A Stroll Through the Years with Gene

Everytime I drive home from my son’s apartment I pass Marine Park and see the building where Gene Colan lived.

And I am reminded he is no longer there. And in my head I can hear myself in February winter chill telling him that when warmer weather came we would go walking along the ocean inlet waterway, amongst the reeds and salt-marsh grass, together.

Warmer weather came, but Gene was no longer there.

He was gone by the time summer heat arrived.

For the last year of his life, Gene had lived within walking distance of me and I had not known it. I thought he was still on Long Island, which is where I had last talked with him, at length, about his health, and about coming out to stay with him if Adrienne needed a break. I told Gene to make sure he told Adrienne. But knowing Gene, he might never have done it, getting lost in the world of art, where he was at home, in heart and mind, and where he gave the world his gift of illustration and story-telling.

When I found out where he was, I visited him, and he called me almost every day.

I told him if I wasn’t there, I would always return his phone calls. I still have his last call to me on the phone. I haven’t erased it. It’s a way of still hearing his voice, so it stays.

Let me tell you a few Gene Colan stories, the ones I lived with him.

My first awareness of Gene’s work came when I was a kid growing up in Rhode Island, when he was drawing Hopalong Cassidy comics for DC. The first comic book I ever bought was a Hopalong Cassidy comic, and my love for comics was probably cemented forever from that time. But the kid from Rhode Island could never know he would one day get not just to work with Gene Colan, but to become friends with him over the years. There were time periods when we saw a lot of each; time periods when we didn’t.

Gene never remembered the first comic we ever worked on together.

It was a “Killraven” entitled “Something Worth Dying For.” He was the first artist to draw the serpent stallion Killraven rode, and he did it superbly. He drew a fine naked Carmilla Frost. But in later years, when we would speak on this, he had no recollection of it, and would steadfastly claim our first collaboration was on “Hodiah Twist: The Hero Killer Principle”. Don’t believe the credit line to somebody else in that magazine; that was totally my script, nobody elses, and only a flashback sequence, of some sexual activity in a horse drawn carriage through Central Park, beautifully drawn by Gene but never seen (I still have Xeroxes of it) was omitted.

I never knew until later years that Gene never read ahead in a script. With all the assurance and commitment on his art, you’d never have thought Gene had any fear. He seemed to draw as an artist without fear. He could draw anything. Men. Women. Little kids. Animals. Cowboys. Westerns. Noir. Private eyes. Different time periods. Didn’t matter, Gene could draw it all.

And yet…he never read ahead in a script. He told me it would cause him too much anxiety if he knew what was coming, because he would be worrying about how he was going to draw it, and it would steal his focus on the scene he was penciling. To see his art you would never suspect such a thing.

To look at Gene’s pencils, you’d never think there was any hesitation.

I don’t believe I ever saw an erasure mark (maybe once) in all the Gene Colan penciled pages I ever saw, on other writer’s scripts, or my own.

It was there complete, as if he knew exactly what he was going to do, and put it directly onto paper.

There was never a coffee stain on a Gene Colan page.

They were immaculate, and they often were truly pieces of story-telling art, uncommonly illustrative, and emotionally evocative, in a way few comics seldom are.

Adrienne told me that it was uncommon for him to talk about the stories he was drawing, but that story, set on a subway train in the 1930s, had him telling what happened next and “Look at this!”

The first time I met with Gene and his wife, Adrienne, they were living in New Jersey. I was interviewing Gene for Comics Scene magazine. He had an incredible, huge, framed, penciled art of a stagecoach in motion on the wall that riveted the eye.

I believe this is when we first started to become friends, and not just collaborators.

It was during this visit, as I was questioning Gene about how much I loved his art, and especially his pencils, and wanted to see if there was a way that we could preserve his pencils in printed form, telling him of my early days of seeing his “Hopalong Cassidy” stories, that Adrienne mischievously heckled him.

Adrienne got a kick out of telling him, “Gene, tell Don what you did with that ‘Hoppy’ artwork.”

It was obvious that Gene was starting to squirm, and had never thought about telling this.

But Adrienne, with a smile, wouldn’t let him off the hook.

“Go on, Gene. Tell Don what you did with ‘Hoppy’.”

Reluctantly, after good-natured badgering, Gene said, kind of lowering his head, as if you could not see his lips you might not hear the words.

“I used them for target practice.”

I wasn’t sure I had heard right. My eyes went wide. I shook my head. I love comics. I love Gene Colan artwork. How could Gene shoot at his own art.

But back in the 50s who knew the value of comics art. It was disposable to many, even within the medium.

Gene was until the end of his life and gun enthusiast. Gun calibers are always depicted realistically in his work. When he ran out of target paper, he would pin the Hoppy art up to a tree in the back yard, and aim.

I think Adrienne enjoyed my shocked expression and protestations. I suspect Gene didn’t know what the big fuss was about.

His son, Erik, told me at Gene’s Shiva that he remembers that meeting, and thought that I was “good for his father.” I don’t know if I was, but I’m glad Erik felt that way.

I had the concept for Ragamuffins even before I wrote the Black Panther or Killraven. It was a series about little kids growing up in the 1950s, with Flash Forwards into the 60s, 70s, and upward. Eventually I planned to do stories that went backwards in time and would show the kid’s parents when they were Ragamuffins, in the beginning of the Century, and moving through the teens and 20s, etc.

The only artist I wanted for that series was Gene Colan.

I knew I couldn’t start an independent series with a non genre book of that nature from the get-go; we had to establish there was a market there first. But after Sabre and Detectives Inc., I was champing at the bit to begin Ragamuffins. Gene was committed by contract to Marvel, and thus could not, at that time, draw those little kids. But I knew Gene would know them intimately, and that this was series that would depend on nuance of expression, on the kid’s faces, and in their body language. And that Gene would capture the time the kid’s stories took place.

Dean offered a lot of real top-notch artists to do Ragamuffins; but I could not, at that time, see anybody but Gene capable to handling such delicacy of material, of understand what I wanted to try to achieve.

I held out for Gene, and when he went to DC, under contract, they made a special dispensati
on for Gene to be able to draw the series, since it was not a superhero comic, and not in competition with anything they would publish.

Gene captured everything. There is a sequence where Randy, the 5 year old is being sent off to Kindergarten by his mother, giving him firm instructions of what he is NOT to do. I told Gene that when Randy finally turns away from her, we see his face, and we see instantly that he is free, that anything is possible, that any fantasy he conjures can be made real.

And Gene brought it to life, so exquisitely, with such young joy of life, of infinite choices that to this day I cherish the thought of it; I am moved whenever I see it; and it was worth the waiting of years for Gene to be able to draw it.

Just writing this makes me breathe heavy, missing him, and wanting to thank him again for his caring and artistry.

There had not been a comic book published with color and comics in the early 1980s. I dearly wanted to print Gene’s pencils from Ragamuffins. I have no capacity for knowing how to do it; I could just earnestly tell Dean Mullaney, the publisher, that that’s how I wanted to do it. Dean figured out how it could be done, and Steve Oliff and Sam Parsons did a coloring job that captured the approach I wanted, subtle and diffused, golden with memory in the flashbacks, harsher colors in the flash forwards.

For the first time, in Ragamuffins, Gene Colan’s pencils were published in comics!

Dean Mullaney has often said it is his favorite book of everything he published at Eclipse, and the cover for the color issue is the only piece of art he has from those days, and it hangs over his bed, where he can see it.

When we did Nathaniel Dusk at DC, I wanted to print Gene’s pencils again. I told DCs editorial that Dean would tell them how we had done Ragamuffins.

When the first issue of Nathaniel Dusk came out, Gene called me, his voice frantic. “They ruined it, Don! The ruined the art!”

I had no idea what he was talking about.

Nathaniel Dusk! All the line-work is dropping out!”

I went into DC, saw the book, and Gene was right. When I asked what happened, I was told that a “big company like DC can’t call a little company like Eclipse for information.” This is the kind of thing that gets me crazy!

“So, you’re telling me, because you can’t make one phone call, you print a book wrong and you would ruin Gene Colan’s art?”

Which is exactly what they had done.

People seldom write about Gene’s elfish sense of humor. He was quick and witty, and he loved to tell you some far-fetched thing and see how far he could get you to go along with it.

In the second series of Nathaniel Dusk, “Apple Peddlers Die At Noon,” I had a character named “Lice” Williams, and I had described him as a hulking guy, who looked as if he had been in the electric chair and all it had done was spiked his dark hair, and leeched to color out of his flesh so it looked corpse-like.

Gene calls me around 11 o’clock at night and tells me, No, he’s not going to draw “Lice” that way. It’s too cartoony. He then goes on to elaborately describe how he will draw the character, and I’m saying, over the phone, okay, Gene, but I really think that will work, but Gene is adamant, No, it won’t. I’m going to make “Lice” look like Stan Laurel, but you’ll see, it will work out.

I can’t imagine it, but if Gene insists, okay.

A week later, the pages come in, and when I see them, there is “Lice” Williams exactly as I’d written him. I called Gene and asked, “Uhhh…Gene, didn’t we have a half hour phone call last week, and you went on at length on how you were going to draw him gangly and looking like Stan Laurel.”

Gene laughed. He had a great laugh. “I just wanted to see if you’d fall for it, Don.”

And we both laughed.

The book looked terrific. You cannot imagine how lovely those pencils looked. And this time they were printed basically right.

You learn how different artists work, and everyone is different.

Some artists like to see the whole script, others like Gene only knew the page he was drawing, and often if I sequence really turned him on visually, he would extend it. But by this time, I knew that, and I had enough pages within each individual issue, that I could write in the script at a half-way point or 2/3rds through that if he was behind me, now was the time to catch up, because we had a big climax coming.

You can see where he caught up, and, for instance, you can see him capturing Coney Island in the 1930s in such detail, taking the photos I had gathered while researching the series and transforming them into backgrounds for the action.

You won’t see many scenes like that in your average comic book.

It was by chance that Gene came to draw “Panther’s Quest” when I came back to Marvel after Dusk. In fact, Gene wasn’t going to be able to start drawing it for awhile when we first talked about it, but then a series at DC fell through, and he needed pages within two days. I had just figured out why the Panther’s mother had disappeared, and what was going on in South Africa, and now I had to create pages for Gene to draw in two days! While I had the flu!

But when people ask me about Marvel collecting the Panther books, I wish they would do this one. It is in 25 issues of Marvel Comics Presents, which probably was the only way I would have been allowed to write a series dealing with Apartheid in that time period, since they did not have to cover feature it.

Another Gene Colan story: There are often times when a writer seems to only have few options to the way a story can go. I was writing about the necklacing ceremonies done at that time in black townships. If you were a spy, and you were caught, at times the spy had a car tire placed around their neck, filled with gasoline and set afire. Now, I could have the Panther come in and rescue the guy, but I felt politically that made a statement. I could have the Panther come in and rescue the guy, but that made another kind of statement, and I wanted to keep this a very human story, about how oppressive regimes make even the search of a son for his mother almost impossible, and the brutality that it creates in its inhumane treatments. I struggled with it, and suddenly came up with the idea of bringing back two little boys, Theodore and Wally Olebogeng, whom I’d had no intention of using again, and that when the Panther goes to interfere with the necklacing, Theordore (think the Beav in a black township) is burned. There is a single chapter devoted just to the Panther trying to get this boy to a white hospital. The doctors truly try to save Theordore. But he dies.

The phone rings one night, around 11, one Gene’s favorite time to call during the ’80s.

“I can’t do it,” Gene tells me.

“Can’t do what?” I have no clue what he is talking about.

His voice is really agitated. “I can’t draw that, and don’t ask me to, Don!”

“Can’t draw what?

“You know. Don’t pretend you don’t know.”

“I have no idea, Gene, what we are talking about.”

“I tried to do it, and I can’t.”

“Can’t do what, Gene.”

Finally he delivers the telling line. “The kid, Don. The kid.”

“What about the kid?” I ask.

“The kid doesn’t die.”

“He doesn’t what?” And my voice has risen.

Gene goes on to explain that it just tore his heart out, he cannot the scene that way, he has drawn it so The
ordore lives.

I’m in a panic. I’m pleading with Gene.

“No, Gene, this encapsulates for me what this entire series is about. If he lives we let everyone off the hook. And I don’t want them off the hook. I want the reader to feel what this is!”

Gene continues that it is too tragic, I can’t ask him to do such a thing. I plead my case ten ways from Sunday. This must last a good 20 minutes or more. I am near hysteria by now.

And then Gene laughs.

And says, “Get out of here, Don. I just wanted to see if you’d fall for it. I drew it exactly as you wanted!”

Man, I miss you, Gene!

When Gene drew Detectives Inc. I again optioned for printing his pencils. There is a sequence toward the end where a man and woman are having passionate sex, and the man feels he is conquering the woman. When the sex is completed, she slashes his throat open with a straight-edge razor. Gene took out the couple having this furious sex, but rendered the razor ripped throat in detail.

I asked him about it, that since this wasn’t a code approved book why he kept the violence but toned the sex.

And I can’t use Adrienne’s exact quote, but let me approximate what she said, turning Gene shades of scarlet, something to the effect don’t think he can’t draw it.

I never did.

The real lines were better, they often are, but I love those times with Gene and Adrienne.

There’s just a few of the stories about Gene.

When I saw him in later years, when the glaucoma had made it so his eyesight was virtually a narrow shaft of vision, it was at one of the last comic conventions I did.

He was at table, drawing, his face very close to the paper, because he could only see about an inch it.

I leaned down on the other side of the table, my face inches from his, but he didn’t know I was there, he was so concentrated on the drawing.

I waited.

After 5 minutes, he looked, reacted startled.

“Don!”

Now, here is how incredible an artist Gene is. I asked him how he could draw an essentially wide-screen illustration when he can only see an inch at a time.

And he showed me. He inched paper over, bent down, filled in that inch. And then he would lift his head, push the paper over another inch, and start that little stretch.

“But how do you know it’s all going to come together?” I asked him.

“I can see it in my head, Don,” he replied.

And when you looked at the finished piece of art, you would no idea that he couldn’t see the whole, but only smidgen of it as he was drawing.

The last time I was with Gene, we sat in a hospital room on the West Side of Manhattan, off Riverside Drive. It was a block from where I had filmed the final scene for the Detectives Inc video in the 80s. Gene was thrilled by that. He loved movies. And I remember Adrienne actually screaming when I showed her a clip years before where my wife, Marsha, playing Dierdre Sevens had her back slashed open with a straight-edged razor.

We were together for almost four hours.

For the last two hours, I sat on the bed with him, his large, strong hands holding mine.

We talked about everything. Life. Death. I asked him how he thought he had changed over the years, and where he hadn’t. He was concerned about my health and Marsha’s, even though his end was near, and he was often in a lot of pain. I would tell him how many people’s lives his art affected, but there was a part of him that could never really take it in, and I understood that, but I also knew what I said was true.

We won’t see his likes again. He was what an artist should be, uniquely individual.

I was a privilege and honor to work with him and to be with him.

Marsha felt bad that she hadn’t been able to take him to a Christian Science meeting before he died. Over the years, they both had talked with each other about it, and Gene had wanted her to go again. She just could not do that at the time, health-wise, but she still Ftells me how she regrets that she didn’t get him there.

I told his children, Nancy and Erik, that if he heard their sincere emotion at his funeral, and the words they spoke to gathering there, those words would have meant more to him than all the accolades written on him in papers and comic websites.

At the Shiva, his son Erik had put together a photo montage that played on a screen of Gene from various times in his life. Oh, would I have had fun with Gene with that. Come back, Gene, just for that. I’d have at a minimum two hours of laughter with you, from photo to photo.

In the last months of his life, both of us, on many occasions, said, in parting, orending a phone call, “I love you, Don.”

“I love you, Gene.”

I’m glad I told him, then, because I’ll never have the chance to do it again.

 


 

Please take a moment to bid on original art pages from some of Don McGregor’s classsic comics. Don McGregor, who numbers among his credits the influential “Panther’s Rage” story, is ill. He and some friends are selling his art in order to help his increasing medical bills. It’s a shame that such influential creators have to resort to this, but every drop counts. eBay and ComicArtFans.A Stroll Through the Years with Gene

Everytime I drive home from my son’s apartment I pass Marine Park and see the building where Gene Colan lived.

And I am reminded he is no longer there. And in my head I can hear myself in February winter chill telling him that when warmer weather came we would go walking along the ocean inlet waterway, amongst the reeds and salt-marsh grass, together.

Warmer weather came, but Gene was no longer there.

He was gone by the time summer heat arrived.

For the last year of his life, Gene had lived within walking distance of me and I had not known it. I thought he was still on Long Island, which is where I had last talked with him, at length, about his health, and about coming out to stay with him if Adrienne needed a break. I told Gene to make sure he told Adrienne. But knowing Gene, he might never have done it, getting lost in the world of art, where he was at home, in heart and mind, and where he gave the world his gift of illustration and story-telling.

When I found out where he was, I visited him, and he called me almost every day.

I told him if I wasn’t there, I would always return his phone calls. I still have his last call to me on the phone. I haven’t erased it. It’s a way of still hearing his voice, so it stays.

Let me tell you a few Gene Colan stories, the ones I lived with him.

My first awareness of Gene’s work came when I was a kid growing up in Rhode Island, when he was drawing Hopalong Cassidy comics for DC. The first comic book I ever bought was a Hopalong Cassidy comic, and my love for comics was probably cemented forever from that time. But the kid from Rhode Island could never know he would one day get not just to work with Gene Colan, but to become friends with him over the years. There were time periods when we saw a lot of each; time periods when we didn’t.

Gene never remembered the first comic we ever worked on together.

It was a “Killraven” entitled “Something Worth Dying For.” He was the first artist to draw the serpent
stallion Killraven rode, and he did it superbly. He drew a fine naked Carmilla Frost. But in later years, when we would speak on this, he had no recollection of it, and would steadfastly claim our first collaboration was on “Hodiah Twist: The Hero Killer Principle”. Don’t believe the credit line to somebody else in that magazine; that was totally my script, nobody elses, and only a flashback sequence, of some sexual activity in a horse drawn carriage through Central Park, beautifully drawn by Gene but never seen (I still have Xeroxes of it) was omitted.

I never knew until later years that Gene never read ahead in a script. With all the assurance and commitment on his art, you’d never have thought Gene had any fear. He seemed to draw as an artist without fear. He could draw anything. Men. Women. Little kids. Animals. Cowboys. Westerns. Noir. Private eyes. Different time periods. Didn’t matter, Gene could draw it all.

And yet…he never read ahead in a script. He told me it would cause him too much anxiety if he knew what was coming, because he would be worrying about how he was going to draw it, and it would steal his focus on the scene he was penciling. To see his art you would never suspect such a thing.

To look at Gene’s pencils, you’d never think there was any hesitation.

I don’t believe I ever saw an erasure mark (maybe once) in all the Gene Colan penciled pages I ever saw, on other writer’s scripts, or my own.

It was there complete, as if he knew exactly what he was going to do, and put it directly onto paper.

There was never a coffee stain on a Gene Colan page.

They were immaculate, and they often were truly pieces of story-telling art, uncommonly illustrative, and emotionally evocative, in a way few comics seldom are.

Adrienne told me that it was uncommon for him to talk about the stories he was drawing, but that story, set on a subway train in the 1930s, had him telling what happened next and “Look at this!”

The first time I met with Gene and his wife, Adrienne, they were living in New Jersey. I was interviewing Gene for Comics Scene magazine. He had an incredible, huge, framed, penciled art of a stagecoach in motion on the wall that riveted the eye.

I believe this is when we first started to become friends, and not just collaborators.

It was during this visit, as I was questioning Gene about how much I loved his art, and especially his pencils, and wanted to see if there was a way that we could preserve his pencils in printed form, telling him of my early days of seeing his “Hopalong Cassidy” stories, that Adrienne mischievously heckled him.

Adrienne got a kick out of telling him, “Gene, tell Don what you did with that ‘Hoppy’ artwork.”

It was obvious that Gene was starting to squirm, and had never thought about telling this.

But Adrienne, with a smile, wouldn’t let him off the hook.

“Go on, Gene. Tell Don what you did with ‘Hoppy’.”

Reluctantly, after good-natured badgering, Gene said, kind of lowering his head, as if you could not see his lips you might not hear the words.

“I used them for target practice.”

I wasn’t sure I had heard right. My eyes went wide. I shook my head. I love comics. I love Gene Colan artwork. How could Gene shoot at his own art.

But back in the 50s who knew the value of comics art. It was disposable to many, even within the medium.

Gene was until the end of his life and gun enthusiast. Gun calibers are always depicted realistically in his work. When he ran out of target paper, he would pin the Hoppy art up to a tree in the back yard, and aim.

I think Adrienne enjoyed my shocked expression and protestations. I suspect Gene didn’t know what the big fuss was about.

His son, Erik, told me at Gene’s Shiva that he remembers that meeting, and thought that I was “good for his father.” I don’t know if I was, but I’m glad Erik felt that way.

I had the concept for Ragamuffins even before I wrote the Black Panther or Killraven. It was a series about little kids growing up in the 1950s, with Flash Forwards into the 60s, 70s, and upward. Eventually I planned to do stories that went backwards in time and would show the kid’s parents when they were Ragamuffins, in the beginning of the Century, and moving through the teens and 20s, etc.

The only artist I wanted for that series was Gene Colan.

I knew I couldn’t start an independent series with a non genre book of that nature from the get-go; we had to establish there was a market there first. But after Sabre and Detectives Inc., I was champing at the bit to begin Ragamuffins. Gene was committed by contract to Marvel, and thus could not, at that time, draw those little kids. But I knew Gene would know them intimately, and that this was series that would depend on nuance of expression, on the kid’s faces, and in their body language. And that Gene would capture the time the kid’s stories took place.

Dean offered a lot of real top-notch artists to do Ragamuffins; but I could not, at that time, see anybody but Gene capable to handling such delicacy of material, of understand what I wanted to try to achieve.

I held out for Gene, and when he went to DC, under contract, they made a special dispensation for Gene to be able to draw the series, since it was not a superhero comic, and not in competition with anything they would publish.

Gene captured everything. There is a sequence where Randy, the 5 year old is being sent off to Kindergarten by his mother, giving him firm instructions of what he is NOT to do. I told Gene that when Randy finally turns away from her, we see his face, and we see instantly that he is free, that anything is possible, that any fantasy he conjures can be made real.

And Gene brought it to life, so exquisitely, with such young joy of life, of infinite choices that to this day I cherish the thought of it; I am moved whenever I see it; and it was worth the waiting of years for Gene to be able to draw it.

Just writing this makes me breathe heavy, missing him, and wanting to thank him again for his caring and artistry.

There had not been a comic book published with color and comics in the early 1980s. I dearly wanted to print Gene’s pencils from Ragamuffins. I have no capacity for knowing how to do it; I could just earnestly tell Dean Mullaney, the publisher, that that’s how I wanted to do it. Dean figured out how it could be done, and Steve Oliff and Sam Parsons did a coloring job that captured the approach I wanted, subtle and diffused, golden with memory in the flashbacks, harsher colors in the flash forwards.

For the first time, in Ragamuffins, Gene Colan’s pencils were published in comics!

Dean Mullaney has often said it is his favorite book of everything he published at Eclipse, and the cover for the color issue is the only piece of art he has from those days, and it hangs over his bed, where he can see it.

When we did Nathaniel Dusk at DC, I wanted to print Gene’s pencils again. I told DCs editorial that Dean would tell them how we had done Ragamuffins.

When the first issue of Nathaniel Dusk came out, Gene called me, his voice frantic. “They ruined it, Don! The ruined the art!”

I had no idea what he was talking about.

Nathaniel Dusk! All th
e line-work is dropping out!”

I went into DC, saw the book, and Gene was right. When I asked what happened, I was told that a “big company like DC can’t call a little company like Eclipse for information.” This is the kind of thing that gets me crazy!

“So, you’re telling me, because you can’t make one phone call, you print a book wrong and you would ruin Gene Colan’s art?”

Which is exactly what they had done.

People seldom write about Gene’s elfish sense of humor. He was quick and witty, and he loved to tell you some far-fetched thing and see how far he could get you to go along with it.

In the second series of Nathaniel Dusk, “Apple Peddlers Die At Noon,” I had a character named “Lice” Williams, and I had described him as a hulking guy, who looked as if he had been in the electric chair and all it had done was spiked his dark hair, and leeched to color out of his flesh so it looked corpse-like.

Gene calls me around 11 o’clock at night and tells me, No, he’s not going to draw “Lice” that way. It’s too cartoony. He then goes on to elaborately describe how he will draw the character, and I’m saying, over the phone, okay, Gene, but I really think that will work, but Gene is adamant, No, it won’t. I’m going to make “Lice” look like Stan Laurel, but you’ll see, it will work out.

I can’t imagine it, but if Gene insists, okay.

A week later, the pages come in, and when I see them, there is “Lice” Williams exactly as I’d written him. I called Gene and asked, “Uhhh…Gene, didn’t we have a half hour phone call last week, and you went on at length on how you were going to draw him gangly and looking like Stan Laurel.”

Gene laughed. He had a great laugh. “I just wanted to see if you’d fall for it, Don.”

And we both laughed.

The book looked terrific. You cannot imagine how lovely those pencils looked. And this time they were printed basically right.

You learn how different artists work, and everyone is different.

Some artists like to see the whole script, others like Gene only knew the page he was drawing, and often if I sequence really turned him on visually, he would extend it. But by this time, I knew that, and I had enough pages within each individual issue, that I could write in the script at a half-way point or 2/3rds through that if he was behind me, now was the time to catch up, because we had a big climax coming.

You can see where he caught up, and, for instance, you can see him capturing Coney Island in the 1930s in such detail, taking the photos I had gathered while researching the series and transforming them into backgrounds for the action.

You won’t see many scenes like that in your average comic book.

It was by chance that Gene came to draw “Panther’s Quest” when I came back to Marvel after Dusk. In fact, Gene wasn’t going to be able to start drawing it for awhile when we first talked about it, but then a series at DC fell through, and he needed pages within two days. I had just figured out why the Panther’s mother had disappeared, and what was going on in South Africa, and now I had to create pages for Gene to draw in two days! While I had the flu!

But when people ask me about Marvel collecting the Panther books, I wish they would do this one. It is in 25 issues of Marvel Comics Presents, which probably was the only way I would have been allowed to write a series dealing with Apartheid in that time period, since they did not have to cover feature it.

Another Gene Colan story: There are often times when a writer seems to only have few options to the way a story can go. I was writing about the necklacing ceremonies done at that time in black townships. If you were a spy, and you were caught, at times the spy had a car tire placed around their neck, filled with gasoline and set afire. Now, I could have the Panther come in and rescue the guy, but I felt politically that made a statement. I could have the Panther come in and rescue the guy, but that made another kind of statement, and I wanted to keep this a very human story, about how oppressive regimes make even the search of a son for his mother almost impossible, and the brutality that it creates in its inhumane treatments. I struggled with it, and suddenly came up with the idea of bringing back two little boys, Theodore and Wally Olebogeng, whom I’d had no intention of using again, and that when the Panther goes to interfere with the necklacing, Theordore (think the Beav in a black township) is burned. There is a single chapter devoted just to the Panther trying to get this boy to a white hospital. The doctors truly try to save Theordore. But he dies.

The phone rings one night, around 11, one Gene’s favorite time to call during the ’80s.

“I can’t do it,” Gene tells me.

“Can’t do what?” I have no clue what he is talking about.

His voice is really agitated. “I can’t draw that, and don’t ask me to, Don!”

“Can’t draw what?

“You know. Don’t pretend you don’t know.”

“I have no idea, Gene, what we are talking about.”

“I tried to do it, and I can’t.”

“Can’t do what, Gene.”

Finally he delivers the telling line. “The kid, Don. The kid.”

“What about the kid?” I ask.

“The kid doesn’t die.”

“He doesn’t what?” And my voice has risen.

Gene goes on to explain that it just tore his heart out, he cannot the scene that way, he has drawn it so Theordore lives.

I’m in a panic. I’m pleading with Gene.

“No, Gene, this encapsulates for me what this entire series is about. If he lives we let everyone off the hook. And I don’t want them off the hook. I want the reader to feel what this is!”

Gene continues that it is too tragic, I can’t ask him to do such a thing. I plead my case ten ways from Sunday. This must last a good 20 minutes or more. I am near hysteria by now.

And then Gene laughs.

And says, “Get out of here, Don. I just wanted to see if you’d fall for it. I drew it exactly as you wanted!”

Man, I miss you, Gene!

When Gene drew Detectives Inc. I again optioned for printing his pencils. There is a sequence toward the end where a man and woman are having passionate sex, and the man feels he is conquering the woman. When the sex is completed, she slashes his throat open with a straight-edge razor. Gene took out the couple having this furious sex, but rendered the razor ripped throat in detail.

I asked him about it, that since this wasn’t a code approved book why he kept the violence but toned the sex.

And I can’t use Adrienne’s exact quote, but let me approximate what she said, turning Gene shades of scarlet, something to the effect don’t think he can’t draw it.

I never did.

The real lines were better, they often are, but I love those times with Gene and Adrienne.

There’s just a few of the stories about Gene.

When I saw him in later years, when the glaucoma had made it so his eyesight was virtually a narrow shaft of vision, it was at one of the last comic conventions I did.

He was at table, drawing, his face very close to the paper, because he could only see about an inch it.

I leaned down on the other side of the table, my face inches from his, but he didn’t know I was there, he was so concentrated on the drawing.

I waited.

After 5 minutes, he looked, reacted startled.

“Don!”

Now, here is how incredible an artist Gene is. I asked him how he could draw an essentially
wide-screen illustration when he can only see an inch at a time.

And he showed me. He inched paper over, bent down, filled in that inch. And then he would lift his head, push the paper over another inch, and start that little stretch.

“But how do you know it’s all going to come together?” I asked him.

“I can see it in my head, Don,” he replied.

And when you looked at the finished piece of art, you would no idea that he couldn’t see the whole, but only smidgen of it as he was drawing.

The last time I was with Gene, we sat in a hospital room on the West Side of Manhattan, off Riverside Drive. It was a block from where I had filmed the final scene for the Detectives Inc video in the 80s. Gene was thrilled by that. He loved movies. And I remember Adrienne actually screaming when I showed her a clip years before where my wife, Marsha, playing Dierdre Sevens had her back slashed open with a straight-edged razor.

We were together for almost four hours.

For the last two hours, I sat on the bed with him, his large, strong hands holding mine.

We talked about everything. Life. Death. I asked him how he thought he had changed over the years, and where he hadn’t. He was concerned about my health and Marsha’s, even though his end was near, and he was often in a lot of pain. I would tell him how many people’s lives his art affected, but there was a part of him that could never really take it in, and I understood that, but I also knew what I said was true.

We won’t see his likes again. He was what an artist should be, uniquely individual.

I was a privilege and honor to work with him and to be with him.

Marsha felt bad that she hadn’t been able to take him to a Christian Science meeting before he died. Over the years, they both had talked with each other about it, and Gene had wanted her to go again. She just could not do that at the time, health-wise, but she still Ftells me how she regrets that she didn’t get him there.

I told his children, Nancy and Erik, that if he heard their sincere emotion at his funeral, and the words they spoke to gathering there, those words would have meant more to him than all the accolades written on him in papers and comic websites.

At the Shiva, his son Erik had put together a photo montage that played on a screen of Gene from various times in his life. Oh, would I have had fun with Gene with that. Come back, Gene, just for that. I’d have at a minimum two hours of laughter with you, from photo to photo.

In the last months of his life, both of us, on many occasions, said, in parting, orending a phone call, “I love you, Don.”

“I love you, Gene.”

I’m glad I told him, then, because I’ll never have the chance to do it again.

 


 

Please take a moment to bid on original art pages from some of Don McGregor’s classsic comics. Don McGregor, who numbers among his credits the influential “Panther’s Rage” story, is ill. He and some friends are selling his art in order to help his increasing medical bills. It’s a shame that such influential creators have to resort to this, but every drop counts. eBay and ComicArtFans.

About The Author

<a href="http://comicsbulletin.com/byline/don-mcgregor/" rel="tag">Don McGregor</a>

Don McGregor is a writer for Comics Bulletin