How do you write about someone you barely knew, but had a greater impact on you than people you’ve known your whole life?
Most people came to know Gene Colan on the vibrant four-color comics of their youth. I met Gene in a dingy, dimly-lit classroom on 28th and 7th in Manhattan. It was the Fall of 1988 and I was studying graphic design with a minor in illustration. Secretly, I was hoping to be a cartoonist. I had a choice whether to take a fashion illustration course or another one called, “Graphic Storytelling.” I chose the latter.
I had not grown up reading comic books as so many of my peers have. I was into Peanuts and Bloom County, not Spider-Man and Daredevil, so this was a bit of a departure for me, but one that seemed closer to my passion than drawing fashion. He normally taught at the School of Visual Arts, but was now also teaching at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Unfortunately, the students he had that semester where not the future comic legends a teacher would hope for.
The fact that combined, the entire class had less talent than Gene had, didn’t matter to him. He loved story and loved showing others his passion. I will always remember that passion based on one event that I still think about to this day. In order to teach us visual storytelling, one class he brought in To Kill A Mockingbird on videocassette. He prefaced the viewing by informing us that it was his favorite movie and he watched it once a week and had been for a very long time. Towards the end of the movie, Gene was so moved by the film that he started to cry. He left the classroom and returned a few minutes later. That story that he watched every week still moved him to tears. I was amazed. Gene was passionate…especially about story.
As most people now know, my art is very cartoony. I would draw pages in that cartoony style and he would just shake his head. “No one buys that style of cartooning these days, you know.”, he’d say to me. I’m sure I was another lost cause to him, but he still was passionate about teaching story—even to me.
One day during that semester, I was informed that I needed to get an internship somewhere as a requirement of my college workload for my final semester. That night, Gene told us that he was taking us on a field trip to Marvel Comics. A couple days later, we went and it looked like a fun place to work…and maybe intern at. So, I sent in an application and was accepted. That began my long career at Marvel.
A few years later I was offered a job lettering a Dracula mini-series that Gene was penciling. I jumped at the chance. I got to work on pages that Gene drew and Al Williamson inked. Somewhere out there are original pages where I got to share my time with greatness. It was that book that I got introduced to Al. I would always letter with a paper towel under my arm, so as to not smudge the pencils. Al appreciated that, especially with Gene’s soft pencil lines which easily smudged.He thanked me.
A few years ago, while I was working on Franklin Richards, I ran into Gene at the New York Comic Con. I reminded him of the class, the field trip, the Dracula story and the fact that I would “never get work drawing cartoony.” I then handed him a copy of Marvel Comics’ Franklin Richards and he burst out laughing. I told him I took to heart his lessons from all those years ago. I thanked him for my career and wished him the best. I hope I made him proud.
I didn’t know Gene that well, but without him, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Rest in Peace, Gene and thank you for teaching me to love story like you.