The first in a series of features that take a look at some of the greatest comic book creators of the 1960s and 1970s. Known affectionately as the “Silver Age”, this was a period when the superhero comic was being redefined and established as a major influence on popular culture. Characters like Spider-Man, the Avengers and the Fantastic Four were being created as a new kind of superhero for the American public. They were superheroes that had domestic arguments, were filled with teenage angst, struggled to pay the bills, and could be related to on a human level. Comic books were experiencing a creative boom, and amongst the plethora of talent driving it was the illustrious… Jim Steranko!
The Real Mister Miracle
Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko. For most people, these are the names synonymous with American comics of the 1960s. Even if you don’t know their names, you most certainly know their work… but not necessarily Jim Steranko. Yet for many comic readers familiar with the period, he injected a life and energy into superhero comics that isn’t easily forgotten. Never has a creator had such a powerful impact on the world of comics with such a small body of work. Referring to himself, Jim Steranko recently said: “I doubt if there was a more subversive creator in overground comics in fifty years of four-color publishing history” [Read more]. This is the man who eats one meal a day, runs up a mountain every night and sleeps for just two hours. Jim Steranko is a character as colourful as those in the comic books he creates.
Compared to many of his peers, Steranko was relatively late starting in comics. Despite drawing from a young age, Steranko would first try out careers in stage magic, fire-eating, music and escapology, among other things. It’s a well-known Marvel legend that he was the inspiration for Jack Kirby’s death-defying character Mister Miracle. His career in comics began in the late 1950s, but it wasn’t until he joined the Marvel bullpen in 1966 that he really started shaking up the industry.
Reinventing Fury: Steranko at Marvel (1966-1969)
Jim Steranko made his mark on the world of comics with his iconic run on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. from 1966 to 1968. As was common with Marvel titles at the time, Steranko was first brought on as an inker and finisher to Jack Kirby’s layouts and gradually replaced Kirby entirely as artist. However, unlike many other Marvel titles, he also took over as writer for the series and thus could pour all his creative energy into the comic. The result was an eye-popping piece of genre-defining spy action, incorporating Pop Art graphics and psychedelic designs with energetic character work. His scenes broke the panel borders and no space on the page was wasted. His splash pages were epic battles spread magnificently over multiple pages, and his eye-catching covers could hold their own in any modern art gallery. His storytelling in Nick Fury was crossing boundaries in the medium, with one page that even broke the Comics Code Authority censorship and had to be redrawn.
Unlike the World War 2 commando that first appeared in Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos in 1963, Steranko’s Nick Fury was a gadget-toting Bond spy in a skin-tight jumpsuit. In an effort to embrace the burgeoning craze for spy thrillers, Stan Lee re-introduced the character in Strange Tales no.135 (August 1965). Nick Fury became a colonel, his elite unit became S.H.I.E.L.D. (Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-Enforcement Division) and his enemies became terrorist organisations garbed in outlandish costumes. As a comic to capture a colourful new generation, this title would provide the perfect vehicle for Steranko to showcase his innovative approach to the medium.
Steranko joined the Nick Fury creative team amidst a classic Stan Lee story arc featuring the Supreme Hydra taking on S.H.I.E.L.D. At this point, Jack Kirby was providing the art for the series with Steranko inking his larger-than-life figures. Gradually, Steranko’s art would develop and take over the comic; Fury starts to look more clean-shaven and dashing than his rugged predecessor, the science fiction aspect heightens to fantastic proportions and the action is increasingly grandiose. This is most spectacularly shown in a panoramic four-page spread in Strange Tales no.167 (January 1968), depicting a S.H.I.E.L.D. attack on the Yellow Claw [See image].
Steranko’s stint on Nick Fury is only skimming the surface of an illustrious career in comics. His other work for Marvel included a memorable, albeit brief, run on Captain America and Uncanny X-Men, which can be read in their entirety in Marvel Visionaries: Jim Steranko.
Design, Film and the First Graphic Novel: Beyond the 60s
Jim Steranko’s career in comics seemed to be over as quickly as it began, but he never stopped creating. In the 1970s he shifted his focus to publishing and soon released The Steranko History of Comics, of which two volumes were originally released. In 1976, he created what is widely regarded as the first “graphic novel”, an illustrated adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Red Tide which Steranko calls “a homage to the great noir films” [Read more]. The striking black and white imagery of the book would be echoed in Frank Miller’s Sin City years later. Branching out as a freelance illustrator, Steranko also famously created the production art for Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1980 [See images].
While not a prolific creator, Jim Steranko remains in the comics arena today as an outspoken guru on “the way comics ought-to-be” and readily shares his expertise and knowledge of the medium to a large fanbase. Anyone who Follows him on Twitter will be treated to his thoughts on the world of comics and entertaining anecdotes from his past (including a hilarious story about slapping Batman co-creator Bob Kane at a convention) [Read more]. Believe me when I say that this is one comic artist who’s got some great stories to tell, and is still as sharp as ever.
(Captain America run also included in) Marvel Masterworks: Captain America vol.3 (2014)
(X-Men run also included in) Essential Classic X-Men vol.2 (2006)
Red Tide Chapter 1 / Steranko Speaks in Dark Horse Presents no.3