From The Comics Journal #231 (March 2001). Conducted by Larry Rodman.
In the 1950s, Stan Lee, with regular artists Messrs. Kirby, Ayers and Ditko, put mad doctors, mutations and aliens of all sorts through their paces in such titles as Strange Tales, Journey into Mystery and Tales of Suspense. The monsters – with names like Fin Fang Foom, Zzutak, and Sporr: the Thing That Could Not Die! – ceaselessly imperiled the planet with their charmingly formulaic, derivative plots. You could almost tell what sci-fi double-feature had been playing at the drive-in on the previous weekend.
Gene Colan was also at work in the Atlas/Timely Bullpen (and at DC), busily turning out Westerns, romance, war, or crime stories, as well as an occasional gothic thriller. Years later, once The Marvel Age picked up steam, the creature books had evolved into showcases for Lee’s particular brand of superhero, and Colan immersed himself in the distinctive visualization of that milieu. Instead of the straight-ahead graphic approach which bent truth to the cartoonists’ will, he used the empirical world as his point of departure, placing his most outlandish creations into reasonably plausible settings. Colan’s style is rooted in physical logic, showing how people who happen to do outrageous things might actually appear. He has been able – at one time or another – to lend this dynamic verité to damn near every one of Marvel’s signature characters.
My own affection for Colan’s work derives from the point in the late 1960s when he — by this time a master of narrative realism — became attached to several projects which permitted him to let his freak flag fly, if you will. Like a free-jazz improviser, he let his drawings go wild without ever losing sight of the underlying structure of the compositions.
Marvel, following the lifting of the long Comics Code ban against vampires, zombies, werewolves and the like, began a new cycle of horror-based titles in the early 1970s, reprinting the Atlas creature-features, and launching several classic monster series based on public domain demons. We, as a society – in theory – get the politicians and monsters we deserve. But, as popular culture wallowed in the transgressions of post-1960s horror – with its Exorcists and Living Dead in flux between quotidian and alien states – campy, cuddly guys like Frankenstein, Dracula, the Werewolf and the Mummy were an incongruous lot to bother with reviving. Yet, there they were: old wine in new bottles.
Most of these phantoms were to overstay their welcome pretty quickly. Still, Colan responded to the new horror cycle as an opportunity to mess with our minds; a situation that he could irresponsibly exploit to the fullest. In Tomb of Dracula, the faux-blaxploitation oddity Brother Voodoo (a guilty pleasure of mine), and Doctor Strange, his fluid, expressive figurative technique manages to cut through to the subconscious. The credibility and solidity of his work makes it possible to accept actual stakes and consequences for his protagonists as they travel from our mortal pale to other dimensions at will.
I happened to reread a Berkley Medallion paperback of Fritz Leiber’s witchy Conjure Wife earlier this year. The story alone was compelling, but the illustrations Colan had done for a version of it decades ago (one of a few short-lived Marvel fiction digests) kept flashing in my mind. He drew one hell of an ambulatory gargoyle for the Leiber tale.
It seemed until recently that very little attention had been devoted to Colan ‘s career – at least in comparison to some of his contemporaries. The release of his self-published collection, The Gene Colan Annual: Painting with Pencil provides a focal point for a well-deserved appraisal. Its interviews and graphics are definitive. Its scattered ephemera brings to mind an earlier, scruffy generation of fanzines – something like the EC zine Squa Tront, crammed in equal measure with gems and ragtag odds ’n’ ends – rather than a sleek coffee-table career retrospective. Painting with Pencil emanates a homespun sense of approachability; a reminder of a time when comics loyalists could feel a persona connection to the products of the mainstream.
The impression I’ve always carried of Gene Colan was of a genteel New Englander. This was mostly because of his authorial-looking cartoonist self-portraits, complete with his pipe and glasses. In actual contact, his voice retains a little bit of his original Bronx accent and bearing. While he’s certainly as cultured as the next guy who’s made drawing pictures his life’s work, he also comes across as a bit rough and ready, urban and pragmatic. Some of his answers to my initial questions were terse, almost clipped, but he soon became a cordial and voluble subject, often meeting me more than halfway.
Comics history is the story of people working in groups. Having shuttled through so many different bullpens over the years, Colan is a key figure in charting comics history. He and his contemporaries progressed through a remarkable series of social events which transformed popular culture; the early shop system and boom times of the 1940s, the crash of the Comics Code era, Merry Marvel Marching mania, and beyond. Whether as an interested bystander or as a direct participant, Gene Colan’s life has been touched by some of the major movements in American art and comics. — Larry Rodman
LARRY RODMAN: You’ve been so active over the years that we’re going to have to jump around quite a bit. It occurred to me to ask you — for starters — why your book is titled The Gene Colan Annual was it to lend it that Silver Age newsstand comics feel?
GENE COLAN: Painting with Pencil, you mean?
RODMAN: The Painting with Pencil subtitle makes complete sense because that refers to a method of illustration you’ve been using for quite some time. But was it called the “Annual” because it’s a single volume of a forthcoming set? Or was it sort of a reference to the old 60-page Giant editions, like an Avengers Annual, for example?
COLAN: The plan was to do one annually.
RODMAN: Your book is a nice solid retrospective, so that title fits. I’d be falling down in my duties if I didn’t ask you about it. I’ve noticed that, on your website, your most recent work seems especially fluid. It looks like you have every facility you’ve ever had at your command.
COLAN: It ‘s just like walking,
RODMAN: You’ve been at it, now, for how long?
COLAN: Fifty years.
RODMAN: What projects have you been up to lately? I understand you’re quite busy.
COLAN: I’m keeping out of trouble.
RODMAN: You mentioned some work you were doing on The Spider, the character from the pulps. Is that what you’re dealing with now?
COLAN: That’s the current one.
RODMAN: And you’ve recently done a large project for Fleer, the card company.
COLAN: Well, I wasn’t the only one. It was about a year ago, I guess.
RODMAN: But it was extensive, about a thousand images, in all.
COLAN: I had to sit down and draw as quickly as I could on each card, you know, one of those superheroes. Anything that I’ve ever done, I’d just pick something out of the past, and do it; Howard the Duck, Dracula, anything I wanted. But you know, you had to do them rather quickly and then sign your name to it. It couldn’t be much.
RODMAN: So, then they’d reproduce the cards from those drawings? Or did they go out as originals?
COLAN: They went out as originals. Then, whoever bought them traded them. It ‘s been quite a thing.
RODMAN: So, it was a collectible. For connoisseurs and collectors.
RODMAN: Let ‘s look back on your early life and your home environment in the 1920s. I understand you were generally encouraged in artwork by your extended family.
COLAN: Yes. It was wonderful. My parents were very encouraging. It was a nice experience growing up. I started out my life in the Bronx. I eventually wound up at about age 4, on Long Beach, Long Island.
RODMAN: You’ve been a Northeasterner all your life?
COLAN: Yes. All the time.
RODMAN: Some of your earliest interests in comic strips were the adventure serials, by Milton Caniff and Coulton Waugh, the Dickie Dare artist …
COLAN: I was very young then. I was a kid at the time. Dickie Dare came out in The New York Sun. I was influenced by the style, or the story. Mostly the story. I took it very seriously.
RODMAN: Sure. It would have been one of your only outlets for entertainment, like the adventure serials, but on paper. Did you go to the serials on Saturday afternoons?
COLAN: To the movies? Yes, all the time. For the Lone Ranger and other stuff. At that time it was popular. I looked forward to that. Mostly the Lone Ranger, I remember. I’d go every Saturday afternoon and sit in the children’s section and enjoy myself.
RODMAN: So the adventure comics came out daily, then you’d be at the movies on the weekend.
RODMAN: They all tied together, movies and the adventure comics. Adventure strips are barely hanging on these days.
COLAN: I think it went out with Terry and the Pirates. Well, Terry and the Pirates is being redone. I still think it’s in the newspaper. Caniff didn’t own it. He wanted to, but they wouldn’t sell it to him, so he came out with a grown-up Terry called Steve Canyon.
RODMAN: You were interested in comics and drawing at an early age, so, typically, you were one of the kids who’d always prefer to be inside drawing than playing sports, or stuff like that.
COLAN: [I was] a loner.
RODMAN: You weren’t very social as a kid, huh?
COLAN: Oh, I was out there with the guys playing stickball and handball, but I would prefer to just do my thing. My mother would send me out. She’d say, “You’re not staying in the house. Get out! Don’t hang around here.” She meant it for my own good. She meant, “Don’t be such a loner. Mix it up a little bit with the fellows.”
RODMAN: Did you live in a rough neighborhood, or more of a peaceable community?
COLAN: Well, you know how youngsters are. They wrestle in the street. They wreck their clothes, go sled-riding in winter. There was a lot of competition amongst us. Snowball fights. In those years there was plenty of snow. I enjoyed that. I mixed it up with it. I once went over on The George Washington Bridge [from the Bronx] with my bicycle. I went down 88th Street. All the way up the West Side. They didn’t have the West Side Drive then. Riverside Drive they called it. I’d get as close to the Washington Bridge as I could … I’m not sure whether I rode it or I had to walk it, but I’ll tell you, on the way back I got a flat tire and I had to walk all the way home. [Laughs.]
RODMAN: You had a continuing comic-strip character early on: Jim Turner, American Spy. You were about 11 then.
COLAN: It was a comic strip that I did on my own, at home, just to entertain myself. I would buy a pad for a quarter or so from a candy store and I’d come up with it. No lines on it, a very small pad. I drew out the panels freehand and did my story. I would put him on adventures that I would have loved to have been on. And that’s how I entertained myself.
RODMAN: The reason that struck me is that it seems to me that if you’re just starting out, but you have a comic strip with a continuing character, it forces you to expand on your skills, and maybe challenges you to draw in a more ambitious way.
COLAN: When you get used to the character, you think of better ways. It was just a trip I would take with this character, put him into the service, put him over in Europe. I never used reference or anything. Only from films that I’d seen. That was the only frame of reference I ever used when I did this. I just did little thumbnail sketches. I put in all the shading, and all. I pretended I was watching a movie.
RODMAN: I know you’ve always been influenced by cinema.
COLAN: Well, mostly in the years [it was] in black and white. You know, film noir. Today everything is produced in color. In those days we had double features. The second feature was black and white, and so was the first feature, most of the time. That’s how I got my training in shadow work and light and dark. Just by observation on the screen. [That was] my education. [As for influences,] Milton Caniff was the main one. I always loved his work; it was loaded with shadow work. But you get your own ideas as you go along. Somehow or other, [my own drawing] glided into something else, unconsciously. Like handwriting. You don’t know why you write your name in a particular way. But that ‘s the way you write it. You don’t know what brought that about. When you’re young, I’m sure you must have been influenced by some unique-looking signature that somebody had. My grandfather wrote in a very unusual way. And then my father wrote like chicken scratches. You couldn’t read his writing too easily. My mother had a very distinctive handwriting. My grandmother had what they call The Palmer System. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that.
RODMAN: Is it one of the early handwriting, or penmanship?
COLAN: Yes, a very, very understandable, beautiful penmanship. Eventually, I got to the point where I just didn’t care. I just wrote. I didn’t think about it.
RODMAN: Well, obviously you come from a home where there was some regard for craft, or beauty.
COLAN: I was all over the place with what I thought was good-looking, or what caught my eye. I would copy a lot of illustrations. Norman Rockwell was certainly my idol as far as one of the best American illustrators we’ve ever had. I wouldn’t even say illustrator so much as a painter. It was just very unique. I like Wyeth’s stuff a lot, but it’s on the eerie side.
RODMAN: In that it would convey a sense of isolation?
COLAN: Isolation. Like rooms that look into rooms, and the furniture there. Just weird stuff. But, it’s realistic and very carefully done. I love his work. N.C. Wyeth did those [illustrated] Robert Lewis Stevenson books. He always wanted to consider himself a painter, not an illustrator. And it got to him later on in his life. He became quite depressed over it. Because from where he stood he was [considered] just an illustrator. Actually he wasn’t; he was a fine painter. Oh, he had his hand into the family. He was very family-minded. This is what I know about him. When he had the control of the family, when his children were young, you know, he loved it. He loved that role. And as they grew older and got married and he had grandchildren, he was very concerned for the welfare of his grandchildren. He was in kind of a funky mood at the time and he became depressed. I guess he felt unfulfilled for one reason or another. And he’d always warn his son about his grandchild, “Be careful when you take him out in the car. Be careful of this, be careful of that.” One day he was traveling with his little grandson in the car, and the car stalled on the railroad track. The train was coming and N.C. Wyeth got out to try to flag down the engineer of the train. But it was too late. The train hit him, and it hit the car and it killed them both. It was a very sad ending to his career and life. That’ s what happened to him.
RODMAN: Did you pickup an appreciation for this stuff through school?
COLAN: Nope. I grew up with this stuff as a child. Every new [Saturday Evening] Post cover that he [Rockwell] came up with, I’d try to copy. I just loved Rockwell’s approach. It was so humanistic, and yet he was certainly a great storyteller. It was the way he rendered it, what he got out of it. It wasn’t all that slick. It had a lot of character. The painting didn’t appear to me to be the smooth, creamy, almost airbrushed type of work.
RODMAN: You initially went into the Art Students League, in Manhattan, to help you break into professional comics. Was it at that point America joined WWII?
COLAN: The war was hot and heavy at that time. We were at war with Germany, and we eventually got in with Japan. Somewhere along that line, I got my first professional summer job in comics with a place called Fiction House. Around 1942. Right after that I enlisted.
RODMAN: You enlisted in the Air Force …?
COLAN: I really enlisted in the Marine Corps. Underaged. My father came down and got me out. [Laughter.] When I told him what I did he said, “You’re crazy and I’m going down there and I’m going to get you out.” I lied about my age.
RODMAN: Well, it was the thing to do. You had to go off and do your bit.
COLAN: I saw so many movies where, when you’re shot, you just fall down. It looked more like summer camp than hell.
RODMAN: That’s so tragic, it’s funny; and you were young enough to believe that, huh?
COLAN: Because of the hype and the propaganda that was put out by film.
RODMAN: You ended up in the Air Force, stationed in Manila. But you never flew because you were always assigned to something art-related.
COLAN: I never flew – though gunnery school was still open – because we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. I was still finishing my basic training in Biloxi, Miss. We heard that the bomb had been dropped and all the schools were closing. I was going to be an aerial gunner. A bomber. But it never materialized.
RODMAN: I thought that being a veteran on the G.I. Bill was what allowed you to go to the The Art Students’ League. But, you’d already started going before the war.
COLAN: I went on my own, and then when I did my [tour] overseas, I came back. Then I went more full-time.
RODMAN: OK, so you did two stints. Before and after your service.
COLAN: Yes. I always wanted to get into DC [National Comics]. It’s the first place I wanted to get a job from, when I was younger. I always assumed they were like the MGM of comics publishing.
RODMAN: Right. You tell a story involving your first visit to the DC offices; you were intimidated because there was a Kirby drawing laying out.
COLAN: Yes. They brought me in to the art room, which they called the bullpen. I don’t remember seeing Jack there. If I did, I didn’t recognize him. I met him years later, over at Marvel. I couldn’t get in there [DC]. I needed to learn too much. But, they recognized that I had some ability and they encouraged it. They told me to go to The Art Students’ League. They did recommend that.
RODMAN: In school, you were exposed to a life-drawing model for the first time. And it wasn’t something you were actually ready to deal with.
COLAN: I was given directions on how to get to my class. And I walked right in and saw this model right there. And she moved. Man, did I [laughter] make a dash out of there. I didn’t know where I [was] … some private part of the school that I shouldn’t have been in. I ran like hell. [Laughter.]
RODMAN: So, you ended up learning figure drawing from plaster statues.
COLAN: I graduated to the live class.
RODMAN: OK, so you ultimately got there. Your work has always shown so much understanding of how people are put together, from any angle or vantage point. I’ve always figured that you must be versed in drawing from life.
COLAN: Well, drawing from life, observation. The body language of people, how they express themselves when they’re talking. When they receive bad news or good news. You know, and then watching movies a lot. I was a tremendous moviegoer. That helped a lot.
RODMAN: It was interesting to find out that you’d gone to the League. Was there still a sense of all the traditions in American painting flowing through that school at that time? For example, was there still a sense of the legacy of the Social Realists, or the Ashcan School?
RODMAN: So, there was still a real feeling of those particular movements and the school’s past?
COLAN: Oh, yes.
RODMAN: Because the scene the school is identified with was more or less a phenomenon of the 1920s, right? You were there in the 1940s, two decades later.
COLAN: There was [an artist] from that school, he did the famous painting of the Jack Dempsey fight. Somebody was knocked from the ring. I’m not sure who it was.
RODMAN: Would that have been a George Luks painting?
COLAN: George Bellows.
RODMAN: George Bellows! That’s right [Colan refers to Stag at Sharkey's, 1909].
COLAN: And he was famous for that. Then there’s that – I’m trying to think of the artist’s name – he did that cafeteria scene. You know that lonely restaurant on the street corner.
COLAN: That’s right.
RODMAN: I’ve got a coffee mug of that. It’s shameful not being able to remember him. Edward Hopper! [Laughter.] It was Edward Hopper. I’m sorry about that little interlude! His work – did he have something to do with the school?
COLAN: I don’t know if he went to the League. His work was up there. You know, we were fascinated by it. I favored Wyeth more myself, personally.
RODMAN: OK, but it was all part of the trends in art and painting that you were exposed to. When you went on the G.I. Bill, you were there for about a year or longer?
COLAN: I can’t remember exactly. Maybe a couple of years. Not very much. I went there before [the war], for about a year.