Secrets in the Shadows: The Art & Life of Gene Colan

    (TwoMorrows, 2005)
™ and © 2005 Marvel Comics, DC Comics, and Archie Comics

This sprawling retrospective assembled by Tom Field overflows with wide-ranging insights and biographical details which scholars of comicdom will need hours to pore through and longer to assimilate. Gene Colan, among the Marvel bullpen’s all-time greats, helped establish the seminal iconography that defined Marvel Comics super-heroes in the public mind for the Silver Age generation with his vital work on popular characters like Captain America, Daredevil, and Iron Man.

To Field’s credit, Secrets in the Shadows delves deep into Colan’s life going all the way back to his childhood in Depression-era New York City. Field lets Colan recount in his own words a number of impactful childhood memories that delineate a compelling portrait of the artist as a young man. Field dedicates several pages to family photographs and Colan’s truly remarkable childhood illustrations.

Colan’s career in comics began in the late 1940s and his memories working at EC, Timely, and DC—including a stint under the direction of legendary tyrant Bob Kanigher—add color to a lost era. A thoroughly researched six-page essay contributed by amateur historian Dr. Michael J. Vassallo shines a light on Colan’s work during the murky end of Timely Comics.

By 1962, Colan was 35 years old with a failed first marriage and a stalled art career. Things turned around when he met his true love and second wife Adrienne Gail Brickman. It was around the same time that Stan Lee recruited Colan away from DC to join the burgeoning revolution then underway at Marvel. During those heady early years, Colan entered a period of artistic achievement matched only by the greatest names in comics history.

Field allots forty pages to discuss Colan’s notable contributions to Iron Man, the Sub-Mariner, Captain America, Daredevil, and Doctor Strange among the many other titles Colan contributed work to in the 1960s, and heading in to the 1970s. Field includes a transcript from a wide-ranging phone interview he had with Gene Colan and Stan Lee in December 2004. Numerous well-chosen examples of vintage Colan art capably convey the particularly cinematic approach to light and shadow Colan brought to bear on his illustration as well as his iconoclastic approach to page continuity.

Frank appraisals of Colan’s illustration style discuss the difficulty some inkers had working with Colan’s subtle lines and the frustrations some editors had with his visual storytelling rhythm when it conflicted with the inherently restrictive format of the 22 page comic book. These tensions propel Secrets in the Shadows through its final, compelling chapters.

By the 1970s, Colan’s passionate dedication to relatively marginal titles like Tomb of Dracula and Howard the Duck left him exposed to a mid-career implosion when the audience for those books went away. The subtext gleaned from writer Marv Wolfman’s comments about Tomb of Dracula suggests that modern audiences lacked the context necessary to appreciate the historical significance of Tomb of Dracula. Indeed, its eight year run signified the first character-driven horror series in comics history.

Fields doesn’t stint on the acrimonious details that poisoned Colan’s relationship with Marvel during Jim Shooter’s tenure as editor-in-chief, which finally propelled Colan to leave the bullpen in the early 1980s. While many now find it easier to look back forgivingly on Shooter, it’s still shocking to read the hostile and unproductive attack John Byrne unleashed on Colan’s early 1980s output as excerpted from Gary Groth’s infamous 1982 interview in Comics Journal #75. Fields shares a key insight that makes it more comprehensible: “In comics—as in television and movies—it’s the older generation that falls prey to the young turks.”

The book winds down tightly toward the end in the manner reminiscent of vintage Colan comics—seemingly without enough pages left to cover the end of the story. In addition to discussions of Colan’s late period work at Archie, Dark Horse, DC, and Colan’s tepid reconciliation with Marvel, Field includes an interview with Adrienne Colan who talks extensively about the Internet’s impact on Colan’s legacy and the platform it gave him to sell commissioned artwork, the artist’s daunting health problems and, of course, the fans.

What finally emerges from the shadows of this monumental effort is a beguiling portrait an artist whose vantage gave him a unique perspective on the evolution of the American comics industry. TwoMorrows Publishing made Secrets in the Shadows: The Art & Life of Gene Colan available in a 168-page soft cover edition and a deluxe 192-page hardcover edition, limited to 1000 copies.

— Leland Burrill

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