From the TCJ Archives

The Gene Colan Interview

RODMAN: The bottom line is that The Art Students' League was a pivotal place for American art. Your first professional comics assignment was with Fiction House. You were there with Murphy Anderson, among other people.

COLAN: We were both sort of fledglings at the time. We worked there together.

RODMAN: He specialized in science-fiction work. You were doing adventure titles, romance comics …

COLAN: I did everything.

RODMAN: I found a book on early science fiction comics with some of Murphy Anderson's Fiction House work.

He was a regular in Planet Comics. That studio put out sci-fi and aviation comics. You worked in Wings and Rangers Comics.

COLAN: I didn't do all that much science fiction. I don't think I was all that good at it. Scary things I was good at, you know. Stuff you see on Halloween. Science-fiction and outer space stories, that wasn't my cup of tea.

RODMAN: The market was so much more diverse then. Any time something became popular for one publisher, all the other publishers would try to jump on it, right?

COLAN: Oh, and how!

P83: The Gene Colan Annual: Painting with Pencil ©2000 As You Like It Publications

RODMAN: So, in the mid-1940s and early 1950s, the industry was booming. And once you were a civilian again, you spent a great deal of time doing war stories, among other things; crime comics, Westerns, supernatural horror. Were the war titles done with a more realistic attitude or visual frame of reference due to your experience in basic training and having seen things from the inside, or were they more or less still extensions of the fantasies in the movies?

COLAN: [At first,] never having been in the service, I tried to make them as realistic as I could. My interpretation of realism was what I would see on the screen. [Later] when I got out . . . you know, you bring along some of the things you observe with you. You have a sort of composite of what the service and the war is really like.

RODMAN: As far as graphic contribution to the stories you worked on, then, you would combine your personal experiences and film.

COLAN: I was also influenced by some of the bigger and more important artists of the day. Like John Severin, who taught me authenticity. Because he was very seasoned as a war artist, doing the comics for EC. I tried to get in with EC, [but] I didn't have much success with it. I did something, just one thing.

RODMAN: That was Kurtzman's 1952 story "Wake!," in Two-Fisted Tales! With such an abbreviated time at EC, did you have any actual experience in the offices, or were you just in and out?

COLAN: Oh, no. I knew Harvey Kurtzman. And he was just … I couldn't get, really, to first base with him. [Laughter] Through a lot of annoying calls and prodding, I managed to break him down. He said, “All right, let's give this kid something.”

RODMAN: Kurtzman was famous for being a total pain in the butt about his war comics. Working for him had to have been more rigorous than your general experience with war writing.

COLAN: Yes, very, very difficult. Things had to be just so. He had his favorites in the way of artists, like John Severin, Jack Davis. They were some of his favorites. Wally Wood. But I just did this one thing. I remember I destroyed myself. [Laughter.] And then I had him over for dinner. He was invited for dinner, and came over. I think this was with his wife, I don't remember anymore. He didn't give me a very good report.

RODMAN: Oh, well. At least he gave it to you in person. Which — I don't know. If that's more or less painful.

COLAN: Oh, I don't know. No matter how you hear it, it's not what you want to hear.

RODMAN: You obviously did plenty of stuff for everybody else. You were working all over the place. There are scads of publishers and a huge amount of work is listed in the 10 years between the mid-1940s and 1950s; Timely/Atlas, and DC National, Lev Gleason, Ace, Ziff-Davis, etc.

COLAN: But not them [EC]. Harvey was a real toughie. Couldn't get past him.

RODMAN: So Kurtzman wasn't the only guy you knew from EC. You knew Severin and who else?

COLAN: I knew Severin, and his sister.

RODMAN: Marie. So, were you guys close at all, socially? Did you live close by?

COLAN: Not really. John had been over to my house. I was living in New Rochelle at the time. That was in the very early 1950s. He came over and gave me a lot of pointers. He put me on to a book that was filled with photographs of government weapons from this country and all the foreign countries. It' s a very handy thing to have. He recommended that I get the book and I did. It helped in portraying war stories because everything in the book was authentic.


COLAN: When I got out of the service, then, I got to work for Marvel [Timely]. I worked for them on staff at the Empire State Building. I'd been working two or three years at Timely. I got out of Timely at 1948 or '49. We were in that time period. While I was working at Timely, I had heard there was a lot of freelance work. I could take home as much work as I wanted from Timely and be paid for that on a freelance basis. But what I heard was there was plenty of work outside. I wanted to experience some of that. I did war stories for St. John Publications. I did work for Quality Comics. That was a small company that Reed Crandall was connected with. I was working on a private eye series for them. I think it was called Steve Shannon, Investigator or Private Eye. But I was still struggling for identification. Struggling for a style. I was influenced by many people, particularly Reed Crandall – and Syd Shores, another wonderful artist. I just couldn't … you know, it was a struggle. You come upon a style. I mean, you don't sit down and say, “This is how I'm going to do it.” You keep experimenting. I've introduced the styles of other artists into my work, those that I've admired. It's a learning process. As you go along, get a little bit older, more seasoned, do different things. It happens that eventually you get a style of your own.

The Gene Colan Annual: Painting with Pencil  ©2000 As You Like It Publications
Colan Annual: Painting with Pencil ©2000 As You Like It Publications

COLAN: Reed Crandall certainly was a favorite of mine! I never met him. Never once. But I used to see his stuff laying over on the desk at Quality Comics. He was doing the Blackhawk series at the time. It was all in pencil. I learned a lot [from that]. I was struggling in those years to get something looking special, you know? When I'd see his stuff … several pages that had not been inked. I'd just pore over them and see what beautiful figure work he did. I learned more from observation than anything else. There wasn't any other system that I really learned anything from, other than observation.

RODMAN: Back when you were looking at a Reed Crandall original, and feeling like there was so much to learn … well, I get the sense that you're a perfectionist. Are you satisfied at this point in your overall development?

COLAN: Yes. I went along in a rather interesting way. It 's not Reed Crandall, but it's my own. I picked up a lot of things from him. And even Jack Kirby. I picked up a lot of impact stuff. For action.

RODMAN: You had the academic experience with figure drawing to begin with, though. I've always considered Kirby's work the extreme abstraction of anatomy.

COLAN: Me too.

RODMAN: It really shows when someone knows what the world around them looks like.

COLAN: I know.

RODMAN: You tried out at Marvel [Timely], but that was after you found out what it would take to get into DC.

COLAN: Yes, it was hard to get into DC. But I eventually got there. And during the 1950s, I was actually working for them.

RODMAN: Right. That was part of the juggling of projects and publishers you were doing.

COLAN: I was working for mostly DC then. I had Hopalong Cassidy. I got into war stories for them.

RODMAN: What were some of your early impressions of Marvel? Stan Lee hired you, apparently, right off the street one day. You worked under Syd Shores at Marvel … or was it still Timely?

COLAN: It was Timely. If it weren't for Stan's willingness to give me a try, I guess I never would have gotten off the ground. I guess I was ready for it. I was so convinced that all I had to do was work up some decent samples, and then I would be accepted. You know, sometimes you know you're going to do something before you've done it. It was that kind of thing. I just knew that I had the samples and it was just a matter of somebody recognizing he ability. But I was raw. I was raw material to work with. But it was there, and he knew that it was a matter of time. Hopefully, it wouldn't take that long. Syd Shores was wonderful to everyone. He was working along with us, he had a desk in the back of the room. A lot of the things Syd did were Westerns. He was an art director, in charge of the bullpen, and he was the most seasoned artist there. We were all kids, most of us. And he was in charge of making sure the finished product came up to snuff. He helped me get through the rough stuff. If we had a problem, we would take it to him. If I had a problem technically in drawing something, it would go to him and within a few seconds he'd have the whole thing doped out and show us exactly where we went wrong. I really had no idea what was involved with comics. You sit at home and think you know what to do, then you find out it's much more difficult than that. I mean, most of the training I got up at Marvel was very valuable, but once I got off on my own, that's when I really got to learn. All kinds of stories were thrown at me then; you couldn't handpick anything.

RODMAN: During that period at Timely, you would have been penciling and inking your own work. Are we into the 1950s, yet?

COLAN: This was in the late 1940s.

RODMAN: When you were going from publisher to publisher, you mean.

COLAN: Well, when I was freelancing. Once I broke out into the freelance field, it was all different. Well, you know, you had to make time, you had to make a living, you had a family to support. It was difficult. I didn't have Syd Shores to show me any more. I had to – somehow or other – come up with something on my own. I needed to put in the time. I really needed to do it. And that was quite a while. It was all through the 1950s. From 1950, on. Until there was a serious lull in the comic book industry.

RODMAN: In the career checklist in The Gene Colan Annual, it shows that you were extremely prolific from 1942 to ’58. It’s amazing to look at this work and wonder what those years were like for you. So, you'd show up at comics publishers’ various offices, get your assignments and then go off until you delivered the finished project?

COLAN: Yeah.

RODMAN: And take it home to New Rochelle, where you were living at the time? [Colan concurs.] This is interesting, the industry is very different now. Although I 'm sure from your point of view it wasn't at all glamorous, there're people (like me) who might romanticize what you went through. These jobs seem to represent great opportunities. There probably were armies of artists going from place to place, hustling for work. And every single artist probably wanted a syndicated strip instead.

The Gene Colan Annual: Painting with Pencil ©2000 As You Like It Publications

COLAN: That occurred to me later to try my hand at a syndicated strip. Because that's where I felt the real money was.

RODMAN: On the subject of better money, did you ever consider – or pursue – commercial illustration?

COLAN: No, not really.

RODMAN: You're quite a fan of the American illustrators. In fact, there're some extremely accomplished general interest illustrations on your website; war and Western scenes, or portraits, such as the one of Bobby Kennedy, or Bill Mauldin for example. Yet, I guess you're saying that it was always comics that captured your imagination?

COLAN: Yes. But in the middle or late 1950s, the bottom of the industry fell out. And there was a distribution problem, there was a content problem. They were trying to edit what the comic-book industry was putting out. At that point, I was floundering. I couldn't get work as a comic-book artist. I was barely hanging in.

RODMAN: You mean because of the Code?

COLAN: The Comic-Book Code. There were all kinds of problems. [There was some] very bad publicity in Washington, on the comic books. They felt that they were horrible – and they still feel that way – that they're a horrible influence.

RODMAN: Is that when you started with the educational film-strip company?

COLAN: Yeah, I hated it. Then I met my wife, Adrienne . She got me out of there.

RODMAN: Well, thank God for artists' supportive spouses!

COLAN: I was just trying to earn a living. She said, “My God, you could do better than this with your eyes closed.” I was hanging on to her courage. I didn't have the courage to quit. It was a big struggle.

RODMAN: They'd already put the Comics Code in place by then, and within a few years the industry was able to reassemble itself, to some extent. Is that the point where you were able to go back?

COLAN: No. Not yet, not for quite a while. About 1966. The industry started to come back very slowly in 1958 or 1959. And in the early 1960s I began to freelance for Stan again.

RODMAN: As far as I've seen, you drew virtually every character in the Marvel universe. I haven't seen your version of the Fantastic Four, but pretty much everything else.

COLAN: I did them maybe a few times, but not much. [They guested in Daredevil - L.R.]

RODMAN: Clearly you got the chance to do one character after another. A slew of Iron Man stories in Tales of Suspense. I bring up Daredevil because you've got a signature on that character. It became yours. But you were all over the place.

COLAN: They threw at me what ever they wanted to. I never said, “I don't want to do that; I'd rather do this.” The only thing I wanted to do was to get on a steady character that would come out once a month. It didn't matter to me whether it was a Western or whatever it was. As long as it was something where I would get to know the character and live with it for a while. This is something that I thought would be more fun to do.

Daredevil #88 (June 1972) written by Gary Conway, penciled by Gene Colan, inking by Tom Palmer, lettering by Jon Costa © 1972 Marvel Comics

RODMAN: And you could build up more of a feeling for the thing, to lend more of your own style to it by being on a consistent assignment.

COLAN: Yeah. A lot of artists didn't like that. Because they got bored with these characters. Some of the newcomers that came along, even to this day, they'll stick with it for a very short time with the publishing companies and they drop out. They get bored with it.

RODMAN: It seems that you'd agree that the steady artist, doing every character in the pantheon, is the equivalent of a character actor, or a contract player for the movies. Well, that leads to a kind of an obvious question. You were a Marvel regular. You know, you were among the most …

COLAN: I worked with all of them…

RODMAN: … most dependable Bullpen personalities. But you're so uncharacteristic of the Marvel Way in your drawing, if you think of the standard of Kirby, Buscema, and the latter-day clones who appear to have been instructed to draw as much as possible like them. You and Steve Ditko come to my mind as the artists that were the least assimilated into the system. Was there ever a sense that – contrary to your own compositional explorations – you were expected to draw in something more like the house style, or was it more open-ended than that?

COLAN: [A house style] prevailed over at DC. They wanted their artists to be more alike. Because everything was inked alike. You couldn't recognize, easily, one artist from another. They wanted a certain look in their books.

RODMAN: But, all the same, your work stood out so much at Marvel, too. So it was a little more loose and open, then.

COLAN: Much more. Stan allowed the artists to be themselves.

RODMAN: Although, I do get the sense that, in the 1960s, your work was inked in such a way that it would be somewhat more homogenous with the slickness of the Marvel look. Frank Giacoia handled the earlier Daredevils, making the art look really solid. But then, your Timely-era mentor Syd Shores became a regular inker on your features. I've noticed he did a number of Daredevils. He gave your pencils a really nice, textural and complimentary line quality.

COLAN: I don't think that was a good time for Syd. He was a great penciler. I don't think he was able to get the penciling at the time. It was a very bad time for him, and I never understood what happened. He was better than most pencilers. I even spoke to Stan about it once. And, you know, Stan had just moved on. I don't know what happened, but it was a sad time for Syd.

RODMAN: Kind of the luck of the draw?

COLAN: Oh, Stan, I think, had a notion about him [Syd Shores] that he was a little dated. But that's just my feeling. I never thought his work was dated.

RODMAN: What I wanted to point out was that you two were an interesting combination. He's got a sort of textural sensibility in the inking. What I was wondering is what it felt like to have your mentor go over your own work?

COLAN: It must have been tough for him.

RODMAN: But, for your sake?

COLAN: He interpreted my work very well. He passed away of a heart attack not long after that. Later on in the 1970s.

RODMAN: You might not ever find out how it went for some of the old-timers. Unless they're among the bigger names. I'm looking at a ’60s Daredevil page, now. You can see how all the anatomical relationships work together. The poses are all jumbled together into a tiny panel, but everything balances. I wondered how you picked up such a mastery of the figure.

COLAN: I have an extensive reference file.

RODMAN: Yeah, but you can't have had a photo of that. When you work out a panel, I would imagine it's a composite of different bits of reference and your personal contribution.

COLAN: Usually. I use whatever I could get. Especially with the Polaroid camera, you photograph friends. Anybody willing to pose.

RODMAN: To bring in a quote from Marv Wolfman, “Someone who duplicated photographs would merely be a technical illustrator. Gene was an artist who gave each character heart and soul and guts. You looked at Gene's work and you believed.” So, in terms of photo models, anyone's fair game for your file. Do people know to expect you to come up to them and start snapping? [Laughter.]

Daredevil #27 (April 1967) written by Stan Lee, penciled by Gene Colan, inking by Frank Griacoia, lettering by Art Simek ©1967 Marvel Comics

COLAN: Not really. I have a file of sequences of the same person with different angles. I try to vary the angles as much as possible. When I grew up in comics there was too much of the up and down look. Just talking heads, people facing each other, with not too much variation of scenes. It was too monotonous unless there were some action things going on. And even that was stiff. But I didn't know it at the time. It 's just that through the years as I did these things, I perceived different ways of doing it. Of showing the action in a different way. A lot of it, if not all of it came from film.

RODMAN: I see how that could be.

COLAN: You've seen scenes in the movies where somebody goes through a plate-glass window, and the actual figure is coming towards the camera. The glass is being shredded all over the place. The big hulk of that person is on top of the camera. Which frightens the audience because it looks like it's going to pop out of the screen and land on them. I love that, that kind of stuff. Because it makes you jump.

RODMAN: Sal Buscema referred to something Stan Lee once told Romita: When he made the jump from romance to superhero books, Lee told him to crank up the action to a fever pitch. Then, after he was done with the art, Lee rejected it and told him to jack it up another few notches. That's why I don't think you could say you were too wild. You were apart of the look that we all associate …

COLAN: Well, the biggest complaint that Stan ever had about my work was that he didn't have an easy time understanding what I was drawing. There's a lot of confusion about my work. [Laughter.] And I meant it to be a little confusing. You don't always understand what you're looking at even when it's a photograph. Like a room with many things on a desk. You can only identify a few of the objects but you can't say what they all are. Some books might be there, an inkwell might be there.

RODMAN: It all lends to the atmosphere.

COLAN: But it all lends to the authenticity of what you're looking at. In life, you don't notice everything at one time. Certain things – and the rest you don't know. You don't even think about. So I try to do that. If there's a fight scene, and it's in the dark, I try to confuse it so that you see arms and legs but you don't know who they belong to. A fight is a confusing thing to begin with. Tables and chairs are overturned. You shouldn't be defining everything for the reader. The reader is not an idiot. He gets out of it what he wants to get out of it. And if it thrills him to see all these puzzling pictures, then I've accomplished something. At least that's how I viewed it anyway, personally. Someone would say to me, “Yeah, but, who does this belong to? Whose leg is that?” I said it isn't important. Put any connotation you want on it.

RODMAN: Was Stan Lee complaining because he had to come behind you and write dialogue on all this stuff, as per The Marvel Method?

COLAN: He felt he had a right to know where it was going.

RODMAN: He had to figure out what the sequence of the dialogue was, when there were all these people jumbled together.

COLAN: Yeah. [Lee would say rhetorically] Who was he writing about? He also had a point, though. He said, “You know, you're dealing with young readers. They don't know what you're getting at. You've got some sophisticated things here.” I think I played more to the older crowd.

RODMAN: That's true. I think that at the time this Daredevil comic came out [1966], I couldn't have understood it as part of a story continuity. As far as I was concerned, it would read as frantic pictures pieced together. But it didn't really matter. There wasn't as much importance to the textual part of the story as there was to the visuals. I can see how you'd be more adult-oriented for the sort of stuff you were doing, and for your time, especially.

COLAN: Far more dramatic and serious than the youngsters wanted to see.

RODMAN: Were you conscious of any kind of irony about how seriously you took things and how dramatically you needed to present them, with such – [pause] well, some of the material is extremely goofy. Especially in Daredevil, you've got Stilt-Man, you've got Leap Frog, there's Brother Brimstone …

COLAN: Well, those characters were established. I didn't create them.

RODMAN: No, I know. But, as someone who was doing his best possible job as an illustrator, you know, you – and all the other Bullpenners – had to deal with some mighty ridiculous subject matter.

COLAN: Well, sometimes that would mean I would portray Matt Murdock as kind of a happy-go-lucky, goofy guy to lighten things up. And I did it just as comedy relief from the seriousness of it all. And it was fun doing that. I even did that with romance stories. [Chuckles.] I was aware of the fact that you've got to be a little more light and airy, with not so much drama. These romance stories were serious little plots that depict real life. You know, you can have your ups and downs in a romance, and it's serious business. So I treated it that way.

RODMAN: Well, it's always serious to the people who were involved.

COLAN: Sure. Stan would tell me, you know, “Why don't you make him [Murdock] cough or sneeze once in a while, or have him walking around the streets where it's raining? Every day isn't a sunny day.”

Daredevil #88 (June 1972) written by Gary Conway, penciled by Gene Colan, inking by Tom Palmer, lettering by Jon Costa © 1972 Marvel Comics

RODMAN: I think I saw something to the effect that you occasionally regarded Daredevil as being similar in format to Eisner's The Spirit, at least in relation to the varying tones in the story. Does that make sense to you?

COLAN: No. I never thought of him that way. I would pick up some of Eisner's techniques that were very good. Like the photographic types of things that [he] does very well.

RODMAN: Yeah, he owed a lot to cinema for his sequential techniques, but he also had a theater background in his family, and the sense of how to stage action and composition stayed with him.

COLAN: His father was involved with set designing. I believe that's what it was.

RODMAN: People have called your work both cinematic and theatrical in sensibility, because of the lighting.

COLAN: I tried to be. Early on, I took note of how a scene was lit up and I often wondered how they would get the scene on film so that you could see it – not when it was underexposed, but you could actually see it – and the scene was supposed to take place at night. Were there floodlights? If there was a floodlight or a spotlight, you could see that. But, these things in film were set up very carefully. It could be a streetlamp, it could be the moon. You never knew unless you knew the technical stuff behind the scenes and how that was done. I learned about it later on. I found out about those things. I was always interested in the effects in movies and how they were done. But that wouldn't affect the comics.

RODMAN: It was just part of the mix. Anything you could do to make things work.

COLAN: How natural can I get this thing to look? How believable? That was my goal. How natural and believable could I get it?

RODMAN: You were on Daredevil from issue #20 to #157. Bill Everett, Wally Wood and John Romita preceded you. That’s a considerable run.

COLAN: Yes, John Romita was doing Daredevil. I don't know how many issues he did prior to me. But I guess he wanted to do something different. I don't know what the circumstances were, other than he didn't want to continue with it, and they had to give it to somebody. I think he jumped from Daredevil to Spider-Man.