Comics legend Gene Colan passed away on Thursday at the age of 84.
For all of us who grew up reading comics in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, Colan was one of those figures who always seemed to be around comics, always seemed to be on a printed page somewhere. His work was ubiquitous and exciting and endlessly fascinating.
Colan had a completely unique art style, famously impossible to ink by mortal men – though the equally great Tom Palmer did a nice job on many of Colan’s greatest comics, and I always had a fondness for the inking of Steve Leialoha over Colan. Tom Field’s wonderful biography of Colan called Gene’s style “painting with pencil”, and I’ve always loved that evocative phrasing that seemed to perfectly capture Colan’s very personal style.
More than any of his contemporaries at Marvel in the ’60s, Colan stood alone. Colan’s art could never fit a house style; it was too unique, too personal, too thoroughly his own approach to the world boiled down to comics form to conform. Colan’s art was much more about the mood and feel of a scene than many of his contemporaries. When Gene Colan drew a story, the story somehow became about more than the events that happened on the surface in the story. Colan seemed to have a way of seeing deeper down, below the surface, in a way that somehow conveyed the inner thoughts of his characters in ways that his contemporaries could not. It was an amazing achievement – especially since Colan is famous for drawing characters like Dracula and Howard the Duck, whose lack of humanity was precisely the point of the characters.
Amazingly, though, Colan was able to capture the feeling of these inhuman characters with just a few pencil strokes. We felt we knew and appreciated the world of Howard the Duck, could reach the character’s face and moods and emotions while he was undergoing a nervous breakdown after losing the 1976 Presidential election. We could feel the torment of Dracula in every moment of his comic series, perhaps no more intensely than when he tried to save a group of Transylvanian children from marauding vampires.
Of course, the list of great Colan comics goes on and on. His wonderfully evocative work on Daredevil brought the swashbuckling hero to vivid life, while his work on Captain America, especially in the issues that introduced the Falcon, are virtual tutorials on great hero art – that is, if you had the immense talent and personal vision of Gene Colan, of course. Some of my favorite Colan work was done on the massively underrated series Night Force from the 1980s and due to be reprinted by DC Comics in just a couple of months. That series depicted ordinary people thrown into strange horrible settings, and Colan did a brilliant job in that book of capturing both the humanity and horror of his heroes and the events they experienced.
Colan even drew a handful of stories for EC Comics, which means that yet another of the artists for that great line of comics has now passed away. The list of people with first-hand memories of EC Comics just seems to be getting shorter and shorter.
In recent years I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to interact with Gene and his wife Adrienne online. The two of them always were unbelievably gracious and kind to all their fans, and seemed to attract a wonderful little crowd of fan around them.
I regret never having the chance to meet Gene over the years. I absolutely loved the man’s work, from the first page I ever saw by him, probably in some random issue of Captain America, all the way up to the wonderful art portfolio page by him that hangs on my wall. He was a tremendously unique man with a tremendously unique talent, and I will miss him terribly.
On Tuesday I’ll be running a list of the Top 10 Comics Illustrated by Gene Colan. I hope you’ll come back to Comics Bulletin to read that.