Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Gene and Adrienne Colan: A Love Story (P1)

Back in 2001, I sold TwoMorrows Publishing on the idea for a book that focused on the stories of comic-book history's greatest creators...seen through the eyes of their spouses/partners. It was my first-ever book, and I titled it "I Have To Live With This Guy!" I came up with the idea at the 2001 San Diego Comicon, after spending time at the show with couples like Gene and Adrienne Colan.

These artists worked mostly in isolation, so when they came together, the stories got bigger every year. I watched as the women stood patiently by their men, sometimes rolling their eyes, and you could tell these were the people who really knew the story behind these creators.

Adrienne Colan's passion for her husband, his career, and her part in both, changed the direction of the book and I moved their chapter right to the beginning because their story was just that good, just so "comics", in terms of its intensity and ups/downs that faced artists in the industry's infancy.

In memory of Gene Colan's passing last Thursday, we've been publishing a number of blog entries on Gene (this one will give you some good context on my relationship with Gene and Adrienne) and we're going to spend the next three nights representing the Gene and Adrienne Colan chapter of my book (slightly revised). Except for where Gene speaks in one paragraph, it's Adrienne's voice throughout. It's quite the love story, so I hope you enjoy it:

"I Have To Live With This Guy!" (published Aug '02)
Chapter One - Gene and Adrienne Colan (Part One)

“If anybody could draw a hand on a doorknob and keep your interest, it would be Gene.”

The above has been "rubber chicken dinner" line from Stan Lee, famed former editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics for almost forty years, but truer words...

Few artists in the comic-book field had a style as unique as Gene Colan. Stan Lee encouraged every artist during the 1960s who came through Marvel’s front doors to draw like Jack Kirby…except for two – Steve Ditko and Gene Colan. They arrived at Lee’s door fully formed, and suggesting alterations of their fundamentals would have been akin to spraying water on a fiery oil slick.

But the talents of the above three artists filled Marvel’s coffers more than lined their own pockets. The comic book industry has a work-for-hire history, often ensuring that a creator receives no compensation, other than one’s page rate, even if one creates a pop culture icon, such as Ditko’s Spider-Man, or Kirby’s Hulk. If you didn’t “step into the engine” of the company (as did John Romita), if you didn’t leave to make greater monies in animation or advertising, you stayed because you just loved drawing comics.

And that love can get you killed.

What doesn’t kill you leaves you beaten and broken at times. Industry swoons and fads can leave a freelance artist gasping for air, with a family to support, and no hope of a pension or medical benefits. The artist and spouse may think the job on the table will pay for the month’s necessities, but one industry slump, one bout of illness, even one work-free vacation brings home the reality that the gerbil’s wheel of pumping out page after page has to spin non-stop. Step off for a breather, or a drink, and you may never get back on board.

You’d find few people who loved as hard and faithful, and perhaps blindly, as Adrienne Colan. One is unlikely to find someone so protective of her mate in all aspects of life – the emotional, the physical, the financial and the ego. She was a perfect example of what the male freelance comic book artist, under this industry’s ‘big top,’ requires: a safety net for a partner who walks a financial and emotional tightrope, never being able to see beyond the next job on the table, or if there will even be one.

Is it truly the love of the medium, the industry, the finished page in front of the artist that kept people like Adrienne and Gene Colan coming back for more, even into the twenty-first century?

Eugene Jules Colan was born in the Bronx on September 21, 1926. Adrienne classified him affectionately as “one of these weird little kids, into very progressive, but classical music at a very young age. I had little or no interest in it, except where it would cross over with the music I was accustomed to from my dad. Gene and my dad shared a lot in common: the Copeland thing, Villa Lobos, and Gene would introduce me to Jean Carlo Menotti operas like ‘The Saint of Bleeker Street’.”

After attending a public school, George Washington High School, focused on gifted students in the visual arts, Gene fell under the tutelage of illustrator Frank Riley and the Japanese surrealist Kuniashi.

With so many peers off at war, Gene found work at Fiction House in 1944, drawing Wings Comics. Pen and ink kept Colan from an early grave in World War II, Corporal Colan spending two years (starting in 1945) in the Philippines, producing art for the Special Service in the Army Air Corps.

After his time in the Army, Colan arrived at Stan Lee’s Empire State Building doors in 1947. Known then as Timely Comics, the company would become now as Marvel Comics in the 1960s. Colan’s early work was nondescript but, during the 1950s, Gene trademark flourishes began to shine through, especially in the horror genre.

As all things in comics, it didn’t last. The company clawed back dramatically in 1957 after the bottom fell out of their distribution deal. The hands of Gene Colan instead pumped gas for a living at a local station, while he chased jobs at the nadir of the industry, Charlton Comics in Derby Connecticut. They were known for the lowest page rates (and quality of product) in the business.

Ten years of working in comics and Gene was left with nothing. He found work in New York at the Paul Sherry studios, drawing stick figures for educational films. Any attempts at “flourishes” were quickly crushed by an art director only concerned with the client’s requests for the bland. And what was expected? If you couldn’t make it as an artist, you either pumped gas until you were gray, or you took what your talents afforded you.

At least it was work. No child of The Depression was going to hang on a wing and a prayer. With an industry in tatters, what chance did a freelancer like Gene Colan have? In the eye of the hurricane, who loves you enough to reach in and pull you out?

Back up to 1942, in Forest Hills, NY, and Adrienne Gail Brickman is born. By the age of eight, she was roaming the big boulevard streets of New York City, taking herself to lessons in ballet, tap and voice.

Her Broadway dreams were dashed in 1955 when her parents’ dream of home owning placed the young teenager miles away in Fairlawn, New Jersey. “It was really just twelve minutes over the George Washington Bridge, but when you're a teenager, and you can't drive, Manhattan may as well have been a world away. I was absolutely thrilled for my parents and totally bored out of my gourd!

“I wasn't exposed to art all that much. From fourteen until the end of high school, it was initially Elvis Presley until the Beatles came along. The Beatles came and Elvis Presley was over. It was like I closed the door. I couldn't listen.

“But at the same time, there was Motown. It was Motown and the Beatles. I stilled love jazz: Miles Davis and Modern Jazz Quartet and Dave Brubeck. I introduced Gene to Brubeck's Take Five album.

“Through all those musical things that I mentioned, there would be Frank Sinatra; Frank Sinatra doing and singing anything. I watched Frank Sinatra’s films and had every single album.”

The influence of Adrienne’s father played a great role in how she regarded, and managed, Gene Colan and his career. Her father was a small business owner in Queens, and his independent spirit was transposed onto his daughter, to the Gene’s benefit later in life.

“When we used to live in Queens, my father would get on a truck at three in the morning. He would go to the manufacturing plants that produced like corn beef, pastrami, salami and hot dogs and distribute them to the restaurants, delis and diners. He made out really well. They tucked their bucks away.

“It was always his dream to have his own manufacturing plant and, soon enough, he did in New Jersey. My dad had an expression all his life. He said, ‘A peanut stand, but my own.’"

Her father’s early hours brought him home by three in the afternoon and that allowed Adrienne to develop a mythical image of the man. “He was a hero to me. He built his own darkroom for photography and won some awards, submitting them to photography magazines.

“He did not grow up with a life a privilege to say the very least. He was the oldest of four boys, from a broken home. He was supporting the entire family plus two immigrant-divorced parents at the age of eleven. He married my mom and wound up still taking care of his parents and my mother's parents.

“My mother was like Imelda Marcos. She had a gazillion pair of shoes! He built her a whole closet just for shoes! He went on to build exquisite furniture for the house. There was almost nothing he couldn’t do. He built his own stereo cabinet. He even put together the radio parts.

“My mom’s entire life centered around the family, our Jewish culture, beauty parlor Fridays, and maid three times a week, no matter what. She loved my Dad tremendously and also looked up to him a lot. She took her cues from him in terms of cultural tastes. She'd read two, three books at a time, many of the struggles of the Jewish people and family life.

“They fought about two things: ‘Your family stinks – no, your family stinks.’ The other was my mother’s shopping. Bills would arrive at the house, they would disappear into their bedroom and I could hear him just quietly confronting her. Before you knew it, plates were flinging, tears flowing, and cupboards were slamming!”

Music dominated Adrienne’s memories of her father, and explains its importance in her own life. “My father liked great symphonies. He was very diverse and had the first record album that was on the unique sides of Jerry Mulligan and Dave Brubeck. They had like an ensemble called ‘West Coast Jazz.’ It was just so progressive and so fantastic. He would bring home the album to West Side Story and then go see the show.

“My Dad would play Rachmaninov and Stravinsky, and stand in front of the stereo, pretending he was the conductor. He was a very modest and quiet man but, in the privacy of our own home, he really let go with complete abandon. My dad was listening to Rachmaninov and then is completely blown away by Sergeant Peppers. That particular album knocked him out.”

Adrienne graduated and enrolled in secretarial school, taking her right back into Manhattan every day. “When school would let out, I would take the subway uptown and hang out in Harlem visiting record shops and such until Harlem signaled they didn't want me. It wasn't me not wanting them. Towards the end of 1960, early 1961, it was clear to me I wasn't welcome in the neighborhood and so I didn't go.

Single, with girlfriends, working in New York City in the summer of 1962, the group was always on the look-out for “Mr. Right.” Adrienne’s twenty year-old life took a dramatic turn when she and friends decided to go away one weekend to Tamiment, a singles’ resort in the Poconos of Eastern Pennsylvania.

“It’s the first night and everybody goes out on the veranda after dinner. It’s just swarms of people. I had always told my mother, when I married, I want it to be like Tony and Maria in West Side Story. They meet at the dance and everybody else seems to disappear.

“It seems like everybody coupled off within seconds. All that is left is this huge gooney-looking guy and I am with a very gooney-looking girlfriend. She’s very, very, tall and awkward. In my day, I was really quite pretty in my day - slim and dark-haired.

“So this gooney guy starts walking over and I thought, ‘Oh, brother, he's going to pick me. He'll never go for Rochelle.’ Sure enough, I can’t even attract the gooney guy!

“I’m sitting alone on the wall by the veranda. I look over to my left. He hesitates, then takes another few steps towards me, as if he's trying to keep his options open. I'm thinking ‘I’m a thin, 20-year-old, dark eyed, dark hair, cute little chippy in my best little summer, spaghetti strapped dress, so what gives?’

“Now, I'm getting cranky, like, ‘Come on!’

“He does come up to me and says, ‘Would you like to take a walk?’ We take a little walk, give a kiss, and just love one another instantly.”

The man was Gene Colan, alone (“definitely girlfriend hunting”) at the resort, on a suggestion from his cousin Helene.

“My immediate impression is ‘No airs, without guile and handsome.’ He is shy in the most attractive way that one could say that Gregory Peck or Gary Cooper was shy. He has a way about him that is not stupidly macho. He’s good with conversation but not in a chatty way, like it's all about him. My instant impression: he’s rock solid - stable.”

While the 1950s may be viewed as the most conservative decade in twentieth century America, that didn’t stop a 35 year old Gene from chatting up a woman 15 years his younger. “I loved the idea he was older,” says Adrienne. “We talked about spiritual things right away; just basic belief systems. There was a ‘positiveness’ about him - a gentleness.

“He was very handsome, too. I loved all his features. I thought immediately, ‘What a terrific nose. I'm going to have gorgeous children!’

“I always had this theory that if your first born is a daughter, she has the father's nose. So, if the father has a big honker, she's gonna have a huge nose! After we were married, he told me it was the first thing he thought of, too.”

Adrienne had Tony and Maria in her head, but Gene reset all her expectations. “The only thing I spelled out was ‘Tall, dark and handsome’ and Gene wasn't. His hair was sandy colored. He was bald in the middle, although not as tragic as he made it then! I just looked at his facial bones and features. I thought he was really very handsome and had a great butt! You know, it was all there.

“Gene told me his age right away because he felt he owed it to me to be honest. Prior to him, I was dating a dentist my age and it got booooring. My mother was salivating in the corner, dying for me to marry him. It was every Jewish mother's dream to marry a dentist or a doctor, and I just couldn't. He listened to elevator music! I couldn't believe it. I felt like I was with someone ancient.”

Exhibiting an excess of manly bravado, Gene drove Adrienne home and made a beeline for her parents’ place.

“My father was very pleasant, but I know that my mother wanted to kill him. She said, ‘I knew that this was going to be the person you were going to marry, because you had never said to me before, 'Mom I met a man.’

“So, A) he's thirty-five - every mother’s dream for her twenty-year-old daughter; and B) he was born Jewish, but his family were practicing Christian Science. Both my father's parents, and my mother's mother, were immigrants. We’re talking about the war years with Hitler and Jews. Nothing was discussed about the war or the Holocaust in my entire childhood. My parents were not proactive politically. They didn’t wear their pain on their sleeve. They completely sheltered me from harsh realities.”

Adrienne and Gene were engaged three months later. She knew Gene as an artist, but had not yet discovered his history in comics. Gene had shown her some of his paintings done in his private time, so Adrienne was in for quite a shock when she met him for lunch up at the Paul Sherry Studio, on 47th Street. “It's these stick figures for school films, for driver's education or health, like in slide form you grow up seeing. They are just a little beyond stick figures.

“I couldn't believe it. Suddenly, him being an artist was of interest to me. I just couldn't believe that one could paint the way he did, and yet to earn a living he had to draw stick figures! It was absolutely unacceptable to me! I’m huge on ‘injustice.’ I was immediately struck by what it must feel like inside a human being, to not be able to show it – express it – reach beyond it!”

The image of the bullpen at the Paul Sherry studio played in sharp contrast to the antics of Stan Lee running crazy in the 1940s Bullpen of Marvel Comics, where Gene tutored under his mentor, Syd Shores

“Gene was always falling asleep at the Sherry studio and was paid a paltry amount of money. He would try to embellish a little, put some folds in that jacket of the kids running after the ball between two cars. The art director wouldn’t allow it. It was nothing against Gene, but he knew his client would not accept that. It had to be a formula thing. Gene was just frustrated, sad, and tired.”

Once Adrienne discovered Gene’s love of comic books, she was determined to end his soul-crushing days at the Sherry studio. “We got married on Valentine's Day of 1963. We went down to City Hall, grabbed a hot dog and went before a judge. He needed a secretary to type out the marriage certificate and said, ‘Does anybody know one?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, me!’ He says, ‘Well, sit down, you're going to type your own.’

“We married and spent the weekend at the Waldorf Astoria. Then came reality. We moved into a cheap old hotel, the Bretton Hotel, for a month in Manhattan on the Upper West Side until we could get ourselves an apartment in Queens. This was a rooming house hotel that had seen better days, or never saw better days, but it had a bedroom, a living room and it was right on Broadway. As far as I was concerned, that was great.

“Gene had to set up an art board in the living room. He had a little western story, ‘Fury In The Streets!’ from Stan he was working on after hours that was published in Kid Colt #112, but no promises of anything more. He was upset he wasn't really back in the comics industry. Before we were married, he really didn't speak about what he had already accomplished in comics. He would just speak of his hope to get steady comic work again like he once had. He was hoping that maybe after this job, Stan would make a commitment and that he'd get steady work. What would happen, though, was he'd finish a story and then maybe he'd get one a short while after. Nothing at all was steady - nothing was hot.

“He had no xeroxes or issues of comic books he had drawn. I just had the examples of his paintings and the current Western he was working on to know he could draw. The most compelling thing about Gene was he was an ‘artist’ to the depths of his being. There was no considering anything but art. Neither he nor I gave that another thought - ever.”

Symbolic of Gene’s early struggles to regain his footing in the industry he loved – symbolic of the scratching and clawing a comic book freelance artist endures - came in the form of the first job Gene received shortly after their marriage. With only the odd five-page story having been thrown his way, Dell Comics hired Gene to produce a thirty-five page Ben Casey story in March of 1963.

“Certainly, we were afraid to hope that there would be more, especially since Gene was not familiar with this company. He didn't think there would be any future, because he had no past with Dell. He wanted to be in comics, but he didn't want to be with DC Comics. He really had his eye on being back at Marvel.”

The Ben Casey job was the break point for Gene and Adrienne. It led to the first of many career- altering moments in which Adrienne assisted Gene.

“The minute he got the Dell job, I told him to go and quit Paul Sherry. He said ‘Are you crazy? We'll starve!’ I remember riding home on the subway - I was still working myself – and I said to him, ‘I would rather starve than to see you work beneath what you are capable of doing as an artist.’ He quit immediately with only the Dell job between us and nothing. We had nothing because, three months after we married, I was pregnant and quit my job.”

The significance of Adrienne’s belief in his career was not lost on the artist. Said Gene, “She has always been marching to a different drummer. From the day I met her, she had this inner strength that could make you believe almost anything. She made me feel things could happen that I never thought would. I was hated doing the film. There were moments when I actually fell asleep at my art table. She visited me one day, sized up what I was doing and what a waste it all was. All I remember was I found myself walking out with Adrienne on one arm and my art table being dragged along with the other. A taxi was hailed and all three of us drove off into the sunset.”

Aside from the Ben Casey job, Gene had no other work at the time. Thanks to the financial strain, the story - so many pages – seemed to take forever. “By the time Gene did it, we were down to absolutely nothing except a penny jar. He had to take fifteen pennies to buy his token to get the bloody check from Dell!”

Enough steady work began to roll in, mostly from DC Comics on drab romance stories, relieving the emotional burden of being a freelance artist without a steady gig and a child on the way. Returning to work for Stan Lee and Marvel Comics, however, remained Gene’s dream.

“Frankly, we prayed over it. Later in 1964, DC approached him about working exclusively for them, but he had a bad taste in his mouth with one of the editors there who gave a very rough time back in the 1950s. He never really had it easy there - very intimidating.”

The page rate at DC is superior, but it never offers Gene the freedom, or the joie-de-vive, of Lee’s Marvel. “There was other questionable requests and, in general, a too heavy-handed, serious approach to work at DC and Marvel was always a good ‘fit’ for Gene. He liked simply being given the assignment, being left alone, and not picked on when he would deliver it.

“He loved Marvel stories. To Stan and Gene, it was truly playtime, like ‘Hey Kids! Let’s put on a show!’ They were very (are very) boyish, instinctively sweet and fun loving – both of them.”

Finally, in the spring of 1965, the call came.

“We were in our second apartment in Queens, already with our daughter, Nancy. A call comes from Stan in the evening and he wants Gene to work there exclusively. Gene said, ‘Well, what are you offering’?”

(to be continued tomorrow night in Part Two...)

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