Saturday, June 25, 2011

The World Shakes as Giants Fall

It was only a few weeks ago when I had the occasion to write about the death of actor Edward Hardwicke here. I hoped that sort of entry would be a rarity; I would much rather write about something other than death, but I have to go down that road again today, as much as I wish I didn't.

Yesterday was a bad day, a very bad day. Twice I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach as I learned of the deaths of two men who both had an incredible amount of influence on my life and my writing. I'd like to say a few things about them today.

Few art forms have influenced my imagination more than comic books. And in that medium of comics, there are very few artists whose work has meant more to me than the great Gene Colan who died yesterday at the age of 84. He was a professional comics artist for decades, working on such characters as Daredevil, Captain America, Iron Man, Batman, and Doctor Strange but is perhaps best known for the 1970s Marvel horror series TOMB OF DRACULA, possibly the finest horror comic ever produced. Colan was the perfect artist to draw a series starring the king of vampires. He was the absolute master of creating mood and atmosphere and dread and suspense through his use of thick shadows and the way he put the most amazign folds and shading into clothing, curtains, textures of all sorts. His people looked like those of no other artist and he could make the world seem as dark and dramatic and foreboding as any artist ever could.

 But as far as I'm concerned, there's more to Gene Colan's art than that, for it had a personal effect on me. When I was five years old in 1982, I was out with my grandfather one morning. We stopped in a small convenience store for something and I saw, for the first time, one of those big old spinner racks full of comic books. I was mesmerized. Grandpa offered to buy me one and it took an eternity for me to choose. I finally settled on a Batman issue. I read it on the drive home and when I got to the last page of the story, a vampire story drawn by Gene Colan...I was terrified! The story ended on a cliffhanger with poor Batman having been bitten by the vampire and blood oozing from the two little puncture wounds in his throat! That traumatized little five-year old that I was begged Grandpa to take that horrible book away!

It may have upset me then, but that moment was the spark that started the fire in the part of my imagination that thrives on horror, on fear, on suspense and terror. Years later of course, I got more deeply into comics and truly came to appreciate the greatness of Gene Colan's artwork. And finally, in 2008, I had the chance to meet Gene Colan and I was able to tell him the story of that frightened five-year old and thank him for helping  to turn that kid into a writer. When I had told him the story, he looked at me and smiled and said, "When I was five, my father took me to see FRANKENSTEIN with Boris Karloff. Well that movie scared me silly and I had nightmares for weeks...but it woke up my imagination and made me love to draw horror! If my art did for you what that movie did for me, I'm very proud to know that and I wish you all the luck in the world with your writing and all your endeavors." That was a good moment and I'm glad I had the chance to tell him what his work had meant to me. Comics is a small genre now, far smaller than it was decades ago and the passing of Gene Colan won't make any national headlines. But to those who knew his work and got to experience the world of shadows and action and drama that he created with nothing more than a pencil, he was a titan!

That was my morning news yesterday, the death of Gene Colan. When I got home in the evening, the second blow came, just as hard as the first.

Peter Falk. Of everything I've written, more of it has been in the genre of mystery than any other. Peter Falk's Columbo started that love of mystery for me. Before I had read Doyle's Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and before I had heard of Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe or Nero Wolfe or any of a dozen other cinema or literary detectives, there was that rumple-coated, cigar chomping little pest that followed his suspects (wrong word though; he didn't suspect, he knew they'd done it!) around like a mosquito as he put the pieces together. Columbo was one of the those characters that always seemed to be in my memories even before I was really old enough to understand what he was doing. It's no exaggeration to say that Lieutenant Columbo is probably my favorite character is all of televsion. But, Peter Falk was more than just Columbo. It was only in recent years that I began to take an interest in his other work and when I did I came to realize just how brilliant an actor he truly was. THE IN-LAWS and MURDER BY DEATH are my favorite Falk movies and he's incredible in both, with comedic timing that's as good as anyone's ever was. His most famous character had a tremendous influnce on my interests, and his other roles have made me laugh as hard as a human being possibly can. The world of TV and movies would be a lesser one if it had never included an actor like Peter Falk. Oh...just one more thing: go serpentine! Serpentine!

Gene Colan, Peter Falk, thanks to both of you for the fun and the inspiration.