Gene Colan: Routines and Exceptions

March 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

I realize that the first few entries on this blog have been as much about movies than comics–Heaven forbid!–but below is a post about artist Gene Colan that is full-tilt 100% comics-focused. I originally posted it on The Panelists site on June 29, 2011, six days after Colan died.

I was sorry to hear about Gene Colan’s death, though my own opinions of the value of his art have changed over the 40-year period that I’ve been reading comics.

When I was a kid, I probably owned more comics by Colan than any other artist, but this had less to do with his visual style than with the fact that he drew Daredevil, my favorite superhero comic. I can’t remember why I loved Daredevil so much. Maybe because a neighborhood friend gave me a copy of the ancient Daredevil #10 and I double-bagged that comic, fetishing it as a potentially priceless artifact? (I eventually ripped open the bags and read that comic to tatters—take that, Benjaminian aura!) Maybe because I thought Marvel (and scripter Gerry Conway and artist Colan) showed guts when they moved Daredevil to San Francisco and renamed the comic Daredevil and the Black Widow? (The title change lasted exactly fifteen months, from issue #92 [October 1972] to issue #107 [January 1974].) Shallow reasons, yup, but I was a shallow kid. I grew up Catholic, and in eighth grade participated in a sacrament called Confirmation, where I reaffirmed my commitment to the Church by adding a Saint’s name to “Craig Joseph Fischer.” I chose “Matthew,” supposedly to celebrate one of the authors of the New Testament, but secretly in tribute to blind lawyer Matt Murdock, Daredevil’s alter ego. Told you I was shallow.

Later on, I lost track of Colan, partially because I drifted away from Daredevil when Don Heck took over the art, and partially because the ‘80s weren’t an inspired decade for Colan. (I sampled a number of his DC projects—Night Force, Wonder Woman, Nathaniel Dusk—but they underwhelmed me then and they underwhelm me now.) Also, my tastes underwent a seismic shift when I discovered Kurtzman and Krigstein, two masters of panel layouts and silent storytelling. Everyone knows the final page of Krigstein’s “Master Race,” with time sliced as Reissman falls on the subway tracks, but I was just as impressed with a page from Two Fisted Tales #23 (October 1951), where Kurtzman’s breakdowns adroitly create suspense by alternating between a jeep driving away from a cannon barrage, and the gun muzzle blasting shells at the escaping infantrymen. Compared to Kurtzman and Krigstein’s precision, Colan’s layouts seemed sloppy and indistinct, as if he’d draw a page as a full-page splash first, and then drop in the panel borders after the fact.

Recently, though, I’ve had occasion to revisit Colan’s art while reading the Dark House Archive editions of the Warren magazines Creepy and Eerie, and I like it better now. Colan’s layouts are often odd, but not arbitrarily so: the jagged Expressionism of his panels often serves a narrative purpose. “A Matter of Routine!” (Eerie #5, September 1966) begins with a Man-in-the Gray Flannel Suit leaving his workplace, riding the train home, and struggling with existential ennui (click to enlarge):

Even though the content of the story emphasizes George Simmons’ boredom, the panels slant on the horizontal axis, blossoming into irregular shapes that hint at an off-kilter world just beyond Simmons’ field of perception. These irregular shapes continue on page two of the story:

The shape of the final panel of page two—the way it expands to take up a significant portion of the right margin—pulls us into the story’s only splash, as Simmons enters the Land of the Dead:

So Colan’s crazy canted angles appropriately guide us into a crazy world, and “A Matter of Routine!” becomes a felicitous blend of subject and form.

Maybe I’m nattering about “A Matter of Routine!” because the story also seems like a perfect metaphor for the artistic predicament of the comics artists of Colan’s generation. After Simmons is brought to the Land of the Dead, he is tortured by demons, one of whom opens a ledger and discovers a celestial clerical error: Simmons is still alive. As a result, Simmons is sent back to Earth (“…we’ll have him for good soon enough!”) and the tale ends with him unlocking his front door once again. (You can read the whole story online here.) All seemingly returns to normal, though the story’s final caption destabilizes any abiding sense of “normalcy”:

You freeze with your hand on the key, suddenly afraid to move…it’s just your house, only your house behind that door…or is it? You can never be sure…and for the rest of your life, opening your front door, if ever you open it again, can never be…a matter of routine!

I don’t mean to be tasteless by discussing a story involving “the Land of the Dead” so soon after Colan’s own death, but routine, and the avoidance of routine, was undoubtedly central to the careers of the dozens of Silver Age mainstream comics artists. These artists were expected to churn out pages, meet onerous deadlines, and negotiate with a baroque gauntlet of writers and editors, just to earn a rotten pay rate and toil in a culture industry reviled by tastemakers and highbrow critics. Given these conditions, it’s no wonder that many of these artists became hacks, and their art became routine.

But today’s pop-cult historiographers sift through reams of lousy comics to re-discover those cartoonists who challenged the business-as-usual ethos, who avoided aesthetic routine despite the many onerous burdens of their trade, and Colan was, at least in the early part of his career, one of these cartoonists. He cared enough–was bothered by demons of self-expression, or perhaps just took inordinate pride in his art–to forge a swirly, shady, unique style, and drew for such idiosyncratic companies as E.C. and Warren, and that’s why I celebrate his life and achievements now.

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