This is one of those posts I knew I was going to write but never wanted to think about.
Unless you live under a rock, or you only read my blog and no one else’s (bless you), you know that Gene Colan, one of the greatest storytellers and comic book artists in American history, if not world history, finally gave in and accepted God’s personal invitation to join the other greatest artists in that sublime Studio In The Sky.
A year ago, I wrote a post “Remembering Adrienne”, about Gene’s wonderful wife. (Which you can find here) Now they’re together, whether you believe in an afterlife or not, and for that we should be grateful. Despite any problems that existed, I doubt any couple loved each other more deeply. They were meant to be together–just as Gene knew the day he met Adrienne.
Still, as our man Craig Rogers wrote earlier, it doesn’t make it suck any less for us.
But I’ve decided I won’t make this missive morose. For the dozen years I knew him personally, Gene always tended to focus on the positive. He would rather talk about what could be done rather than what couldn’t. So I’d like to do the same for him now.
Like other fans and pros, I’ve met more industry people than I can remember off the top of my head. But other than Joe Kubert and the instructors I had at his school, I never really got the chance to form a true relationship with any of the “classic” creators of my youth other than Gene. And certainly I never developed such a real and personal friendship with anyone else. And he was the sweetest, kindest and most gentle one I’d ever met.
We’d chat on the phone, either a few times a week or once a month. No real schedule, but each call was still special. Thing is, once we got going it was tough to stop. Every call lasted 20 minutes to an hour. Each one filled with philosophical insights, movie trivia, religious theories, personal remembrances, future outlooks, plans, mutual appreciation and affection…all kinds of stuff.
That’s what I’ll miss most.
I don’t know how those friends who wrote articles the same day of the sad event were able to do so. (Cliff was smart and wrote his tribute before Gene passed away. Wish I’d done that, but I didn’t want to face it.) Heck, I still can’t write a “definitive tribute.” Instead I’ll be composing a few of them over the next year, hopefully with each focusing on a different aspect of a complex man. Of course, I cannot and should not comment on Gene as a husband or father. But I can on Gene as an artist, as storyteller, as cinema buff, as friend, as a human being.
For now I’ll just share some photos and a few random insights and tidbits.
–Gene hated doing thumbnails (small rough sketches on separate paper to help lay out the panels and action of a page). Like another master of the medium, Jack Kirby, Gene would just start pencilling on the friggin’ board! After decades of telling stories myself, I still don’t have the cojones (or confidence) to do that. Wish I could have watched one of those classic Iron Man, Cap, DD or Dracula pages being created!
–He loved listening to sound effects recordings. And not just records–he had a bunch on reel-to-reel, too. He’d listen to them while drawing like most guys listen to music (which Gene also listened to). I suspect this would help with the mood of whatever tale he was telling. And he got so adept at it, he could hear a single train whistle in a film, and tell you where it was from! Each movie studio had its own distinct SFX and Gene knew ‘em like we know artist’s styles.
–Gene once applied to do storyboards for Oscar®-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (long before she helmed The Hurt Locker). She loved his art and storytelling, but he didn’t get the gig. Why? In a typical Hollywood head-scratcher, she said it was too tight and that she couldn’t tell if he would be able to do the rough, quick sketches required for boards. (That’s like telling Frank Lloyd Wright, “I love the homes you’ve built but I can’t tell if you know how to design a treehouse.” Or telling Joe Satriani you love his electric guitar work but can’t tell if he can ad lib a song on acoustic.) To make it even more flummoxing, Ms. Bigelow actually got her start as an artist! I just don’t get it.
–Gene had a great sense of humor but didn’t care much for comedies. I remember Adrienne telling me he preferred dark dramas and westerns to anything “happy.” You can see that in his realistic, shadow-encrusted artwork. Yet anyone who’s read his Howard The Duck, Not Brand Echh, Archie, or Simpsons stories know the guy could sure draw “funny” when he wanted to. Yet another element of the enigma.
–Gene had a great affection and admiration for African-Americans (pardon the alliteration). He grew up around them, observed and enjoyed much of their culture and music. Gene loved all kinds of people and it showed in the diversity of his figure work.
Not only was he the co-creator of Marvel’s (if not the mainstream’s) second black superhero, The Falcon, he also designed the one that became the most popular and lucrative worldwide: Blade The Vampire Slayer. (The fact he and fellow co-creator Marv Wolfman received credit on the DVD is wonderful and well-deserved.) He was also responsible for one of Marvel’s first racially-tinged tales, “Brother Take My Hand” in Daredevil 47, scripted by Stan Lee.
And that affection was returned. I’ll never forget the moment at the 2001 Comic-Con in San Diego when there was a “surprise panel” for Gene’s 75th birthday. (More detail on that in the future.) A young, dark-skinned man stood up and shouted to Gene on the dais, “Black people love you, man!!” The room erupted with laughter and applause, and Gene returned the love.
Another example? Our mutual friend Clifford Meth, who attended the services, told me this: At Gene’s funeral, there was a military procession (Gene was a non-combat WW II vet). Two soldiers in full dress uniform took the US flag from Gene’s coffin and folded it in perfect ceremonial precision. The young black soldier who presented the folded flag to Gene’s son Erik had a single tear streaming down his face.
I think Gene would have really appreciated that.
And I appreciated him.
Farewell for now, my friend.
Feel free to share your thoughts about, tributes to or experiences with Gene, or links to your Gene online art galleries, below. I would really like to read and see them.
P.S.: There are plenty of great books about Gene and featuring his art. The two best biographies for me are by friends and fans Tom Field, who penned Secrets In The Shadows: The Art And Life Of Gene Colan; and Clifford Meth’s recent The Invincible Gene Colan. I’d also throw in Matt and Tina Poslusny’s treasure-trove of art, The Gene Colan Annual: Painting With Pencil, and Blake Bell’s incredible mnemonic collection, I Have To Live With This Guy!, whose first (and best, IMO) chapter is on Gene and Adrienne. Buy them at your local comics shop or bookstore if you can, or order online at Amazon or elsewhere. Enjoy them like you enjoy Gene’s art.