Written by Bryan Stroud
Eugene Jules "Gene" Colan (born on September 1, 1926) was an American comic book artist best known for his work for Marvel Comics, where his signature titles included: the superhero series Daredevil, the cult-hit satiric series Howard the Duck, and The Tomb of Dracula, considered one of comics' classic horror series. He co-created The Falcon, the first African-American superhero in mainstream comics, and the non-costumed, supernatural vampire hunter Blade, which went on to appear in a series of films starring Wesley Snipes. Gene was inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2005.
Mr. Colan passed away on June 23, 2011 at the age of 84, following complications from cancer and liver disease.
Gene was such a wonderfully gentle soul and so generous with his time. Despite the fact that we only exchanged a few e-mails beyond this interview, I was very saddened when we lost him. His penciling technique was so ephemeral that many had a hard time inking it, but it was so breathtakingly beautiful, you almost wish a lot of it had never seen ink. Ladies and Gentlemen, Gene "the Dean" Colan!
This interview originally took place over the phone on October 2, 2009.
Bryan Stroud: I understand your artistic tendencies started very early in your life.
Gene Colan: I think they started at about age 3.
Stroud: That’s pretty early.
Colan: Yes, my folks told me that anyway. I was drawing all the time. That much I do remember.
Stroud: Well, it led to great things.
Colan: Yes, it did. I had quite a run.
Stroud: According to my research your first work was for Fiction House in the 1940’s?
Colan: That’s right. I worked for them for a summer, along with Murphy Anderson. Do you know who he is?
Stroud: I sure do. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with him.
Colan: A very sweet guy. At the time I got the job I don’t remember seeing him, but somewhere along the line he came aboard and that was for the summer and right after that I went into the service. So it was just a summer position.
Stroud: That was a good way to get a start, though.
Colan: It certainly was. I enjoyed it. I met a lot of professionals there that gave me a few pointers. I was very young, of course and from then on I enlisted and did a stint over in Manila in the Philippines and then they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima while I was in basic training, I think, and then instead of being released they sent me over to the Philippines as part of the occupation forces. My service was not quite two years. Very quick. But I wound up doing some artwork for the Manila Times and then I got out.
My goal had always been to work for DC comics. I thought they were the MGM of entertainment at the time, but I could never make a breakthrough. It was very difficult. They told me to go back to school and so I did. I went to the Art Student’s League on the G.I. Bill for about a year or so and then I went back again and then I decided that DC was not the only publisher and the next one that I picked up on was Marvel. At that time, it was called Timely Comics and I went up there and met Stan Lee for the first time.
Evidently the art director saw a lot of merit in my work and they asked me to wait outside in the waiting room and I knew that was always a good sign. He came back in about 10 minutes and that was a good sign, too. If they don’t want you, it’s in and out. But 10 minutes is like waiting for 10 hours. And sure enough, they asked me to come inside where Stan was. It was during the lunch break and I remember distinctly that it was in the summer and he had a beanie cap on with a propeller.
Colan: Always a kid, Stan. He was fun to be with, and the window was wide open and a good stiff breeze would come in and that propeller would swirl around. (Chuckle.) I looked at this and thought, “Is this the managing editor or the editor or what?” So, he said to me, “You want a job in comics?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Then sit down.” All the particulars were handled then and there and I got the job and that was the beginning of a wonderful career. Not that it didn’t have its ups and downs, and it sure did, but that’s business for you. There isn’t a business in the world that doesn’t have its problems.
Stroud: You’re absolutely right, although its interesting that at the time you began comics was still not exactly considered reputable work.
Colan: No, it never was. I’ve seen people read comic books behind their newspapers on the trains in subways and commuter cars. Nobody would dare open a comic book out in the open. I think it may still exist to some extent, but the older fellows today don’t care. If they want to read a comic book, they’ll read a comic book. They don’t care who’s watching, and why should they?
Stroud: Exactly, and unfortunately the current crop aren’t really aimed at kids any more.
Colan: Yes and no, but generally no. It seems to fit into the 20-25 age bracket, but today anybody can come up to the table. I’ve seen elderly people come up who’ve been comic fans all their life. In the early days it was geared mostly for children, but it just simply turned into something else. Stan always said to me, “You know, you’re really not drawing for the children. This is really for kids, but you’ve got an adult point of view when you draw these things.” He was beginning to question whether I was on the right track or not. I always felt that I was and I didn’t view it any other way. Every story that he gave me was something that I took seriously. It was a serious story. No fooling around. This is not a comedy, it’s a serious story, and so I treated it as such. And that’s really how I began.
Stroud: It certainly bore fruit. You’ve had such a long and diverse career over the years.
Colan: Yes. The trick is to live long enough to see all the perks that just may come your way. (Chuckle.) But I never expected anything like what it’s turned into. Gee, I just loved to draw and tell stories. That was really the motivating factor in the comics and also, above all, to see my stuff in print. It was very exciting. It’s like let’s say you’re a movie star, or trying to be one, and you’re in a film for the first time and you go to a movie theater and see the playback and there you are, huge up there on the screen and it’s an exciting experience. Well, it was the same for me. To see my stuff in print and with color was unbelievable to me.
Stroud: It had to be extremely gratifying.
Colan: Very. I might have done something in school where they’d take some of my little drawings of cartoons and mimeograph them and even that was exciting because before that I’d never seen my stuff in print anywhere.
Stroud: It seems like initially Stan used you a lot in books that had anything to do with “Battle.” In your credits I saw “Battle Action,” “Battlefront,” “Battleground;” was that by choice or did it just happen to be the assignment?
Colan: Well, at first, I did a lot of crime stories. Then I graduated to other things. I worked for other publications along the way and I seem to have drifted into that genre of action. Doing things about the war or crime stories or even horror stories. Always very serious and very frightening and that’s just the kind of work I generally got.
Stroud: I know that quite a bit of the things you did…you already mentioned the horror titles and the war books and so forth. When they introduced the Comics Code, due to the things you were working on did that become a stumbling block?
Colan: Not to me, because I would edit my own work. If there was something I thought the kids shouldn’t be seeing, or anyone for that matter, I would edit it in a way that would convey the message, but not as obvious as actually showing it. It could be a silhouette on the wall of someone being stabbed or something, but just indicating it with the silhouette. That way you weren’t seeing it directly. So that’s the way I would do it. I thought it was also appropriate. It helped to develop even more interest in the story itself. It’s always what you can’t see that’s more frightening than what you can see.
Stroud: I agree completely and that’s a technique that seems to be getting lost in a lot of modern storytelling. It doesn’t seem like we’re left much to our imaginations any longer.
Colan: Well, I want to say this: Telling a story in comics and drawing a story are two different things. If you can do both then you’ve got it made, but if you’re a wonderful artist and you do mostly one panel situations, but can’t tell a story, it’s worthless. I shouldn’t say worthless, sometimes when you’ve got someone who is basically an illustrator they’ll have them illustrate a cover, but in the time when I started the artists themselves did the covers. I did a few. Most of it was storytelling and in the company they had their favorites and other artists to do just the covers, or mainly the covers. That’s how they ran it.
Stroud: It’s funny that you mention that. I’m holding right here in my hand a copy of a comic that you did the cover and the interior story it refers to in “My Greatest Adventure.” It was “Doom Was My Inheritance.” I don’t know if you remember that or not.
Colan: What’s the cover?
Stroud: It shows a man sitting in a wheelchair, interestingly enough, long before anyone thought of the Chief in the Doom Patrol or Professor X, and he’s sitting at this control panel, looking at a monitor and the balloon says, “You escaped my first trap, but you’ll never survive this one—never!” The monitor shows a man and a woman in a whirlpool.
Colan: I don’t even remember such a thing. Did I sign it?
Stroud: There’s no credits on it, but according to the Grand Comic Database you are the artist on the cover and the accompanying story. This was an anthology book and yours was the last story. As I look at it I can see what appears to be some Milt Caniff in your work.
Colan: Oh, yeah. You hit it right on the nail head. Milt Caniff, while I never knew him personally, his work always inspired me. I would go for the Daily News every week, the weekend edition with the full color page of his work and I was just drawn to it like a fly to flypaper. I loved his stuff. Just loved it. And I guess that was my biggest influence.
There were so many other great artists like Alex Raymond and Hal Foster, and they were really fine illustrators, but Milton Caniff had a very solid black and white look and since I loved to do things so heavily in black I was attracted to it.
Stroud: It really shows. The realism in this particular story, the inking in particular is just really impressive.
Colan: Did I ink it?
Stroud: You’re given credit as the inker.
Colan: I hated inking. I really didn’t like it because it took me way too long to do it; it made me nervous, because if you make a mistake with ink it’s very difficult to fix it so I stayed away from it. I could do things much more quickly with just pencils.
Stroud: Oh, yeah. In fact, another professional was just recently explaining things to me. He said that the typical pencil methods back in the day were layouts, which was just basically composition and not much else; and then breakdowns, which had a little more detail and therefore tended to pay a little bit better; and finally, full pencils which could easily work without any inking at all. Which one did you usually work in, Gene?
Colan: Full pencils. I never did layouts; I never did anything other than full pencils. At one time when they couldn’t recreate or copy pencils I tried to get Marvel to reproduce one of my stories in pencil and they did attempt to do it, but it came out awful. The printing system at that time wasn’t sophisticated enough to pick up the lines. So, it was a failure, but I knew I was heading in the right direction. Of course, today it’s not difficult at all. And since I love to work in pencil only I have no trouble having my work reproduced in pencil. The trouble that I do have is getting a good colorist.
Stroud: I can imagine, because that’s an art all unto itself.
Colan: Yes, and that’s the trouble I have because I think the colorists feel that since I like to do murky, dark subject matter that they have to color every panel in a dark way where you can’t really see what’s going on.
Stroud: You mentioned your preference for penciling. Did you have a favorite inker on your work?
Colan: Tom Palmer. Eventually I got to meet him and he did all the Dracula work. Other excellent inkers I liked were Frank Giacoia, Bill Everett and frankly I was happy with most of them. I would like to mention that in my recent work on Captain America, Dean White has done a fabulous job. He really knows highlighting. The Dracula series ran the longest for me. It must have been a good ten years of a once a month book. Can you imagine all that work?
Stroud: That’s a lot of pages.
Colan: Yes it is. I believe it was a monthly and Tom wasn’t there at first. I inked one or two and there were a couple of other inkers, but when he came in the whole face of it changed for the better. Tom is a first-class illustrator and painter so he knows a lot about a lot of stuff and he came along and made the work look great. You know a great penciler can put his work in the hands of just a fair inker and the work will come out fair, but if you’re not the best penciler and you put your work in the hands of a great inker it can look much better than you can usually do. It will wind up looking even better than what you did.
Stroud: It’s really interesting how someone gifted with a brush or a pen can really do that kind of thing. I’ve seen some examples over the years where you can distinctly tell who the inker was because they tended to almost make it their own.
Colan: That’s right.
Stroud: I was thinking of Sid Greene over at DC. His stuff always had a very familiar look to it, but interestingly when I was talking to Bernie Wrightston and he once inked over Steve Ditko, and he said the thing with Ditko was that his stuff is so strong that no matter who inks it, it looks like Ditko. So, I’ve seen it work both ways.
Colan: Yes. His work is very definite and you can’t go awry with it. I mean it’s all there. Lines to follow, but with my work there’s a lot of guess work involved. Is there something in the shadows or not? That kind of thing. It’s very difficult for many inkers to figure out what I had in mind. Also, I put a lot of half tones in. And I know full well they’re never going to use those half tones, because that means cross hatch work and line work and the artists can’t make money that way and I don’t blame them because it takes a lot of time to do that, but I put it in anyway. If they don’t want it, they can leave it out. But I’ve satisfied myself. When I’ve finished doing a page, that’s how I did it, and they accepted it that way. They never complained.
Stroud: And after all, if you’re not enjoying yourself, why do it at all?
Colan: That’s another element that can come up. You have to be careful. If you want to do your best work you just have to keep plugging away at it and it becomes a marriage really, to the work. You’d rather do that than anything. You have to love it. It’s a real love affair with the art work. Any kind of art work. Even composers have to love what they’re composing and the music they’re composing. Writers are the same. They need peace and quiet and a certain atmosphere around them to write a story. Painters, too. Usually they live in the country. I lived in Vermont for 13 years or so and I could have stayed there forever, but my wife thought there wasn’t really anything there to hold her attention because it was a one-horse town that we lived in. Manchester, Vermont, near Bennington. I loved it. I loved the atmosphere and everything about it. When it was Christmas you knew it was Christmas. And when it snowed, oh, brother. (Chuckle.) I was always kind of a loner and if you ever wanted to find me I’d be at my board.
Stroud: It seems to be a solitary exercise so you have to be comfortable and you have to really love what you’re doing.
Colan: Sure, absolutely it is that way, but you get lost in it. It’s a big adventure and you get lost in it. I do have my misgivings about it with family life and all because if you have children you’re sometimes not much of a parent. As a father I wish I could do it over again. I like to feel that I would do it differently, but I probably wouldn’t. It’s just the way I feel about the art. Now I’m glad to be able to take some time off from it a little bit. And I can’t do the stories any more. There’s too much art work involved and too much thinking in telling a good story and I’ve had it with that pretty much.
Stroud: Well, you’ve certainly put your time in.
Colan: I would think so. I did put plenty of time in.
Stroud: Amongst the many, many things you did, whether it was Western, Romance, Horror or superheroes, did you have a place where you felt most comfortable?
Colan: Probably with the horror. Probably with something like Dracula. I love that kind of thing. Something with a castle and a lot of fog. (Chuckle.) But I’ve been ridiculed by some artists in the past thinking I wasn’t able to draw the full figure and so I covered it up with a lot of fog.
Stroud: Oh, that’s ridiculous.
Colan: Well, people have their thoughts and that isn’t the case, but there it was and there’s always somebody who’s going to find some fault, but that goes with the territory and it’s something I can manage. Not easily, but I can manage.
Stroud: Well, you can’t please everyone, of course, and there are always those who are more vocal than others. Your work on Nathaniel Dusk was kind of unique because as you mentioned before that translated without the benefit of any inking. How did that one come about?
Colan: It started out not too well because they didn’t quite know how to do it at DC. They thought they knew how, but they really didn’t and it took some experimenting on their part to figure out the best way to recreate the pencils. And they did. They licked it. By the third issue I think they had it nailed pretty good. Then of course there was Dean Mullaney. Do you know who he is?
Stroud: I don’t think so.
Colan: Well, he’s put out a lot of comic books in his time and he’s still in the business. Before DC got a hold of it, he actually did it on a story of mine called Ragamuffins. They were the first ones to recreate the work from pencil where it looked really great. Don McGregor was the writer and I worked with him for a good number of years and that’s really where it started and they eventually began doing some art work for DC and then they took up the baton at that point and all the issues of Nathaniel Dusk were done that way.
Stroud: The kind of work you’ve done over the years often seems to translate best in black and white and when you were working for Warren that was really a showcase for it. Was that publisher a good fit for you?
Colan: Yes, it was. I inked my own stuff at that point, which I didn’t mind. It was a departure from what I usually did and I could put wash tones in by watering down the ink and it developed a nice tone of grey, so I could fiddle with it and get some effects that I could never get before, so I enjoyed that. It was short lived. I did some stuff for Archie Goodwin up at Eerie, I think it was, and Combat comics. I did a few war stories and one submarine story and the fans keep remembering those things. I made a breakout at that point. But again, it was short lived. I got back to doing regular stuff.
Stroud: Were there any writers that you particularly enjoyed interpreting their stories?
Colan: Yes, there was one. His last name was Greg Potter. He did work for DC and it was a new character and I had a crack at developing him. It didn’t last long, though. His writing style was so unique, so great. I loved his stuff and I just don’t know what became of him.
Stroud: What was the timeframe?
Colan: The early 70’s, I believe.
Stroud: And the character?
Colan: It was a creature from outer space that had come to Earth. Jemm, Son of Saturn. An alien of a type and I enjoyed it. There was a certain amount of philosophy, I thought, with his work. The way he wrote seemed to contain philosophical points of view and no one ever did that before. He included a little quote that began every new story and I loved it. I loved his writing. And of course, Steve Gerber on Howard the Duck. Funny, funny guy. I loved his work. I had a good long run with Howard.
Stroud: Yes, and you’re the co-creator of that character are you not?
Colan: Well, as far as the duck goes I don’t think I started it that way. There might have been one or two other tryouts for it, and it always turned out looking like Donald Duck. So that’s how I drew it. I was wondering how they got away with it, because it was such a steal from Disney that I said to myself, “Surely they’re going to hear about this.” And they did. The only thing that Disney wanted them to do really to make a difference was to put pants on Howard.
Colan: Can you imagine that? Put pants on him. So that’s what we did to sort of make it a little different than what Donald Duck looked like.
Stroud: Not bad. That’s a pretty small concession to have to make.
Colan: Very small.
Stroud: On another topic, do you think comic characters translate well to the big screen?
Colan: Yeah, they certainly do. It’s made a lot of money for places, the publishers and Hollywood. They’re always looking for something different to do and these days, of course, the special effects department needs to be working on something that requires special effects and they’ve got it down to such a degree that you can’t tell what’s real and what isn’t.
Stroud: Yeah, computer generated imagery has opened a lot of previously closed doors.
Colan: In the 40’s this kind of stuff was created by the studios themselves in the back room. They had to come up with ways of portraying things like the Invisible Man which was all trick stuff. They had to pioneer these things without the benefit of the technology we have available today. Even then they had some good stuff. I remember asking relatives and others, “How do they do that?”
Stroud: Now did you ever work on a syndicated strip?
Colan: Yes. Howard [the Duck] was syndicated and I worked on that for awhile and was actually burning the candle at both ends, working on the syndicated strip and also working on the publication version at Marvel. I didn’t want to leave the one for Marvel because if the syndication didn’t work out then I didn’t want to be left high and dry.
Stroud: Sure. Gotta keep those checks rolling in.
Colan: Well, being a family man, that was something I had to do. Eventually my health didn’t hold up too well keeping hours like that. It was terrible. So I let go of the syndication. I just couldn’t keep up with it.
Stroud: The regular deadlines are brutal enough without something like that. Joe Giella was telling me that the syndicate has no sense of humor when you blow a deadline. I guess the fines are pretty hefty.
Colan: Well, and they didn’t pay well to begin with. King Features, Field’s Features and the others. They just didn’t pay all that well. They work you to death and you’re just not making all that much out of it, but at least you don’t have to worry about where the next check is coming from. At least you know you have something that you can fall back on. But it’s a brutal way to work. Just brutal, because you’re working all the time, around the clock, late hours. It’s bad.
Stroud: There’s never really a day off. It’s a year-round thing.
Colan: Oh, you don’t have a life at all. It’s bad enough without it, but this is like solitary confinement.
Stroud: Did you have any editors you worked particularly well with, Gene?
Colan: I got along very well with Stan Lee. Always have, but I can’t always say the same for others. I also liked John Verpoorten, Roy Thomas and Marv Wolfman. Some were good, some weren’t, but there was one particularly bad one and I had this guy for a good number of years and he was just horrible. He was not connected with Marvel, he was connected with DC, back in the 1950’s. There’s no point in mentioning his name, but he was bad and I didn’t know enough to complain to the higher-ups that I needed to get to a different department to work with a different editor, because this one was a nightmare. But I put up with it and in the end, I lost my job there because I finally blew my top and said something to him he fired me on the spot and I couldn’t get back into comics there or anywhere else for about six years.
Stroud: Oh, good grief.
Colan: Yes, so I had to flounder around and look for work. I couldn’t get comic book work so I picked up work at studios. I did film strips and things like that. I worked for a banking advertising company and I did little illustrations. Some of them were cartoons and some of them were realistic. I worked for them for a couple of years. I hated the job. That was also when there was a big distribution problem with comics and they couldn’t get their books distributed and they damn near went out of business, including Marvel. And nobody could get work and of course I fell right into that category. So, I had to get work wherever I could. See DC was around. They held their ground. Marvel had a tough time, but they also held their ground. Between Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, they managed to hold on and keep things afloat. Martin Goodman owned Marvel and what a sweet fellow he was. Just wonderful. A real home guy and if you needed help personally he’d help you. He was wonderful. I once had a situation with a check that got lost in the mail or something and didn’t get to me and so I was desperate and I contacted him and he wrote me a personal check just to keep me going. Eventually, of course, he sold the business for $6 million. Today, of course they just sold Marvel for $4 BILLION dollars.
Stroud: Who could have ever guessed back in the day?
Colan: (Chuckle.) Impossible. So, who knows where they’ll be going from here? I don’t have the faintest idea where it’s all going to wind up.
Stroud: The two companies look almost to me like they’re going to start focusing more on the licensing of the characters for movies, games and cards and less on the publishing side.
Colan: Yeah. To me it’s wonderful that I’m able to sell these characters through the internet to all the fans without DC or Marvel jumping all over me. I’m making a living off these characters that I do not own, but its great advertising for them. So, they say nothing. One feeds the other and that’s a good thing, but where it’s all going to go I don’t know. I keep thinking of the great…I’m a film buff, so to me the movie screen is just a big comic book panel and I think of the great stories that were written years and years ago by Hollywood screen writers. Original stories. Some were not original, but they were great. They were wonderful and today, I don’t know. Some great stuff is still being put out, like “Doubt,” “Looking for Richard,” and that film that Al Pacino produced personally. I’m not sure how far it went into theaters, but it was a very small film that he and Jerry Orbach were in called “Chinese Coffee.” It’s something you could rent and I think you’d enjoy it. Are you a writer?
Stroud: Well, I dabble. It’s not how I make my living, but I’ve had the most darn fun the last couple of years trying to be an amateur historian of the Silver Age, but yes, I very much enjoy films.
Colan: It’s about the ups and downs and the frustrations of two writers that are living down in the Village and you can easily put yourself in that position of trying to make it and they’re practically living on poverty row.
Stroud: Speaking of film, you’ve drawn the definitive Dracula stories, so I wonder what you think about the success of Twilight as a vampire film.
Colan: Well, Twilight is really aimed at the teenaged crowd while the Dracula I did is a grownup sophisticated guy. When I got the assignment I actually fashioned him after Jack Palance. I used Palance as a model. I struggled with that until I could get his face right and I finally managed to do it, I think. Then it just kept on growing and it lasted for a long time.
Stroud: Do you consider him your signature character?
Colan: Yes, I would probably say Dracula, but Iron Man came way before Dracula and Daredevil before that. I think Daredevil was the first full feature book that I was involved with. Usually I worked on six-page stories and crime stories and stuff like that. By the way I was green as grass when I started out. I knew nothing really about drawing. I was very fortunate to be among so many professionals and one of them who was the manager of the art department, a fellow by the name of Syd Shores guided me. He was an artist himself. There wasn’t a thing he couldn’t draw. He helped me an awful lot.
Stroud: So, you had some good mentoring.
Colan: Very. I mean it was better than school and I was being paid at the same time, which was great. What an opportunity I had. But I do have to say that Stan had seen something in me and had the ability to look ahead and see that perhaps he had somebody there that might make the company look good or at least help make it look good.
Stroud: Foresight and vision. It sounds like the mark of a true leader.
Colan: Well, the only thing that motivated me in any of it was to be as good an artist as I could be and if it meant changing my style a dozen different times I was willing to do whatever I had to do until I could reach some kind of a point that I was satisfied. Not fully, but at least I could feel I was on my way. That’s important. Style is nothing that you can purposely do unless you’re trying to copy another artist, and we all do that. All artists copy somebody else that they think is better. Somebody who is up there. It’s like water finding its own level. Eventually you will settle down into what comes natural to you without being told you don’t have a style. I’ve been told that. But I do have a style only it wasn’t developed enough at the time.
Stroud: But in time all good things come.
Colan: Yes, they do eventually. You just have to stay with it. That’s another thing that a lot of the great artists…they’re all very young now and some of them are just fabulous at what they do, but again the storytelling ability, not in all cases, but in a lot of cases, is not there. Also, if they are given the opportunity to do a story, and they can do it very well; they may do two, they may do three, but after that they’ve lost their interest. How do you develop a character, after doing two or three stories? You can’t. You have to be in there all the time and then you begin to change things. I mean I did Iron Man for a good number of years, certainly and Daredevil for a good number of years and I grew with the character as an artist, because I was with it long enough, as an artist.
Stroud: Sure. It could only become that symbiotic relationship you were talking about earlier.
Colan: Yes, but they lose their patience, you see. They don’t have the patience, but they want overnight success and there is no such thing. You’ve got to put your time in, you’ve got to be devoted and above all you have to love it. You’re very fortunate if you’re in a position where you love what you’re doing. They may not be paying you what you’re worth, but you’re still doing what you love doing and you’re being paid anyway. Somewhere it’s going to change. You’re going to get so good at it that you’ll be able to eventually demand more money and have more people wanting you to work for them.
Stroud: Makes perfect sense, and you’ve worked for them all and been recognized. You’ve won Shazam and Eagle, Inkpot, Sergio and the Will Eisner Hall of Fame honors.
Colan: My health doesn’t permit it, but they were going to have a dinner for me in Los Angeles that I can’t attend. I wish I could, but that means getting on a plane and I only recently got out of the hospital.
Stroud: How was San Diego for you this year?
Colan: Wonderful. I didn’t really do any work. Usually I do some sketching, but my wife didn’t want me to. She said, “You’ve worked hard enough.” So what I did was sign books and took down little requests. I draw things on a card at home. A little bit bigger than a stamp (chuckle) of any superhero that they want. It doesn’t cost much and is something everybody can afford. Today money is awfully tight everywhere. The best part of the time there was having time to visit fans and colleagues.
Stroud: That’s a fact and that’s a neat service you’re providing. I notice you’ve got a solid presence on the web. (*www.genecolan.com has since been taken down)
Colan: Yep. I worked at it. My wife takes care of all the intricate stuff. Do you work a computer?
Colan: I can’t. I don’t know how. I’ve never taken an interest in it really, and it’s very complicated, but she can. She can do an awful lot of stuff so she takes care of the business for me. I do the art work and she does the arrangements and the website and everything. She’s brilliant in more ways than one. She’s been taking me around to the different doctors, which is no easy task. She’s always on the road or at home on the computer. She hardly gets a free moment for herself.
Stroud: Sounds like you got a good one there, Gene. I understand you did some teaching for awhile. Did you enjoy that?
Colan: Yes, I did, for awhile, but that’s a talent all by itself. A different set of skills. It’s not easy. You just have to know how to deal with it. As an artist, you know what to do and how to come about what you do, but to explain how you did it is something else again. It’s difficult. Sometimes you can’t. It’s a feeling that you have and the explanation doesn’t always match up with the feeling. You think, “Maybe I can explain how I arrived at a certain thing,” and you just can’t do it. At least I couldn’t. Again, it’s another skill. But I stuck with it.
I worked at SVA (School of Visual Arts) and FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology). I was there for a good number of years at both places. I ran up against some of those problems, but you’re bound to anyway when you’re dealing with young people. Sometimes they take a hairy fit and walk out because they don’t have the patience. Or frustration sets in. Who knows? I stuck with it a good seven years or so and then I just gave up on it. I couldn’t keep going back and forth. I commuted even from Vermont to New York once a week, but then I had two classes back to back, so I was at school all day.
By the time the day was over it was dark and I had to go make a big train trip all the way back to Vermont. So, I did that for awhile to keep things rolling in different directions. I probably would be willing to go back and try it again, simply to have a good paycheck. (Chuckle.) At least I could fill the gap in with that. But I don’t think I have the get up and go for it any more, although I’m only about 20 minutes out of Manhattan over here in Brooklyn.
Stroud: That wouldn’t be quite as daunting. Ric Estrada told me about his time teaching at the Kubert School, which he enjoyed, but it got to be a grind after awhile.
Colan: It does. Sometimes it felt like the same things being repeated over and over again. With different kids of course. Kids move on and you get a new batch in and start the whole process all over again. But some people who do the kind of work I do manage it and they do a good job and they’ve found someplace else for themselves.
Stroud: And thank goodness because that’s how new talent gets produced.
Stroud: What was your usual production rate?
Colan: Oh, a very slow worker. It was tough. I’d start around 10:00 or so; often earlier and break for dinner and around 3:30 or closer to 4:00 I’d finish the first page with steady work. Then with the rest of the day I could hardly bring out the second page. Sometimes I could, sometimes I couldn’t, but as time went on I was able to do it without too much trouble. I’d usually quit around 2:00 a.m. and could produce two to two and a half pages per day. I was able to pace myself better and draw in sort of a different way to make sure that I could get the work out on time. The schedule was always very important to me, so I would allow enough time at the table to be working so that I could turn it out even if it meant staying up real late to do it.
Stroud: Part of the package.
Colan: Yeah. There’s no such thing as a nine to five job in this business.
Stroud: Not at all. You’re pretty well known for your meticulous research. What were your methods?
Colan: For research? Photographs, magazines, books and whatever I could get on the subject that I needed. When I was doing Dracula a lot of it took place in Boston so I actually went there with a camera and took pictures everywhere. Alleyways and main thoroughfares; the architecture of the place. Whatever I could grab that I could possibly use in the story. I would have gone anywhere. If I could, I did, just to make it authentic. Everything I did had to be authentic. If I couldn’t get it authentic I had to sort of bend my mind in a way that I could maybe get away with it because I didn’t have time to fool around and research every detail. Today it’s so easy. You get on the computer and whatever you need you can get a picture of it.
Stroud: It’s really put a whole new light on everything. I haven’t quite made up my mind about digital production of comic books. It seems to lack…
Colan: Hands on stuff?
Stroud: Yes. Like lettering almost being gone in the way it used to be done.
Colan: Yes, which is a shame. You know old people always feel that way about the past. My grandfather always thought it was a shame that things weren’t the way when I was a kid as they were when he was a kid. It’s progress. Time marches on.
Stroud: True. You can’t turn the clock back.
Colan: You can’t change anything. But it always works out.