The Way of the Word

24. June 2011

RIP Gene Colan

Born September 21, 1926 in New York, died June 23, 2011 (aged 84), after a broken hip and complications from a liver disease.

Gene Colan studied art at the Art Students League of New York and began working in comics in 1944, drawing for Fiction House’s Wing Comics. He joined the US armed forces just in time for the end of the war, but spent time serving with the US occupation forces in the Philippines, where he rose to the rank of corporal and drew for the Manila Times. Upon his return in 1946, he produced a short story, took it to Timely Comics and was hired on the spot, where he worked as a staff artist until Timely laid off almost all their staff in 1948. Colan turned to freelancing, especially for the company that would become DC Comics.

Upon the beginning of the Silver Age in the 1960s, Colan quickly established himself as one of the greatest artists working in American comics. He worked on Sub-Mariner, Captain America, Iron Man and most notably Daredevil.

With Daredevil as his signature superhero work, he became something of a household name when he teamed up with writer Marv Wolfman on the horror series The Tomb of Dracula, a book that he had actively lobbied to be assigned to. His dark, moodily-brooding pencils that were complimented by the work of inker Tom Palmer were probably a greater factor in the book’s success than Marv Wolfman’s inspired writing.

In the 1980s, he had a falling out with Marvel Comics and instead worked more for DC Comics, on books like Batman, Night Force or Wonder Woman.

He quite literally kept working until the end.

Colan was a multiple awards winner, like the Shazam Award (1974), the Eagle Award (1977, 1979), the Sparky Award (2008) and the Sergio Award (2009). He was inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame in 2005.

Back in the Silver Age, Colan had his very own style. It was a dark, shadowy and moody style. Personally, I always felt that he worked on some books where his style didn’t mesh (Captain America, for example), but on the right books (Daredevil, Tomb of Dracula, Night Force, Nathaniel Dusk) it was really breathtaking. Colan is one of those few American comic artists whose work actually looks better when it’s stipped of the coloring, as you can easily see if you look at Marvel’s Essential Tomb of Dracula collections. He was one of the first artists who could make me excited for a new comics series: the only reason why I eagerly anticipated the coming of DC’s Night Force back in 1982, or that Nathaniel Dusk noir miniseries (1984) by a writer I didn’t know, were because it had Colan art, and he wasn’t doing superheroes.

In that regard, yes, it was funny: I was very much a superhero reader at the time, but I always felt that Colan was wasted on superheroes. His style was wrong for it, it was too different, too unique.  It was, in a word, distinctive, and by all accounts he struggled against the pressure from his higher-ups in order to keep it distinctive, rather than to conform to a house style or some momentary fashion. That alone should earn him respect and accolades. Of course, it helps that he was one of the best comics artists ever. His visual storytelling skills, his moody, shadowy and atmospheric style set him apart from most of his peers, and seriously, anyone who wants to work as a comic book artist should look at his work and learn from it.

Will he be missed? By those who knew him, certainly. I haven’t had the privilege, but I’m told he was one of the nicest people in the business. By the rest of us, his readers? Well, we still have the comics he drew to re-read and appreciate, and to make us thankful for everything he had to give to us.

3. April 2011

Awesome Ideas That Will Never Be

A couple of years ago, the Joker beat Robin, whose civilian name was Jason Todd, to death.

Some time later, Jason Todd returned from the dead in a covoluted and fairly silly way. The less said about that, the better.

Jason Todd took on the identity of Red Hood in order to wage a war on crime. This choice of alias was fairly bizarre, considering that the Joker used to be Red Hood before he became the Joker.

As it turned out, Jason, who hadn’t been the most stable of personalities to begin with, had become even more balanced. Death and resurrection will do that to you, I suppose. You could even say that he had become downright crazy.

During one of his clashes with one of the Batmans, Jason happened to find a time machine. Now, what do you do when you find a time machine? You’d probably go back in time to set things right. The classic “Kill Hitler before WW2” scheme.

For Jason, the matter was personal. He didn’t care about Hitler, but think of how many lives could be saved if The Joker had never been. Most likely, Jason’s own life would have been far far happier. Sadly, nobody knew who Joker had been before he had been Joker. Well, except that Jason knew, from Batman’s files, that Joker had been Red Hood. Jason also knew when Joker had become Joker.

Setting the time machine for that date, Jason went back. With his knowledge of the events, he made short work of Red Hood’s gang.

Only, Red Hood wasn’t there. Or rather, the only Red Hood who was there was he, Jason.

Batman didn’t know that. All Batman knew was that Red Hood was on a killing spree, murdering his own gang. Jason knew he couldn’t talk to Batman. Batman was too OCD about this killing thing. Even if Jason told Batman, Batman would still insist on bringing Jason in.

Jason ran.

Batman gave chase.

Until they got to a dead end. Jason hesitated. He was down to three options. One was to surrender to Batman. No. Not an option. One was to fight Batman. Also, not an option. He knew that Batman was a much better fighter.

That left the option of jumping into the vat of chemicals. Jason was sure he would be all right. The helmet he wore had a built-in air supply for just a case like this. He could dive in and get away.

So he did. But the chemicals seeped into his helmet. And they burned. Oh, how they burned.

Somehow, Jason Todd survived. He climbed ashore somewhere farther down the Gotham River. He made his way to a flophouse.

Why did he feel so strange? He lay down on the bed, not bothering to even clean himself up.

The next morning, when he stumbled into the bathroom, the face he saw in the mirror was not his own. It was chalk-white face, topped by a mop of unruly green hair. A face that he knew too well, a face that haunted his nightmares every night.

Destiny had played a cruel joke on Jason Todd. But  a funny one. Jason laughed.

And he would never stop laughing. Not even when, years later, he would beat his younger self to death to punish him for being so stupid.

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