As most of you will have already heard, the comics artist Gene Colan died last Thursday, June 23rd, at the age of 84.
I have to confess, I never liked his work as a child. I was such a Marvelite that I just wanted “the Marvel look”, which meant in essence copying Jack Kirby as closely as possible. Even plodding, bog-standard hands like Don Heck or Sal Buscema gave some third-rate impression of Kirby. My least favourites were Colan and Steve Ditko, who didn’t even seem to be trying to look like the King!
I sulked my way through 1974, when Marvel UK branched out into ’Dracula Lives’ and ’Planet of the Apes’ - an unwanted digression from their superhero core. My juvenile face would scowl at the titles in the newsagents and my young brain hark back to the happier days when ’The Avengers’ and ’Spider-Man Comics Weekly’ could be exchanged for pocket money. Kids can be somewhat conservative...
I finally succumbed to Colan’s talents through the Chiller Pocket Books published between 1980 and ’82. Despite their diminished size and risible reproduction standards they reprinted ’Tomb of Dracula’ - the very strip I’d turned my young nose at only six years earlier! (The same title also got me into Gerber’s ’Man-Thing’, but let that be a story for another day.)
But it was later still before I realised just how much the Marvel look had stifled so many artists’ careers – shoehorning them into emulating Kirby no matter how poorly suited they were for the job. In a bizarre reversal, my two favourite artists from Silver Age Marvel bar Kirby became Ditko and Colan – precisely because they were able to forge their own styles in the face of all this editorial pressure.
Colan was to comment later: “Stan [Lee] would say whatever book he thought was selling, he would have the rest of the staff try to copy the same style of work, but I wouldn’t do it. I’d tell him if you want Stevie Ditko then you’ll have to get Stevie Ditko. I can’t do it, I have to be myself. So he left me alone.”
While Kirby was kinetic and forceful, Colan was a master of mood and shadow. His world was one of tempestuous winds, cloaks and coats billowing around semi-defined figures. With Kirby everything looked so solid, it made it all the more impressive when someone was hurled through a wall and it collapsed into shards of flying bricks. With Colan nothing looked solid, everything was in flux.
For that reason, the supernatural ’Tomb of Dracula’ is commonly cited as his best work for Marvel UK. (A title Colan lobbied to get.) He needed to be on something strange or eerie, ’Doctor Strange’ or ’Daredevil.’ (At the time Marvel’s spoiler product for ’Batman.’) His regular superhero work was normally ill-fitting for him. (Then again if he never made ’Iron Man’ very interesting, neither did anybody else.)
Those cheap Chiller Pocket Books gave me another advantage in appreciating Colan. They were only in black and white for cost reasons, but fortuitously his work always looked best without colour. (In later years, as printing improved he’d even eschew his work being inked.)
He said himself: “It was really a black and white medium when I grew up. Most of the films that were in the theatres were all black and white... Aside from that that’s how I saw everything anyway. I wasn’t into color. It never occurred to me to have anything colored, so I drew it in black and white and if they wanted to add color to it then go ahead.”
With Kirby gone, Gil Kane gone and now Colan, it makes me wonder how many of the great Silver Age comics artists are left. There’s Ditko, who may live forever out of sheer cantankerousness. Joe Kubert should probably be in there was well, but with me being such a Marvelite he never hit me at that impressionable age.
Whichever way, there will never be another Colan...