Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Gene and Adrienne Colan: A Love Story (P2)

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.

In memory of Gene passing last Thursday, we're representing the first chapter of my book (slightly edited). Click HERE to read part one of our three-part series. Every quote is in Adrienne's voice. Onto part two...

"I Have To Live With This Guy!" (published Aug '02)

Chapter One - Gene and Adrienne Colan (Part Two)

In the early-to-mid 1960s, Stan Lee was not above using the “Why, you’ll be working for Marvel!” line when trying to hook back artists he desperately needed (knowing he could count on them to consistently produce product). Stan also called John Romita, offering far less than DC. Lee would feign indignation at their refusal, but he would always call back the next day with a five-dollar page rate increase that cinched the deal.

Gene Colan had a quiet pride about him, and didn’t leap at Stan’s bait. “Stan got a little huffy and said, ‘Look, forget about it. I don't need this. Quite frankly, we’re getting a lot of artists from Spain and can pay them way less than you and they're sensational. We are not going to need you anyway.’

“Gene said, ‘Alright, Stan,’ and ended it cordially. The phone rang the next morning. We were thrilled. $5 a page was money for us at the time! Marvel was truly where Gene wanted to be working, but he just felt it wasn't right for Stan to ask him to be exclusively Marvel, offering nothing other than being exclusively theirs. Gene and Stan have never been able to be cross with one another for more than a minute.”

The dream had been achieved. By the summer of 1966, Gene began his nine-year run on the Lee / Bill Everett creation, Daredevil. The work was steady enough for Gene and Adrienne to eventually move into their own home. There would be twelve years of creative harmony before the walls came crumbling down in the worst way imaginable.

The greatest myth of Marvel Comics in the 1960s: an actual bullpen, a gang of raucous comrades, whooping it up all day in the tiny offices at 625 Madison Street. Such is the charm of Marvel Comics during the “Silver Age of Comics.” Stan Lee’s hyperbole made you want to believe it all. In fact, Gene had worked at the only true Bullpen Marvel ever had – in the Empire State Building of the late 1940s.

Like ninety percent of all people who came through Marvel, they worked at home, or in their own studios. In his earliest days at Marvel, Gene, Adrienne and baby lived in their Queens apartment; one room devoted to the baby's nursery, a living room/dining room combination, a tiny little kitchen, and their bedroom.

In these cramped quarters, a freelance artist must be able to exist in harmony with his environment. Distractions are the work-for-hire’s worst enemy, but the toll is not the artist’s to absorb alone. “Gene had a corner of our bedroom. He’d get to work around 10am, but then days would end like 12am, 1am, 2am and very often not. I would go to sleep with the light on. He put in so many hours to do as much work, and be as perfect, as he could.”

With Gene trapped indoors by his career, the age difference finally became a factor, manifesting itself in the cultural divide between the woman in her early twenties and the man closing in on forty. “I would say in my twenty-year-old enthusiasm, ‘Want to go to Woodstock?’ Like who wouldn't? How can you not be part of it? He would, in his 36-year-old voice, ‘What? Are you nuts?’ There was some stress in that regard.

“He also came from an era of showing a lot of attention and respect to parents. In 1963, I'm still twenty years old. I grew up with East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Splendor in the Grass with Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty. He looks back now and thinks I had every right to expect to see concerts more and parents less... and he adores the Woodstock album!”

The lack of time spent together due to work took the greatest toll. “It wasn't too bad in Queens because he could work up to nearly the last minute, and a restaurant and a movie were nothing more than a walk or five minute drive away. When we moved out in '66 to the suburbs - which was Gene's heart's desire - my feelings hadn’t changed. I wanted to stay in the city. That was the lifestyle I liked.

“I said, ‘When did you know you hated the city,’ and he said, ‘When I was six!’ He always felt that it was crowded, doesn't like the pace, found people intolerant and had some really bad experiences. He’s been held up at knife point. He's been chased after with knives. He's had to stand up to bullies and get beaten around, but won the respect of the bully because he stood up to him. It may have been awkwardly, but he attempted to beat the crap out of the bully, so I guess the bully gave him an ‘A’ for effort.

“I, myself, have been pick-pocketed twice, maybe three times in Manhattan and I see no dark side. I just feel alive. I think if he never saw the city again, it would be too soon. He tells me now that he enjoys the city going back more as a tourist, but I don’t believe him.”

The dichotomy was that Gene’s work for Marvel had such an urban, downtown Manhattan feel to it. “In spite of himself, what is more interesting to draw? What's more edgy than a street scene, interesting architecture, garbage cans, and chain link fences?”

Ripping and snapping became Gene’s tools of trade out in the ‘Burbs. “He worked from reference he had already been collecting since 1946. He kept it current with taking pictures of street scenes. Even when we lived in Queens, even when we moved out to New Jersey, and even living here in Vermont, when he wants a particular scene, we simply go into the city with his camera. Most of his reference material is his own angles and perspective, but Gene has an extensive file of pictures of everything from every imaginable source. I usually say, ‘No magazine or book is safe around him!’

“When we got to the suburbs in 1966, and for all the eighteen years we stayed there, those were very tough years, in terms of the hours he put in. He would come out of his room for maybe lunch and definitely dinner, which we'd have with the children, then right back up to the art board. He'd come down for certain things. We'd all say, ‘Daddy, come down the Waltons. Let's go!’

“Outside of that he was really in his room. That was very hard on me because I didn't fit into the suburbs at all. Even though I had friends, I felt very lonely.”

Luckily for Gene, he was an artist who preferred background noise when he drew. In the days of their Queens apartment, daughter Nancy “wasn’t more than 6 footsteps away. Day or night, raising her never interrupted with his work.”

Their son Eric spent a great deal of time looking over his father’s shoulder. Such is the trade off of having your father around twenty four hours a day, just within reach, but forced to be a million miles away in the fantasy world he’s creating to make sure the roof stays over their heads.

“On one hand, it was all right for the children but, looking back on it, it wouldn’t be what a modern father would consider proper raising of a child at all. He didn’t like sports, so he wouldn’t be taking Eric to any kind of games. On the other hand, Eric was a born artist; he didn’t feel he missed anything. When I’d leave to shop or run an errand, he’d sneak in and show the kids scary movies. I wanted to kill him!”

Perhaps it was the insane assortment of sounds emanating from Gene’s in-home studio that produced such a unique style. “We’d get calls from friends, saying, ‘Turn down the volume!’ It could just blow your eardrums out.”

Gene’s ambient music consisted of classical and modern classical music and...sound effects? “In those days, he was big on reel-to-reel or eight track. He would record dialogue from the audio of films and would play back entire films for himself while drawing, driving me nuts.

“It was horrible, because most of the time he was not playing the kind of music I wanted and, even if he did, it was just unbearably loud. He would just be in his own world.

There’s no escaping the stress of trying to raise children, who are on their own body clock, while a freelancer burns the midnight oil. “I’d be in the bedroom trying to sleep, but not really. The light would be burning in the next room and I would have to say, ‘Will you come to bed already?’”

Working continued even outside the home. “We would see parents on the weekend, mostly mine, therefore, we could count on one day of the weekend where he would not be working. When they’d leave, though, he’d go back to work. My Dad rigged him up an art table in their basement so Gene could work while visiting in Fairlawn if it was a real tight deadline.”

Two factors played into Gene’s decision to never say never to Stan Lee’s constant supply of stories - money and ego. “There was a fear, definitely about money, but Gene loved being put on all these titles at Marvel. He loved the opportunity to show what he could do.

“It was also about ego. If he has a shot to do X, Y, and Z characters all in one month, he wants to be the one to do it. When he was a kid, he wanted to be a famous artist. I think that’s dear and sweet and it charmed me.”

As with most artists from the 1950s and 1960s, Gene was completely oblivious to any sense of fandom. To whom was Gene showing off? “His editor, himself, and the fans that he imagined were reading. He didn’t think of them so much as fans, but readers - readers of comics. He hoped they noticed he was trying to make it feel more like a movie, more like going on a trip, where you’re suddenly not aware of anything else but the reality of what’s on the pages/screen. Artistically, that really turned him on very big.”

There are traps involved in the artistic process, and many not of the creative variety. Gene took on the artistic reins of Dr. Strange and the door to a bottomless pit opened. Gene almost fell in. “He began to take amphetamines to keep pace. Eventually, I demanded he stop those pills. I feared he’d bring on a heart attack. He then discovered cough syrup with codeine, but eventually stopped all those things.”

Letters to the editor were the only connection a creator may have had to the readership. Stan Lee turned the letters’ pages into raucous events, but it wasn’t until comic book conventions began in New York that artists like Gene felt the impact of their work. Adrienne and Gene attended one of the first conventions ever, across from Madison Square Garden in the late 1960s.

“Whoever was running this convention secured a balcony level of this hotel with tables going around the balcony area. We didn’t know what to expect. We walked into the lobby and he was besieged by a bunch of fans asking for sketches. Before he could even get upstairs to his table, he was in the lobby drawing sketches and signing autographs. It was so flattering. We were both dumbstruck!

“That was the first awareness that ‘Wow! There’s something going on here! There are specific fans that know specific artists and Gosh, you’ve got a bit of a name!’ We couldn’t wipe the smile off our face the whole train trip back to New Jersey. It began to snow and Gene and I thought this was the most romantic night of our lives – like a movie.”

For a proud man like Gene, who had seen the bottom, this adulation only egged him onward. For Gene it also helped cement his bond with Stan Lee. “They were gentlemen of a certain era, cordial, sweet by nature, ‘except if you talk about money!’ Gene would always say.”

From a working perspective, Stan allowed Gene the freedom to be the storyteller. “Stan would just call and give a five-minute synopsis of a seventeen-page story and it just didn’t get better for Gene. Even when he would do wrong on a rare occasion, he would get a call from Stan saying, ‘Enough with the car chases, Gene!’”

Gene became infamous for cinematically shooting scenes at different angles, and didn’t hesitate to draw out a scene for full emotional, or physical, impact. “What Stan would say was ‘The pacing! Why do you use the whole page for Tony Stark putting on his tie? And a whole page with the hand on the doorknob!’”

Lee knew how to handle each artist’s unique ego – especially the fragile ones. “Even in those days, the complaints weren’t intimidating. It was almost like a loving, ‘I know I’ve got a mad, little genius scientist here. I’m not going to harm you, hurt you, or make you correct or change.’ It was almost like begging, like, ‘Please, watch the pacing’!”

The early 1970s saw the Comics Code Authority relax its rules on the inclusion of all things ‘horrific,’ including vampires. Gene commenced work on what many consider his signature series, Tomb Of Dracula. It was a difficult series to write because the central character is a force of evil. Written by Marv Wolfman, the series spawned the vampire hunter, Blade, now with two Hollywood movies under his belt. Wolfman continued the Gene-happy trend of simply telling a story, rather than an overly wordy script with text panel-by-panel breakdowns.

“Marv was deeply respectful and appreciative that Gene would monkey with the script in order to allow Gene to display the visual the way he interpreted it. If Gene felt combining or cutting a page off in half in order to make that page become a cliffhanger - so you’d want to turn to that next page - he would pace it himself. In all those years, Marv never said ‘boo.’”

Scripts entered the household, but Adrienne believed imposing her point of view on Gene in this way was akin to his days at the Paul Sherry studio. “I have never seen or read one script in all the years – not from the very first day at that hotel - Gene has received from anyone. I’ve never heard the taped synopses Stan would give him. I was only aware of the duration of the phone call because very often I’d be sitting there in his room. If they ran ten minutes, that was a long conversation; five minutes would probably be more accurate. I have never given any direction or my point of view. My eyeballs should fall out, and my children’s eyeballs should fall out, if anybody thinks I am lying or even bending the truth!”

Two exceptions to this rule developed. “When Gene was working on Howard the Duck with Steve Gerber, I’d hear him in his room, day and night, roaring with laughter. He’d say, ‘You have got to read this!’ He’s just had the greatest admiration for Gerber. I’ve never known Gene to relish working on anything as much.

“The other was D.C.’s Jemm, Son of Saturn. ‘This Greg Potter, he’s terrific,’ and he would always ask me to read the opening. Each story would start out with a special preface that would be in a box or a scroll in the first panel. It was always very thought provoking and would set the tone for the story.

“I would see the pages as published comics for the simple reason that all those years that Marvel was sending him the monthly or bimonthly subscriptions, I would always shout out, ‘The package is here!’ It was the manila envelope with the rubber band around it.”

Further validation came from opening up those envelopes, with Adrienne boosting Gene’s self-confidence by pouring over his finished books. “I would always play this game - especially in these past years where he’ll get just a small story fit in with other people’s work - where I’d always go, ‘Now there’s this, and this, and this. Oh, and then there’s this.’“

The “this” was Gene’s work. “I’d line them up and it would make him smile – very quiet, very humble, but he’d smile. My point was you’d go, ‘Oh, this story, this story...what’s this?’ Even if you thought, ‘This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen,’ his would be the one that would make you stop.”

Gene appreciated two artists more than any others and the incoming package of books provided a monthly ritual for husband and wife. “He ran for two comics - Buscema’s and his own. There would be a silence that would fall over us looking at Buscema’s. Gene feels John Romita is brilliant - the quintessential American artist.

“Gene would check out maybe Joe Kubert or Gil Kane, but it was John’s work he had to see before even his own. It was John’s that took his breath away and by whom he measured himself. Other than the ones mentioned, there would be like a relieved ‘snicker’ on my part that Gene’s was superior.”

Even if they didn’t read it, Gene was so obsessed with having the reader always being able to follow the story from the art. Adrienne herself rarely read the actual stories. “Gene always wanted to keep the suspense alive for himself, so whether it was Marv’s or Steve Gerber’s or Greg Potter, he did not read ahead with scripts he would get. Of course, if it was just Stan’s synopsis, there was nothing to read.”

Within Gene’s work, she recognized photos she had taken for him, or ones he had taken of the children and her. “He would use Playboy a lot for Clea or the Black Widow. He always needed somebody with a raincoat on, or a broad-brimmed turned down hat and a gun or a rifle! We have more photos of Erik in some sort of ridiculous falling type of position in his underpants, so Gene could get the body structure. Our daughter despised it, but she would be a woman or a man in a particular position from a particular angle and light source. We have the most bizarre collection of family pictures!”

Gene refrained from using popular models or actresses of the day. “He is a notorious beauty parlor magazine swiper. He has files that are very specific: women looking right, women looking three quarters to the left, women looking up, women screaming. There’s like ten different categories. Doctors throughout the world are missing magazines that are all in my home!”

Gene continued his dream ride, a dream in the sense of working without interference for a company he loved. Perhaps he could have made more in another field, but he could never been anything but an artist. The consistent work gave him a sense of security, financially, emotionally and creatively, but it was all about to be ripped out from under him by one man.

The Devil in Disguise, as the song says, is Jim Shooter.

Martin Goodman owned Marvel Comics since the 1930s, but if you asked half the kids in America, Stan Lee ran the show. As long as it was the Goodman’s family business, Stan stood as a buffer between the business realities and creative needs of his artists.

After Goodman sold out in 1968 to the conglomerate Cadence Industries, the buffer began to weaken. Stan himself stepped down in September of 1972, leading to a parade of writers thrust into a position that forced them away from the creative side of the business. None of Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Gerry Conway, or Archie Goodwin lasted more than three years each - Conway for only a month. Goodwin, considered by all to be the consummate editor, returned the company to profitability. He was keenly aware that proper people management gets the most of out of individuals with varied egos and unique personalities.

Goodwin resigned in late 1977, and left the door open for one of the most contentious men to ever walk through the doors of a comic-book company. On the first day of 1978, Jim Shooter became the editor-in-chief and lasted ten years in the position before being ousted by the corporation and burned in effigy by its creators.

Born in 1951, Shooter was a comic book prodigy, selling three Superboy stories to DC Comics at the age of fourteen. Shooter appeared at Marvel as an associate editor in 1976, also writing for The Avengers, Ghost Rider and Daredevil. Once assigned the role of leading the company, Shooter distinguished himself from his predecessors by jumping into the financial end with great vigor. All too appropriate for the 1980s’ definition of corporate mogul, Shooter soon simply wanted it done his way or the highway.

Argue over whether events like the birth of the direct market bolstered Marvel’s fortunes in the late 1970s, or whether it is solely Jim Shooter’s direction - everyone else does. He came in a blaze of glory, and left the same way. The only given was that, in every subsequent interview Shooter gave, the turmoil with the creative staff at Marvel during his tenure was never his fault. Shooter always had his loyalists, but the cause of every failing he recites lands in someone else’s lap, usually in the hands of those pesky creators who couldn’t take his directions.

There may never be a story more symbolic of creator versus businessman in the comic book industry than the story of Gene Colan and Jim Shooter. Gene’s fall from the high towers of Marvel, a fall from which he never truly recovered, in terms of consistent employment, underscores the thin line of the tightrope every work-for-hire artist in this industry walks on a job to job basis.

It became quite clear, quite quickly to Adrienne and Gene that Shooter either hated Gene’s style, or believed him to be incompetent as an artist. To this day, the bile Adrienne exhibits when mentioning Shooter’s name is very vivid.

One can argue the intent of Shooter, whether it was personal against Gene, or simply a professional man guiding his company’s ship in the necessary direction, but one can’t argue that Jim Shooter almost broke Gene Colan financially, emotionally, spiritually, and artistically. Financially, Shooter most certainly turned the Good Ship Colan into the Titanic, but of immediate concern to Adrienne was Gene the man.

A post-Gerber, Howard the Duck story was burned into Adrienne’s memory, but that was only the beginning. “The corrections were just so unbelievable. It was the amount of the corrections and the nature of what Shooter would ask.

“In all the years I had been married to him, I never ever heard him ask me anything about a script or what should be drawn. There we were, in a Chinese restaurant in Red Bank, and he’s asking me about a panel. He’s saying, ‘This is what I drew but this is what’s being asked of me. I just can’t see it because if I did, then the person who’s supposed to be flying on the top of the room would be on the bottom of the room.’”

Across the table, Adrienne’s watched her husband return, spiritually, emotionally, to the Paul Sherry Studio. “That was exactly what was going on. I was literally watching him just emotionally crumble in front of my face. It was a horrible thing to watch. He didn’t want the corrections, but he didn’t want to lose his job. Those were years where you got better contracts if you were in good favor. Those were years where Marvel was giving you vested interest.”

Then. Jim Shooter fired Gene Colan.

Stan Lee temporarily smoothed over a return, warning Gene about the cliff on which he’s standing. Gene returned, but the corrections kept coming.

To be attacked on a creative level was one concern, but Gene had a two-child family for which he had to provide. It was pulling the proud man apart. “I didn’t even realize all of that stuff was factoring in for him, in terms of why he was allowing himself to be tormented this way. He couldn’t even understand what was being asked - notes saying ‘your artwork defies the laws of gravity’ and things that would undermine his confidence.”

(to be concluded tomorrow night in Part Three...)

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