Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Happy 76th birthday Jim Steranko!

What can one say about Jim Steranko (born on November 5, 1938) that hasn't already been said? He is one of the greatest comics creators that has ever lived.

Here Jim Steranko is in front of many of the amazing covers he did in his short career making comics.
Though he was only in the comics business for a few short years, his influence on the medium has been profound.
Steranko exploded onto the comics scene in 1967 at first inking over Kirby's spy comic, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. with issue #151 but quickly took over penciling and even the writing duties by issue #155 just 4 short months after coming to Marvel Comics.

This is the splash page of Strange Tales #156, just one issue after he took over writing duties of Nick Fury. Jim Steranko spoke about his thoughts on Nick Fury when he said,Fury had no mask, no costume and no superpowers.  And I had to compete with Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Thor, Batman and The Flash.  I applied those transitional aspects, then thought I’d give him a tough visual persona by putting him into a skin-tight leather catsuit.  In addition, I stylized that suit with belts, buckles, zippers and turned him into a sort of high-tech warrior.  If he couldn’t battle in the superpowers area at least he could on visual terms.”

When Jim jumped on Nick Fury he turned to James Bond to make the comic more hip and current with pop culture. He introduced lots of gimmick gadgets like the flying suit, the oxygen tablets and watch that can deflect bullets.

The flying suit has even become a real thing.

Jim Steranko invented the Wingsuit 30 years ahead of it's time. Image from Strange Tales #166, Mar 1968

He would also go on to introduce some dynamic characters who would go against the stereotype and honor those minority groups like Countess Valentina 'Val' Allegro De Fontaine, an emaciated woman.  
From Strange Tales #159, Aug 1967
and Jimmy Woo, a heroic Asian-American figure.
Jimmy Woo, who originally appeared in Atlas'es Yellow Claw, was brought back to the Marvel Universe in Strange Tales #160, Sep 1967 

Steranko describes his life at the time he worked for Marvel, "My life was hectic then. I worked as the art director for an ad agency in the afternoon, played in a rock band at night, and worked on my comic book pages early in the morning. It's a peculiar thing, but the more I learned about storytelling, the slower I became. Eventually I had to stop playing in the band; later I left the agency."

His work gradually got more daring and experimental as his time in Strange Tales progressed until the point where he was creating page after page of strange and wonderful layouts.

Steranko uses the labyrinth as an excuse to play with the panels and even turning the lettering in this page on it's side and upside down. from Strange Tales #166, Mar 1968

And on the next consecutive page he does this experimental layout to give the reader a sense of disorientation.. Strange Tales #166, Mar 1968
Strange Tales would end 2 issues later but not before Jim delivered one of the most visually stunning comics to ever appear in any comic ever with page after page of visual fireworks including a 4 page panorama spread and Op Art explosions. 

To get the full effect of this 4 page splash page Stan Lee recommended buying an extra issue to put along side the first one in his editorial caption. From Strange Tales #167, April 1968

Here we see Nick Fury resisting the Yellow Claw's psychic attack with an impressive Op Art effect by Jim Steranko. From Strange Tales #167, April 1968
But Jim was only beginning his exciting experimental work with this issue. He went on to do 4 stunning issues of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., 3 issues of Captain America and a stunning horror story for Tower of Shadows and a stunning romance story for Our Love Story.

Steranko brought with him his graphic design sensibility that he acquired in advertising.
“When I broke into comics I was an art director and design was part of my nature. No matter how I walked or talked or created, everything had to do with the aspects that formed my background, so automatically I brought that into my comic book work."
“In addition to that, I was reasonably cognizant of Op Art, Pop Art, surrealism and expressionism.  I knew comics were a very forgiving form because I was a big comic reader. They could accept trends other media couldn’t reproduce quickly so I thought it was a natural thing to import artistic movements like surreal art. It was always a mystery to me that it had never been done before.  You might call me ‘comics’ contemporary transfusion.’ ”

One of the things that made Steranko's work really exciting was that he would not just use his Op Art and surrealism influences on his covers and splash pages but he would incorporate them into the very workings of the story. The top two pages from Captain America #113 show Jim's surrealist tribute to Dali while the bottom two pages are from Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1 wonderfully illustrate his Pop Art and Op Art techniques. The really cool thing about them is how they are integral to the story and not just for decoration.

In an interview Steranko said that over time he learned that in order to avoid getting his stories edited he would turn them in right on the deadline so that Stan didn't have time to make any changes to his work. Though, despite his best efforts Jim and Stan would clash pushing Jim out of Marvel.

"The reason I had a little altercation with them is because they edited some of my work. They changed certain things that I didn't feel should be changed. And I insisted that we couldn't continue on that basis. ... For example, my horror story "At the Stroke of Midnight" had a line of dialogue added. The meek husband said, "I'm nervous because it's closer to midnight" or something like that; simply a gratuitous line. It wasn't my title and it didn't have that line in it. Stan originally wanted that story to be called "Let Them Eat Cake," which I didn't approve of. We had disagreements about the way I told stories. ... If you're a publisher and you want my work, you get it my way or you don't get it at all. ... Anyway, I have an agreement now, a working agreement with them, and everything's cool."

Jim's experimentation only got more complex as time went on. As you can see from this panel from Tower of Shadows #1, Sep 1968, he is playing with panels in order to create a sense of time and build atmosphere, mood and tension. By the time he left comics, Jim had created his own visual language to tell his stories.
When Jim left Marvel he went on to other interesting projects like his History of Comics volumes 1 and 2; Red Tide, one of the very first Graphic Novels ever made; And also worked with Steve Spielberg on Raiders of the Lost Arc as well as Francis Ford Coppola on his Dracula.

For the sparse work we have by Jim, he is a giant of American popular culture, expanding the depth and breadth of the comics medium. For example just check out how many homages there has been to his visually stunning cover work.


Jim said, "The year I came to Marvel I didn’t want to light the world on fire, I wanted to do the same thing Kirby and Severin and Wally Wood did.”
“I like to work with the best in the business and that’s resulted in collaborations with Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Bill Everett and my fabulous inkers Frankie Giacola and Joe Sinnott, in addition to creators such as Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Francis Coppola.”

Though he only made comics for a few years his work is more appreciated now than ever before and his fame and popularity will probably only grow.

Jim Steranko's Wikipedia page

Raw Energy: Jim Steranko, Nick Fury, and the Rise and Fall of Comic Book Modernism

Check out Jim's romance work, “My Heart Broke in Hollywood!” from Our Love Story #5

Collider's Jim Steranko interview

You can read the whole stunning issue of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #5 here, the classic "Whatever Happened to Scorpio?" by Jim Steranko


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