The Invincible Gene Colan
Edited by Clifford Meth
Published by Marvel Comics. $19.99 USD
Tom Spurgeon puts it well in his essay in this book where he points out that Gene Colan was almost alone in not trying to emulate Jack Kirby’s style in the ’60s, following his own moody, atmospheric path, and how his contrasting style (as well as those of Steve Ditko and Wally Wood) gave Marvel a depth that led to their sales and cultural ascendancy. Well, he says something like that. I was too young to experience Colan’s signature runs on titles like Daredevil, Doctor Strange or The Tomb of Dracula, and little of it was reprinted during my formative years. I think the first comic I bought drawn by Colan was a horror one-shot called Blood Scent from, I think Comico, an impressive effort shot from his uninked pencils. I knew he was great, but didn’t really appreciate him until I got the Essential Tomb of Dracula and Essential Howard the Duck, big chunks of magnificent work seen maybe at their best, in black-and-white, though of course on cheap newsprint.
His Howard work grounded the book in a realistic base that both lent gravity to Steve Gerber’s sociopolitical satire and made his more absurdist comedic ideas and characters stand out more sharply. As for ToD, those pages were loaded with atmosphere and dread in every shadow, but I think more important was his design for Dracula’s face. Yes, everyone knows it was modeled on actor Jack Palance, which was smart enough because Palance was a formidable presence and had an interesting face. But I was always struck by how Colan changed that face. There’s a joy to Palance, but not Dracula. This was not the face of the sly, seductive vampire. This Dracula was a pure predator, fanged mouth always open in naked thirst. Aside from a nice art job from Bill Sienkiewicz on an X-Men annual, I don’t recall that many Dracula stories over the years, and I would guess part of the reason is how Colan’s (and ToD writer Marv Wolfman’s) presence loomed large over the character.
Colan has been ailing, lately suffering from a shoulder injury that prevents him from drawing, and editor Meth has put this book together with Marvel as a combination of tribute and charitable act, as I believe the proceeds will go to Colan for medical bills and the like. This is a very nice thing and I would have been happy to buy the book if it was only half as good as it is. As it is, it’s functional, starting with a bio that quickly calls out some of Colan’s early work with a few quotes and scans of different sizes from thumbnail to full page. Even before this, there is some more recent art from Colan, perhaps even commissioned for this book prior to the injury. A nice gesture, but it, and the large number of other commission pieces of more recent vintage show how difficult drawing must be when one is in their 80s. Totally understandable, just expect this going in.
I think Colan’s Marvel work would probably be better served by presenting fewer pieces in quarter-, half-, or full-page sizes. There are chapters devoted to each solo book on which Colan had a significant run, and Meth and designer Richard Sheinaus often jam six or nine small cover scans on a page to diminishing returns. It’s just hard for the work to stand out the way it should at that size. I should point out that those small covers alternate with larger pieces, original uncolored pages, numerous pencil sketches and a couple multi-page sequences, including a fantastic Doctor Strange vs. Nightmare sequence shot right from the old comics. So it’s a balanced design sense, trying to cover all the bases in an admittedly tight 130 pages. I’m just saying I’d prefer more of the larger reproductions and sequences to enjoy Colan’s storytelling, but aside from a couple minor production errors with credits getting jumbled together, this is a pretty handsome tribute and primer on Colan’s dignified Marvel career. If, like me, you want to see more, well that’s what the Essentials, Masterworks and back issue bins are for.