The great Gene Colan passed away last week. He will be missed terribly by all of us fans who adored Colan’s wonderfully unique approach to his art. When his career at Marvel picked up in the 1960s, he found himself as perhaps the quirkiest cartoonist in a world of quirky cartoonists. As such, he created some of comics’ most memorable works. Join me for a celebration of the career of the great Gene Colan as we explore his Top 10 Greatest Comic Stories.
10. “Wake”, Two-Fisted Tales #20
It’s often forgotten that Gene Colan did exactly one story for EC Comics, and though it apparently was not a pleasant occasion for Colan (Colan reported, in Tom Field’s indespensible Secrets in the Shadows, that editor Harvey Kurtzman didn’t love Colan’s work, as Colan reported “He didn’t really jump up and down over it. He didn’t think I hit the mark.”)
You know, Kurtzman is one of the great editors in the history of comic books, but he was off the mark with his assessment of this story. Though it’s slightly primitive, Colan’s story deserved its place next to stories by great cartoonists such as Jack Davis and Wally Wood.
9. “Full Fathom Fright”, Eerie #3
If Colan had to argue his worth in his one story for EC, he had no such problems by the early 1960s. Warren Magazines published the famous Creepy, Eerie and Blazing Combat, and Colan created about two dozen stories for those magazines. All of the stories were in black and white, and almost all were created with wash art by Colan – art created by diluting India ink. Working with wash was painstaking and often intense, but Colan mastered it.
One of my favorites of his works for Warren was “Full Fathom Fright,” a horror story that used wash to brilliantly amplify the horror of its undersea setting. It’s a gorgeous job by Genial Gene.
8. Stewart the Rat
After the painful demise of Howard the Duck, writer Steve Gerber decided to seek his revenge with Marvel by creating a new graphic novel called Stewart the Rat. It was a kind of logical choice in a way – since Disney was offended by Marvel supposedly appropriating Donald Duck, Gerber decided to exacerbate the antagonism by creating the not-so-legendary Stewart the Rat
As Gerber stated in Secrets in the Shadows, “I was in the middle of my dispute with Marvel about the ownership of the Howard character. The problems with Disney had just started. And for me it was almost like revenge against both companies. Fine, if you’re not going to let me do this duck, I’ll do a mouse and we’ll see how you feel about that! That’s where the rat idea came from. The book had its strong points and its weak points. The strongest point, certainly, was its art. Gene’s interpretation of that character was just gorgeous.”
7. The Phantom Zone
Speaking of amazing collaborations between Gene Colan and Steve Gerber, we come to their breathtaking Phantom Zone miniseries from 1982. The four-issue series was a surprisingly intense and moving Superman story that featured some absolutely gorgeous and abstract Colan pages. There was an intense and spooky surreal realism to the characters that Colan depicted in this story, a realism that made the story absolutely sparkle. It’s hard to imagine an artist other than Colan doing such an outstanding job with this story.
6. Doctor Strange #9
In one of the most mind-bending stories of the 1970s, Mother Earth and Doctor Strange bonds the powers of planet earth – which included you, dear readers – to defeat the Dread Dormammu. The whole thing is surrealistically awesome and exciting, and a perfect showcase for Colan’s amazingly unorthodox page designs. Just look at that page below!
5. Daredevil #47
“Brother Take My Hand” was one of the few “relevant” comics of the late 1960s and 1970s that was actually well done. The story, as you might imagine from its rather groovy title, was about racism, but it was also about a Vietnam War hero trying to deal emotionally with the blindness that came from his throwing himself on a bomb.
The story could easily feel dated and frustrating when rereading it these days, but the able pencil of Gene Colan brought a sincerity and emotional warmth to the story that makes it still feel remarkable today.
4. Nathaniel Dusk II
The two Nathaniel Dusk mini-series presented some of the very first comic book stories ever reprinted only from an artist’s pencils. That idea was an invention born of necessity, as Colan was famously difficult to ink. The repro in the first Dusk mini was a but tough to read, but Dusk II is a gorgeous and revelatory work of art.
Don McGregor, who is soon to be a member of the Comics Bulletin staff, has remarkable things to say about the work that Gene Colan did on the Dusk books –the books are filled with scenes that would challenge even the greatest artists; instead, Colan consistently didn’t just rise to the occasion, but in fact produced some of the finest work of his entire career.
3. Doctor Strange #177
Hail the Master indeed! Under the brilliant inking of Tom Palmer, perhaps Colan’s greatest inker, Gene Colan delivers an astounding tour de force in this wonderful comic full of action, magical adventure, romance and many moments of pure beauty. I adore the new costume that debuted in this issue, and Colan draws it beautifully.
2. Howard the Duck #12
Or: Howard the Duck goes insane. Again Colan and Steve Gerber teamed up in this story, with the breathtakingly unorthodox story of Howard the Duck and his friends sent to an insane asylum. Page after page of this comic is consumed with an surreal inner dialogue that Howard endlessly has with himself, an idea that would have destroyed the work of a lesser artist. But Colan stepped up and grasped the story. It’s incredibly memorable, most especially the incredibly spooky final page that features the rock band KISS emerging out of the head of a weird young girl. That scene honestly haunted me for years.
1. Tomb of Dracula #70
But this talk of haunting scenes brings me to Colan’s greatest series, Tomb of Dracula. Colan teamed with writer Marv Wolfman on this series for nearly six years, years that the team created a thoughtful, fascinating and almost magisterial take on one of history’s most evil characters.
The final issue, #70, is filled with some breathtaking scenes of pure beauty, as Colan pushed and extended himself to create perhaps the most beautiful work of his career. This issue is a virtual textbook on great scene-setting in comics, and perhaps the greatest work in the career of one of comics’ greatest artists.