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...)

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...)

Gene Colan and Syd Shores

After creating my (for the moment, defunct) Steve Ditko website – Ditko Looked Up – in 1998, I embarked on creating a similar (for the moment, defunct) site for my Golden Age comic-book heroes, Bill Everett, Alex Schomburg, and Syd Shores.

Having discovered that Syd was a primary influence on Gene Colan’s work and his career, 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.

In memory of Gene's passing last Thursday, here are Gene Colan's words on one of the first-generation comic-book artists:

A Tribute to Syd Shores
By Gene Colan, August 3, 1999

There was a magic to Syd Shores' work that eluded me. Oh how hard I tried to imitate it.

My first real professional start in the comic book business began in the summer of 1946, and that is when I met Syd Shores. He was the head man in the Art Department of Marvel Comics. I was twenty years old and was hired on to illustrate whatever subject matter came my way. I was flying by the seat of my pants...hoping that everything would turn out. I didn't want the seams to show but that was all part of the learning process and Syd helped me wade through.

I remember working on a panel showing a young girl making up in front of a mirror. No matter how hard I worked at it, constantly looking for a certain naturalness, the worse it turned out. The truth was I just didn't know how to do it. I brought the problem over to Syd. He sat about three art tables behind me. In less than a minute, he sketched out the entire thing and with such ease.

His realistic style, for some time, became an obsession with me. His characters looked like the real thing. Whatever he had them doing was as real to life as you could get.

Syd Shores could draw a horse from any position and all out of his head. His cowboy heroes and villains would literally leap off the page. Their gun belts were real...their hats were real...everything about them you could almost touch!

Syd gave me the biggest push to start me off.

He moved about with a slow Robert Mitchum gate...always with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He had seen action in World War II, but seldom spoke about it.

After about a three year stint with Marvel, I left to go out on my own into the freelance field. The last time I met Syd again was many years later at a gathering amongst other fellow artists. He appeared with his wife that evening and it was plain that he was quite upset. He was not getting very much work to do in the business. New people were coming on board and they were the ones the publishers of comic books favored.

What A Terrible Mistake They Made in Syd's Case! He was a seasoned veteran and we all could have learned so much from him.

Shortly after that meeting, Syd Shores passed away. He will remain in my heart forever. I still think of him quite often.

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.