WC13: Jim Steranko Spotlight

The crowd gathered in close to the dais at WonderCon in Anaheim as J. David Spurlock introduced comic book legend Jim Steranko.

"I've been working with Mr. Steranko for close to 20 years now," said Spurlock. "Let's see, what can I say about him in public?"

"Let me just say how glad I am to be looking into your faces," said Steranko, "because your faces need looking into!"

Steranko immediately opened the floor for questions, and the first fan asked what Steranko's current slate of projects was like.

"I'm busier than ever, seriously," said Steranko. "I've got a presentation at one of the biggest companies in the world right now; waiting to hear an answer, but it's looking pretty positive." Steranko wouldn't reveal any details, however, as he had signed a non-disclosure agreement with the company.

Spurlock added that his company, Vanguard Productions, will publish Steranko art book within the next year.

The next fan asked about the status of Steranko's noir graphic novel, "Red Tide," which he's recoloring to take advantage of modern printing techniques.

"When 'Red Tide' was originally produced, we only had flat comic book color," said Steranko. "And actually there was only about 30, 40 colors tops, and they were all variations of 25, 50, or 75 percent of the four colors: yellow, red, blue and black... We had very little control of the color aspect of our books, but now we can do anything ... I think every panel can be lit like it would be lit by the greatest of cinematographers, like James Wong Howe or John Alton. So I'm using cinematic lighting technique to enhance the drama of every panel. It's a lot of work, but stand by. That book's coming."

Spurlock then steered the conversation toward Steranko's history with Marvel Comics. After being encouraged by legendary cartoonist Wally Wood ("T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents"), Steranko started developing his own properties.

"I began to develop an entity called 'Super Agent X,'" said Steranko. He brought it to Tower Comics, where he butted heads with art director Samm Schwartz. "He was making me jump through his flaming hoop to train me for the rest of my duration that I'd be there. He was saying 'I'm the boss.'

"He was holding pages, so I grabbed his wrist-you know that painful part right there... and I dug my fingertips into his wrist. He went white; blood just, phew, dropped down. I took the pages and said, 'You find yourself another artist.'"

That same day, Steranko took "Super Agent X" all around New York City, going to Archie Comics, DC Comics and Paramount Pictures Animation before finally getting an audience with Marvel Comics' Stan Lee.

"In back of Stan was a rack on the wall. Every one of his monthly comics, 30 titles or whatever it was... he said two words that changed comics history. He said, 'Pick one.' That's all there was to it. ... I could've had the ['Fantastic Four']. 'Spider-Man.' 'Thor.' I may be crazy, but I'm not stupid. You think I'm gonna follow Jack Kirby on those books? No way in hell. I'm looking over the rack and I find the worst Marvel book there was. The worst. It was so bad, I knew I couldn't do any worse than this: 'Strange Tales: Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD,'" Steranko said.

"You know the rest."

Over time, though, Lee and Steranko's relationship strained due to creative differences. Steranko had come from the world of advertising, so he approached things differently than other artists Lee worked with.

"I wasn't there to earn a living; I was there to make a kind of statement," said Steranko. "Nobody did that; they just collected their paychecks on Friday. ... They were machines! They were Xerox machines. Human Xerox machines cranking out material day after day, with some exceptions. Kirby, Kirby cared. Stan cared. But most of them, they were just workhorses. ... I was interested in telling stories. Not stories like I'd been reading my whole life, but in doing things and using techniques and devices to tell stories in new ways that I had imagined over the years... I had ideas that I wanted to be realized."

It was difficult for any artist working at Marvel to escape the long shadow cast by Jack Kirby, Steranko said. "Stan told me the same thing he told everybody: draw it like Kirby, do it like Kirby. I loved Kirby; I grew up with Jack!" he said. "I was no Kirby. There's only one Kirby.... I'm not Kirby, and I didn't get his way of telling stories."

Kirby established Marvel's house style, Steranko explained, and while he learned a lot by working with an industry luminary, Steranko's style clashed with Kirby's.

"One of the differences that my material embraced... is that all of my narrative techniques are essentially derived from cinematic technique." Steranko said he would spend whole days in movie theaters to analyze the same movie over and over again, leading to his unique style.

"When Kirby is telling his stories, his philosophy is to tell you each moment-that is, what happens at every panel-at the moment of explosion... It's always at the peak of the explosion that he chooses to depict. I do the opposite: I choose the moment before the explosion, because that's where tension exists. And tension is the glue that holds all stories together, whether they're comedies or action-adventure, no matter what it is, without tension or suspense, it couldn't be held together."

This led to some conflict with Lee, who pleaded with Steranko to work more like Kirby or John Romita, Sr. Despite that friction, Steranko still explored new ways to tell stories.

"I never told Stan what I was going to do ahead of time," Steranko said, "because I knew he would say, 'No way in hell, pal! No way.' So I wrapped up this nine month [story] with a climactic, double-page spread, that was actually two double-page spreads. ... And Stan took a look at it and said, 'Oh my God, Jim! Can't you do it like [Andrea Di] Vito or Kirby?' And I said, 'Stan, look, you're not understanding: no kid will be able to see my complete climactic scene unless they buy two comic books and put them together.'"

Steranko paused for a moment, and then said in his best Stan Lee impression: "Great job, Jim!"

Despite their constant headbutting Steranko had nothing but nice things to say about his old boss, calling him "one of the straightest, most benign guys on the planet."

"And he's one of the mellowest guys around," Steranko continued. "The only time I've ever seen Stan really, really angry was the day he fired me.

"I brought a story in-a mystery story, a horror story-for a new book they were launching called 'Tower of Shadows' and I really worked on it... but it rippled with experimentation. It didn't look like Marvel work, or anything that had been done before. And when Stan produced the book, he changed many of those things to conform to, you know, regular comic book technique. And I hit the roof ...

"And I said, 'You change one word, one line of that story, you're looking for another artist!' And he threw me out. And he probably did the right thing, and I probably earned that, but I couldn't bring myself to accept that kind of censorship because of what I put into it."

Three months later, Steranko said he was painting paperback book covers when he got a call from Lee. After what can only be described as a telephonic staredown, Steranko and Lee broke out laughing and Steranko was invited back to work at Marvel.

"Even though we had spent our lives together battling over these crazy nuances in comic books, I always loved Stan. He's always been one of the most important people in my life, because he put me on the map-put me together with you guys [the fans]. So I will always be in his debt."

Loki Wields Thor's Deadliest Weapon - and We Don't Mean His Hammer

More in Comics