Colan on Colan – A legend talks about his craft October 4, 2009 – Posted in: Artist Interviews, Blog, Featured Columns – Tags: gene colan
This is something very special. Exclusively here at Wednesday’s Heroes, Legendary artist Gene Colan is fielding questions from fellow artists.
Luke McDonnell – Do you have extensive reference files or does it [your art] mostly come from your head?
Extensive files! I began accumulating clippings from magazines as soon as I came home from WWII and began looking for work at DC. It was Stan Lee/Marvel, though, that gave me my first job. Anyway, when I couldn’t find a picture in a magazine that I wanted, I’d take my own photos. I knew it was going to be essential for me to have reference if I wanted my art to be believed…look real. I stored them all in a shoe box. By the 1960s my shoe box turned into three four-drawer office files! Adrienne always likes to say, “No doctor’s or dentist’s office is safe in Gene’s hands”…meaning I’m a huge magazine picture thief! [laughs]
In the 1970s I’d have Adrienne stay awake with me while I would freeze-frame moments from every Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing vampire movie! Usually around midnight to 2 a.m.! I have boxes full of men and women with mouths outstretched and fangs glaring. [laughs] To date, I’ve enlisted every member of my family for some sort of pose or another, a sheriff in Bennington, Vermont, a sergeant at the police precinct on Columbus Ave. in Manhattan…
There’s very little I look at today without thinking ‘I could use that (for reference)’ 🙂
Geof Isherwood –I read a long time ago that you had a great interest in photography. How did this influence your unique drawing method?
Well, I didn’t really. Not photography per se. As it relates to film. Yes, and vice-versa you could say. And also, B&W photography has played its part in my work because of how it reveals shadow and light. Yes. that’s true, and for its realism as mentioned before. This may be interesting to some, but I’ve always been fascinated by film and B&W photos in what you can’t actually define…..Is that a kerchief on that chair, or is it something else? Is that a gun? A person hiding? It’s often what you can’t define in a ‘frame’ that completes the reality. I don’t know how else to explain it. Perhaps you know what I mean, but I’m also a little weird. [laughs] I admit it. But, yes, I guess it’s true, I have a real passion for b&w photography and held onto my Polaroid B&W until I could no longer find film for it without special order. There’s very little reference I have be it from magazines or my own photographs that isn’t black and white. Color for me, removes ‘drama’.
Joe Rubinstein- You use photos a lot but you’re able to transcend the reference material. How do you distort and elongate and still make it well drawn? [added note from Craig: How do you know just how far to go with the distortion? If you go too far it just looks wrong, but you always manage to get it just right.]
Well sometimes it’s a struggle. I don’t always get there. I know what I’m looking for when I’m working from a straight photo, so that helps,…I already know what I want. when a photo that captures my eye, I go for it. I say ‘there’s something I could use’. In other words, I already see ‘how’ I’m going to use it and it’s rarely as it appears directly. ( I already see something else in it, be it a face or a chest of drawers). I’m usually aware of an assignment’s subject coming up soon, or could be something I’m planning to do for myself,..whatever,…but at that point, I guess what I’m saying is I’m in a process of ‘scouting’ for reference so that if I see something that lends itself to me ‘tweaking or twisting’ it to serve the story or character, I grab it. When the moment comes that I need the pic (be it days or months), I have that idea of how it’s going to inform me and what I do with it and then it’s a case of ‘working’ [laughs] Trying. Erasing until I get as close as I can to what hits the spot for me. It’s always about me. What I’m looking for. If I believe it, so will the reader. 🙂 Did this help?
Scott Williams – Who do you feel was most successful in inking your work? What about what they did with your pencils did you appreciate more than others?
Well, it’s a funny thing. I’m not easy to ink. I know it. My work is peculiar in some way. Stan used to say “find the boy in the puzzle”. [laughs] My work is not always easy to figure out. I think it’s something about how my brain sees things, but…[laughs]. I was lucky though. I had many great artists ink my work. Everett, Simon, Tartaglione….so many it’s not at all fair to question my flagging memory for names at this stage of my life. :), but I remember being in love with Frank Giacoia’s inks and always begging Stan to give my pencils to him. It never happened much and one day I really begged Stan to know why I couldn’t be given to Frank. Stan’s answer was “Frank says ‘you don’t close’ your ‘circles’.” [laughs] Huh? I don’t know to this day exactly what he meant [laughs] but I do remember favoring him a lot. Of course, time moved along and I was thrilled to be working with Tom Palmer on Tomb of Dracula! Tom was and remains great. Tom’s his own man, and was very at ease with my pencils. No doubt that was very helpful. and he just ‘got’ me. 🙂 I guess the one thing to know is that not every great penciller, inker or painter will necessarily be a good fit as a team effort. That’s the crazy thing about comics,…that assembly line technique of matching penciller to inker etc. Somehow though, it worked, but not always. I think it was originally designed as a way to guarantee getting out the most amount of books within the one month deadline.
I want to say, I was always very confident and comfortable using just a pencil and an eraser. Inking was tedious and very final. If I made a mistake, it was very time consuming and hard to remedy. Inking has always been a struggle for me. I didn’t have the patience to get good at it. It made me nervous and still does. My real strength was pencil. And besides, there were too many instruments with inking that I needed to master: there’s the crow quill pen, there’s the Rapidograph thing, the brush,…too many things to master. I didn’t have the patience and I didn’t want to see my work flop! [laughs]
Inkers have my greatest respect.
David Finch – What era do you consider to be your most definitive and what work do you look back on with the most pride?
I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that question. Well, my personal ambition was always to be as realistic an artist as possible. So for me, the work of the late 70’s early 80’s was the most definitive. It sort of started with Nathaniel Dusk. Given the opportunity to draw a large non-superhero project, I found myself really getting heavy into taking my own photo references. I knew it was going to be published directly from my pencils and that was a very big deal to me. I really gave my all to that project and Don’s enthusiasm for his story heightened the moment in time for me to grow as an artist and I think I did.
I’m not sure of the placement in time but I have to say that my work for Creepy/Warren Publications was also the beginning of a real push for me to grow. The late and so great Archie Goodwin gave me tremendous freedom on those stories. He let me pencil, ink, do washes. anything I wanted. I grew a lot thanks to him! I guess for the public, my work of the ’60s Superhero’s will be my legacy, but I’m most proud is definitely Nathaniel Dusk.
Oliver Nome – Are there any current or up and coming artists now that you follow or admire? And, if you read comics nowadays, what do you think about the more real life/Hollywood approach to writing and drawing that the medium has evolved into over the past ten years?
I don’t follow any of the new breed of artists. There are so many talented artists out there today, but I don’t keep up with them. Although I have to say that I was introduced to the current artist doing Captain America and I think he’s brilliant, but for the most part, that part of my life has come and gone.
As for the new approach to writing, again, I don’t keep up with much other than what comes my way: but I have to say Ed Brubaker is currently one of the best! He’s a premier writer that knows what he’s doing and knows how to tell a story for a visual medium! I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work with him. [note: Gene recently completed the stunning Captain America #601 with Brubaker.] I’ve noticed some fine writing coming out of Dark Horse. In general, I’d have to say the industry is currently on a high in terms of quality art and writers. The connection with Hollywood was inevitable. I used to tell Stan all the time in the early days, “Stan, why don’t you go out to Hollywood. You’re so perfect for it!” “Nah”, he’d say. 🙂 But it came to pass and he’s been thriving at it ever since. 🙂 Couldn’t happen to a better guy!
Mike Pascale- [Mike had several excellent questions!] When working on an average script with Stan, did you take notes during a story conference and draw from that, or did Stan give you a typewritten plot for you to work from? How did you plan your page layouts (thumbnails or underlays)?
No. I didn’t take notes. I tape recorded the entire conversation which would generally last five or ten minutes. The plots were not detailed at all. If at any point along the way, I didn’t feel clear about what was on the tape, I’d simply call Stan. One day, I began to worry, right in the middle of a superhero story, where does the superhero stash his costume while he’d revert to his normal persona? Most famous for this was Superman (not Marvel). It bothered me as an issue that would not be believable to the reader unless there was some clarity about that. So I called Stan and asked him about this issue. I didn’t like the thought that a fan might question the reality of the Superhero. Stan listened intently and then said “Geeeene, (pleading)…It’s a comic book! [laughs]
Plan page layouts? Thumbnails, overlays? Neither! I never did either! I’d first read the page, and maybe part of the second. I’d see what I had to do and then I’d go to the very first panel. Quickly lay it out [the first panel] and just go from panel to panel.
I paced the plot in my mind. This led me often to running out of pages in which to tell the rest of the story! [laughs] Then I’d have to take a page or two and instead of drawing three or four panels on the page, I’d need to double up and draw seven or eight! [laughs] It became an ongoing issue for the company as far as my pacing, but I never got in trouble. Just an occasional groan from Stan [Lee] or Roy [Thomas] maybe…not even.
When working with Marv Wolfman and Steve Gerber, who wrote fuller scripts? Would they break down the pages into specific panels, or would they leave that up to you? Would they dictate camera angles as well? What method did you prefer—Stan’s or the younger writers?
Oh, I liked Stan’s method the best. He left everything up to me. He just gave me a brief plot and that was that. Stan had to handle a lot of titles and brief plots were his method of getting it all done. It worked beautifully for me. I loved working that way. That was the best time I’ve ever had.
Marv and Steve wrote complete scripts, but not dictating camera angles. They both broke down the scripts into panels but Marv was extremely flexible and let me practically ‘rewrite’ as I went along to fit my visuals. He worked around me and never said “Boo” except for his personal aversion to slanted panels. I never really accommodated his wish for me to stop that, but he really made no fuss. Steve wrote very specific scripts but we worked beautifully together. Whatever he wrote, I drew. He was a riot! I LOVED and laughed my way through those books! I miss him.
Roy Thomas said that most Marvel covers in the 60s and early 70s were “afterthoughts” once the story was written. How would an editor give you a cover assignment—a verbal or written description, a specific scene from the story, or ask you to submit thumbnails for him to choose from?
What was on a cover, was never left to me. I was always told what to draw. But I didn’t have to submit thumbnails. However, it was always clear to me that I somehow wasn’t coming through for them on covers somehow. They often gave covers to someone else. I usually had to ask to do them or they’d pass me up. Not sure why. Again, I think maybe other artists’ work was clearer and they had more confidence in attracting the reader. I don’t really know.
We’ve seen some of your cool reference photos used for certain panels. It seems like it would be time-consuming to take photos for every panel of every page; how many would you usually take for an average issue and what would determine that…something not in your reference file, or say, panels with unusual, extreme perspective or lighting or objects you weren’t familiar with?
Not in every panel but, yes time consuming. Although I worked with a Polaroid camera and so the process was instant. But I did it and it just seemed all part of a day’s work. I didn’t want my art to be cartoony. Not a cartoon cat or a cartoon object or a cartoon place or city whatever. But mostly…it was people. I took enough pictures to get me going, then I’d be fine. I needed real faces, bodies, clothes, the folds in clothes, and of course any element or person from an extreme angle. I spent a great deal of time swiping magazine photos and taking pics off tv that gave me just the right lighting I was looking for. I like it when one side of a face is lit well and the other isn’t. There was a period in the late ’60s early ’70s I spent hours in front of late night TV looking for just those kind of shots. In fact, I’m waiting for the New York Times mens fashion magazine which comes out around this time every Fall because they tend to use models that have the exact lighting I’m looking for. The main thing, and it’s hard to get across, is once I’ve established in my head what I’m looking for, I scout a photo or take one that’s close enough. That’s really all I need, and I’m on my way because basically, I’m not looking for an exact likeness of someone, I’m looking for a face or a chair that has the essence of what I already imagine in my mind, but that photo will give me just enough ‘foundation’ to achieve what I want. I guess this is as clear as mud, but hope not. 🙂
How did you know what the fans thought? Did any of the editors forward reader mail to you or show it to you in the office?
Towards the late ’60s I would get a manila envelope containing a few fan letters. It was always a thrill, but it was infrequent and not much of it. I had no sense whatsoever, that there were as many fans of my art as I’ve come to know these past dozen or so years. Adrienne used to look at “Stan’s Soap Box”/letters pages to see if someone was asking something about me or my books. Very, very infrequently would something be posted. I’ve never had any sense at all of what my career was going to come to mean. It’s huge and I wish my folks were here to know. I hope in some way they do. They’d be in disbelief and so proud. Especially my Dad and Aunt Jewel. My mom was more of a “How much money did they pay you?” kind of person. She had a way of cutting me down to size. She complained throughout my career, “Too bad you don’t have a style”. [laughs] She did the best she could. I saw to it I got my teeth straightened, proper shoes and clothes, and she tried her best to motivate me with academics, making money and saving!
She tried. 🙂 When I was out of work in the ’50s, it got so bad she offered me work in her antique store and reassured me it was there for me, but encouraged me to hang on because she knew I’d hate it and only loved Comic Book Art. 🙂
Eric W. Meador – When I think of Gene Colan I think of MOTION! Did you come into comics with that style or did it develop as you went along?
Well, I don’t think I thought of “motion” in itself as I approached my comic career, but I certainly was aware that if I got work, it would be about storytelling and everything moves except for inanimate objects. So my whole life was spent drawing movement: people, cars, trains, a rolling ball…it was all part of wanting to draw everything and anything that happens in life.
But naturally, as I practiced at each story, I strove to become more and more realistic with motion/movement. Marv once wrote something about me, something like “cars aren’t supposed to bend, but somehow when Gene draws it, you believe it.” That’s the thing about art that one can’t teach, really. It’s about doing something with a passion for so long and striving to be better and better that you get a sense when you can ‘bend’ something that shouldn’t bend and thereby have it look more real on the page than had I drawn it rigid as it might appear in my reference photo. You get a sense. Just like in any other art form. It’s somewhere “out there”, yet inside you. It’s hard to explain, but writers, actors, artists, even some doctors know what I’m talking about. You can reach another dimension with your craft if it’s your passion and you know what you want from it.
David Gutierrez – I believe everyone knows that in your heyday you were working on three books at the same time and putting in incredible hours at the board. Is there anything you would change looking back at those times now?
Uh, well, I would like to think I would have wanted to pay more attention to my family. Whether I actually would have, even knowing now that it would have probably been more of the right thing to do, the truth is I am so in love with the craft, I’d probably do it all over again exactly the same. But I do regret not putting in more time to develop my children and given my wife more attention. But I do think that artists are a pretty selfish lot. 🙂
And then too, my profession was paramount in my mind and I loved being given all those titles at once and didn’t want to lose any one of them! It was an opportunity to show the editors, the fans and myself what I could do with those characters. I felt important and proud that Stan was giving me these titles, and had he given me a fourth book, I probably would have tried to hold on to that too! In my 30s and 40s, I had full eyesight and I was never much on energy, but when you’re young you can really push yourself beyond limits. As the pressure became huge, of carrying the Howard the Duck comic book and Howard the Duck daily strip, I would take amphetamines to help keep me going. That lasted just a couple of years and then Adrienne threw them out as soon as she saw them come into the house. They’re a nasty drug and puts stress on the heart. I could have dropped dead.
I’m now retired and still can’t say no to a project coming in…so Adrienne says it for me. 🙂
If you’re asking, should any aspiring artist sacrifice all for his career if he loves art, I’d probably say yes. If you want to be a successful artist, you won’t make it. If you have to become a successful artist you will. 🙂
I had to. I was lucky…I knew that at three years old.
Wow…that says it all, doesn’t it? A BIG thank you to Gene Colan and all the artists who submitted such excellent questions!