Have you see “The Most Interesting Man in the World” Dos Equis commercials? At the end of the Spotlight on Jim Steranko panel at Wondercon, it became clear to me that the character in those commercials was inspired by Jim Steranko. Who else could it be? Jim Steranko was a gymnast, boxer, musician, circus act, and an illusionist. I mean, Jack Kirby created the Mister Miracle character because he was inspired by Steranko’s early career as an escape artist.
The panel began with J. David Spurlock, founder of Vanguard Productions, laying out the ground rules for the Steranko panel. No video or flash photography, because the flash feels like an ice pick to the brain, due to an eye injury he suffered boxing when he was younger. When I heard this, my first thought was how does Jim Steranko know what an ice pick to the brain feels like? But after the panel was over, it was clear to me that there was a good chance that Jim Steranko just might know what an ice pick to the brain feels like, and I imagine whoever delivered that ice pick was in a lot worse shape after the encounter than Steranko.
Spurlock introduced Steranko to a standing ovation. Steranko hit the ground running, letting the audience know about his escape career inspiring Kirby to create Mister Miracle, and that similarly, Michael Chabon was inspired by Steranko to create the character Joe Kavalier, from Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Steranko mentioned working with Spielberg, Lucas, and Coppola on their films. (Steranko was the conceptual artist for Lucas and Spielberg on Raiders of the Lost Ark, and for Coppola for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.)
Steranko let everyone know that he is busier than ever. He has a new art book coming out later this year, and that he has another big project that he is working on but cannot talk about because he signed a non-disclosure agreement with the company in question.
Steranko said that his book Red Tide was the first American Graphic Novel, not Eisner’s Contract with God, as his book came out two years earlier. Steranko went so far as to say that Contract with God was not even really a graphic novel at all, as it was made up of short stories.
He talked about developing new formats throughout his career. The format used for Red Tide was something he created, and it has not been duplicated since. When he did Outland for Heavy Metal, it was done in a mural format. The work he did on Superman 400 was a new format as well.
Steranko said he is currently working on recoloring Red Tide, and that when it was first done it had a flat comic book color, as there were only 30-40 colors available at the time. He thinks every panel can be lit like the movies, and his recoloring is going to have a cinematic lighting technique for each of the panels.
He then talked about learning to read from comic books when he was only 1.5 years old, and that the great director Fritz Lang did the same. Steranko said he got into the comic business when Wally Wood introduced him to Sam Schwartz, who at the time was the editor at Tower Comics. Steranko had a 52 page story called Secret Agent X, and it was ready to go. Schwartz, who had previously worked as an artist for Archie Comics, had what Steranko felt were “unreasonable criticisms.” Schwartz said he didn’t like the noses that Steranko drew, and they needed to be more pug like, similar to Betty and Veronica. Steranko refused to take this, and felt like Schwartz was just having him jump through hoops, so he grabbed hard on to Schwartz’ wrist with one hand, squeezing down tight, and took his art pages with the other hand and said, “You find yourself another artist.” Steranko presented this statement with an almost Dirty Harry like scowl on his face.
Steranko next took Secret Agent X, ironically enough, to Archie Comics. When they saw his work they wanted to hire him right away, but not for Secret Agent X, but instead to pencil all their covers. But since Archie Comics barely paid anything, and Steranko was working as the Art Director of a big New York ad agency, he was able to turn them down. Next Steranko took Secret Agent X to DC, but DC passed on it and instead offered him a writing job. Again, Steranko passed. So of course, Jim Steranko being Jim Steranko, next went to Paramount Pictures, to pitch Secret Agent X as a cartoon, and Paramount and he reached a deal to make it into a Saturday morning cartoon. (The cartoon was never actually made.)
Riding high on this success, Steranko next went to the offices of Marvel Comics, and went into to see Stan Lee. Stan’s secretary told him that no one sees Stan, but Steranko stuffed his artwork under her arm and said, “Stan will see me.” When the secretary came back from talking to Stan she said that yes, Stan will see him, and they hit it off right away.
Stan told Steranko that the artwork was crude, but that he liked the energy and Stan told Steranko to pick one of the 30 Marvel titles to work on. Steranko told the audience that, “I maybe crazy, but I’m not stupid. I was not going to follow Kirby.” Steranko selected Strange Tales, and the Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. stories. At this point Spurlock jokingly let us know that from the time Steranko walked into Tower Comics to the time he walked out of Marvel Comics, was all in one day.
To start at Marvel, Stan had Kirby layout the pages with stick figures, and then Steranko did his pencils over it. Stan wanted to Steranko to draw it like Kirby, and this was how he attempted to see this happen. But, this only lasted so long, because Steranko said having to try to be like someone else was actually causing him physical pain. Whenever Steranko did experiment though, Stan would ask, “Why can’t you do it like Kirby?” This would expand to include doing it like Romita as well.
Steranko said he only did 29 issues at Marvel, but during that time he came up with 150 new narrative techniques, while in his whole career Kirby only created 3.
Steranko said it all came to ahead when he presented Tower of Shadows to Stan, and Stan made many changes. Steranko said he hit the roof. He felt like he was getting paid chump change, and he didn’t need this. Steranko told Stan that if he changed one word or one line of art that he was going to quit. So, Stan threw him out. Steranko said he knows now that Stan did what he should have done, but at the time, he didn’t feel that way. Steranko said about three months later his phone rang, and it was Stan, and after a couple minutes of nervous tension the two just started laughing and Stan asked him to come back.
The panel ended with this, and another ovation for Steranko. I think if the panel had another ten hours, Steranko would have never run out of stories. One can only hope that one day, Steranko will release a complete autobiography.
I want to finish with some advice to anyone going to any comic book conventions in the future, make sure to attend the panels featuring the creative minds from the Golden and Silver Age of Comics. I have never been disappointed with the stories that are told and the insight that these artists bring to the industry. Do not miss out, because sadly the time to hear these great stories is getting shorter and shorter.