When Jim Steranko strolled into the Marvel Comics offices in the fall of 1966, he entered a world on fire. Stan Lee, the energetic editor of the company and writer of many of its most popular series including The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, Amazing Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Avengers, and Daredevil, was, as usual, feverishly working on the scripts for the next month’s comics. In order for Steranko to win an audience with the man who had nearly singlehandedly created the immersive universe of Marvel, he knew he would have to prove he was more than simply one of Lee’s admirers. Lee, working alongside a roster of artists that included, among others, industry warhorse Jack Kirby and temperamental yet brilliant Steve Ditko, had revolutionized the comic book industry starting with The Fantastic Four in 1961, creating an expansive universe populated with deeply flawed heroes. If Jim Steranko was intimidated, he did not show it.
Instead, he strode up to the desk of Flo Steinberg, Lee’s secretary, and simply asked to see Stan Lee. When Steinberg told him that Lee was of course too busy to meet with anyone, Steranko handed her a folio containing his drawings and declared “He won’t be too busy after he sees this!” Steinberg had been around comics long enough to know a special talent when she saw one. After glancing at the drawings, she returned them to Steranko, saying “You’re right! Stan will see you.” Lee agreed with Steinberg’s assessment, calling Steranko’s drawings “crude” but praising their “raw energy.” Due perhaps partially to an acknowledgment that many of his artists were drastically overworked, Lee pointed to a rack containing every Marvel title and asked “What would you like to do for us? Pick one!” Looking at a collection of comics that would have included Avengers, X-Men, and Amazing Spider-Man, Steranko chose a book that was “a Marvel embarrassment:” Strange Tales. Strange Tales was a split book, with each issue featuring a twelve-page story about surrealistic wizard Doctor Strange and a second about Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. Steranko offered to handle the latter. Explaining his choice years later, Steranko claimed that “on this strip, there was nowhere to go but up!” And up it went.
Over the next several years, Steranko transformed Nick Fury from a cigar-chomping brawler to a sleek urban sophisticate, a superspy for the Cold War generation. Along the way, he abandoned many of the conventions that had come to define the Marvel aesthetic. Marvel had led the industry in innovations of content. Their heroes were the downtrodden, the outcasts, the nerds. Their private lives were as important as their battles with supervillains. If Superman created Clark Kent to hide his true identity, Peter Parker created Spiderman for the same reason. Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics also demonstrated a social vision that sought to make comics engage meaningfully with the real world. The X-Men has often been read as an allegory for the Civil Rights movement, but Lee’s engagement with issues of social justice went beyond that one title. One issue of The Fantastic Four featured a villain known as The Hatemonger who was a thinly veiled reference to the Ku Klux Klan. Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, the series that would later morph into Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD featured a multiracial team of soldiers whose missions included liberating concentration camps and aiding the European resistance to the Nazis. Furthermore, the comics of Marvel, unlike their competitors, did not take place in discrete fictional worlds. Rather, characters from one comic might appear the next month in another. Stan Lee had created more than comics: he had created a world.
For all its innovational content, however, Marvel remained wedded to a strict artistic formula. Jack Kirby, like Stan Lee, had worked in the comic book industry since its heyday in the nineteen forties. He was the natural choice to draw The Fantastic Four, the first series in what would become the Lee/Kirby superhero comics boom of the early sixties. While Kirby did not draw every comic published by Marvel, his style defined the company. When other artists would ask Lee for advice on how to draw a particular scene, Lee would simply tell them “do it like Kirby!” This meant imitating Kirby’s bright colors, rectangular layouts, conservative costume design, and literalist storytelling. After his first few issues, Steranko did none of these things. Instead of merely transplanting techniques from other mediums, Steranko acted as perhaps the first true Modernist in the world of comics. It was this Modernist impulse that made Steranko’s work so fascinating, but also that led to his acrimonious dismissal from Marvel Comics, an organization headed by a man who was unwilling to watch his elaborate network of stories and characters be destroyed by an artist with no desire to work according to established standards and practices.
Nick Fury before Steranko
In order to understand the extent of Steranko’s innovations, it is important to contextualize Steranko in the evolution of the character from his 1963 appearances in Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos through his later, the more modern incarnation in Strange Tales. Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos was a singular publication for the Marvel comics of the early sixties. Instead of the usual roster of superheroes and villains, this comic featured an elite team of soldiers. In a further break with the rest of the canon, these stories were set in the past, during the Second World War, and, in one issue, the conflict in Korea. The Nick Fury of these comics is a stubble-laden scrapper. His leadership style is at once colloquial and unequivocal; he is the kind of man who tells his troops, “The sooner you wrap up that blasted field exercise, the sooner we can get back to the sack!” Fury’s team was the perfect synecdoche of multiracial America, including an Italian, a Texan, a Jew, an Englishman, a Boston Irish Catholic, and an African American. The last two, Corporal Dugan and Gabriel Jones, would continue to be mainstays of Fury comics even after they abandoned their anachronistic frame. Against this all-American crew stood the formidable Blitzkrieg Squad of Baron Strucker, every inch the Nazi villain with a monocle and a ghastly scar running down his bald head. The Blitzkrieg squad was populated by men with names like Ludwig, Fritz, and Siegfried, blonde defenders of the Reich.
Stan Lee used these adventures to deliver a message that was both patriotic and casually liberal, implying that the racial animosity of the Nazis was inherently anti-American. In one brawl with Baron Strucker, Sgt. Fury tells the Baron that, unlike the Nazis, his commandos “don’t need a ravin’ Fuehrer to remind us how good we are!! All we gotta do is pick up a history book!” The fight ends with Fury, shirt torn and arms held back by two of his soldiers, yelling the words “We gotta make sure no one ever swallows that “Master Race” poison again!” at Strucker’s unconscious body. The parallels with the Civil Rights era were unmistakable.
Soon, however, Stan Lee would move Fury into the same universe as his other characters, that of nineteen-sixties New York. This began with The Fantastic Four issue 21, in which Fury is portrayed as a CIA operative acting out the benevolent will of the United States government. Specifically, he enlists the help of the Fantastic Four to put down a rebellion into the fictional Central American republic of San Gusto, a nation that has chafed against the CIA’s good-hearted wish to “make it a showplace for democracy.” Even as Fury’s occupation changes, however, his character stays essentially the same. His idea of “spying” seems to consist largely in mowing down Central Americans, his weapon of choice the distinctly un-stealthy machine gun. Continuing the heavy-handed liberal patriotism of the earlier Fury comics, this issue ends with the revelation that the evil Hatemonger is behind the San Gusto rebellion, and that the secret identity of said Hatemonger is none other than Adolf Hitler, though the issue ends without settling the question of whether it was really Hitler “or one of the many doubles the Fuehrer was reported to have.” One thing remains clear, however: in the words of Mr. Fantastic, “Until men truly love each other, regardless of race, creed, or color, the Hatemonger will still be undefeated!” Later, Fury would leave the CIA to head the secretive spy agency SHIELD. This Fury, the brash, combative mouthpiece of American imperial power who is only a spy in that the reader is constantly reminded that he is a spy, is the one who would star in the initial Strange Tales stories, starting with the termination of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos in the summer of 1965 and continuing until Jim Steranko took over both writing and drawing duties late in the next year.
The Rise: Jim Steranko and Strange Tales 151-168
The dramatic story of Jim Steranko brazenly demanding to meet Stan Lee and walking out with a job obscures the fact that Steranko’s acquisition of creative control of the Nick Fury portions of Strange Tales proceeded gradually over his first months at Marvel. Initially, Steranko merely filled in Jack Kirby’s layouts but by issue 155 he had assumed full writing and illustration duties, an unprecedented measure of control for a Marvel artist of the time. Indeed, issues 151 through 154 show very little deviation from the Kirby style. The panels are laid out in conventional rectangles and squares meant to be read left to right, top to bottom. The characters are typically drawn so that the viewer feels to be on the same plan as the heroes. There are few of the extreme close-ups, birds-eye or worm’s eye views, or wide-angle battle scenes that would define the Steranko style, and there are no panels that attempt to reveal the interior world of the characters. By issue 153, Nick Fury had shaven and begun to wear slacks and a white button-down in contrast to his earlier fatigues, but he was still in large part the same figure who had appeared in the earlier war comics, smoking cigars and referring constantly to his glory days in “the big one.” Furthermore, the series was still being written either by Stan Lee or by Roy Thomas, a writer who tried as much as possible to follow Lee’s lead and editorial vision. This would slowly change stating in issue 155 when Steranko assumed plotting and layout duties. This gave him control of the basic plot and aesthetic of the series, though the dialogue was still Lee or Thomas.
Issue 155 represented Steranko’s desire to update the character of Nick Fury to a tech-savvy superspy fit for the Cold War era. The first panel of the issue shows Fury, clean-shaven and muscular, standing with his team in front of a massive supercomputer, the vast array of monitors, tubes, switches and circuit-breakers never explained but clearly impressive and important. This techno-centrism continues later in the issue, which features a Q-like gadget specialist named Boothroyd, a layout of the high-tech SHIELD airship, and a battle with a robot named the Dreadnought. However, it was not in these superficial changes that Steranko introduced what would be his most important innovation. Several panels attempt to reveal the inner emotional or psychological reality of the characters through non-mimetic illustration. Of course, no superhero comics of this time were in any sense realistic, but they had all attempted to illustrate the realities of their stories: if the ground pulsated in the comic it was because some villain had used his earth-shaking powers if a heroine’s face appeared a strange color it was because she was standing under a colored light if a yellow corona surrounded a character’s fist it was because he had the power to fire beams of energy. With the exception of the psychic projections of the X-Men’s Professor Xavier, no attempt had been made to literalize inner psychological realities.
This began to change with Strange Tales number 155. In one scene, Fury is fighting the Dreadnought when the robot releases a “deadly bombardment of gamma rays!” These rays disorient Fury, who falls to his knees and clutches his skull. In order to literalize his inner disorientation, this panel is colored not to represent the visual diegetic reality, but in concentric black and white circles reminiscent of the Op Art that had been making a resurgence in the mid-sixties. This art was based on using optical illusions to generate a sense of uneasiness and was here used to transfer Nick Fury’s disorientation to his readers. In another panel, the supposedly benign agent Bronson is revealed to be working for the terrorist organization HYDRA, and in this moment of revelation is face is colored a ghastly green. This illustration physicalizes Bronson’s inner malevolence. It is this literalization of internal reality that defines Steranko as a comic book Modernist.
Clement Greenberg, in his 1960 essay “Modernist Painting,” defined Modernism as “the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.” In this conception of Modernism, the artist “criticizes from the inside,” not out of an antipathy towards his form, but out of a desire to liberate it from artificial generic constraints. Jim Steranko, though certainly not as much of an insider as industry giants Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, nonetheless approached Strange Tales from the vantage point of someone who valued comics above all. While a child, Steranko had lived in grinding poverty as the son of a bootleg coalminer; during the Depression Steranko’s father would sneak into condemned mines to find coal to sell or to heat his family’s tarpaper shack. As a way to distract himself from his hardscrabble life, the young Steranko would pour over any comic he could find, tracing the drawings and absorbing himself in the world of heroes, villains, and monsters. In an interview conducted after Steranko left Marvel, Steranko summed up his escapism by saying, “I don’t want to live the life that those people live out there.” He preferred comics, especially those of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. These comics, wrote Steranko, “functioned as the art school I could never afford to attend.” Still, Steranko was restless, and the same restlessness that led him to become an escape artist, a car thief, a rock musician, an ad executive, and a comic illustrator all before turning twenty eight made him unable to express his love for comics merely by imitating his idols. He had to smash them. Frustrated with filling out Jack Kirby’s layouts, a man he described as “comics’ greatest artist,” Steranko eventually felt that he “couldn’t work over Jack’s layouts” and had to be given control of the artistic direction of the series. Writing about the series years later, Steranko denied harboring any antipathy for the earlier comic artists who had influenced him, claiming that he drew and wrote Strange Tales the way he did “because it expanded the perimeters of the medium.”
Steranko certainly subscribed to a heroic vision of the artist as iconoclastic savior, telling a reporter that:
“Before you came, I ripped up that Life magazine. It came in the mail today, and I destroyed it by ripping out things that I wanted. Now tomorrow I might destroy an idea and the day after I might destroy a person. I believe that in order for life to endure there has to be movement and change. Static is death. Motion is life. So every day I create something, a drawing, some writing, something new. And in order to maintain that balance, I’ll destroy something. After you’ve done it for a while, you begin to see signs that something will beg to be destroyed.”
For Steranko, the creative and destructive work of the formally innovative artist was meant to have impacts outside the medium in which he or she worked. Innovation was a way of life, or rather the way to life. While this explanation of the role of the artist is certainly less sophisticated than that of Joyce, Eliot, or Mann, the Modernist impulse is there: formal innovation would invigorate the medium and therefore serve a life-giving role for the artist and audience. Steranko believed that, through formal innovation, he could use comics to “make a personal statement,” to create a comic book that would plunge subjective depths previously untapped by the medium. Steranko described his inspiration as coming from “cognitive science: how information is perceived and processed through the human senses.” Steranko used his knowledge of visual perception to attempt to imitate the states of mind of his characters in a way that was similar to the use of stream of consciousness of free indirect discourse by earlier writers of Modernist fiction.
After gaining both writer and illustrator credits on Strange Tales, Steranko experimented with more and more daring techniques for literalizing the interiority of his characters. In one issue, Fury confronts a room of HYDRA soldiers, and deploys what Steranko’s narration calls “one of SHEILD’s most potent weapons…the fantastic hallucination cube!” which releases “mind-bending vapor” that causes to emerge “from out of his subconscious ghastly apparitions of the things he fears most!” This issue appeared in June of the 1967 Summer of Love, but Steranko’s psychedelia is a far cry from the bright posters plastered on telephone poles in the Haight. Steranko illustrated a full-page black and white hellscape, a swirling riot of images including spindly drawings of the nervous system, skulls locked in wicked grimaces, and disembodied eyes. In the context of a Marvel comic, which even in the late sixties typically stuck to bold colors and concrete imagery, this page was striking. In another example, Steranko literalized the Fury’s confusion navigating a labyrinthine HYDRA compound by laying out his panels as a maze. In order to figure out which panel to read next, readers had to solve the maze, which involved rotating the comics in a way that ran contrary to the contemporary practice of encouraging readers to read comics in the up-down, left-right pattern of the English written word. In what is perhaps Steranko’s best-known innovation, the final battle scene between Fury and a villain known as the Yellow Claw was presented over four pages as a continuous panorama. In order to perceive the entire picture, the reader would have to purchase two copies of the issue and lay them side by side. This was meant to imitate how the battle shook the compound with “the vehement force of a tidal wave!” and to simulate the sense of chaos felt by the combatants; the unprecedented scale of the battle was represented by an unprecedented presentation. While perhaps not as innovative as some of his other effects, this had never before been done in comics. When Stan Lee saw Steranko’s layout for the issue, he reportedly exclaimed, “Brilliant! We’ll make comic history!” In the comings months, Lee’s responses to Steranko’s work would grow increasingly less enthusiastic, leading eventually to Steranko leaving Marvel.
The Fall: Steranko Leaves Marvel, 1970
Steranko’s innovative panel design did more than reveal a more complex interiority than was typically portrayed in comics: they sold. While Strange Tales never achieved the widespread success of Marvel’s top-tier titles, it did generate a dedicated cult following, typically among older comic readers, art students, and aficionados. In fact, the Alley Awards, an annual fanzine-based comics award given throughout the sixties, named Steranko the best pencil artist of 1968, edging out Steranko’s idol Jack Kirby. In recognition of Steranko’s success turning around one of Marvel’s least popular titles, Lee took the unprecedented step of expanding Nick Fury into a full-length, twenty-two page comic. Steranko became the only artist at Marvel to write and draw a full-length monthly comic.
However, Steranko was not without his detractors, especially on the board of the Comics Code Authority. The Code had been established in 1948 but made more restrictive following the Senate hearings on comics led by Dr. Wertham. In response to Wertham and other critics of comic books, the 1954 code prohibited graphic violence and stipulated that “In every instance, good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.” However, it also included restrictions that impinged more directly on Steranko’s sensibilities. One particularly odious mandate was that “Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities,” an edict that caused Steranko to joke that he had “dated women who couldn’t be shown in the comics.” In keeping with Fury’s superspy persona, Steranko often portrayed him flanked with leggy women in revealing costumes, costumes that would come back from the code “with modified bosoms and asses,” in the words of a contemporary writer for Rolling Stone. Steranko took such editing in stride. In one instance, he drew a phone off the hook to demonstrate that Fury and his lover did not wish to be disturbed; when the comics code insisted the phone by put back on, Steranko remarked that “every time I passed a phone off the hook, I’d get horny!” Much more troublesome was the resistance his work met from within Marvel itself, particularly Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
While Marvel was in many ways the most innovative comics publisher of the sixties, the very coherence and vision that characterized the Marvel Universe made individual deviations unwelcome. Cultural historian Geoffrey O’Brien described Marvel in the sixties as “like watching The Odyssey being written.” O’Brien’s comparison is apt: The Marvel Universe was a sprawling, multi-character, transnational story that depended on coherence of style even though it was created by a large team of artists. As Bradford Wright describes it, “Lee endeavored to weave his characters and plot references into coherent modern mythology that invited an unusual degree of reader involvement.” Lee wanted his readers to feel like they were part of something larger than one particular series, “an ‘in’ thing that the outside world wasn’t even aware of.” To do this, he would often have his characters refer to conflicts or characters that had appeared in an entirely different series than the one his reader held in his or her hands. When Lee first started doing this, it was revolutionary. Characters in DC comics, the company that published Batman, Superman, and The Justice League, might team up for a few issues, but for the most part, they existed in separate universes, led their own teams of sidekicks, and fought their own enemies. In Marvel, villains, allies, and locations were always fluid. In some cases, villains from one comic would come to see the error of their ways and join a superhero team in a totally different series. Stan Lee told his artists to draw “like Kirby” because any deviation from the established Marvel style would call into question the coherence of the whole project. There was an economic dimension to this interconnectivity as well; in order to keep up with the action in any one series, the reader would have to buy every issue.
Given the interconnectedness of the Marvel Universe and its concomitant aesthetic unity, Steranko’s formal innovations led to conflict with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Steranko became frustrated that Lee and Kirby had “no regard or interest in other art forms and movements, especially considering how relevant and imaginative they often are.” Steranko thought they were too wedded to a particular style of creating comics, and were hostile to his attempts to revitalize the form. He would later claim that many of his submissions were met by a puzzled Stan Lee asking why he could not “just tell an entertaining story like Kirby.” Jack Kirby also butted heads with Steranko. While it is true that Stan Lee wrote all the dialogue for Kirby’s comics, he often did so after Kirby had already plotted the comic, sometimes even from Kirby’s finished illustrations. Kirby had never been given writing credit on these stories and was resentful that Steranko was allowed to both write and draw his comics. Furthermore, Kirby felt slighted when Steranko was given permission to keep his original drafts of pages. While nobody at Marvel knew how these proofs had been disappearing from the Marvel offices and resurfacing at comic book conventions months later. When Steranko angrily confronted Lee about failing to adequately safeguard his work, Lee agreed to let him keep his originals, provided he never mention the thefts again. Kirby was not given the same courtesy.
There were also very concrete ways in which Steranko’s style was incompatible with Marvel. In the first issue of the Nick Fury standalone series, the first three pages are completely silent. They feature Fury infiltrating a HYDRA compound. Not only is there no dialogue in this sequence, but there are also no sound effects, no narration, nothing except thin, tall panels showing Fury scaling a wall, swinging into the compound on a grappling hook, and incapacitating a HYDRA operative. This silence was meant to create in the mind of the reader the sense of stealth that the operation required. However, Marvel writers at this time were expected to write words. Stan Lee at first objected that retailers would think the comics were misprints. Later, Marvel’s production chief Sol Brodsky refused to pay Steranko for the pages, claiming that he had not “written” them. Steranko was furious, though not for financial reasons. Steranko worked days at an advertising firm, collecting a sizable paycheck in addition to his work in comics. Unlike Lee and Kirby, he could not care less whether his comic sold. The refusal of payment for these pages, however, struck him as unfair. He believed his innovations were being ignored, that his silent sequence required more planning than a traditional comic. Infuriated, he confronted Brodsky, yelling “Sol, we’re on the ninth floor and I swear to Christ that if you’re serious, I’m gonna throw you right through that fucking window!” Steranko was paid.
Eventually, Steranko grew restless with the concept of a spy comic; his work became increasingly macabre. The third Fury comic was a title called “Dark Moon Rise, Hell Hound Kill!” and it was essentially a graphic retelling of The Hound of the Baskervilles with Fury standing in for Sherlock Holmes. The cobwebs, full moons, and crackling lightning of this issue did dramatize the fear felt by the characters, but it did so at the expense of the carefully crafted style Steranko had built up during his tenure on the comic. Steranko had long challenged the Marvel aesthetic, but increasingly he drew without any regard for it at all. When Steranko submitted several short horror pieces intended to be published as standalone issues, Lee finally had enough, telling Steranko that “this doesn’t even look like a Marvel story!” Steranko countered with “You challenged the establishment a half-decade ago, but now you are the establishment… Marvel became number one by being different and that’s the only way it’ll maintain the top spot.” In many ways, this was true. Marvel had created the most coherent fictional universe comics had ever seen, and this had been incredibly revolutionary in the early sixties. Now, however, their aesthetic had become so rigid that they were ultimately unable to incorporate a renegade like Steranko, no matter how gifted or dedicated he was. After drawing one more comic, a romance about an actor who travels to the big city to be part of the entertainment industry only to leave heartbroken, Steranko left Marvel, never again to return. The comic ended with a panel featuring nothing but an empty director’s chair emblazoned with the words: The End.
Raw Energy: Steranko’s Influence
In 2002, Wizard Magazine, the flagship magazine covering comic books, made a list of the ten most influential artists in comics history. Jim Steranko was number five. The four beneath him had all either created major comic icons or redefined the way they were drawn. Of all the artists on the list, Steranko drew the fewest issues, and is to this day best known for sixteen issues of a low-rent comic that ran for twelve pages an issue and for four issues of its standalone incarnation, a book that folded almost immediately after he left it. However, in the decades since Steranko left Marvel, the formal inventiveness of these issues came to be recognized by an increasing number of writers and artists both inside and outside comics. The author Michael Chabon, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay was largely based on Steranko’s life and work, wrote that the Fury comics “irrevocably blew several million impressionable young minds.” George Lucas was so impressed by Steranko’s work that he hired him to draft storyboards for Raiders of the Lost Ark, including the iconic temple scene. Later on, Frank Miller borrowed extensively from Steranko to create his neo-noir comic Sin City. Steranko’s work pointed the way towards a darker, more subjective approach to comic books, one that paid attention to contemporary developments in film and visual art and used these insights to expand the boundaries of the medium and strengthen its hold on the minds of America’s youth. In recent years, comics has moved in this direction, with even mainstream books like Superman delving deep into the subconscious of its protagonists. Even if Steranko’s work was too innovative to be appreciated in the context of Marvel in the late sixties, it has come to be seen as one of the most important chapters in the history of comics. In 2006, Steranko was inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame, the highest honor given by the industry.