The Rolling Stone Steranko Interview

The following is from an article in Rolling Stone Vol. 1, #91 (Sep 16, 1971), by Robin Green. Miss Green had worked at the Marvel Bullpin and was allowed access to the Marvel creators that previously had not been granted. What follows is the excerpt that pertains to one of my favorite artists: the incomparable Jim Steranko.

Today is his birthday.

Jim Steranko was at Marvel when I worked there. Even though Jim had only done about 25 books, there wasn’t a fan who didn’t know of him and dig his work. He used to do the Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. books, and was always getting into hassles with the Comic Book Code people.

The Code had come into existence during the juvenile delinquent scare of the Fifties. At the time EC (Entertaining Comics) was coming out with a crime and horror series that was pretty gory and horrifying. People killing their wives and stuffing them into garbage disposals which would backfire and blood would gush all over the place. And Marvel was doing its share of gore, too.

The Code completely banned all horror and terror comics and all material which might be immoral or in poor taste, anything which could stimulate “the lower and baser emotions.” It fosters respect for parents, for police, judges and other government officials. It forbids profanity, obscenity, vulgarity; it requires that females be drawn realistically “without exaggeration of any physical qualities.” Each of its 41 provisions is a bulwark against the inclusion in comic books of any material which “may be undesirable for exposure to youthful readers.” In short, the Code is a drag.

Steranko’s female characters were always too sexy, and they’d come back from the code, where all material was sent for approval, with modified bosoms and asses. There was one beautiful page which was perhaps the first realistic love scene in comics. It was a silent page, no words, because “there is a time for talking a time for silence, and this was a time for silence.” So one panel had the stereo in Fury’s apartment to show there was music playing, cigarettes in the ash tray in one, there was a sequence of intercut shots where she moved closer to him, much more intimately, there was a kiss, there was a rose, and then there was one panel with the telephone off the hook, which the comic book code made him put back on.

The telephone off the hook must have appealed to the prurient interest of someone at the dusty little Code office, maybe Lee Darwin himself, or maybe Tania Fredricks, his assistant in rooting out the dirty. Jim Steranko said after that he got horny every time he saw a telephone off the hook. Anyway, the last panel on that page had Nick and his old lady kneeling, with their arms around each other, and that was entirely too much for the Code, so the panel was replace with a picture of a gun its holster.

I used to dig it when Steranko came to town. He didn’t work at the office, but like many artists freelanced the work at home. One day he took me for a ride in the big convertible Cadillac he was driving in those days. We got to talking and he told me about himself.

“Maybe because I grew up reading comics, I was always less realistic than most people. I’m kind of a dreamer, I’m still a dreamer. I live in my own world. When I get up in the morning, go to bed at night, even while I’m sleeping, I’m thinking of fantastic things. I don’t want to live the life that those people live out there. It’s a dull life.

“My dad did many things and one of them was magic. I grew up seeing him work, do tricks and things. Whenever I could I’d dig out those books and read them and eventually began to do magic and that led into escapes. Escapes meaning that when I wa 15, 16, and 17, I was breaking out of jails, out of strait jackets, and handcuffs, out of safes, and the bottom of a river. I did TV shows and Elks and the American Legion.

“And I was into locks. I have no mechanical ability whatsoever except when it comes to locks. In school a week never went by when I wasn’t called over the loud speaker to unlock a car when some teacher had locked his keys inside it. They’d say, ‘Steranko, bring your tools.’

“I was fourteen at the time, new in the lock business, and I didn’t know much about locks, so I could say crazy things. I had an idea that combination locks could have many combinations. And I told this locksmith, who really didn’t want to be bothered, ’cause it’s like secretive stuff, these machines around us to protect us. I told him that I had my idea and he said, ‘Get out of here, kid, don’t bother me.’ I came back a week later and I said, ‘Give me any lock that you have’ and I showed him various combinations that could open it, which knocked him out. I had a device I made up that could give me multiple combinations, a device about as big as my thumbnail. I invented many devices for my escapes and I wrote a book all that material in it.

“My first jail break I did for publicity purposes so I could book my act. I had to create a demand for this act, because who wants a 15-year-old kid cluttering up their stage? So when I was ready, I went to the police department and I talked to a guy named Captain Feldman who was very amenable, a hell of a nice guy, an Edward G. Robinson-looking guy, and he said OK, we’ll try it. I told him I’d be by the next day after school. From there I went to the newspaper office, and said I’d be at the jail at 3:30, so they should send a photographer and a reporter and I’d bust out of jail. The police department didn’t know there was going to be publicity, and Captain Feldman was a little pissed off that the reporters were there, but of course they had to be. This time wasn’t really a jailbreak. They handcuffed me spreadeagle to the outside of the cell, hands and feet. They had given me half an hour to do it. It took me 27 minutes. They had searched me head to toe, but I had these minuscule devices.”

The transition from escapes to crime was easy, and at 17 Jim became a very ingenious juvenile delinquent. He believe anything that could be locked by one man, could be opened by another: him. “I was familiar with safes from the inside, so I know things, like there’s a particular kind of safe, if it fell on you you’d be crushed, it’s a big heavy monster. But all you have to do is hit the right corner with a sledge hammer. That’s all it takes to open it up. You have to hit it at the right spot, but that will knock the bolt that holds the thing. It completely bypasses the tumblers. And the door will fly open.

“One of my stratagems in my career of crime was to change cars frequently. If I’d steal a car in Reading, I might replace it with another one in Easton. If you use one car for a whole night’s work, you’d stand a pretty good chance of being nabbed. And of course cars were no problem for me to steal. Eventually I became so particular, if a car didn’t have a radio, I’d stop after a block and steal another one. Or if it didn’t have a full tank of gas. ‘Cause how’s an honest thief going to make out if he has to spend five bucks to fill up the gas tank? So it had to be a nice car, radio and all the conveniences.

“I remember once, me and another guy committed our only armed robbery. There’s a difference between armed robbery and burglary, around 15 to 25 years. Armed robbery is a heavy rap. What I was was a burglar. I hit places like gas stations, or wherever there were cash registers.

“Most of our burglaries were committed without a word. We’d just pull up to a likely-looking place and there was my getaway man and me. He’d sit in the car and I’d get through the doors or windows, and go through the place. But this one time we were going to do one armed robbery.

“We were driving around, not in Reading, because none of the things we did were done in Reading, maybe one or two. I stole a submachine gun in Reading, but that was all. Anyway it was a spur of the moment thing. We saw this man coming out of a building. He was locking up, very well dressed, he had like a homburg, an old man about 60. Got in this brand new Lincoln Continental.

“I said, ‘Follow that guy, I’ve got an idea,’ So he drove across the city with us following him, and finally he pulled up in this very nice section of town, parked the car, and I said to my partner, ‘Pull up in front of him and you get out and cover one side of the car,’ and I pulled out one of my pearl-handled .38s and stuck this gun in the man’s face. And I said, ‘Your money or your life, motherfucker, let’s go. Get it out, whatever you got.’ And the other guy was on the other side with a gun. And the man laughed. He laughed! This was a nervous laugh, you know, like when you have an embarrassing moment, like in church when you start laughing and you can’t stop.

“Well, here were two guys, you know, with guns, and I don’t know if you’ve ever been on the other end of a gun barrel, but it’s an uncomfortable feeling. I didn’t know what to do. Like, I never saw in all the movies that I have seen with Cagney, Bogart and Robinson, nobody ever laughed. This was a situation not covered in the books.

“So we like stood there looking at each other, and I realized that sooner or later somebody was going to walk by or drive by. This called for the right decision. And I finally wound up saying, ‘Ah, ‘scuse me, mister, we thought you were someone else,’ and got back in the car, and drove out of that district. That was it for armed robbery. I couldn’t take another laugh.

“I don’t know where your head’s at, but I wouldn’t shoot anybody for any amount of money. I don’t mind stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, which was myself, but I certainly would never shoot anybody, that’s just too far out.

“Eventually they caught me and I had to give up my guns. I had many guns. A complete arsenal. My two pearl-handled .38s, 30 pistols, and countless rifles, we had .45s and a submachine gun that shot nine millimeter parabellum shells. I carried that gun home, walking along the streets of Reading with it over my shoulders, across my back, like you carry a baseball bat when you’re a kid. And nobody noticed me, I guess, ’cause they didn’t stop me. I was only in jail until my trial, about a month, and they had me in solitary with a 24-hour guard because of my history as an escape artist. They knew all it would take me was three minutes and I’d be out. I was placed on probation–I was still a juvenile delinquent at the time. But I had to pay back what I had stolen, make restitution for whatever stuff I had done. It took me a couple of years to do that.

I drove down to Pennsylvania to visit Jim. He still lives in Reading, which turned out to be a funky old railroad town. I walked through an iron gate, through an old heavy door and into a dark hallway with pink faded flowered wallpaper, and the smell of somebody’s grandmother’s cabbage soup. Up three flights to a dark wood door, which Steranko opened, dressed in white from turtleneck to ankles, with pointed black Italian boots. Jim is a fantasy character who really exists. “After all,” he once said, “the mask is the man.” The color TV was on, an Edward G. Robinson movie, but no audio. Jim is a good looking guy–he looks a lot like Nick Fury except for the eye patch, compact and strong looking, with a lively gleam in his eyes. He hasn’t been working for Marvel for a while.

Jim Steranko would like to be the Michelangelo of comic book art. But as he said, who’s going to pay any attention if you have Michelangelo working and it costs only a dime? People don’t see all the work that goes into comic book art. They don’t realize there’s a writer and an artist and an inker and a letterer and a colorist. Even so, Jim thinks most of what’s done is trash. There are a few creative people and the rest are imitators and the work that’s done is repetition.

“Comic books are trash. But that TV set is trash, and so much of music trash. And books like Peyton Place and Gone with the Wind and The Power of Positive Thinking and The Love Machine. It’s all trash.” I asked if he considered the stuff he did to be trash. “Of course,” he said. “So you like trash?” “Well, yeah, of course I like trash. Of course, human flesh is trash, too.

“Comic books are throwaway art, they’re just temporary. But the whole form has a chance to endure. I believe that ideas are more important than human life. I think that in every person there is maybe one idea, one grand idea. I know that I will be immortal because I have turned out words and pictures and as long as one of these lasts, I will truly endure. At least until the end of this planet. I haven’t done that one thing yet that I can call really redeeming. That will be in the future.

“I don’t believe in peace either. I used to think, ‘Love and Peace.’ But now I have changed my mind about that. I have a new philosophy. It’s this: I believe that I am an agent put here to maintain the aspect of equipoise in the universe, the balance of nature. That means warmth and cold, night and day, light and darkness, order and chaos, good and evil, there’s a reason for those things being, and I do whatever I can to maintain that.

“For example, before you came, I ripped up that Life magazine. it came in the mail today, and I destroyed it by ripped out things that I wanted. Now tomorrow I might destroy an idea and the day after I might destroy a person. I believe that in order for life to endure there has to be movement and change. Static is death. Motion is life. So every day I create something, a drawing, some writing, something new. And in order to maintain that balance, I’ll destroy something. After you’ve done it for a while, you begin to see signs that something will be to be destroyed.”

There are no bound to Steranko’s imagination. He said that when aliens land here, or when we land on another planet, we are going to communicate with pictures, illustrated stories, comic books. I asked him if he really believed there was someone out there. “Oh, sure,” he said, “there’s someone out there. It’s staggering no matter how you think about it. Either there’s no one out there and you’re alone, or there is someone. Either way it’s overwhelming.”

Steranko works in the back room of his apartment. His walls are covered with posters of very sexy girls dressed in leather, original comic artwork, paintings he’s done for paperback book covers, and a huge library of pulps and comics. He has an antique colt .45 gun, and on the floor in a cage is a giant hare (“what’s a magician without a rabbit?”). He showed me a book he’d written about escaping when he was a teenager. It was a special Houdini Memorial issue of the magazine, and it had pictures of Steranko handcuffed to the cell of a jail, Steranko in a strait jacket, Steranko hanging from the face of a huge clock by his ankles, and all kinds of pictures of the devices he had invented for escapes. He told me about one stunt he did where he was buried alive three feet under for 15 minutes. He had made an air pocket in front of his mouth with just enough air to survive if he timed his breathing right. He is a man who likes to escape.

“I have led the loneliest life of all the people I have ever known. All the things that I do, like writing and painting, are solitary proceedings. You cannot write with someone else, unless you’re collaborating, which I don’t do. That means you spend hours alone. I spent an entire childhood writing and drawing by myself, studying and practicing magic. To this very day, I work alone in this black room.

“But I believe that happiness is nothing. Like most things, it is temporary. I don’t think people were put here to be happy. I think if you decide to be an artist or a writer, you automatically accept the responsibility of being alone. However, after your 50 or 60 years are up you’ll be able to look back and see this output that you’ve done that will endure long after you’re gone, and will continue to fill the minds of millions of people.”

You can find much more on Steranko and his work here.


Introducing Barbara Clifford


Barb Clifford is a human firecracker and a brand all of her own. She’s been a business owner and entrepreneur, today she’s a sky girl flight attendant, tomorrow she could be doing anything under the sun or over the moon- but all along, she’s always been a musician. A tough chick with a sweet smile, she’s been the driving force of The Honeybees, the preeminent female led band on the modern Rockabilly scene.

I caught up with Barb just before the release of her upcoming solo debut, Introducing Barbara Clifford.

When did you first realize that you were a musician?

Ha. Well, the minute I was born! Kidding, I dunno. When I was a youngster, my parents put me into tap, ballet, jazz and so on and became obsessed with the movie FAME! That led me to a high school that was a “performing arts school” here in Chicago. There I learned how to be part of a chorus, play piano, and auditioned for all the dances and plays I could be in. I come from a family of musicians. My dad (I heard) sang Rat Pack like songs in his day. Vocal stuff. My 2 brothers both play trumpet & trombone. My uncle (not blood related) played guitar. At one point, there was a band with all of them and somehow, my father recorded a record with all of them and got the horn section from Earth, Wind & Fire involved (There is a studio photo floating around my family somewhere of that). They never made it big. I used to watch MV3, an old California studio show that showed music videos before MTV was born. I saw my first The B-52s video called Legal Tender. Maybe that was the moment I decided I wanted to sing in a band. That band forever changed me. Ever since, I’ve been in a duo female harmony band! My dad also had an RCA album of Elvis that I burned out on the turn table. And he also had Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra records. I always had a passion for rockabilly/vocalists since those records. Although, I never knew there was more beyond that.

How did The Honeybees come to be(e)?

From my previous answer, after joining a duo female vocal band in my 20s, (The Bedbugs), I still always ended up learning more and more from Elvis, Sinatra, and my piano teacher, that there was more to this rockabilly, jazz, blues history. I discovered a local scene and within that scene, I found Chicago’s Big C Jamboree. Although back in that day, it was just “rockabilly night”. It was about 10 people large at this bar called Batteries Not Included. 10 plus the bands which was basically the only 2-5 bands around. I was sorely disappointed in the size. I skipped the next few months. I returned after a friend suggested we go out. I went back and it had gotten larger! Then it moved to a bigger club because the other was too small. I met my original Honeybees through that scene. We formed originally just as me singing, my bassist (Lisa Crowe on electric) who sang sometimes. Well, she did often! It was always Theresa Drda on drums and various various guitarists starting with Bob. Eventually, Lisa sang full time with me and there was The Honeybees. Since, I’ve had 4 solid co-singers with guest singers in between finding the permanents. We’ve had about 5 bass players and about 5 lead guitarists. 15+ years.  I’m confused at how old but I can refer to the original bass/singer Lisa’s oldest kid. She left us when she got pregnant. I should find out how old he is again.

What’s your favorite spot on the globe that you’ve played?

Everywhere! Everywhere global. Chicago is great too but nothing beats a crowd elsewhere. Somehow you get to be routine for the locals and they thrive on the out-of-town bands more. Hence, great to play elsewhere. If I gotta choose one, Barcelona. Outside, on either side of about one hour in each direction of the city,  are two great weekenders. I just wanna be near the beach.

Who do you admire musically?

Geez Rocko! Can you answer this without filling up 3 years of pages?! I am all over the map. I admire men and women. Elvis, Janis, Wanda, Eddie, Carl, Johnny, Brenda, and that’s just the Rockabilly/Sun for starters. Etta, Ella, Dinah, Louie, Benny, then Fats, Little Richard, Screamin Jay, 20s-50s, then Stax, British, Ska, Rocksteady, Mod, soul, 60s, then because I grew up in 70s-80, I have to be honest – I know my Zepplin, Stones, Journey, Bjork, Clash, Blondie… I’m all over the century! I like originals, people who write their own. I enjoy a good cover but I really admire the ones who write their own. That’s the best answer I can give.  I admire those who really sing/play with feeling. Not just the notes, not just a melody or someone who looks good & is a puppet. I admire people who play their own instruments too. I admire a good lyric writer. Poets. This question I can answer all day.

 Your first solo album, Introducing Barbara Clifford, is on it’s way. That title seems to promise a new beginning. Just who is Barbara Clifford, what’s she all about, and where is she heading?

I’m a Chicago girl. A real city girl who can’t really choose 1 type of genre. I am doing all kinds of tunes on this. It’s a taste of all kinds of Americana styles I like. I’m 43. Finally doing this at 43. Took a long time. I am a singer, experienced in duos, tried it all as a duo, and this is the first solo try. I always said I wanted to make a solo record just to say I did it when my life is over. Feels good. Majority originals but of course, some covers. I’m in love with traveling and performing. This give me both. Where am I heading? Not sure. For now, performing and letting this CD run through the veins of the rockabilly scene and maybe the common music listeners. The passive. See if I can pass this to them. After its out there, I’ll see where I go next.

Who’s on this album?

This is primarily a Swiss band. The bass (Pierre-Yves Aufranc), drums (Roman Bader), and Juan Rodriguez who is the label owner as well. (Blue Lake Records) I met Juan through my boy, Martin Telfser. His band, Mars Attacks, was on the label when I met him. Juan, Roman, Pierre-Yves are a trio as well (John Guster & The Rhythm Storms) so their groove and rhythm are already tight. Guest musicians are Marco Hunziker on Sax, Pat Madison on Sax, Dusty ciggaar on guitar, Martin Telfser on rhythm guitar, Enno Geissler on rhythm guitar. I flew to Vevey, Switzerland where the studio is about 5 – 8 times. I can’t remember. Some just for rehearsals. It was easier since I’m a flight attendant. It was all recorded LIVE, another first for me. A much different process. HUGE THANKS TO KEN MOTTET FOR WRITING 5 SONGS!

If you could reach any pinnacle in your career, what would it be?

Hmmmm……………I’d love to write a big hit. Just one, even if it was sung by someone else, to be known by that one song, even if in a commercial or a movie or ?, and it gives me a life long royalty paycheck. That’s the pinnacle I’d reach for.