Introduced by moderator David Spurlock of Vanguard Productions as a writer, artist, magician, musician, lover of dogs and good-looking women, a sunglasses-clad Jim Steranko jogged to an illuminated stage before a room of fans at the recent Big Apple Comic-Con.
“What are you people doing in my room?” Steranko teased as he sat down.
Following his brief introduction as a man who had worked in many creative fields, Steranko and Spurlock took their first fan question, which would be followed by stories from the creator’s career.
The fan wanted to know the fate of one of Vanguard’s Steranko art books that hadn’t been released yet. Spurlock acknowledged that it had been delayed despite prior advertisements, but was still in the pipeline for release.
“You guys got to do your best to keep me alive while I finish this stuff,” said Steranko, smiling.
Steranko followed that statement with a self-styled “commercial,” letting fans know that Marvel would be releasing a new “S.H.I.E.L.D” collection, for which he’d written the introduction.
“The editor asked me if I could talk about the things I’ve done, and if there’s anything I haven’t talked about yet. There’s a lot that has never been discussed, and I think the book might be out in December,” said Steranko, adding, “They asked me if I could do it in 500 words. It’s 6,300 words.”
The panel moved on to mention some of Steranko’s most recent work, including Radical Publishing’s “Hercules” comic book covers. Steranko pointed out that he also designed the series’ logo, a practice he tried to incorporate into all of his comic book work.
“That’s what I am. I’m really a designer. I really have a much better time designing logos than painting the art,” said Steranko smiling, “But don’t tell anybody I said that.”
Of course, Steranko’s been designing logos in comics for much of his career, including Marvel Comics’ longstanding “X-Men” logo.
“It would have been nice if they gave him half a cent for every time they re-produced it,” said Spurlock.
“I would have been a rich man. I wouldn’t be here, I’d be down at the track,” said Steranko, who explained that he asked to re-design the original X-Men logo because he didn’t want it next to his art.
Next Steranko began discussing his run creating Nick Fury stories at Marvel, pointing out that he always found it odd that the spy stories shared a title with the more mystical Doctor Strange in “Strange Tales.”
“[Nick Fury] really didn’t belong in that book. The teaming of Nick Fury and Doc Strange was odd–teaming with Cap would have made a much better book,” said Steranko, “I’m still chaffing over it.”
This conversation lead to the creator musing over his often hectic deadlines while working for Marvel, especially one project which he turned over in less than a day. The assignment was the cover for “Hulk: King-Sized Special” #1, a job he took on while hanging out at fellow Marvel artist Dan Adkins’ apartment in Brooklyn after their mutual editor called in asking for a quick turnaround.
Steranko finished the page and drove into Manhattan with an unshaven face, having worked through the evening. In order to avoid looking tired, he decided to shave while in traffic, shaving in the rear-view mirror with a safety razor. Things were going fine until a car rear-ended him slightly, resulting in a slashed lip that, in Sterakno’s words “bled profusely.”
“All I had in my car were some letters, some envelopes or something, so I had this hard paper blotting the blood that didn’t do much good,” said Steranko.”
When he arrived at Marvel to deliver his cover, everyone in the office assumed he’d been hurt badly because of the blood on his face, meaning he had to explain he’d been shaving in traffic.
“Never let it be said that there isn’t Steranko blood, sweat and tears in those pages,” said Steranko.
During his time at Marvel, Steranko kept a busy schedule working several jobs. In the space of nearly 70 Marvel projects, Steranko said he worked at an advertising agency as a full-time day job before moonlighting in rock bands at night before returning to his ad office to illustrate Marvel pages and get a few hours of sleep. As a result of his hectic lifestyle, Steranko would often pencil pages with his sunglasses on, which earned him the nickname of the “Ivy League Dracula.”
That phase of Steranko’s life eventually ended after he was fired from Marvel, a story the creator shared with panel attendees.
“It’s really pretty amazing in hindsight, about the House of Ideas.
When I did my stories I was still a lifelong fan, I still thought there was an enormous way to tell stories–things that had never been done before,” said Steranko.
“So at a time when I was making a pretty good wage at the ad agency and then moonlighting in these rock and roll bands at night, there was something about comics. I loved comics; I learned to read from comics as a kid. And I felt that I could use that medium to make a personal statement and that really meant something to me,” said Steranko, “That was the reason I got into comics. I had something to say and I wanted to do it a certain way. I had little interest in producing the same material month after month like a human Xerox machine”
The creator explained that while he understood that some comic artists of the day treated comics as piecework to pay the bills, he wanted to elevate his own work by making it personal.
“I was looking for some other kind of gratification. So I tried to do new things that had never been done in comics before. I don’t know how well you know my work, but there’s a guy you may now who looked at all of my books and he claims to have found 200 narrative devices, narrative storytelling devices in that work. And I think I only did 29 books at Marvel. It took 29 books for me to sell my soul to the devil,” said Steranko.
Steranko recalled ending an episodic Nick Fury story from “Strange Tales” with two two-page splash pages in order to emulate scenes from 007 films where James Bond would attack massive villain hideouts.
“The concept that I developed was a four-page spread,” said Steranko.
Steranko brought the panels to Stan Lee, who he said didn’t like his idea, thinking that fans would have to buy two copies of the comic to hold the two spreads side-by-side. Upon that, Steranko said Lee realized the up side of that implication.
Another example Steranko butting heads with Marvel came at the very beginning of “Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” #1 when Nick Fury is breaking and entering a stone tower on a deserted horizon.
“I produced this three-page silent sequence. It was the first that had ever been done in silence. And ordinarily if artists had done that kind of sequence it would have been loaded with thought-balloons and captions. But I wanted it done in complete silence, so there wasn’t a word anywhere,” said Steranko, citing that the credits were incorporated into the art on the page.
The artist cited the 1955 French crime film “Rififi” as his inspiration for that sequence, specifically a silent break-in scene in the middle of what was essentially a sound-filled movie.
“I never forgot it because I couldn’t stop squirming in my seat after awhile because there was no sound at all. That made a profound impact on me, so I used that idea in my comic book pages,” said Steranko, “That device has been copied over and over again and really been butchered badly along the way. So where do you go with this kind of thing? I think about five years ago Marvel took a December for all of their books to be silent,” said Steranko.
A fan pointed out that the event was called “‘Nuff Said,” which Spurlock considered somewhat ironic given Stan Lee had originally opposed the silent technique.
“When I presented those concepts to Marvel, Stan was upset because retailers would see the pages and think that the comics were misprinted and send them back,” said Steranko, “I have no knowledge of any retailers sending them back.”
Steranko did recall that a fan wrote in to praise the issue, although he mentioned that Marvel had forgot to put the words on the first three pages. Steranko said he kept the letter from the then 13-year-old fan because it reminded him that even his best ideas could fail his readers.
“I’m not really the wise guy I sometimes think I am,” said Steranko.
Another problem Steranko encountered on that particular project was getting paid for three wordless pages. In a time when writers were paid by the word, he had to fight to receive payment for what were essentially blank pages.
Steranko explained that the constant struggle with Marvel and then-editor Lee began to wear on him after awhile, especially when Lee would ask him to work like his contemporaries.
“I couldn’t do it like Kirby or Romita if I tried,” said Steranko, “Out of great affection for my mentor Stan Lee, I didn’t want to fight with him.”
Instead of fighting directly, Steranko said that to get his work published as he intended, he would bring the work in late so Marvel couldn’t tinker with it. He also reasoned that his psychedelic approach to coloring likely wouldn’t have gone to print any other way.
One of the main reasons Steranko fought for his work is because he wanted his intentions to translate to the page as clearly as possible believing, “There should be a reason for every panel on that page.”
Ultimately, Steranko explained that his feelings for his own work lead to a breaking point with Lee. On a Nick Fury project, Steranko pleaded with Lee not to alter his work despite his authority to do so.
“Don’t touch this work, I’ve put too much time in this work, if you tinker with it you’ll screw it up,” Steranko paraphrased on his encounter with Lee.
“It’s the only time I’ve ever seen him angry, it’s the only time I’ve known him to be angry,” said Steranko, explaining that Lee effectively stood his ground telling him he couldn’t tell his editor how to do his job and firing him on the spot.
“Stan really had every right to take that attitude. I was really wrong. I shouldn’t have taken that attitude, but I didn’t want him to change that story,” said Steranko.
“Stan was the editor, and I was just some geek who walked in out of the night,” said Steranko, “So at this late date, Stan, forgive me.”
The story didn’t end there, however, with Steranko explaining the two would eventually make up.
“A couple months went by, I was still upset over this and the phone rang,” said Steranko, playing out the upcoming exchange.
“Jim. Stan,” said Lee.
“Yeah?” said Steranko.
“Jim,” said Lee.
“When he said my name again I started laughing, he said it all, this one magnificent delivery,” said Steranko, “I started laughing and he started laughing because we had done such a silly childish thing. He said, ‘You really belong here. This is your home.'”
Steranko went back to illustrate Lee’s writing for a time, mostly on romance comics and other work.
With just a few minutes allotted for the remainder of the panel, Spurlock asked Steranko if he could tell his “Ferris wheel” story from his days working in a circus in ten minutes. Steranko shook his head as fans cheered.
“You guys want to hear this story?” asked Steranko.
“I used to do magic when I was a kid. My father did some magic and I kind of coat-tailed on that and along the way I discovered Houdini. And in reading Houdini I discovered that there were numerous things indigenous to me that would make me a good escape artists,” said Steranko, citing that he was flexible, could see in the dark, had a high tolerance for pain and could hold his breath for several minutes.
“I was working at this amusement park. I thought it would be a great promotional idea to do a publicity stunt. So I went to the owner and said, ‘If you tie me to that Ferris wheel tonight, set it in motion. I’ll escape from it in full view from all of your spectators,'” said Steranko.
That night they rigged up spotlights and Steranko was tied to the framework of the Ferris wheel in a tuxedo. Once the wheel was set into motion, he let it revolve once before beginning to free himself from the ropes that bound him. His escape didn’t exactly go as planned, however, mostly because he hadn’t planned for what was about to happen.
“I had never tried this escape before, it was just an idea, a concept,” said Steranko, “Yeah, but you know, I’m Steranko, bullets bounce of off me,” he joked.
“Now I’m upside down and something happened that I didn’t quite count on. Famous last words,” said Steranko, “As I loosened up that rope, and it was long rope, and as I loosened it all of the coils let go. It wasn’t knotted all around hand and foot. When those coils let go, that rope let me go. It just happened to be at the top at the time. And I fell. I fell maybe eight feet, twelve feet. One of those cars at the turn of the wheel just happened to fall on the way beneath me. And I still remember it because I was just lacerated, deeply cut, bruised, battered, bleeding…”
As Steranko stepped off of the Ferris wheel to applause from his audience, his boss quickly approached him, somewhat oblivious to his current condition.
“Jim, that was great! Can you do it again tomorrow?
With that story wrapped, the panel concluded to fan applause as Steranko smiled and invited attendees to visit his convention booth.