This year marks a number of very important 50 year anniversaries for Pop Culture. 1966 was loaded to the gills with important premieres, first time occurrences, and events of momentous importance. Top shelf for me: Jim Steranko’s first work for Marvel comics.
When the common person on the street conjures an image of what a comic book writer or artist looks like, they most likely picture a quiet, unassuming man, a passive person—the direct opposite to the swashbuckling and daring superheroes that are their stock and trade. Maybe they would think of Bob Newhart as the comic artist character he played in his showBob, or, if their memory isn’t so long, perhaps one of the hopeless dorks of The Big Bang Theory. They most likely would not be prepared to reckon with Jim Steranko. Steranko is one creator who is a character every bit as colorful as the characters whose stories he’s created. He’s become internet famous of late by seemingly writing his compelling autobiography a tweet at a time on twitter, spending most Sunday nights breaking down segments of his personal saga in what he calls Twitter Narrative Technique (TNT).
He waxes poetic with tales of teenage misadventures, paths crossed with the famous and infamous, creative exploits, and whatever strikes his fancy. He’s often compared to Hollywood producer Robert Evans and Jonathan Goldsmith, AKA the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World.” For fans, it’s a direct line to a source of inspiration and even occasional practical advice. He’s always well-spoken and has interesting things to say.
Already a successful advertising artist/musician/illusionist/escape artist, the young Mr.Steranko sought work in comic books not out of any sense of monetary necessity. He has called the pay he received for the work he’s remembered for as mere “peanuts.”(1) He instead entered the business with a simple mission: to leave his mark on an artform and storytelling medium that he had loved since he could remember. He recalls learning to read from a very early age thanks to four color pamphlets. He came into the fold of comic creators, “the brotherhood”(2) as he calls it, in order to drive sequential art forward through hard work, determination, and that intangible X-factor of raw talent. He perhaps handled himself in his mission with the kind of brazenness one can only have on a job if they know they don’t solely depend on it as their source of livelihood. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Jim Steranko threatening Marvel editor Sol Brodsky with physical harm for questioning his volition, as he did when the long timer threatened to not pay him for a series of wordless pages. Comic book history is filled with stories of artistic compromise in the face of editorial mandates, so the story of an artist responding to such a challenge with “‘I’m gonna throw you out this @&#%@ window” (3) is decidedly uncommon. More on that later.
His place as sole writer and artist on the newly launched Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in 1968 was a hard fought, hard won piece of territory. To understand its weight, one must go back a couple years. Before coming to Marvel in 1966, Steranko had put in work at Harvey and even Tower, but left both companies quickly when they didn’t seem to comprehend his artistic vision. Undaunted, he then passed up offers from DC and Archie, and sold a concept for a Saturday morning show to Paramount. Crossing all of these off his list, he was bound for a stroll to the House of Ideas.
His pitch to Marvel is the stuff of legends. He walked right in and told Fabulous Flo Steinburg to let him in to see Editor-in-Chief Stan Lee. When met with the same resistance all people coming in off the street encountered, he simply showed her his work, which she then showed Stan. Stan brought him in and beckoned him to pick any title to have a go at. In those days, Jack Kirby drew most of the stable, and losing one would be no big deal. Lee told Steranko he was “too damn good to let get away”(3) and that his work crackled with “raw energy.”(4)
Steranko’s choice was easy. Nick Fury, former World War II sergeant of the Howling Commandos in his own book, had gotten a storyline promotion to Colonel and commanding officer of S.H.I.E.L.D. and a real life demotion to one half of Strange Tales. Now sporting an unexplained eye patch, he was kept in line with the spy-fi genre that was popular at the time. James Bond was wearing perfectly tailored waterproof suits under scuba gear in movies and Napoleon Solo was talking into radio pens on TV in the Man From U.N.C.L.E., so it made sense that Marvel would have their own version of the two fisted secret agent with a gadget up his sleeve.
The only trouble was, it just didn’t quite work. The brilliant Kirby had a lot on his plate, and for the last few issues had simply been doing layouts that other artists would then finish. The stories themselves strayed into common superheroics much of the time, making Fury’s half of the Strange Tales bill dim in comparison to the trippy things that Steve Ditko was doing with Doctor Strange. Steranko saw untapped potential and made his choice wisely.
He would first be tasked with finishing Kirby’s pencils in Strange Tales #151, immediately following no less than John Buscema doing the same thing in the previous issue. Steranko had been mad about Kirby’s work all his life and found the gig understandably intimidating, but rose to the challenge. For the most part, working at Marvel back then meant following the “House Style,” which was short for “draw like Kirby.” Steranko later said of the period “Kirby comics were part of my childhood and I felt that I knew his art as well as any man alive… My penciling and inking skills were improving by the page, and my speed accelerated with them. Yet mysteriously, the more pages I completed, the more uncomfortable I became. Stan had me work over Kirby to help shift my natural narrative attack into the Marvel mode when I took over the series. However, instead of being freed by the Kirby shortcut, I felt oppressed and soon learned that, although I was eager to collaborate with the comics legend, I was also being choked by what I termed the Tyranny of the Panel.” (4)
For a few issues, Steranko would do his best to capture that dynamic, until he had an epiphany—Kirby drew the moment of impact; Steranko drew the moment just before impact. “What happened next might qualify as a personal War of Subversion, because I realized that the only way to implement the kind of changes I had in mind for the series would be from the inside—covertly, in the undercover idiom.” (4)
Perhaps aware of the old adage that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, Steranko set about gradually deviating from the House Style and ramping up his own stylistic intensity. He introduced a myriad of influences that came from outside the often circular, secular world of comic creation. “I used modern music, I used modern design, I used psychedelic art. I brought surrealism into the mix. I brought expressionism. I brought Pop Art, Optical Art. I used everything I could to update comics and bring them into today.” (3)
Steranko was let loose on the title with Strange Tales 154. Although tame compared to his future efforts, it was already becoming clear that the artist had a certain edge and flair for experimentation. Well before our current age of “decompression,” Steranko laid out two narrow panel sequences, one of Fury receiving and squaring away a few gadgets and one of the undercover villainess walking towards the “camera” of the reader’s eye, that took their time to tell their story in a cinematic style unlike anything else happening in comics at the time. In another scene, an enemy’s bombardment of gamma rays created a black and white circular effect, complete with an X-ray image of Fury doing battle with the radioactive bruiser anyway. Although that one time Roy Thomas was credited with the script, it was the new young firebrand who was granted plotting credit as well as sole credit for his art, which he would receive sole responsibility for moving forward. Steranko had arrived.
Over the course of the next 14 issues, the life of Nick Fury became much more interesting. As the artist said, ‘If Fury was missing anything, I gave him mine.” (5) For swinging into action against enemy agents, he was granted a black stealth “zip suit” based on Steranko’s motorcycle leathers, a hip pad based on Steranko’s own home, and a cleanly shaven visage that might strike you as familiar should they meet the man in person. When Tony Robertson, the man behind the Drawings of Steranko website, met his favorite comic artist in 1971, he reported back “We asked if he identified with the characters he drew, and he said something like, ‘Just hold on a minute while I put on my eyepatch.’”
With each issue, Steranko’s talents grew. New ideas were rampant, many graphic experiments performed. In his penultimate Strange Tales adventure, issue 167, Fury and his allies waged war against the forces of the Yellow Claw in the first ever four page spread, the payoff of a multiple issue part saga. If buyers wanted to experience the whole scene as intended, they had to come up with another copy in order to see the whole image at once. Stan was resistant, but when he saw the potential sales bump, he was convinced.
Issue 168 was a standalone story, and it featured a scene that was censored after Steranko turned in his pages. Fury had developed a love interest in the Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, a European fox with a penchant for Mod outfits and a streak of white in her black hair. In a page long image, her shapely rendered posterior was turned into an amorphous black abyss of nothingness when the book went to print. Robin Green, who worked at Marvel and then later wrote about it for Rolling Stone, wrote in an article that “(Steranko) was always getting into hassles with the Comic Book Code people… (his) 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.” (5) He would start to learn that the closer to the deadline that he turned in his work, the less time could be made to alter it, but this would not be the last time his work would be changed.
Steranko was a fan favorite and Strange Tales was selling well, so it was decided that both Doctor Strange and Nick Fury deserved their own titles. It was impossible to argue with the response from the fans. Neal Adams reflected that “What started happening because of guys like Steranko, is the letters that would come in would come in from college students or young people who were studying art…an awful lot of young artists were inspired to think of comic books as a form.” (3)
At last, Steranko would be the head of his own, full length comic book. For Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1, he pulled out all the stops. The book started off with Fury climbing a wall in order to infiltrate a complex sea side fortress, navigating its booby trapped corridors and dispatching the sentries in his way, until finally, at the end of three wordless pages, the hero was seemingly murdered by a masked assassin…who turned out to be the actual Fury, taking out an imposter. “There wasn’t even a thought balloon.” Steranko said, “Wasn’t even a caption! There were no words. Anywhere. Three pages of silence for the first time in comics… But the writing is there. It’s all done visually.” (3) As previously noted, he was met with resistance. After he faced it down, his run could begin in earnest.
The inspiration for the sequence came from Steranko’s love of cinema. Always keen to bring a cinematic angle to his work, he recalled a foreign film that had left a deep impact on him. “The adventure opened with Fury penetrating a Hydra stronghold in silence, which I felt would be most effective by eliminating all words, thoughts, sound effects, and captions – even the standard title- and attempt to generate the same impact as a film I’d seen when I was about fifteen: Jules Dassin’s thriller Rififi. The plot involved a robbery that had to be performed in silence because of alarms, so the middle third of the picture had no sound, not even a musical underscore. It left a deep impression on me. So, fifteen years later, when Fury scaled the monolithic fortress on the issue’s splash page, my memory of Rififi was with him.” (4)
Oft imitated and never duplicated, Steranko’s feat would be a groundbreaking moment in comics. For 1984′s G.I. Joe #21, long time confirmed Steranko fan Larry Hama would create “Silent Interlude,” a full issue without dialogue. For an entire generation, it would be considered a landmark. G.I. Joe fan website YoJoe.com says that it is “Arguably the greatest Joe story ever told. Written and drawn by Larry Hama, but without a word in it. Various comic book writers have said that they received inspiration from this issue.” Hama, for his part, in a 2001 introduction to a trade paperback compiling the S.H.I.E.L.D. run, said “When I saw the first Steranko ‘Nick Fury’ I was exhilarated…It looked so fresh and vibrant—and it was utterly cool! It made me ache to do stories just like it. Over twenty years later, I was finally able to do my homage…which was more or less an expansion of the first three pages of S.H.I.E.L.D. 1′s ”Who Is Scorpio?’ (Hey, if you’re gonna swipe, swipe from the best! Lord knows, dozens of others have copped that same sequence during the last 32 years. Remember Aeon Fluxon Liquid Television?)”
Years later, Marvel as an entity would make a gimmick out of the technique that they had initially resisted with 2002′s “‘Nuff Said” month, in which every comic that came out featured no dialogue. Credit to Steranko for pioneering the concept was absent. But if you know, you know, and nothing more need be said.
(1) Steranko’s panel at Lexington Comic Con, 2013
(2) Steranko’s twitter feed, 2013-present
(3) Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle, 2013
(4) Marvel Masterworks: Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Volume 2, 2009
(5) Rolling Stone 91, 1971
A version of this article ran previously at Sequart.