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.

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