REVISITING THE PSYCHEDELIC SURREALISM OF JIM STERANKO
All artwork by Jim Steranko. Copyright for images 1-21 by Marvel Characters, Inc.
In the mid-1960s, an advertising graphic designer who moonlighted as a rock guitarist, illusionist, and Houdini-esque escape artist, showed up uninvited to the Marvel offices seeking an audience with Stan Lee. As the story goes, Lee was busy working on other projects and wished not to be bothered, so Marvel’s Silver Age production manager, Sol Brodsky, sent editor Roy Thomas, who would later become Marvel’s editor-in-chief, to see the artist to the door. According to Thomas, after getting a glimpse of the artist’s portfolio, he felt that Lee might want to see the kid’s work before dismissing him.
According to the uninvited artist, Lee took one look, liked what he saw, brought him over to a shelf full of current Marvel titles, and simply said, “Pick one.”
Speaking in an interview for the 2013 PBS documentary mini-series, Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle, artist Jim Steranko said, “I pointed to the worst book they had. It was ‘Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.'”
The “Nick Fury” stories had been a regular feature in the Strange Tales split-book series. Jim Steranko, an artist with an increasingly modern and experimental bent, saw an opportunity to establish a new visual style for comic books, one influenced by surrealists like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali.
“To me, S.H.I.E.L.D. was an open, empty, high canvas,” Steranko said. “I could do virtually anything, especially experimentation.”
In one of his earliest “Fury” pages, Steranko saw the super spy through a labyrinth in an enemy fortress by way of what he called an “interactive page experiment.” The reader actually had to “follow” the maze by turning the book itself and reading the upside-down of sideways captions and word bubbles.
Steranko illustrated incredibly imaginative pages and panels for Marvel, borrowing from surrealism, pop art and psychedelia.
Nick Fury would move from the split book Strange Tales to his own title, largely due to the recognition Steranko’s art garnered. One of Steranko’s signature Fury moments was in the story, “Who is Scorpio?” The artist submitted multiple pages of text-free action. According to Steranko’s interview in the PBS doc, he was told by Sol Brodsky that he would not be paid for the text-free pages, to which he responded, allegedly, by grabbing Brodsky by the shirt and threatening to throw him from the nearest window. Steranko was paid for the pages.
His work mixed color panels with black-and-white panels, all highlighted by psychedelic textures, creative lighting effects, and bizarre imagery.
“I brought surrealism into the mix,” Steranko would say of his work. “I brought expressionism. I brought pop art, optical art. I used everything I could to update comics and bring them into today.”
Steranko would reinvent the “Nick Fury” series, while also lending his talents for runs on prominent Marvel titles like Captain America and X-Men.
Steranko would later create concept art for feature films, including Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. He would also illustrate one issue of Superman for and do a variant cover for the Rorschach volume of Before Watchmen for DC Comics. For more on the works of Jim Steranko, visit his digital gallery. His work on the Nick Fury stories is compiled in S.H.I.E.L.D. by Jim Steranko: The Complete Collection.
Copyright by DC Comics.