Sunday, June 26, 2011

"Why did Gene Colan exist?"

(RIP Gene Colan, Comic-Book Artist: September 21, 1926 to June 23, 2011)

The answer to the question became obvious in short order to anyone welcomed into the comic-book family of Gene and Adrienne Colan. Tom Field, part of that family, made an apt (if slightly extreme) comparison in his Comics remembrance piece, noting the similarities between Gene and (still alive) Brian Wilson, singer/songwriter of the Beach Boys, both virtuosos in their medium.

Wilson went so far over the edge, emotionally (and remarkably came back), so that’s what makes me bristle. Noting Gene’s similar artistic sensitivities is one thing, but I don’t think it answers the above question that could really apply to both men: why did they exist? If something exists, it is, and it sustains, and sustains on (usually) some kind of self-generating energy.

In conversations with Gene, and about Gene (mainly with Adrienne, but also with Gene’s peers), and through observations of his life and lifestyle, it is clear that Gene Colan, like all other almost-purely artistic souls, existed to communicate.

That sounds simple, but I believe that even someone as “solitary” as a Steve Ditko would cease to exist if they couldn’t communicate with an audience what is in their heart, mind and soul. Colan and his peers do it through the pencil; Wilson, McCartney and Lennon did it through voice and fingers. People like Colan reveal themselves, upon deeper inspection, to be so driven to communicate that it often leaves them like one of the characters that Colan drew – (Ditko’s) Dr. Strange: a man with one foot in two worlds, belonging to neither, losing himself in both, lest he lose his mind completely.

Gene Colan existed to communicate through his artwork. At various times in his career, when this was threatened, he very nearly ceased to exist, and the objects of those threats became a thorn in his side for life, never to be forgotten or forgiven. And if he didn’t have Adrienne Colan at his side throughout his life, he might not have stopped communicating long enough to eat, sleep, or even acknowledge his children. He appeared to operate at times in such a vacuum that all he really knew was the worlds he was created. The outside world, the “real” world, was Adrienne’s job. Gene’s passion was so overwhelming, so volcanic, that Adrienne had to build a moot around him so that he and the family could survive.

A search of the Grand Comics Database turns up over 3200 entries for “Gene Colan” but that’s barely part of the story. The scary fact is that, amongst his peers in the 1960s, if you sat down Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Gene Colan in front of a tribunal of the greatest artists in the history of “art” and said “impress!”, the winner would likely be Gene Colan. He was that good with a pencil. He was a fantastic sequential artist, but he was a better artist that just about anyone who’s existed in the comic-book field. Line ‘em all up – the best of the best from 1939 to present, at the point in their careers when they were at their best – and say “draw me the best scene you can”, an audience of non-comic-book people would likely pick Gene’s work above all comers. Russ Heath would dazzle, as would Lou Fine, or Bill Everett, but Gene...

What also made Gene unique in the field? If you saw many of his pencil commissions in the late 1990s/early 2000s, he was one of the few who, when not restrained by the pump-it-out monthly mechanics of the industry, legitimately got better as he got older. Such was his passion for communicating through his artwork that he never hacked it out later in life, never cut corners when his peers were jettisoning the interesting details from their work in the name of alleged “simplicity/clarity”.

Others on the Internet have done a great job relating their thoughts on his stylings, and their favourite work, but what fascinated me – beyond what the talent produced on the page – was this overflowing passion, this need to exist by communicating on a blank canvass, and how palpable it was, and the manifestations of it. Much like Brian Wilson, Gene was a sweet man at his core, but he also had a fire in him too that could come out when he believed that Adrienne wasn’t “guarding the gate”, i.e., deflecting the real world’s distractions. It was fascinating to have an absolutely coherent conversation with the man at a convention or signing or for an interview, so articulate about his work, and all his other passions that informed his work, but then I could call him on the phone at home, and he was so far in his world, that he wouldn’t remember who I was until he forcibly had to pull himself back to reality to engage in a brief dialogue about something functional.

All of this passion – this singular devotion to communicating through his artwork – quite literally reshaped my first book, I Have To Live With This Guy!, which debuted in 2002 from Twomorrows. Time for a little context: when I discovered the web version of comic-book fandom that sprouted in the late 1990s, I had already created my Steve Ditko website – Ditko Looked Up – in 1998 (which led to all my connections that resulted in my about-comic books writing career) and was embarking on a similar site for my Golden Age heroes, Bill Everett, Alex Schomburg, and Syd Shores.

Having discovered that Syd was a primary influence on Gene Colan’s work, I sent Gene an email through his website, asking if he’d like to write a piece for the site on Syd. He graciously agreed to do so (which I’ll post tomorrow, since the site’s been down for a while now – too much time writing books these days).

The internet saved Gene Colan from the graphite morgue of history. When his website debuted in the late 1990s, and the Gene Colan mailing list was established, he blossomed again. But it was his wife, Adrienne, that really (once again) managed his career and life, and it was (without question) her presence as the mother to all Colan fans that drove the renaissance of Gene Colan.

The 2001 San Diego Comicon (my first outside of Canada) changed my life in many ways. My first published work – an article on Ditko for Comic-Book Artist #14 – was released at the show, but it was everyone I was to meet that was dazzling. All the heroes of my childhood from the Silver Age of Marvel were present at that show, and it really was the last time they would be. I wrote this on my website after the Con, related to my first meeting with Gene:

It was the 4pm to 5:30pm panel featuring a surprise birthday party for Gene Colan that no one will forget. They tried to trick Gene into believing he was on a panel for erasing techniques in comics and Mark Evanier had him tricked. The curtain came up, out came the cake, and other comics luminaries to sit on a panel about Gene Colan's work and influence. I've had the pleasure of corresponding with Gene and his wife Adrienne before, but I was able to tell Gene specifically what a gentleman he was. Gene was no doubt overcome by the outpouring, especially from the brother who stood up and said "black people LOVE YOU, man!" At the end of the panel, I approached gene colan yahoogroups list moderator Kevin Hall and asked him to introduce me to Adrienne Colan. I was worried she may not remember the name, but as soon as she heard "Blake Bell", you could tell every piece of praise spoken about her was true. Her greeting was exceptionally warm and she truly did make you feel like you were the only one in the room. Gene was still talking to people at the dais, but that didn't stop Adrienne from introducing me to one of my favourite artists. Gene is as warm and friendly as his wife. I would end up sitting beside Adrienne for the Marvel Bullpen panel on Saturday and spend time with them on numerous occasions at their table, and they were always generous with their attention and time.
The association with Gene and Adrienne Colan was essential to, on the night of the Eisner Awards, me coming up with the idea for interviewing the wives/spouses of cartoonists throughout the ages. I sold the idea of I Have To Live With This Guy! to John Morrow the next morning and Gene and Adrienne were the first I approached about being in the book.

Originally, I was going to order the chapter chronologically but, in my first interview for the book with Adrienne – over three hours – that passion in Gene, for Gene, that she was able to convey (and the dramatic story about the treacherous life of a cartoonist back in the day) made me completely readjust the entire scope of how I arranged the book. The Colans’ chapter moved right to the front of the book, theirs was that good of a story. In fact, back in early 2009, a couple of documentarians wanted to do a documentary based on my book – taking four of the subjects – and Gene and Adrienne were my number one choice to lead it off. Personal concerns got in my way of following up on that, but I wish I had now.

I never did “take advantage” of the opportunity to honour Adrienne when she passed away last June. The circumstances shook me to the core, and I didn’t want to “inflict” upon Gene memories that might upset him. Perhaps it wouldn’t have, but just didn’t want to take the chance. With both gone now, however, I think it’s fitting to re-tell the story of “Why did Gene Colan exist?” and at the heart of that was two love stories: that of Gene and Adrienne Colan, and that of Gene’s love for communicating through his artwork.

I’ve always dreamed of winning the lottery just so I could rewrite I Have To Live With This Guy! The content is all there, but I was just too “green” to do it the justice it truly deserved. I’m not going to obsess with completely re-writing the chapter and present it here, but I will clean it up a bit, and represent it over the coming days. I’ll follow each segment up with the never-before-published interview with Adrienne that was the basis for the chapter. I hope you all enjoy the tale of the Colans. It definitely has some heartbreak in it, but it’s a love story of two people and for the medium that we all love. See you tomorrow (Monday) night with part one.


  1. Blake,

    I have to say right up front, I really like what you said about Gene as an artist without peer in comics. My own art heroes in comics have always been Kirby and Ditko. Both as a fan, and even more so as a self-published cartoonist, those two men continue to inspire me in more ways than just creating comics.

    But Gene Colan...Wow. His amazing skills in rendering the human figure, and making even a vampire lord or a duck appear as real as a guy walking down the street...Well, talent like that cannot be forgotten. And I truly feel that Gene Colan could stand head and shoulders above all our favorite artists in that regard.

    I've never really considered Gene's art to be photo-realistic. We've got several qualified examples of illustrators in the sequential arts who fit that bill. No, Gene's work, to me, always captured the humanity behind the loose, expressive figures that populated his stories. Their emotional expressions on their faces, the posture of their bodies, that told me everything about the characters.

    I look forward to reading the rest of your entries on Gene and Adrienne. Thanks for sharing your memories of both.

  2. What a wonderful, heartfelt and sincere tribute, Blake. I know mama Adrienne and papa Gene would be proud all over again!

    Thanks for helping us keep his work and memory alive (and growing).

    Gene will live forever through his work and influence, and Adrienne through her influence on Gene and all of us fortunate enough to have known her.

    A special couple that made all of us feel special.

    Mike Pascale

  3. Well said, Blake. Thanks for sharing such thoughtful insights on Adrienne and Gene, whom we both respected and loved.

    To clarify my Gene Colan/Brian Wilson comparison, I see the similarities on three levels:

    * Their amazing talent to make the complex seem so simple. Wilson to this day can do it with harmony. With Gene, it was the unmatched ability to capture human expression. You can't teach that level of ability they both developed naturally.

    * Their emotional sensitivity. As I said in my Journal piece, both men could pick up the one negative vibe in a room full of avid fans. This sensitivity fueled their work, but I suspect it occasionally hampered it, too.

    * Their susceptibility to strong-willed people. Wilson has needed support and leadership throughout his adult life -- the most extreme case being his relationship w/'shrink to the stars' Eugene Landy. Gene had a series of run-ins with strong personalities such as Harvey Kurtzman, Bob Kanigher and Jim Shooter. And I'm sure you'd agree: He absolutely grew to depend on Adrienne stepping up and managing the daily details of his life and career.

    That's it. That's where I was coming from in making the comparison. No disrespect to either man -- I admire them immensely. But I do see remarkable similarities.



  4. Hi Tom. I completely agree with all three of your points above. I didn't take your piece at all as being disrespectful. It just saddens me to see how far Brian went (and came back, God bless) "out there".

  5. i enjoyed that book "i have to live with this guy" i've been searching online nice original written pages like yours here about my father.

  6. Hi Erik! I'm sorry that I haven't stayed in touch more recently (2010 was a very challenging year, personally-speaking). Check out the Facebook group I created (way back in 2008) for more great testimonies about your Dad -!/home.php?sk=group_27747758232&ap=1. I wish I had been at the funeral and I hope you and the family are holding up well.