Secrets In The Shadows: The Art & Life Of Gene Colan by Tom Field and Gene Colan (book review).

August 8, 2021 | By | Reply More

Gene Colan cut corners on his artwork. Every explosion was a full page. He’d use the side of his pencil to draw some fluffy clouds around the edges and, ten minutes later, that’s a page! As one page pays the same as the next. Then there’s a lot of pages with big panels throughout and you get to the last page and it has nine panels to fit the rest of the plot in. Not good enough.

Not good enough for Jim Shooter anyway, which is why he kept nagging Colan to do better until Gene left for DC after fifteen glorious years at Marvel Comics.

That’s a low point in Colan’s career. There are plenty of high points, too, in ‘Secrets In The Shadows: The Art And Life Of Gene Colan’ by Tom Field, another fine book about old comics from Twomorrows Publishing. It recounts ‘Genial’ Gene Colan’s life story before and after his comicbook career and is full of examples of his beautiful art.

Eugene Jules Colan was born in Bronx, NY on 01 September 1926, the only child of Harold and Winifred Levy Colan. The surname was changed from Cohen by Harold’s grandfather who emigrated from Germany. Gene’s father was a successful insurance salesman in the Depression, quite a feat, and his mother started an antique’s business that prospered. Unlike many others in the comic business, he grew up in comfortable circumstances. He was a solitary child who loved comics and drawing. After a stint in the US Air Force, he got into the Art Students League of New York on the GI Bill. This enabled millions of young men to gain useful skills and was a huge factor in America’s economic success over the next two decades. Damn government interference!

Anyway, Gene went to work for Stan Lee’s Timely Comics in 1947 and had a great time with other artists drawing myriad stories but never got a long term stint on one character which he really wanted. Timely had a big layoff in the late 1950s when comics went through a slump and Colan worked in advertising for a while then did romance comics for DC. Timely Comics became Marvel Comics and prospered. Colan began working for them under the pseudonym Adam Austin, drawing Sub-Mariner. The fake name could hardly conceal his unique style but he thought it better not to flaunt his betrayal.

Then he fell out with DC editor Robert Kanigher, called him a lunatic and left. Kanigher was not quite as bad as the infamous Mort Weisinger but was still pretty terrible, it seems. It’s possible that the power-mad nuttiness of DC editors at this time was a factor in sending talent to Marvel. Stan Lee wanted artists to plot stories for him but as long as you didn’t mind that, Marvel was a nicer place to work.

The 60s and 70s were Colan’s best times. He had a lot of freedom to draw how he wanted and long stints on several regular characters, notably Daredevil, Dracula and Howard the Duck. His intricate pencil work needed the best inkers to do it justice and even they couldn’t. Pencils can make shades of grey that ink cannot. Frankly, I think he was a bit potty spending hours on tones that would never make it to the published page but what do I know? Eventually, printing techniques enabled direct reproduction of his pencils but by then he was past his best. Perhaps his finest work is the mid-60s stuff he did for Warren in ‘Creepy’, ‘Eerie’ and ‘Blazing Combat’, work that was black and white with ink wash tones. There’s a little portfolio herein to admire.

The book has several interviews with Colan’s co-workers: Stan Lee, Tom Palmer, Roy Thomas, Marv Wolfman, Steve Gerber and Jim Shooter. With the notable exception of Jim Shooter, they are all full of praise. Even Shooter admits that he draws beautiful pictures. His problem was with the storytelling which, to be fair, is an important aspect of comics. He was also referring to a particular time, 1977-1979, when he took over as editor-in-chief before which ‘nobody was giving much direction to anybody about anything, quite frankly’. Artists and writers who have had their own way for a while resent being bossed around and Colan wasn’t the only one to fall out with big Jim.

After Shooter, Colan went to DC and as a respected old master got to draw Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. But, as with that other old master, Jack Kirby, sales did not match expectations and work dried up. By then there were several smaller comic companies available and eventually, the Internet meant he could draw private commissions for money. He survived.

‘Secrets In The Shadows: The Art And Life Of Gene Colan’ is both a beautiful art book and an interesting biography of the man. There are details of his personal life and the importance of his second wife, Adrienne, in steering his career. She steered him where he wanted to go when he was too scared to take a chance. Like most successful comic artists, his ‘secret’ was long, long hours bent over a drawing board trying to get it right, turning out high-quality stuff for low pay. Shooter was right about his storytelling flaws as some other writers admit but, in the end, it didn’t matter because the pictures are so lovely.

Regrettably, this fine book is only available on dead trees for mad prices second-hand. I borrowed my brother’s copy for free but if you lack a Marvel maniac brother with a knack for grabbing bargain books, you can buy a digital version direct from the publisher for just $9.99.

Eamonn Murphy

August 2021

(pub: TwoMorrows Publishing, 2005. 168 page illustrated softcover. Digital version Price: $ 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-189390-545-0)

check out website: https://twomorrows.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=123_140&products_id=313


Category: Books, Illustration, Superheroes

About the Author ()

Eamonn Murphy is a science fiction, fantasy, horror and graphic novel reviewer who writes a bit too.

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