Tales From The Longbox # 4 – Japer Revisits Gene Colan’s Nathaniel Dusk: Private Investigator II

Every Friday, we’ll be bringing you reviews of meaningful comics found in the collections of our writers. “Long Box” refers to the lengthy, white cardboard boxes most comics find themselves stored within – bagged, alphabetized and numerically ordered.

These reviews, then, are the tales of those collections: illuminating characters, artists, writers – even eras – in addition to the personalities of the very owners of those fine collections.

Writer: Don McGregor
Artist: Gene Colon
DC Comics

Before the advent of creator-owned comics and before Hollywood turned its attention to its characters, there wasn’t much money to be found in the comic book business for the brilliant writers and artists who plied their trade day in and day out, expressing themselves in words or pictures simply for the pure, virtuous, sometimes childlike love of the medium.

Gene Colan, legendary artist and Eisner Hall of Fame inductee, came from that time.

In recent months, Gene “The Dean” Colan (as Stan Lee named him) has taken seriously ill and the comic book community, to their credit, have rallied around him. The Hero Initiative, the first ever federally-chartered not-for-profit corporation dedicated to helping comic book creators, has set up a number of initiatives to aid the ailing Colan. All proceeds from the sale of specifically released posters featuring Colan’s art will assist him in the financial costs of medical aid. Marvel Comics, for whom Colan worked from the 1940’s through the 2000’s, has recently released a tribute book with sales going towards medical costs.

These are amazing feats meant to give something back to an important figure in comic book history.

Perhaps best known for his foundational work on Tomb of Dracula, Daredevil and Howard the Duck, Colan’s efforts on Nathaniel Dusk have a significant place when chronicling both the man’s oeuvre as well as that of the industry itself.

Nathaniel Dusk: Private Investigator, created by writer Don McGregor, first appeared in a four-issue mini-series in 1983. McGregor was best known for his 1970’s work on Killraven for Marvel, a sci-fi series that allowed for the exploration of mature themes without the intervention of the Comics Code Authority. Dusk did not sell exceptionally well, although critics were partial to the hard-boiled, 1930’s New York depression-era story as well as the cinematic art style of Colan.

A strange thing happened, however.

Sales of a new series are generally high with the first issue and then drop significantly in the following months. That never happened with Dusk, which convinced the DC editorial department that there was an audience for this type of genre story.

A four-part sequel was quickly planned. This time, the book was given the royal treatment: a deluxe series on thicker paper. Rarely heard of at the time, the series would run with no ads. Each issue would be double-sized and Gene Colan, the master of light and shadow, the “Dean” of emotive, realistic figures, would colour directly over his own pencils with graphite and watercolour. There would be no inking. One of the first times a book went to press utilising this process, the results were simply astonishing.

The story is as hard-boiled as they come. Dusk, the private eye, is hired by the beautiful daughter of a down-and-out Wall Street bigwig who lost his millions in the stock market crash of 1929. There’s a sense of early 20th century irony to the fact that, although he is now living in a squalid apartment, earning a living by selling red apples from his street-side wooden cart, the man is finally important enough to be wanted dead by someone.

McGregor is a masterful storyteller with a love of detective fiction, evident in both his meticulous research, of which he spent over two months in preparation, and the fact that each issue of Dusk ends in a cliffhanger. The reader can’t help but rip into the next issue and read on, attempting to solve the case alongside the affable but sometimes difficult, whisky-drinking protagonist. Indeed, McGregor, with his terse, first-person prose, makes readers care for Dusk, just as he does with the supporting cast. Whether it’s Lt. Abrahams, whose wife is expecting, or Oscar Flam, the newsstand vendor with the paralysis-stricken son who also sold Dusk out to the mob in the last series, or the brash and beautiful Mrs. Valentine Cooper, who worries for her apple-peddling father, each character is a real person with a fascinating back-story. It’s Colan’s art, however, that brings these personalities to life and places them in the context of a real world.

Colan’s drawings are certainly realistic and cinematic in quality. He utilizes form, angle and shadow as a master technician. When Dusk throws a punch, there is an energy behind the thrust that few artists can accomplish. The P.I. lunges forward with speed and force, his fist in the foreground, as if jolting off the page. There’s an immediate sense that one needs to duck! While Colan’s work is rousing, his line can also be subtle in its expression. Characters have a sense of gravitas about them. They look as if we’ve seen them before – as if we’ve known them before. The artist is able to pull at their thoughts and visually place their beliefs and feelings on their faces, giving them added characterization, deepening the emotion of the words we read. When a child-killer, attempting to flee the police, is tripped up and apprehended by Dusk, Colon draws the murderer in close-up, wearing a strange smirk and a wild stare, as if he were thinking thoughts of both resignation and of a twisted triumph.

Colan’s period drawings of New York are unsurpassed. It’s evident in Nathaniel Dusk that the artist knew the city he grew up in. Times Square is immediately recognizable as are the roads and laneways that fall under the train overpasses. Coffee shops, shoeshine men and Stutz-Bearcat automobiles are well studied and in proportion, ripped right from the times.

It will be a tragedy if we never see new work by such an accomplished artist; still Gene Colan has given us over sixty years of drawings, sketches and paintings from which to study, muse over and enjoy. Today’s industry is better for his labours and it’s a testament to present day creators and fans who do what they can to aid Colan and his family during his illness.

Best wishes Gene.

Leave a Reply