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A Conversation With Gene Colan By Raymond Neal
Gene Colan is nothing short of an industry god. His work at Marvel included Menace, Mystic, and Journey into Mystery before heading over to DC to do Sea Devils and Hopalong Cassidy. Returning to Marvel Comics in the 1960s, Gene worked on Silver Surfer, Iron Man, Sub-Mariner, Captain America, and Dr. Strange. Especially notable were his long runs on Tomb of Dracula (with Marv Wolfman), Daredevil, and his incredible collaboration with Steve Gerber on Howard the Duck.
In the 80s, Gene did some more work over at DC including Night Force (again with Marv Wolfman) and the notable series Nathaniel Dusk. Recently, Gene returned to Daredevil for a short stint and did the art for the Curse of Dracula miniseries (with Wolfman) at Dark Horse. He also did the art chores on graphic novels to accompany the motion pictures Aliens and Predator. Gene recently completed an adaptation of the pulp fiction character "The Spider" which is slated for film in the near future. Gene also returned to drawing special Batman stories for DC comics, among more than a few other projects.
So without further ado, Slush is proud to present one of the most extensive interviews with Gene Colan ever conducted. Read along as Gene discusses his career, both past and present, as well as superhero movies, comic publishers, and the general state of the industry. Enjoy.
RN: Letís start with some biographical material. When and where were you born?
GC: The Bronx, 1926.
Iím going to be 77 so I go way back. I started my career in about í46 and but long before that I was even practicing at home when I was growing up: doodling here and there but I never considered anything other than the black & white impression of what I was doing. I loved to draw with a pencil and to interpret my own personal adventure stories in pencil. I was really just entertaining myself and as I grew a little bit older I got ideas that perhaps I could do something more with it than what I was doing
RN: Well you certainly have. So you were a New Yorker for most of your early years Iím assuming?
GC: Oh yeah - up until I guess 18 and then I went into the service.
RN: Which branch?
GC: Air Force Ė did everything but fly
Everything but fly, thatís the truth.
RN: I kind of wanted to be in the AF myself as a kid but Iíve been wearing glasses since I was a child and that kind of ruled things out.
GC: Yeah, I guess that would. You have to have pretty darn good vision. I didnít have a problem with that my problem was scholastic. Most pilots are either college educated or had some college Iíve had none Ė I barely got thru high school [Laughs]
RN: Well I think you came out all right. What would be your biggest stylistic influence?
GC: Films have influenced me tremendously. What I see up on the screen I always pretended to be a panel.
RN: How did you start on your path towards being a professional artist?
GC: As I said I practiced a lot at home you know, tried every little thing and anything that attracted my attention I would go and sketch and draw Ė even a billboard in the city.
RN: Oh, really?
GC: Yeah, these big Coca-Cola ads some of them were just great. So, Iíd go to where the ad was and Iíd just sit there and draw it. In the subways, the Wrigleyís Spearmint Gum signs: a fellow by the name of Shepherd did those and they were airbrushed and there was something about it that caught my attention and I wanted to see what I could do to copy it. So thatís how I got my training: magazines, newspapers, any cartoons in there. Of course reading Terry & the Pirates was my biggest inspiration. Milton Caniffís work justÖ I mean I can remember smelling the newsprint. Thatís how vivid all that was for me. I loved his work.
RN: Yeah, his stuff was amazing. So, you took the route that a lot of people taught themselves to be artists did. Instead of going to museums and drawing from the old masters you were working from the new masters.
GC: Yeah, the present day cartoonists. Norman Rockwell was a big inspiration to me and there were some others that did fabulous work. I loved the paintings of Wyeth.
GC: And the family, Jamieís the son, Andrew Ö I just loved their work Ė there was a mystery to it all.
RN: There was a museum near where I grew up that actually had a huge Wyeth collection for many years. I did get over there to see the work and it was stunning.
GC: I somehow seem to have learned just kind of how they may have painted it by getting up close and putting my nose practically on the canvas to try to examine the paint, how it was put down. I learned more by observe than by actual teaching. I didnít have the patience for sitting in a class and going step by step into it. I didnít and I still donít. I sort of just pick up what I could see and went along on my own with it.
RN: To my way of thinking, thatís the best way to do it. Most of the artistic development Iíve had over the years are things I just picked up through observation and practice. I canít really think of that much I learned sitting in a classroom or trying to work from a book or anything.
GC: No, itís too structured. And its what you observe from life I think that has the biggest imprint on you. No matter what it is youíre looking at you tend to, as an artist, itís just in your nature to absorb it and remember it. How people sit and stand and how the shadows are cast and so on. Those are the things that I love to observe in living every day. Thereís always something in front of you that is fabulous to look at.
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RN: I noticed on your website that you had some photos of yourself posing as the Spider or Nathaniel Dusk Ė I never had thought of you as a guy who worked much from photo reference. Is that a big part of your technique?
GC: Yes, of course. It took the characters out of the realm of cartoons and put them in an area of reality. Faces, comic book faces, tend to be pretty much the same.
GC: Thereís a certain style of drawing a comic book face. But when I started to use reference material like all artists should have over time. I began to save pictures when I first started and put it in a shoebox. After a while I branched out into a cabinet and so on. Thru the years I amassed quite a collection thatís all alpha and put away in the filing cabinet of all various subjects and just about anything you could think of. The thing is it gets to a point where you canít keep up with it anymore. A lot of my stuff is dated but thru the help of new books, and Iím always buying books, that will cover the subject, whether its war or whatever it may be. Thatís how I sort of amassed a collection of my own. That way I didnít have to look up anything Ė I didnít have to go to the library I just had it right here at my fingertips. It takes years to do that.
RN: One of the things Iíve always liked about your artwork is that when you first glance at your stuff with the extreme positioning of the bodies and your point of view, it has an abstract feel to it but when you really look at it you notice the amount of realism that you bring into your work.
GC: I try to bring a lot of realism in it but there is a point where you have to go away from the photograph and to get more of an effect you ought to emphasize something in a sort of an unreal way then you have to stretch it a bit. You have to stretch the reality to get a point across or to emphasize something. I mean the camera can do that with a wide-angle lens, you know Ė distort the image
GC: And as an artist you have to do some distorting of your own. So you can carry the photograph technique just so far and then you hurry off and have to go beyond that and thatís where your imagination comes in.
RN: Looking back at your work over the years going from the stuff you did back in your earlier days working for DC and others working on some of their mystery titles and then over to Marvel in the 60s and 70s and then going back to DC in the 80s you can see a constant evolution of your style. Was there ever any particular moment when a light went on, that you said ďThis is me, this is what makes me different than the other artists!Ē
GC: It was so gradual that I donít know if I ever noticed it. I guess it was when I started to reproduce my work from pencil. Because now the printing process is very sophisticated and when I started, they could never do that. All the artwork had to be inked in order for the printing press to pick it up but today they have laser printers that can do all kinds of things so itís very easy for the printer to pick it up and even make it look like it was ink. They can do all kinds of great things with it.
RN: I remember the first time I saw Ragamuffins and Nathaniel Dusk - that was just jaw-dropping. You really didnít get a sense of how much more potential there was in your artwork until you saw the original pencil work.
GC: Yeah the pencil brings out a lot of subtleties in anyoneís art. You get halftones with pencil and stuff like that that you canít quite get with ink.
GC: I like it much better and fortunately, Iíve been able to the last 10 years or so have my work reproduced that way.
RN: Was there a big struggle to get that to happen?
GC: At times. When I had it done with Ragamuffins there was no struggle the owner of the publication had no problem doing it, he knew exactly how to do it. It started with that and then I did Nathaniel Dusk at DC. They sort of wanted to do it their way and their way on the first print was awful. It came through badly. I think the pencil line was lost what remained was just the color outlineÖ It wrecked it. They got the hang of it after maybe the second issue.
RN: Since weíre in that era, most folks know your work from Tomb of Dracula, Daredevil, Batman, things like that, but you had some smaller projects, miniseries popping up here and there: Silverblade, Nathaniel Dusk, etc. Is there anything from that period that you think is overlooked and ought to be noticed more than it is?
GC: There was a series that I did for DC called Jíemm [Son of Saturn] and I think that that was a fellow named Potter, I donít remember his first name.
RN: Greg Potter.
GC: Greg Potter. He was a heck of a writer. One of the best Iíve come across. I think that could have been made into something if the publishing company, DC Comics, they would have held it up, but it just fell by the wayside. Itís a shame because he was a very talented writer.
RN: Heís one of those guys that fans wonder what happened to because he started out with Perez on the Wonder Woman revival, co-writing it with him.
GC: Well, I hope heís gone on to something bigger and better. Maybe he went out to California.
RN: Yeah maybe heís one of the guys who got into the movies.
GC: I hope so. I know Stan went out there and heís made out very well. Many years ago there was a film being shot in New York called The Ambulance. The original title was Into Thin Air. Eric Roberts was in it, James Earl Jones, Red ButtonsÖ It was a story about a comic book artist and Stan knew the director, Larry Cohen, and so Stan was in the film, very briefly. They needed an artist to fill in for Eric Roberts because he canít draw. I was picked to do the artwork. I went down, showed my work to them and I got the job. So, I had a brief time with the film, making the picture. I had to wear Eric Robertsí ring because there was going to be a close-up of him sketching, not showing anything but his hands and I was considerably older than him so they had to put a little makeup on my hands. They did other things with my work in it.