Master Storyteller Jim Steranko Makes His Mark At The Big Apple Comic Con This March 25th–26th
Updated: Mar 24
Master Storyteller Makes His Mark At The Big Apple Comic Con This March 25th–26th
by Brad Balfour
More than half a century ago, artist/writer Jim Steranko changed the way comic book storytelling was visualized. He brought in design elements originally conceived through design and fine art ideas. Back then, artists coming from the pop art scene such as Roy Lichtenstein appropriated comic book design elements into genre-bending large-scale paintings. It took Steranko to do the opposite for comics. His infusion of surrealism, pop art, and graphic design into the medium earned him lasting acclaim for such innovations in sequential art during the Silver Age of Comic Books, particularly with the 1960s superspy series "Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D." in Marvel Comics' Strange Tales and in the subsequent eponymous sequential art runs.
With ST #135, Steranko took over Nick Fury, but the series had started with Jack Kirby and John Severin. Although he didn't originate Fury, Steranko's art radically changed the look of comics. Though it concluded when Strange Tales ended after some 35+ appearances, the 84-year-old's influence didn't end there. He then took on Captain America and the X-Men; there were short runs on X-Men (#50–51, Nov.–Dec. 1968), for which he designed a new cover logo, and Captain America (#110–111, 113, Feb.–March, May 1969). The Pennsylvania native introduced the Madame Hydra character in his brief time on the book as well.
Of course the comics of Captain America — which began in the early 1940s — definitely weren't his either. But Steranko's way of stylizing the character again was so highly innovative and influential that, in these cases, he made the characters his own so he could easily take a stand about them.
There was an exhibit of Kirby and Steranko's work once at the Victoria and Albert Museum years ago. It was very nice work indeed from both artists — and it displayed their specific styles. Some in the comic book world might consider Sternako's viewpoint on other artists provocative but he never demurred on his thoughts on graphic story making or anything else.
His work has been published in many countries and his impact on the field has remained strong since his comics heyday. He went on to create book covers, became a comics historian — who published a pioneering multi-volume history of the birth and early years of comic books — and created conceptual art and character designs for films including Raiders of the Lost Ark and Bram Stoker's Dracula. He was inducted into the comic-book industry's Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2006.
At the December Christmas Con, clad in his distinct outfitting, the octogenarian expressed taut and sharp thoughts on the state of comics past and present — something he'll do again on March 25-26 at the New Yorker Hotel.
You've had a long career in comics and in dealing with the world of media. What do you consider the most important moments in your career that you want people to realize? You wrote Nick Fury, had your own magazine, came up with a design concept that nobody else has ever thought of for comics. Where do you feel one's education should start?
I think all those things that you mentioned and a few others besides that. They're all my children, so I do not have a definitive answer when people ask me what my favorites are and what my most important things are that I've done in the past.
What were your biggest challenges/legacy?
My biggest legacy, that's something I leave that to my fans and my friends. I don't make that decision. I want them to make the decision.
When you were developing your concepts for Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., you came into the field with a particular vision and visual style. Where and when did you decide how to step away from comics traditions and add all the collagic effects, the big panoramic images, and the psychedelic influences? Whoever thought a secret agent or someone part of a spy organization would fit in to that kind of environment? You really affected the way comics were conceptualized from that point going forward.
I grew up with comic books, and found that when I was in a position of power, that I couldn't imitate what came before. I had no interest in being a rubber stamp artist. That's not what I do. At the time I got into comics, I had a full-time job as an art director and manager — it was eight to five. I also played rock and roll for 12 years, three to five nights a week — that's a second full-time job. Then, along the way, I got an assignment to do a number of Marvel comics. I worked for them for three years. It was a somewhat uphill battle to convince Stan [Lee] to adopt non-Marvel-type techniques and treatments in my books, Captain America and Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. He resisted that idea, even though they called themselves the "House of Ideas." But don't make me laugh. I guess I developed a system where the work was an ultimatum. For example, I would never tell Stan what I was going to do ahead of time because he would say, "Don't do that." I'd just bring the work in on the day of the deadline when there was no time to make changes, and they'd have to take it or lose their monthly distribution. So those firsters that you were talking about, those puzzle pages, I called them innovations because they had never been done before in comics.
They hadn't even been done in normal illustrations as well.
A lot of them. But the number that you're looking for is, 150 of them I brought to comics in the space of about three years. The unusual thing about that is, that if you took every comic artist from the beginning of comic book history — American comic book history — and added them all up, they wouldn't be anywhere near that number. 150 things, graphic things, that had never been done in comics before.
Take artist/writer Neal Adams. A lot of the ideas Neal later incorporated into DC with Green Lantern were ideas that you also had about the way a page should look and the elements you could bring on the page.
Neal did not represent what I represented in the field. He had his own agenda and I had mine. Even Jack Kirby, who was the king of all of us, was unparalleled in terms of what he contributed to comic book art. Not only in the number of pages, but the quality of those pages. But Jack had few innovations, maybe not more than two or three. Believe me, I've looked at his work and know it very well. I knew Jack and admired him for decades and decades, and he was a good friend of the family. He was a wonderful man but in terms of innovating new things, that was not Jack's idea. He wanted to draw the greatest action figures and stories that could possibly be done in comic book lore. He achieved that, that was his goal. Mine was something completely different.
One of the things you also did was to be one of the first comic artists to create their own publishing company. You brought out your own magazine — Mediascene (beginning with issue #7, Dec. 1973) and ultimately, it transformed into Prevue.
Yes, I was in publishing for 25 years.
Nobody can question you about your knowledge of comics because you also created histories of comics — The Steranko History of Comics.
I wrote the first two comic history books. And, I believe to this very day, they are different from the thousands of comic history books — literally thousands of them. Bookshelves full of them. The reason I believe mine are different is because I wrote them from a position inside the business. Get it? Everything else has been written from the outside, by strangers. They're making comments, some of them really important ones but they're not from my viewpoint as [a comic book insider]. I knew the artists, writers, publishers personally. I knew them myself as a friend or they if they were enemies along the way. That personal touch, I think, is evident in The Steranko History of Comics.
Those books are loved. They have their own voice. When you did the magazine, you not only were doing comics, but you were also covering pop culture in general, so you had your own viewpoint. You did a lot of the interviews, too.
Yes, I did a lot of TV, film, and...
I was on the set of many, many Hollywood films. It was an education for me.
Why haven't you made a movie yourself? You have your legacy in Captain America and Nick Fury.
I've just been so busy along the way that making a film, in the space of a year and a half or two, doesn't work. However, right now, at this very moment, I'm engaged in one of the largest assignments that I've ever had in my life. I'm working for an international corporation to develop a new and different compelling strange world that will be turned into 3D and played by millions of gamers all over the world.
Do you like how the movies treated the characters you worked on and how they interpreted your work? Did you like the way Nick Fury was transformed by Samuel L. Jackson? Do you think they captured the spirit that you were trying to convey?
This may disappoint you, but I have generally found, particularly with the early Marvel adaptations — and the DC ones — that the actors who played the key roles, the superhero roles, looked to me like they had just graduated from college earlier in the week. They have zero authority. And I know that Captain America — one of the [key characters] that I worked on and that I loved, and I still love to this very day — he is the pinnacle of authority and justice. A kid just out of college for a week just can't make that work. So I stopped looking at the Marvel movies. They have incredible special effects and things that have never been done before. I love that material but I believe the heart of filmmaking really exists in the characters, and I don't believe those characters.
Who would you like to see make a movie of some of your characters? Do you have anybody in mind? Do you have any character creation that you would like to see turned into a movie?
Not really. I have no jones about that at all. I think eventually the right people on one side of the camera will connect with the right people on the other side of the camera and give us the kind of superhero movies that I think should be made. With really engaging stories and individuals and great acting.
People haven't appreciated that you're as much of a writer as you are an artist.
Nobody thinks of me as a writer.
With all those issues of magazines, you delivered great coverage and had great ideas. What do you think about the current state of pop culture now, and how would you write about it if you had the magazine still going?
I could be answering that question for the next 45 minutes, but I find myself generally disappointed with contemporary comic books. Why? We have the best-looking art that we've ever had. We have our pick of the crop of the entire world because of the internet. We have great, great art being produced. The thing is most of them don't know anything about narrative technique. Their pages are simply chaotic. I can't read the stuff. I can't read it. And I refuse to read it in that form. The artwork is often excellent. Most of the really good stuff is saved for the covers. You're on your own when you get into the interior of them. Frankly, I can't read that material. There are exceptions to the rules [but few are] available.
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