Comics

Back In ’66: Steranko Comes To Marvel

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.

PlanetWhen 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.

PlanetHe 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)

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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)

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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.

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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.’”

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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.

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Before.

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After.

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.

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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)

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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.

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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)

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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.

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Comics

Back To The Comics- Jim Steranko

misterS

Jim Steranko could’ve just been one of two things in order to be remarkable. He could be a ground breaking, innovative artist, one who altered the art form of comic book storytelling forever. He could also be an engaging, charismatic individual, one who could never be forgotten by anyone who meets him. As it turns out, he’s both.

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Part of the first generation of comic book creators who grew up as fans, Steranko added a third career to his advertising artist/musician repertoire when he went to work for Marvel in the late sixties. In a handful of years and not that many more comics, Mr.S blew the doors of perception wide open by combining what he learned from studying Kirby with Dali, Wally Wood with Warhol, and turning the Ben-Day hose back on it’s source in a style he called Zap Art.

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Although he’s best known for his work on Nick Fury: Agent Of SHIELD, Steranko also did a number of covers, a very intense 3 issue Captain America story in which he seemingly killed the main character off, a troubling horror short for a short lived anthology, and a trippy romance story.

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The comics work is merely the tip of the iceberg, however. Proving that truth often trumps fiction, Steranko is also known as a magician, escape artist, and magazine publisher, having created and edited Comicscene and then Mediascene before it evolved into Prevue magazine under his leadership, a publication that stood head and shoulders above it’s competition by virtue of it’s one-two punch of insightful articles and knockout design. It was in that magazine that the world first saw perhaps one of the most remarkable yet least known achievements of Mr.Steranko’s career:

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Steranko created the original concept art for Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and rarely even mentions it. He’s done a good deal of work in Hollywood, including some storyboards and design work for Coppola’s Dracula. He would personally be the inspiration for Jack Kirby’s mister Miracle as well as the protagonist and his comic book Escapist character from the best selling novel The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay. This was all after his creation of Red Tide, the first true Graphic Novel.

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Of late, he’s developed quite a following on his twitter feed, where he has utilized the character limit of the posts to create what he calls TNT, or Twitter Narrative Technique. For anyone who has ever gotten to meet him, it’s a treat to get more insight from his off the cuff storytelling, and he’s been a revelation for those who didn’t know about the personality behind the art.

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As follows are a couple of my favorites from his stories from Twitter:

7/13

Anybody ready for another bedtime story?

I often get ideas about the kinds of stories you’re interested in from your comments & often deliver the first thing that jumps into my head But I think I may have given you a wrong impression–that I take out whatever’s in front of me, one way or another. No way in hell, junior!

Sometimes it worked out that way, especially after I wised up and discovered a few things. But in the beginning, I learned the hard way. Because my father had tuberculosis, he was confined in a sanitarium for several years. And as a grade-school kid, I tested positive, likely to have breathed TB-causing bacteria into my lungs. Apparently, my immune system prevented infection by building a wall around the bacteria, which is termed latent TB and cannot be spread to others. Nonetheless, I began third grade at what was called an “open-window” school, a facility across the city that had a healthy program for kids with special problems.

I was bussed to that institution for four years, then dropped into standard junior high. Since I’d started school at four years old, I was younger and smaller than my peers, and coming from the cross-town facility, was a stranger to most of my classmates. Quiet, introverted, lacking certain social skills, I did not fit into the traditional seventh-grade mold. Additionally, my hair was long at a time when it was very unfashionable; crew cuts were the accepted style. My hand-me-down clothes and artistic preferences further set me apart. I was an honor-role student and just wanted to be left alone to pursue my creative goals–but somehow, my manner was perceived as somber and brooding.

Whether it was those attributes or something else, I became a target, particularly of one gang who went out of their way to ransack my locker, grab my books and throw them down a stairwell, or simply crack me across the back of the head as they walked by in the crowded halls. Eventually, I recognized them as a gang called the Baer Park Razors; their turf, the opposite end of a long, river bridge that began in my neighborhood. They wore bright, yellow jackets and muscled their way through school, threatening and hammering anyone who defied them.

They always traveled in a pack, never alone, and even the jocks gave them room. Together, they would have made Sonny Liston think twice. I gradually became a focus, a punching bag for three of them. The Pope (which aggrandized his real Italian name) was as handsome and well-groomed as a movie star. He boasted he could “lay any chick on the first date” and never missed an opportunity to throw a punch at me. Freddie the Fireman aka Freddie Flames (his real name was Fernando) was half covered with puckered, red scar tissue earned when he attempted to set his father ablaze with gasoline while he was sleeping. Instead, the old man awoke and turned the tables, giving him–and anyone who could bear to look at him–something to remember for the rest of his life. Freddy added to his psychotic rep by pouring gas on neighborhood cats and dogs he caught–and setting them on fire for the fun of it.Metz was the third. A head and a half taller than me, he had dirty blonde hair, crooked teeth, and arms like tree trunks. A pachuco cross was tattooed (probably with a ball-point pen & three sewing needles taped together) in the pad of flesh at the base of his left thumb. He had skin like a pizza, heavy on the olives. He was their leader.

I tried to stay out of their way, but for more than a year, it was impossible. We shared numerous classes & they began waiting after school to rough me up. Almost every day was Three O’Clock High. I used every trick I could think of to outwit the Razors: leaving from different exits every day–sometimes late–and zigzagging out of my way through streets and alleys to throw them off. I’d never know where their ambush might be because they moved around constantly, and the area was a maze of shortcuts and narrow driveways, alleys, and dead ends. Sometimes, I’d spot them and outrun the gang (once right through a stranger’s yard, into their back door, through the living room, and out the front). But it only worked for a little while.

Soon, they realized there was one point at which I could not elude them: at the bridge that crossed over to my neighborhood, the only way to get there from the school’s direction. And that day, I didn’t see them until it was too late. Coming from behind, the Pope kicked my books like a football player, scattering them twenty feet or more in the air. Freddy Flames and the Pope moved behind me; Metz stood front and center, narrowed his eyes, grinned. “Waddaya gonna do about it, faggot?” I did exactly what he wanted and threw a punch, but Metz was faster. He shifted slightly to the right so my fist grazed harmlessly by.I threw another. Metz tapped it away with the back of one hand, stepped aside in a manner that could have been choreographed, easily anticipating what would happen next. I’d been in my share of streetcorner skirmishes and thought I knew my way around a brawl, but in a couple heartbeats realized I knew nothing. Metz didn’t even raise his hands to defend himself. He was toying with me like a kid torturing a trapped bug.

A circle of highschoolers surrounded us. Metz waited for the next move, playing to the crowd. “You wanna start a fight with me? Guess I’m gonna have to protect myself!” Freddie and the Pope laughed behind us.I threw another punch, but before it could land, I realized that Metz had positioned me at a particular angle,one that provided a perfect opening. He threw a brutal hook into my mid-section, pile-driving the air from my lungs.I’d been in street fights, but had never felt a punch that hard. The blow doubled me over, dropped me to my knees.My vision shimmered, ears rang. I was paralyzed, pointlessly gasping for air, unable to breathe or talk.Metz backhanded me with a vicious left across my face–his rings cutting into my cheek–then snapped it back again with a fist to my right ear that scrambled my senses. to my right ear that scrambled my senses, splattered blood across my shoulder, down my shirt. I fell to the ground, wretched, spewed my lunch.

“Now beg and maybe I’ll let you get up!” I couldn’t speak. Metz, maybe one of the others, wiped his shoe on my face and strolled away. “OK, have it your own way. We’ll see you tomorrow, punk. Don’t be late!” Someone had collected what could be found of my books and papers and piled them nearby. I lay there, unable to move, in a pool of blood and vomit, unsure of what hurt more: the beating, the humiliation, or the anger that emerged from a place too deep to assault physically. Five or ten minutes went by, before I could take a choppy breath again. It took another five minutes before I could walk upright, but I felt that first punch for the next three days. I knew I had just entered a new kind of hell, one that would change my life forever.>>

7/14

Anybody out there who wants to hear another tale of the SWITCHBLADE YEARS? Jump in NOW or forever hold your peace! Countdown begins…Remember last night’s story about my clash with the Razors gang? I’ll give you a couple moments to catch up, then we’ll begin round two…

>>The Razor’s cat-and-mouse beatings continued for the next year and a half, leeching at every waking moment. I’d fall asleep tasting blood and awaken spasming from raw flesh. The beatings were even more terrifying in jolting nightmares (which continued for the next 40 years). No place was safe because demons licked my spine, waking or sleeping. I’d get even more hell at home because my clothes were torn and bloodied. Sometimes my eyes were swollen shut, my teeth loosened. My ears would ring for days at a time. Yellow-purple welts corrupted my flesh, but RAGE, FEAR, and HATE bore even deeper. As angry as I was at the Razors, I was angrier at myself for being incapable of stopping them. I dreamed of slaughtering them,of being drenched in their blood. Controlling my fury became a primal effort and set a pattern for the rest of my life.

Eventually, I was forced to admit my fear, yet feared the knowledge of being a coward even more. I’d been in lots of fights and thought I’d proved myself many times. There were maybe a dozen dares I’d faced that were wildly dangerous (like late-night THE TRAIN stunt) and a few where a single slip could have cost my life (RIDING THE WALL). Hardly anyone–even the biggest and craziest–duplicated those challenges. And there were a couple, no one EVER attempted. I knew the beatings might end when I “begged” and accepted the repulsion of failure, submission, and defeat. I knew that to become a man, one must have the courage of a man. Yet my life was being driven by fear. Perhaps even more than the physical pain was the spiritual degradation of having less control over my life than a cockroach.It went beyond the humiliation of poverty and sacrifice that I already knew. In terms of the material–clothing, food, a well-appointed home, an education, a place in society–my life was bleak and desolate,nothing but leftovers. How many beatings could I take before I submitted to scum? I was afraid to learn the answer, but realized I was reaching my breaking point. As crushing as they were,the daily fistfights concerned the corruption of the spirit, about losing the ONLY thing that actually belonged to me.Was that something I’d fight for? Kill for?

I viewed it as my problem, refusing to take it to school authorities (the beatings took place off school property, anyway). I wasn’t a little kid anymore and needed to solve my own difficulties. My family never confronted my problems;they were too busy with their own conflicts to notice.I began withdrawing into paranoid seclusion, trying to shut out the anger and alienation that dominated my life, a kind that I had never experienced before. The violence escalated, but I knew I could never outfight them.

Still, I tried by changing the odds.I bought a thick, leather belt with a massive, brass buckle that I wielded like a mace. In that round, I caught Freddie the Fireman in the face, the strap circling his head, the buckle smashing into the zygomatic arch under his right eye. Blood gushed magnificently from the wound as he backed off. I knew I’d pay for it next time, but now was all that counted. Metz lunged at me, but I smashed the belt across the knuckles of his right hand that put him out of action for a while. The Pope backed off, taking no chances with his Roman features. It was only a temporary standoff that heightened the game, one that escalated to the concealed weapons stage. I began wearing gloves to protect my hands and a heavy leather jacket that buffered punches and kicks. I found a knife with a 4″ blade that thrust outward from the handle by sliding a button, but soon replaced it with a 6″ pocket knife I rigged with a bent straight pin under the closed blade. By dragging the knife against my jeans, the pin would catch and snap the blade open instantly. Soon, that knife was replaced by a switchblade that opened to 17.” I carried it around the clock.

Sometimes I’d skip lunch and use the money to take a bus across the bridge, bypassing the Razor’s ambush. Sometimes I’d pick a vantage point where I’d watch them at the foot of the bridge, unseen at a distance– and wait, sometimes for hours, until they’d tire and leave. Sometimes, they’d waylay me between school and the bridge, initiating ferocious chases through alleyways, hiding under porches, escaping beneath trucks, scrambling over garages. Clutching lengths of pipes or socks filled with buckshot, they’d pursue me through neighborhood yards and streets, sometimes in pelting rainstorms or thick snow. Eventually, I became better at eluding them and striking back, ut knew I could never beat them–not at their game, not on their terms.

In desperation, I withdrew deeper, trying to escape the brutality, yet becoming part of it more each day. Slowly I realized that I could not continue nor could I admit I was a coward by begging them to stop.No one, even school authorities, could break up the Razors. They were too wary to be caught on the premises, too psychotic to be reasoned with, and too sadistic to fear reprisals. I soon realized that in the heat of combat, they’d eventually beat me to death. I had been trapped into playing someone else’s game–the formula for failure! I could never beat the Razors at THEIR game. I needed to sucker them into playing mine. The question was: would I live long enough to do it?

I dropped back to what defined me at core level: intellect, aggression, imagination. I’d made many mistakes, including facing them in three-against-one fights. Then, I redid the math. The only way was reaching them separately. The strategy made all the difference in the world. One night the brakes on Freddy Flames’ motorcycle failed resulting in a serious accident. He was hospitalized for broken legs and a shattered hip. He would never run again. Then, the Pope was busted at school, when a stolen wallet was found in his gym locker–even though he claimed innocence.(Coincidentally, we were in the same gym period.) He was expelled, and cited with a theft charge in juvenile court.

The same week Metz was surprised to see me walking in the open after school, heading for the bridge where many of the beatings occurred.For the first time without his gang, he followed me to the intersection, then sprinted ahead to cut me off from the bridge’s access. He laughed when I ran alongside the structure to get away, heading for the shadowed arch under the bridge that was usually deserted. I climbed over a guard rail, continued down the embankment to escape my pursuer, who had slowed his pace, knowing the river beyond was a dead end–unless I planned to swim across. Metz jumped the barrier, ambled downhill, closing the distance between us, cutting off either side by shifted right or left.Then, I stopped, turned around, stood still. Metz was puzzled, but continued until he was about six feet away.

“This time, you’re gonna beg real good or I’ll drown you in the river like the little, fuckin’ rat you are!”

He shuffled closer, bristling with the blood lust of his capture, pumped with adrenaline at the thought of administering a slaughter without witnesses, at punishing prey that had eluded him and his gang too many times. He grinned, reached into a pocket, pulled a switchblade. He smiled, clicked it open. But he couldn’t figure out why I didn’t run, just stood there.

My turn. I raised my arm and Metz got the message. I was pointing a pistol, more precisely, a loaded zip gun at his face. I’d read about them in the newspaper: big-city kids constructed them as gang weapons. I made mine in metal shop, milling out a short, steel bar to accept a .22 bullet. The barrel was fastened to the framework of a toy Colt automatic grip that I’d cut down for a precise fit. It only took two classes to complete. The hammer (with a metal screw for a firing pin) was held in place by thick rubberbands, which when pulled back and released, would fire the cartridge.

The spider had trapped himself. He said nothing as I shifted our positions, moving him toward the river. He stumbled backwards on the riverbank rocks, trying to keep some distance between us. I moved closer, forcing him into the water. Each of his beatings had stolen some life from me. Now, it was my turn and I was going to take it. He knew it. He backed into deeper water, against the current, now up to his waist and climbing. I followed along like a shadow, and a calmness I’d never known transformed me at that moment. I pulled back the zip-gun’s hammer.

He began breathing hard, shaking, babbling about being sorry. Snot bubbled from his nose. “I can’t swim,” he said. “I can’t swim!”

“Beg, you ugly bastard!”

He knew I was about to kill him.

The gray water reached his chin.

He began to pray at me like a child, fear tearing his eyes, unintelligible apologies mixing with river slime.

I released the hammer.

Nothing happened. A misfire. He went underwater, screaming. I heard a voice behind me. From the house on the westmost corner, about sixty feet away, a woman was shouting, “What are you boys doing under the bridge? I see everything! I’m calling the police!”I left the way I’d come there and was never ambushed again. Metz and the Razors were through with me.

But I wasn’t through with them.<<

You can follow Steranko on Twitter.

All the art on this page is Copyright Jim Steranko and/or the respective copyright holders. © Jim Steranko. All Rights Reserved.

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