Jim Steranko. Many of you will not have heard his name before, a dreadful truth that troubles me every day. If he were French they'd have his statue in parks, Italian he'd be on their stamps, Japanese and he'd be doing commercials for videogames and fermented soya bean soda. But in the English-speaking world, we still woefully undervalue these master storytellers who choose panels and word balloons to work with.
To my fellow enthusiasts he is a Genius, a Wizard, a Master, a God. A one-of-a-kind, self-promoting hipster/huckster with the finest hair I've ever seen on a man of his age. He is also one of the handful of pioneers who can be said to have genuinely revolutionised the art of graphic storytelling. Glimpse his work and, before you even know exactly how he's doing it, you instinctively know it is different — better — than the norm. You'll also be hopelessly hooked. For life.
The story of Mr. Steranko's early years — the son of first-generation immigrants who came to America and worked, worked, worked for their family and future, while young Jim studied the funny pages in the Sunday newspapers for escape — is not unusual in the world of first-generation comic-book professionals. But unlike his contemporaries, who headed straight into an art course or an apprenticeship with the older guys in the industry, Mr. Steranko went off and learned stage magic, fire eating, the jazzmaster guitar, escapology. He briefly plied a trade in all those fields, before his exceptional eye for design and a desire to tell stories and create whole worlds took over. He gravitated towards comics, and found himself at the self-styled “House of Ideas”: Stan Lee's Marvel Comics in its pop-art, counter-cultural heyday.
Initially, Mr. Steranko's drawing, like that of so many who kickstarted their career at Marvel during the late 60s, was heavily derivative of the “king of comics”, Jack Kirby — a one-man powerhouse who contributed more then anyone to Marvel in its glory years, with his prodigious output, remarkable imagination and aggressive, muscular style. But Mr. Steranko soon outgrew his teacher, at least in terms of innovation and sheer in-your-face pizzazz, adding modern design ideas, pop-culture references to Dali and the like, and brilliant cinematic pacing to his pages. Once seen, Jim's work from this period is hard to forget. The art bursts from the page and burns itself into your memory.
To really do justice to Mr. Steranko, I'd probably be able to fill the whole paper. But sadly I don't have that, so here are a few of the high-points.
His work on his first hit book, Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., took the wildly popular Bond secret-agent schtick and gave it a jazzy makeover, with outlandish plots, eye-popping visuals and even “adult themes” that had the Comics Code Authority demanding several panels in one landmark issue be redrawn. His brief stint on Captain America (just three issues) gave one of the oldest of superheroes a pop-art makeover and a bristling energy that, I would argue, has never been recaptured. And while his iconic cover of Giant Size Hulk (issue 1) has been parodied and paid homage to dozens of times, it remains, in my humble opinion, the greatest single comic book cover of all time.
As a publisher with his own company, SuperGraphics, Mr. Steranko was able to revisit and appraise the history of the industry in his remarkable two-volume History of Comics, with their wraparound covers bringing together the greatest characters from the dawn of the comic book. Taking the form into new areas, he also created the anti-drugs comic book The Block, which was distributed to elementary schools all over the US. The difficult subject matter and innovative layouts gave hints as to where Mr. Steranko might be heading next — sequential art for an adult audience. Then, in 1976, he created, wrote and drew the extraordinary Chandler: Red Tide.
Back then, of course, no one over the age of about 17 had much time for comics, while the concept of the graphic novel, outside of France and Italy and weird places like that, was virtually non-existent. But Red Tide is a graphic novel in its purest form. A hard-boiled detective thriller in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett and, yes, Raymond Chandler, it is character-rich, novel-length fiction brought to life on the page by words and illustrations in perfect synergy. You almost definitely won't have heard of it or seen any of it before, but now is your chance: it has been restored by Dark Horse, and is being republished (with its foreword by Federico Fellini) in comic and book stores. To whet your appetite, I spent a little time with the man himself:
JR: Jim, I hope you know how much your work has meant to me. I'm very excited that Red Tide is finally being republished so it can get the recognition it deserves. Tell me how it came about.
JS: It's a homage to the great noir films. It's not comic book storytelling, it's cinematic storytelling. I only had a few months, so I lived in my studio. I covered the windows over with cloth, so I could never tell when it was day or night. I ate at the board. I slept at the board. I played only jazz from that period, the 1940s, and that kept my creative blood up.
JR: That comes across. It came out in 1976; I was 15 when I got it. It blew me away. Someone has called you the Kubrick of comics, in that you haven't produced the largest body of work, but almost everything you've done has been revolutionary.
JS: I did 29 comic books. A number of experts have gone through those books: one said he found 150 narrative devices that had never been done in comic books before. I remember in one of the stories, there was a man and a woman talking. The woman was suddenly very cold, and her answer was an empty balloon. To give it an extra punch, I had icicles hanging from the balloon. That may seem like a small point, but it had never been done before.
JR: And how did Federico Fellini come to seek you out? That puts you in perspective, for people who don't understand the impact your comics were having.
JS: I thought it would be good to have the foreword by a celebrity who appreciated that kind of material. I went over a list of names that included Orson Welles, who I knew from this magic club I was involved in, in New York City: the Witchdoctor's Club. But that would have been a bit too easy, so I thought, who would be the toughest person in the world to get? Fellini. I think it was around 1968-69.
JR: His masterpiece 81/2 had already been filmed. His movies had been a hit all over the world . . .
JS: Well, nothing ventured — I think I sent him a telegram. And he wrote this beautiful foreword. Fellini as a kid had translated American comics, particularly Flash Gordon, into Italian. In return I sent him the cover that had 50 characters on it. He sent me this beautiful note back that said, “I am hanging this above my desk in my office, because I think the magic and mystery of the characters will rub off on all of my projects.”
JR: You were also working in advertising, which would have paid more and probably given you more respect. It's one of the things I find romantic about the comic book industry . . .
JS: There is no money in comics. I did it to make a statement.
JR: We haven't mentioned your escapology. It's reported that Jack Kirby based Mr. Miracle (Scott Free) on you and your tales. When I first read about you, I thought this guy is a liar, a fantasist. Now I can see it's probably true . . .
JS: I come from Pennsylvania; my family background is very poor. My father and his brothers would bootleg coal — they would go up into a mountain and open up a shaft. Sometimes, when the ground was wet, my dad would be down in the shaft and it would collapse. He would be buried alive. I used to do it sometimes between doubleheader baseball games as one of my stunts. They would dig a grave in the middle of the field. I would pull a black silk hood over my head — I looked like a superhero. The darkness was as bleak as you could imagine, and I couldn't move a finger. The idea was that I would stay alive for 15 minutes in that grave, then they would dig it up and I would pop out. No gimmicks, no devices. I would form a little triangle with my arms, put my face in it to seal off that little pocket of air, and go into suspended animation. While I was doing it, I used to think of my father, buried alive while bootlegging coal.
JR: So what did your dad make of you when you started showing tendencies towards illustrating? I can't believe he was the sort of dad who had much time for that sort of thing.
JS: I remember asking what he envisioned for me. He said, I thought you'd work in a factory like the rest of us. He had no dream, no goal, no quest. But when I was four years old, I had an uncle who would bring me bags of comic books. I would make my mother show me the words in the balloons, and I would memorise them — that's how I learned to read.
JR: I know you are health-conscious, which comes from your work in escapology and so on. What's an average day for you now?
JS: I eat one meal a day. I believe everything you put in your body is toxic — I eat raw fruits and vegetables. A very small portion. I live on the side of a mountain and run up it with my dogs every night. I begin working after I have dinner at eight o'clock, and work till about nine in the morning. Then I turn in until about 11 o'clock.
JR: Two hours sleep? Conventional wisdom has it that you need sleep . . .
JS: I am proof the body can get by on two hours' sleep.
JR: You know how mad that makes you sound?
JS: Yeah, I don't give a damn.
JR: Do you ever contemplate retiring?
JS: I could never stop working. You know how a shark can never stop swimming? I have too many ideas. I can't just sit on a beach and enjoy the surf and the sun; I'm always creating. I'm an idea factory.
Spend an hour with Jim Steranko and, if he's in the mood, he'll regale you with the most extraordinary tales. Are they true, I have asked myself more than once, or is he a fantasist? Has his love of storytelling and the creation of modern myths bled into his own life story until he can no longer tell the two apart? Well, now that I've met him, I believe them all to be true, just as I believe it when he tells me he still runs miles every day, pumps iron, and fornicates blissfully like a man a third his age. He is unique. He is Steranko. He is the greatest. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010