I once had the chance to tell Gene Colan how I felt about him, in front of a roomful of people when I was drafted at the last minute to host a 1960s Marvel Bullpen panel at a con: that Jack Kirby was the greatest comic artist ever, and Gene Colan was the greatest artist ever in comics.
The unerring drama and unfailing nuance with which Colan brought noir substance and romantic shadings to super-genre material was unprecedented among his peers, and is the founding influence on shadowy stylists with their own whole schools from John Paul Leon and Sean Phillips to Dennis Calero and Danijel Zezelj.
Jack Kirby also invented comics’ iconic vocabulary and Will Eisner set its storytelling grammar, while Colan was its first, foremost operatic interpreter. When generations of readers think of Doctor Strange and Daredevil and Dracula and Howard the Duck, they’re not thinking of any of the illustrators who first brought those characters to life, but of Gene Colan’s atmospheric, expressive ideas of them.
His style was his greatest character, defining how we saw others’ concepts from his signature work in the ’60s and ’70s to his miraculous staging of the best Escapist story in that character’s imagined medium (scripted by Glen David Gold), late in Colan’s life. Colan’s contributions showed the durable lifespan of mass-market folklore and proved the potential for personal expression within it.
This may be problematic for those who prefer to focus on individual creation over corporate canon in a medium often inequitable and indifferent to its most important talents — but Colan was the very essence of an individual vision. Like all great and generous geniuses, we can’t really do without him but he showed us a way beyond.