How’d I find out? When Julie woke me up last night to tell me, “Honey, I’m so sorry, Gene Colan passed away.”
Normally my wife would not wake me up for something like that, but Gene Colan was on the short list of comic book artists that Julie has actually conversed with; she’s not really a comics person, so she knows them as people she’s met, rather than by their work. And she remembered Gene as one of the nicest, which of course he was.
We weren’t pals with the Colans, or anything like that. Just fans. We’d only seen Gene Colan at a couple of the San Diego Cons, before we quit going to San Diego. He was always delightful, a real gentleman, and I’m glad that I at least got to meet him and let him know how much I’d appreciated his work over the years. And Julie just liked him because he was so nice.
I only have one Gene Colan story, but it always makes me smile to think of it.
This was about ten years ago; I think it must have been the 2001 Comic-Con. Mark Evanier had conspired to throw Gene Colan a surprise birthday party. With the entire SDCC convention staff as co-conspirators, he’d set Gene up to think he was going to be giving a talk on erasers (no, really, it was in the program schedule) and then the panel would be Gene’s surprise party, including cake. Evanier even somehow got all this on the internet without Gene knowing and invited all Gene’s fans to the panel, so EVERYONE was in on it.
I had told my cartooning students about this and they loved the idea. They knew who he was because I’d used a couple of Colan pages in class, and of course they all knew about Wesley Snipes in Blade and I’d made sure they knew who the original artist was on that, too.
So anyway, I’d told the kids in my summer class that I was going to the Con next week and there was going to be this surprise party, and they wanted to make some cards for Mr. Colan. Several of them wanted to know what he looked like and I told them older, white beard, usually with a baseball cap. So the kids had done these hilarious drawings of Gene, complete with white beard and baseball cap, being wished happy birthday by giant bats and such. I had promised to somehow try and get them into the hands of Mark Evanier before the party (the nice thing about that is that since Mr. Evanier invariably hosts lots of panels at San Diego, I was pretty sure I could get to one that was scheduled before the party and make the handoff then.)
Except I didn’t. There was some trouble that came up– late flight, something, I forget, and I ended up not getting to the convention until long after the birthday party was over. (My friend Kurt Mitchell, a lifelong Colan fan, made it and he assured me it was awesome, they’d actually let Gene Colan talk about erasers for a couple of minutes before wheeling the cake in and springing the surprise, and it was indeed a huge surprise.)
I still had the cards, though, and I finally was able to get them to Gene Colan the following afternoon. Getting to hand them over in person was almost better, at least for me. He was transported. He just grinned from ear to ear and posed for a picture holding the cards so I’d be able to show my kids that Mr. Colan had successfully been wished a happy birthday.
There’s always the work he did, of course. That stuff has already won huge accolades and it will continue to stand the test of time. But when I think of Gene Colan I always think of that moment, how thrilled he was that kids were still seeing his work and loving it.
He also wrote them this note. It was the second entry in the student scrapbook I’d just started that year.
And that really sums it up.
Here’s the Colan work I’ll always remember. This isn’t supposed to be any kind of “best of” list or anything… they’re just my favorites. The ones that have stuck with me for decades.
Dr. Strange #10.
That was the first part of a four-parter that blew my little 13-year-old mind. That Steve Englehart-Gene Colan era is still my favorite run on the book; people always talk about the Brunner stuff from that time and it’s brilliant, yes. But the better Englehart stories on Doc were drawn by Gene Colan and he did them proud.
It was the crossover with Dr. Strange that led me to the Wolfman-Colan Tomb of Dracula, as well, and of those my favorite story was Hannibal King and Blade versus Deacon Frost in Tomb of Dracula #53.
Mostly because it had such a great build. Wolfman kept us all on the edge of our seats with that subplot for about a year before it finally paid off. It was worth it.
You don’t normally associate Gene Colan with Superman but I thought his work on Steve Gerber’s Phantom Zone was genius.
I know Gene Colan did a lot of Batman work while he was at DC and it is justifiably praised as great — but, really, this is my favorite thing he ever did at DC. I loved the weight he gave everything; especially since Superman stories were usually so bright and airy back then. More, he drew my favorite version of Clark Kent ever, I think.
And of course I think my favorite Gene Colan pages of all time are the Black Widow stories he did for Amazing Adventures.
Those did get the high-end hardcover treatment a year or so ago and I urge you to seek it out. It’s brilliant stuff.
I could go on and on, but, really, it would just be repeating myself. Gene Colan was a brilliant artist and a really sweet guy. That’s all anyone needs to know.
I know that this last decade was a rough one for Mr. Colan; he had all sorts of medical and family troubles and I don’t think his passing came as a surprise to anyone who knew what was going on with him. But we can take some comfort that he DID know how much we all appreciated him and his work, and through the tireless efforts of Clifford Meth and others we were even able to translate that into tangible financial support to help him get by. I hope that, at least, brightened his days somewhat over these last few years.
Rest in peace, Gene; you certainly deserve some peace after all the turmoil of the last five years. You’ll be missed.