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Steranko: Four Colour Shaman

In addition to being one of the most innovative comic book artists of the 1960s, Jim Steranko’s amazing life indentifies him as being a unique figure in the field of graphic art. Born one of nine siblings in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1938, Steranko endured an impoverished childhood, sleeping on the communal family couch until he was of High School age. His talent for art manifested early, and although discouraged by his father – who had worked down the local mines from the age of ten – the young Jim paid for his art supplies by collecting bottles and paper for recycling.

Despite being disparaging about his son’s ambitions to become an architect, Steranko senior was not without his own creative side – he was a skilled tinsmith and amateur illusionist. Jim assimilated his father’s stage magic skills and spent several summers working in carnivals and circuses, developing into a talent illusionist, fire-eater and honing a stage act that saw him take to a bed of nails. Agile and well co-ordinated, Steranko learned escapology and showed promise as a junior gymnast, boxer and at fencing. However, such healthy physical pursuits were not enough to keep the teenager out of trouble, and in February 1956, he was arrested for burglary and car theft.

Being a teenager during the initial rock’n’roll explosion ensured that Jim developed a fascination with the nascent medium and, influenced by the likes of Bill Haley, he took up guitar to form a band called the Lancers, with whom he performed under an assumed name as a means of protecting himself from his enemies. Speaking in his Arte Noir publication, Jim asserted that he was responsible for kicking off the fashion for featuring go-go dancers onstage, ‘I was the first to put a female dancer – I christened her “Miss Twist” – on stage. Other bands copied the bit, so I topped them by putting two girls side by side simultaneously! Then I topped that by having the girls do a discreet strip routine. Two years later, the go-go girl craze swept America.’

Initially, Steranko’s artistic ambitions were limited to a day job creating graphics for a local printing firm. However, after moving to an advertising agency he decided to emulate his childhood heroes such as Chester Gould and Frank Robbins try out as a comic book artist. In 1965, Marvel Comics were at the cutting edge of a booming medium, with their mixture of superheroics and kitchen-sink dramatics outstripping the one-dimensional fare of major competitors such as National (DC) at every turn. His initial approach was met by rejection, with Marvel feeling that Jim wasn’t quite ready for professional commissions yet. Instead, he secured a gig at Harvey – best known for their ‘funny animal’ comics. Under the aegis of Captain America co-creator Joe Simon, Steranko set to work establishing a line of superhero titles that included Spyman and Gladiator.

After a year at Harvey, Jim returned to Marvel for another shot at the big league. This time around he encountered Stan Lee’s right-hand man, Roy Thomas, who was immediately impressed with his development. ‘When I saw Jim’s work, which was even better than what I’d seen the previous year, on an impulse I took it in to Sol [Brodsky] and said, “I think Stan should see this”. Sol agreed, and took it in to Stan. Stan brought Steranko into his office, and Jim left with the SHIELD assignment.

Initially, Steranko’s art on the SHIELD half of the Strange Tales book owed much to Jack Kirby, but he quickly developed his own style, pulling elements from pop-art, graphic design and surrealism into the mix. In 1968, changes to Marvel’s distribution arrangements enabled them to extend their line, which resulted in many of the features confined to 12-page runs in ‘split books’ being given their own full length series. Thus, in June of that year Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD hit newsstands in its own right. His brief run the short-lived series featured some of Steranko’s best-loved and most revolutionary mainstream comic book art, and established him alongside the likes of Neal Adams as one of a young generation of artists who were taking the medium into new territories.

After a (by his standards) low key two-issue stopgap on the X-Men (then one of Marvel’s lowest profile titles), Jim made a huge impact on one of the firm’s flagship titles, Captain America, where he drew three breathtaking issues. He then created a superb cover for the debut issue of a new portmanteau horror series, Tower of Shadows, to which he also contributed a seven-page story, ‘At The Stroke of Midnight’, that went on to win a 1969 Alley Award for Best Feature Story (his cover to Captain America #113 took the Best Cover prize). However, Steranko fell out with Stan Lee over the story title and cover, and aside from a run of covers and one romance story, withdrew from comics to concentrate on his History of Comics project.

In the subsequent decades, Jim Steranko’s creative portfolio has expanded to encompass paperback covers, TV features, and film posters. Almost 200 exhibitions of his art have been held in locations across the globe and he has been the subject of several extended biographical works.  Although it has been more than 40 years since he last produced a regular mainstream comic book, he remains a huge fan favourite and was inducted into the Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2006.

 

Originally posted 2011-02-28 19:53:45. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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