Thinking back on the Batman and Detective comics I collected back in the early to mid 1980s, I remember preferring the issues drawn by Don Newton and Tom Mandrake, with strong, clean lines and clear depictions of the various characters in Doug Moench's hyperbolic dramas.
The issues drawn by Gene Colan I felt less strongly about; to me, at that time, Colan's art seemed murky and disjunct, his character depictions scruffy and inconsistent. (Remember, I was in high school, and superclean artists like George Pérez and John Byrne were king.) Mostly I was following Moench's storylines, dealing with characters like the seductive Nocturna, the unstable Night-Slayer (pictured at left on the cover of Detective #544, from 1984) and the as-yet-untainted Jason Todd, Batman's second Robin. Following Batman during that period required you to buy both Batman and Detective, since the storyline was continuous through both books.
Looking back now with more discerning eyes, I have a better grasp of Colan's work. As you'd expect from someone most closely associated with a horror title, Marvel's The Tomb of Dracula, Colan was a master of mood and melancholy. And his action scenes, far from sketchy and jerky, show a compelling mastery of fluid motion and impact.
Having disposed of those Batman and Detective issues long ago during one of my various breaks with comic-book collecting, I've reacquired many of them secondhand in recent years. I still enjoy the Newton and Mandrake issues, but now it's Colan's work that seems most in keeping with Moench's dark tone, and his moody compositions that best serve Moench's florid writing, even increasing a story's narrative clarity.
Colan, who died on June 23 at the age of 84, was a titan among comic-book creators, having done outstanding work on the aforementioned titles as well as Marvel's Daredevil, Captain America, Doctor Strange and Howard the Duck. (That last series, far from the Disneyfied movie you might remember, was home to some of the late writer Steve Gerber's most unsettling and scabarously funny writing.) He also helped to create two of comics' most identifiable and successful black characters: the Falcon, a partner to Captain America, and the vampiric vampire slayer Blade.
Despite serious health concerns that included severely diminished eyesight, Colan never stopped drawing at a high level. One of his last major projects was Captain America #601, published in July 2009. A throwback story by Ed Brubaker featuring the Captain and his sidekick, Bucky, during World War II, the issue was released in two editions: a regular color printing, and a black-and-white variant transfered directly from Colan's gorgeously rendered and shaded pencils. The issue subsequently received a prestigious Will Eisner Comic Industry Award for best single issue of the year.
The Associated Press ran a very fine, detailed obituary yesterday. The obituary in The New York Times today is also quite good, rightly citing the painterly qualities of Colan's work. Writer Clifford Meth posted a touching remembrance of Colan on his blog. And I encourage everyone to read the excellent chapter on The Tomb of Dracula, and Colan's contributions, in Douglas Wolk's entertaining and important book, Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean.
I was sorry to hear of Colan's passing, which prompted me to pull out and enjoy again some of the terrific comics he drew over the years. And, in his honor, I also bought something new.
I'm not, by and large, a regular consumer of original comic-book art, and own only a handful of pages. But I was happy to find this lively example of Gene Colan's work -- page 15 from Detective #544, inked by Alfredo Alcala and lettered by Todd Klein -- and I'll be proud to have it in my little personal gallery.