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A personal tribute to Gene Colan – Detective Comics #556

June 24, 2011

I never met Gene Colan, but I’m very much saddened by his passing. It doesn’t come as a surprise. I’ve known that his health had been in decline, and in recent months it’s been in a very precarious state. But he lived out his full allotment of days. This isn’t a tragic case of someone being cut down before they really have a chance to get started, and Colan has left behind a magnificent and indelible body of work. For that reason, I write this post not to mourn his loss, but to briefly remember his work and how it affected me. Those are the only two cents that I can add to the chorus of lamentations.

So that I don’t re-cover already trod ground, I’ve discussed Colan at various points in the brief history of this blog. There was a post about his work on the Jemm, Son of Saturn maxi-series. There was one about his famous work on The Tomb of Dracula. There was one about an early Daredevil book featuring a high-flying battle versus Stilt-Man. And others — you can find them all here. But I’ve never written about his time on (perhaps) the greatest comic book character of all.

Batman.

Looking back at books that I recall having as a kid, Colan pencilled some of the very first Batman comics that I can remember owning, and, consequently, my earliest memories of the cape and cowl are intertwined with Colan’s unmistakable hand. I could have chosen any number of books from his ’80s time on the character, from back when I first read them, but when I pulled a box off the shelf in the archives (i.e. closet shelves) and flipped through the comics, this (#556) was the issue that grabbed me. I had this one. And I’ll always remember that cover (inked by the late Dick Giordano — life is really starting to feel like the last scenes in Six Feet Under). It scandalized me a tad, not on a “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” level, but still…

Who is this pale broad, and why’s Bats playing tonsil hockey with her? What led to this smooch?

Let’s find out.

The story (“The Bleeding Night”) is scripted by Doug Moench and inked by Bob Smith. The lady’s name is Nocturna, an astronomer who had the color accidentally drained from her skin and who took up a life of crime for various convoluted reasons. By the time of this issue she had put that life of villainy (largely) behind her. She had befriended Batman/Bruce Wayne in both of his identities and had also taken on a motherly role with the Jason Todd Robin. But there were forces not content to let her go quietly into that good night. Hence this issue.

Oh, and there’s red rain coming down on Gotham (someone call Peter Gabriel). That pesky Crisis on Infinite Earths and all. Not that that really matters.

The Night-Slayer is out to revenge himself on Nocturna (his former partner in crime), and he’s killing members of the Black Mask’s old gang under the mistaken belief that they’re working for Nocturna. While that’s going on, Nocturna and Robin are spending some quality time at her old stomping grounds, quality time that’s interrupted by none other than Harvey Bullock:

Robin gets in between Bullock and Nocturna, and later, back at the station, our grizzled gumshoe ruminates with Commissioner Gordon about the relationship between the Boy Wonder and this dairy-skinned dame:

It’s a real thrill to see those deductive skills at work. Okay, maybe not.

The star of the book — let’s not forget about him — is out stopping the Night-Slayer from offing any more remnants of Black Mask’s organization. This nice page fully highlights Colan’s dexterity in portraying fluid action:

“FRAK” and “SWOK” make for a hell of a one-two combination, no?

That life saved, Batman seeks out Nocturna at her observatory:

And, finally, the lip-lock:

I could go on and on about what you see in these scans, but I think they speak for themselves. I’ve droned on before about my love of Colan’s work, and I won’t bog things down by rehashing all that. But I will say that Colan’s style seems perfectly suited to Nocturna’s flowing black garb, especially seeing as how it’s slit real high. A perfect combination of sex and danger, right? Could you imagine a better artist to capture her on a page?

And that cover… Batman holding a hot damsel in his manly pipes I’m sure fueled the early stages of an Adonis Complex for me.

Excuse me for a moment. I need to sigh.

I was seven years old when I read this book in 1985. It’s stayed with me. It’s going to stay with me for a good while longer. And I suppose that’s all that needs to be said.

Rest in peace, Mr. Colan.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 4, 2011 4:04 pm

    Colan was one of the greats, no doubt about it. I rank his Batman run up in the same territory as Sprang, Adams and Aparo. What always amused me about Nocturna is that she turned to crime because the Wayne Foundation didn’t give her a disability pension. Why not? Because super-competent Lucius Fox held up the checks while he researched whether they actually owed her *more* money than she was requesting.

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