by Jesse Marinoff Reyes ( Jesse Marinoff Reyes Design, Maplewood, N.J.)
Rest in Peace Gene Colan (1926-2011).
Beginning in 1990-91, I had the privilege of co-editing, with point-man Richard Howell, the revival of Jim Warren’s anthology horror comics magazine, Creepy (and by extension, Eerie) and horror adventure comics magazine, Vampirella—revived and reimagined in comic book format. Our formulae, as best we could execute it, began with the first issue of a four-issue miniseries reintroducing Vampirella—gone from the comics and magazine racks since 1983—to a relatively new audience and changed comics landscape in 1991. Howell hired an old colleague—and writing superstar—Kurt Busiek (Marvels, Astro City) to pen the series, recruited newbie penciller Louis LaChance from Canada and paired him with industry veteran John Nyberg as the series art team, and together we sought out comics legend Michael Wm. Kaluta (The Shadow) as the series’ cover artist—an artist I’d long admired and wanted to work with.
Vampirella was followed by reintroducing Creepy, also in a four-issue miniseries. But instead of mimicking Warren’s anthology format (no longer as popular with contemporary readers as it once had been), Howell determined that a narrative arc would be more attractive, and utilizing “horror host” Uncle Creepy (and also Cousin Eerie) as a participating character instead of simply a “narrator” to a series of short stories. Since Creepy’s original format allowed for different art and writing teams to be brought together under a single banner, the conceit for our Creepy was that the story arcs be told in chapters, allowing for certain chapters to be told by a different art team to achieve a stylistic variety—and psychological difference as well. The formulae used on Vampirella would be applied here, though in a slightly different manner. One of the artists brought in to bring this concept to fruition would be one of Jim Warren’s original Creepy contributors—and another of my favorites growing up—Gene Colan.
I’d always thought Colan was younger than he is. Like the “new” masters of Marvel Comics in the mid-to-late-1960s, Jim Steranko, Barry Smith, and Neal Adams—all in their 20s when they began reshaping and mutating the look of Marvel—Gene Colan seemed to be one of their generation, with figures in a blur of constant motion and viewed from a New Wave filmmaker’s camera angles, as distinctive and immediately identifiable as Adams or Steranko—but like John Severin and Gil Kane, born nearly 20 years before (only nine years Jack Kirby’s junior). Colan’s first comics work began just before entering the service in 1944 (“just a summertime job” Colan recalled) for an action-adventure title for Fiction House, Wings Comics (war comics with fighter planes). Because he was underage, Colan was held back from seeing action—his father pulled him out; by the time he reenlisted he made overseas duty as part of the occupation army in the Philippines after the war’s sudden end. When he returned stateside and civilian life in 1946, he crafted and lettered a 7-8 page war story for his portfolio and brought it to Timely Comics—yes, the company that would eventually become Marvel—and Timely’s art director in turn brought him to the editor-in-chief, Stan Lee. “Just like that, I had a job” Colan remembers—at $60 a week as staff penciller. Comics were not the most stable of employers in the early years, and most of Timely’s staff were let go in 1948 during one of many ebbs in the economy and Colan turned to freelancing for National (“DC”) Comics. Like John Severin, Joe Kubert, and Sam Glanzman, Colan was a staple in the many war comics titles of the era, like DC’s All-American Men at War, Our Army at War, and Captain Storm, as well as for Timely’s successor—when it became Marvel predecessor Atlas—he carried on this work with titles like Battle, Battle Action, Battle Ground, Marines in Battle (you get the picture?) and dozens more. Gene Colan was a hard core Golden Age war comics staple.
It always seemed the greats could do anything, from war to romance, then to superheroes, and Colan certainly filled the bill. But Colan’s style impressed me the most on the superhero books since his take was so unusual. You could feel the character’s super-athleticism as they would glide through the air whether swinging from the rooftops or leaping over a barricade, yet with a lightness and effortlessness that seemed otherworldly—not to mention Colan was one of the first to break out of the checkerboard of panel layouts and render full pages as part of a story sequence, or as Colan described it, “I’d get tired of these small panels all the time, and I would try to do something that was action-oriented, sometimes not. In fact, it was a standing joke with Stan, that I did a whole page of a guy’s hand on a doorknob, opening a door.” These narrative qualities served Colan best on a number of long stints on what would prove to be signature titles, whether the mystical Doctor Strange, or especially the acrobatic Daredevil, The Man Without Fear, perhaps his best known work and longest stint on a title—every issue but three from September 1966 through June 1973, an 81 issue run.
Mostly inked by former mentor Syd Shores (a brilliant tandem), Colan’s run on Daredevil more firmly established his unusual, ethereal approach to superheroes as well, given a touch of the macabre. Colan attributes this sensibility to childhood influences: “Actually, I think what started it all was my interest in doing heavy blacks and shadows in scary stories. When I was five years old, I saw Frankenstein… the original movie… and it traumatized me. My father took me, in the Bronx, on a hilly street, a little theater there, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind! I couldn’t sleep, I was a wreck! From then on, I became rather fascinated with that kind of thing, and it’s kind of spilled over in my ability to draw.” This made perfect sense when Colan contributed this influence as a member of Jim Warren’s cadré of art talent on the original Creepy and Eerie comics horror magazine in the 1960s.
Followed in the 1970s by still more iconic work on material as disparate as the cult idiosyncrasy of Howard The Duck, or the gothic horror of Tomb of Dracula (all 70 issues—a great deal of which were inked by the liquid smooth Tom Palmer, like Shores a perfect inker on the equally smooth pencils of Colan). As with Doctor Strange in the mid-60s and his moody take on Daredevil, Dracula provided Colan with a topic well suited to his particular strengths: “Dracula was always in the shadows, dark shadows, eerie settings, atmospheric stuff—cemeteries, night, bats, corners of places. I was always looking for something that would have a fine shadow in it, which I was good at, to add weight to the story.” Not what one would expect from an artist who was most identified with the blood ‘n’ guts of war comics in the 1940s and 1950s. But then again, is the horror of war really all that different? The reader will not be surprised to know that Colan would eventually—in the 1980s—work on Batman.
Thusly, his cameo return to Creepy in the early-90s was really just par for the course for the master of shadows
This example is perhaps not so radical a pairing, both were industry veterans—though generationally apart. Comics legend Colan and top pro Steve Leialoha. Leialoha was superb at defining Colan’s trademark atmospherics and ethereal movement—and I can only think of the aforementioned inking greats Syd Shores and Tom Palmer who were as accomplished on Colan’s pencils. A great duo.
Thanks for everything Gene—a lifetime of enjoyment.
Original art page
Creepy, Book 1, page 13
Harris Comics, 1991
Pencils: Gene Colan
Inks: Steve Leialoha