Recent Dorkiness

Shades of Gray: The Art of Gene Colan

Life outside the nerd farm has started to calm down now, so I thought I might get back in the swing of things with a slightly belated birthday tribute to one of my all-time favorite funnybook artists, Mr. Gene Colan.

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Colan was something of an anomaly amongst Silver Age artists. He had a natural, fluid style, but he was able to marry it to the splay-legged dynamism of Jack Kirby to produce work that, while not always entirely comfortable in the world of spandex heroes, was nonetheless a lot of fun to look at:

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That's a fantastic cover, full of tension, speed, and action, and some great bravado detail on things like the Gladiator's outstretched hand. Precisely the sort of cover that makes a super hero book leap off the racks. But with a few notable exceptions like this one, Colan didn't really turn out great covers. His real strength was mood and storytelling, lending an air of quiet menace to scripts that were often a bit too purple for their own good...

That page is from Colan’s long run with writer Marv Wolfman on Tomb of Dracula, the series the artist is probably best-remembered for. The image is a bit too fuzzy for easy reading, I’m afraid (sorry), but you don’t really need the words to understand what’s happening. Dracula’s seduction of Rachel Van Helsing is spelled out quite effectively in the art. The close-ups, the focus on the characters’ hands, the creepy mock-romantic embrace in the final panel… It’s a fine piece of work that could do with a lot less dialogue crowding out the images. But such were Seventies horror comics. Ah well.

Colan based his Dracula on, of all people, actor Jack Palance, who later played the role in a production directed by Dan Curtis (creator of Dark Shadows). It’s not a great film, and Palance is not great in the part. But something about Palance obviously struck a chord with Colan, because the actor’s wide face and rugged bone structure informed his drawings of Dracula for the rest of his career, as can be seen in this pencil piece from the Noughts:

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As you may be able to tell from this piece, and the Norman Rockwell inspired self portrait above, Colan had a fine, delicate pencil line that wasn’t always best-served by the ink and color of funnybook printing. Which is not to say that the man couldn’t turn both ink and color to his advantage when he worked in them directly…

Ink!

Color!

Colan’s other major series of the Seventies was in many ways a full 180-degree turn from Tomb of Dracula, and may actually be his best work of the period. It’s often forgotten now, but Gene Colan was the primary artist on Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck:

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You might think that there wouldn’t be much call for delicate, moody art on a satirical funnybook about a cartoon duck. Of course, if you think that, you’ve probably never read Gerber’s Howard. Constantly faced with horrors both material and existential, Howard’s adventures were funny as hell, and (at least to my fragile childhood psyche) deeply, deeply disturbing. The above cover (another of Colan’s best, and for completely different reasons than the Daredevil one) is from the infamous issue 12, in which Howard has a nervous breakdown and is confined to a sanitarium, where… well… THIS happens:

click to embiggen … and ROCK OUT!

Howard was generally rather unstable, to be honest. Though a “regular guy” type for the most part, an average New Yorker from an alternate reality where everybody is a cartoon duck, being “trapped in a world he never made” was rough on the little fella, and when he wasn’t fighting vampire cows or trying to rescue his girlfriend Bev from the amorous clutches of evil whack-job Doctor Bong, he was battling his own inner turmoil. This allowed Colan to really cut loose on surreal dream sequences like the one below, from (I believe) Gerber’s final issue on the character. Click to embiggen these, and watch Colan bring it not only on character design and acting, but also on storytelling and layout:

Among the many, many things to love here (the expressions, the smoke, Colan’s ever-increasing skill at depicting a cartoon character rendered into the real world), it’s the layout that really floors me. Colan (always given to inventive panel bordering) keeps everything nice and square throughout the insanity of the first two pages. But as Howard gets angrier and angrier, the panel borders get out of control right along with him. The top three panels on the fourth page are completely out of whack (though Colan is careful to keep the reader’s line of sight perfectly straight), leaving the bottom splash with a jagged top, as if Howard’s anger had exploded upward out of his head. That is good stuff, and it makes me wish I’d picked up the Howard the Duck Omnibus while it was still in print.

After both Dracula and Howard wrapped up (and after some unpleasant business with Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter), Colan took his talents across the street to rival publisher DC Comics, where he had a memorable run on Batman with Doug Moench…

…though this piece was drawn later…

…and set up shop with his Dracula collaborator Marv Wolfman on a short-lived horror series called Night Force:

The series centered on a morally-ambiguous figure known as Baron Winters, who assembled teams of occult experts, detectives, and regular people to battle various supernatural threats. It’s probably better than Tomb of Dracula, honestly, but not as over the top, and not as well-received. Colan had obviously upped his game since the earlier work, though; while there are an awful lot of very pretty Tomb of Dracula pages, his work on Night Force is spectacular. Even minor characters are given distinct looks on this book, from crisp nurses to rumpled police detectives. The shadows are rendered more delicately, and he seems to have incorporated some of the lessons he learned on the cartoony Howard the Duck into his more realistic style. There aren’t many pages extant out there on the interwebs, and I don’t have my copies of the original series anymore, but I’m particularly taken with this page featuring a frightened young woman alone in a darkened cell…

…and with Colan’s design for the sadistic psychic torturer Herr Zadok:

Awesome.

DC had planned a Night Force omnibus edition for earlier this year, but it seems to have been cancelled. All that saw the light of day was a one-shot collecting the first three or four issues of the series’ initial six-issue story arc. I enjoyed the re-read, but… What the fuck? I can appreciate a desire to recoup whatever money was spent on remastering those comics, but you’d think they’d at least want to give their customers a satisfying reading experience.

But I’m not here to bitch about that. Again. I’m here to honor Gene Colan. He continued to work almost up until his death last year, and there’s a lot of stuff I haven’t covered here at all. Still, I think I’ll close with some pieces he did on commission that I found around the interwebs today, as I put together the artwork for this post. First, his take on a character he never (as far as I know) drew professionally, the Flash:

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I like this illustration because of its sheer inventive energy. Colan drew this when he was in his 70s, and he shows a more interesting approach to super speed than most artists a third his age muster up. I also like that he jettisoned the air of cheerful effortlessness that’s usually applied to the Flash in favor of this head-down work-out sort of pose. That’s a guy who’s hauling ass with no time to lose, and it gives the character a gravitas I like. Makes me wish we HAD gotten a Colan Flash run back in the day.

Next up, two big fun illustrations that show Colan’s gift for action:

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click to embiggen, matey!

And, finally… Good as he was at the kind of genre silliness we love around here, Gene Colan was at his best when he was simply drawing regular people in real environments. So I can think of no better shot to go out on than this:

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(This last piece was taken from an excellent interview with Colan, conducted about a year before his death, which can be read here: http://www.nycgraphicnovelists.com/2010/05/gene-colan-on-vampires-shadows-and.html . Seriously, check it out. It makes my amateurish gushings about his work pale in comparison…)

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About Mark Brett (408 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at http://reportsfromthefieldblog.wordpress.com/. Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at https://dorkforty.wordpress.com/.

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