Jim Steranko has a well-deserved reputation for Manliness. He has not only been one of the most influential artists as defined by Wizard Magazine. Dave Spurlock interviewed him on stage. He has been a juvenile delinquent, a stage magician, an escape artist, musician, illustrator, designer, filmmaker, pop culture lecturer and publisher on top of comic artist.
In fact, with his lifetime of experiences and stories, an hour was not nearly enough for him to tell his anecdotes, and what little he got to talk about left the audience wishing for more.
On Early Days at Marvel
Steranko had turned Nick Fury into a popular character who warranted his own series, then moved onto Captain America, before was asked to draw “X-Men” because the book had been late.
“At first, I didn’t want to work on the X-Men because of all the five-sided panels. I couldn’t relate to the characters, I didn’t know how to make it work, so I asked to work incognito on the book. But I signed my name to my first three covers. And that logo they had was awful. Logos were trademarked, but they let me redesign it, just to get rid of that awful logo. I never got paid for it.”
“That logo’s still being used today on the books,” said Spurlock. “If Jim got paid a royalty for everytime they used it…”
Steranko talked at length about his horror story “At the Stroke of Midnight,” in which he created many of graphic innovations in comic art that had never been done before in American comics.
His original title for the story was the more Lovecraftian, namely “The Lurking Fear at Shadow House”.
“Stan didn’t know Lovecraft or the paperback revival of Lovecraft, so he changed it to “Let them Eat Cake”. We fought over that, and in the end, Stan gave in and re-titled it “At the Stroke of Midnight”.”
“Now, here’s one of the great unsolved mysteries of all time,” said Steranko. “It was at DC. The covers of a comic was always based on the first story in the book, and it always depicted the end of the story, and the image was repeated on the first splash. Who decided to start the first story on the first splash page?? I swear, this was a mystery that was created to drive me crazy!”
Steranko feels that artists who draw the same way all the time can become restricted creatively. He cited Joe Kubert, an artist he had great respect for.
“But he has a rough, macho style that’s perfect for genres like Westerns or War, but not for romance. I wanted to be able to alter my style to suit a story, so I did ‘line resolution’ work, where there was no feathering, to create a heightened sense of reality. Stan was pretty shocked by this.”
Steranko was also offended by five-sided panels, where the writer puts a narrative caption at the top of a panel, and the shape of the panel would be cut to accommodate the caption, turning the panel five-sided. He designed the panels so that they were placed to balance the layout of the page, going so far as to write the lines so they specifically fit into the captions he had places on the page.
“I wanted to elevate the comics form, and I wasn’t paid for the extra work.”
Lee rewrote the dialogue to so they would fit into the “Marvel” style.
Steranko hit the roof.
“‘You got 26 books to edit!’ I said. “Can’t you just leave my 7-page story alone for once in your life!” At that point, Stan fired me. I said, “You can’t fire me! I quit!”
“They fought over captions and lines, and now they had to fight over whether Stan could fire him or he quit…” muttered Spurlock.
It was a month before Lee phoned up Steranko. They both had a quite laugh together.
“‘Jim, you belong here,’ he said. ‘I’ll be back next week.’ ‘Cause Marvel was my home. I missed my home. Stan was quite shocked by the things I did. I did the first silent 3-page sequence. I created the first black villain. We fought over stuff all the time, and eventually we compromised over the covers I drew. I’d draw a conventional one for him, and a different one for me.”
On Walter Gibson
Walter Gibson was the prolific writer of “The Shadow.” Steranko came to illustrate many Shadow covers for Gibson, and only had the greatest affection and respect for the practicing magician and pulp novelist.
“When I was a kid, I worked at a printing firm, and there was one co-worker who would go out for lunch and when he came back, he’d have four new stories to tell. Things just happened to some people. Walter was one of those types of people. He called it ‘psychic magnetism.’ Walter had it, and he had a photographic memory. He remembered everything. Walter would talk about one day in 1928 where he ran into a guy and starting having a conversation with him, and the guy turned out to be Arthur Conan Doyle!”
Walter Gibson and Bruce Elliot were both stage magicians and magic authors, penning many books on how to perform magic tricks on top of their pulp novels.
“Walter was a father to Bruce, and Bruce was like a father to me, so I feel like I’m the grandson of The Shadow. It was sheer fate that Walter called me in to do the Shadow covers. Psychic Magnetism. There was this club called the Witchdoctor’s Club. It was invitation-only, and only guys who were both working writers and magicians could join. I think Asimov was there in later years. Walter was the most honored and revered member. He was always holding court there. Orson Welles was there a lot as well. Walter wrote 285 Shadow novels. Bruce Elliot wrote the later ones.”
Steranko talked about visiting Gibson’s house in upstate New York, and found it had different books in different rooms, a room full of detective books, a room full of magic books, a room full of mysteries, and every room had a typewriter on a table. This was so that Gibson could immediately sit down and write when the impulse came and he didn’t have to go into another room to do it.
The breakfast room had three typewriters in it.
“I asked him why, and he said, “I start with this one over here. When it gets tired, I start on the next one, then when it gets tired, I get back to that one. Walter could write 20,000 words a DAY! And I’ve seen him type till his finger were bleeding, because those were old manual typewriters and you had to really punch the keys!”
Steranko also worked as an escape artist in his youth. He was recently thrilled when novelist Michael Chabon declared that the character Joe Cabal in Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Adventures of Cavalier and Klay” was based on Sterankko’s days as an escape artist. And he was also the inspiration for Jack Kirby’s Mister Miracle.
“As a kid, I did straight magic, till I discovered Houdini. Anyone can be an escape artist if they buy a fake straightjacket at Tannen’s Magic Shop. I never faked it. I had real cuffs, a real straightjacket. I did it all for real. That’s how I can escape from jails.”
Part of Steranko’s act was to go around towns challenging the local sheriffs and cops that I could break out of their jails. It made for great headlines and publicity.
“I once did a gig at an amusement park. It was one of my toughest escapes: from inside a Post Office mailbag, and I decided to use the Ferris wheel. We decided to do it in the early evening. We got volunteers to tie me to the bars of the Ferris wheel. I’d let it turn once to build up the suspense, then I started to escape via muscle contraction. I tell you, it hurt. My skin was scrapped off and everything.
“I offered $1,000 to people if I failed to escape fro their trap. I never lost money.
“But after the first turn on the Ferris wheel, the ropes loosened. I fell out 12, 15 feet, but a seat dropped right in under me and I slammed into it. It was great for the crowd, though I was pretty beat up.
“There was a lot of applause, but the owner came up to me, and his face was white with shock.
“”God, that was fantastic!” he said. “Can you do it again tomorrow?”
“Psychic Magnetism.” Smiled Steranko, as the panel came to a close.
CBR’s coverage of the New York Comic-Con is Sponsored by Comics Unlimited.