Saturday, June 25, 2011

Creators of Mars: Gene Colan

I never really gave much thought to whether or not I was a Gene Colan fan. When I was a kid, I struggled with guys like Gil Kane, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, because their styles were so distinctive and uncommon that they kind of distracted me while reading their stories. I never had that problem with Colan, because for me his presence in comics was to be taken for granted, like the sun in the sky and the pull of gravity. Gene Colan drew the comics I read, as a matter of fact. Doctor Strange. Tomb of Dracula. Howard the Duck. Batman. Daredevil. Captain America. Wonder Woman. Nathaniel Dusk: Private Investigator. Black Panther. Night Force. It wasn't something to debate. Gene Colan was simply there, from the beginning of my reading experience, before I even knew how to read. Colan was comics, synonymous in my mind.

Colan tended to be the guy who drew the dark, moody, spooky books. It didn't really matter what the script called for, because if Gene Colan drew it, it was a Gene Colan book. It might seem a bit strange for Steve Rogers or Diana Prince to suddenly go noir, but never to the extent of disrupting the suspension of disbelief. It was like going from watching Fred MacMurray on My Three Sons to Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity or The Apartment. Same guy, just demonstrating greater range.

Most importantly, nobody could sell reality like Colan. The guy understood that the human eye does not capture every strand of a cat's fur as it strolls past, like those CGI wizards try to do, rendering everything they excessively detail clearly fake. We see the world through impressions and generalities, sensing as much if not more than actually seeing. Nothing was static in Gene Colan's art. His panels were not moments frozen in pristine amber, but instead continued to flow as your eye scanned any text.

For all the "cinematic" techniques attempted in comics since Will Eisner, Colan was among the very few artists to truly pull the trick off. He could actually produce "paper movies" that would trick your mind into believing you were a passive viewer of a progressive narrative rather than an participating reader stopping to appreciate each panel at your leisure like exhibits in a museum. As dazzling as his art was, Colan would never grandstand, always working in service to the story. Quite simply, he was among the select few perfect comic artists capable of fully realizing the unique strengths of the medium.

Gene Colan began working in comics in 1944, managing to catch the tail end of the Golden Age. He drew for both DC (National) and Marvel (Timely, Atlas, etc.) in the 1950s, but he'll likely best be remembered as one of the great architects of the Silver Age of comics. When most of his contemporaries were running out of steam or falling hopelessly out of touch with the times, Colan had such a renaissance in the 1970s that he should justly be recognized as one of the Bronze Age masters. Even into the 1980s, Colan remained a pioneer, both technically (working in graphite and watercolors to be reproduced with state of the art production quality) and commercially (creator owned work geared for direct market sales.) Through it all, Colan remained one of the most mild mannered fellows you could ever meet.

While Gene Colan may have never had any significant association with the Martian Manhunter, his influence on series artist Tom Mandrake is readily apparent. With John Ostrander, Mandrake brought a Gene Colan co-creation, Jemm: Son of Saturn, into the Manhunter "family" almost fifteen years ago. Appropriate, since Jemm was conceived as a Martian, and it was about time he found his way home.

Gene Colan passed away this week at the age of eighty-four. He was one of a kind, and among the last of the generation of titans that started it all...


profhaley said...

I met Mr. Colan a few years ago...don't remember which year though at one of the Wizard Chicago
Cons. He was very polite and willing to autograph my 60's Daredevil issues that I had brought to the con. I'm glad I got the chance to thank him for his fantastic artwork that I truly enjoyed both as a child and later on in life on such titles as Howard the Duck and Tomb of Dracula.


Count Drunkula said...

One of my all-time favorites. I think DC was going to publish a collection of his Batman work this year. Not sure if this will affect when/how that book will ship.

Anj said...

Great piece as always.

I also have DC memories of Colan, mostly Phantom Zone and Night Force. Both of those were trippy and wild ... perfect for his style.

will_in_chicago said...

Rest in peace Gene Colan. May his legacy live on and may he continue to inspire artists.