With a career that began during the Golden Age of comics, Gene Colan was one of the true pillars of our ever popular art form. The pioneering sequential artist displayed a distinctive penciling style, one that conveyed mood, a distinctive atmosphere, intense action and a sophisticated use of light and shadow effects unlike any of his contemporaries. The legacy of his artistic storytelling and abilities played a key role in cementing the enduring popularity of characters like Daredevil, Iron Man, Howard the Duck, Blade and Dr. Strange and garnered him praise and fans the world over.
Born Eugene Jules Colan to Harold and Winifred Levy Colan in the city of New York on September 1, 1926, the boy who would one day become a revered artist was the doted-on only child to his father, an insurance salesman and his mother, an antique dealer. While his family modestly endured the Great Depression, Colan grew up with an active imagination and little love for schooling. As early as three years old, young Eugene displayed a flair for art that developed relentlessly as the boy entered his teens. Along with a love for movies, he gravitated towards the comic strips of the era and, in particular, the artwork of Milton Caniff. When the dawn of comic book medium arrived, Colan immediately knew that he had found his calling in life.
Wanting to serve his country during World War Two, the seventeen year old attempted to enlist into the Marines. Instead, he landed a summer position at Fiction House, a pulp and comics publisher which was in business in the first half of the twentieth century, Here, the lad made his artistic debut in titles like “Wings Comics” and “Fight Comics.” Upon turning eighteen in 1945, he joined the Air Force. As the war drew to a close, Colan found himself in the Philippines, documenting his service experience in his strip “Army Life” for the “Manilla Time.”
Returning to the States after two years of service, Colan enrolled in the Art Students League of New York. In 1947, the now seasoned artist was hired by legendary Timely Comics editor Stan Lee, who always admired the expressive natural qualities in Colan’s art. As he developed his own unique style (with the guidance of other Timely staffers), the artist worked in alll the different genres of comics that Timely produced, including “Captain America” and the standard horror books of the era. At the start of 1950, Timely laid Colan off, forcing the young man into the life of a freelancer, where he ended up taking jobs for practically every publisher in the marketplace, from Fawcett to EC Comics, as well as some advertising work. By 1952, he accomplished his goal of working for DC Comics, earning his own regular title in the company’s adaptation of “Hopalong Cassidy.”
The beginning of the Sixties began as a low point for the artist. His first marriage had failed miserably, he was separated from his children and the comics work had run dry since a DC editor had him fired and essentially branded as difficult in 1957; Colan humbly returned to live at the home of his parents. His fortunes began to turn around in 1962 when he met the woman who would become his second wife. Adrienne reinstalled Gene’s confidence and reenergized his dedication to the craft that he had chosen as a boy. Slowly, he was able to return to DC drawing romance comics and soon landed a gig at Dell Comics adapting the popular medical television drama “Ben Casey” to the four-color medium. In the meantime, Timely had now become Marvel Comics and was re-surging in popularity thanks to a new line of superheroes that captured the public’s attention. Now needing more capable artists, Stan Lee lured Gene Colan back to work for him.
As a survivor of various comic industry crashes, the veteran worked at Marvel Comics under the pen name of “Adam Austin” [Note: During the sixties, many artists used pseudonyms in order to not alienate DC editors and continue freelancing for other companies.] It was at Marvel that the artist’s work really began to blossom to its fullest potential. Via the Marvel Method of creating comics, the artist was allowed to compose and direct the stories in the manner that he saw fit (and a writer later scripted the drawn pages) — in his imagination, the conceivable was always achievable. Colan orchestrated action flawlessly and never let the comic art board intimidate him. Those that looked at the quality of his stories in “Daredevil” or “Sub-Mariner” saw a bold artist that brought his heroes to life in true cinematic fashion, equipped with a camera that conveyed the grand movement and power of the Marvel Heroes. His stylized technique and craftsmanship were the strengths that Colan would pass on to his readers in everything he did. With his newfound success, the moniker of “Adam Austin” was put aside and the artist proudly placed his name on all his endeavors.
During the Sixties, Colan defined Daredevil, restored Sub-Mariner and launched the “Iron Man” series with the same coolness and charisma that everyone saw on the big screen in 2008; Warren Comics gave the artist a chance to see his intricate pencils (sans inking) printed in a handful of horror stories, with smashing results. In the Seventies, the fan favorite “Tomb of Dracula” saw Gene Colan and inker Tom Palmer illustrate the entire series, with scripts by Marv Wolfman; on “Howard the Duck,” the artist collaborated with his favorite writer, Steve Gerber, on the popular cult title. In 1981, an editorial struggle with Jim Shooter (then Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief) forced Colan to resign from Marvel and head to DC Comics where he ended up being one of the preeminent Batman artists of the Eighties. Throughout his career, the artist was a key purveyor of graphic novels and the independents in efforts like “Detectives, Inc.: A Terror of Dying Dreams” and “Ragamuffins” (with frequent collaborator Don McGregor) and “Stewart the Rat” (with Gerber).
After battling glaucoma for years and undergoing multiple eye operations, “The Dean” became one of a handful of artists who in his seventies impressively returned to the monthly grind of producing artwork when he became the artist on “Daredevil” in 1997. In later years, the artist and his wife took great pleasure in meeting admiring fans at conventions across the country. Much of his body of work at Marvel Comics remains in-print via lavish collections that will forever remain a part of his legacy. Even into his eighties, the former teacher (at New York’s School of Visual Arts and Fashion Institute of Technology) also continued being a very in-demand artist for his detailed commissions and the occasional special feature for Marvel Comics.
In 2010, Colan separated from his second wife, Adrienne, after an incident where she seriously injured his shoulder. She died later that same year. Afterward, Colan’s children attended to their father’s well-being as the artist continued to cope with failing health.
On late June 23, 2011, Gene Colan passed away. Colan’s friend Clifford Meth blogged, “Gene spent this last week in a quasi-coma state following a broken hip and complications from liver disease. He was 84.”
In 1996’s “The Gene Colan Treasury,” the illustrator told Meth, “I wanted to get into the business and be somebody.” Those in the comics industry called him “The Dean,” as Stan Lee anointed him, but to Colan’s legion of fans he was somebody — someone who they’ll forever remember as “Gentleman” Gene Colan, the restless artist who wanted nothing more from life than to draw great comics and entertain us.
Those looking to learn more about Gene Colan should read this panel report from 2009’s Comic-Con International, our interview with Colan from 2009 or this extensive interview that looks back on Colan’s career conducted in 2000. Colan’s personal website can be found online, here.
The staff of CBR would like to offer their condolences to Colan’s family and friends. Comics has truly lost one of its greatest artists.