Among that circle of long-time friends I’ve referenced in this space on several occasions is Tom Field, perhaps best known in comics circles as the biographer of “Gentleman” Gene Colan (1926-2011). Tom and I both cut our comics teeth on late Silver Age Marvel Super-Heroes — thanks to Stan Lee’s inspired marketing and promotions, we grew up thinking of the talents behind those books by their first names. To us they were Jack and John (Buscema and Romita), Neal and Barry and, yes, Gene. I was introduced to Colan’s work with Daredevil # 33 (a one-off purchase during a visit to a small store that carried comics during a summertime family vacation), but returned to it as a regular reader with DD # 42, a perfect jumping-on point, since contrived fictional “brother” Mike Murdock had been “killed off,” an ambitious four-part story featuring new villain The Jester was just beginning, and it was easy for me to dive into the world of the Sightless Swashbuckler. Tom’s first issue was somewhat later than mine, but his reactions to Gene’s rendering of Daredevil’s hyper-kinetic acrobatic style of crime-fighting mirrored my own.
Our appreciation for Gene’s work grew as we did — his two stints on Doctor Strange still strike me as high watermarks for that series. His ability to deliver absurdist humor was on display when he paired with Steve Gerber for a memorable run on Howard the Duck, and the Wolfman/Colon/Palmer Tomb of Dracula delivered a powerfully moody, atmospheric dash of macabre adventure throughout the 1970s. We followed Gene to DC in the 1980s, where he was a natural to depict the saga of Batman, while also teaming with Don McGregor on two hard-boiled detective miniseries featuring Nathaniel Dusk (Colan and McGregor re-teamed at Eclipse Comics on a still-much-beloved series of Ragamuffins tales).
Tom and I met Gene Colan during an appearance he made at the huge Worcester, Massachusetts comics shop, That’s Entertainment. Tom and Gene struck up a years-long friendship as a result of that meeting, and in 2005 Tom published a fine retrospective of Gene’s career in TwoMorrow Publishing’s Secrets in the Shadows: The Art and Life of Gene Colan. Filled with artwork (the hardcover edition includes a portfolio section in full color) and featuring interviews with and quotes from several of Gene’s major collaborators (Stan Lee, Tom Palmer, Gerber, Wolfman, Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart), the book is a labor of love I have returned to many times over the past dozen years.
And what’s the point of this trip down memory lane, you ask? Why, just yesterday (August 26, 2017, for you calendar buffs) Tom and I got together for the first time in several months. We spent an afternoon catching up and talking about the important things in life — you know, families, friends, comics, and Boston professional sports — and as we prepared to part ways, Tom said, “I have something for you.” And he gave me this:
“This” is a page from Colan’s visual record of his World War II-era experiences in the U.S. Army Air Forces. Gene captured impressions of military life in a journal and sent illustrations along with his letters home to family while he was stationed in the Philippines in 1945. As Tom describes it (with a bit of help from Gene himself) on pages 25-26 of Secrets in the Shadows:
“A little bit Bill Mauldin, a touch of Milton Caniff, Colan’s service diary eased his transition into life overseas, and it gave him a bit of notoriety on base in Manila. By day, Colan was a truck driver in the motor pool; by night, he was an in-demand sketch artist.
“‘I would draw guys going overseas, draw the natives around our base,’ Colan says. ‘I remember drawing a Philippine girl by candlelight — I wanted to do it that way. And I also drew a picture of our tent boy. The major loved that drawing so much he said, “I’ll give you my jeep for the day if you’ll give me that picture!“‘”
This particular page, as you can see, was capturing activity just before Gene’s unit was called to duty in the Pacific — also before Gene came down with a powerful case of pneumonia that put him in a field hospital, delaying his own ship-out to Manila. You can also tell it’s seen hard use over the seventy-two years since it was created, but it’s nevertheless a precious artifact, one I’m proud to currently steward and pleased to share with you here.
And if you think there’s no connection between Gene Colan and LOAC, well, here’s Tom again, from page 15 of Secrets:
“There are three prominent comic strips Colan recalls from the 1930s:
” Al Capp’s Li’l Abner: The Dogpatch hillbillies were a source of amusement and inspiration for young Colan. ‘I had a hard time at school with some of the bullies, so Li’l Abner and Mammy Yokum kind of helped me through it. She was very tough!’
“Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates: The greatest adventure strip of its day was at its artistic height during Colan’s teens, and he was totally entranced by the growth of Terry Lee, Pat Ryan, and crew. ‘I can even remember the smell of the newsprint. I’d put the paper right up to my face …’ and get lost in Caniff’s stylish rendering of action, adventure, and adult romance.
“Coulton Waugh’s Dickie Dare: A boy, his dog, and their adventures ’round the world. Those are the elements that appealed most to Colan, who recalls this strip as his favorite among favorites. ‘Every day I couldn’t wait to see what would happen to that poor kid. The strip appeared in the New York Sun, and my father would always come out of the subway with a copy, on his way home from work. I would wait for him topside and I’d grab the paper just to see the next installment.'”
It’s no surprise a talent as singular as Gene Colan would have such good taste in comic strips, is it?
Gene has been gone more than five years now, but his work continues to be reprinted (Marvel has announced new softcovered Tomb of Dracula reprints, for example) — and Secrets in the Shadows is still in print and definitely comes recommended. At the TwoMorrows website you can use their search feature to find the book’s listing, view a preview on-screen (or download a PDF preview for later viewing), and place an order. After you’ve enjoyed Secrets, you’ll join Tom and me (if you haven’t already) as a lifelong fan of the one and only Gentleman Gene Colan.