Hall of Fame comics creator Jim Steranko brought his trademark toughness, swagger and personal stories to a Saturday panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego, still refusing to back down from his claim that he launched the graphic novel form. Steranko also discussed the forthcoming reprint of “Red Tide” and his in-the-works sequel, both to be published by Dark Horse Comics.
Halfway through his spotlight panel, Steranko pulled a fan out of the audience to join him on stage. Steranko asked the young lady to feel the scars on his knuckles. In case anyone questioned the veracity of his hyperbolic tales, the comics legend proved that he is still sticking to his story — including the one in which he claims to be the inventor of the graphic novel.
While Will Eisner is widely credited as the father of the graphic novel form, Steranko begged to differ, saying he’s “a little disappointed about this controversy that surrounds the graphic novel.” Of “A Contract with God,” Eisner’s ground-breaking book, Steranko said, “I don’t really think it can qualify as a graphic novel; it’s a collection of short stories.” Moreover, Steranko’s own seminal — if overlooked at the time — work was in bookstores two years prior to Eisner’s “Contract.” “‘Red Tide’ was published in ’76,” Steranko asserted. “Any questions?”
“Red Tide,” Steranko’s now-classic noir detective story (originally titled “Chandler: Red Tide”), was born out of serendipity. Steranko had the germ of an idea in 1975 and the skills to pitch it to Pyramid Books successfully that year. At the time, he didn’t even have the present title. He remembered throwing names at the project like “Hammett” and “Spillane.” Even without a title, he landed a contract and a tight deadline. To finish “Red Tide,” Steranko “ate every meal at the drawing board” and sealed all the windows of his home to work in the dark. Three months later, he finished.
Steranko’s graphic novel will get a second life later this year when Dark Horse publishes a long-in-the-works reprint. Steranko pushed the the original to be expanded and recolored, but he and Dark Horse Publisher Mike Richardson decided it was best to reprint “Red Tide” in its original form and then follow it up with a sequel taking advantage of modern design software to round out Steranko’s color palette. Of the graphic novel’s first printing, Steranko said, “Every page of ‘Red Tide’ was a compromise for me.”
Steranko insists that the new pages were heavily inspired by classic cinematography, and that they will look and feel like frames of a film. The pages promise realistic light and take full advantage of Steranko’s deep love of darkness and shadow effects. So far, he has drawn up a few pages of the new work to rave review among Dark Horse staffers. The pages will be previewed next month in “Dark Horse Presents” #3. The full title will be released next year.
If Steranko’s new graphics seem like a magic trick, that may be because Steranko himself is a magician. The inspiration for Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” Steranko was the kid from the streets who could pick locks and slip out of handcuffs. (In Chabon’s book, two comic creators are inspired to create a character they dubbed the Escapist — a superhero who can wriggle his way out of every trap in which he is placed.) Steranko has another escape ability, as well, according to moderator J. David Spurlock: “[He] can put himself in suspended animation. He’s almost there now.”
Unlike Chabon’s comic heroes, Steranko also distinguished himself as a street fighter. A wiry kid of 130 pounds, Steranko was frequently beaten to a pulp by a local street gang. He fought back at first by jury-rigging a one-round capacity pistol called a zip gun. Later, Steranko took to the gym and learned brawling techniques from a boxer named Bubbles. “I could get right into their faces,” he said. “I learned how to throw two versions of a sucker punch.”
It took a lot of fight for Steranko to land in Stan Lee’s office just as his career was getting traction. After talking his way in the door and swaying Lee with a sample of his art, Steranko was granted a comic creator’s dream as Lee pointed to a bookshelf of Marvel titles and said, “Pick one.”
Sure that following Jack Kirby on any title was a form of “suicide,” Steranko opted for a struggling line that had not shown much promise, taking over “Nick Fury: Agent of Shield” and kicking off a legendary run. Even as his comics career took hold, Steranko continued his career in advertising and moonlighted in a band, but is finally content that his “Tide” has come in.
A preview of the new “Red Tide” will run in “Dark Horse Presents” #3, available August 24.