American comic book artist Gene Colan died at 11pm on June 23rd 2011, after a long fight against liver disease.
He was 84. He had been ill for a couple of years, and no doubt many of the obituaries that have appeared since that date had been prepared for a while. His death was hardly a shock when it came, and yet it still shook me. It has taken me this long to sit down and think about how much I loved Colan’s work, how important it was to the medium in which he worked, how substantial his influence was, and will continue to be.
Gene Colan can legitimately be described as a legend in the field of American comics, where he worked from 1944 until 2009, when he became too ill to continue. He started out drawing Crime comics, War comics, and Romance comics, and became something of a specialist in the latter.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that Colan began working on the Marvel superhero titles that would make him famous. At the time Stan Lee encouraged all artists working for Marvel to study the work of Jack Kirby and to try to emulate it as much as possible. Often this resulted in inept Kirby clones, but Colan was able to assimilate the force and dynamism of Kirby into his own very different drawn-from-life naturalism to create art that had all of the required dramatic impact, but also a level of elegance, fluidity and narrative sophistication that would allow for more subtle character interplay and narrative detail than the work of many of his contemporaries. He offered a heightened, stylised vision of the world that was nevertheless solidly grounded in carefully-observed reality, and did much to push comic book storytelling in a more adult direction. His skilful orchestration of mood, in particular his use of shadow, made Colan particularly suited to stories of the supernatural. Indeed, he claimed never to have felt much affinity for superheroes.
Nevertheless, Colan thus became the definitive artist for pretty much every superhero character he ever drew, and failing that, the artist who helped entirely REdefine the character for a new audience. It was Colan who made the previously clunky Iron Man’s body armour look sleekly plausible and the Submariner’s lush undersea world look startlingly real, while his Captain America, second only to Kirby’s, was the first to be confronted by the contradictions and social upheavals of the country whose flag he wore. Colan also co-created The Falcon, one of the first black superheroes, born out of his desire to see more black faces in the comics he drew. But it was Daredevil who would be his signature character. Colan worked on the comic for 80 issues, and was the first artist to suggest the character’s affinity for shadow and darkness. Little wonder that when Colan fell out with Marvel in the 1980s, DC immediately offered him Batman. Of all the superheroes Colan worked on, however, Dr Strange was the one he was clearly best suited to - appropriately enough, the character least like a superhero. Dr Strange gave Colan a chance to combine his skill at depicting the real world with his love of the shadowy, the supernatural and the plain weird, and the character went from being a superhero with spells up his sleeves to being a credible “Master of the Mystic Arts”.
But Colan’s finest work of all was outside of the field of superheroes. With Howard the Duck, he returned, strangely enough, to a theme that had characterised his run on Captain America - a character “trapped in a world he never made”, trying to come to terms with what he finds there. But this time around the intention was angrier, crazier, more satiric. Colan’s naturalistic depiction of 70s America, contrasted with the Disneyfied stylisation of the title character, served to emphasise the sense of dislocation and alienation and made the force of writer Steve Gerber’s satire all the more pungent. A number of collaborations with writer Don McGregor saw Colan’s art being reproduced for the first time from his original pencils, a trend that would continue until the end of his career. Particularly notable were Raggamuffins, a sequence of sour little tales about loss of childhood innocence, and the noirish private eye series. Nathaniel Dusk.
Above all, however, it was Colan’s collaborations with the improbably (but appropriately!)-named writer Marv Wolfman on several supernaturally-themed comics that finally established his legendary stature in the field, and should recommend him to our loyal Grimmlins, if they are not familiar with his work already. In Marvel’s 1970s Tomb of Dracula, Colan and Wolfman were able to transform a catchpenny horror title into a sophisticated exploration of Faith, moral choice, and the nature of evil. They subsequently returned to many of the same themes in the cult 80s DC title, Night Force, and indeed teamed up again to create an entirely different take on the Dracula character for Dark Horse in the 1990s. But it is Tomb of Dracula that has the lasting legacy: it introduced the world to Blade the Vampire Hunter, Hannibal King, and Deacon Frost, all of whom would turn up in the successful film and TV franchise. And yet it wasn’t until the second Blade film that Colan got so much as a credit. It was ever thus.
Gene Colan, R.I.P. Another of my heroes gone, but not forgotten.