The Magic of Jim Steranko

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Jim Steranko may be one of the greatest unsung influencers of the latter half of the twentieth century. Born in 1938, he burst into the comic book consciousness in 1968 with his surrealist, pop-art inspired Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. for Marvel Comics. A former magician, he brought a mod 60s sensibility to the strip he inherited from Jack Kirby, writing and illustrating his own issues. Two years later, in 1970, he self-published the first of two volumes of seminal The History of Comics, with a foreword by film director Federico Fellini, a sign of things to come.

“Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

“Captain America” number 111, 1969

Lasting Impact

A creative restless spirit, he soon moved on to illustrating book covers, publishing an entertainment magazine, Mediascene and then to television and film, where perhaps his most lasting impact has been felt. Along the way he inspired Kirby to create Mister Miracle, Super Escape Artist, as part of his Fourth World magnum opus, and influenced Frank Miller’s Sin City with his stark, noir, high contrast Chandler: Red Tide in 1976.

Cover illustration by Steranko

“Chandler: Red Tide” art

Perhaps his most indelible mark on pop-culture has been his collaboration with Speilberg and Lucas on “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, for whom he created detailed Indiana Jones character art, and his re-imagining of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” for Coppola. Another intensive collaboration was with French New Wave film director Alain Resnais, which was sadly left uncompleted.

Indiana Jones concept art

An Inescapable Past

Steranko was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, the son of a coal miner and amateur magician. Self taught, Jim learned the craft of cartooning by studying newspaper comic strips including Terry and the Pirates, Prince Valiant, Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, as well as Superman and Disney cartoons. He was equally imprinted upon by the film directors Welles, Hitchcock and Lang. He joined the circus in his teens, as a fire-eater, illusionist and escape artist and also performed as a rock musician. He also was arrested at age 17 for auto theft and burglary and placed on probation.

“I’ve spent my whole life —to this very day—attempting to climb out of the blind ignorance and illiterate squalor that typified my youth. No matter how cosmetically clean I get by scrubbing myself with academia, dialectics, and experience, inside I still taste the grit of privation and educational poverty.”—Jim Steranko (to James Romberger)

In 2006 he was inducted into the comic-book industry’s Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame.

All these accomplishments make it surprising that up until now there has been so few books about him. In 1998 Steranko: Graphic Prince of Darkness , a 32-page autobiographical comic, was published by Vanguard and is now an out of print collector’s item.

That has been corrected with Steranko: The Self-Created Man by James Romberger, a noted writer, graphic novelist, and fine artist in his own right. Rather than an art book, Romberger’s scholarly tome presents an in-depth, probing portrait of a complicated subject. The book features an intensive, revealing interview with the subject, who discusses in detail his comic and film work. The transition from page to film is fully explored with corresponding illustrations. A must-have for fans of the man himself and anyone interested in these highly creative art-forms. The only caveat is that it leaves one wanting more.

About Steven Brower

Steven Brower is a graphic designer, writer, and educator and a former creative director/art director of Print. He is the author and
designer of books on Louis Armstrong, Mort Meskin, Woody Guthrie and the history of mass-market paperbacks. He is director of the “Get Your Masters with the Masters” low-residency M.F.A. program for educators and working professionals at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania. You can follow him on Twitter:

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