Tuesday, June 28, 2011

GENE COLAN (1926-2011)

While preparing last week's article on the late Lew Sayre Schwartz I learned of the death of Gene Colan. Colan was a giant of comics art, and I regret that it took me so long to appreciate him. As a kid, I shied away from Colan's work. This was the early '80s, and I preferred the clean lines of a John Byrne or Mike Zeck. I didn't care for Colan's pencil work, which was too moody for my taste...shadowy, seemingly loose and muddy. And that wasn't just his contemporary work, which then was NIGHT FORCE for DC. Even in my quest to own every issue of CAPTAIN AMERICA, I hesitantly bought issues from his two year run. Whatever it was that made him a Marvel Comics mainstay in the '60s and '70s, I wasn't seeing it. It only took me about ten years to appreciate Jack Kirby, but 20 for Colan.
Colan, like most artists of his era, was a devotee of Milton Caniff. According to Tom Field's biography of Colan, his favorite strips were Caniff's TERRY & THE PIRATES and Colton Waugh's DICKIE DARE. 'Dickie' was the strip created by Caniff before 'Terry'. "I can even remember the smell of the newsprint," he told Field, "I'd put the paper right up to my face."1 In addition to Field's book, Colan gave several career-spanning interviews over the past decade. What follows are his salient remarks about Caniff...
Terry & the Pirates, 5/11/1937

Gene Colan's art is known for its use of shadows, inspired by film noir and Caniff's chiaroscuro. "[Caniff's] work always inspired me. I would go for the Daily News every week, the weekend edition with the full color page of his work and I was just drawn to it like a fly to flypaper. I loved his stuff. Just loved it. And I guess that was my biggest influence. There were so many other great artists like Alex Raymond and Hal Foster, and they were really fine illustrators, but Milton Caniff had a very solid black and white look and since I loved to do things so heavily in black I was attracted to it."2
Terry & the Pirates, 2/17/1945

"He used heavy blacks in the folds of the clothes. His room interiors, his exteriors I just loved his work. I never met him. The closest I ever came I saw a picture of him in the news paper and I’d imagined him not anything at all like the way he was. I pictured him like Terry."3
Terry & the Pirates, 5/24/1945

The work of Caniff and other cartoonists was a foundation, but Colan gradually developed his own signature style. "I always loved [Caniff's] work," Colan told the Comics Journal, "[I]t 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."4
Some very Caniff-esque Colan panels from 'My Greatest Adventure' #74 (12/1962)

"He did everything within a border," said Colan of Caniff, "a straight border. Everyone in those years did it that way too. I started out doing it that way. After a while, I noticed that you could get more action in it if you changed the shape of the panel or eliminated them all together."5

Caniff was a "wonderful artist," Colan said, "very original. Several people have imitated Caniff's style to a 'tee'. Lee Elias drew very much like Caniff. Biggest compliment that anyone could give you." 5
The old man on the cover of the same issue is decidedly Colan

1Field, Tom; Colan, Gene; "Secrets in the shadows: the art & life of Gene Colan", 1995, TwoMorrows; This book is rare and out of print, but can be read via Google Books. Field's comprehensive obituary of Colan is found here.

2Stroud, Bryan; "The Silver Age Sage Interviews Gene Colan"; The complete interview here.

3 Previews; "Gene Colan: Comics 'Iron Man'"; The complete interview here.

4Rodman, Larry, "The Gene Colan Interview", The Comics Journal; The interview is here.

5Neal, Raymond, "Comic Legend Gene Colan", UGO Entertainment; the interview is found here

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