Sunday afternoon at New York Comic Con, writer Clifford Meth moderated a panel comprised of Walt Simonson, David Lloyd and Don McGregor where the assembled pros discussed the life and legacy of the late Gene Colan. The event started a few minutes late, but Meth utilized the time by encouraging people to take a look at the art pages and books for sale to help raise money for the Gene Colan Scholarship at the Kubert School.
Meth also handed out flyers and spread word of the Sidekick Foundation, a confederacy to aid comics creators in need to medical and financial assistance under the direction of a board of directors that includes Neal Adams, Harlan Ellison, Tom Palmer, Joe Sinnott, Herb Trimpe and Morris Berger. Meth told the audience that there’s a lot that needs to be done and asked people to go to the website where more projects will be announced soon.
“They wanted to call this the Gene Colan Memorial,” Meth said as he officially started the panel. “I said, no. No more memorials.” He went on to talk about Gene Colan and his wife Adrienne, who died the year before her husband, and his friendship with them both. “When they said, please do a memorial for Gene, I said, let’s not call it that. We’re past that point. Only good memories. Enough of how he died. It was that he lived and shared and gave so much.”
Meth turned to Walt Simonson who joked, “That son of a bitch. What an annoying guy.”
Simonson said that his favorite Colan work was “Iron Man” and described himself as a huge fan of the character, largely because of Colan’s work on the book. In the eighties, when Marvel started returning art to its creator, Simonson bought some pages from Gene. He told the audience he felt like an idiot because he didn’t buy every page Gene had. Instead, he bought eight or ten pages, and because he bought that many, they gave him a discount — twenty bucks a page. “You’ll be hard pressed to find any Gene Colan page for twenty bucks [today].” Simonson explained that it was only later, once art pages were widely available, that there was a market for them and they were priced accordingly.
“I would see them at cons and say, look, I basically stole that artwork from you guys. I’d love to pay you for what it should go for. They just laughed,” Simonson recalled. “So basically, I stole some artwork and I still have it. He was just the sweetest guy you could ever know. Just the kindest guy. I miss them both. I miss seeing them and hanging out with them. I was delighted to know them and privileged to know them.”
David Lloyd described himself as the “gushing fan element” of the panel, explaining that he only met Colan twice. “The first time was at the first San Diego I went to, maybe 1986, and he was on the steps of a hotel. I’d just come out of a party for some air and Adrienne and Gene were outside together. I just said hello very briefly — “It’s nice to meet you” — and walked off. I get starstruck very easily,” Lloyd said. “The guys who were a real inspiration to me, I don’t know what to say to them. Same with Jack Kirby. I had the opportunity to meet him. I knew he was at Artists Alley, but I resisted because I was starstruck. I said hello and we had a really nice chat. I gave him a copy of “Kickback” and he was very kind. He said, ‘It’s a privilege to know you.’ I’m like, me? I’m glad I took that fifteen minutes to see him.
“My love of Colan’s work doesn’t rest in what many of you guys know, like ‘[Tomb of] Dracula’ and ‘Daredevil,’ but the wash drawings he did for the Warren magazines,” Lloyd continued. “He seemed to come from a different world than many of us did. We develop a way of drawing people that’s not as realistic as it could be. He came from a world of illustrators and there was a realism to it that lent fact to the fiction he was telling. ”
Lloyd observed that today a lot of artists are using photo reference, but not to the best effect, freezing action where you need energy, which is often lost when depending on photo reference, though Colan blended the technique with storytelling seamlessly. “Other artists used wash differently than Gene,” Lloyd explained. “Gray Morrow used wash like paint, Ditko would use it as an extension of drawing, but Gene used it for light and shade. Chiaroscuro at its best. I feel it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. That wash drawing was inspirational to me. Without him, I wouldn’t be what I am. I’m glad I had those fifteen minutes.”
Writer Don McGregor was one of Colan’s major collaborators, working together for years on books including “Black Panther,” “Detectives Inc.” and “Nathaniel Dusk.” McGregor was clearly emotional when talking about his friend. “The upside of being a writer in comics, is working with talented people and having them become friends,” he said. “What amazed me was that Gene could draw anything. Adrienne told me that he doesn’t read ahead, and when I asked him, he said, ‘If I had to read ahead, I’d be afraid of what I have to draw next.'”
McGregor said that one of the things he loved about being on staff was being able to see Colan’s pencils. Tom Palmer was a great inker, but McGregor kept looking for ways to print Colan’s pencils. One of his favorites projects was “Ragamuffins,” which he sat on for year, waiting until Colan was available. It was printed from Colan’s pencils, which he said hadn’t been done before, and he cited Eclipse Comics publisher Dean Mullaney as the man who figured out how to do it. To this day, McGregor says that the book brings tears to his eyes.
“The first time I met them,” McGregor said, “I was living in Jersey and interviewing him. I’m talking to Gene and bringing up Hopalong Cassidy and Adrienne was literally poking Gene going, ‘Tell Don what you did with that Hopalong Cassidy artwork.’ Many people don’t know this, but Gene loved guns. Anyway, Adrienne would not let this go and Gene said, ‘Well, if I didn’t have any paper targets, I’d put the artboard out and use that as a target.’ That’s what happened to some of his artwork, McGregor said, to the stunned shock of the audience.
“Every time I’d show up, he’d say thank you,” McGregor remembered. “I said, ‘We’re friends. I’m not going to leave you alone.’ He never understood how much the world loved what he did and what he gave to the world. He could never understand it. He said, ‘I’m just Gene Colan. I just draw comics.'”
In talking about the progression and evolution of Colan’s work over the years, Meth mentioned that when he was drawing “Captain America” #601, which received the Eisner Award that year for best single issue, Colan had only fifteen percent vision left in one eye, was blind in the other and was still able to draw incredible stuff. One audience member asked why Colan drew that issue, and no one was quite sure. Meth said Colan received regular offers from companies. Colan was a fan of Captain America and was a veteran, but he didn’t know for certain why he had been asked to illustrate that particular issue.
McGregor said he was constantly amazed that even though Colan would draw a panel in his later years, he would only be able to see a small segment of it at a time. He remembered that Colan would talk about erasing stuff, but in all the years they worked together, McGregor never saw an eraser mark. “It felt like it was how he always intended.”
Many fans in the audience spoke about their own encounters with Colan and his work. Simonson made the point that with all popular artists, there are often clones, but while Gene was influential, he’s not sure how many clones of Gene’s work that he’s seen. “I think it’s because you couldn’t duplicate what he did,” Simonson said. “He was a master of human visages, lighting, and just astounding. You could learn from it, but not duplicate it. From a commercial standpoint, it was good, because it meant that if you wanted someone who drew like Gene Colan, you had to get Gene Colan.”
Simonson said Colan understood anatomy, but he also bent figures around and did it persuasively. “I always thought that in “Iron Man” he was able to convert a face with a couple slots into a Greek tragic mask,” Simonson said. “I loved Don Heck and others, but Gene was able to give it a personality. It wasn’t just a mask. Gene’s understanding of faces and how they worked and conveyed emotion and created personality led to an incredible piece of drawing. He gave this anonymous face a personality. I try to steal from it, but I’m not successful yet. He was able to put the face of this character with three slots, red and yellow and great cheekbones. I do steal the cheekbones.”