Monday, June 27, 2011

Gene Colan: An appreciation

Gene Colan, who died last Thursday at the age of 84, was the first comics artist I noticed.

I’ve blogged before about how Daredevil was an inspiration to me as a kid, how the adventures of the sightless superhero helped me deal with my own deteriorating eyesight and fears of going blind. And while I’ve always been more into the words than the pictures in comics, Gene Colan was the exception to that rule.

Those first few comics I bought from the used bookseller mostly dated from the 1970s, and I read every word on every page. I read the copyright notices. I read the ads. And I read the letter columns, also known as lettercols. In one early issue, sandwiched between arguments about whether it was appropriate to have Uri Geller guest-star in a Marvel comic book, was a letter asking the editorial staff to bring Gene Colan back on as the book’s regular artist. The letter writer, whose name has vanished from my memory, praised Colan at length, going on about his distinctive, masterful pencils.

Later, when I found a few Daredevil issues with Gene Colan listed as their artist, I studied his work closely to see what the fuss was about. I noted the way his characters often seemed to emerge from deep pools of shadow. Darkness in Gene Colan’s art was an independent force, alive and vibrant. Where other artists used token shadows to give their pictures a touch of dimensionality, Colan built worlds with it, using shadows to create rich, complex settings and characters. His art looked like nothing else anyone was doing, before or since. A few years after he drew those iconic Daredevil adventures, someone coined a term for what Colan did—“painting with pencil.”

Colan started in comics in the 1940s and drew just about every hero of note at some point. He was best-known for his runs on Iron Man, Daredevil and Tomb of Dracula (and Howard the Duck—yes, you read that right, and the comics were good). He co-created Blade the Vampire Hunter—the guy Wesley Snipes played in the movies. He also co-created the Falcon, a longtime sidekick to Captain America who was the first African-American superhero in mainstream comics (the Black Panther came first, but he was African) and the first black superhero not to have the word “Black” in his name. It was Colan’s idea to make the Falcon black—not for political reasons, but because he enjoyed drawing African-American facial features and found them interesting and beautiful. That was the way he worked, when he was allowed—he drew the things he found interesting, and it made his stories richer.

I learned to draw—as much as I can draw—by copying Gene Colan. My pencils never ended up looking much like his, but I learned a lot about anatomy and a fair bit about the use of light and shadow. When I was stuck on a story, I would often pull out a sketchbook and try to work out a character’s face or costume, sketching my feelings about the story into the shadows in their hair or the cast of a mouth. Somewhere I think I still have one of the sheets where I carefully copied—never traced—every image of Daredevil from one of his comics. I wasn’t an artist, but it taught me to think.

To this day, when I plan scenes in my stories, I think about light and shadow and how it falls on and around my players. When a high-school drama teacher assigned me to block the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet and keep the lovers apart without a balcony, I placed Juliet next to a candle and forced Romeo to stand outside the circle of its light lest he be discovered. The big fight scene in Masks is blocked heavily around light and darkness, when characters can be seen and when they must materialize out of solid black. In my head, they look like Gene Colan illustrations, emerging out of the shadows to do amazing things.

I met Gene Colan exactly once, at Comic-Con in 2009. I found out at the last minute that he would be attending, and was so flustered that I couldn’t even find any of my Daredevil comics for him to sign—and many of them were so old and fragile that I couldn’t bear to risk them on the train journey. Instead, I grabbed the most recent thing he’d drawn, a 2009 stand-alone issue of Captain America about the hero and his sidekick Bucky fighting vampires during World War II. (Characteristically, writer Ed Brubaker said the story came out of Colan telling him he wanted to draw “World War II, darkness, and rain.”) It was the issue for which he and Brubaker would later win an Eisner Award, comics’ equivalent of the Oscar, for Best Single Issue.

I was with a friend, and told her that we could do anything she liked, see anything that interested her, at the convention—as long as I got to meet Gene Colan. Shortly after lunch, I finally figured out where his table in the artists’ alley was, and approached it with trembling hands, trying not to bend or warp the comic lest I give the impression that I did not respect the gentleman’s work.

He wasn’t there.

A woman was—I believe it was his wife, Adrienne. I explained my situation and how much Gene Colan’s art meant to me, and she smiled politely and offered to sell me an original print that he’d signed earlier. It was a bit north of my budget, but I gladly bought it, well aware that many Golden and Silver Age artists use commissions and con sales to pay their bills because they retain few rights to their earlier work. As far as I was concerned, Colan had more than earned my money. I guess my earnestness showed, because Mrs. Colan suggested I come back at a certain time, when her husband would likely have returned. She said he’d be particularly happy to meet a young woman who appreciated his art—he had few female fans. I gladly agreed, wheedled my friend into letting me come back, and wandered off for a while to kill time.

When I did come back, he was waiting there at the table, a small, slightly hunched man with a white beard and a red baseball cap with the Daredevil insignia on it (which made me doubly happy, of course). He visibly brightened up when Mrs. Colan pointed me out as “the young lady I mentioned.” I gushed incoherently about learning to draw by copying his art, and for some reason made a big deal of never tracing it. He approved, smiled, and said encouraging things. He wore amazingly thick glasses and nearly touched his nose to the cover of my comic when he signed it; the artist who had taught me not to fear darkness was almost blind himself now. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was really more of a writer than an artist, because I didn’t have a clear way to say what his art had meant to me as a writer. I got so nervous that I completely forgot to tell him I was wearing a T-shirt with my own drawing of Rae Masterson on it (although maybe that was for the best—it really wasn’t a very good drawing, and the colors on the T-shirt had printed strangely).

My friend suggested I take a picture with him, since I was so excited, and I loudly cursed the fact that I’d forgotten my camera at home. My friend gently pointed out that we both had camera phones. I turned bright pink. We hastily arranged a photograph, and Gentleman Gene gamely doffed his Daredevil cap and smiled in the direction of a device he almost certainly couldn’t see. We took the photo, and I thanked him profusely, not wanting to trespass on his time any more than I had to, and beat a hasty retreat. As we walked away, at about 3:00 in the afternoon on my one day at Comic-Con, I turned to my friend and said, “Okay, we can go home now. My day is complete.”

I’ve met movie stars. I’ve met congressmen. I’ve met a couple of my favorite authors, and hope to meet more. I never geeked out over any of them as much as I geeked out over meeting Gene Colan.

He deserved it.

Adrienne Colan died about a year ago. Gene Colan reportedly continued to work on commissions and other artwork up until about a month back. He is survived by his children and legions of fans.

His friend and biographer Clifford Meth, in accordance with Colan’s wishes, has set up the Gene Colan Scholarship at the Joe Kubert School. In lieu of flowers, Meth has requested donations to the scholarship fund, made out to “Joe Kubert School” and sent to:

Gene Colan Scholarship
c/o Clifford Meth
179-9 Rt. 46 West
Rockaway, NJ 07866

I’ll leave you guys with a note from Mr. Colan, supplied by Greg Hatcher via Clifford Meth:

Rest in peace, Gentleman Gene.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Books we should be watching!

Weirdly, I had movie people looking at Masks before I had book people looking at Masks. Because I was writing it as my thesis in an interdisciplinary master’s program, I spent a lot of classes hanging around with screenwriters, playwrights, poets, and the like, and because the program was well-connected to the highly regarded USC film school, we’d get a bunch of Hollywood types trooping through as guest speakers in our classes. One professor insisted that every student pitch his or her project to every guest speaker she had, even if it was a poet pitching to an editor who specialized in memoirs. And so it came about that I had my first conversation with a Hollywood development executive.

I had already figured out that I personally was not Hollywood material. I didn’t have the looks to compete in a field that still judges women heavily by their headshots, and a sleep disorder combined with an allergy to coffee meant that I could not compete with the other interns in the mailroom who pulled twenty-hour shifts in order to get out of the mailroom. Even if I’d really wanted to be a screenwriter, it just wasn’t in the cards. But I gamely pitched my little superhero story to the development guy, and ended up by saying, “Look, I have no interest in being a professional screenwriter. Basically, I’d want to partner with a pro, work together on a few drafts so I can legitimately tell the fans that they’ll like the script, and then go away and not bother you until the premiere. Except for maybe visiting the set once and taking pictures like a tourist. Do you do deals like that?”

Without blinking, the guy replied, “I fantasize about doing deals like that. What did you say your book was about again?”

Now, in light of the number of books out there whose authors would probably want no more involvement than that (if even that much), it surprises me that an industry that adapts huge numbers of books every year isn’t even looking at some very good prospects. A few examples, in no particular order, until I think of more …

1. Farmer Giles of Ham.  To begin with, this story is by J.R.R. Tolkien, so you’ve got a massive drooling fanbase built in. You don’t even need Peter Jackson-level budgets for this one—it’s a tidy little novella that would work well as a low-budget production. The tale is about a gruff farmer who finds a giant trampling his fields one night and shoots him with a blunderbuss. The giant isn’t really hurt, but he goes away and the farmer becomes a local hero. The farmer likes this very much … until an ancient, cunning and deliciously wicked dragon comes to town, and everyone expects the local hero and his blunderbuss to take care of the problem. Add in a magic sword that won’t stay in the sheath, a hilariously cowardly dog, some foppish knights, and a greedy king, and you’ve got the makings of a great animated feature. My personal wishlist includes Sean Bean as Giles, Stephen Fry as the voice of the dragon, and Hugh Laurie as the voice of the dog, but I’m flexible. As far as I know, no one’s even pursued an option on Farmer Giles of Ham.

2. The Crispin Guest mysteries. This is a personal favorite. I’m a great fan of the lovely Jeri Westerson’s vivid “medieval noir” mysteries about a disgraced former knight who atones for his past misdeeds by solving crimes in the shadowy streets of fourteenth-century London, usually with at least one holy relic per novel crossing his path in an interesting way. Cross Brother Cadfael with Philip Marlowe and you might have a little of Crispin … if either one of those men quoted Aristotle and was trying to teach a twelve-year-old street urchin how to act like a gentleman. Seriously—why has no one tried to option this as a movie or TV miniseries? I happen to know Westerson would be amenable …

3. The Blackcollar. This has to be one of the best concepts ever for an all-star action movie. Based loosely on the Japanese legend (itself loosely rooted in history) of the 47 ronin, Timothy Zahn’s 1983 debut novel was about a group of commando super-soldiers who fought in a war to save humanity from an alien invasion … and lost. Now, after thirty years of living in deep cover as embittered veterans, a group of surviving commandos—“blackcollars”—gets an opportunity to strike back against their alien conquerors. The real show here is the game of chess between the brilliant strategist Damon Lathe, leader of the blackcollars, and a local human security official named Galway who’s just as brilliant but determined to stop the blackcollars so the aliens don’t nuke his planet in order to kill a few malcontents. Now imagine someone doing this as a sci-fi action movie … using the action stars of yore (since all the blackcollars are at least fifty, most are in their sixties, and a few are over seventy). Am I the only one who’d like to see Clint Eastwood as Lathe? Perhaps I am, because Zahn recently went back to round off his two-book adventure into a trilogy, and the structure screams Hollywood option, but there’s nary a peep.

4. He That Hath Wings. Now that CGI is really cooking, someone has to do this. A 1938 short story by Edmond Hamilton (one of the pioneers of Golden Age science fiction), “He That Hath Wings” is about just what it sounds like … a boy with wings. The product of a freak accident during his mother’s pregnancy that killed his father, the boy is raised in isolation after his mother dies and is as much at home in the sky as any human being could be on land. When he finally ventures out into the wider world, he falls in love with a human girl and has his wings amputated so he can fit in with her normal family. Then one day his wings start to grow back … and he has to choose between the ordinary life he thought he always wanted and the sky that beckons him once again. I won’t spoil the magnificent ending for you, but I urge any screenwriter with a hankering for fantasy to seek out this oft-reprinted and never-adapted gem.

5. The Compleat Werewolf. This one was practically written as a movie. A hilarious novella by the Golden Age great Anthony Boucher, The Compleat Werewolf is about a professor of German who discovers that he can transform into a wolf by saying a magic word—but that in order to transform back he has to say the word “absarka,” which he cannot pronounce when he has a wolf’s vocal equipment. (The ways he finds to get other people to say the improbable word are … memorable.) Hilarity ensues involving commie spies, a sultry starlet, and a professor of ancient languages who dabbles in the fake occult. The novella happens to be structured exactly like a textbook screenplay (I’ve used it as a teaching example), so I’m astonished that no one’s tried adapting it before now. Aren’t werewolves supposed to be the Next Big Thing? Come on, Hollywood!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Comic books you should be reading: Mystery Men

In a summer of mindless crossover events, I have found my escape. And so should you.

I’ve been complaining for months now that I don’t care about the latest universe-altering crossover that requires me to buy twenty comic books a month just to follow one mediocre story. I want good stories, good characters, a few surprises, and a little fun. So it’s ironic that I almost didn’t pick up Mystery Men, a new miniseries from thriller writer David Liss and stalwart artist Patrick Zircher, out of sheer first-issue fatigue. “Oh, great,” I muttered, looking at it on the new-comics rack, “another overhyped issue one. What godawful tripe are they foisting on us now?”

I picked up the comic and flipped through it, mostly because there was a character on the cover who looked vaguely like my own Black Mask, and because I didn’t recognize anybody else, which suggested the Marvel miniseries had nothing to do with the latest Marvel crossover, Fear Itself. It fell open to this two-page spread:

The first thing that caught my attention was the woman fixing her earring on the right-hand page. Her hair and the drape of her pearls reminded me of Margo Lane in the old issues of The Shadow Strikes! I used to love as a kid. Then my eye traveled to the two wordless panels on the left-hand page, and I knew the comic was worth my three bucks.

Yes. Silence is worth money.

It’s rare to find completely wordless illustrations in comics today. There’s always a sound effect or dialogue, probably because it seems like cheating to just let the pictures speak. And as a writer and word nerd, I usually support that standpoint. But most of the wordless panels that do make it into comics are either a single facial expression—most often shock or fury—or a full-page splash illustration of some dramatic action, like Superman punching somebody. Here instead we have two very distinctive, human faces, with individual features and lines suggesting the beginnings of (gasp!) wrinkles, exchanging wry, complicated looks. I fell in love with those two characters on the spot and plunked down my $2.99.

Short version: It was worth it.

Mystery Men is an anomaly—a Big Two comic book that contains no big-name characters. Set in the early years of the Great Depression, it’s peopled with pulp-style heroes and villains, many of them seemingly lacking in superpowers (hence the name “mystery men”). The story initially focuses on Dennis Piper, a.k.a. The Operative, a gentleman cat burglar and Robin Hood wannabe who robs his fellow socialites and uses the proceeds to help the destitute. When his rags-to-riches girlfriend, Broadway actress Alice Starr, is brutally murdered, Piper is framed for the crime and goes on the run. The story builds from there, enfolding corrupt cops, black magic, a bullet-catching vigilante, and a brilliant aviatrix with a penchant for highly explosive experiments. They’re all mysteries, in their ways, and rich in the promise of surprises to come. Liss is a dab hand with dialogue, and Zircher strikes a perfect balance between period color and pulp-style action. The result is a delightful ride.

There are lingering mysteries to be solved, of course. Who is the zombie-like General, and what is he doing with the demonic fear lord Nox? How does Piper’s wealthy and influential father, who has suddenly stopped covering for his son’s shenanigans, fit into the puzzle? Is Sarah the aviatrix Alice’s twin or what? And what the hell is the deal with the Revenant (yes, there’s that name again), a vigilante who shifts back and forth between a ghostly mist and a very solid-looking black man in an elegant white three-piece suit? Is that a girasol ring on his finger like the Shadow’s? What’s going on here?

And since Mystery Men is capped at five issues, and unlikely to be reprinted (what with the lack of crossover potential and all), I can’t advise you strongly enough to check this one out before it’s gone. I have recently discovered that Liss wrote a tie-in story to J. Michael Straczynski’s The Twelve that I enjoyed a few months back, making him the only writer other than JMS to get those World War II-era characters right. The man knows his pulp, and I’m sure there are good things to come.

Hold onto your fedoras …

Monday, June 6, 2011

Scraping the bottom of Pandora’s box

Someone recently referred me to thisWall Street Journal article about the increasingly horrifying levels of sex, violence, and generally objectionable behavior in young-adult fiction. They also included this set of YA author Libba Bray’s tweets on the subject of the same article, where she proclaims that this sort of reporting encourages those who ban books and try to keep controversial material out of the hands of young people who need the ideas it contains.

I agree with Ms. Bray, except when I don’t.

First, a statement of general policy. I don’t like book banning. I don’t like the idea that some people get to tell other people what they can and can’t read, unless the people doing the telling are copyright holders (who, in my view, have a complete right to control who does and does not see the material they produce, at least initially).

But I qualify that view in a very select set of circumstances—and parents selecting books for their children fall into one of those categories.

Don’t get me wrong—I think parents who try to keep everything remotely controversial away from their kids are missing the point of parenting. My mom used to tell me she wasn’t raising chickens for Colonel Sanders; she was raising eagles to fly. Before an eagle can fly, it needs a basic understanding of the world it flies in—at least when it comes to things like gravity. If you’re preparing your kids to be adults, you need to expose them to adult ideas at some point.

But that’s at some point. And one kid’s some point is not another’s.

Some kids can handle the bad stuff earlier than others, and it’s part of a parent’s job to figure out when a kid is ready for something. They won’t always do that job perfectly, which is why I encourage kids to seek out books that interest them and worry about reading levels and the like later. But where parents can provide guidance and context, they should. And if that means deciding a 13-year-old isn’t quite ready for Speak, then maybe it’s okay to wait until age 14 or 15. I’m not saying teens should never read a book like Speak; I’m saying some of them should wait longer than others to do so. And parents are better-equipped than many other people to determine their children’s maturity level.

My parents had a pretty liberal policy when it came to what we kids could read. Basically, as long as we stayed out of trouble and didn’t have violent nightmares about what we read, we were free to read whatever we liked. And so, despite growing up in the 1990s, when young-adult fiction was barely a twinkle in the publishing world’s eye and books for kids were a lot less graphic, I learned about a lot of scary grown-up concepts well before my peers did. By age 10, I knew a fair bit about rape, just from reading books for grown-ups and an article in, of all things, Reader’s Digest. By age 12, I had read enough Andrew Vachss to know a few things about child prostitution in Asian tourism, which alarmed my teachers like you wouldn’t believe. I read widely from my local library, with the result that my typical reading list might combine a book on human sacrifice with a manual on how to carve carousel horses. And though I had terrifying nightmares as a child, they were almost never the result of anything I read. Not even the carousel-horse books.

Now, I wouldn’t hand those books to an average twelve-year-old—certainly not my average classmate in the sixth grade. I could well imagine some of my peers having vivid nightmares about some of the things I read—or worse, going out and trying them out of sheer curiosity. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have been allowed to read them. It just means that I was on the high end of the maturity curve for my age, and read accordingly. Similarly, I think kids who can handle the kind of darkness common in a lot of YA fiction should be allowed to read it if they want. Prior restraint—a fancy legal term for banning something before it’s happened—is not justified when it comes to kids in general reading books in general.

There is, however, one element of the WSJ article with which I agree. It’s not a cause for book banning, but I’d like to submit it as something for particularly daring YA authors to tackle. These relentlessly grim books lack something that I think is a crucial part of the teenage literary diet: hope.

I’m not saying every YA book needs to have a happy ending. But some of the dark ones should include, somewhere in them, a lessening of suffering. When you’re fifteen or sixteen years old, there are a lot of things in your life you can’t control. You usually can’t do anything about your parents acting insane, or the kids at school treating you like garbage, or the thousand-and-one things that seem to be wrong with your body. You need hope, whether you know it or not.

I remember my teenage years as a dark, crushing weight of hopelessness pressing down on my back, lightened only when I could escape into a story. I was never going to have any friends; I was never going to be loved or accepted; I was never going to be good enough for anyone to value me at all. I had been bullied consistently since I was eight years old, and the world around me seemed designed to support my tormentors. So while I didn’t go looking for hope (I didn’t think there was any to be had), I needed it. I secretly treasured stories where the good guys won, or at least didn’t completely lose, because it helped me think about my life in a way that made me want to change it. I read about characters who spat in fate’s eye, and learned to do that myself. So what if I wasn’t pretty enough, or popular enough, or from a rich family? I was smart, and I was stubborn, and I could be brave, and that might take me somewhere better than the place where I stood. So I kept writing, and made friends, and stood up to people who tried to break me. Stories, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, taught me that dragons could be killed.

Adults know that you can’t beat every monster, slay every dragon, right every wrong. But if we think we can’t fix any of that, we don’t try. And more monsters rise, and claim more victims.

So while none of my heroes have an easy road, there’s always at least a glimmer of hope that things might get better, that somebody can make a difference somehow. It would be nice if the doom-and-gloom patrol in YA fiction would take on that challenge.

Perhaps we’d all do well to remember the words of Robert A. Heinlein: “The last thing to come out of Pandora’s box was Hope.”