There are a select number of artists who can truly lay claim to having been a part of the building of cultural icons from the ground up. Gene Colan numbers among them. From his work in the 1960s on books such as “Daredevil”, “Iron Man”, “The Sub-Mariner”, “Captain America”, and “Doctor Strange”, to his seminal runs on “Tomb of Dracula” and “Howard the Duck” in the 1970s, Colan has long been recognized as an indelible part of the core of Marvel’s Silver and Bronze Age.
Today, Colan is still active, though less so than in his younger years. He has been afflicted with a number of illnesses, including vision and liver problems, and continues to deal with them day by day. Yet through it all, he has battled back, and continues to be an example of his craft that modern artists aspire to.
Like many artists of his era, as health problems have taken their toll on his productivity, it has been a struggle to keep up with medical bills, since as a lifelong freelancer, health coverage was not readily available. The Hero Initiative, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping comic creators in need, has stepped in and made sure that a man who has contributed so much to the industry has not been left without support.
Their latest project, “The Invincible Gene Colan”, features interviews, anecdotes, and of course, classic Colan artwork, all as part of a retrospective on Colan’s legendary career. Better yet, all proceeds from the sale of the book will go to help Colan. CBR News had the chance to speak with Colan about the project, and the career behind it.
CBR News: How did this project come about?
Gene Colan: Well, I guess it’s longevity. I’ve been around so long, I’m probably one of the oldest [comic book artists] alive! [laughs] And my work seems to be quite popular, so I think since I’m still here, and I’m one of the first ones that have been with Marvel, since 1946, they thought I deserved a tribute in the way of a book.
Can you tell us a bit about the book and what’s in it?
Things about my life, personal stuff, people I knew, my relationship with Stan…
Did you draw any new pieces for it?
No, they had enough existing pieces of mine to fill 3 books! [laughs]
I understand there are a number of other people contributing to the book as well.
I’m sure there are. There are a lot of people behind the scenes working for Marvel that have followed my career, and they’re probably who you’re talking about. Some artists are still around, but they’re dropping like flies! [laughs]
You mentioned that your relationship with Stan will be covered in the book; how did you first get to meet Stan, and what was it like working with him?
Well, I was just fresh out of the service, in 1945 I think, and I went to the Art Students League for about a year, and then I decided to make the rounds. I always knew I wanted to get into comics. I first went to DC, but the door wasn’t open to me. They thought I needed more school; you know, the same stuff they tell everybody. But I was determined to get in, so I worked up some samples, and the next place I hit was Marvel. They were called Timely Comics at that time. And that’s how I met Stan. During the lunch hour break, he was playing cards with one of the people there, and he had seen my work, and the art director pointed out to Stan that I was looking for a position. And I got it. Stan was always a big kid, I just loved him for that. Very animated guy.
What kinds of stuff did he do when you were working with him?
Oh, for instance, if he was looking for a particular pose, he would stand right up on the desk, and say “Now this is how I want it to look!” He himself was a kid, although he’s 3 years older than me!
That must have made it a fun place to work.
Oh, it was! Everybody there was just wonderful. Everybody. Eventually, we were on our own. Martin Goodman decided not to have a staff, and the staff that he did have was told they were going to have go into freelance work. Which I did. So that’s really what started me off working at home, and I loved it. I loved working at home. There’s no time clock! [laughs]
Now, part of the reason Hero Initiative is doing this is that you’ve had a couple of health scares over the years, is that right?
Oh gosh, yes.
How are you feeling these days?
It’s touch and go. I think it’s okay, but as you can hear, I’ve got a cough. I’ve been in the hospital with pneumonia recently. I was there an entire week. And I have liver problems. When you’re older, you get different things. But I’m still standing.
Has the Hero Initiative been helpful in dealing with all that?
Oh, they’ve been wonderful. Financially, they’ve been wonderful and very supporting. Very. Even in the years before this, Stan always was behind me, all the time. He was wonderful too. I can’t say anything against him – and I wouldn’t anyway – but I’m telling you the truth, he’s a wonderful fellow to know. I told him years ago, before he went out to Hollywood, he was living out on Long Island, and I said “Stan, you belong with the moviemakers.” And he said, “Nah…”
I heard that his initial dream was to be an actor.
I could see it! I can see that. Yeah. And he made sure that he’s in every film.
Yeah, he always has a little part in it.
A little something. Which is good! Now, I was involved in a film called “The Ambulance” (initially called “Into Thin Air”) some time ago, with Eric Roberts, you know, the actor?
Right, right, Julia Roberts’ brother.
And…Darth Vader. That’s the only way I can remember him! [laughs]
James Earl Jones?
Yeah, he was in it. And Red Buttons. So they used me for artwork, which was important in the film.
No, Eric Roberts was supposed to be an artist, but he can’t draw, so they were going to use my hands to draw for him. I met the director who was a handful. [I] can’t remember his name now, but he was quite talented. Anyway, that was my brush with Hollywood. Stan was already in place. He was in on the film too. He was already out on the West Coast. I told him, “That’s really something you should be doing.” And he did. He didn’t say that I was right in thinking that way, he just didn’t think that it would ever happen, so he set it aside. But he did. He went out there, and I knew he’d make it.
Now, I know that the Hero Initiative does a lot of these works where they help out comic creators that have needed help in terms of health benefits and things like that…
Yes, they’ve helped me tremendously, financially speaking.
Do you see positive changes, from the 1960s to now, in terms of the industry recognizing the importance of giving creators these kinds of benefits?
I think it’s so important. But it’s kind of – I wouldn’t say it’s too late for newcomers, but I do think that there should be some protection in place for the artists and writers. And there was nothing. Artists and writers are not business people, you know. All they need to get is an assignment. That’s all they think about. If they’ve got an assignment, that’s everything they need, they’re very happy, they stay at home, and it keeps the wolves from the door. But we had no union behind us. I think Neal Adams tried to get a union going…
The Academy of Comic Book Arts, right?
Something like that. A union of sorts, to protect us all, but artists didn’t go for it. They liked their life the way it was. Which was stupid.
It can be kind of like herding cats to attempt get everyone to work together.
Well, yeah, it’s difficult to get people to agree, and then show up and participate, to make it all happen. So it never got off the ground.
What are the works of yours that you look back on with the most affection?
Well, the one I had the most fun with was “Howard the Duck”.
What was so much fun about that?
The writer, Steve Gerber. Oh, what a funny guy he was. He had a really strong sense of humor, and he put it in his stories.
Was he funny in person as well?
Yeah, he knew how to work up a conversation with the best of them, and make everybody laugh. He was good. He lived out in Las Vegas, but he was not married. He was hard to get in touch with, and keep in touch with. But we managed to go along with Howard many years.
Is it accurate to guess that your other favorite work was “Tomb of Dracula?”
That was the longest. I love stuff with atmosphere, so I naturally took to Dracula. Castles, fog, cemeteries, things like that.
What made you stick with it for so long?
Well, it was steady work, and I didn’t have to look for anything else!
Were you really enjoying it?
Oh, I certainly was, and Marv Wolfman was a very easy guy to get along with.
Now you did a story for “Captain America” #601 recently, right?
Yeah, I just did a “Captain America” story, the final issue for me, and the fans went nuts over it. They turned out a black and white version as well a color version.
Do you have any plans for more comics work?
I never know. My wife doesn’t want me to do it, and I’m really not up to it. I do some work for Dark Horse; I’ve been associated with them for a long time.
What kind of stuff do you do for them?
A lot of film stuff. “Aliens” is one… and I just did an inside cover for “Creepy”. So they keep me busy. You know, when you do a story, it takes a LOT out of you. You’re not drawing just one picture, you’re drawing five or six on a page. And that’s very tough to keep up with. There’s always deadlines and things like that.
Do you get to interact with the fans these days?
Well, I’ve been interviewed a lot, and I’ve also met them at conventions.
Do you enjoy the conventions?
Very much. But because of my illness, the doctor doesn’t want me to travel where I could get sick again. You know, if you get on a plane, it’s notorious…
Right, germs spread very easily in a closed space.
So, no conventions at the moment.
Do you ever get a chance to see the discussions fans on the internet have about your work?
Yeah, I’ve seen it’s almost like a fan club, talking about my work, comparing it with other work. It’s a very healthy thing. Keeps things alive.
Is that gratifying?
Very. It is gratifying, yes. I enjoy reading what people thought of me.
“The Invincible Gene Colan” goes on sale in February 2010.