Saturday, May 17, 2008

Gene Colan: The One and Only

Last week, before I headed off to NYC to help chaperone my son's 8th grade class trip (and caught a hellish cold), the lovely Liana K forwarded me a link to an online discussion of the deteriorating health of Gene Colan. As Liana knew from our conversation at Ad Astra in Toronto earlier this year, Gene has been a hero of mine since I was nine or ten years old.

We are all the sum of our parts, and it is no exaggeration to say that without TOMB OF DRACULA and the art of Gene Colan, I might well never have become a writer. (So, yes, you have Gene to blame, along with the creators of Kolchak, Stephen King, and Charlie Grant.)

Back up. When I was a kid, whenever I was sick enough to need medicine, my mom would come home from the pharmacy with a small stack of comic books. She knew nothing about them, of course, except that I liked them, so in addition to Justice League and Avengers, I would get Richie Rich and even the occasional Jughead. One summer--when, as I said, I was either nine or ten--my parents rented a house on Cape Cod and my brother and I walked down to the country store with some loose change. It was the first time I had ever picked out a comic book for myself, and it was TOMB OF DRACULA #15, written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by Gene Colan, who had already had legendary runs on a number of series, including Daredevil.

It altered me. The story was always entertaining, of course, with the great Marv Wolfman at the top of his game. But Gene's art drew me into the world of that series in a way that no comic book before or since has ever managed. It was like watching Christopher Lee in Hammer films, only better, a sexy, textured, ominous world in which Dracula was both the ultimate evil and the ultimate tragic hero. He was written that way, of course, but Gene *made it work.*

The only piece of original comic book artwork I've ever bought is a page from TOMB OF DRACULA #15, which I bought from Gene himself at a convention, the very first time I met him. It hangs, signed and framed, in my home.

My good friend Tom Sniegoski can (and apparently could, back then) tell you who wrote and drew every issue of every comic book he read throughout his youth. Not me. Truth is, at that age, I didn't even know who Jack Kirby was. I paid no attention to the names of artists, except for one: Gene Colan. While the rest of the industry was trying to learn to draw like Kirby, Colan was just being Colan.

Fast forward. I don't have the dates in front of me, but let's call it mid-nineties. Marvel had drastically altered the characters of Blade (who first debuted in the pages of TOMB OF DRACULA of course) and Hannibal King (ditto) for a series called Nightstalkers...but the Blade movie was in the offing and Marvel wanted to hit the restart button, to get back to the character's origins. Editor Ralph Macchio asked me to do a one-shot that would be its own story, but that would also retell the origin of Blade and reintroduce some of the characters from his past. I was thrilled, but worried. As a novelist, I was always being told my comics writing was too wordy (it was) and what Ralph wanted--in a 40 page comic--would be pretty text heavy. He assured me he wanted it that way. With meat on its bones.

The pitch was called BLADE: CRESCENT CITY BLUES. I turned in the breakdowns for the plot, and a couple of days later, Ralph called. "It looks like we're going to have Gene Colan draw it."

I thought he was joking. Gene hadn't done anything for Marvel in a while at that point. When I realized he was serious, I was so overwhelmed that I nearly wept. Mock if you will, but *that's* how much it meant to me. Working with Gene was a dream come true. He was a consummate gentleman, a blast to brainstorm with, a pleasure to talk to, and every page came in just as beautiful as any he had done on TOMB.

When we were done...after the comic book had come out...I called Gene one day to thank him again. I asked him if, once he got the artwork back, he'd be willing to sell me a page or two of the comic we'd done together. Gene had gotten 22 of the 40 pages. The inker, Mark Pennington, received 18. Gene refused to let me pay him. He said that he'd had such a good time and liked the one-shot so much that he wanted to send me a couple of pages, and he wouldn't let me talk him out of it.

The next day, a FedEx box arrived containing NINETEEN pages of Crescent City Blues. Gene had kept the three he liked best, and sent me the rest. It was an extraordinary gift, and I'll never forget it.

In the time since then, I've only spoken to Gene once or twice, and not for years. He remains my favorite comic book artist of all time.

Various folks are spreading the word online, suggesting that people send Gene cards and get well wishes. I think that's a fantastic idea. You can send cards and letters to:

Gene Colan
2 Sea Cliff Avenue
Sea Cliff, NY 11579