GENE COLAN: Iíve been in it long enough, itís been fifty-seven years or something like that, fifty six years, itís been that long since Iíve been doing it and thatís enough <laughs>
DANIEL BEST: Itís an incredibly long career. I was speaking to a friend the other night and mentioned that youíd been drawing for nearly sixty years and she said, ďHeís been doing this for long than most people live.Ē
GC: Right <laughs> Itís a lot of opportunity to brush up on your work, and thatís been my attitude all along and thatís what really happens. It takes a long time to get to the point where you say Iím not doing too badly now. In the beginning I didnít really know too much about it. If I look back on some of the old work it looks so bad, itís embarrassing.
GC: Yeah, it was so; I started when maybe I was twenty, nineteen or twenty.
DB: That was back in the Ď40ís?
GC: In the Ď40ís.
DB: When you say some of it was embarrassing, how far back would you be looking?
GC: When I first started with Timely, it was called Timely Comics, now itís Marvel. We were working in the Empire State Building and thatís where I really got the experience that I needed. I was hired to do the work and I was paid for it and I didnít know a heck of a lot about anything and of course there was an art director there, his name was Syd Shores and he showed me everything. Did you ever hear of Syd?
DB: Of course. Captain America.
GC: Yes, Captain America. Oh he was just great. Captain America, Two Gun Kid, Kid Colt, westerns, and horses Ė he could do anything, and he helped me a lot. He brushed up all the bad stuff that I was doing. He showed me a lot.
DB: Those Golden Age Captain America covers that Syd drew, some of those I look at and I think incredible stuff.
GC: Yes, just a wonderful, wonderful artist. And then there were others too, there was John Buscema, we all started around the same time. I stared in í46 working for Timely and before that I worked for a very small publication house on, I think it was right on 5th Avenue in New York and it was called Fiction House. It was just a summertime job before I went into the service. It was my first real professional job that I ever had and I knew from being with Timely that I really knew nothing and only because some very professional artists would come into that office from time to time and show me stuff that I ever got to learn. I picked up a lot just by observation.
DB: Did you ever sit there and think that fifty, sixty years down the track youíd be doing exactly the same thing?
GC: I didnít think that far ahead. When I started I knew I wanted to be really good at it. I enjoyed the business, I really did enjoy it. I wasnít aware of the passage of time or anything, I just did my job and I wasnít aware of the hours that I kept, because the hours were brutal. If you did any freelance work it was like whenever ever you started your day, which in my case was around nine o clock, that was the normal hour, and I wouldnít quit until about two or three in the morning.
DB: I remember Jerry Robinson saying how they used to get a hotel room on a weekend and everyone would stuck in there drawing furiously to meet deadlines.
GC: I know, but I did everything from my home, or apartment, wherever I was living at the time. I know artists can be a strange bunch, theyíll get together, theyíll work almost in a closet, it doesnít matter to them, and they donít need very much room. I seen work passed, believe me, back and forth right, with the penciler passing his pencil assignment that he just finished over to an inker and they would do this quickly over the turnstile of the subway station. <laughs> As one was coming in from the subway and one was going into the subway they just happened to pass each other by accident and one had the artwork under his arm and he was the guy who was going to meet the one that was coming out and he didnít realize that heíd be meeting him in the subway. And it was just by chance that he happened to catch him there and so he didnít have to go any further than that; he said ďHereís the work, goodbyeĒ.
DB: Thatís really staggering, especially now as everything goes via email, scans and Fed Ex, so to meet someone on the subway and say, ďHereís your jobĒ.
GC: Well to me, if youíre looking for work in this business now you have to send your work in, itís become really difficult; you canít meet the editors that easily. It was a lot different when I started; I called up, made an appointment and saw them.
DB: There seems to be a reluctance now to use artists such as yourself, some of the classic artists, and I wonder if itís the artistsí choice not to work or if thereís a reluctance to ring up someone such as yourself and say ďWe want you to do a monthly, or are you up to doing a mini-series.
GC: I donít know just what the editorsí approach now is. I think theyíre hiring people from time to time depending on how good they think these artists are to doing a whole book. But just because they can draw, an artist comes in and shows his abilities, doesnít mean he can tell a good story. Art is one thing and telling a story is another.
DB: It seems after the advent of Image that artists are going more and more posed and going for the pin-up.
GC: Well the industry has changed a lot since I was working in it. I donít do anything anymore. I get a lot of commissions and things like that and Iím trying to get into fine arts at this point but the industry has changed. There was a sort of camaraderie between editor, artist and writer at one time back in those years. I knew Stan Lee was in one of the offices next door and heíd come out and give me some points of view about how he would like to see it and I would just follow it. So an artist had to be just not able to draw well he had to be able to tell a story because the stories were handed to him in script form, or typed out telling a story. A writer would write maybe an 18-page story, hand it to an artist and it was up to him to put the visuals in. So you have to tell a story. Itís almost like you have to be a good moviemaker in order to be able to tell a good story.
DB: With Stanís ĎMarvel Methodí, did he ever just ring you up and give you two lines and say ďNow I want a book out of thatĒ?
GC: Oh yes! Yes he would, in fact I would tape record it over the phone because I didnít have to come in to the offices. He would just speak to me for a few minutes on the phone, tell me the beginning, the middle and the end and not much else and maybe four or five paragraphs and then heíd tell me to make an 18 page story out of it. He really dumped it into my lap and the only way he could write all these titles was to have the artist basically lay it out for him and then Stan would just put in the dialogue after heíd got the finished artwork in. As long as it was the story that he wanted to tell. He was very free and easy, Stan. He would leave a lot of that up to the artist. Things are not like that now. The writer has an awful lot to say about how he wants the story to progress along and maybe even too much because then it leaves nothing for the artist to create. Itís all mapped out for him; itís all blueprinted out for him about how to go about it. But where does he come in, where does the artist himself come in? There has to be a marriage between the writer and the artist in some way, and that often does happen, you come together. Sometimes you butt heads because you donít agree with the writer or he doesnít agree with your interpretation Ė you canít have that problem Ė but I suppose in business thatís the natural, normal things that do develop.
Now with Stan, he was holding down all the titles by himself so he couldnít do it any other way. He had to rely upon the artist to basically put in the artwork and Stan didnít have time to sit at a typewriter and type a full scripted story. He would just talk to the artist, tell them what he was looking for in that story and then he left it up to the artist to bring it out, make it sing, make it dance, make it shine, make it look good.
DB: Dr Strange and Tomb Of Dracula. Where I lived in the early 1980ís they used to show all of the old Universal horror movies, Frankenstein, Dracula, and Wolfman. At the same time we were getting oversized, black and white reprints of the Tomb Of Dracula stories and for me they matched up perfectly with what I was watching on TV. In black and white your artwork just looks stunning. With Tomb Of Dracula, the artwork looks better in black and white than it does in color.
GC: It was really a black and white medium when I grew up. Most of the films that were in the theatres were all black and white, we didnít have very many Technicolor films then so I was brought up in a world of black and white. Aside from that thatís how I saw everything anyway. I wasnít into color it never occurred to me to have anything colored, so I drew it in black and white and if they wanted to add color to it then go ahead, but thatís just how I saw things. Most of the inspiration came from films and to me the movie screen was just one gigantic comic book panel.
DB: When I see the Wolfman I think that if they used any more fog then youíd have drawn it for the screen.
GC: Well I got the fright of my life at five years old because I saw the first Frankenstein movie, 1931, it was with Boris Karloff. That freaked me out so I was never the same since. My father had no business taking me in to see that, but he did and it set my course for life. <laughs>
DB: Same as my mother had no business buying me that issue Dr Strange with the skull on the front. <laughs> That scared the devil out of me.
GC: Well itís really a compliment if youíre telling me that you got frightened from a comic book, because I got frightened from the movie theatre. I just couldnít believe what I saw up there on the screen. I wouldnít even go to the bathroom by myself. <laughs>
DB: I donít think I was that bad but I remember my mother looking at it saying ďThis isnít Spider-man!!Ē <laughs>
GC: I think comic books have gotten out of hand these days because they show everything that films portray and they donít spare anything. They donít leave anything to the imagination of the reader.
DB: Your art in pencil form is infinitely better than how it looks inked.
GC: Looks better. There was a time when you couldnít re-produce that stuff going way back, but the printing processes are very sophisticated now, they have laser printers and all kinds of special printers that can print anything. So fortunately for me the last ten years or so Iíve had a lot of my work printed only in pencil. Itís very hard to get a good inker to go over. If you were a penciler and you did fabulous pencil work, or what you thought was pretty darn good and then you give it to an inker, well then youíve got your style to begin with and then youíve got the inkers style on top of your style. And youíve got two styles representing one piece of art. And Iíve always had a problem getting a good inker.
DB: Who was a good inker for you?
GC: Very few and far between. Frank Giacoia was a good inker. Al Williamson is a very good inker. Al Williamson is an excellent penciler. He doesnít want to pencil anymore because he makes more money inking than he does penciling, but heís an excellent inker. Tom Palmer of course.
DB: He made everyone look good.
GC: Yes, he does, heís wonderful. So Iíve had three good inkers but most of the time I had, they would give my work to anyone that was available at the moment to take it.
DB: Did you ever sit there sometimes and think I want to ink it myself?
GC: Iíve done a few. I donít enjoy it as much; I get very nervous doing it. I get uptight and take much too long doing it. Iím just not comfortable with it so Iíd much rather have somebody else doing it.
DB: The other thing that caught my eye on your web site was the amount of original art that youíve retained from the Silver Age era.
GC: I donít remember when it started but I guess it started in the Ď60ís when they began to give back to the artists, after the stories were printed, the original artwork. But if an artist, if a penciler had to share the story with an inker then the inker would get a small percentage of it and the penciler got most of it. Out of an 18-page story an inker might get five or six pages and then the penciler would get all the rest. So unless I inked it myself I never got the full amount of pages back at anytime, I would get most of them back, but not all of them.
DB: It still appears that you got more back than most people did.
GC: I got enough back and I saved them over the years. Thatís why Iím able to sell them today.
DB: You took over Captain America after Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko had both had excellent runs and made it your own. Did you ever to follow anyone and think now this is a challenge.
GC: No, I didnít think of it that way. In fact I didnít look much at who else was doing it, or how they did it. In the beginning I did look at stories. When I was very new at this craft I would get an idea of how other artists handled it, but after I really got into this business and started to get work, when they gave me Captain America to do, or Daredevil, I wasnít too concerned about how someone else did it because I didnít want their style to influence me. An artist, as a rule, is not aware of a style; he just does it. You know when you write your name you donít think about how youíre writing it but yet it can be spotted by everyone and theyíll know that thatís you. When youíve written your name out it has a style to it, itís very hard to copy and o artwork is the same thing Ė it has a style to it and you just donít sit down and try to develop a style it just happens. An unconscious experience.
DB: At Marvel, at times the orders were to follow a style, such as John Romita doing Spider-Man after Steve Ditko and being asked to Ďdo it like Ditkoí. Were you ever instructed to follow someoneís style on a book?
GC: They used to. Stan would say whatever book he thought was selling, he would have the rest of the staff try to copy the same style of work, but I wouldnít do it. Iíd tell him if you want Stevie Ditko then youíll have to get Stevie Ditko. I canít do it, I have to be myself. So he left me alone.
DB: I couldnít imagine two more different styles than you and Steve Ditko, or even you and Jack Kirby, so thankfully he never enforced that onto you.
GC: No he didnít. He knew I meant it and that I couldnít do it and there was no point in trying to force me to do it. Stan recognized something in my work from the very start, whatever that was, that gave my first big break. And I always got along very well with Stan, not everybody can say that but I did, I got along well with him so he let me do pretty much what I wanted to do but not all the time, there was always some little change here and there, but basically he left me alone.
DB: Thatís good, because there are some people who certainly didnít get along with him.
GC: Thereís always some people, heís like a big time comic book editor and some people are intimidated by that. And I was intimidated by Stan. I didnít want to go into his office, it upset me a little bit, but he was very nice to me. He left me pretty much alone because I was able to deliver pretty much what he was looking for, so we never had any trouble.
DB: You made your way to DC and drew Batman. Your Batman was very stylized and unique, it was moody, shadows.
GC: There are no two artists that look at things the same way. Everybody has their method of creating a mood. I have mine, they have theirs. Every time I did a job I was basically entertaining myself, having a good time with it, and I enjoyed that. And even though I would put lines down that I knew the inker wouldnít even begin to bother with, Iíd put them in anyway, because it made the final picture Iíd be doing finished. I gave it all I could. Whether they inked it or not, that was something else again. Once it left my hands I didnít even care who inked it. There was no point in arguing with trying to get a specific inker to work on your stuff because they didnít listen to you. If they needed to a particular job done in a hurry and all the best inkers were working on other things they would give it to somebody else. Whoever could finish it off real quick so that the publishing company could meet the deadline.
DB: Did you ever get upset or frustrated when youíd get something back and youíd see that the work youíd put in just wasnít there?
GC: Oh sure, Iíd get real angry. There wasnít a thing I could do about it. Not a thing, so I simply just went ahead. My main objective was to get the work to do and get paid. But in the meantime once I was involved in doing it I gave it my all. I had a good time; I could immerse myself in it and just give it my very best. I tried to do something with it that wasnít even there so that when it was a finished product it would be entertaining. I didnít always follow what the writer had wanted; I just very often put in what I thought it needed. Sometimes Iíd call the writer up, like in Marv Wolfmanís case, we were working on Tomb Of Dracula for about ten years or so, and Iíd call him up and ask him what he really had in mind for a particular page or a particular panel if I didnít understand what it was. Iíd try to give him what he was looking for as a writer and he was very good with me, we would just sit there and talk for about five minutes and then Iíd thank him and proceed with the job until I came across something else that I didnít quite understand what he was getting at so Iíd give him a call again. And thatís how the jobs were turned out and done. He never gave me any trouble, if there was something I wanted to do with it to change it a little bit Iíd talk about it with him and sometimes yes, sometimes no. Most of the times it seems to me that he went along with my ideas. Itíd say the same thing only better.
He was a good storyteller. He didnít know a heck of a lot about, well he knew something about art because he took over the company for a while. When Stan left he had to give his position over to someone else and Marv tried it, Roy Thomas tried it, maybe one or two others that didnít make it, didnít care for it. It was a lot of responsibility, a lot of hard work involved, so I canít blame them. But the art part of it was my end of it. It was the only thing I cared about, I didnít care about the business side of it, just the art side of it.
DB: Blade and Daredevil have both been made into movies. Did you see either of them?
GC: I saw the first Blade.
DB: What did you think?
GC: Well Hollywood gets a hold of it and changes everything. But they used Marvís idea of Blade. He was the one that created the character. They made a film out of it and they didnít share any of that with him. They should have, it was his idea. But Marvel owned all the rights to everything. So he couldnít get anything out of it. We both got screen credit for doing it on the first Blade movie.
DB: What did you think about the movie itself?
GC: I didnít like it. I didnít like it at all. I thought it was in bad taste. Again, it was showing everything, it was a disgusting film about vampires. The dance in the beginning when the sprinklers come on and it sprouts out blood; they just went to damn far with it. Thatís what I thought. There were some good special effects in it and the reason why I have a copy of it here at home is because my name was up there on the screen.
DB: Watch it up to that point and turn it off. <laughs>
GC: Yeah. <more laughter> But I didnít like it. I thought it was in poor taste and I thought they could have done it better.
DB: Did you see Daredevil at all?
GC: I saw it.
DB: What did you think of that? Because you defined the character. Even Frank Miller once said that your Daredevil set the tone for everyone to follow.
GC: Well I was the one that did it the longest. There were other artists that did it before I did it but they didnít stay with the character for very long.
DB: Why did you stay with it for that long?
GC: I enjoyed it. I was having fun. I liked doing that, choreographing the stunts and all that stuff, I liked it and I had a good time. But when they came out with the film, again, they mention my name on the screen but I wasnít looking for that, I was looking for screen credit, typical stuff, but they mentioned me in the dialogue. That was their way of recognizing that there were other people involved with the creating of the character, it was just a shaking of the hand, we know who you are and we know what contribution you made. But they wouldnít give us five cents out of it.
DB: I have to admit that I didnít like the movie at all.
GC: I didnít care for it either. I thought that Spider-Man was a far better film.
DB: That surprises me because you didnít have a lot to do with Spider-Man.
GC: No. I did it once or twice, thatís all. It was really John Romitaís character and if I drew it it was because he wasnít available. He was out or something and they needed to get a story out so they would give it to me, but I only did one or two and John was the real artist on that.
DB: Did you ever think ďIíd like to do a run on Spider-ManĒ?
GC: No, not particularly, because I was very busy with Daredevil and that one I enjoyed because I got into the character, I liked the fact that he was blind and could do all of these things. I thought that was good. I didnít think the movie did justice to it. There wasnít enough acrobatics.
DB: It was just the standard Hollywood action movie.
GC: Sort of. I didnít think that Ben Affleck was the quintessential Daredevil anyway.
DB: When you drew Daredevil did you have anyone in mind for Matt Murdock?
GC: Who did I have in mind? Sort of a generic look of all the other superheroes. If you really look at them, line them all up they all look the same. I would try to get very real people into my work. I would rely upon a file that I have. I have a lot of pictures at home all filed away under different categories. I have faces, I have men and women faces, I have childrenís faces. Through the years Iíve compiled such a collection of pictures dealing with every conceivable subject that I very seldom ever have to go anywhere to get outside information because being in the business fifty some odd years you get quite a collection.
DB: Are they photos that youíve taken or photos that youíve found?
GC: Both. I would take pictures at home. I would usually use my children as models and my wife sometimes and then I would take stuff out of magazines, newspapers, anything that I thought would be useful. If there was a fire, a gigantic fire in New York City, thereíd be so many photos in the Daily News and Iíd clip them all out for authenticity. I had trucks, firemen and how they dressed, all that kind of stuff. And a collection of everything that you could think of. What happens is if you donít keep up with the collection the pictures become very dated and this world today has passed by so rapidly that itíd be hard to maintain a filing system without having to work on it daily, and Iíve given up on it a long time ago. Most of my stuff is very dated, but a face is a face and they never go out of style.
DB: If somebody sends you a fan letter what do you do?
GC: I answer it on email or Iíd write to them before email. I didnít get that many. Iíd get some stuff that came into the companies themselves, but they didnít have any personal addresses and sometimes the company would send me the mail and sometimes they wouldnít. So through the years I got some fan mail, maybe a lot of it I didnít get. Artists are so grateful to hear that someone thinks enough of them to talk about them to see how they got started, what their take on the art world was and how did they get to where they are, it makes them feel so good. You know you can draw a fine picture, but unless somebody sees it and appreciates it, it means nothing. Youíve got to get somebody to say to you ďGee that was a good picture you drewĒ or that was a good story you did and you donít get that very much in this business, you donít get those kind of compliments all that much. Art directors are very careful with passing out compliments because they donít want you to come and ask you for a raise.