And On The Seventh Day God Enjoyed A Comic Book…

The year was 1995…  I was working at Comics Route in Manchester, Vermont when I first met Chris Kulig.  Little did I know at the time, that this interesting man who road into town on a bicycle, asking to be photographed next to my display for Teri Wood’s self-published Wandering Star, would remain a constant in my life for the next 16 years.  Chris made his purchase that day, and inquired about mail order options before continuing his travels across the green mountains of Vermont.  You see Chris was enjoying his first summer off from the Seminary, and his travels had landed him in my comics shop, and every month since that day in ’95, I’ve been selling Chris his comics.  Although he’s not just Chris anymore, now he’s Fr. Christopher Kulig, O.Carm. of the St. Joseph/Immaculate Conception Rectory.  That’s right folks, a comic book reading Roman Catholic Priest!  And not only does he read comics, but at my request, he wrote a little something about them too.  Here’s an excerpt…

Cerebus © Dave Sim

Meet Joe Priest

It was 15 years ago or so that I found myself in a comic book store in north Jersey, browsing through the various titles.  I came upon a most intriguing graphic novella: Meet Joe Priest.  If I recall correctly, it had both a priest in roman collar and a Hell’s Angel character on the cover, replete with motorcycle, of course.  Hmmm, I thought, I did have a few extra dollars in my allowance, so what the hell–I bought it.  The story was fairly kitschy: in a future time of dictatorship, when human birth had been usurped by genetic engineering done in the laboratory, a renegade priest runs rampant with his motorcycle bodyguard, “confessing” every nubile young lady in town (“confessing” being code word for impregnating, if you hadn’t inferred) as a way of subverting the evil regime of his time.  Oh, brother, was it worth the five bucks?

I had to laugh, though, since this was nothing like priesthood or sacramental confession.  How might I know?  Well, I have a confession to make: I am a Roman Catholic priest, going on ten years, now. It was in the seminary that I picked up the aforementioned title (really, how many grown men have an “allowance,” save “priests-in-training for poverty, chastity and obedience—or very henpecked husbands!).  But my interest in the art form of comics went back just a little bit earlier, to the late 80s.  My college roommate at West Virginia was somewhat of an avid collector, back in the day when the Batman: The Dark Knight Returns series was a hot seller.  However, my potential interest in comic books was quickly squelched when my roomie wouldn’t let me read that four-part series, lest I ruin its re-sale value (NB: Another dorm-rat college buddy wouldn’t even let me read the ensuing compilation book, since its bluebook value was increasing, too!).

Suffice to say, my interest was put off for a few years.  If these books had become like ancient manuscripts, “sacred texts,” forbidden from my purview, then why bother?

Then I took a road-trip with Tony, the sole representative of the WVU fencing club, for the NCAA fencing tournament in Orlando in 1989.  For the journey, Tony had brought his Cerebus Phone Books, both High Society and Church and State I & II.  I can still recall, with great glee, the hilarity I found in the opening pages of High Society, where this new hero for our ages—Cerebus the Aardvark—was itching to pick a fight with anyone, and was foiled at every turn.  I was enthralled.

I would soon begin collecting Cerebus and eventually go on a quest to find first printings of each issue.  It probably did not help my relationship with my last girlfriend at the time (“You just had to make me drive you to every comic store in the area in search of ‘another Cerebus comic book’!” echoes her perturbed voice in old section of my romantic memory); but I grew to appreciate the different stores I visited in my travels.  Why call ahead and ask, “Do you have any old Cerebus?” when you can go into the store and see what treasures were waiting to be found?  Like Meet Joe Priest?  Well, some stores had more hidden treasures than others (but, as kitschy as it was, I did like Joe Priest).

[Meet Joe Priest can be read in its entirety in Panel to Panel: Exploring Words & Pictures, which can be purchased at this website.]

Remembering Gene Colan

Part of my morning routine, while my pot of coffee is brewing, is to check in with Facebook and Twitter and see what’s happening in the world of social media.  This morning brought sad news.  My friend, and comics legend, Gene Colan had passed away.

I first became aware of Gene Colan at a very young age, when one of the very first comic books I ever owned was THE TOMB OF DRACULA #55 (1977).  At this young age, I wasn’t aware of who he was, let alone what a “penciler” was or did.  Hell, I probably didn’t know what a “vampire” was either, but I knew this comic was special.  It scared the crap out of me!  The imagery, the pacing, the lighting all gave me the creeps, but I couldn’t look away!  As a kid, I used to keep my comics in a pile on the floor of my closet, a completely random pile of mostly STAR WARS comics, but I remember having to always keep this issue on the bottom of the stack.  I felt safer that way.  I had convinced myself that  the weight of all the other comics would hold Gene’s art and Dracula down, and I could then get a good nights sleep.  If that’s not a testament to the power of Gene’s artwork, I don’t know what is?  It seemed so real, so alive, that I was convinced the characters could jump right off the page and attack me!  No other comic, that I’d seen at that point, had the same effect.

Over the years, as my comic collection grew, I encountered more and more of Gene’s artwork.  Through the pages of BATMAN, WONDER WOMAN, THE SPECTRE, SILVERBLADE, HOWARD THE DUCK, and so many more, I became well aware that there was no other comic artist, in the history of comics, who could draw the way Gene did.  So many of the great comic artists have been mimicked; that is the nature of commercial art.  Some mimicked well, others poorly, few advancing the style to another level.  But Gene’s art stood on it’s own.  No one ever successfully pulled off his style, and from my point of view, no one ever even tried.

I grew up in the small southern Vermont town of Manchester, and it was in the early 1990s that I had noticed an older gentlemen driving around in a blue car with the license plate that read “COMICS”.  I soon found out that the car belonged to the one and only Gene Colan.  It turned out that the artist who I’d grown up admiring all my life was living right here in the same small Vermont town (well actually one town over in Arlington)!  How cool was that?!?!  What were the chances?!?!  Well at the time, I was running a comic book store called COMICS ROUTE in Manchester, and I thought it would be really cool to contact Gene and invite him to visit the store and maybe schedule a signing or something.  After I’d tracked down his phone number, and spoken to his wife Adrienne, it was agreed that Gene would stop in and sign some books; I was thrilled, it was a fanboy’s dream come true!!  That first meeting was in 1992.  He arrived at the store with a large marker sketch of Dracula, as a gift for me.  I was stunned!  A year or two later, he was working on a PREDATOR mini series for Dark Horse, which he did another in-store signing for.  In between those two events I was lucky enough to have had a hand full of lunches with Gene, attended a few gallery receptions with him, and always enjoyed a yearly visit from him in the store around Christmas time, just to say “Hi” and “Happy Holidays”.  Gene was a true class act.  As the years moved on, I’d closed COMICS ROUTE and moved out of Manchester, but still managed to keep in touch with Gene.  It was usually a short email, just checking in, but it always meant a lot.  When I had decided to launch Panel to Panel as an online comics shop, Gene was kind enough to endorse it and give me this quote, “I think Panel To Panel is a sensational venture. One that I’m eager to lend my name and hand to!”  He had even agreed to create a new piece of artwork to help promote the DOCTOR STRANGE VERSUS DRACULA: THE MONTESI FORMULA trade paperback collection.  An image (see above) which I’d turned into an exclusive signed bookplate to be included with purchased copies from Panel to Panel.  More recently, Gene had agreed to an interview, but unfortunately we never got a chance to talk again.  This was a little over a year ago, and shortly after we had scheduled a time to talk, his health had taken a turn for the worse.  We tried to reschedule, but then his wife Adrienne’s health had taken a turn for the worse.  She had passed away shortly after.  I’d sent emails with my condolences, but never got a response in return.

The world of comics will never see another like Gene Colan.  His mark on the industry and the medium will live through his timeless work.

Thank you for your friendship.  You’ll be missed, Gene.