Exclusive Interview with a Marvel Comic Legend Jim Steranko

Exclusive Interview with a Marvel Comic Legend Jim Steranko

James F. Steranko is an American graphic artist, comic book writer/artist, comic book historian. His most famous comic book work was with the 1960s Superspy feature “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” in Marvel Comics Strange Tales and in the subsequent eponymous series. Steranko earned lasting acclaim for his innovations in sequential art during the Silver Age of comic Books, particularly his infusion of Surrealism, pop art, and graphic design into the medium. His work has been published in many countries and his influence on the field has remained strong since his comics heyday. He went on to create book covers, become a comics historian who published a pioneering two-volume history of the birth and early years of comic books, and to create conceptual art and character designs for films including Raiders of the Lost Ark and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Exclusive Interview with a Marvel Comic Legend Jim Steranko 

Q: You’ve had a long career in comics and dealing with the whole world of media. What do you consider the most important moments in your experience that you want people to realize? You wrote Nick Fury, you had your own magazine, coming with a design concept that nobody else has ever thought of for comics. Where do you feel one’s education should start?

JS: I think all those things that you mentioned and a few others besides that. They’re all my children, so I do not have a definitive answer  when people ask me what my favorites are and what my most important things are that I’ve done in the past.

Q: What were your the biggest challenges?

JS: My biggest legacy, that’s something… I leave that to my fans and my friends. I don’t make that decision. I want them to make the decision.

Q: When you were creating “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” you’re coming into a field with a particular vision and a visual style. Where and when did you decide how to jump away from that and add all the collagic effects, the big panoramic images, the psychedelic influences? Whoever thought of a secret agent or someone part of a spy organization working in that kind of environment?

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You really affected movies, the way all comics were done from that point going forward.

JS: I grew up with comic books, and I found when I was in a position of power, that I could not imitate what came before. I had no interest in being a rubber stamp artist. That’s not what I do. At the time I got into comics, I had a full-time job as an art director and manager, it was eight to five. I also played rock and roll for 12 years, three to five nights a week — that’s a second full-time job. Then along the way, I got an assignment to do a number of Marvel comics. I worked for them for three years.

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It was a somewhat uphill battle to convince Stan [Lee] to adopt non-Marvel-type techniques and treatments in my books, Captain America and Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. He resisted that idea, even though they called themselves the “House of Ideas” — don’t make me laugh. I guess I developed a kind of system where the work was an ultimatum. For example, I would never tell Stan what I was going to do ahead of time because he would say “Don’t do that.” I’d just bring the work in on the day of the deadline when there was no time to make changes, and they’d have to take it or lose their monthly distribution. So those firsters that you were talking about, those puzzle pages, I called them innovations because they had never been done before in comics.

Q: Actually, they hadn’t even been done in normal illustrations.

JS: A lot of them. But the number that you’re looking for is, 150 of them I brought to comics in the space of about three years. The unusual thing about that is, that if you took every comic artist from the beginning of comic book history — American comic book history — and added them all up, they wouldn’t be anywhere near that number of 150 — 150 things, graphic things, that had never been done in comics before.

Q: Like artist/writer Neal Adams, a lot of the ideas Neal later incorporated into DC with “Green Lantern” were ideas that you had about the way a page should look and the elements you could bring on the page. Not to disparage Neal Adams, but you really affected his style and his approach.

JS: Neal did not represent what I represented in the field. He had his own agenda and I had mine. Even Jack Kirby, who was the king of all of us, was unparalleled in terms of what he contributed to comic book art. Not only in the number of pages, but the quality of those pages. Even Jack had very few innovations, maybe not more than two or three.

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And believe me, I’ve looked for his work and I know it very well, and I knew Jack and admired him for decades and decades, and he was a good friend of the family. He was a wonderful man. But in terms of innovating new things, that was not Jack’s idea. He wanted to draw the greatest action figures and stories that could possibly be done in comic book lore. He achieved that, that was his goal. Mine was something completely different.

Q: One of the things you also did was, you’re one of the first comic artists to create their own publishing company. You brought out your own magazine — Mediascene (beginning with issue #7, Dec. 1973) and ultimately it transformed into Prevue.

JS: Yes, I was in publishing for 25 years.

Q: Yeah, for have many issues. Nobody can question you about your knowledge of comics because you also created histories of comics — you did “The Steranko History of Comics.”

JS: I wrote the first two comic history books. And even, I believe, to this very day, they are different from the thousands of comic history books — literally thousands of them. Book shelves full of them. The reason I believe mine are different is because I wrote them from a position inside the business. Get it? Everything else is written from the outside, by strangers. They’re making comments, some of them really important but they’re not, from my viewpoint [a comic book insider]. I knew the artists, the writers, the publishers, personally. I knew them myself as a friend or they were enemies along the way. That personal touch, I think, is evident in “The Steranko History of Comics.”

Q: Yes, those books are loved, they have their own voice. Now when you did the magazine, you not only were doing comics, you were covering pop culture in general so you had your own view of pop culture. You did a lot of the interviews, too.

JS: TV, film, yes I did a lot of…

Q: Music?

JS: I was on the set of many, many Hollywood films. It was an education for me.

Q: So why haven’t you made a movie yourself? You have your legacy in “Captain America” and “Nick Fury.”

JS: I’ve just been so busy along the way that making a film, in the space of a year and a half or two, it doesn’t work. However, right now at this very moment, I’m engaged in one of the largest assignments that I’ve ever had in my life. I’m working for an international corporation to develop a new and different compelling strange world that will be turned into 3D and played by millions of gamers all over the world.

Q: Do you like how the movies treated your characters and how they interpreted your work? Did you like that Nick Fury was turned into Samuel L. Jackson? Do you think they captured the spirit that you were trying to convey?

JS: This may disappoint you, but I have generally found, particularly with the early Marvel adaptations — and the DC ones — that the actors who played the key roles, the superhero roles, looked to me like they had just graduated from college earlier in the week. They have zero authority. And I know that Captain America — one of the [key characters] that I worked on and that I loved, and that I still love to this very day — he is the pinnacle of authority and justice. A kid just out of college for a week just cannot make that work. So I stopped looking at the Marvel movies. They have incredible special effects and things that have never been done before. I love that material. But I believe the heart of filmmaking really exists in the characters, and I don’t believe those characters.

Q: So who would you like to see make a movie of some of your characters? Do you have anybody in mind? Do you have any character creation that you would like to see turned into a movie?

JS: Not really. I have no jones about that at all. I think eventually the right people on one side of the camera will connect with the right people on the other side of the camera and give us the kind of superhero movies that I think should be made. With really engaging stories and individuals and great acting.

Q: People haven’t appreciated that you’re as much of a writer as you are an artist.

JS: Nobody thinks of me as a writer.

Q: All those issues of magazines and you delivered great coverage and you had great ideas. What do you think about the current state of pop culture now, and how would you write about it if you had the magazine still going?

JS: Let me tell you specifically about the comics. I could be answering that question for the next 45 minutes. But I find myself generally disappointed with contemporary comic books. Why? We have the best looking art that we’ve ever had. We have our pick of the crop of the entire world because of the internet. We have great, great art being produced.

The thing is, most of them don’t know anything about narrative technique. Their pages are simply chaotic. I can’t read the stuff. I can’t read it. And I refuse to read it in that form. The artwork is often excellent. Most of the really good stuff is saved for the covers. You’re on your own when you get into the interior of them. Frankly, I can’t read that material. There are exceptions to the rules [but few are] available.

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