Gene Colan Interview
In the fickle world of comic books, there is one true survivor: Gene Colan. Well known for his work on the TOMB OF DRACULA comic, Gene has done everything from Captain America to Daredevil to Howard the Duck. I got the pleasure to interview this outstanding man, and he gave the readers of Classic-Horror a wonderfully unique interview.
CLASSIC-HORROR: Hey Gene, are you ready?
GENE COLAN: Sure!
CH: Thank you so much for doing this interview with us. This is really exciting for us, and a first for me! I’ve never interviewed any comics people, and here I am interviewing one of the most well known comic book artists! It’s truly a pleasure to be talking to you, sir.
GC: Well, thank you!
CH: While I was researching your career for this interview, I found you had a much more extensive career than I ever knew. What made you go into drawing and sketching as a career choice?
GC: Well, when I started out I was about 6 or 7 years old. I was always interested in Milton Caniff’s work. He did Steve Canyon. His work did something to me. He taught me about shadows and his work was weighted. It looked like everyone was anchored to the ground. His images were really THERE. I just love that stuff. It might have even happened at the age of 5 when I was exposed to my first horror film. It was Frankenstein. My father wanted to see it and he took me along. Boy, did that traumatize me! That was in 1931. From then on, I was intrigued with horror. I didn’t realize it in those years, but it kind of crept up on me. I sort of took what I loved from the screen and put it on paper.
CH: What was your first published work?
GC: I worked for FICTION HOUSE. That was just before I went into the service in about 1944. We were at war then. I got a summer job, then I went into the service. So, that was the first publication that I worked for.
CH: Then did you hook up with DC Comics?
GC: No, I hooked up with Marvel. At that time there were called Timely Comics. I tried to get into DC, and I was very impressed with their office. As soon as I got out of the elevator, there was a giant oil painting of Superman. That impressed me a lot. I thought, “My God, where am I now?!” They looked at my work, and they encouraged me, and told me I had to go to school. I didn’t want to hear that because school and I never really got along. But, I bit the bullet and went. I finished up my education after the service.
CH: So you were one of the original Marvel bullpen. How did you hook up with Stan Lee?
GC: I just walked in off the street. I never met him and didn’t know anything about him. I showed him my work. I was determined to get a job there. So, I worked up a war story. I penciled it, inked it, put a little wash in it. Then the art director came out and he said, “Just sit here for a minute.” So I knew that was a good sign. He came out in about 10-15 minutes. I figured the longer I sat there, the better the news would be. So, he came out and said, “Stan would like to se you.” I felt like I was walking on air. So, I went in and he was playing cards because it was lunchtime, and he said to me, “So, you want to get into the comic book industry? Sit down.” And, guess what? He was wearing a beanie cap with the little propeller on the top. It was a summer day and that little propeller was spinning around real wildly. I sat down and listened to what he had to say, and he gave me a job right on the spot.
CH: That’s wonderful!
GC: Yep. That was my first real big break.
CH: What was it like to work for Marvel in those early days?
GC: Well, they were pretty well-established back then. It was wonderful. It was a wonderful training ground for me or anyone else who worked there. There used to be an artist who ran the art department named Syd Shores. Do you know who he was?
GC: He was a generous fellow. He showed me a lot of things that I didn’t know. If I had a problem, he always helped me figure it out. It really was a wonderful atmosphere. It was even better because I was being paid to learn. It was the best training you could ever get.
CH: Now many of the people who are reading this interview are probably big fans of your Tomb of Dracula comics. What interested you into taking the job with Tomb of Dracula to begin with?
GC: Well, I had seen Jack Palance in a lot of stuff. Artists do a lot of personal thinking, you know. He was in a film called Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde. I thought, “If there was ever someone who should be cast as Dracula, it’s this guy.” I figured if I ever had the opportunity to do Dracula, I would model it after Jack Palance. So, I asked Stan for the assignment and he said, “Oh, OK.” It was a verbal thing. That’s how things were done in those days as there was no real contracts. Everything was just verbal. I didn’t know this, but he already promised it to Bill Everett. You know who he is?
CH: Yeah, didn’t he do a lot of horror comics in the 50’s and create the Daredevil character?
GC: Yep, he did.
CH: (beams with pride knowing her comic book reading friends will be proud of her)
GC: So, he told me that he gave the job to Bill, and I was upset because I said, “You know, you gave me your word. Why would you take back your word?” He said, “Well, I promised it to Bill before you. I just didn’t tell you.” So I decided to “audition” for the job. So I drew a couple pages as how I would do Dracula, using Jack Palance as a model. So, he ended up calling me up the very next morning and said, “You got the job.”
CH: And later, Jack Palance ended up playing Dracula!
GC: See, I should have gone into casting….
CH: Do you have a favorite issue of the Tomb of Dracula comics?
GC: Not really. I kind of improved as the series went on. The more you work on something, the better you get at it. I felt that the character became my own. I had to come upon an awful lot of pictures of Jack Palance. I even photographed him right off of the screen with a Polaroid camera. That’s how I got a lot of the expressions for it. Marv Wolfman, he wrote Tomb of Dracula, and I were on the thing for 10-11 years. It was a monthly book and it was the only monthly book that held up at the time. They had other books like that but they didn’t last. Dracula did though. Eventually, Stan left and it was put in the hands of Shooter, and it didn’t go very well. Things became hard for me at that point.
CH: I see. Now, when you were working on Tomb of Dracula, you were also working on the Howard the Duck book. What made you decide to leave Howard the Duck?
GC: I did a syndicated strip for them, as well as doing the book for Marvel. So I was kind of burning the candles at both ends. Also, Shooter put it in the hands of someone else. He was a difficult guy to work with.
CH: I heard you had some problems with Shooter.
GC: Yeah. So, I think that’s really what happened.
CH: Now speaking of Howard the Duck, I heard that there was some potential legal trouble with Disney because he looked too much like Donald Duck.
GC: Yes. I couldn’t have figured out why they didn’t let me draw like Donald at the beginning, because I knew that it would happen. Disney never really had a problem with me drawing him like Donald, but they wanted to modify the clothing. Howard never had pants, but now I had to put pants on him.
CH: That works. Now, our Classic Horror readers might not know that you and Marv Wolfman actually created the character of Blade. What gave you the inspiration for the character?
GC: It was Marv’s inspiration, actually. He was always looking for new characters to put in the Dracula book. He was looking for a superhero type character that would be helping Jonathan Harper, who was one of the main characters of the Dracula book. I thought it was a good idea. So, everything was done over the phone. So, with him describing how he wanted him to look, I gave him a black leather jacket, tattoos, and a big sword. He didn’t have a cape. The film version kind of changed that. It was a successful character. Then they came out with the screen version, and Marv felt that he was entitled to compensation for it.. Neither of us got any. We did get screen credit.
CH: I agree, you should have got something for it.
GC: Well, you know, how Hollywood is like. Marv sued them, and it was a lawsuit that went on for years. He lost a lot of money, and lost the case. He didn’t get a thing for it, and neither did I. But, that’s how it went. It was very unjust. Through the years, we kind of understood that anything we drew was owned by Marvel. It was a stamped thing on the back of each paycheck that if you didn’t agree to it, you wouldn’t be paid. So, they kind of had us there. If we wanted to get paid, we had to go along with it. Back then, we had no clue that it would go beyond a comic book page. Then, it ended up in film. They still could have done it. I appealed to Stan, though he said he couldn’t do anything. I don’t really buy it. Mind you, I have no real complaints with Stan. He was a wonderful editor to work with. He just wasn’t tied to Marvel and the time, so he couldn’t, or perhaps wouldn’t…step in and support us on this. He was obviously interested in furthering his own career.
CH: Well, it was a terrible movie anyway.
GC: Yeah. Well, none of the movies are any good. That even spawned a sequel.
CH: Which was worse!
GC: That’s where the public’s head is at, all garbage films. Anyway…you know, even Spiderman was interesting. I didn’t want to see it, but I saw it for the special effects. The story was very simply told, and I have no problem with that. However, I don’t understand why Hollywood doesn’t just write its own scripts. They can’t make a movie that has character and value like they did in the 30s and 40s. Wonderful films.
CH: Well, those are the films our website is devoted to.
GC: Classic horror films are so creative. Am I digressing too much for you?
CH: Oh, god, no!
GC: Did you ever see a film called The Haunting?
CH: Sure did!
GC: A very imaginative film. You never saw anything. Everything was implied.
CH: That was remade too.
GC: That second one was garbage. All effects.
CH: That‘s what the people want I suppose. Now, fairly recently you got to work on the Curse of Dracula comics. How were you approached for this? Marv worked on it as well, didn’t he?
GC: Yes, he did. We were working for Dark Horse comics. The owner had a lot of film ties. So, he thought the idea was pretty good to resurrect. So, we did. It didn’t work. I didn’t really think it would, but I didn’t mind starting it up again. They reproduced it directly from my pencils which they can do nowadays with the printers they have. They have laser printers and can pick up the smallest, lightest pencil lines and make it look like ink.
CH: Absolutely. Now, while I was researching your work, I saw that you actually used to do work under the pen name Adam Austin. Why did you?
GC: I was working for DC and Marvel at the same time and I didn’t want one to know what the other was doing!
CH: I’m a writer, so I understand! Get the double paycheck!
GC: I was afraid if they found out I was working from Marvel that I wouldn’t get any work from DC. Not that It worked. You know artwork is like handwriting, you can’t disguise it.
CH: Very true! Now, what do you think was your most challenging work?
GC: That’s a good question. I did some work for EC. I did some black and white work for them, and I added a tone. I loved doing that. Artistically, I loved doing that. I don’t know if that was the most challenging. I can tell you the one I enjoyed the most. It was Howard the Duck. Whoever wrote that was one funny guy. He was fantastic. I mean, reading the script and laughing out loud. That was the most enjoyable, but I didn’t find that all that challenging. I felt very rested and at ease doing that. I was dealing with realistic characters and cartoon characters, and I love that mix. To answer your question more fully, I think Tomb of Dracula, and Daredevil. No, I would say Daredevil. The hard thing was to choreograph all the fight scenes and make them look different each time.
CH: Is there a particular genre of comics you’d like to work in more?
GC: Not really, a good horror story is fine. I tend to go with more serious things. I don’t do many superheroes anymore. I would like to do something with the war. You know, something about the reporters who taped the wars, and how tough it was for them to remain safe with a camera in hand instead of a gun. It hasn’t come up. I did present the idea, but you know a lot of people fluff it off. They say it’s a good idea, but nothing is done. You know?
CH: Finally, Gene, what advice would you give to people trying to get into the comic book industry?
GC: I wouldn’t recommend it. If someone had any real talent in art, I’d probably tell them to go into fine arts and be their own person. I love comics, because it’s like making a film. You control the characters, the lighting, the action. I love that aspect. I really do. But, I’ve been doing it now for 50 years. I get a lot of commissions and stuff. I don’t know if I would recommend it. There is still money to be made, but there are too many young people running the show that don’t know what they are doing. There is no seasoned people in it. It’s all big business now. There’s no more Stan Lees in the business now. They are all gone. If I had a friend that showed some artistic promise, I would suggest another field, like filmmaking, acting, or directing. You know something in the arts of it. I’ve even taken some storyboard work to be around film people. I like being in that business. I love it. But, you gotta be made out of steel to be in that business. Life is tough enough to get through without putting yourself in an early grave. So, I wouldn’t recommend it. There rewards are too few and far between.
CH: I can see that.
GC: Do you mind if I ask you a question?
GC: What do you do? In the business, I mean.
CH: Well, I’m a comedy writer. I’m working on my first feature film right now and I’m also trying to get my third book out there.
GC: Oh, my God.
CH: Yep. I’m into self-torture as a hobby.
GC: You’ve published three books?
CH: I self published two when I was 20 years old and I’m finally getting around to my third.
GC: I wish you all the best in the world. Stick to it and don’t let go. Too many people let go and don’t realize their dreams. You wouldn’t be doing what you’re doing unless you really loved it. So, keep working and something good will come around the corner. I really think that’s going to happen. You sound wonderful on the phone!
CH: Why, thank you!
GC: You got a lot of experience under your belt. It can’t get much better than that. You’re on the right track. So, stick to it and watch out for the villains around the corner.
CH: Thanks, Gene, for everything!
Classic-Horror would like to thank Gene for taking a moment out of his busy schedule to chat with us. He is a fascinating man with a fascinating career and it was an honor and a pleasure to talk to him. Classic-Horror wishes him the best with all his continued projects!