The great comics legend Gene Colan passed away yesterday at the age of 84, just days after the anniversary of his wife Adrienne’s death. I hesitate to eulogize him, afraid it’ll look like I’m trying to hitch myself to Gene’s legend, to validate myself in his shadow. I just want to use up a little corner of the internet, maybe take a few minutes of some readers’ time, to add to the sentiment of love and tribute to this amazing talent.
In the 1990s I was bored with most of what was coming out in comics, so instead of walking away from the shop empty-handed every Wednesday, I put my money toward reading old stories. Gene’s phenomenal run on Tomb of Dracula, with writer Marv Wolfman, wasn’t yet available in a collected form, but this was when you could find back issues pretty reliably. I got the first three issues of Tomb of Dracula one Wednesday, and for the next couple months, every week’s trip to the comic shop meant another few issues of the greatest horror series of the 1970s. The story and art were so good my appetite increased, more comics per trip, more trips per week. If my regular store, Excalibur Books and Comics on Portland’s Hawthorne Blvd., didn’t have a particular issue—a rare hurdle—I’d run to Future Dreams, or Things from Another World, and seldom had to go farther than that.
I loved the story, although it eventually veered into superhero territory. Tomb was where they created the character Blade, the vampire hunter, though I mention this as an afterthought—it’s not what I think of when I think of Tomb of Dracula. Marv delivered a gothic feel within the parameters of a 1970s Marvel comic unlike anyone else—but it was Gene’s art that blew me away. Nothing in comics had ever looked like this, and I’d say nothing has since. The way Gene bent the human form and seemed to distort the very rectangle of the page worked more effectively, in my mind, in Dracula than in any of his superhero work, or in any of the other horror books he worked on. Comics have always walked a tightrope balancing realism with exaggeration—it’s how cartooning works—but Gene’s work was realistic in a way few artists had ever been, and his distortion was equally uncanny. There was a metafictional aspect to how well it fit the character of Dracula. What Gene could do to the flow of a page defies a lot of what I believe even now about comics layout, and if a young artist tries something that doesn’t work, and justifies it based on Gene’s work, it’s with some pleasure that I can say (short version), “You’re no Gene Colan.”
I don’t recall how I came to work with Gene on The Curse of Dracula, his and Marv Wolfman’s return to the character in 1998. No doubt it was something Mike Richardson set up and handed me. I recruited Dave Stewart to color. This was when Dave was still on staff at Dark Horse, before he’d become the annual winner of the Eisner Award for Best Coloring. Dave advanced the cause of comics coloring while working with Gene.
Gene hated the way his pencils looked after being inked by someone else, although I’d say it was no better to see the result of early computer coloring over his beautiful, un-inked pencil drawings. By 1998, he had tried to avoid inks for a long time. Colorists had started experimenting with coloring directly over pencils, and there had been reasonably good results. But not many. Gene knew what he wanted his work to look like, but had yet to achieve it, and it was in working with Gene that Dave nailed down the techniques that would later make it possible for him to do his award-winning work with Cary Nord on Conan, and on his recent Solomon Kane covers, where he convinced the celebrated oil painter Greg Manchess to let him color over his grey washes.
After Dracula, I was hungry to keep working with Gene, and found a like-minded cohort in Doug Petrie. Doug was a staff writer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the first one of Joss Whedon’s TV writers to come to me to write comics. Doug worshipped the ground Gene walked on, having grown up on his superhero work. We looked for any excuse to work with Gene, and Doug received new pages with the glee of a little boy. However, there was not a ton of output. We did a couple short Buffy stories and a Hellboy story in the anthology Weird Tales. Dave colored all this stuff, gradually improving his technique.
There’s a picture hanging on my wall that my grandfather drew in the ’20s, a rough charcoal landscape with very little mid-tone, high contrast, a tree bent over a white figure-8 of moonlit water. It’s in the frame he built nearly a hundred years ago. It reminds me a lot of Gene’s work, which is part of why I love it so much.
At some point Shawna Gore became Gene’s main contact at Dark Horse, getting him to do a little bit of work in the new Creepy magazine, between the commissions that kept him going in recent years. I didn’t have much interaction with Gene in the last five years, but Shawna kept me up to date, quick to dispel rumors. It’s true that Gene fell on rough times, but he was a sweet and positive guy who Shawna tells me kept his spirits up in the face of adversity. Most of my interaction with Gene had always been on the phone, back when he was living in Florida, before returning to the north. We only met a few times at conventions, so my memories of him—besides the pages themselves—revolve around that voice on the phone, excited and crisp, good natured and philosophical, with Adrienne often chiming in. I’m grateful for the firsthand experience I had working with him, the way he always made comics feel full of potential and possibility. I’m grateful for his honesty and openness, and for all those amazing stories, his life and his work.
Scott Allie is a writer and editor at Dark Horse Comics.