Monday, June 27, 2011
A TALE OF TWO TITANS!
The world lost two major talents and multiple award winners late last week: legendary actor Peter Falk and acclaimed comic book artist Gene Colan. Both figured prominently in my childhood and continued to influence me into my adult years as a pop culture/entertainment professional.
I’ll start with Gene Colan. Colan was one of the major artists of American comic books, creating a body of work few have matched, starting in the 1940s and lasting six decades. Colan worked on a variety of characters over the years including monsters, superheroes and humorous characters. The impressive list of icons that Colan rendered includes Batman, Iron Man, Captain America, Daredevil, Wonder Woman, Archie and Jughead, among others.
In addition to drawing the famous comic characters above, Colan is responsible for co-creating two of the greatest African-American heroes in comics: Captain America’s 1970s crime-fighting partner The Falcon (considered the first African-American superhero in mainstream comics) and Blade, the Vampire Hunter (a character that found additional fame in a trilogy of feature films). He is also known as the primary artist on one of the most fondly-remembered, unique comic book series ever, Howard the Duck. Howard, under the authorship of his co-creator Steve Gerber and later Bill Mantlo often deftly mixed humor and horror as the daring duck encountered such creatures as Man-Thing, Man-Frog and even Dracula.
While remembered for all of the above, there is a large contingent of fans that cherish Colan’s horror-related art most of all, with his run on “The Tomb of Dracula” considered one of the greatest comic book titles of the 1970s. Colan also excelled at such superhero-horror hybrids as The Spectre and Doctor Strange. Most of the time Colan’s work graced horror comics that “played it straight,” but as mentioned above there was the odd “Howard the Duck” issue that fell into the “horror-comedy” category, and Colan also penciled the movie adaptation for the 1986 musical-comedy remake of “Little Shop of Horrors” as well as an issue of “Elvira’s House of Mystery.”
A personal anecdote: when I first started on staff at Archie as an assistant editor in the 1990s, one of my responsibilities was making "safety photocopies" of all penciled pages. That way if any of the original pencils got lost or damaged on the way to the inker, the inker could use the safety copy and a lightbox to do the inking job. At the time, Gene Colan was penciling "Jughead's Time Police," so instead of making one set of safety copies, I always made two - a "just in case" set reserved for the inker and my own personal set to just stare at in awe and wonder. Colan's pencils were so good and so interesting that he was just "one of those artists" - an artist whose work could be printed in pencil form without any inks and still look completely finished. Truly Gene was one of the all-time greats!
What can be said about actor Peter Falk that hasn't already been said? He was just one of those singular talents that was always very “real” in any role he played, as if he wasn't an actor but merely someone that had stepped in front of a documentarian's camera. This in spite of… and really because of… his innate “quirkiness.” He didn’t vary too much from project-to-project but it didn’t matter – his characterization was so beloved that you went into one of his movies or TV shows expecting to see your “old friend” in action. Like that other great character actor, Darren McGavin of “Night Stalker” and “A Christmas Story” fame, you knew what you were going to get with Falk in the cast… and you couldn’t wait for him to show up on the screen! Thankfully for his fans, you didn’t have to wait too long because his iconic TV detective character “Columbo” was pretty much a classic-on-arrival and ran for 35 years as both a weekly TV series and a series of TV movies.
Falk didn’t spend too much time in non-realistic settings even though he often came off as a whimsical other-worldly figure, sort of a bemused leprechaun or fairy godfather type dropped into the proceedings from beyond (even in “Columbo!”). He does however have several notable credits in fantasy-based films and TV shows, from appearances on the classic TV anthologies “The Twilight Zone” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” children’s films like “The Great Muppet Caper” and “Shark Tale,” the new age comedies “Vibes” and “In the Spirit,” a TV movie adaptation of the classic Arthur Conan Doyle dinosaur tale “The Lost World,” Wim Wenders’ lyrical tales of angels “Wings of Desire” and its sequel, “Faraway So Close” and a trio of Christmas-themed TV movies where Falk himself played an angel named Max (“A Town Without Christmas,” “Finding John Christmas” and “When Angels Come to Town”). His most warmly-remembered contribution to the fantasy genre has to be playing the grandfather and narrator of the classic, “The Princess Bride.”
Falk’s was a face and voice perfectly suited for comedy, and that is where I found him most often as a child. Be it the annual reruns of the all-star comedy epic “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” or the various network and cable broadcasts of films like “The Cheap Detective,” “The Brink’s Job,” “Murder By Death” and “The In-Laws.” “The In-Laws” remains one of the greatest influences ever on my sense of humor and my own writing – turning the ordinary askew in wonderfully hysterical ways. I’ve used that approach when writing comic book stories in everything from “Little Archie” to “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” to of course, “Archie’s Weird Mysteries." It is also among the most-quoted films when I get together with my father and brother – it’s a real favorite in our family and remains one of the greatest screenplays ever (you’ll never forget the first time you see it – it’s full of twists, turns and surprises you can’t predict)!
For Scared Silly fans Falk did make one film that is right on-target: the afore-mentioned murder-mystery spoof, “Murder By Death” written by acclaimed playwright Neil Simon. A wonderful homage to both the classic “old dark house” comedies we cherish here at Scared Silly as well as a great satire of the classic movie detectives from The Thin Man to Charlie Chan to Sam Spade (the two-fisted Dashiell Hammett private eye from “The Maltese Falcon” – here rechristened Sam Diamond and wonderfully portrayed by Falk), the film features many of the elements so common to the spooky mysteries of yore. I’ll leave you now with the trailer for the film… enjoy!