"Gene Colan Interview"

by Bennett Neuhauser
July, 1996


Westfield: You've illustrated the lead story in a new anthology available this month from Aardwolf Publishing called Crawling From The Wreckage. All the stories are written by Clifford Meth. How did you become involved with Clifford and the project?

Gene Colan: Well, first of all, I've been suffering from glaucoma for the last 25 some odd years. It surprised me, because I went in to have refraction of my glasses last December, like everyone does if they have glasses, and I discovered right then and there that that's what I had. It's a disease you don't feel or notice, until one day you say, "Gee, I thought I could see that a little bit better yesterday, or last week." And you know then you're in trouble. Fortunately, I'm in an era where they can treat it for the most part with drops before it gets out of hand. So, I had to go to Boston, which is the only place to go when your in trouble with your eyes. They're specialists in glaucoma, and I found out from the head man there that I either had to have an operation or go blind. In both eyes I had it, so I had to undergo that.

Westfield: It must me very frightening.

Gene Colan: It is, but they put you in the "Twilight Zone," they never put you out. You're aware of everything. You feel nothing, and you just put your faith in their hands. You hope that it all works out. But, I'm fine now.

Westfield: I'm sure I speak for all your fans when I say it's good to know you're feeling better and back to work. And we're glad, with Clifford Meth's help, you're recovering financially as well.

Gene Colan: Cliff came to my rescue. He got up an auction for me - I mean the medical bills go through the roof. Even if you're covered with insurance it doesn't matter ... It's a sobering experience, let me tell you, it can bankrupt you. But that's where Cliff came in. He had seen me once at a convention, but I see a lot of people and I didn't remember him, but there he was, coming to my aid, starting this whole thing, trying to raise some money for me.

Westfield: He put together the Gene Colan Treasury for that purpose, right?

Gene Colan: That's right, the entire thing. He asked me to draw the cover. It's a wrap-around cover. I did that with magnifying glasses and two different kinds of eyeglasses. It was one of the periods of time when I was home for more than two days [between trips to the hospital]. I was maybe for four or five days, something like that. I was able to turn out that particular cover that way - it was the only way I could do it. I couldn't wait to get back to the drawing board just to see what I could see. It's a funny thing, when you need to do something, there are always ways to do it (laughter). It depends on how badly you want to do it. That's what I discovered about myself, that I could actually still see what I'm doing and draw. It wasn't easy, but it's improving all the time.

Westfield: That cover has all the characters you're most famous for doing.

Gene Colan: Well, I think Iron Man and Daredevil sort of launched me, and then, before I knew what I was doing, Batman for awhile ... I think I did them all. Captain America ...

Westfield: ... and Tomb of Dracula

Gene Colan: Oh, yes, Dracula. That was the longest stint I've ever had. That was for about 10 years.

Westfield: What are your feelings about the story you illustrate in Crawling From The Wreckage, which is about child abuse?

Gene Colan: Child abuse is a horrible thing. I think the whole world is topsy-turvy. There are so many bad things going on, it's hard to pick which one to [confront]. But I think that we all, in our lifetime, crawl from some wreckage, and when we do, you have to just brush off the dust and say, "I'm gonna make another start." [That's what Crawling From The Wreckage is all about;it's all in the title.] You just don't ever give up, no matter how bad things look, or seem to be. There's always tomorrow. You just can't give up. That's easy to say when you're in the middle of a fire fight, but still and all you have to do it. I don't care how you do it, you just have to have faith that there's gonna be a better day ahead. So when you have problems, whether it's in your career or personal, you just have to get through it. It's kind of part of life. Maybe it's a test. Maybe we're all here as a test for the next experience, whatever that is. My theory is that if we don't get it right here, we have to keep on doing it until we get it right.

There's a saying that I have on my desk by a woman that came out of a death march. She was interred in a concentration camp and she lost a lot of friends on this march, people that just gave up and passed away. She survived it and she's written a book, and she's said this: "Never make a permanent solution to a temporary problem." You know, some people take their lives and to them that's a solution, but that's a temporary problem, whatever problem they're suffering from. She also goes on, "Remember, the darker the night, the brighter the dawn." I loved that, so I wrote it down. There's another one that Hillary Clinton has said: "Snowflakes are such fragile things, but look what they can do when they stick together." I love that one. We need things like that to cheer us up and give us reason to continue, to not give up. I hope that doesn't sound too preachy on my part. There's another one I keep in my wallet: "How great money makes you feel, but if you think money makes you feel good, try doing something for nothing." Those are the things we love to hear. They're guidelines. There's something out there that they're trying to tell you. [laughter] Sometimes when I work late, my work doesn't look so great, because, you know, I'm tired, I'm looking at it saying, "I don't like that face. I don't like that figure." But you put down the pencil and decide to give it up, go to bed. The next day you look at it, it's like little fairies have come into your room and fixed up the art. "Gee it looks pretty good today, what happened?" [laughter].

Westfield: You are best known for your classic Marvel titles, such as Iron Man, Daredevil, Dr. Strange, Howard the Duck, Tomb of Dracula, and Tales of Suspense. Do you have any upcoming projects for Marvel?

Gene Colan: Not for Marvel, no. I'm working now with Dark Horse. I'm doing Predator. They asked me whether I'd be interested doing a three-book series and I jumped at it. It's the kind of thing I'd like to do. I'm also finishing off a very short story based on the Alien movies. It's nothing that you see on the screen; it's an original plot. It's just eight pages.

Westfield: Speaking of movies, you're known for a very fluid art style that seems to embody movement. It's been called a "cinematic" style. How much were you influenced by movies and cinematography?

Gene Colan: I'd think 100 percent! [laughter]. I'm not a film director, but I probably wish I could have been. But I knew right off that I had the ability to draw and the best way to show what I could do was to get into comics. To me comics were always like movies. Although the pictures didn't move, there was a way to present it where they could take on the appearance of movement. I wasn't original with that. Harvey Kurtzman, I think, introduced that to comics. I was searching at the time for a way to show it myself. We're all influenced by other people, other artists. Actors are influenced by other actors, artists are influenced, too. You take a little bit from this one or from that one and pretty soon you have a handwriting all your own. To me art is like handwriting, you can't disguise it - that's your style. So, being influenced by film all the time, you learn a little bit from different people. Film has always been my first love. I just love the movies.

Westfield: Are there any film directors you'd say influenced you?

Gene Colan: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Martin Scorcese. I love his work. John Houston. I love his work. Of course, Hitchcock. Brian DePalma - love it, very artistic. Carlito's Way is excellent. That's a memorable film. Directors are like artists and artists are like directors. There's an overlap.

I love Warner Brothers movies ... and there's always a rain scene in Warner Brothers films, and so I picked up on that. Very often I'd have a scene and I'd make it rain - give it a sense of realism. Every day isn't a beautiful day, so it's good to show weather occasionally. It stretches you a bit to draw wet pavement and rain coming down. It adds to the atmosphere of the story, even if it's not asked for.

Westfield: Another thing you've always had the knack for drawing was car headlights in the dark or in the rain.

Gene Colan: Well, on the screen it looked like that to me. Sometimes you get a star burst coming out of the sides of the headlights and that is probably something reflected off the lens of the camera, and so I'd say to myself, "I like that," so I'd put that in. I've copied a lot of what I've seen on the screen. Artists study all the time, they study people, they pick up hints from real life. In my case it was film.

Westfield: What ever happened to your Marvel Music "Elvis: Mystery Train" project?

Gene Colan: It's on hold. That's when Marvel ran into problems, so everything came to a halt. Right now it's in limbo. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynahan's son is writing it, by the way.

Westfield: You have an art style that can be enhanced or muted by what the artist who inks your art does. You're also known for having your finished pencils published as is. Who have been some of your favorite inkers and can you tell us about your finished pencil style?

Gene Colan: I love Tom Palmer's work very much. He interpreted Dracula very nicely. Pencil lines are very subtle and they're soft, and I use an awful lot of shading. I understand that's difficult to interpret with ink, but he's managed to pick up on that a lot - he's done wonderful work for me over the years. I also like Al Williamson's work. He's a top artist himself. He's a great penciler and a wonderful inker, and he brings out a certain movement, a certain naturalness in my work that I admire very much. Sometimes I've inked my work myself and I find it's a long process to ink and put down exactly what you have in mind. It's easier for me to explain myself with a pencil than it is with a pen or a brush, so I've prevailed upon some of the publishers to publish my work in pencil. In the earlier days, they couldn't do it, because they didn't have all the technology that they have today. Today they can pick up almost any kind of line you put down. It (published "finished-pencil" art) started with the Ragamuffins series from Eclipse, written by Dan MacGregor. Then DC did it with Nathaniel Dusk. The first two issues of it were not well done, but they got the hang of it by the time the third issue rolled around, and by the fourth one they really nailed it. Then Comico did it, and now I've asked Dark Horse if they'd be willing to do it and they said, yes, so I'm off and running with that. I'd rather do it that way than to ever have an inker involved, because then you've got two styles to deal with, the penciler's style and the inker's style. Some inkers are very strong inkers and what winds up on the page is really not your work at all, it's somebody else's.

Westfield: What are some of your favorite characters and titles among the many you've worked on over the years?

Gene Colan: I enjoyed doing Ragamuffins. It was about kids and nostalgia and growing up in a small town, and I like that. I enjoyed doing Nathaniel Dusk, because it was a period piece that took place in the late 1930s and early '40s. But since most of the work has come out of Marvel, I think Iron Man and Daredevil were the two things I enjoyed the most. Certainly, then, after that I wanted the opportunity to do Captain America (which he got). The one that I liked the least was the Sub-Mariner. I found him awfully difficult to draw. [laughter] I couldn't get his head or his face just right. I always had a problem with it. [laughter].

Westfield: Looking ahead, are there things you've haven't done that you'd still like to do?

Gene Colan: I can't look that far ahead. I have a feeling that the format of comics are going to change. A lot of it's going on television, the CD-ROMs and stuff like that. I'm not saying the comic book will vanish, but I think that we'll be looking at comics ultimately, down the road maybe ten years from now, in a different way. I think there might be sound added to it. It's got to go a little further than just on the printed page. Now, I think people still love to hold a comic book - or any kind of book - in their hand. It's easy to read, you can take it with you, that sort of thing, but since television has made big strides - and God only knows where we're heading - it's interesting to think about what the future will be, but no one really knows. We can't keep up with the technology, and I think comic books are going to take on a whole new look.

It's a wonderful age really. I don't like the computer art, because it takes away from some of the character of the work. Even with Disney, they're coloring everything with computers. They're able to draw an animated character, put it in the computer and the computer can make a three-dimensional image out of it, so a lot of the original technique and art is gone. It becomes a mechanical thing, and that part is disappointing, but that's progress. The automobile took the place of the horse and buggy. [laughter].

Westfield: Next comes electric hover cars! [Laughter]

Gene Colan: That's right, absolutely. [Laughter] They're going to have flying automobiles, I really believe it. They're already talking about cars you don't have to drive anymore - just get on an electronic highway and go. Read a paper, watch TV and the car automatically takes you where you want to go. The young people have a lot to look forward to.

Westfield: How do you feel about the attention you get as a member of the legendary silver-age Marvel Bullpen?

Gene Colan: As an artist through the years, it's very difficult to believe, when you're sitting in your own little bubble at home, working, that anybody knows much about you. And that's the way it's always been for me, so I find it very fascinating that there are so many people out there that know about the artists in the business, because we're all the same. We stay at home, we're not much aware of what's going on, we're separated from what's going on, and therefore we're taken aback a little bit by all the notoriety and the fans and all of that stuff. I've never really gotten used to it. I'm terribly flattered by the whole thing.

Westfield: In closing, is there anything you'd like to say to yours fans?

Gene Colan: I appreciate the admiration and devotion that a lot of the fans have shown me, especially during this rough period with my sight problems. I can't begin to tell you how my wife and I are so taken by the dedication that I see at conventions and the results of people trying, even financially, to help me through a bad period. So, there's an awful lot of love out there. I can't even tell you in words how much I appreciate that.

I teach in New York at the School of Visual Arts. I go every Friday and I teach for a full day students who want to get into the business. It's very hard to tell them how to do this or that or the other thing, because all of these feelings come from within and it's just by sheer practice that it, in time, comes out. And to anyone who wants to get into the business I would say, just be patient with yourself and keep on drawing and keep on practicing. You have to really love it, though, to make a success of it. Never put the money first, just the art of it. When you put the art of it first, like in anything else, the money follows. But never think of it in terms of, "how much money I can make." You can't make it that way. You just have to love the craft. Some actors will act for literally for nothing, if they can just have an audience and act in front of them. That, to me, is the way to success. You have to love. If you want to be a fine art painter, you have to love that. If you want to be a composer, you have to love that. And writers, they paint with words. It's just another way of expressing themselves. It's really a love affair that you have with it and that's where the new ideas come from. It will lead you to just where you want to be, you just have to love it. That's all. And it's got to happen. Yeah, I think there's a law out there that's working for all of us. You just have to tap into it.