Gene Colan might have been the finest stylist of the Silver and Bronze Ages. His work on Captain America and Daredevil is arguably the definitive work on those characters, and his work on Dracula and Howard the Duck is as brilliant as comics get. Tom Field’s new biography of Gene Colan celebrates those triumphs and many more, presenting literally dozens of samples of “Gene the Dean’s” artwork over 157 sumptuous pages.
Field assembles an incredible collection of Colan art, ranging from sketches Colan drew while on vacation in Montreal as a child in 1950s – sketches still recognizable as Colan’s handiwork – through samples of his EC war comics work, Colan’s gorgeous black-and-white work on the Warren magazines of the 1960s, his glorious work on Marvel characters in the ’60s and ’70s, through to sketches he’s drawn in his retirement. We even get baby pictures of Gene and of his two daughters, hear lots of behind-the-scenes stories, and get a great feel for why Stan always liked to refer to Colan as “Gentleman Gene.”
Colan’s art has always been about the humanity of his characters. Even the most evil – and Colan drew both Dracula and Satan! – have deep and abiding souls, pasts and presents that combine together to create unique and interesting beings in their own rights. Colan was great on, for instance, Batman, because he understood that Batman is the product of all his life experiences made manifest in his obsessions. Perhaps Howard the Duck, Colan’s favorite character of all those that he illustrated, shows this truth in Colan’s art. In lesser hands, the character of a talking duck that comments on society’s foibles would be a walking, talking two-dimensional joke. In Colan’s hands, though, the duck seems real, and his problems seem somehow to be our own. We feel great empathy for Howard, in part because of the masterful way that Colan illustrated him.
This book parallel’s Colan’s work by providing a thorough, warts-and-all biography. There are many sections celebrating Colan’s long career, including appreciative interviews with former Colan collaborators Stan Lee, Tom Palmer and Steve Gerber. Readers also get information and comments that are less than flattering. There is an extended section quoting John Byrne’s very insulting comments about Colan in the 1980s. This was before Byrne became well-known as a crank, and at the time his comments were very painful for Gene Colan and his wife. It’s admirable that they agreed to allow Byrne’s comments to appear in this book. This isn’t a book in which the creator has done no wrong nor taken any criticism. Instead, true to Colan’s work, readers get a full portrait of the artist.
Secrets in the Shadows is the perfect title for a biography of Colan because it encapsulates the man’s art. Gene Colan’s art looks dark and mysterious at first glance, but the more time one spends with the art, the more one comes to see the mysterious dark as holding great truths and possibilities. It seems forbidding, but in the end, it’s generous.
Gene Colan is a very special artist, and it’s great to see him celebrated in such a substantial and wonderful book.