Gene Colan Interview

Sun, August 6th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Will Allred, Contributing Writer

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[Gene Colan Interview]I was in the comic shop the other day during the busy hours just after new comics had arrived and mentioned that I was going to be interviewing Gene Colan. All of the sudden several of the customers piped-up, recognizing the name. One said, "Wow, Gene is the Daredevil artist!" Immediately someone else added, "Oh yeah, he's that Night Force guy." I responded that I always associated him with Tomb of Dracula." Somebody else chimed in, "I'd forgot about that one, but he'll always be the Iron Man artist to me." "He did Iron Man, too? I've always associated him with Marvel's Captain Marvel," and so on. Turns out that the name Gene Colan means quite a few different things to lots of different people. It's no surprise, his over 50 years in the business have had him pencilling a virtual bevy of characters for quite a few companies. Speaking for myself, his dark, moody style on Tomb of Dracula will forever link the two in my mind. It is the title that will always, at least in my mind, be his. I got the chance to interview Gene recently and had a great time talking comic history with one of the greats in the field.

Will Allred: Well, let's start at the beginning…what was your first published work?

Gene Colan: Oh, I guess I started out with Fiction House, a small publishing company in Manhattan. I worked for them prior to going into the service during the war years. It was in 1944, I think. I'm not sure what that story was, but I did a lot of different things for them. You know, westerns, anything. This was my first brush with doing any professional work with any publisher. It wasn't long after that that I went off to the Air Force. I was stationed in San Francisco and near Biloxi, Mississippi. After basic training I was shipped from there overseas to Manila. After basic, the war had ended. The bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima Nagasaki, so all of the training schools…gunnery school, flying school…had all been shut down. I was a part of the occupation forces over in the Philippines. I spent most of my time there. I was a corporal in the Special Services. I did a little bit of artwork for the officer's mess hall. But, to even get the chance, I had to have my registration number changed, which was almost impossible to do. For some reason, it was a very difficult thing, and I didn't have any connections or anything, so I just pestered them enough until I finally got it changed to something that was more suitable for my talents. When I enlisted, I think it was determined that I was supposed to be a guard. I didn't want anything to do with the MPs, so I was very glad to finally get it changed. I got out of the Air Force in the latter part of 1945, or maybe it was early 1946…I think it was somewhere around that time.

WA: When you got back to the States, did you go right back to Fiction House?

GC: No, I wanted to get into DC. I figured they were the premiere outfit at the time. Batman and Superman both came out of there. At the time, I wasn't really good enough, but they wanted me to go to school so I guess they thought that I had potential. So I went to school for a while. This would have been the Art Student's League. I went on to the GI Bill of Rights. I spent maybe a couple of years there…or maybe a year and a half…something like that. Then I tried again. I didn't go back to DC. I basically said "the heck with it" and tried somebody else. Somebody else turned out to be Marvel. Of course, at that time they were called Timely Comics. I think I went up to the Timely offices during lunch hour. The place was very quiet. One of the editors in charge of the art department looked at my work. She was quite interested, so she asked me to wait in the waiting room while she took all my work somewhere back within the confines of the art department. I waited out there for maybe ten minutes or so. This was good news to me, but I wasn't sure until I got asked inside. By this time, I was even more convinced that I probably had gotten myself a position. Once back there, I met Stan Lee. He had taken his lunch break and was playing cards with someone else there. He was wearing a beanie cap with a propeller on the top of it. I don't believe the place had air conditioning at the time. I think they were in the Empire State Building way up on the top. This was during the summer months with the breeze coming through an open window, spinning that little propeller. Stan is a very animated guy, you know. He's just a fun fellow. Did you know that he's only 3 years older than I am? Anyway, they gave me a job right away.

WA: You ended up working with Stan in the original Marvel Bullpen, right?

GC: Yes. Stan was in charge of hiring on new people and was involved with the comics. They were handling a lot of books then. They were big, and so was DC. And, there was so many publishers in Manhattan I later realized. They were almost on every street corner. I got a lot of experience by working in there in the Bullpen. It's where I met John Buscema and quite a few other people…Syd Shores, who was in charge of the art department. He did Captain America and a lot of westerns…Rawhide Kid…Two-Gun Kid…I think it might have been called. He was very prolific and honest. He could do just about anything. He helped me a lot. I worked there in the Bullpen until they closed it. One day the whole place was sort of milling around. It was on a Monday. At this time, there was a lot of freelance work out there so I was always looking to see if I could pick up some of those jobs. Luckily, I did, so I sort of snipped the strings just before they came in and fired us. When I came in that Monday morning, it seemed like the whole place was out of a job. It just suddenly hit all at once. Everybody was put on freelance. They no longer had to report to work, they just worked at home as freelancers. We never expected this to happen. Fortunately for me, I had picked up some accounts. I was still able to work - more work for Timely and for other people. I worked for St. John Publications, Quality Comics, and eventually I got work from DC. I was doing Hopalong Cassidy for DC at the time. And then, the market went sour somewhere in the 50s. A lot of publishers died in '57…'58. They had a problem with distribution. They also had problems with the code - the Comic Book Code. Comics took a bad rap during that era, and most of us lost a lot of work. We were just floundering around. I lost my accounts, most of them went out of business. I quit getting any work from Stan because he was hanging by his fingernails. He and Jack Kirby were just running the entire line - all those books that they had - just the two of them. Jack could really knock out the stuff. There was really no room for anyone else. I had to find a position somewhere. I wound up working for an advertising agency in the office - a small one. They did mostly banking stuff…in fact, that's all they did. I worked there a year or so, and then got fired. I found another job at a film strip studio. A film strip is a funny thing. It's not film. It's on 35mm film, but nothing like movies. These are like slides, but for educational purposes. Basically, they are illustrated panels that told sort of a story and were sort of run from a 35mm camera. They would give you a story to draw dealing with education…how to teach the youngsters something. So, I did film strips of some historical things. By this point, I had met and married my wife. She married me even though I didn't have any prospects. She thought I was wasting my time there and grabbed me literally by my collar and told me to get out of that place. It was a good thing that she did, because God knows where I would've wound up. I hated that job. Then, low and behold, I landed a position with Foster Publications and did a series of things for them. I think it was Ben Casey. I did that for them, and then I did something else for them, too…another series. There was two television series that I did. Ben Casey was one of them and there was another one, some detective kind of thing that was on television. I can't remember the actor's name, but he was a very wealthy type of detective that ran around in a Rolls Royce. Very gradually I picked up other accounts again and things started to pick up. After I got married, things just started to pick up. Luckily, I had kept in touch from time to time with Stan. Then I started to get work again.

WA: What did you work on when you came back to Marvel?

[Dr. Strange]GC: It might have been Doctor Strange. Yes, I think I might have started with that. I'm not sure which one it was. I did Iron Man. I think when I came back I started with Daredevil. John Romita had worked on it for several episodes and got out of it for some reason - he didn't want to continue it. I don't really remember what the reasons were, but it was handed to me. There was another outfit with a character with the same name put out by Charlie Biro, I think. Would that have been Animal Comics? I don't remember for sure, but the character was also called "Daredevil," but he had a completely different costume. I think I did one job for them, too. Anyway, I was on Daredevil for quite a few years. I also did Iron Man and had a long stint on Doctor Strange. I had a lot of fun doing Doctor Strange. Stan would allow the artist literally to write the script, he would dictate maybe 5 or 6 sentences that would represent the 18 or 20 pages of artwork. And he gave us very little information and left it all up to us. He was really writing all of the comic books himself, and there were so many titles that he didn't have time to sit down and give a full-blown script to each of his artists. He would just give us a running synopsis of it that contained what he wanted to see -- a sort of beginning, middle and end. We literally wrote it panel by panel, and he would just take whatever information we gave him and he would write around it. Basically, once we finished, he would simply take the story and then add the balloons to it. He really left the characterization, the quality of it, the pacing of it, up to the artists. That was good because that got the creative juices going for me. I'm not sure about anyone else that was doing it with Stan that way. I do remember surprising him with the car chase thing, though. I had just seen Bullet and was very inspired by it. I had an opportunity in an issue of…I think it was Captain America, actually…to put in some car chases. There was a car chase, but it really didn't need to last more than a panel. That's all that would have been required. I devoted half the book to it, though. Stan couldn't even understand what I was thinking of. It turned out that we got good mail on it. Course, it was a new addition to comics at that time.

WA: In the course of your career, you've worked with quite a few inkers. Who have you been most satisfied with?

GC: I have worked with a bunch, but I've never had much success with any of them. Outside of just a few…a handful. Tom Palmer was very good on Tomb of Dracula. He captured the character of the piece…the essence of what I was trying to do, the creepiness of it. He was heavy with inking…good with black and white. Whatever shadows I would indicate, he would follow. He did a very nice job. Another inker I liked was… Let's see, he's still working. What was his name? Oh yes. Al Williamson…that's right. I liked him. I loved him. He was a great penciller. He did pencilling and then went on to inking. He has a style similar to Alex Raymond. You know, the guy that did Flash Gordon, I think if I had to put him in a category, his style was similar to that. This was also where I first worked with Marv Wolfman. He had just come over from DC. Stan wanted me to come back over to Marvel since I was doing some freelance work at DC at the time. He asked me to come on over and I said "I've got a position with DC." He said, "Yeah, well, you'll like it better here." I said, "Well, I don't mind coming over, but what's the inducement to leave one place to go to another?" He really didn't want to commit himself to anything. So, as long as he didn't want to commit to anything, I figured I'd just stay where I was. Then, the next day I got a phone call and he offered me more money, so I went. Well, Stan was going to give me a Dracula book to do. I got wind of this and thought that it was something specifically tailored to me since I love doing those kind of things. Stan said that he would give it to me…he'd let me have the book. It turns out he had really had promised it to Bill Everett. I said, "But you promised it to me." We were going back and forth with this thing. He denied it, so I thought the best thing to do would be to audition for it. I took a day off and worked up a whole series of drawings from Dracula or my interpretations of it. I fashioned him after Jack Palance. I drew up some pictures, and I sent them to Stan. The very next day I got a call from him. He said, " You got it…it's yours." He just didn't hire Bill Everett to do it. From that moment on, I was doing it. It went through a couple of writers until Marv Wolfman came aboard. Then, between Marv and I, we spent close to ten years on it. He says 8 or 9, but I say its more like 12. Anyway, while I was getting back in at Marvel with Tomb of Dracula, I think Stan was trying to get out. Not totally, but he was thinking of moving to California. We went through a few editor-in-chiefs in a short time. It was a very difficult job, a very tiresome thing, and carried a lot of responsibility. Stan was the one that really had the knack for and handle on that stuff. But, he had moved out to California to make it more manageable to represent Marvel out there. I think he got into animation out there and maybe started an animation studio. Stan was heading it all up, writing stuff. I think Jack Kirby was helping him. Anyway, he finally left Marvel altogether and put the whole thing in Jim Shooter's hands, which was the biggest mistake.

"Another inker I liked was… Let's see, he's still working. What was his name? Oh yes. Al Williamson…that's right. I liked him. I loved him."
- Gene Colan

WA: This was around the time Kirby left Marvel, right?

GC: Actually, it was after that. Evidently it was like a revolving door, he went back and forth. It was a big mess. You know "Corporate America." They don't want to give the people that really put them where they are credit for anything. They certainly don't want to cut them any slack. Marvel was and is no different. The only time it was different was when Mr. Goodman owned the company. That would have been Martin Goodman, Stan's uncle. It was like a ma and pa store. If you had a problem, you could go right to the head man. Wonderful place to be. I could talk to him like I'm talking to you. He was sweet guy. Eventually, the company became quite large, and Mr. Goodman decided to retire. Somebody bought the company for 6 million dollars. And, at that time that was a lot of money.

WA: That's still a lot of money today!

[Tomb of Dracula]GC: Boy howdy!. But then, it was even more. He retired and things really grew. It changed hands many times. Now, I don't know what they're selling it for. Of course, Marvel has fallen on hard times now. I don't know whether they will straighten out any of their problems or not.

Anyway…back to Tomb of Dracula. In between issues, I was doing Howard the Duck with Steve Gerber, a very funny writer. I thought he belonged in Hollywood somewhere doing screen writing because he was really funny. Also, I thought Howard could turn into a syndicated strip, which it did. Unfortunately, the scripts didn't come often enough. Add this to the fact that I was trying to burn the candle at both ends…I was afraid to let go of Marvel because you never know where these things are going to go. I didn't want to put all my eggs in one basket and do nothing but Howard the Duck and let everything else go. I just couldn't do both. I actually tried, you know. When you're young, you think you can handle everything, and its very difficult for an artist to turn down a project. So, I just kept at it burning both ends. Eventually, I just didn't have the energy to continue with Howard. Gerber was getting awful fussy and wouldn't deliver the scripts on time. We were getting hell from the syndicate. I think Steve sued Marvel for ownership of Howard. Come to think of it, I think Jack Kirby did as well since he created most of the characters. It sort of became a mess. I guess, to some degree, it was resolved. I don't really know the outcome of it, though. Similar mess with this new film Blade, a character Marv and I created. It was Marv's idea, and I designed him. I put the visual touch to it, so between the two of us, we created him as a black super-hero, and well the rest is history. We did get screen credit, though. I haven't seen it, but I understand that it's very, very bloody. I certainly wouldn't send a child to see a thing like that. There were no stops on it. They just did what they felt like doing…including plagiarism, so Marv wound up suing them. I don't know where that's going, if anywhere, simply because it takes a lot of money to fight them. Blade is a New Line film, and New Line is owned by Ted Turner, so you can imagine the bank of lawyers they have. I don't know, I guess it's kind of like David fighting Goliath. I got swept along into it because I was the other half of the team. I didn't file a lawsuit or anything, but the lawyers did call here a couple of times. They were trying to get me to commit to something, but I never did. Besides, it would have taken a lot of money to get involved, and I really didn't want to. I certainly knew they would take terrible advantage of the two of us, but Marv had already started a law suit. As I said, I just got swept along with it. Marv does deserve credit. I mean it really was our thing. When you think about it, Marvel took advantage…they clearly did. They didn't want to share anything with anybody, and New Line films doesn't want to either. I haven't really heard anything since the initial filing, though. I don't know how far it's gone.

"When you think about it, Marvel took advantage…they clearly did. They didn't want to share anything with anybody, and New Line films doesn't want to either."
- Gene Colan on the "Blade" movie

WA: Tomb of Dracula ended in 1979, which means you were on it for several years. This illustrates something I noticed while I was researching your career. When you took a book, you took it and probably stayed with it for quite some time. It's not like artists today who do one or two issues and then move on to something else. What's your take on this?

GC: They probably get bored with it, but you can't really do justice to any story unless you become familiar with the characters. With respect to the characters, you improve on them as you go along, your outlook improves…your ideas of how the characters should look improves, everything gets better. Anyway, Tomb did end around that time. It became a black and white book. And, it wasn't much later that I went over to DC. Stan was no longer Editor in Chief. Shooter was. I left because I had big problems with Shooter. Lots of people just went right over to DC. I was one of the first ones to leave. I wouldn't put up with it anymore. It just wasn't worth it. Marv had already gone over, and he wanted me to come along. I was still with Marvel. I had a retirement plan with them and didn't feel like dumping everything. I thought maybe I could hack it with Shooter around, but it just went from bad to worse, so I had to leave. Well, I went over to DC and I did Night Force and Nathaniel Dusk for them. Marv was the writer on Night Force, and Don McGregor was the writer on Nathaniel Dusk. This lead to me working with Don on Detectives, Inc. for his company. Don was the owner of a publishing company in California, so I also did Ragamuffins with him as well as a lot of little in-between things. Then, Dracula eventually came back again in a one shot issue which I didn't really want to do. I figured enough was enough already, but I did it anyway. It didn't make out well, though. I also did Jemm, Son of Saturn for DC, which was a very well written script, by Greg Potter. He's a damn good writer, and I thought it had possibilities, but it didn't go anywhere. So, I did that and a fantasy thing for them. At this point, all my work was being reproduced from pencil. I guess I kind of pioneered that, and it was basically because I never could really get any good inkers. My style just doesn't lend itself well to inking. I always had a lot of in-between shading that the inker didn't know how to interpret or just didn't want to bother. It was very time consuming. I've seen it described as cinematic, which is a description I really like because I do try to make it look like a movie. I just pretend I am a film director and that the story was going to be a film. It's basically how I would've filmed it. It sort of spilled over into my story telling technique. I thought it would be entertaining to do it that way. Earlier, when I started with Marvel way back in the 40's, I tried one job to see if they could reproduce it from pencils, but they couldn't do it. They just didn't have the equipment in the printing of the books at that time. They couldn't do a pencil line instead of ink. But today, everything is computerized. They can do anything now. I'm much more satisfied with the finished product these days. That's not to say I didn't have some great inkers. I'd have to say that in my opinion, the best ones were Al Williamson and Tom Palmer. They were both excellent.

WA: You mentioned your favorite inkers to work with, but what about the writers you enjoyed working with the most?

[Howard The Duck]GC: Well, it would have to be Marv. We were there the longest, and we sustained Tomb of Dracula for a good long time. He was pretty damn good. Then, I loved Steve Gerber's writing very much. It was a departure from what I'd been doing. Howard the Duck was this little animated figure interacting with real people. I loved that. He was easy to draw, but not the people around him. Howard was the only animated Walt Disney type character. They ran into some trouble with that, too, because he looked very much like Donald Duck. In order to get around that, we had to change his costume. We had to put a hat on him, have him smoking a cigar, put long trousers, etc. There was a big fuss over it.

WA: What have you been working on for the last several years?

GC: I came back to Daredevil a few years back, but I ran into some difficulties with the art director over there. Basically, they were a bunch of young kids that were full of themselves. I tried to get a decent inker on it since they didn't want to reproduce my work from pencils. I couldn't really get a good inker and, of course, my interference just loused up everything. This led to me going to Dark Horse. I did 3 or 4 issues of a Predator series for Dark Horse, which lead to Curse of Dracula. It came about mainly due to Mike Richardson, the owner of Dark Horse. Marv and I were out in San Diego at a convention and Mike was there. We started talking, and he brought up the possibility of doing something like Tomb of Dracula again. He thought it would be a good idea and teamed me and Marv up again. I was excited. It didn't come about immediately, but I had that other work to do for them. It eventually came about, though. One of the great things about Dark Horse was that all the books I did for them were reproduced directly from pencils. It's funny. I wound up doing Dracula again and working for a company called Dark Horse. I don't know what else is in the offering, but I'm sure that there are still some surprises around the corner. For instance, I did something for Rob Zombie not too long ago. It dealt with the cult. All of his music is fashioned after that type of stuff. You know like Dracula and zombies and such. I did a 16-page story for him. I've also done storyboards for some outfit involved in a film. I was also involved in a film not all that long ago, a production in New York with Eric Roberts, James Earl Jones and Red Buttons. It was called Ambulance. At the moment, I've been doing some fine arts. I've always wanted to get into that and now I have the time. Well, I've made the time to do it. You know, after 52 years of doing the same thing you kind of want to stretch out a bit. That and just set back and rest. I've had a lot of operations on my eyes. I'm doing fine now, but you know, I'm getting on. I'm looking to do something a little more diversified, basically. My eye problems actually led to the Gene Colan Treasury Edition. I've had glaucoma for quite a few years now. Then, it got out of hand, and I had to go up to Boston to have several operations. At that time a fellow by the name of Clifford Meth put out some editions and got a thing going for me to help me retrieve some of the moneys lost due to the time spent away from the office. It was very nice. The operations turned out pretty well.

"You know, after 52 years of doing the same thing you kind of want to stretch out a bit. That and just set back and rest."
- Gene Colan

WA: One last note here, you also went by the pen-name of Adam Austin, right?

GC: Yeah, just the one time early on I did. I was working for DC then and I didn't want them to know I was also doing work for Marvel. I didn't think it was such a good idea for them to know because I was a free-lancer. I didn't want them to take it out of my hide, so I had Stan, instead of putting my real name, put in Adam Austin. That didn't matter, though, because they knew anyway. Art is like handwriting, you really can't disguise the style. I think all artists have a distinct style. If you get to following an artist, you get to know his work whether he signs it or not. The reason I was working for Marvel on the side was that I just wanted to be kept busy. That's the whole idea of free-lancing. It didn't matter to me which company it was. Of course, if you could get enough work out of any one company then you should stay there. Why knock yourself out. You can only do what you can do. If one company is keeping you that busy, there would be no point in trying to take on another company and wind up maybe disappointing one of them.

WA: Looking back, what project have you enjoyed the most?

GC: I probably enjoyed Tomb of Dracula the most, but I enjoyed the super-heroes, too. Although, it got to the point where I didn't know how to choreograph the stunts that I was suppose to draw them doing. But the writers kept repeating them, you know, and there's just so many ways you can flip around. So rather than get stale, I tried to incorporate something different in the telling of the story so that I didn't repeat myself too often. But that's very difficult to do. I would've loved to have gotten a western story. I've always felt that it was about time they started a few westerns again. I had fun on Hopalong Cassidy. That was so long ago, though, I would be doing it a lot different today.

 
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