Saturday, July 2, 2011

Gene and Adrienne Colan: A Love Story (P3)

Back in 2001, I sold TwoMorrows Publishing on the idea for a book that focused on the stories of comic-book history's greatest creators...seen through the eyes of their spouses/partners. It was my first-ever book, and I titled it "I Have To Live With This Guy!" I came up with the idea at the 2001 San Diego Comicon, after spending time at the show with couples like Gene and Adrienne Colan.

In memory of Gene passing Thursday, June 23, we're representing the first chapter of my book (slightly edited). Click HERE for part one and HERE for part two. Every quote is in Adrienne's voice. Onto part three...

"I Have To Live With This Guy!" (published Aug '02)

Chapter One - Gene and Adrienne Colan (Part Three)

As she had done for Gene at the Sherry Studios in the early ‘60s, she finally has to confront Gene to help him say stop. “It must have been within that week I came into his room one day and asked him, ‘Why are you continuing this way? Why aren’t you quitting? Is it because of me, the children, the whole suburban thing, the house, the cars and the stereos?’

“All these years he’s at his board, when the family comes in and talks to him, he would always not even stop work. But now, he stopped his art, turned around and said, ‘Yes.’”

Adrienne marched into her son’s room and typed her husband’s resignation. Stan Lee attempted to mediate by long distance, but he was already off to set up the Marvel Hollywood offices, and was no longer a buffer. Marvel asked Gene to stay to try a six-month trial period. Adrienne was hopeful, but not for long.

“The vice-president at the time, Mike Hobson said, ‘I’ll talk to Jim, see if the two of you can...’ blah blah blah. They got Jim to write this so-called apology letter. In fact, Virginia Romita called and she said, ‘Gene, hold on; you’re getting an apology letter.’

“But it wasn’t an apology letter - it was just whatever fantasy world he’s in. It was his version of an apology letter, but it wouldn’t have mattered because it wasn’t an apology that Gene wanted. He told Mike Hobson and he told Jim, “I only want one thing: I just want creative license. Just leave me alone. That’s all I want.”

Exactly what Jim Shooter thought he was going to accomplish, trying to alter the style of a thirty-year veteran was unclear, but he wouldn’t relent.

“Shooter said, ‘I can’t do that.’ Gene said ‘Well, I can’t work here and I don’t want any trial period’.”

In the summer of 1981, Gene took his last walk into the Marvel offices. “Jim stood there and stared out a window while Gene talked and tendered his resignation. Gene walked out of Marvel and people -- including John Romita -- came out of their doors with their thumbs up. It was like something out of a movie.”

Adrienne’s role in Gene’s life took a dramatic turn. They were now partners in the truest sense of the word. Gene handled himself where money was concerned in the pre-Shooter days, but the aftermath left him a man who cared to focus solely on the creative. “Once a year it was a little bit nerve-wracking having to ask Sol Brodsky for a raise and it was always like pulling teeth. Not because of Sol, but just because it was hard to get raises. You’d get fifty cents to a dollar. Outside of that, there was no politics.”

After the Shooter years, Adrienne not only continued handling the household finances, but she became his manager. She never went back to work after raising the children. “I really just worked for Gene to facilitate him being able to draw. I stepped in and did negotiating contracts for him. Post-Shooter I really had to because it makes Gene very nervous. When he has to talk business or numbers or contracts or dates, it’s like he may as well be back in third grade and the teacher may as well be teaching trigonometry!

“The only thing I really felt that I missed out on was those eighteen years not being in Manhattan. As far as a career, I was just thrilled to see Gene evolve, to see those original pages come to life and hear compliments from the editors and writers. It was gold to Gene and it was like platinum to me.”

After tendering Gene’s resignation, Marv Wolfman, who had been working on Gene for a year, had no problem coaxing Gene over to DC. “Before Gene took the resignation letter in, Gene called Marv and said, ‘Do you think there’s room for me at DC?’ Marv said, ‘Hang on, I’ll get right back to you.’ Within an hour, Marv called and said, ‘You’re hired and we’ll work on Night Force.’

“We knew when he handed in the resignation, he could literally just cross the street, but we had to forget that we lost a lot. We lost a lot of benefits, insurance, savings, he was working towards a pension - a savings plan where they added equal to it. We got that - what we had put in - but those kind of good times were over. At least he was able to continue to be gainfully employed and even go over there with a contract.”

The reality was that Gene had little choice if he was going to remain in the comic-book field. 1981 was not the time to be out of the mainstream loop with a mortgage and a family. He may have made even more money in advertising, but creatively that would have left himself a husk of the man he was at his peak.

But DC Comics had never been Gene’s home. Night Force was not a mainstream superhero book, neither was his project, Nathaniel Dusk, with writer Don McGregor. Gene’s contract with DC came to an end. They used him in whichever way they could – on Batman and Wonder Woman - but Gene was a ship lost at sea. By the summer of 1988, there was nowhere else to go.

“Then I really started actively helping Gene with his career, choosing projects, taking up teaching, selling original art, negotiating contracts.”

What was left for the couple was living on a project-to-project basis, jumping to and from smaller, independent companies like Eclipse and Comico - neither of which survived the 1980s. There was not even a guarantee that his work would be published at those places. Feelers always had to be out, in case the roof caved in on a job.

When Shooter left Marvel in 1989, Colan and McGregor were back at Marvel – “back” being the word, as Gene was restricted to anthologies and one-off jobs.

“Make no mistake. It has been nerve-wracking to keep his career afloat. A lot of manipulation, a lot of flexibility, a lot of keeping ourselves together emotionally - it could often be unpleasant. We had to give the impression of not being needy, of being busy and gainfully employed, like ‘What do you have in mind? I’m willing to listen. I’d love to hear the project.’

“This comes full circle. Remember that man I met in Tamiment that had no guile? Well, I had to go beyond being a secretary and sharpen my own street sense. I could pull it off better and he was grateful for some relief. Business can be tough, especially to sustain success without losing one’s principles, humanity and mind.”

With the children out of the house, they moved into a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment. “We had the whole bedroom set up like an art studio and had a fold out futon bed for sleeping. I had my own office - also in the bedroom - but Gene’s whole art studio, it was beautiful built-ins. It was just a great setup. In a sense it was a nerve-wracking time, but we were very close. The children were gone; we found ourselves arguing less, excited about living in New York for as much as he hates it. There’s always a movie being made outside our door. I’d go do some shopping and have to come flying back saying, ‘Gene! De Niro’s on 67th Street’!”

Gene Colan had a heart attack in 1989, and Adrienne’s sense of “legacy” became more acute.

“I’m not a teacher,” said Gene who bristled at Adrienne’s suggestion about the School Of Visual Arts, but Adrienne put together the outline for the course and the syllabus. “I said, ‘Just get yourself hired.’ I told him how to get himself hired. ‘Go in there to the president, don’t let it be about you. Ask how you can be of use, and that you have your own approach to teaching, and it’s a hands-on approach, and it’s one of positive reinforcement.

“It was not just strictly to have a financial base or some sort of an income, but also for the nobility of doing the right thing. He would be a gentle and good teacher. He just has a lot to offer as a human being and particularly for sensitive artists, being one himself.

“I told him how to do the interview. He literally rehearsed it again and again, to walk in to the president and give a mental image that you want to roll up your sleeves and get started.

“I waited outside in the lobby at SVA and he nailed it! They needed him to write up a thing for the catalog; they all think that Gene was able to do it, but no. That was my end and I just rose to that challenge. I don’t even know how. I don’t think my twelve months at secretarial school, when I was seventeen, prepared me for that. Maybe it’s genetics and my total belief in Gene’s excellence as an artist and as a man.”

Her father’s example had taught her well.

“We muddled through. There always seemed to be something. Marv was calling with a project from Dark Horse, Curse of Dracula, or Don was calling, or an editor would call from a particular company. There seemed to be a small network of professionals out there.”

The couple moved to Vermont in 1991. “He tried to commute once a week to the School of Visual Arts every Friday - and did it for a couple of years. I would take him to the Albany, N.Y. train station, which is an hour and-a-half ride, and then nearly three hours by train - this is one way - and then to do two back-to-back classes just to keep an income coming in.”

The 1990s brought the industry to its peak (the success of Image Comics and one million copies sold of the second X-Men title) and quickly back down to its lowest valley (Marvel’s bankruptcy and overall sales diving by almost seventy-five percent by decade’s end). Artists from Gene’s heyday, artists from the 1940s to the 1960s, were deposited on curb, and most vanished from sight.

Gene’s page count, which once stood at over 500 in the middle of the 1960s, was reduced to fifty-five in 1993. “We held it together.”

They essentially had to until 1997, when events began to unfold that resurrected the reputation, the career of, but most importantly the will to live for Gene Colan.

“It all started when Gene was invited to visit a comic book store, That’s Entertainment, in Worchester Massachusetts. You may as well have said the moon. I don’t know why, I just felt we should accept the invitation. I’ve been keenly aware of Gene’s age ever since he’s been in his mid-60s and since his heart attack in Manhattan, around 1989.

“With that in mind, I say to Gene, ‘Do it. I’ll get you there. We’ll find Worchester.’ ‘Oh, I’m not being paid...’ he crabbed. I say, ‘Do it - Do the right thing. Whatever fans come, if they want a little sketch...’

“‘Well, I’m gonna charge,’ he threatened. I say, ‘No, you’re not.’

“‘Well, I wanna get paid,’ he grumbled. I say, ‘Maybe take five dollars. Make it a day where you’re not going to think about you. You’re going to think about giving, not receiving, and that’s the attitude we’re going to go with, all right?’

“The store manager, Ken, showed us the setup. He was working on a computer and I said, ‘Oh, I’m so afraid of them!’ “I did a couple of little things and he saw that I basically already understood the concept of it. He said, ‘If you ever want to learn about the computer, or setting up a web site, Kevin Hall’s the guy for you,’ and he introduced us.

“The book signing went great. We were supposed to be there two hours, but we stayed maybe four or five. There was a little electrical light out when we opened the car door to leave. To Gene, all things have the same value. In other words, cancer diagnosis or the light is out on the door: same hysteria!”

“There was Kevin. He was outside talking with a buddy when we discovered this pathetic little light that was out. Whatever it was, he just took care of it. He allayed Gene’s fears that nothing tragic was going to happen to us on the way home.”

Several months later, Adrienne got up the nerve to buy a computer and re-connected with Kevin. “I said, ‘Let’s work on a web site and eBay.’ That was it – the beginning of great career independence for Gene and deep connections to his fans worldwide.”

Kevin set up an official e-mail list for Gene. “That’s when Gene really came to understand just what’s out there. There are all these young men who grew up on his comics, who have grown into men of accomplishment, who could understand Gene’s artwork indicated a maturity and depth. The one thing Gene did understand, when he was working in the 1960s, was it was probably not going to be understood by most six-to-nine-year olds. Stan always told Gene, ‘That is your audience, Gene – six year-olds.’

“Gene understood that but couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t play down to that because he needed to stretch as an artist. We knew other artists were more popular because they appealed more to the masses, like Romita, and Kirby, and even John - because as powerful as their work was, it was clear. We knew his work was not always clear, not always easy for anyone, let alone a youngster to read.”

Adrienne was correct in her assessment that Gene’s artwork had many levels; levels a child could grasp, but deeper levels an adult could appreciate. Jim Shooter’s platform was to knock out all the levels he could, believing only then would Gene appeal to a mass audience.

“And that’s why Gene’s main criteria – his main criteria – is artistic freedom. Every project, that’s the only thing he wants and literally insists upon.

“In terms of managing his career, I said to him, ‘From this point on, we’re not going to accept just anything.’ You always want to be paid as well as you possibly can, but I said, ‘Different companies are going to have different budgets. We’re going to base the decision on how interesting is the project; how much do you want to do it; and if you want to do it, but the pay is lousy, do it. We’ll go for the exposure on that one.’

“It would be hard for most men to give themselves permission to prioritize the project, not the pay. I’m kind of proud of some of my thoughts are a little outside the box.”

Whether it was invites to conventions, the rebirth of the fanzine (in actuality, the prozine), or just fandom’s realization that, in ten years, everyone of their heroes would be long gone, the Internet helped lead a mini-revival of the Silver Age and Golden Age artists. This revival also helped to build interpersonal connections between artists who never before socialized, never before traded stories, together.

“Gene didn’t understand in those years how much was available to him in terms of friendships. For example, he would put John Buscema on such a pedestal; he was intimidated to call him. He’d want to call and reach out. One second he’d be all humble and intimidated, and then he’d get his back arched and say, ‘Well, I mean, he never calls me.’

“That would be his way of saying to me, ‘I feel like a baby - an idiot - calling him.’ Same thing with Tom Palmer; he would say, ‘He doesn’t call me to socialize; I feel like a jerk calling him.’ He wasn’t a card player so he wasn’t ‘one of the guys.’ There were times where Marv or Ernie Colon, or a whole group of them, would get together and play poker or whatever. Gene was not asked. He comes off somewhat aloof. He’s painfully shy around people. He really doesn’t know what to say.

Gene’s dream of reaching out to those fans has not altered from the 1950s until today. At the 2001 San Diego Comic Convention, a black man in his thirties – during the panel on Gene’s artwork – asked Gene about how he knew so much about black people. At the end of Gene’s explanation, the fan shouted out, “Black people love you, man!”

“That was just so extraordinary. It was like this great reward at the end of it all to discover that whatever he’s been doing in his art, and in portraying black people, that they know. It’s got soul; all his faces have soul.

“When Gene draws a black person, there’s a love for their look and their character that Gene feels. They are not caricatured. He would rather draw a black face, man or woman. It’s like the soul is deeper. They’re just more interesting to him.

“I think it’s his artist’s eye. It’s his good experience in the Air Force with black servicemen, as opposed to white servicemen from the South that were jerks. The nature of the black servicemen was, no matter how hard or how frightening the circumstances might be, they always found a reason to laugh and blow it off. It was comforting to Gene and he admired it. We have some fine art paintings of black people sitting on their porch he did in the days where he lived in a home in New Rochelle and there was a black community there. Times were different, and they didn’t necessarily really welcome him, but he got away with taking some photos.”

One watches Adrienne buzz around a convention table and knows she shares the same experience with a Carrie Nodell or Lindy Ayers. They are the caretakers, the “managers of the shop,” leaving their husband’s free to perform. “I know Virginia Romita’s a devoted wife, and she was terrific for John in that she knew how to be a company woman. I never met John Buscema’s wife until last year in San Diego: a doll.

“The only other wife I’ve ever met is Marsha McGregor, Don’s wife. I see some of myself in her. She does get in there to help Don storm through the life of a freelance creator. She’s deeply devoted to him, but she’s also worked all those years outside the home. She involved in acting and has her own life.”

The process of daily living for Gene, now in his mid seventies, is an exact one. “If I get up early, he gets up early. He doesn’t get right to work. He’ll walk the dog, maybe go to the post office in town, but he’s always been one who can’t gather himself quickly. He needs to get dressed, shaved, and have breakfast. Just that stuff takes like an hour and a half.

“I’m different – everything is bing, bang, boom. Everything – even the shower – is within a half-hour. Maybe that’s why New York and I fit. I’m just more of an ‘ants in your pants’ kind of person.

“He’d rather do a commission, no matter the size. At this time in his life, he likes tackling one main pin-up project than to tug along with a story – particularly one that doesn’t interest him. He almost doesn’t have that in him anymore. The only recent story he’s done that he just loved doing, and because of it the time went quickly, was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He’s enjoying Doug Petrie’s scripts and is currently doing his second Buffy book, then onto a project for Argosy Publications.

With multiple prozines flooding the market, with conventions and the focus companies put on reprinting of various works - the Marvel Essentials and DC Masterworks - the impression one receives is that artists from the 1950s and 1960s may have suffered in the early 1990s, but now they’re doing much better now. This is not the case.

As spiritually healing as the past four years has been, the financial recovery has not matched. “Definitely not. It’s just the opposite. The cost of living is tough these days.”

Commissions don’t role in every day for the Colans, and Marvel’s latest editor-in-chief, Joe Quesada, flat out says he can’t market older artists. “He will command and get paid more per page,” she says. “Dark Horse is pretty generous, but usually because they’re studio-backed projects so the money is available.

“Marvel and DC – he will not accept any work from either. The projects offered so far are insignificant and the page rate is insulting. The projects are insulting. He doesn’t want to go out doing filler stuff.”

Adrienne is focused on her husband’s legacy and is willing to gamble that work will always be present, while the worry may be that she’s pricing her husband out of the market.

“Here’s an example of how ridiculous and hard-nosed Marvel is. They called him just recently for a pinup they wanted to use somewhere. He asked for $400 – which is like nothing. It was an elaborate superhero pinup. They said their budget was for something like $340 or $350. Would you believe they let him walk?”

Is love blind? Few love as hard as Adrienne Colan, and few respect their husband’s talent more. “He’s not going to lend his great talent, his great name – this is me, he will never say something like this – and he will just feel bad and feel demoralized, but I put the words to it to get his ego back up.

“The conversation around here goes like, ‘No, you’re not going to take it. I’m not going to have you lend your talent and your name to something like that and they can’t even pay you a pathetic little amount. Your fans will pay you better than them. They’re riding on your great name and they can’t even, for like $50, stretch it? He is a marquee name for them and if they have a budget of $350, and they can’t even pay him $400 for a pinup that they’re going to make a fortune on? No.

“When you think of how much they have given other artists who are ‘hot tickets’ - taking nothing away from them; great for Todd McFarlane, he’s a great businessman – we know they play a game with the numbers. So, I give him the words so he doesn’t stay in the demoralized state, but feels proud of himself.”

But Gene is not on the Top Ten list of favourite artists in Wizard Magazine (the Teen Beat of the industry), and Marvel won’t even make a fortune on the Spider-Man movie. Adrienne walks a tight rope between reality and keeping her husband’s confidence high.

But Gene’s talents haven’t abated one bit. Few in the industry from his era are still drawing. John Severin, Russ Heath and Colan (when dedicating themselves completely to a project) are the three most able to lay claim to the fact the quality of their artwork has not diminished with age.

So deep was Gene’s desire to return to the fold, so deep were the scars from his break with Marvel that, in early 1997, when he receives a call from Ralph Macchio to go back to Daredevil, Gene confessed to Adrienne he had been waiting for the call for years.

“He never told me this. I said, ‘You’re kidding me.’ He had a secret desire and believe me, he tells me everything. We’re together all day long. Every thought in his head comes out.”

The dream only lasted a mere handful of issues before conflicts with the series writer, Joe Casey, had Gene withdrawing from the project. Unless Gene is comfortable with a writer, unless Gene can be given what he considers enough artistic license, he will not devote himself to a regular book.

“As far as his emotional state, his mental outlook, and just his whole sense of how he feels about life, he’s just never been happier. He would never be able to accept a monthly comic now, but it’s the best time of his life. The money isn’t the be all and end all. There’s no sadness here, no bitterness because it’s been a great career and a great life. He’s a very happy man.

“We love one another and have been very fortunate in the past several years, living up here in Vermont, to have made some extraordinary friends. A couple of them are artists – not comic book artists - and that’s of great satisfaction to him.

“He’s still collecting photo reference. There is still art on his desk everyday to be drawn.”
Extraordinary talent doesn’t make a career. If you don’t own the company, or own your own creations, you can be crawling your way in the dark, hoping the sharp edge to your left is not a cliff over which you are about to spiral off.

“She has been my biggest fan and most severe critic,” says Gene, “hardly ever wrong in evaluating where I went wrong on any of my work. She has been the driving engine in my life that has never quit. I have seen people stop her in the street and ask her for directions on how to get to a place and she never fails to know how. She will always be my North Star.”

Marriage can be like crawling around in the dark. You reach out your hand and realize you’d rather not be in the dark with anyone but this person who truly loves and respects you, your work, and your desire to remain in an industry that brings your life as many cliffhangers as you have drawn on the last pages of so many stories.


  1. Blake, thanks for posting. This was inspiring to read through.

  2. A revelatory story for Colan fans. Thank you. I am feeling a burning hatred for Jim Shooter at this moment...

  3. Great article. But remember, Gene was a good Christian man whom I know would believe in forgiving people. He was truly a gentleman in every sense of the word. Jack Kirby, Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster, well the list goes on and on for artists that were treated unfairly. Gene was a well liked guy by a lot of people in or out of the business.

  4. Nice story it inspires other people's lives. Keep on posting inspiring article.

  5. Dear Blake, I have come across this article long after the fact, but was very glad to do so. Gene Colan was my favorite comic book artist. His version of Iron Man in Tales of Suspense got me started on being an Iron Man fan to this day. Ditto for Dr. Strange. And his work on Tomb of Dracula is one of the definitive renditions of that classic character in any medium, in my opinion. I worked for three years in the comic book industry -- for a major online retailer, Westfield Comics. They have a monthly catalog and I was fortunate to have interviewed Gene over the phone for one of the issues. Later, I got to meet him in person at a comic-con, where I also met Adrienne. What wonderful, gracious people they were. This article really shows what a great mutual loving marriage and partnership they had with on another. Later still, I self-published a comic book titled, The Last Troubadour. I wrote to Gene for a commissioned piece for use in issue number one and he willingly obliged. You can find the comic on Having Gene Colan work on a character I created was a great moment in my life, truly something I will always cherish. I'm sorry that he and Adrienne are gone now, but reading this story really meant a lot to me and brought back foud memories. Thanks very much!

  6. Marvel... freaking... comics... wouldn't give GENE COLAN... THE Gene Colan... 400 clams... to draw a big pin up piece.

    My brain cramped reading that. One of the best artists in comics... a man who did some of Marvel's iconic books... he should have had a solid gold VW microbus full of cocaine and Playboy Playmates dropped off on his front porch every day for the rest of his life for his work on Tomb of Dracula and Howard the Duck alone, but Joey Freaking Manhattan Penthouse Quesada can't slip an extra fifty into Gene's paycheck...

    ... uugghhhhhh... man, do I hate this industry some times.