Year of the Artist, Day 353: Jim Steranko, Part 1 - <i>Strange Tales</i> #154, 157, 165, 166, and 167 and <i>Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.</i> #1, 2, and 3

Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today's artist is Jim Steranko, and the issues are Strange Tales #154, 157, 165-167 and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1-3, which were published by Marvel and are cover dated March and June 1967 and February, March, April, June, July, and August 1968, respectively. These scans are from Marvel Masterworks: Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. volume 2, which came out in 2009. Enjoy!

Yes, this is cheating on an industrial level, but when I broke down the rest of the year, I decided to do Steranko for only three days, because he just didn't work in comics for that long. Plus, like my liberal cheating for Jamie McKelvie on Young Avengers, I only use one page or panel per some of these issues. Steranko's mind-blowing run on the Nick Fury comic du jour (whether Strange Tales or the eponymous title) contains so much that is still ahead of its time, almost 50 years later, that it's hard to believe that issue #151 of Strange Tales was one of the first, if not the first comic Steranko ever drew (over Kirby's layouts, of course - issue #154 was the first where he was flying solo) and that he was 27 years old when he began on the feature. Yes, that's a bit older than some of the other artists we've looked at, but when you consider how mature his art was right out of the gate, it's amazing. I have no idea what Steranko's relationship was with Kirby or the other Marvel stable guys, but part of this run reads like a snotty "fuck you" to some of the more staid artists around at the time, especially when Steranko started on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. He was just pushing the envelope so far that many artists still haven't reached where he went. So let's check some wacky shit out!

First, we get Fury fighting the Dreadnought. You know, like you do. Obviously, a lot of 1960s Steranko is heavily influenced by Kirby - like we saw with Windsor-Smith a few days ago, Stan Lee told artists to draw like Kirby or at least look at what Kirby was doing, so a lot of artists' early work ended up looking like Kirby. It's not a bad look, of course, and Steranko gives us a nice, mechanical Dreadnought throwing a giant punch while square-jawed Fury ducks it. What's important, though, is that Steranko is already trying things out. The Dreadnought can shoot gamma rays (because of course it can!!!!), which is why the first two panels (with a robot repair rat?) are in black and white and have that nifty spiral effect. Steranko assumes gamma rays are like X-rays (and why wouldn't they be?!?!?), so Fury is a skeleton, which is pretty damned cool. The "negative" effect, the splash of yellow (no colorist is listed, and this is a rejiggered Marvel Masterworks scan anyway, so who knows what the color looked like in the original), and even the cool lettering all make Panel 2 really keen. It's only the first cool thing Steranko does in this series ... there will be many more!

Defying logic, Fury throws himself into the void, caring not where he will land! Perhaps he will simply use those floating Hydra agents as a buffer - where the heck did they come from? If we ignore the questions like those, this is a terrific page (heck, even if we acknowledge the goofiness, it's a terrific page), as Fury takes on a cadre of "Hydra master killers" in an Escher-like space, something that shows someone at Hydra has a really nice design sense. I love how Steranko uses three Hydra agents to lead us down the staircase and also to show us what happens when you shoot someone - the first dude is returning fire, the second dude just got shot, the third is tumbling to his doom. Fury is framed by the bad guys and the architecture, so that the action all swirls around him. It's just a tremendous splash page.

Man, check out the hallucination cube. Steranko draws some creepy images with white and black ink, using terrific disjointed line work to make the faces, hands, eyes, and circulatory systems look even more disturbing (and, in a nice foreshadowing, some of the Hydra agents fear the Satan Claw the most), all on a backdrop of fuzzy watercolor that looks like it's spreading blackly across their consciousness. This is the kind of mixed media that made comics much more interesting, and it showed another generation of artists coming later what was possible.

I took the first double-page spread in this post from this site, which has a few more if you feel like checking them out. Steranko, obviously, went a bit crazy with the double-page spreads, and this is actually one of the less busy examples. I like how we begin in the lower left with the dude looking at the reader, with a face that screams "Holy shit, these S.H.I.E.L.D. guys are fucking crazy!" He's probably some desk jockey who talked tough at the S.H.I.E.L.D. Christmas party about how the field agents are all a bunch of pussies just so he could impress Holly Sue in the stenography pool, but while he managed to get to third base with Holly in the AUTOFAC room, Nick Fury overheard him and decided to see how he'd like to go on an actual raid and shut him right up. Don't let Holly see you, anonymous desk jockey, because she might not like the fact that you've soiled your pants!

Anyway, the next thing we see is the manly S.H.I.E.L.D. guy, with his crazy quasi-gladiatorial outfit and those hover discs strapped to his feet. Steranko certainly doesn't skimp on the wild armor, and he just puts a fin on the gun because it's fucking awesome. Steranko tilts him so that the entire line of his body points us to the right, as we follow his shot to the poor bad guy falling to his doom after being struck by that odd hook. That line also creates a nice border so we can take in both the figures above and below it, and the way Steranko aligns the main dude, so the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents pouring out of the helicarrier look like they're coming out of his crotch, which is a weird little detail. We can also follow his left leg to see the flying craft coming out of the helicarrier to take the fight to the Hydra ship, which is nifty. The Yellow Claw's ship itself is nicely done - Steranko likes his rocket designs, so the ship has rockets attached to its "wings," which allows Steranko to make it bulbous and vaguely insectoid at the bottom (the six "wings" help, too). Unsurprisingly, this is a terrific page. I'm sure Holly Sue found solace after her dude's horrific death in the manly arms of Fury himself. He's just that kind of guy.

One mark of a great artist is that they think of things in different ways, and Steranko certainly qualifies. He indicates the force field around the armored dude by using concentric ovals that imply a diffuse disintegration of the pellets Fury fired at him. The ovals are clean, interesting, and fit into Steranko's overall sensibility in the comic. Most artists would have gone for small explosions, but Steranko goes this way, which puts in our mind a wide-spread disintegration rather than a small violent one. Interestingly enough, we see this kind of effect in a lot of movies these days, where energy is dispersed across a field in, you guessed it, concentric circles. Steranko was anticipating computer effects 40 year before they were available to filmmakers. Who says comics are behind the curve?

Oh, and based on that drawing of Fury in the lower left, if Paul Gulacy hasn't sent a letter to Steranko thanking him for his entire career, perhaps he should.

Fury breaks into the Yellow Claw's submarine and finds this waiting for him, as Steranko gives us two tremendous pages of traps and mazes to thwart our hero (who will not be thwarted!!!). As we've seen, the line work is terrific - Steranko's figures are a bit stiff, like many 1960s figures were, but certainly not to the degree where it detracts from the art. The layouts, however, are astonishing. Steranko turns the entire first page into a labyrinth, making the reader turn the book upside down to read the final panel, as Fury loops in on himself. Steranko uses Zip-A-Tone (I assume) to add some texture to the page, and it also makes the scene just slightly more mind-bending - the concentric circles in the final panel create the slightest buzz in our brains. Steranko even makes the bridge maze between Panels 4 (at the bottom of the page) and 5 (where Fury throws the "incendiary flare") to link them and also to gently nudge us to the next page, as we end up in a different spot than we usually do when we're reading a page. Then we get the odd, Swiss-army knife style layout on the second page, as Fury has to negotiate another Escher-like landscape full of traps, all connected to the Yellow Claw's insignia in the center of the page. The "reverse" steps, the three-dimensional cliffs, and the pyramidal spikes all create a nice vertiginous vibe as Fury gets through them, and of course Fury is outside the panel borders as well, implying that he's able to see the bigger picture even as he's making his way through the traps. It's still amazing looking at the these pages and seeing what Steranko was doing, because so many artists even today don't try stuff like this.

I swiped the famous quadruple-page spread from here - there's not much to say about it, as it might be the most famous drawing of Steranko's career, and it's certainly an extremely famous part of comics history. Steranko lays the page out wonderfully, always moving us from the left to the right, giving us wonderful details like the S.H.I.E.L.D. machine smashing through the floor, and not forgetting to place Jimmy Woo and Suwan, who died rescuing Woo, in the scene to remind us that in the middle of all this awesome action, someone is sad. I'm not sure how Steranko did the effect on the Claw - he could have just overlaid a pattern and then inked it - but it's certainly very cool. You can click on the spread to see it in a larger view - it really is worth it.

Don't you just hate it when your enemy's infinity sphere is about to enter nucleo-phoretic drive and he slips into the space-time continuum beyond human reach? I know I do. But look at that great panel! Steranko pays tribute to the King, as he often does, with that fantastic-looking machinery at the bottom of the page, powering (perhaps?) the infinity sphere, but he also gives us those terrific curves that are such a part of his run on - Steranko seemed more willing that Kirby to be a bit funkier during this period. Instead of using a straight line to separate Fury and the Claw, Steranko uses the curves, which makes sense as the Claw is inside a sphere. This allows Steranko to fill in the gaps with "infinity" - once again using the black/white dichotomy that we saw with the gamma rays - but also allows him to bring the two worlds - Fury's and the Claw's - closer in the middle, implying a straining membrane that the Claw has pushed to the limit. A clear, straight divide between the two parts of the panel would not have given us that sensation, so Steranko's use of arcs makes more sense.

Marvel started a new series starring Fury, but unfortunately Steranko didn't last long on it (I have no idea if he was just slow or if he lost interest in it). But those first three issues ... man, they're cool comics. Here we get Fury bombarded by an "ultra-lethal, thundering chorus upon chorus of destructive force" yet surviving, because he's just that bad-ass (actually, he's wearing some new S.H.I.E.L.D. tech that protects him, but he's still bad-ass). I have no idea how Steranko created that effect in Panel 2. Did he lay sand on a page and then use a stick to create those patterns and then photograph it? Because that's what it looks like - a Japanese garden of violence. I just can't get over how cool the art on this comic is.

A subplot in Nick Fury #1 is that Flip Mason, a comedian with a gambling problem, gets handed a case full of $200,000 because the dude handing it to him thinks he's someone else (they look alike). When Mason tries to call his family to tell them about his good fortune, some of the wreckage from Scorpio's flying ship, which just crashed, hits the phone booth he's in and kills him. Damn, that dude had a shitty life. Okay, for the benefit of some of our younger readers: Once upon a time, "phone booths" were places with a telephone inside, which you could feed money into and make a "telephone call," which is just like texting except you actually have to talk to another human being. You might know phone booths because Superman changes inside them, which makes no sense whatsoever (they have windowed sides!). That strange black banana-looking thing is the handset of an old telephone, while the spiral attached to it is a cord - once, people couldn't walk around wherever they wanted when they wanted to talk on the phone. They actually had to stay within the reach of the cord! I know, crazy, right?

Anyway, this is a superb page, unsurprisingly. Steranko uses hatching to show Mason's body disintegrating, which probably got it past the censors but also is a good way to show the power of the explosion. He uses the cord as a panel border that slices through the page, linking Mason to his family but also cutting him off from them, tragically. In that wonderful final panel, Steranko is back to using Zip-A-Tone to get the rough effect, but he also wisely makes it black and white to drive home the sadness of Mason's pathetic death (and existence), while dropping holding lines to give it a more wistful look. Steranko uses a lot of tools in his arsenal, to excellent effect.

I'm not sure if people think "cartoonish" when they think of Steranko, but this splash page of Jimmy Woo heading into the fun house shows that he's certainly not adverse to it. He uses a looser, freer line to draw the iterations of Jimmy in the mirrors, stretching and flattening him as seems appropriate, and his flowing brush strokes are beautifully suited for it. He even changes Jimmy's facial expressions, which is a bit strange, but they seem to fit the figures - in the first drawing, Jimmy's long face gets a wide, stretched mouth; in the second mirror, his squat face has wider eyes and a closed mouth; and in the final drawing, Steranko cocks his eyebrow and twists his mouth, as if Jimmy isn't sure what he's going to find inside the fun house. It's an unusual and fairly clever way to show Jimmy's different reactions to the task in front of him, and Steranko nails it.

Another famous page from Steranko's run on Nick Fury is the one where he and Valentina get their groove on (rarely discussed: this page is a complete non-sequitur; it's between Fury congratulating Jimmy Woo for making it through the fun house - which was an initiation of sorts - and the beginning of a mission, so it has nothing to do with either plot around it). This really is a well done page, though - Fury's pad is a superb, late 1960s bachelor paradise, with the big fireplace in the background and the zebra rug on the shag carpet. Val, for some reason, actually hangs out in clothing like that - it's not just a S.H.I.E.L.D. "uniform." Fury doesn't even have to make an effort to score with Val - he just lies back and she does all the initial work. As you might recall, Our Dread Lord and Master wrote about this page five years ago, when he "revealed" a "comic book legend" about it (hey, that sounds like a good name for a column - Brian should get on that). The phone was originally off the hook, which Marvel thought was scandalous, and the final panel originally showed Fury and Val embracing, fully clothed. Marvel (in addition to getting rid of Val's cleavage line in the first panel) got an artist (not Steranko) to draw the phone on the hook and copy the gun from Panel 1 and replace the panel of Fury and Val embracing. Of course, this made it far more sexually suggestive than it originally was - hadn't any Marvel editors seen Hitchcock movies? Plus, weirdly enough, it kind of ties the entire page together. The original final panel is one place where Steranko made a poorer choice than that which replaced it. I still love the off-the-hook phone, though - Marvel knew that Fury wouldn't want to be disturbed while he was gettin' it on, so of course he would take the phone off the hook!

Once more, I link to the site where I found this, those places where people have better scanners than I!

Nick Fury #3 seems like it's just Steranko looking at stories you might find in Creepy or Eerie and thinking, "Well, shit, man, I can do that in a mainstream Marvel comic, for I am STERANKO!!!!" (Steranko seems like the kind of guy who would refer to himself in the third person occasionally, doesn't he?) So we get this Hound of the Baskervilles-esque story and this amazing title page, with the victim shown inside the letters running from the hell hound, leading us down to his feet in the lower left, as his corpse lies in the marsh. Steranko uses a minimalist style here to create a weird landscape that doesn't seem to have anything to do with winter (later in the issue, everything outside is green and there's no snow) - I guess Steranko just wanted the cool white to make the howling hound against the moon stand out more (although there could be another reason, as I'll note). He uses hatching to create the tree next to the title (and I don't think it's coincidental that it's shaped a bit like a running person), and he uses thin black rectangles to create the steps and black blocks for the stone bridge. Without using a lot of lines, the white makes the moors foggy, adding to the eerie effect but still allowing us to see the details, as few of them as there are. This sets up the story nicely.

Here's another page that could easily have shown up in a Warren horror comic of the time period. Steranko again uses Zip-A-Tone, probably, to create the face in the background of Panel 1, while using black shapes and no holding lines to form the Ravenlock house. Steranko colored this, most likely, and he uses the red to tremendous advantage, especially when paired with the purple and yellow (as always with these reprints, I don't want to talk about the colors too much, because who knows what the original looks like, but I don't think it changed too much, except it's probably a bit brighter here). In Panel 2, he uses those short, thick strokes to create a peaty fog in the sky and to make the gravestone a bit more rugged, while using thinner lines and more fluid blacks to make the woman look more ethereal. He shows the murder in silhouette, adding to the eeriness of the scene, and of course we get the outline of the hound on the gravestone, as it's about to attack the woman. The way Steranko ends the panel at the top with the curved line of the sky also makes the scene a bit weird, as it's bleeding away into nothingness.

Steranko ramps up the action with the sword fight at the top of the page, and then gives us a wonderful, twisted view at the bottom of the page. Fury sees Rachel on the moor (Rachel is the girl who can supposedly see the ghost of the manor), so Fury ... smashes out of the window head first to get to the ground faster? Yeah, okay. So it doesn't make much sense (I mean, he does have to save her life, but come on, Nick - throw a chair through the glass or something!), but Steranko gives us a great view of it, which also allows him to cram Mycroft and Countess Caution (yep) into the lower right, telling us what Nick is doing so the next page (another double-page splash) can take us quickly to the moor. Sternako creates a nice triangle in that lower right corner of the page, with Fury at the apex, smashing through the big window and the three characters forming the base. He does a wonderful job with the solidity of the manor and the ornate frame of the window, which makes it even more ridiculous that Fury could break through it, but at least it looks cool, right? Right!

Phew! Okay, I know I went a bit overboard in this post, but I wanted to do Steranko and I just didn't have a lot of room to fit him, because my final two artists worked for a long time and I have a lot of their stuff to show. So today was a big one, and while tomorrow's post won't be quite as big, you know what's coming, and it should be as awesome as today's was! At least I hope so! Find more awesomeness in the archives!

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