Jim Steranko drew only a few dozen stories for Marvel Comics in the late 1960s, but that was enough to make him a rock star for life in the comic book industry.
Steranko introduced repeated full-page spreads, cinematic pacing, psychedelic imagery, sleek pop art, and sexy men and women who smoldered on the page. He was compared to Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali. His most famous creation, Nick Fury, was a womanizing spy who smoked, drank and listened to jazz records — much like James Bond, not at all like Superman.
Who knew comic books could be cool?
Jim Steranko did.
Originally a stage magician, escape artist and rock musician, Steranko brought a fresh eye to the industry's sometimes stale artwork.
"I've always considered myself an entertainer, and my Marvel work was no different," Steranko said in a recent interview.
"Interestingly, within the space of 29 Marvel stories, I generated more than 150 innovations, storytelling devices and techniques that had never appeared in comics previously," he said. "I consider that my legacy to the comic book format."
Steranko strode into Marvel's New York office in 1966. A physical altercation with an art director at another publisher had left him suddenly available for work. Unlike most hopeful young artists who turned up at Marvel, Steranko talked his way into a meeting with editor-in-chief Stan Lee.
"We hit it off immediately," Steranko said. "Stan was equal parts charmer, actor, editor and showman. He shuffled through (my) pages and said the work was crude but that it had something he liked. I asked what it was. 'Raw energy!' he answered."
As Steranko tells it, Lee offered Steranko his pick of Marvel's popular superhero titles — including The Amazing Spider-Man, The Mighty Thor and the Fantastic Four — but that would mean following legendary artists Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, who established those characters.
Instead, Steranko picked an unloved feature starring cigar-chomping Nick Fury, a secret agent for the covert operations group known as S.H.I.E.L.D. In a few months, Steranko went from drawing over Kirby's layouts to doing it all himself: stories, full art, even the coloring.
Nick Fury quickly became as popular as any Marvel superhero. The art was exciting, and Steranko kept the censors busy trying to cover up his characters' revealing costumes and passionate love scenes. It's due in large part to Steranko that Nick Fury is now played in blockbuster movies by Samuel L. Jackson and that a weekly television series called Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. launched last fall on ABC.
"Even the dullest of readers could sense that something new was happening," Les Daniels wrote in Comix: A History of Comic Books in America. "With each passing issue, Steranko's efforts became more and more innovative. Entire pages would be devoted to photo-collages of drawings (that) ignored panel boundaries and instead worked together on planes of depth. The first pages ... became incredible production numbers similar in design to the San Francisco rock concert poster of the period."
After a couple of years on Nick Fury and a few Captain America and X-Men stories, at the height of his success in the industry, Steranko quit Marvel to do other things, including write a two-volume history of comic books. Later he went to Hollywood and drew movie posters and storyboards for directors Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola.
Steranko shrugs off questions about why he left comics.
"I felt I'd achieved a certain measure of my vision and found new areas to challenge my imagination," he said. "I've always been driven by the tyranny of my visions and never being satisfied with anything. I'm like a shark which must swim or die; I have no choice in the matter, but to keep creating compulsively almost every waking minute. It's a curse and a gift, at the same time."