Jim Steranko Interview

September 11th, 2001 will forever represent a time of sadness in the hearts of every American citizen, the memory of airliners full of innocents striking the WTC forever burned into their psyches. Life as we knew it ceased when the twin towers collapsed and the specter of destruction and death became sickeningly real. Where once such images only existed in a world of fantasy, they were now painfully real. The entertainment that previously helped us escape our daily rituals now touched a raw nerve in our souls, suggesting that these images of violence and evil could offer us nothing of what we really needed as a nation: Inspiration, Security, and Hope.

For days after the tragedy, the nation's entertainment mediums fell deathly silent, partly in reverence for the tragedy and partly because no one had the heart to drink from the shallow well that passes for modern diversion.

One of the first voices to speak out from the world of comics was that of Jim Steranko. In the form of a passionate statement, Steranko expressed his deep disappointment in the medium he helped to pioneer. Many fans agreed with his call to return to a code of morality and responsibility, others held tightly to their position that freedom of speech should be protected, even in the shadow of the terrorist attack. Still others misunderstood the point that Steranko was really trying to express.

I had the incredibly rare opportunity to interview Mr. Steranko regarding his comments and offered him the platform to express in detail what he feels should be done in the Comic Book Industry in light of recent events.

Keith Giles: How have the events of September 11th changed you as a person?

Jim Steranko: It's too early to know. We're all still shouldering the shock and anger of the attack. But it has awakened me to how complacent the nation has become and to my own responsibility to my family, friends, and everyone who has roots here.

KG: Can you define that responsibility?

JS: What happened on 9/11 could and should have been prevented by dozens of government agents and airline security people--in addition to the air controller who irresponsibly decided to ignore the hijack button FOR 18 MINUTES(!) and delayed the Air Force from intercepting the terrorists before they hit the Towers. That irresponsible action cost more than 5000 people their lives, billions of dollars of destruction, and thrust a nation into a nightmare that won't end for generations. If there's one thing we must learn it's that irresponsibility breeds death, from mothers who are careless with their babies to governments failing to supervise their operations.

KG: If that's so, what can you do about it?

JS: I believe that whatever I am today is the result of being a survivor, which grew out of a childhood spent on the street. I like to fight, but I've really tried to mitigate that quality as I get older. It's not easy to change because sometimes it means turning my back on actions I believe are unjust, unethical, and often just unpleasant. I rarely see anyone confronting these situations and the people who instigate them. They walk away, signaling the perpetrators to repeat it and maybe even more catastrophically. They often leave me standing there alone to do something about it. Which brings us to 9/11. Sometimes my conscience won't allow me to walk away. I've watched the darkening of America, which ranges from low scores in schools and bad attitudes in the workplace to escalating crime in the streets and towering political corruption, and find that I can no longer ignore the situation. And on 9/11, I couldn't walk away. Pay attention: I didn't say that comics are the problem, but they are part of it. Just for the record, comics are my first love-that's the one you never forget. I've worked in many mediums-from music to film--but comics is the form with which I'm most closely associated. Am I making myself clear? There's nothing I could have done about the hijackers, but there is something I can do about comics. From that position, I felt it was time to take a stand against the flood of nihilistic, blood-drenched, malicious obscenities that litter comic racks these days. It seems that the people who should be most concerned have walked away-especially the major companies-so I decided to say something about it. Do you want me to apologize for NOT being a turn-the-other-cheek kind of guy?

KG: Of course not. But, you realize that you'll probably get a lot of opposition from some in the comics community who would take the position that what you're advocating is the censorship of their creative energy. They would probably argue that they have the right to draw comics that feature casual sex, brutal violence and brains on the wall. That being said, how have these events changed your personal approach to art?

JS: I doubt that it has. I've had a rather tense background, especially my misspent youth, and take a very cautious approach with almost everything I do. Some habits are tough to break. I still try to position myself in public places with my back to the wall or where I can see who enters the place. When I'm driving, I frequently check my rear-view mirror and I don't get out of my car until I've taken a look around. Wherever I'm at, I investigate any odd sounds I hear, day or night. I know the word paranoia comes to mind, but I live in the number one crime city in the country, per capita. A week or so ago, ten people were shot here in a four-day period. One died that I know about. Three days later, four more were shot. Barred store windows are commonplace. Itinerants with pockets full of food stamps drive Cadillacs. Drugs are sold openly on street corners. Paranoid or not, I carry a piece around the clock and I wouldn't hesitate to use it if I were threatened. Today, city people live deep in the shadow of violence. Wake up, America! It's not a state of mind anymore; it's a way of life.

KG: Comics will always feature some form of violence, especially since the classic struggle of Good vs. Evil usually involves physical conflict. Are you against violence per se or only the specific issue of violence and evil for the sake of it?

JS: All stories apply the aesthetics of opposition. No argument there. But when evil becomes not only the means, but the end, it may be time to examine motives and policies. I'm not looking for a return to Golden-Age naiveté, but to a new age of responsibility in the arts. In my case, honor and dignity were goals that were worked for, often fought for, and too much of today's media product, especially comics, attempt to corrupt and destroy those qualities. While that loss may have been tolerable in a more amenable past, contemporary life is too damned dangerous without everyone expending a maximum of courtesy, consideration, and respect. We must ALL bear this responsibility to survive. That's my message, pal.

KG: What changes would you like to see take place in the industry with regards to violence and the portrayal of evil?

JS: I am not suggesting the cultural totalitarianism of pure and wholesome comics. What a bore that would be!!! I believe in freedom of speech, creative expression, and diversity of material, but now our society has reached critical mass. Under these conditions, discord and rebellion weaken us and weakness is just down the street from oblivion. Perhaps the only way we can survive is to destabilize the forces threatening our existence. We need to get our lives back under control and one way to do that is to provide strong moral and ethical guidelines, to create material that inspires positive and productive attitudes and articulates honesty, tolerance, and courage-the foundation of propriety upon which America's success was built.

KG: Your comments after the Sept. 11th tragedy were especially critical of a solicitation for an upcoming book (PRO) by Garth Ennis. Why did you single out this book when it hasn't even been released yet? Do you take issue with the work of Ennis or is this just one example used to illustrate your point?

JS: My statement has nothing to do with the book! I received an email in which one of the book's collaborators, Jimmy Palmiotti, described it as "evil" and promoted it as his personal celebration of evil. I took Jimmy at his word and that word was EVIL. His word. He proclaimed an alliance with evil, loudly and publicly. You know that straw that broke the camel's back? That word was the straw that did it for me. I'd just spent the day watching the Towers collapse several hundred times and learning something about evil I've rarely witnessed. I was unable to work and wrote my statement that day because I felt I could not turn my back one more time on a form that I helped shape. I subsequently spoke to Jimmy about it and he said it was all a "goof!" A joke. The book is a one-shot gag. So, who was more irresponsible: Jimmy, for giving the impression that he was embracing evil, or me, for believing what he said? For the record, Jimmy is the least evil guy in comics and maybe that's why he thought it would be funny to say those things. But I clearly stated: "If this is a joke, I'm not laughing." My sense of humor was destroyed when the Towers crushed the humanity inside them and I'm sure I wasn't the only one who felt that way. But, if my own mother had said the same thing, I'd turn on her, too. Listen, I'm drawing the line and anybody who doesn't like it can go straight to hell.

KG: Are there any specific books published today that you feel are an example of the right way to approach violence and/or sex in comics?

JS: The Steranko Seal of Approval? You gotta be kidding! But I will tell you about a few titles I read. David Mack's KABUKI series is full of sex and violence, but they never overshadow the themes he explores in an adult and profoundly poetic manner. Mike Mignola is irresistible; he serves up some of the most hysterical violence in HELLBOY, but he's so masterful in his presentation that one never feels degraded. Pure fun! On the other hand, Azarello's 100 BULLETS, with its evocative art, is never fun. It's slice-of-life based and cast in irony. I think he gets paid by the "muthafucka" and uses rough language as a short cut to characterization. I know he's better than that, but maybe he's shy about letting us in on it. In 1968, I had a conversation with Stan Lee about producing real adult comics. To this very day, there are hardly any, although there are many that pretend to be adult. To most creators and readers, adult means maximum gore, encyclopedic obscenity, and mindless T&A-schismatic, testosterone fantasies. What I said to Stan still applies: adult comics should dramatize adult themes in an adult manner. Simple! Dave McKean's CAGES comes to mind. Bryan Talbot's HEART OF EMPIRE. Dave Sim's CEREBUS. There are a number of books that take a reasonable, even responsible tact, but not enough. It's those which violate the basic boundaries of morality or glorify evil that I'm referring to-and don't engage me in the rhetoric of sociopolitical evaluation and judgment. I won't become involved in sterile debates that make spectacles of irrelevance. I'll make up my own mind about what I believe is exacerbating the corruption of America and target those books for unilateral boycott. Others who feel like I do will follow suit. And I won't play watchdog for the community. The good and bad lists you're looking for must be tallied by a consensus of consumer opinion.

KG: Your S.H.I.E.L.D. work contained many elements of violence. Do you regret any of your previous works? If you could do them over, would you? Did those books glorify violence in your opinion?

JS: Never! From my first panel, I had my own code of responsibility because I realized the power inherent in the form. And don't make the mistake of suggesting that violence is synonymous with action. Sure, I did my share of head butting with the Comics Code, but I never violated my code, nor has a single person ever come forward to suggest that I did. To the contrary, I've had many readers confess that the books had a positive impact on them, and sometimes even changed their lives. The only thing I'd do differently today is render them much better. Are you trying to embarrass me?

KG: No, I was just curious if the events of 9/11 caused you to go back and re-think your portrayals of violence. In response to your press release, I read some comments on a message board about it. One poster wrote the following in response to the comments in your press release: "We must learn from violence, violence must be used as a learning tool and not be denied just because it's a terrible thing. It would be irresponsible for us to do it because we would be turning our back from reality." How would you respond to that?

JS: I'd agree. But we must be prepared to define the difference between "learning from violence" and "learning violence." More blood! More fangs! More brains being blasted out of skulls! Comics have become models for cynicism, corruption, and malevolence, and, in some cases, blueprints for crime. Post that on your message board! In an effort to be cool and sell units, creators contrive scenes for sheer shock value. They begin the process by asking themselves how they can out gross last month's slaughterfest and snare a Diamond Preview spotlight. They're cultural terrorists whose agenda is to tear down the tenuous virtues upon which the comic chronology was structured. Their cause is obviously not one of sociopolitical reform, but to sell enough copies to pay their print bills. Pardon me while I spit.

KG: You did a pretty good job of tearing down some old-fashioned traditions yourself in your S.H.I.E.L.D. series.

JS: I admit it! I doubt if there was a more subversive creator in overground comics in fifty years of four-color publishing history. But what I attacked were moldering, brittle, and fatigued anachronisms that should have been hacked away years before I got there. And I didn't excise anything unless I had a positive solution in place. I changed the rules because comics had become apathetic and had the stink of decay on them. Good or bad, I brought a volley of new ideas to the form and those ideas opened the door for others, such as Sienkiewicz and McKean. I guess I could be called an insurrectionist, but never in the name of intemperance for the love of destruction.

KG: Other than toning down violence and sexual content, are there any specific things that you feel comic-book creators need to focus on for the future? What positive things can be done to improve the current situation?

JS: Generate content that defines the triumph of the spirit, rather than the degradation of the soul. Comics, popular fiction, TV, digital games, and film are going through a period of rampant imitation, of recycled plots and copycat characters. I'm not sure what we can do about the rest, but I do know that major comics publishers, editors, and creators can clean up their acts and deliver material forged with intelligence and integrity-and set a new standard for readers, as well as an example for the independents. Adrenaline junkies believe that the more blood and death a book has the better it is. From my viewpoint, quality writing, superb art, and well-developed characterizations with ingenious plots are the criteria upon which a book is judged. Maybe it's been so long since readers have seen anything like that, they've forgotten what it looks like. Of course, it's much more difficult to generate authentic quality than cliché-ridden quantity. That would separate the men from the boys-to use a PI cliché.

KG: Obviously, the reason why there is such a proliferation of sex and violence in comics is that books with blood, gore and gratuitous butt-shots generally sell better. Do you believe the events of September 11th will change what the public wants to see from comics? Or will things stay the same since there is money to be made off this sort of violence?

JS: That's the heart of the matter, isn't it? Bottom-line mentality. Comics were created as a commodity and have rarely been anything more aesthetic than a medium of exchange. But they could be much more. That responsibility belongs exclusively to their creators.

KG: Do you have any opinions about violent, yet critically acclaimed, books like The Authority, The Punisher, Violent Messiahs or any others?

JS: There should be a place for everything, but, just as late-night TV jokes about hijackings are off limits, the comics machine needs to adjust its sensibilities to accommodate the times we live in. I see a direct thread between the degradation of comics and the disintegration of contemporary morality. I've witnessed postcard communities, where people once left their homes unlocked while they went to the store or slept with screens in the windows without concern for housebreakers, transform into graffiti-covered slums with trash-littered sidewalks. The words to pop-rock songs encourage teen listeners to perform sacrificial slaughters. Drivers are killed over parking spaces and road rage has turned the streets into war zones. Computer hackers create corporate havoc for the hell of it and social misfits infest the digital world with devastating viruses. Kids who begin by torturing animals graduate to sadistic serial killings. Drive-by shootings are daily occurrences and schoolboys have become mass murderers in their classrooms. And comics, once a four-color forum for an army of ideological icons, are now populated by super powered psychopaths and pseudo-heroic hate-mongers crammed into incoherent narratives that trivialize humanity and promote anti-social aggression. Perhaps at one time, they were on parallel courses, but now those courses have intersected and merged. I wonder if they feed off each other in a kind of incestuous devil-worshipping frenzy, because it's impossible to tell the difference between splash pages and the six o'clock news. It's no secret that comics are powerful teaching tools. What have they been teaching lately?

KG: What will you be doing, as an artist and comic professional, to help change and/or guide the industry? Will we see more work from you in the near future with an emphasis on a different type of story or storytelling?

JS: I've already opened this debate, which I hope will galvanize passive participants to take positive action on whatever levels they can influence-from what is published to what is purchased. I won't cloud the issue with my personal projects, except to say that, after years of development and experimentation, I'll soon introduce my version of electronic comics, using technology that seems to have the qualifications for defining a new medium. More importantly, I've asked a host of top talents to found a movement relating to the state of comics and their influence in society: Ethical Creators and Consumers for enhancing the awareness of individual responsibility in the arts. Everyone interested in reading their views should visit eccoforum.com and respond accordingly. Can anyone with a real concern regarding comics and their impact on our lives afford not to?

There's an Event Leviathan Clue in Legion of Super-Heroes: DC Millennium #1

More in Comics