Monday, September 23, 2013

Evaluating Steranko

Jim Steranko is widely regarded as a legendary figure in the history of the comic medium, despite his relatively small output in the late 1960s. But the handful of comics he did produce for Marvel proved to be wildly influential. At least that's the idea. Most of his stuff has been out of print, because as we've established, that's how Marvel rolls. Thankfully, Marvel finally reprinted his Nick Fury run a couple of weeks ago, which I finally got to enjoy. (Ignore the shitty scans that I scrounged from the internet below, the art presented in S.H.E.L.D. By Steranko: The Complete Collection is gorgeously reconstructed, modern printing able to live up to Steranko's vision.)

Who is Jim Steranko? Born during the Depression and raised as a street tough during the War, he's a former escape artist and magician that was one of the influences behind Michael Chabon's Kavalier and Clay.  He played in rock bands in the 1950s, may have invented the Go-Go Girl, and inspired several Jack Kirby creations. An inveterate raconteur that puts Mark Millar and Kanye West to shame, if you believe any of his elaborate stories told on twitter, he is in the running for actual Most Interesting Man in the World whose accomplishments wildly outstrip the fictional construction.

He swooped into Marvel in 1966 and was assigned the superspy series Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., at the time published as a split-book with Dr. Strange in the long-running Strange Tales. Like many new Marvel artists at the time, he began working over Jack Kirby pencils and Stan Lee and Roy Thomas scripts, but very quickly became the first at Marvel (and one of the first in the Silver Age) to write, illustrate, ink, and even color his own stories. One of mainstream comics' first true auteurs, he quickly developed his own voice, the first truly fresh voice at the House of Ideas at a time that Lee, Kirby and Ditko were already changing the face of pop culture.

After getting the gig, so much of his output is very clearly Kirby influenced, which is not remotely surprising. But Steranko would also begin to weave in and effectively distill influences from the pre-silver age art of Will Eisner and Wally Wood, the superspy sex appeal of Bond and Emma Peel, the surrealism of Salvador Dali and M.C. Escher, and the pop-art of Andy Warhol. He used Kirby's dynamism and exploded it out, into massively staged epics of visual astonishments, single page splashes to double page spreads to the first quadruple page spread, to outre photocollages and kaleidoscopic psychedelia.

The Four Page Spread. It looks way better in the new S.H.I.E.L.D. trade.
His over-the-top stories and dialog leave a little to be desired, but fit in just fine with the more ridiculous narrative excesses of the time. The real point of Steranko is his art. He wasn't the first to do the things he did, but certainly one of the best. He approached storytelling as syntheses of art and design, with innovative whole-page layouts and figures that were far sexier than anything being produced by anyone else. (The sheer sexiness of Steranko's art got him in trouble with the Comics Code on more than one occasion.) The best analog of what Steranko was doing at the end of the sixties is the art that JH Williams III has been doing since he began to redefine the mainstream in Promethea and Desolation Jones.

Steranko began illustrating the 12 page Fury stories in Strange Tales with issue 151, first over Kirby, then over his own pencils with 154. By 155 he was the full author of the Fury stories through the end of Strange Tales in 168. (About midway through Strange Tales he was assigned inkers such as Joe Sinnott, Frank Giacoia and Bill Everett, which can't hurt.) In an unprecedented move, he was given his own title, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in 1968.

From Strange Tales 168
The true high point of Steranko's Fury run is Strange Tales 168. Steranko had memorably wrapped up the epic, winding superspy fable he'd been weaving for multiple issues in 167 (I won't ruin the brilliant twist ending). Taking a break from the expanded story that came to include G-Man Jimmy Woo (Woo!), 168 is a surrealist sci-fi nightmare, stylish and sexy in a way that no comic had ever really been. But when Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. started, he began to lose the trappings of the Bond-like superspy stories, making Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. an almost EC-like anthology title with ghosts and dinosaurs and various un-S.H.I.E.L.D.-like trappings. That first memorable issue, a stunning, complex sci-fi spy drama wrapped in a tragic crime comic, stands the test of time better than any other Steranko narrative. But it also marks the beginning of the end for Steranko's short meteoric ascent.

There would be a fill-in on issue 4 leaving 5 as his final work with Fury. He would turn in several astonishing covers for S.H.I.E.L.D. and a few issues of Captain America shortly afterwards (as well as the seminal Steranko History of Comics), but beyond cover work throughout the 1970s and a medium-bending illustrated novel from 1976, Steranko would largely leave the world of comics behind. He exploded into the world of comics and mostly rocketed out of it by the age 30 (younger than I am now as I write this).

But regardless of Marvel's stingy reprinting of his work, Steranko's influence would have lasting impact. His work played hand-in hand with the most popular visual artists in art and film and television of the day, they feeding off his work as much as he fed of theirs. The level of impact is debatable; it's not quite to the level that Steranko plays it up to be nowadays, but that hyperbole is now part of Steranko's legend, a legend he has been stoking like a forest fire, embellishing with an evangelical zeal.

Steranko simply is Steranko, and the stories, as alternately ridiculous and divine as they are, mark a cultural and artistic turning point for the genre and the medium. Lets just hope Marvel manages to keep it in print.

Buy S.H.E.L.D. By Steranko: The Complete Collection on Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. A story about the four-page splash mentioned above:

    When Marvel UK reprinted Steranko's SHIELD run in their Captain Britain Weekly, part of the issue the four-page spead appeared in was printed with pages in the wrong order. The following week, a correctly printed version of that section was included as an extra. As a result, readers had the four page spread twice over, and could lay the whole thing out to be seen properly.

    David Simpson