when I could, until it was finished.”
Gene still has aspirations to crack into a different type of art, but it’s dependent on his being in a more comfortable place.
“I hope I can get into some fine arts,” Gene says. “At my age, I’m trying to break away from comics, but it supports my wife and I. Right now, things are tough, but it will get better. I’d like to get into not illustration so much, but just fine arts. I have a few ideas I’d like to explore.”
“Only pencil, and single pictures, but big ones. Like that,” Gene points to a drawing of an enormous pirate ship, against his wall. “I did that as a commission. That almost looks like a storybook illustration. It’s very hard to separate the two: You can be a fine artist and do something like that, and still be a fine artist.”
As a fine artist, he continues to think in shadows and light:
“I have a couple ideas. One of them that I hope to get to is of a ship coming out of the fog at night – an old ship, nothing modern, from the 1860s, with that big, gleaming mast with the point that’s coming at you, almost out of the picture. It’s all fog, and water, and the ship is headed right to the viewer. The texture of the water, and the fog, all implied with the huge mast. It’s not clearly defined because it’s night and they’re coming out of the fog. It’s a mood piece. I’ve wanted to do that, and I hope to get to it.
“There’s another of horses pulling a stagecoach, but you don’t see the stagecoach, but just the horses. They’re straining with their harnesses all connected, trying to pull this load. I want to stretch it horizontal, and stretch it. If I can get to it, fine. I have the paper for it, but that desk isn’t big enough.”
Shortly after we interviewed and photographed Mr. Colan, he fell and broke his shoulder, landing him in the hospital and unable to draw. At the same time, some of his artwork apparently went missing from his home studio. Colan’s friend Clifford Meth made a vague notice of what happened upon Gene’s request (in the name of family privacy), and it soon turned into a wildfire of misconceptions and falsehoods, and the rumor that Colan was mugged emerged from well-meaning and concerned bloggers.
Both Meth and Colan have gone on record with blogger and historian Daniel Best that the unfortunate incidents are unrelated, and have set up a benefit auction for Gene. Also, Marvel Comics is issuing a benefit hardcover for and about Gene.
We wish Mr. Colan the best in his recovery, and urge anyone who can to contribute or bid on his auction.