From the TCJ Archives

The Gene Colan Interview

RODMAN: Do you recollect when you began working on Doctor Strange?

COLAN: It must have been about 1965, or a little bit later than that. 1967.

RODMAN: Dr. Strange is a real treat for me. Obviously, Ditko originated the character in Strange Tales, and then every artist who came after him for some time attempted a sort of facsimile of Ditko's vision, where everything hinged on that weird flat interdimensional drawing style; Bill Everett, Marie Severin, or Dan Adkins, for example. It's a unique-looking strip, with all those bridges between alternating realities. In my opinion you were the first to approach it as you did, with a basis in realism.

COLAN: It was a very serious strip. That's how I perceived it. Even Daredevil was a serious strip. He [Murdock] started with a physical problem: not being able to see. I took that seriously and tried to take it to different levels. The same with Dr. Strange. I tried to put him in different realms of reality. I made it as real as I could. I imagined what it would be like to be in a different dimension. It was supposed to be in Greenwich Village and so I would go down to the Village with a Polaroid camera and take as many pictures as I could.

RODMAN: Your page design took on a totally surreal, fractured character with that book, especially by the time of the story “The Cult and the Curse,” in #177. Panel grids have become completely optional in some cases, and the linework flows all over the place; the space is defined by fog and mist swirls, there're things flying all over the place.

COLAN: I tried to bring the reader along on a trip. To give him a dizzying feeling about the work. If there was any weird stuff going on, I'd slant the panels and throw the reader off-balance. I used that ploy in just about everything I ever did, even Daredevil.

RODMAN: Stan's secretary, Flo Steinberg, once said, “Doctor Strange became a big hit, and people would write in say, 'Oh, Dr. Strange must be on drugs,' and we would look at each other and say, ‘Drugs, drugs? What're they talking about?!’ You know, we just didn't know about any of that.”

COLAN: The hippie movement was in full swing when I did Doctor Strange, drugs were in full swing then, too. And then I kinda got in with it, not the drugs … [laughter] but trying to show Dr. Strange in as weird a situation as I could.

RODMAN: Altered consciousness. That book certainly lent itself to that. You were able to really go to town.

COLAN: Stan was very easy to work with. He allowed me to do just about whatever I wanted. There were times when he didn't agree. I remember there was a very famous thing that I did, that he brings up in his lectures. I used a whole page to show a hand turning a doorknob. You just don't do a splash like that. I did it for two reasons. I did it to eat up time, to make up for some lost time. I'd lost time on my schedule. If you're only dealing with one picture that happens to be as simple as a hand on a doorknob it doesn't take long to draw. He remembered that, and he even asked me at the time, “Why would you eat up a whole page? That throws me off being able to finish the plot.” So we had a good laugh over that. Also, there was another example, and I've mentioned it in other interviews. The film Bullitt came out in 1969. You never saw the likes of it on the screen. [The chase scene] lasted so long. It had the audience on the edge of their seat. And I was so taken by it that I wanted to put it in one of my stories. I had an opportunity to do that with Daredevil. You try to get away from somebody and it need only take place in one page. I did six or seven pages of a car chase. [Laughs.]

RODMAN: Marv Wolfman wrote, in the foreword to your book, “I remember panels where he [Colan] had a car tearing down a road. An advertising art perfect rendering of a car. Except … the car was slightly off the ground, and it was actually bent in a subtle arc. Metal doesn’t give the way that Gene drew it, but … he gave the car speed and force.” I've seen a lot of stories where you pull that off. And it's not really that easy to draw a car in normal perspective.

COLAN: Steel doesn't bend, but in this case it did. It takes some observation.

RODMAN: Applied observation. You must just lay down your preliminary pencils and tinker 'til it looks right.

COLAN: Yeah, I would rough it in. When you look at my roughs they're much lighter than finished, but they're finished. Once the rough is in, I just go back in and darken it up. I'm pretty confident of the way it's going to look.

RODMAN: Is there much trial and error involved in the drawing process?

COLAN: Sure. You know, there 's always something. If I'm doing a slanted panel with action going on, there may not be enough room for a foot. Take the foot out of the panel, and the frame of the panel will be in the front of the character. If there's a fight scene and I want a big shoe sticking out, I'll have it go beyond the borders of the panel. A little dimension.

RODMAN: This brings me to a point I'm interested in trying out on you. I 'd like to focus on some of the techniques you've used to show transitions and motion. What I think is interesting artistically is the way you compose the whole page with these broad motions, and how you gradually worked up to that point over time. These [referring to visual aids] are some examples of your relatively straight 1950s work. You're able to include, say, a montage effect. Or some tilted angles, whatever. It 's the start of your later full-blown, more gestural style.

COLAN: Well, I began by borrowing a lot from Kirby. There's a lot of film influences. Quite a bit. I experimented even in the 1950s and ‘60s.

RODMAN: That may be, but the early stuff is all relatively stable or conventional-looking compared to the work you started getting into in the 1960s at Marvel and Warren. You're all over the place at that point, with angles and activity coming out of everywhere. A lot of action.

COLAN: I was trying to throw the reader a little bit off-balance. Not giving them [something predictable] where every panel would be square. That way, they may get somewhat confused, which was my intent, anyhow. [Laughter] I rely upon [references] to help me on the anatomy. Again, I have to tell you that when I've seen films of acrobats at a circus flipping from one thing to another, I try to remember what I've seen. And then I have a collection of photographs of the body, like divers diving off a platform – you know they twist and they turn until the hit the water. The kind of thing that Daredevil might do. But this is more authentic. It's not made up. I mean, if I were to make up how I think it would look, it would probably be impossible to do. But if I have a photograph of an actual diver … And then you run out of ideas to choreograph it, too. After a while you repeat yourself, with almost the same identical point of view. So, I try to vary it. Come up with different things. There's a very famous scene of a figure descending a staircase, a nude woman.

RODMAN: The Nude Descending a Staircase, by Marcel Duchamp.

COLAN: And the figure is repeated again and again. I've seen photographs like that, you know, where each image is superimposed on the one before it. Like a baseball player pitching a ball. Life magazine did a lot of that stuff I was looking for a new way of portraying action.

RODMAN: Wally Wood said something to the effect that you had to have a good clip file, 'cause swipes are always preferable to making something up. So, all told, between observation and photos, you've got a system where you can do just about anything you want.

COLAN: I guess. Things have to be animated when you're doing comics; kind of like a cartoon style.

RODMAN: But you don't use speed-lines or some of the more conventional symbols …

COLAN: I try to blur the scene very often. I still have speed-lines, but I will blur the image. Like if someone is running then the legs are blurred. They're not quite finished. The drawing has a blurred look. And that to me also denotes action; there are many ways of showing it. Sometimes the after-effect of something going forward, you see the trail of the image behind it several times. These are all cinematic things that I've picked up from photographs that I've studied. I was always searching – and probably still am, you know – of ways to do it. You know, when you edit a film … Film is movement on a screen, and you can get across an awful lot of effects that way, and feelings that way. You can cut, and inter-cut, and do all kinds of things and there's motion with that. And I try to do the same thing with a comic book. Because you're dealing with stills of the figures. I do the best I can with it, by doing a sequence of pictures. And so that if your eye is scanning it may almost look a little bit like it's moving. I find it enjoyable. It makes the job more fun for me.

RODMAN: Did you start emphasizing action and exploring ways to represent it more consciously in the 1960s as a result of doing so much super hero work? I would think the wild plot set-ups, and the freedom allowed in your part of the Marvel Method, would be generally conducive to visual pyrotechnics.

COLAN: Yeah, it helped me a lot. It's not new. I mean, I didn't originate the panels with arms or legs coming out of them. Other artists had done that before. I just started to use it. I felt that if the page was dealing with people just speaking – kind of a very dull page – I had to figure out someway to make it not dull, by varying the angles. Maybe somebody is viewing the person that they're speaking to through a drinking glass. Something that would be interesting for the reader to look at.

RODMAN: In the Tomb of Dracula miniseries [from 1991], Night of Blood! Day of Redemption! you use quite a degree of distortion in many of the drawings. It 's the sort of thing people only do on the computer these days. And you mentioned that you were always trying to figure out some interesting way of viewing a subject. How were you able to compose those drawings to get the light refractions, or those through-the-lens type effects?

COLAN: It 's doing the art differently. Like warping a picture. Doing something that would catch the reader's attention. If an arm is thrust forward, it looks almost like it's coming through the screen. It 's a special effort to accentuate that particular thing you're looking at. I picked that up from what I've seen in photographs. It would be a very good way to begin to show some of these images. Like in Doctor Strange, I would warp the entire room if I had an opportunity.

RODMAN: I would imagine it 's very hard to do that effect convincingly unless you know the fundamentals of perspective.

COLAN: Well, you start with something basic, a basic image, flat out. Then you distort it, but you have to kind of study these photographs to see, where does this distortion come in? At what point do you see the illusion of it? Then you go back to your basic drawing and begin to elongate it, or, like in a house of mirrors, thin it out. And make the whole image thinner and taller. Stretching it. And by observation and trying to figure out what it looks like on the printed page, from the photograph, I would go back and try to do it on the particular piece of art I was working on. Do it the same way. It was a long process. I didn't come about it easily. Sometimes – very often – I came up a failure, so I would just junk it for the moment to have another chance to do it. I would keep practicing it, you know. Even to this day, I don't have it down pat. I had a lot of help from photographs.

RODMAN: So, it was a pretty time-consuming process rather than any sort of labor-saving effect or shortcut.

COLAN: No, it had nothing to do with saving time. Everything that I did …

RODMAN: A very carefully made effect.

COLAN: Right. Just for effect.

RODMAN: In a sense, the penciler in comics is the equivalent of a cameraman in film, searching for the most dynamic solution to a storytelling problem.

COLAN: Right. I'd think, “What would Orson Welles do?” Oh, he was highly dramatic.

RODMAN: Oh, yeah. Well, when you say that you weren't the first to break things up over the picture plane … I mean, there're are other examples, truly. But, for someone so grounded in traditional illustrative realism, you were able to take it to quite an extreme.

COLAN: Yes. I went too far, I guess.

RODMAN: Naah, that's a matter of opinion.

COLAN: Well, as far as Stan [Lee] was concerned, he couldn't follow it. He needed a road map. He said, “You can't follow from left to right. What panel comes next?” In many cases, it was that way. But, you know, when you're young, you don't see these thing s. Sometime s you never see them. You know where you're going. You're always wondering if the other guy's going to know where you're going.