Thursday, March 31, 2011

And a Gene in Every One: A Look at Some Gene Colan Horror Stories

One of the neatest surprises about Dark Horse's Eerie Volume One hardcover archive monstrosity is how many Gene Colan stories it contains. I hadn't realized Colan did any work for Warren Publications. I mean, I knew he had to have done something before Tomb of Dracula at Marvel. He obviously didn't just magically appear out of nowhere, or descend in a silver orb-like spacecraft from another planet or emerge from some pocket dimension, hand Stan Lee some samples, lift his Rayban Wayfarers and say, "Dig this and dig it good, Daddy-O, I wanna draw Dracula for you cats."

What the heck am I babbling about?

Colan has always been a master of extreme foreshortening, able to twist and turn the human figure in any direction. Very useful because he isn't the kind of artist who draws simple eye-level panel compositions. No, he likes to use high "camera" positions or his patented "worm's eye view" low angle shot. And then he breaks up the page with all kinds of crazy panel shapes, the results frequently looking like shards of broken glass arranged on the paper. Tom Palmer laid down some impressive inks on Colan's Tomb of Dracula pages, but here in Eerie, we get unfiltered Colan with his characteristic heavy shadowing-- but also marvelous ink washes where he creates an illusion of value and depth with just a few well-chosen gray tones.

His first Eerie story is a twisted retelling of the old Pied Piper legend, "To Pay the Piper," which substitutes vampires for rats. This time, the cheapskate villagers are as familiar with the story as we are, so they resort to outright murder so they don't have to pay, only to suffer yet another twist involving werewolves. The final panel-- the punchline-- is a bit too crowded to be fully effective (or as horrific as it should be) but the story's creepy European setting prefigures Colan's depictions of Marvel Universe Transylvania.

More original is "Full Fathom Fright" (Eerie #3), this time with a script by Archie Goodwin that allows Colan to go bonkers with the fractured panel shapes. This story goes from the booby hatch to Davy Jones' Locker as we first see a mental patient throwing a monster hissy fit, then learn all about the undersea misadventure that made him that way. Goodwin puts Colan's storytelling and rendering skills to their fullest. The undersea sequence is particularly nice, with Colan creating a real sense of weightlessness, with deep water shadows and lighting effects. And the final gag panel with its Lovecraftian conclusion is nice and large and much more effective this time.

Eerie #4 features "Hatchet Man," a grisly Goodwin-Colan take on that horror comic evergreen, the deranged axe murderer. As opposed to the polite, mild-mannered axe murderer, I suppose. What is it about geeks with axes that so fascinates horror writers and readers? The blunt simplicity of the weapon? We've seen it a billion times on EC covers alone, but for some reason we never quite grow tired of these Lizzie Borden-style "forty whacks" antics. This effective little story has an obvious psychological element that's slightly reminiscent of the movie Psycho but features some startling action sequences where Colan chops the action itself into wedge-shaped panels that showcase his ability to depict bodies in motion and in pieces. And if you ever wanted to see Bob Newhart totally lose his shit and go on a killing rampage, then this is the story for you.

The final story, "A Matter of Routine" (Eerie #5) seems a little rushed. The figures are simpler and the ink washes read a bit flatter than in the previous shorts. It's kind of a nightmare version of the Mad Men era-- a fedora-wearing flannel-suited commuter type (he's even got a 1960s George Grizzard buzz cut) gets off his afternoon train, slips the key in the door at home and steps quite literally into Hell itself. Goodwin's narrative captions are in breathless second person: "You fall to the scorched black cinders of earth, your only escape route banished..." and the denouement is an extremely lame "Was it all a daydream or do I dare open this door after all?" type cop-out. Not the finest work by either gentleman, but still an interesting cultural relic of a bygone era.

It also features axes.

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