One Fan's Opinion: Issue #11

Thu, October 20th, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

Gene Colan at Comic-Con International in 2001
Is it just me, or has Gene Colan drawn almost everything?

I've been getting the "Essential" books from Marvel and some of the "Masterworks" books and the guy is everywhere. Gene drew "Daredevil" and "Sub-Mariner" and (Marvel's) "Captain Marvel" and "Tomb of Dracula" and "Iron Man" and "Dr. Strange" and "Captain America" and the "Avengers" and "Howard the Duck" and "Black Panther," sure, but he drew issues of the "Hulk" magazine and "Marvel Team-Up" and "What If" and others as well. He drew "Killraven," for cryin' out loud! I never knew he drew an issue of "Killraven!" At DC Gene drew the "Phantom Zone" (Gene Colan, drawing Superman. How cool was that?), "Wonder Woman," "Batman," "Jemm Son of Saturn," "Night Force" and a mess of other books. On the creator-owned independent side of the biz, he drew "Detectives Inc." and "Ragamuffins" and "Stewart the Rat." And "Dracula"-- again. He's still doing work! He's still at it!

Amazing, amazing guy.

I met Gene for the first time in Baltimore, this year, and he was about as friendly as you could hope to expect. I was, frankly, a bit tongue tied as I looked through his original art. This guy did everything and he keeps doing stuff and he's still darned good.

What I appreciate more than anything about a guy like Gene is that he blazed his own path. There wasn't another guy before him that Gene was aping. No, Gene found his own way of drawing-- his own way of telling stories and even though it was (and is) all distinctly Gene-- there's no repetition there. There aren't stock poses used again and again. When you get a Gene Colan splash it can be darned near anything. The oddest, shadowy, awkward wonderful pages spring from this guy's amazing fingers. His Dracula is appropriately moody and yet his Daredevil is equally at home. Gene has a knack for making you believe what you're seeing. When he did an adaptation of one of the "Jaws" movies-- Gene sold it. His work is like photographs in motion. His characters live and breathe and flail and move. Sometimes graceful, sometimes not. When a Gene Colan character is scared, he's really scared and we, the readers buy it. It's all delivered in such an authentic, real style that you can't help but be convinced of its authenticity, no matter how ridiculous the situation.

Gene's pencils are a bear to ink. Gene's a guy that adeptly utilizes the side of his pencil. He draws in shades of gray. I didn't ask him, but looking at his work, it appears as though he's not concerned with how an inker might interpret his line. He does things the way he does them and as long as it looks good when it leaves his drawing board, he did his job.

To a lot of fans, Gene is the definitive artist on "Daredevil" -- and "Iron Man" -- and "Howard the Duck" -- and "Sub-Mariner" -- and "Dracula" and even "Dr. Strange." His "Batman" was awesome. He did the book for a while with Klaus Janson on inks. Talk about a match made in heaven! Gene and Klaus-- beautiful! The two had briefly collaborated on "Daredevil" before some young upstart called "Lanky" Frank Miller landed the assignment (Gene was filling in on the book-- he'd had a healthy run of his own some time earlier). Gene Colan on "Batman"-- talk about a no-brainer. When Gene left Marvel to go to DC, what could be a better assignment? He was a natural! And paired with Klaus? Who better?

Well, few would argue that there was at least another who was just as good. And that's Tom Palmer! When Tom inked Gene on "Daredevil"-- wow! And Tom on Gene's "Tomb of Dracula" was outstanding. Tom is a lotLOT of creators' best inker and he and Gene made a particularly compelling combination.

Gene has these loose, crazy pencils and it's always cool to see what an inker with tight inks brings to them. Wally Wood, Frank Giacoia and Joe Sinnott made strange, but fascinating collaborators. I always wondered what Terry Austin would do faced with Gene's pencils. I saw it on a "Howard the Duck" cover once, but I never got to see a story-- that taste just whetted my appetite. The idea of one of the loosest pencillers paired with one of the tightest inkers-- what would that look like? It boggles the mind!

Gene's pencils require some interpretation. When you're using ink, it's black and white and nothing in between and an inker has to decide what to do with those shades of gray. Do they make them black, turn them into crosshatching or drop in some zip-a-tone? Any solution changes the art and often destroys the delicate work of the artist. Gene's had his share of butchers apply their inks as well, often to ill-effect, but despite the efforts (or lack thereof) the pages are unmistakably Gene Colan's.

That guy can do everything.

His pencils are so pretty, so sweet, and so intimidating to ink that, on occasion, editors or publishers will opt to simply color his pencils in an effort to retain their lushness. That trick never works. Or it hasn't yet, as far as I've seen.

One of the many things we don't have in comics is motion. Motion, sound, smell, taste-- most of the big ones-- we don't do. In movies, characters move. In comics, we can only approximate it, at best. Gene comes about as close as we're likely to get. Gene's characters are often a blur of motion. I've heard he's a big movie buff and it shows on every page. While most of us struggle to make a guy in a suit look like anything other than a mannequin standing in a store window, Gene pulls it off with ease. His characters live and breathe.

Gene's grasp of anatomy isn't always spot on. The cover of "Iron Man & Sub-Mariner" #1 has some of the wackiest knees ever committed to paper. Muscles aren't always where they belong, but they feel legitimate-- they look legitimate. If you examine that speeding car in a panel, you may note some serious distortion-- you might even see that its cabin might barely seat a child, much less a family of five-- but it looks so cool and it feels like it's in motion. Comics aren't, and shouldn't be, about trying to duplicate reality down to the last button. Gene's stuff feels real and that's enough. It's impressionism, in a way, and the impression the reader is left with is like a frozen frame from an old classic film. It feels real. And even if it isn't-- there's certainly a lot more life to be found in his pages than a hundred guys that merely trace photographs and sign their names to them.

I'm surrounded by his stuff. It's everywhere. Marvel keeps collecting his work, (and DC ought to, come on, guys!) he does a terrific Batman, a great Superman, ("Jemm, Son of Saturn," which featured Superman fairly prominently, is just itching to be collected-- man, what a book!) a solid, physical, ball-busting Wonder Woman who looked every bit the Amazon she was supposed to be, and, of course, the Marvel characters. Gene did a great Daredevil, Iron Man, Namor, Captain Marvel, Dr. Strange, Captain America, the Avengers, Black Panther and countless others.

There's something powerful about Gene's work. It's real in a way so few others have managed to pull off. When Gene draws something, there's a level of maturity to it that I have trouble articulating. He makes you a believer. I can enjoy a lot of artists' work, but when Gene draws Daredevil swinging across a city, it looks and feels like a real guy actually swinging across a real city. Most artists can't do that. They can't pull that off. When Gene draws a person, they're a real person with weight and volume. The emotion on their face is real. In somebody else's hands, it's a drawing and it may be cool, but it's not a snapshot of reality. Gene sells the story, he sells the emotion-- he makes you a believer. He pulls you in and makes you part of the action with his rich blacks cutting across the page in a graceful manner.

I grew up with Gene. Gene was everywhere and I followed him from book to book. I was a lucky kid. Jack Kirby was still batting out new comics, John and Sal Buscema were on the top of their game, Gil Kane was bouncing from one book to another, Herb Trimpe was on the "Incredible Hulk," Ross Andru was on "Spider-Man," Curt Swan on "Superman," Jim Aparo (and occasionally Neal Adams) was on "Batman" (I missed most of Neal's run-- it was before my time). It was a good time to be reading comics.

And now is a good time to be reading them as well. And it's not just because a lot of good people are out there doing the best work of their careers, but because so many comics from all generations are being collected in book form and people like you-- and me-- can enjoy them for the first time.

And it's good to see guys like Gene Colan still out there, still plugging away, and still knocking them out of the park.

Nicely done.

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