Comic Book Artist Edited by Jon B. Cooke Comic Book Artist, Eisner Award winner for "Best Comics-Related Magazine", celebrates the lives and works of great cartoonists, writers and editors from all eras through in-depth interviews, feature articles, and unpublished art.

Unfinished Tomb of Dracula #45 cover giving us a rare look at Gene Colan's pencils and partial inks by Tom Palmer. The image was modified on the published version to enlarge Drac's head and punch-up the foreground action.
Courtesy of Tom Palmer. Art ©2001 Gene Colan & Tom Palmer. Characters ©2001 Marvel Characters, Inc.

The Colan Mystique

His name is Eugene, and the talk is about Tomb of Dracula

Conducted by Tom Field
Transcribed by Jon B. Knutson

From Comic Book Artist #13

This interview, conducted in Gene Colan's Vermont home on February 18, 2001, focuses strictly on the artist's career at Marvel in the 1970s. Gene's wife, Adrienne, makes some very welcome comments throughout our talk. For more on Colan's early years and his beginnings at Marvel in the 1960s, please refer to the highly informative and entertaining interview conducted by Roy Thomas in Alter Ego #6. —Tom Field

Comic Book Artist: So, let's talk about Tomb of Dracula. How did you hear that Marvel was going to do this project?

Gene Colan: I must've heard about it from one of the editors up there at the time, or Stan himself, and I know I had a talk with Stan about it. I said, "Stan, I'd literally beg for this." He asked, "Why?" And I said, "Because I know it's something I'd love to do."

CBA: What was it that appealed to you?

Gene: The atmospheric backgrounds that would be necessary to render the evil, the scariness of it all....

CBA: At that point, you didn't know who was going to write it?

Gene: I had no idea who was going to write it, but Stan had the control, and I wanted to be the artist on the project. They had other monster books at the time—they were giving tests to several of them—and I asked Stan [for Dracula], and he said, "Okay, fine," and I let it go. I figured he said all right, so I can get it—all right! But then he changed his mind without me knowing it, and who was going to get it but Bill Everett? I called Stan up and said, "Stan, that's not what you told me!" He said, "Well, Bill had it long before I told you that you could do it, and I promised it to him." I knew he was double-talking me—I just knew it—so I sat down right away, and I worked out a whole page of Dracula's character study, and all different poses in a montage. I wish I had that page today.

Adrienne Colan: I hate to be a buttinsky, but... what happened was, Gene was devastated, but took it as, "That's it," because Stan was so final about it. But this was around the time the first Godfather movie came out, and there was this big story going around the industry how Marlon Brando saw himself as the Godfather, but the studios didn't. And Brando being Brando, you wouldn't think he'd go in and put himself through auditioning, but they said he stuffed cotton in his cheeks and came in [to the studio] as the Godfather, and he got the part, in spite of the fact that the industry didn't see him in that role at all. So, I suggested to Gene to do a montage, because I knew Gene had this vision [of Dracula], and he was like loaded for bear! He didn't want to! He thought, "Why should I? I'm not getting paid!" I said, "Listen, it's good enough for Brando! What th'?..."

Gene: That's how it happened. I sent [the tryout] to Stan, and the next day he called and said, "You got it!" That was it!

CBA: At that point, did you know if you were going to be drawing a comic book, or was it thought it might be a black-&-white magazine?

Gene: It was a comic book—one of the monster books they were adding to the list.

CBA: Now, you told me earlier how traumatized you were as a kid by seeing the original Frankenstein movie. That inspired your lifelong fascination with horror. Why not go after Marvel's Frankenstein comic book instead?

Gene: It wasn't offered! They never mentioned it. Just Dracula.

CBA: Would you have been interested?

Gene: Oh, sure! I would've done that, too.

CBA: Would you have been more interested than in Tomb of Dracula?

Gene: No, I think Dracula had the edge. First of all, I had a particular actor in mind [for Dracula] that had never played the part, and that was Jack Palance. I figured, "Oh, if there's anyone who can play that role, it would've been him!"

CBA: What did you see Jack Palance in that made you think that?

Gene: Well, I had seen him do Jekyll and Hyde for television, and right there and then I knew that Jack Palance would do the perfect Dracula. He had that cadaverous look, a serpentine look on his face.... And he did play that role, eventually, on television. So, I took him on as a character, and [when drawing Dracula] I'd sit before the television screen with the Polaroid camera, and whenever there'd be a still image of him on the screen, I'd photograph it in different positions, so I could use him. That's how [the Palance look] came about. Dracula never turned out really looking like him—somewhat like him. Maybe I didn't catch the actual essence of him in the beginning... but I think as the years went by—and that's when you really begin to develop a character; you get much, much better at it—it began to evolve into Jack Palance.

CBA: Now, to take on Tomb of Dracula you had to give up Daredevil, the book with which you were most associated. Was that a tough choice for you?

Gene: No, I had been doing that for a very long time, and I was running out of ideas. The idea was to choreograph his acrobatics, and it was getting too much the same all the time.

CBA: Was there any fear that you were giving up the security of a super-hero for the risk of a horror title?

Gene: No, I didn't care about that. Actually, I learned later that all the other horror books they were turning out failed. The only one that did hang on, and stayed on, that they wanted to stay on, was the Dracula series. And once I knew that, that it was a hot item, and that I was doing something right, that was reward enough to continue with it.

CBA: So, the assignment is yours. Do you recall how the first story came to you? Did the writer, Gerry Conway, give you a long plot or script?

Gene: I remember talking about [the story]. It was just a written script, like I'd been doing, and I followed it.

CBA: Do you have any memories about how you approached that first story?

Gene: Well, I inked the first one. After that, I just don't remember. Just so many adventures came along.

CBA: Why did you ink that one issue? At that point, you hadn't really inked any of your work at Marvel.

Gene: No, but I wanted to try it out. I thought, "Who knows, maybe I'll stay with it, maybe I won't." But it was too much pressure to get the work out, and I'm slow.

CBA: You're never really comfortable inking, are you?

Gene: No. It took me a while to get into it. It was bad enough to just get it down right in pencil, let alone then go on and ink it.

CBA: Now, when you first created Dracula, he had a goatee. You kept it for two issues, and then it was gone. What happened?

Gene: I must've forgotten about it.

CBA: You forgot it for 68 issues?!

Gene: Yeah, must've been! I just left the little mustache; that's it. I didn't like the goatee. It was something I didn't think he looked good in. Too typical.

CBA: How about the inkers on Dracula? You did that first one yourself, then all of a sudden, you got Vinnie Colletta...

Gene: I didn't like his interpretation of my work. He messed it up.

CBA: Did he look for a simple way out?

Gene: Oh, it was strictly speed. That was his value to the company. They could give him a job, and he could probably turn it out overnight. I didn't want that. I tried, I worked real hard on my art, why should somebody come over and wreck it up? So, I never really had a good inker, not until Tom [Palmer] came along. Well, I liked Frank Giacoia. I don't know if he ever did Dracula.

CBA: He didn't do Dracula. Do you remember Ernie Chan? He did an issue or two. Jack Abel did a couple.

Gene: Yes, I knew Jack Abel. He did a lot of "Iron Man" with me. He had a very slick line, which was okay on "Iron Man," of course. Iron Man was made of iron, so you want it to look like metal. But when it came to stone and dark corners and garbage, [laughs] he wasn't the man for that.

CBA: Tom Palmer's the inker that gets associated with you and Tomb of Dracula. Your thoughts on Tom Palmer?

Gene: I liked Tom's work very much. It was weighty, and he put in all the stuff that I liked—kind of like a Caniff. My work is not easy to follow, and he must've had a helluva time with it. Tom is an illustrator himself; he's done a lot of advertising art. So, he was very well-suited to it. Now, there's one thing that Tom used a lot of, and that's Ben-Day, that craft-tint that he'd paste on, which I hated. That was his thing, and I didn't understand why he did it. He thought it made the page look great, so....

CBA: Did you have a personal relationship with Tom?

Gene: No. I saw him once or twice in my whole career.

CBA: As you became comfortable working with him, and as you stayed together all those years, did the collaboration change your style at all?

Gene: No, I just drew as usual. [The drawing] started with me, and as far as I'm concerned, it ended with me. I was just hopeful that the finished product would look close to what I did.

CBA: So, early writers: You worked with Conway for two issues, Archie Goodwin came in, kind of fiddled around with it for two issues—he introduced the Rachel Van Helsing character and the Indian character, Taj. Gardner Fox came in for his own two issues, messed around with it some. What did you bring to Dracula in those early issues?

Gene: Dracula was always in the shadows, dark shadows, eerie settings, atmospheric stuff—cemeteries, night, bats, corners of places. I was always looking for something that would have a fine shadow in it, which I was good at, to add weight to the story.

CBA: Did you want the book set in Transylvania?

Gene: Yeah, I liked that. Eventually, Dracula wound up in Boston. In fact, Adrienne and I took a trip to Boston because we didn't have enough information on it. We drove out there, and I took some pictures, just to get the feeling of Boston streets.

CBA: You didn't do this for Transylvania, though!

Gene: [laughter] No, but I would've done it.

CBA: So Marv Wolfman comes on the book with #7, and he's the fourth writer in seven issues. How did your relationship with Marv develop? He must've come to you saying, "What the hell are we doing here?" [laughs]

Gene: I accepted the changes very well. They could've had any one on they wanted—it didn't matter to me. Whatever was written there on the page, I'd give it my best, even if I didn't like it.
Adrienne: The one thing Gene did appreciate with Marv was that from the very beginning, it was very apparent that Marv cared as much about the writing of it as Gene cared about the art of it, and in that way, that was their most powerful bond.

CBA: One of the things that Marv did early on was introduce Blade, the Vampire Slayer. What was your role in the creation of Blade?

Gene: The visuals. Marv told me Blade was a black man, and we talked about how he should dress, and how he should look (very heroic looking). That was my input. Marv might've said "Put boots on him," I don't now. The bandolier of blades—that was Marv's idea. But, I dressed him up. I put the leather jacket on him, and so on.

CBA: Did you base the character visually on anybody?

Gene: A composite of black actors. (ex-NFL running back) Jim Brown was one of them.

CBA: Did you have a sense that he was going to be a popular character?

Gene: Oh, I knew it was good, this character. Blacks were not portrayed in comics up to that time, not really. So I wanted to be one of the first to portray blacks in comics. There were black people in this world, they buy comic books, why shouldn't we make them feel good? Why shouldn't I have the opportunity to be one of the first to draw them? I enjoyed it!

CBA: So, creative and financial interests aside, is there some satisfaction in seeing Wesley Snipes up there on the screen as your character, Blade?

Gene: I don't picture him as Blade. But Wesley Snipes did a damn good job. Yeah, it made me feel good, sure. Especially when my name appeared up there!

CBA: So, as Tomb of Dracula started to hit its stride, how did you and Marv work together?

Gene: He gave me a written plot, but he also discussed it with me over the phone, or I called him... I don't know which it was... but we did speak over the phone about it.

CBA: Issue to issue, or would you talk longer term, like what you would do in a series of issues?

Gene: I would ask him questions about the plot he'd written out, just to make sure I understood what he was looking for, what I should play up. I tended to ask questions, rather than to have him assume that I got the idea. I didn't want to take it all up for credit myself, because I always felt that the writer was getting somewhere, was getting to a point, and I wanted to get to that same point.

CBA: How did you feel about Marv's approach to the character over time?

Gene: I didn't feel Dracula was evil enough. I think that he was above-ground more than he should've been, and there should've been more action trying to eliminate him.

CBA: That's interesting, because in the early stories, Dracula's very much the villain, and the idea is you've got this band of vampire hunters hunting him down. Marv seemed to turn that around, and say, "You know, you can't base the entire series on a villain; we've got to find people who are more villainous than Dracula." He almost made him a little more heroic. Now you're saying you'd like to have seen Dracula a little more evil.

Gene: Much more evil. When I saw Francis Ford Coppola's version of Dracula, that was the good Dracula. They concentrated in the film on how to get rid of him, and it was almost impossible to do. Also, there was magic in the film that never appeared in the [comic book], because I didn't have that kind of idea. Like, if Dracula wanted, he could've turned into a snake. He could ooze out of a room, turn into mist to get through a doorway or something. Or he could flatten himself out. That would've been great to show in the comic book.
Marv also put in Harold H. Harold—that was a good character! But he would dominate the Dracula book to the point where it wasn't Dracula! And although I enjoyed drawing him—it was a comical break from the seriousness of it, and Dracula came in at the end or the middle a little bit—you didn't see much of Dracula.

CBA: Well, that was the risk, because on that book you did have an ensemble cast. You always had Quincy, and Frank Drake, and Rachel, and all these characters challenging you to pace it.

Gene: Marv was very easy-going; he relied a lot on me. He didn't give me any trouble, and I didn't give him any trouble!

Because numerous pages intended for Tomb of Dracula #71-72 were discarded as the story arc had to be truncated into #70, there exists a number of unpublished TOD pages. Wanna share? One contributor (whose name was—yikes!—lost) sent us this image. ©2001 Gene Colan.

CBA: How did your own visual approach to the character change over time?

Gene: I tried to make the character look more real, visually. I tried to show what an evil character he was. You know, the movie Night Stalker came out—it was nothing to do with Dracula, but it was about vampires—and I liked the feeling of throwing the viewer off balance into thinking this is a present-day situation where a guy thinks he's a vampire. I loved that part, because it set you off-balance, I never expected him to really be a vampire, maybe 300 years old! I loved that.
I did some things in Dracula on my own that weren't in the script, and then I would call up Marv and say, "What do you think of this?" For instance, Dracula would be floating along the floor, you'd see his face, but the rest of him would be like a snake, floating, and I thought it was a good idea. I kind of needed permission to go ahead and go off-field a little bit.

CBA: But you must've felt comfortable trying. Apparently the relationship there was good.

Gene: It was very good; it was easy to talk to Marv. He never said no to anything, really. I don't ever remember him rejecting anything.

CBA: Was there a difference between Marv the writer and Marv when he eventually became Marvel's editor-in-chief, your boss?

Gene: No. Marv was always Marv. I got along with him easily.

CBA: As you were drawing that, you'd been doing super-heroes for years before that. How did it feel, being in the vampire business?

Gene: Very good. Super-heroes usually don't deal with the frightening, as a rule. Instead, it's the villain versus the good guy, all the time. But the occult, the mystery of the unknown, probably from early on frightened the bejeebers out of me. When I saw Frankenstein, oh my god, I was totally traumatized, and ever since I've been intrigued with horror things.

CBA: You gravitated towards things that scared you?

Gene: Yeah, I did. One day as a kid, I wanted to see one of the Frankenstein movies—it could've been Son of Frankenstein—and I stood outside the movie theater. This was for a Saturday matinee, and I could've taken myself in for a quarter to see it, but I couldn't get the nerve to go in! I just couldn't! I would be in a dark theater by myself, so I couldn't do it!

CBA: Was there any feeling that you were missing anything while you were doing Dracula? You weren't doing Daredevil or any of the better-selling super-hero titles.

Gene: No, I was thoroughly enjoying it. [Super-heroes] was something I'd left behind. I was after something new, and I knew [Dracula] was a winner, so I put everything I had into it.

CBA: I know upstairs in your studio you've got all sorts of CDs with war noises and things to get you in the mood for your jobs. What did you do for Tomb of Dracula to get in the mood?

Gene: I played very eerie music. Mostly movie soundtracks,or I take out some of the classics; I play Tchaikovsky... Sound effects, any kind of sound effects, mostly storms. All I'd have to do is play thunder and lightning sound effects, and it would take me right up to it.

CBA: Did you go anywhere, visually, to pick up bits for Dracula?

Gene: Well, if I needed a cemetery thing, I'd either take it out of a book, or I'd go to a local cemetery for tombstones. One time I went away to New England, where I felt was a good place for a couple of cemeteries. I'd take my camera with film and photograph [the cemeteries].

CBA: Looking back now, years later, how do you regard the Dracula experience in your career?

Gene: Just one of the jobs that lasted the longest.

CBA: It wasn't anything more than that?

Gene: Honestly, no.

CBA: What was the pace like in the '70s for you? You were drawing pretty much all the time, the equivalent of about two books a month.

Gene: Every day the goal was doing two pages.

CBA: You couldn't have had any time for outside activities.

Gene: It was terrible, if you think about it. It was a terrible price to pay, and looking back on it, I wish I could've slowed down along the way, lived a life around the same time I drew these [comics]. It wasn't a nine to five job! If I had been as fast as John Buscema or Mike Sekowsky—they could do a story in a day!

CBA: Let's talk about some of the other characters you drew at Marvel in the 1970s. What did Captain America mean to you? That's a character that seems to represent a lot of your ideals.

Gene: Captain America is the kind of man, like a Gary Cooper type, where you wish you could be like him, wish you knew him. That's how I looked at him, like someone I would've liked, or would have liked to have had the principles he stood for. I wanted to be like him.

CBA: Your version of Doctor Strange was very different from Steve Ditko's. What influenced you?

Gene: I enjoyed those [stories] very much. During the '70s, he was not a mean character, but I took him to various places. [The comic] had atmosphere, lots of atmosphere. It was just a night character.

CBA: What did you bring to that series?

Gene: Pretty much what I was doing for Dracula. Same kind of mystery. I also was hooked on amphetamines when I did Doctor Strange. That's what kept me going, because of the hours that I kept, I had to stay in good health to meet the deadlines.

CBA: But you couldn't have been getting personal fulfillment out of that.

Gene: Yes, I did.

CBA: You're working like hell, having to take chemicals to keep awake! Where's the satisfaction?

Gene: It's in the art. I'd think of what I've got on my board, and what I thought should be different, and somehow when I got to it the next morning, it'd be—for me—straightened out. I'm still drawn to the art, trying to give it the very best I can, and to do things in a different way. Just the opportunity. The more freedom I'm given on a project, the better it turns out.

CBA: Do you have memories of the writers you worked with on Doctor Strange?

Gene: It didn't much matter to me, to tell you the truth, who wrote any of them. For me, it was a plot to draw.

CBA: What about the inkers?

Gene: The inkers I never had control of. My problem ended once [the pages] left my room, and they received it. I did the best I could; the rest was up to them.

CBA: Did you get sick of Doctor Strange at a point?

Gene: Sure, because it kept going to the same place. I was looking for ways to make it fresh—that's when I started to change the appearance of his room. I'd say, "Gee, that would be good to warp the room, make it look smaller than it is, or bigger than it is, like a fish lens on a camera, where everything would be elongated." I'd thought of elongating some of the characters themselves, just to give myself a boost, and give me something different to do.

CBA: You did a memorable Savage Sword of Conan issue. Care to comment on following John Buscema on that?

Gene: I thought that Buscema was so far above and beyond anyone else in that period. What could I add to it that he hasn't already done?

CBA: You ended up drawing the Hulk magazine. How was that?

Gene: I didn't like that character. He was ugly as sin, big and clumsy, didn't look good on the page, and I couldn't relate to him. He was more like a big dumb Lenny (from Of Mice and Men) than anything else, and I couldn't deal with him.

CBA: So, you started the '70s doing Daredevil and Captain America—life is pretty good. By the end of the '70s, there's no more Dracula, there's no more Howard the Duck, Marvel sort of doesn't know where to put you... sounds like nothing was much fun.

Gene: I guess not. It sounds like an actor's career.
Adrienne: It was a very insecure time financially, very frightening.

Gene: Life changes, and things get different. Marvel got started with new talent in the business, new artists, new styles of drawing... everything changed. I think once the comic book became an expensive item, no longer an affordable one, then it really changed. I mean, yes, the size of the book was bigger, the color was fabulous, the paper was very, very good, quality paper... but you have to pay for that! What happened to the same books that used to be giving so many people pleasure, and were cheap to produce?

CBA: What do you want to be remembered for, for your work at Marvel?

Gene: [laughs] Just being good at whatever I did, pretty much. I guess Dracula is probably what I'm known for—it was the longest run I've ever had. I don't know if I'd want to go out being remembered just for that. Just giving pleasure for whatever I do, not singling out any one.

CBA: What do you remember fondly about your time at Marvel?

Gene: The beginning with Stan, when we were allowed such unprecedented freedom... that's what I remember. I'd talk with Stan about a plot over the phone, and I'd tape record his whole idea—it'd just be a few sentences. "This is what I want in the beginning, the middle, and what I want in the end... the rest is up to you." I had all the characters work for me, what they looked like was up to me—except those that were already established. But whatever I did, I could do. The one time Stan tells about at conventions, because it's laughable, is when I drew a whole page of a hand opening up a door. I did it to expedite matters, [laughs] so I could get through with it, but he didn't like it, he thought I was....
Adrienne: Remember, he called, he says, "What are you doing?"

Gene: "What are you doing—a hand opening up a door? Where's the interest in that?"
Adrienne: But Stan loves to tell that story at conventions, and we've been there to witness him on panels, telling that story. He always says, "However, if there's anyone who can draw a hand opening up a door, and capture your attention for a whole page, [it's Gene]," which is very sweet of him to say. And that's kind of... that's what made that time very sweet for Gene, because Stan was wonderful to Gene in that way. There was no fear; he didn't use that kind of tactic, even when Gene was constantly destroying the pacing of plot. Only on occasion would Stan call and say, "Gene!" It was kind of like that, like a brother begging another brother, "Please! Please!" but not with the idea like his job was at stake, or, "You don't know what you're doing."

COLAN FANS: Be sure to check out Alter Ego #6 for Roy Thomas' interview with The Dean on his earlier Marvel experiences!

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