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Jim Steranko Biographical Interview by Alex Grand

 

Alex:          All right. So, welcome to CBH. We have a special guest, a spontaneous guest, from the Dallas Fantasy Fair, the illustrious, Jim Steranko who has made several impacts on comic history throughout the years. Jim, thank you so much for being with us today.

Steranko:   My pleasure.

Alex:          Jim, I wanted to kind of start from the beginning. You were born in the 1930s, and you have a lot of experience just from the Great Depression era and after. As a kid, you’re reading newspaper comic strips. Alex Raymond, Hal Foster, Milton Caniff, tell us, as a kid – the impact those images had on you growing up.

Steranko:   Actually, it was rare that I saw those artists… Flash Gordon, (Gray) Morrow Prince Valiant… Certainly, Caniff was out there… But I grew up in a very poor background; cold poor, hungry poor. And the only newspaper we really got was a Sunday paper in my area. And the reason we got that paper, I believe, was because the entire section only cost 10 cents, while the Philly Enquirer Sunday Section cost 15. That may sound preposterous to you in these days. But when I was a kid, every cent counted.

My father built the home that we lived in. It was a shack, essentially, three converted rooms, a kitchen, a living room, a bedroom. It was heated by a kitchen coal stove. Not only was all the cooking done on that stove, but the coal stove heated the house, the whole house. It was very crude. And the fire on this little stove would often go out at night, so that when we awoke on winter mornings, it was as cold inside as outside.

I sometimes tell the story, when people asked me, “Well, what did you draw on?” Two things, in the summertime, because we could not afford a nickel for a tablet, for me to draw on, I very carefully cut open envelopes, that statements and bills came in, to get to the clean paper on the inside, to use as drawing surface.

In the wintertime, it was so cold in our place that ice formed on the inside of the windows. With the heat of my fingertips, I would practice drawing pictures on the ice, on the inside of the windows. So, we had a very difficult, and anti-cultural kind of background.

During the war years, World War II, I collected newspapers from people in the neighborhood. And tied up bundles, that I would sell the paper companies at whatever the going rate was. It could be 40 cents for 100 pounds of papers. But 40 cents meant a lot to me, that was four new comic books. I could buy.

Alex:          That’s right, yeah.

Steranko:   Or it could be 30 or 40, used comic books I could buy at two cents a pop. And often. I would spend time going through those old newspapers, and looking at, and saving – cutting out and collecting comic strips. That was my education. That’s where I learned to draw from.

[00:05:00]

So, the Daily News feature Dick Tracy, Chester Gould strip on the front cover. It’s one of my favorites as a kid. During that time, it also featured Lee Elias’ Beyond Mars. Elias was a Caniff imitator.

Alex:          Yeah, that’s right.

Steranko:   He’s very good at it.

Alex:          Yeah, he was.

Steranko:   And he had a very charming manner. Charm is something that almost doesn’t exist these days. I said, almost. There were some artists that can produce it, and they’re very good at it, for example, like Adam Hughes.

Alex:          Yeah. Okay.

Steranko:   His work comes to mind, and he’s really brilliant at it. But in those days, charm was a factor. It was a selling factor in newspaper strips, films, and magazines, and books, and so forth. And I essentially, grew up with old newspaper strips as my drawing lessons school.

Alex:          Were you reading Jack Kirby books back then, also? Or did that come later?

Steranko:   No, actually, it may have come sooner, because… You sure you want to hear this? [chuckle] I grew up with comics. My Uncle Eugene, maybe once a month, would bring a bag full of used comic books. Comics he was through with, and bring them over for me to look at, as a kid. And I mean, really a kid.

My mother told me this story about five years ago. She said that she would put me on her lap, and she had me pick out some of my favorite comic books. And I was the first of the children, so I dominated her time. And she would read the balloons that I would point to, because I knew that that’s what the characters were saying. So, I’d point to the balloons, one at a time, and she’d read them to me. This is a story my mother told me. And she said that’s how I learned to read. She said I was a year and a half old.

“Mom, that’s pretty damn early for kid reading, a year and a half… I’m not so sure I believe that.” The following week, she produced a baby book. You know, mothers’ baby books, where she had, how much I weighed, and how tall I was, and so forth, by the year. And she pointed to this entry that she made when I was a year and a half old, saying that I could read comic books.

Alex:          Right.

Steranko:   And she said, they my mother and father, didn’t believe it, either. They thought that I had memorized the dialogue in these books, or in these certain, my favorite stories. And that I was simply remembering it, and repeating it. So, they covered over the pictures, so that just the type, just the balloons were showing. And then they asked me to read it.

Alex:          Nice.

Steranko:   Which I did.

Alex:          Wow.

Steranko:   So, I’m guessing, I probably started with comic books… I guess they’re about as much in my blood as anybody could possibly be.

Alex:          Right. It’s amazing.

Steranko:   A year and a half old, and you know what?… I’m still working at it.

Alex:          Yeah, that’s right… So now, who introduced you to the magician trade? Was that your father that introduced you to that? Did I read that correctly?

Steranko:   My father was an amateur magician. And somehow along the way, he’s subscribed to a magic course that had 60 lessons. It’s called the Tarbell Course of Magic, Harlan Tarbell.

[00:10:00]

Where he got the money, I have no idea, because like I said, we were too poor. In our house, we had no books. No books. We had no pictures hanging on the wall. And there’s a really barren existence, but somehow, and he may have bought this course before he was married, maybe with money he earned as a kid, perhaps.

My father, I think he told me he went to school until fifth grade, I think he was about 11 years old. And then he began working in the coal mines. Standing in running water underground. Have you ever been in a cave? You know how cold it is in a cave?

Alex:          Right.

Steranko:   You know. Standing in a cave for 15 hours, in running water, a day, separating coal from shale and rock. That was his life. So, I guess it’s okay that he could spend some money to buy something he’d really love, the Tarbell Magic Course. And so, as a kid, I was an audience for him to perform, particularly at like if there was a little birthday party or a little celebration that we had. We didn’t have much, but he’d bring out this magic paraphernalia, and do these tricks. And I think that planted a seed

Alex:           In you.

Steranko:   In my creative persona. And so, the next step was, you know that, when the cat’s away, how the mice will play?

Alex:          Right.

Steranko:   Well, when my folks were away, and I was home by myself, I discovered where he hid the Tarbell Magic Course. And that’s where I got my first instruction on magic, and also where I learned about Houdini.

And Houdini was very influential in my career because I found that there were similarities between Houdini’s ideas, and things that I felt I was particularly suited to. For example, I always had good upper body strength. That’s good for certain escapes, rope ties. I had a higher threshold for pain, than I think many other people had. I have an eye condition. I’m very light sensitive. And that’s something you would know a lot about. I can see in the dark, I think the term is nyctalopia.

Alex:          So, is that why you always wear sunglasses?

Steranko:   Yeah, I wore sunglasses when I produced all my comic books. Because the light bouncing off the page hurt my eyes.

Alex:          Oh, really… So, it wasn’t just really a style thing. It’s actually a necessity to just see what you’re doing better.

Steranko:   I need them. I like to work in very low-lit areas because they’re extremely comfortable for me. On the other hand, when I had my company, my business, my publishing company and so forth, everybody was kind of depressed when they work for me, because the lights were always so low.

Alex:          Oh, I see. That’s funny.

Steranko:   Well, when I’m the boss, I decide how the lights are.

Alex:          That’s true.

Steranko:   When you’re the boss, you can decide.

Alex:          Yeah, that’s right.

Steranko:   But bright lights hurt my eyes.

Alex:          Oh, okay.

Steranko:   Yeah, I drew all my comics with sunglasses.

Alex:          Oh, that answers that question, actually. So now, fast forward a bit to let’s say you’re, and this is a lot of years, but to your early 20s, and so, you’re well adept at the magician trade and you’re also a musician. This is I think in the mid-1950s. Possibly, or maybe actually, no, maybe in the late 1950s. And you were doing rock and roll. Is that correct? You were actually in a rock band?

Steranko:   I was in many rock bands, and I played music, and earned my living that way from the time I was 18 to 30.

 

[00:15:00]

Alex:          There was something I read about the first go-go dancer on stage that you had something to do with that. Is that correct?

Steranko:   I invented the go-go girl.

Alex:          Is that true?

Steranko:   Everybody knows that story. Come on… I’ll tell you how it came about. In my area, on the East Coast, just in my area, which was Musicians’ Local 235… Do I get some points for remembering that?

Alex:          Yeah, you do. It’s good detail.

Steranko:   [chuckle] There were 300 bands in my little area. So, the competition was fierce. I think close to half of them were union bands.

There weren’t 150 clubs to play every week. In the area, there may have been 30. Maybe in a 30-mile area, there may have been 30 or 40 [fire??? 00:16:13] companies. You know, nightclubs, beer joints, saloons, that featured music, right? So, the competition was really fierce. And we’re talking about some pretty good musicians along the way too. Bill Haley came from my area.

Alex:          Oh, I see.

Steranko:   I knew Bill very well. I knew all the Comets. Can I tell you a Comets story?

Alex:          Yeah, please.

Steranko:   Somehow, and I’m not exactly sure how… Maybe it was in a conversation we had, Bill somehow knew that I was a commercial artist, a designer. And he somehow correlated an event with what I did. I’m still not quite sure how we got from A to B. But he came over to me one day, I guess we’re playing the same gig. And he said, “Jim, I want to show you something, come on over to the truck.”

And we went over to his truck and he opened the doors. And there was a one-of-a-kind hand cut wooden matrix for a Bill Haley poster. And the poster itself was probably something like, maybe 40 x 60 or 70 inches. I mean, it was the kind you put on the side of barns or something. It was huge. And it came in two pieces. And he had a lot of other hand cut signs, one of them, block prints that were used to ink up and print Bill Haley and the Comets posters.

And he said, “I’m fed up with carrying this stuff around. I just don’t want to do it anymore.” And he said, “Do you have any use for this?” He said, “I know you’re a commercial artist.” I didn’t have any use for it. But I felt that, first of all, it was a beautiful gesture, for Bill to offer me that material, I thought, even though he’d probably throw it out otherwise. And I said, “Absolutely.” Somehow, I managed to get it in the car, in one of the guys cars along the way.

There must have been other type, and I don’t know, it may be a total of a dozen or two dozen of these various block print hand cut wooden matrixes. And I still have them. That’s, I don’t know, maybe a memory. I have one of them at least hanging on the wall, as a kind of a decoration. I mean, it’s all full of ink. I mean, it’s a mess. But it’s almost like Jackson Pollock, out of Bill Haley.

Bill was the most unlikely rock and roller you could ever meet because he had split vision.

Alex:          Had What?

Steranko:   Split vision.

Alex:          Like his eyes were crossed out?

[00:20:00]

Steranko:   They weren’t crossed, they were in the opposite direction.

Alex:          Yeah. Exotropia that’s what they call it.

Steranko:   If you went to shake hands with Bill, it would be like this.

Alex:          Yeah, he missed

Steranko:   My impression of Bill Haley eating an ice cream cone… You had to be there. But Bill was a good guy. And he lived about maybe 20 minutes from where I lived. So, we ran across each other, frequently.

Can I tell a little rock and roll story?… That everybody knows.

Alex:          Please. Yeah. I’d love it.

Steranko:   Every rock and roller in America, every single one knew the words and the music to Rock Around the Clock. Because that was an emblematic song for the rock and roll era, right?

Alex:          Yes, that’s right.

Steranko:   And every musician knew the solo that was played on Rock Around the Clock. The solo was, and has been attributed to… I’d have to think of this guy’s name… Maybe I shouldn’t have started the story without really telling you… But it was a guy that worked in an orchestral background, much of his life; recording and work with big bands, he could read music. He was not a teenager. And the solo was attributed to him, but actually, it’s bogus. The famous guitar solo that every rock and roller knew by heart was really cut by Danny Cedrone… So, I want to go on record.

Alex:          Yes. Okay, there you go.

Steranko:   Danny, wherever you are, setting the record straight for you, man.

Alex:          That’s right. You did.

Now also, as a man of many, many talents, while you’re doing music for different clubs, you’re also designing flyers and pamphlets for clubs that you’re playing music for. Is that correct? Or were you designing flyers or advertisements while you’re doing this?

Steranko:   No, I… Rock and roll was like, two, three, four nights a week, and it changed every week. And that wasn’t quite enough to keep me busy. Might have kept some people busy, but I couldn’t handle that, doing nothing.

Alex:          Just that one thing, yeah.

Steranko:   So, I had always been interested in the art world. Learning to draw from comic strips. And I should mention that… We almost got there earlier. One of my primary influences was the Johnny Hazard comic strip.

Alex:          Frank Robbins.

Steranko:   Created by Frank Robbins. Whom I ultimately got to know and hang out with.

Alex:          Right. Oh, you did. Great.

Steranko:   He had an apartment on Riverside Drive up in Manhattan. And a thing you didn’t know, about Robbins is, he spent one day a week… I think one day writing and maybe one day drawing in the Sunday and the dailies, in one little place in his apartment. The rest of the place was dedicated to audio equipment. He invented stereo like material, and he was always… That took up most of his most of his time.

And one other things about Robbins, who may be relatively unknown now, but I can guarantee you, that many, many of Robbins’, particularly his Sunday pages and his top – his Sunday top, you know the panel at [overlap talk] …

Alex:          Yes. At the top of the…

Steranko:   Many of them rivaled that of Caniff.

Alex:          Yeah, that’s right.

Steranko:   He, Robbins was that brilliant. He also did one other thing that I’d like to point out to your listeners. And that is, he was a genius at what’s called spotting blacks…

[00:25:01]

Which is drawing the panel in outline, in pencil and then putting in black areas of shadows, dark areas, dark costumes on characters. And he was brilliant at it.

Alex:          Right, and we see that with your work, for sure.

Steranko:   I hope so. If I could be 10% as good as he was at spotting blacks, I think maybe my existence on this planet would be justified.

Alex:          There you go… Because your Chandler had a lot of that, didn’t it?

Steranko:   Well, Chandler… Should we talk about that now?

Alex:          Well, actually, no. Later. Technically later. Yes, you’re right.

Steranko:   I’ll leave that up to you.

Alex:          Okay, okay… So then, as far as Frank Robbins then, he also influenced Alex Toth as well, I think. Right? So, it seems like he was actually a big figure in comic history as far as the art form. And did he bring like Noel Sickles style to like, your generation, then? Is that how you would look at it?

 

Steranko:   I think that this is a difficult call. Who borrowed from who? Caniff came first. Sickles assisted him, but Sickles also started, I guess, Scorchy Smith. Did Robbins assist Sickles on Scorchy? Do you know?

Alex:          Yeah, I thought he did Scorchy, and then he…

Steranko:   Spun off to Johnny Hazard?

Alex:          He went off to Johnny Hazard after that. I thought that’s how that transition went.

Steranko:   There’s definitely a line from Terry and the Pirates, to Scorchy Smith, to Johnny Hazard.

Alex:          Yeah, and I know that Caniff had some influence from Sickles a bit too, because they’ve kind of looked alike for a little while there.

Steranko:   Well, I often refer to the roots of style of comic book style. The roots of comic book style are in newspaper strips. The roots are the big three -Caniff, Hal Forster with Prince Valiant, and Alex Raymond with Flash Gordon. 95% of…

Alex:          Comes from there.

Steranko:   … every comic strip and comic book, subsequent to that period, were based on one form or another on those three artists. Including, for example, Kirby. Kirby was a big Caniff and Raymond fan. And if you look at Kirby’s earliest works, you’ll see him copying those styles. So, the trio was massively influential on comic book, artists and writers.

Alex:          So, you’re designing pamphlets and ads, and you’re doing music. I had read that in the later 1950s, this is before Marvel in 1966, that in the later 50s, you stopped by DC and talked to Julius Schwartz and he showed you some Adam Strange is that correct? Did that happen?

Steranko:   Well, let me get back to this.

Alex:          Okay. Sure.

Steranko:   Let me correct you on a point. I was saying earlier that during my rock and roll years, I was looking for other work. I was looking to develop my artistic talent [overlap talk]

Alex:          Yes, the visual image.

Steranko:   And the… May I tell you how I got started in the business? [overlap talk] Can you handle it?

Alex:          Please. Yeah, absolutely. Yes.

Steranko:   Are you man enough?

Alex:          I think so.

Steranko:   I spent a lot of time at the Y. I was a bodybuilder there and I spent a couple of years boxing at the Y. A really interesting story behind that one, but I don’t think we’re going to do that tonight… Maybe we’ll do a feature film of it, that way I don’t even have to discuss this.

Alex:          That’s it. Okay.

Steranko:   But I was at the Y, and I got a… One of the other weight lifters there mentioned that there was a new newspaper opening up in town. And that was unusual. We had a morning and an evening paper, Reading Times and Reading Eagle. And they had a headlock on the newspaper business. But there was a guy who worked for that newspaper that thought he could produce a tabloid, a weekly tabloid that would bring people let’s say more sensational news, more provocative, using more maybe local celebrities.

[00:30:13]

And newspapers make their money, not on single copy sales, but on advertising.

Alex:          Yes, right.

Steranko:   Magazines and comic books. They don’t make their money off of single copy newsstand sales. It’s always exclusively on advertising. And this guy, Jerry Coburn was his name. Jerry had a lot of connections, and he thought he could fill his newspaper, apparently, with ads, which would support it no matter how many copies he sold, whether it was 10 or 10,000.

So, I phoned, right from the Y, I called up this new place. I called the operator and asked her if the Reading Record had phone service yet. And she looked it up and she said, “Yeah, they just got it.” I said, “Put me through.”

And receptionist picked up the phone, and I said, “I’m looking for connection to talk to because you’re going to need a commercial artist on the staff to handle cartoons and ads… There’s always paste ups and other… In the old days, before there was digital stuff, everything was done by paste up.

And by a wild coincidence, the receptionist was one of my old girlfriends. Jeanette, who was also Miss Armed Forces, just that I’d throw that in… [overlap talk]

Alex:          [chuckle] Well done.

Steranko:   Miss Armed Forces, she looked like… and I don’t care whether you believe me or not…

Alex:          I believe you, man.

Steranko:   She was a little Elizabeth Taylor.

Alex:          Nice.

Steranko:   And she recognized my voice on the phone. And she said, “Jim, Jerry already had that figured out, the editor and publishers. He just got a guy in here, just this week.” They had just opened up. She said, “He’s got a guy working that.” I said, “Connect me with the guy.” And she put me through his phone and I said, “Look, I’m a young commercial artist, and I’m interested in, in getting in the business. I’m particularly interested in the newspaper business.” And he said, “I’m taking care of everything. I’m it. I’m here. I’m the guy?”

Alex:          Yeah.

Steranko:   “Oh, okay.” I went home. I got my portfolio, and I brought it in.

Alex:          Oh, nice. Okay.

Steranko:   And I knocked on his door. [knocks] The door was open. And he said, “Yes. Who is it?” And I said, “I talked to you like an hour ago?” I said, “How can you tell me that you don’t want me to be at least an assistant, at least to work on the staff of the newspaper without seeing my work?”

Alex:          Right.

Steranko:   “You cannot say no, without seeing the work? Maybe when you see the work, and you can say no, but I won’t accept it.” I said, “I could be Michelangelo? You don’t know. But you can’t tell me, no, without seeing the work.”

Alex:          Right… Yeah.

Steranko:   Well, he was stunned. And he said, “Let’s see it.”

Alex:          Good. Well done. And assert yourself. That’s great.

Steranko:   At that point, he said, “I’m not sure it really matters. Because you’re going to be an artist, you have the determination. If I told you that the job was taken, and you bring your work in anyway, within an hour.” He said, “I know you’re going to be a success. So, we’ll work together.”

Alex:          Nice.

Steranko:   That’s how I got my foothold in the business.

Alex:          In the advertising business.

Steranko:   In the advertising business. Now. We segue a couple years down the line… His name is Fran Spots, and when I moved on to other things, I decided that I had the chops to work for a bigger agency or bigger publisher, printer, whatever it would be, a designer. And I looked in the phone book to a place that was closest to where I lived. So, I didn’t have to drive, like 25 minutes to work or 40 minutes, I didn’t believe in that. I could get there in a matter of three or four minutes.

[0035:00]

So, I went to the place. And I showed them some of my drawings. And the boss’ name was Arthur. Arthur said, “We really don’t have enough work for you here to hire a full-time commercial artist.”

And I said, “Hey, I can do more than that.” And he said, “Like what?” I said, “Anything that any of these guys can do, I can also do.” I said, “I can handle it.” And he decided to put me on. And I was there and really learned a lot over the next… Now, I don’t know, three years or so, something like that.

Alex:          I see.

Steranko:   Three or four years… I learned to make plates, to burn plates. I learned to photograph negatives. I learned to in-line press. I learned every single operation in the printing trade, which gave me an advantage for the rest of my life?

Alex:          Which you used later when you published… Oh, wow, good.

Steranko:   Because I knew how reproduction techniques worked. And that put me in a special category.

Alex:          Yeah, it does.

Steranko:   In a position above Kirby, Romita, Toth, and all the rest of them because they didn’t go through this process. But I knew it firsthand so, I had an edge. And I used that edge.

Now, can I roll that over into the next part?

Alex:          Please.

Steranko:   I had an altercation at this printing company where I worked, with the guy who had been there for years, maybe 20 years before me. We got into a little brawl. He was a very aggressive and disagreeable guy, nobody there really liked him. But they put up with him because they didn’t want to be in a confrontational situation. But I come from a different kind of background. And I got into a fight with this guy. And I said, “I think I learned all I could learn at this particular place, I’m going to move on.”

One of my customers was the head of an advertising agency. His name was Quentin, Quentin Minker. And Quentin and I spoke the same language, artistically and design-wise. I got along with him really well, as a customer. So, I was thinking, why couldn’t I parlay my association with Quentin, maybe into another job.

And so, I quit at the printers, and I confronted my former business associate, Quentin. And I said, “I think I have what it takes to be in the advertising field.” I said, “You already know my work. You know how dedicated I am to making things happen exactly the way you want them to happen. And I’m going to do that here for you.” And Quentin says, “I’m not too sure what you’re getting at.”

And I said, “I’m going to work for you starting tomorrow.” And he said, “Now, Jim, look, all our positions are filled. The guys have been here for a long time.” He said, “We get along really well and I like your work, but there’s just no place for you here.” And I said, “Give me that piece of paper, that little pad.” And I wrote a number down on it. And I said, “I’m going to make you an offer.” I’d said, “I’m going to work for you for two weeks. Two weeks. And if the work that I produce for you doesn’t make two or three times the number that I wrote down on this piece of paper. I’ll just leave. You will have me for two weeks. And I’ll do everything I need to do here to make things happen. I’ll even empty that ashtray on your desk if I have to.”

[chuckle]

I said, “I’m a pretty good writer to begin with. I know something about writing. I know some of the rules.” I said, “So, I can work from that area, to illustration, to design, and I have a production background that I’m not sure any of your guys have.”

[00:40:04]

And he said, “Ah Jim, come on, you know there’s no point.” And I said, “Look, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. If… If I don’t produce enough work that you can bill to your customers two to three times the amount that I wrote on that paper, which is the salary I want from you, if you decide to put me on.” I said, “If you decide that I don’t work out, that I don’t make that kind of money – profit for you. I’ll just walk out the door. I won’t confront you… There won’t be another word said… Thank you. Thank you, Quentin. And I’ll just leave nothing else, and you won’t owe me a thing and we’ll be friends.” I said, “You can’t turn me down” And he said, “You know, you’re right. I can’t turn you down.” I said, “I’m going to start tomorrow.”

I was there for three years… And I became the art director in six months.

Alex:          Okay. So, you had innate talent for this.

Steranko:   All the guys there, they were much older than me because I was just in my early 20s at the time. And they really hated my guts because I was a slave driver. But we did some fabulous work, from billboards to newspaper ads, to magazine ads, TV commercials, and so forth. We really knocked it out of the ball park.

Alex:          So, you really had all these visual, I guess, techniques, you were able to bring the various artforms that you got involved in, with this experience.

Steranko:   Well, I was already design savvy. Now, just because an artist… Name an artist… Just because an artist can draw well, that’s draftsmanship. He draws the figure well.

Alex:          Yeah. Right.

Steranko:   Okay, he draws backgrounds, he draws cars and buildings well. He draws well. He inks well. That’s draftsmanship. That has nothing to do with design. Anybody who thinks that, is making a terminal mistake because draftsmanship and design are like opposing ends of the spectrum.

Alex:          Different… Oh, I see. Okay.

Steranko:   I brought my design chops, my skills, into the comic book world. It is not something I can shut off. Do you get it?

Alex:          Yeah.

Steranko:   I can’t just shut it off and say, “Hey, I don’t know what this is about.” Every line, I put on a piece of paper has to conform to my design skills, my rules, my knowledge. And so, I brought typography, design, composition. And one other thing that I think is really the heart of comics, which is storytelling.

Drawing, artwork, is not the core of the comics medium. Comics are about narrative art or storytelling. And this is where I think, many people in the business, are wrong today. Because the emphasis is on drawing great figures, rather than telling great stories.

We have a few guys who are really terrific at it, but not enough. And I think we’re losing it. It’s like selling Spanish galleons… Nobody know how to do it anymore. The focus is more on big figures and a lot of lines on paper.

But that’s not really what comics, comics are a storytelling medium.

Alex:          Yeah. Right. Interesting.

Steranko:   So, I spent an enormous amount of time as a kid in movie theaters. And my storytelling sensibilities were informed completely by the world’s greatest directors. And this is what I thought.

Alex:          Yeah, movies. Right.

Steranko:   Movies. Film.

Alex:          Yeah… Because there’s this myth I think that say, “Oh, he was influenced by Eisner… but a lot of stuff… It’s more like movie posters, probably had more influence than someone like Eisner did. Right?

Steranko:   No, actually, it’s not about movie posters at all. It’s about… My influences: Alfred Hitchcock… [overlap talk]

Alex:          Sequential storytelling, yes.

Steranko:   John Ford, Orson Welles, whom I knew. Henry Hathaway. These are the guys that influenced me the most. They were film makers and they’re cinematographers.

[00:45:12]

Alex:          I see… Yeah, so the way the scene is constructed… Yeah, and then the way the story goes. Okay.

Steranko:   I often hear this, “Who influenced you the most?”

Alex:          Yeah. Right.

Steranko:   My drawings, some drawings, are certainly influenced by artists that I’ve mentioned like Frank Robbins, Wally Wood, Jack Kirby, Alex Toth, Reed Crandall. I have many, many influences because I never went to school.

Alex:          Yeah… Influences… But the movies… Right. Right… But then the filmmakers, it’s all another…

Steranko:   And, I’d say that, in terms of my story telling abilities, they are entirely informed by the world’s greatest directors. They are my teachers.

Alex:          That makes sense. Because it feels like that when you read your stuff. It feels like it’s a movie.

Steranko:   This is my philosophy, you go to the movies – you laugh out loud, you cry. When’s the last time you picked up a comic book and you laughed out loud or you cried?

Alex:          Yeah, it’s rare… It’s rare, yeah.

Steranko:   Not often.

Alex:          Yeah. Right.

Steranko:   That’s because, the world’s greatest storytellers are in the movie business, not in the comic business.

Alex:          That makes sense.

Steranko:   So, my concepts of how to create stories, and how to mount them, essentially, come from the film world. I was surprised very early on, when I got to Marvel, that my work was identified very quickly by fan boys who recognized a different kind of quality in the work, in the storytelling aspect of it. And they would say, “This is very cinematic.” And they were right on the money in their perception. That was a very inciteful thing for them to realize that there was something different.

I didn’t even know about it… I mean, it makes common sense, but I wasn’t even aware that, “Hey, I want to produce this book or this series, and it will have a cinematic quality.” That really wasn’t on my mind. I just wanted to produce compelling, entertaining comic books.

Alex:          And quality storytelling, yeah.

Steranko:   I think of myself as an entertainer, and these are the tools. They are the tools that are used by the world’s greatest directors.

Alex:          Makes sense… Now, just a clarification, so then, you’re doing advertising, that’s later ‘50s and early ‘60s, right? Just to be clear on the timeline.

Steranko:   Correct.

Alex:          Was it during that time frame that this Julie Schwartz story happened, where you stopped by DC and he showed you an Adam Strange comic? Is that around that time period?

Steranko:   It would have been around that time period, yeah… Maybe in the…

Alex:          So, before Stan and all that stuff.

Steranko:   Maybe in the… I may have done that… When did the DC revival really start?… The Flash, when was that?

Alex:          Right… 1956.

Steranko:   When was it?

Alex:          1956.

Steranko:   ’56. So, it had to be after that.

Alex:          Maybe a couple of years after?

Steranko:   Maybe it was in the early ‘60s or the late ‘50s.

Alex:          Okay… I see.

Steranko:   New York was like my second home. I spent a lot of time in New York, in Manhattan, particularly. And just out of, let’s say curiosity, I had nothing to do one afternoon, and I was right in that area, and I thought I’d just stop in. I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? They’d throw me out.

Alex:          Right.

Steranko:   I’ve been thrown out of better places than that before. So, I walked in and it was overlapping lunch hour a little bit. Maybe it was 2:00 in the afternoon, 1:30, 2:00. And I went to the receptionist and I said, “I’m a big fan. I’ve been a comic book reader all my life. I was in the area and I thought I’d stop in to maybe talk to somebody here that could enlighten me on a few things, because, I don’t know, maybe someday in the future, I might be one of you guys.”

[00:50:15]

She kind of chuckled at that, and she said, “Well, everybody’s out to lunch. Your timing isn’t so good.”

Alex:          I see.

Steranko:   “Okay”… Well, my timing wasn’t so good. Then she said, “But, I think Julie is here. Would you like to talk to Julie?” And I’m thinking, “Would I like to talk to Julie?… Hey, I’d love to talk to Julie.” I’m thinking about maybe Julie Adams or… you know.

Alex:          Right.

Steranko:   And she said, “Okay. Well, just have a seat.” So, I’m waiting for Julie to come in, in all her glory… And who do you think shows up.

Alex:          [chuckle] Yeah. Sure.

Steranko:   Julie Schwartz, what a surprise… Well, Julie spent the next hour with me. He took me through the whole place.

Alex:          Oh, cool.

Steranko:   Eventually, some of these guys came back in and I met the other people there. And Julie was kind enough to answer all the questions that I had. And at the end of the visit, we went back to the reception area, and I thanked him for spending an hour. Invaluable time. with the dumb kid walking in right off the street…

Alex:          But he must have seen something in you because I’ve heard he’s very picky about people.

Steranko:   That I wouldn’t know about. But that day was a revelation to me. I had already met other people, known other people, kind of in the business but this was in a transcendental kind of moment… And I thank Julie, and he said, “Wait right here. Stay right there. Don’t go away.” And I’m thinking, “What’s this?”

He left then he came back, I don’t know, three minutes later with a big pack of paper. And he said, “This might be an inspiration to you.” He gave me an Adam Strange story, Man of Two Worlds. The entire story, 26 pages, I think it was, or 27, 26 and a half, I’m not sure. Beautiful Infantino, and I think it was Murphy Anderson or Joe Giella.

Alex:          Murphy Anderson inks… or Joe Giella… Right.

Steranko:   It might be Anderson… And he also gave me the script.

Alex:          Oh, cool.

Steranko:   He said, “This is the best I can do for you.” And I still have that story and that script.

Alex:          Oh, that’s great.

Steranko:   And I think, in a way, Julie’s kindness to me that day, maybe made a difference in inspiring me to really go to the trouble to get into the business.

Alex:          I see… That’s a nice story… Right. So, he was a positive influence at that time.

Steranko:   Very much so.

Alex:          And then now, what did I read about, you worked with Vince Colletta and Matt Baker doing some work? What was that, exactly?… Romance comics or something?

Steranko:   Where’d you read that?

Alex:          Where did I read that?… I mean, I read a lot of things.

Steranko:   I’m asking you.

Alex:          Well, I read a lot of things. So, I’ve cataloged in my mind, but I don’t know the details.

Steranko:   Well, that’s something I really don’t talk about.

Alex:          I see.

Steranko:   I don’t think we have the time at this point because I think we’d want to cover some other stuff. But I’ll tell you what, if the time ever comes that I decide to talk about that particular material, you’ll be the first.

Alex:          Okay. I like that… And then, a quick question, Matt Baker, was he a nice fellow?

Steranko:   I’ll cover that next time.

Alex:          At that next time, okay. That’s cool…

Let’s say, now, you’re in the advertising world. Now it’s the mid ‘60s. I think you had some dealings with… You created a few character concepts for Harvey Thriller Comics, with Joe Simon. Spy Man was the character. And you did, I think, in one page inside, you wrote a script for that. And then you went to Marvel, right after.

[00:55:00]

What happened with Harvey? Why didn’t you stay there? And what made you go to Marvel? What led to that sudden change there? Seemed like you were on the move a lot.

 

Steranko:   I was really busy in those days. I was an art director of an ad agency. I’d be playing rock and roll three to five nights a week. And I didn’t have enough space in my apartment. Had a lot of comics books and stuff that was just taking up room I really didn’t have.

And so, I heard about a convention in New York City in 1965, called the Kaler Con, Dave Kaler. I packed up my girlfriend, who was… I never told you about that… I started to tell you the story about the go-go girls. She was maybe the last of my go-go girls… I want to tell you the go-go girls’ story.

I started you about the profusion of musicians that were in my area, in the Philly area. Philly is a music kind of town, right? We know that. The rock and roll, Dick Clarke, American Bandstand… I mean, everybody was into rock and roll performers.

Alex:          Right. Sure… Yeah.

Steranko:   And I was in a little town outside of Philly. Still, with the enormous number of musicians… and I was telling you that the number of locations to play was maybe one tenth that of the number of musicians who were in the area. The union and the non-union musicians had to be easily over 300.

So, how do you work? How do you find work? You have to compete. How do you compete? I’m saying, a lot of these guys were terrific musicians and performers. How do you compete? It’s a problem that was very vexing at the time. I had material, new ideas, new concepts that I was promoting because I had already done magic, professionally. I’d also done stand-up comedy.

Alex:          Oh, yeah? That’s cool.

Steranko:   So, I was used to entertaining on another level. And I brought that, that kind of emcee work into my rock and roll presentation. That was something that most groups didn’t have. They played music but they didn’t entertain on the side.

I will make this one point, some of it was very experimental. I remember that some of it was actually acrobatic. When I was playing guitar, I would climb on the shoulders of my base man. He’d be playing base and I’d be playing guitar on his shoulders as part of this rock and roll show. You see what I mean?

Alex:          Yeah.

Steranko:   Trying to get an edge, over the other bands… So, one day, I’m thinking, maybe I was talking to one of my girlfriends, a great dancer. And I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to put a really good-looking babe, who was a great dancer, on the stage. And maybe put her in a little costume, and make a thing out of. I mentioned this to one of the bars, one of the saloons we used to play. I knew this place very well. I used to play there, often every Friday nights for like three months in a row, we booked every Friday. That was a big night, Friday nights. And the guy loved the idea.

So, I put the word out, trying to pick up a possible dancer to put on the stage. Where would I find one? I went to the tap dancing, acrobatic dancing schools around the area. Because they must have had 50 kids that started when they were five years old.

[01:00:03]

And then 50% of them continued on for three years, and then they dropped out. But there were still girls in there, late teens – either teachers or being taught there… Well, hey, there’s no market for them, Vaudeville’s over. There’s no market for tap dancers. It’s just a kind of social thing to keep kids busy. It’s an art. But they couldn’t earn any money.

I went to all the studios and said, “Look, I’m going to going to pay these women to dance on stage. No acrobatic dancing, no tap, nothing. They’re just going to rock and roll, they’re going to do the shimmy, they’re going to do the twist. They’re going to do the popular dances, on the stage by themselves.

They were like, “What the hell are you talking about?” I’m saying, “No, this could really be a cool thing.”… Nobody was interested. I couldn’t find anybody. I couldn’t recruit anybody to do this bit. And finally, after months of coaxing, and looking and begging, I finally found a girl who would do it.

We hit it really hard in newspaper ads – guess whose idea that was… And we packed the joint. Miss Twist.

Alex:          Oh, nice, Miss Twist. There you go… [chuckle]

Steranko:   Miss Twist. And this was at a time when Chubby Checker hit it big, right? So, it was a sensation.

Alex:          Yeah, that’s cool.

Steranko:   And the moment I did it, other bands copied it immediately.

Alex:          Yeah. That’s awesome.

Steranko:   So now, it became like a little trend. A movement… Well, how was I going to beat it?… I put two girls on stage.

Alex:          There you go. Double the entertainment.

Steranko:   So, it was a matter of finding the right direction to rival anybody else, and come up with constant new ideas. One of them for example was that I had one of our girls, a pretty good-looking girl, do a kind of strip tease. We played three tunes like Night Train, which have real bluesy burlesque kind of beat. And I designed a costume for this girl, a one-of-a-kind costume made by a seamstress, that would zip away top pieces at a time…

Alex:          Oh, that’s cool.

Steranko:   And come apart. And we knocked them out with that. We played for about a year.

Alex:          With that going on.

Steranko:   I don’t remember anybody else that copied that particular thing, but I’m sure it was there. And then, about another year, went by… It’s so long ago, I’m only guessing… When girls dancing on stage became an almost national trend, and the word go-go was coined. But I say, I created the go-go girl, but not the term.

Alex:          Right. Not the term but actual action, you did. You pioneer that.

Steranko:   I’m going to take credit for it until somebody proves me otherwise.

Alex:          That’s awesome… Right.

Steranko:   But every word is absolutely true. That could be my real claim to fame.

Alex:          There you go.

Steranko:   You think it was these drawing? Pfttt…. I don’t know. I think it’s the go-go girl.

Alex:          The inventor of the go-go dancing.

Back to the Harvey question… What made you leave Joe Simon to go to work with Stan Lee at Marvel? What was that circumstance?

Steranko:   Survival.

Alex:          Okay, it’s just better pay at Marvel at the time, or…? What do you mean by that?

Steranko:   I’m glad you asked that question. Remember I was telling you that my apartment was taken over by comic books?

Alex:          Yeah.

Steranko:   I decided to get rid of them, to sell them off. And I found this convention in New York, Kaler Con!

Alex:          Yeah, Kaler Con, right.

Steranko:   I drove my… I had a white Cadillac; with the biggest fins you ever saw in your life. I drove my white Cadillac, filled with comic books, and my go-go girl at the time. Sandy was her name. We went up to New York, to the Broadway Hotel Central. And I remember, we checked in to the place, got our keys, went upstairs.

[01:05:06]

And I was thinking, I don’t want to have my comic books out in the street, in my car, overnight. I’d better think about hauling this stuff into the Broadway Hotel Central where the convention was going to take place.

I remember coming into the room, and snapping on the light. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much movement. It was like the big bang… You know the big bang?

Alex:          Yeah.

Steranko:   Hundreds or probably thousands, or maybe 10s of thousands of cockroaches all over this room. [makes a sound] … Scattered to get away from the light. I think some of them actually went into the light switch… And that was more than I could handle. The Broadway Hotel Central. We got another hotel that night.

Just as a capper on that one. I used to stay… A couple of years later, with my friend Phil Seuling; Phil is the guy who started the direct to market sales system.

Alex:          Direct Market. Right.

Steranko:   And he also threw the first biggest Comic Conventions in New York, in the Statler-Hilton.

Alex:          Yeah. Comic Art conventions.

Steranko:   Phil and I were close friends, and I used to stay at his place. I remember we were eating breakfast at one time… He lived in Coney Island, in a high rise. He handed me this newspaper, and it was a photograph of the front of the Broadway Hotel Central, first convention, that had literally… the face of the hotel had fallen into the street. It had collapsed. Literally, into the ground. You know, I could have predicted that years ago, but it was vindication that this was truly cockroach heaven at this place.

Anyway, I was a dealer at the show. And just for the hell of it, don’t ask me why, I can’t tell you, except for the hell of it. I had done a little drawing of a gladiator. It was a gladiator like you’ve never seen before because he was half covered in chain mail and armor, only one half. That was the half that would take opponents’ blows. In other words, his left half is covered with armor, his right half was naked. His right arm had no metal to impede it. Nothing heavy, except his sword arm. That would give him an advantage in terms of speed.

I knew a little bit about edged weapons because I had fenced for about three years. Fenced, edged weapons… So, I had this idea about armor that should have been, but never was, for gladiators. And I had it taped up on the wall behind me.

And just by a wild coincidence, Joe Simon, half of the Simon and Kirby team for years, attended the show.

Alex:          Oh, okay. So that’s how you… Okay.

Steranko:   And he was looking around and he came up to my table, and I’m not sure I even knew who he was at the time but he said, “What’s that drawing up there?” And I told him just what I told you. That I was interested in edged weapons, and fighting with edged weapons, and that sort of thing.

Alex:          Yeah… Oh, interesting. Okay.

Steranko:   That it was an idea that I had. And he said, “That would make a hell of a comic book character.” And he told me who he was, and I knew, of course, because I’ve been reading Kirby comic books since… I was one-and-a-half-year-old! Come on.

Alex:          Since you’re one and a half. Since you’re a year and a half.

Steranko:   So, he said, “Do you have other ideas like this?” And I said, “Of course. Endlessly.” And he said, “Why don’t you come out and see me.”

Alex:          Nice.

Steranko:   He said, “Here’s my phone number and here’s my address. I live out in Long Island… Come out and we’ll talk.” He said, “I have an idea.”

Hey, what do I have to lose? I thought it would be fun to talk to Joe Simon, Kirby’s partner for years. So, at the end of that show, Sunday, I drove out to his place and we talked for a while.

[01:10:05]

And he said, “I’m starting a new line of comics for Harvey. I want to compete with Marvel.” And I said, “Well, I already know some of your Harvey history. You’ve had some interesting material there”. And he said that the Harvey Brothers felt that they could rival Marvel.

Alex:          Right. With the super heroes.

Steranko:   “And I think you have the possibility of delivering some interesting ideas like that gladiator that you had on the wall.” Well, by the time I left Joe’s home studio on Long Island, probably, in the space of 20 minutes, I had a half a dozen ideas. I produced them as presentation pieces in color, and I sent them up to Joe. And he said, “I like this one, this one, and this one.” And he said, “I want to show them to Al Harvey, get his take on it and I’ll give you a call back in a week or so.” And I think he did.

One of them was a character I called the Sorcerer, which was about a kid magician and his Egyptian sorcerer mentor. That’s the superhero aspect. You know, Bucky (Barnes) and Captain (American)… It was the kid and the hero.

Alex:          Yeah. Kid and the hero… Sidekick.

Steranko:   So, Joe felt that this would may be a little more than most writers who have no knowledge of magic… Part of my presentation was that I could show kids, who read the books, how to do real magic.

Alex:          Oh, that’s cool. Like a nice gimmick in the comic like, “Here, you can do this trick.”

Steranko:   Yeah. A couple of pages, filler pages.

Alex:          Nice.

Steranko:   “Do this with a deck of cards, or a piece of paper, and some scissors, or whatever.” And Joe like that idea, and he said, “Can you deliver all three of these scripts?” And I said, “I think I can, I’ve been writing ad copy and other material for years already.” And I turned in the three scripts to him, and at that juncture, after I had done the presentation pieces in full color, full figures of the characters and the synopsis of what they did and maybe some art facts around them.

I said, “What the possibility of me, maybe penciling one of the scripts?”

And Joe looked at me with his, 40 years of professional expertise, and he said, “You can’t draw.”… “Oh… Okay. I can’t draw.” That was in his infinite wisdom. He made that pronouncement. So, I think he had Jack Sparling draw one. Bob Powell, I think did the Gladiator.

Alex:          I see. Ok.

Steranko:   Joe said, “Your names are no good… The Sorcerer… People don’t know what a sorcerer is. I’m going to call him Magic Master.”

Alex:          Yeah. Magic Master, right.

Steranko:   And I said like, “Joe, that’s so unbelievably corny, maybe nobody would buy it, it’s just…” “No.”… “Sorcerer is the right…” “No, no, no… Nobody would know what that is.”

Alex:          I see.

Steranko:   And he said, “The Gladiator… That’s just too plain. It’s too simple.” And I said, “Joe, did you ever hear of like – Batman? … Superman? It doesn’t get any simpler than that.”

Alex:          Yeah, simple names. Simple names.

Steranko:   And he said, “No, no, no, we’ll call this guy the Glowing Gladiator.” And I’m thinking, “What kind of hell did I get into?”

Alex:          [chuckle] So, that’s why you left, editorial interference.

Steranko:   And I think Spy-Man, he left the way it was…. And I was so disappointed when the books came out. I think he hired me to do a second issue script or something like that, but I didn’t get paid. And various promises but no check every came in.

[01:15:00]

I finally began to get a little more abusive calling and calling Joe. I said, “Joe, don’t make me have to come up there. You know I know where you live. Don’t make me have to come up there. It’s just, Harvey paid you for the work, you just had to send the check on to…” I had to beg him to pay me for the work that I turned in. Not the characters, they didn’t pay me for the characters. They already own those characters. I couldn’t get paid for the damn scripts, which was something like peanuts, whatever it was.

Eventually, I got some money out of Joe, but I’m like, “Hey look, I don’t mind spending this kind of time and effort. But if I had to beg to get paid, that’s going over the top for me.”

Alex:          Yeah, so it wasn’t fun at that point.

Steranko:   I was hanging out with my friend and my mentor Wally Wood. The great inspirations and perhaps one of the most prolific and brilliant comic book artists, maybe that every lived. He could do everything well.

Alex:          That’s right.

Steranko:   Everything. He could do funny animals, he could do superheroes, he could do westerns, he could do horror. He could do everything. War. Really well. And I don’t know, I may have been showing Woody some drawings and he said, “You know, you’ll never going to be happy, until you’re in the comic book business.” He said, “Until you make your statement, you will never be happy.”

Alex:          Right. That makes sense.

Steranko:   And I said, “I’m not disagreeing with you but I already have two full time jobs. What do I need a third one for?” And he said, “I’m going to call my publisher at Tower Comics. And he might like to see this work. You might want to talk to him.” Harry Shorten.

Alex:          Harry Shorten, that’s it?

Steranko:   Harry Shorten.

Alex:          That’s right. That’s right.

Steranko:   Harry Shorten. Harry Shorten did this great panel in Sunday comics, and I read it for years, and I loved it. I loved his work. And I showed him some of these drawings. And he said, “Yeah, I see what Wood means here.” And we talked for a little while. And he said, “Do you have an idea for a possible character?”

And I said, “Yeah, I might have something that might do what Joe Simon and Al Harvey wanted to do – rival Marvel Comics. I said, “I got an idea for a character called Super-Agent X, like the X-Men, X.” And he said, “Hey, I like that idea. What’s it about?”… I didn’t have the vaguest idea what the hell it was about.

Alex:          But it’s a great title.

Steranko:   I was just on the spot. And I said, “Well, why don’t I develop some material for you.” He said, “If I like it, as much as I like these drawings, I’m going to give you your own 48-page comic book just…” Or is it 64 pages, or 52? What was it? What were those Tower books?

Alex:          I think they were 52 pages.

[01:20:00]

Steranko:   52 pages. He said, “You’re going have a 52-page book, just like Wally Wood.” I was walking on a cloud.

Alex:          Yeah, sure.

Steranko:   So, I came back, and I wrote and penciled, the origin story of Super-Agent X, took it back up there. And he looked at the pencils, 20 pages. And I had covered concepts for him to look at. And he said, “Hey, I like this. And I think it is something. It’s done in the kind of like the Marvel style.” He said, “I think I can use this. You got the book.”

Does everybody know the rest of the story?

Alex:          Well, I mean… well, okay, we’ll continue…

Steranko:   Should I really tell you the rest of it?

Alex:          Yeah, I think so. Yes.

Steranko:   [chuckle] So, he said, “You and I won’t be talking again, unless our paths cross in the hallway.” He said, “From now on, I’m going to turn you over to my art director, Samm Schwartz.”

Alex:          There you go.

Steranko:   And he said, “He was over at Archie for years.” And I said, “I think I remember his name.” So, he took me into this office that was no bigger than a telephone booth. A telephone booth with a couple of filing cabinets in it, and I think it had a chair, one chair.

And Sam began to look at my pages, and he began to shake his head… Shake his head.

Alex:          Samm Schwartz did. Okay.

Steranko:   Samm Schwartz.

Alex:          I see.

Steranko:   He was shaking his head.

Alex:          So, that’s what happened.

Steranko:   I’m thinking, what does this mean? And as he’s going through, he cites an example. He said, “You see this woman, she’s a woman scientist”, that I had modeled after Kim Novak, one of the world’s great beauty.

Alex:          Yeah… Alfred Hitchcock… The Vertigo girl… I had a big crush on her grown up.

Steranko:   We all did.

Alex:          Yeah.

Steranko:   So, I put her in my comic book. And Kim has a very cool nature. And I figured as a scientist, a woman scientist, she’d need a cool disposition and it was just right. And he said, “I don’t like the shape of this woman’s nose.”

I’m going like, “What did you just say?… What the hell are you talking about?”

Alex:          Samm Schwartz said that. Okay.

Steranko:   And I said, “Well, maybe you’d like her to have one of those, cute little pug howdie-doodie noses like Betty and Veronica.” And he said, “You know what? I think maybe I would.”

So, anyway, he continued to go through the pages, and he’s just shaking his head and kind of grumbling about things. He finally gets to the end of the book, climactic scene somewhere. And I had our hero, Super-Agent X, take out a pair of villains, opponents, by punching them like this…

[chuckle]

By throwing two punches.

Alex:          Yeah.

Steranko:   Look, I boxed for three years. Are you going to tell me anything about throwing punches? …You’re not going to do it.

Alex:          Right, right… And he was criticizing that.

Steranko:   And we got this little guy, a little skinny guy, who looks like he just stepped off of a toilet ad…

[laughter]

And he’s telling me about throwing punches. Like, “Were in fantasy land. This is Comic Bookville.” This isn’t in the ring. We’re not talking about reality. Right? We’re talking about fantasy fighting. Right? I mean, it’s all fantasy. Kirby set the style; anything goes? This is nothing.

Alex:          Right. So, he just kind of nitpicked on the littlest thing.

Steranko:   No, it wasn’t that… I realized when he brought that, that punch, what he was really doing at that point is, he was grooming me.

Alex:          Oh, I see.

Steranko:   He was grooming me to be his slave. He was the king, and I would be one of his slave boys working here.

Alex:          I see… psychological warfare.

Steranko:   And I thought that was a very disagreeable thing; really nasty for a kid like me. Right off the street, I had no experience, essentially, in business. My friend Woody brought me into it. And this guy is trying to make me a slave.

Alex:          I see.

Steranko:   I got very, very angry.

Alex:          That’s interesting.

Steranko:   Very angry. And I said, “You say one more word, and I’m going to knock you the *__ out.”

[01:25:04

[chuckles]

And in his infinite wisdom, he didn’t say another word… Because I was ready to punch him out. Right then and there.

Alex:          Yeah, that’s right.

Steranko:   I thought that was really unprofessional of him to do that, to a kid just fresh in the business.

Alex:          Right. Right.

Steranko:   He was taking advantage of me. He was trying to take advantage of my inexperience, to control me.

Alex:          And you sensed it.

Steranko:   So, I took the pages and left. I lost a 52-page comic book, like my friend Wally Wood, bam, over the shape of a girl’s nose.

Alex:          Right.

Steranko:   Could I make this stuff up?… So, I went down to Archie Comics, which was a few blocks away. And I went to the reception area, and I said, “I’d like to talk to somebody about maybe, drawing for you; creating something.” And she said, “Would you like to talk to John Goldwater?”

Well, John, was the J in MLJ Comics.

Alex:          That’s right.

Steranko:   And I knew that. And John came out, and he looked over my work and he said, “I don’t think we have anything for you. But I’d love for you to draw all of our covers.” And I liked John a lot. He was really a personable guy. And I said, “John, today is Super-Agent X Day.” I said, “I appreciate the offer, but I’ll have to pass on it.”

And from there, I went down to DC. Walked into the office, the same reception office I was in, that day with Julie Schwartz. I had these pages under my arm and I said, “I’d like to show some pages to one of your editors.” The woman said, “Well, how about Murray Boltinoff?” And I know Murray’s work, and I said, “Sure, absolutely.”

He was a cartoonist… I think Henry was the cartoonist, and Murray was the writer. And he looked over the work. And he said, “Yeah, there’s something, I like this. I like, some things here.” And I’m thinking, “I just found a home for Super Agent X.” He’ll be the brother of Superman, and Batman, and Wonder Woman, and the Flash, and Hawkman.

Alex:          Yeah, join the pantheon.

Steranko:   He said, “No, no, no. No.” He said, “I’m not interested in Super Agent X. I want you to write for us.” He said, “I like the way you write. I like your pacing. I like your dialogue.” He said, “I want you to write for us. I’ll give you a job right now, on assignment.”

I said, “Look, I appreciate it. Really… I mean, it’s very kind of you, Murray, but today’s Super Agent X Day. I got to make that happen.” And he said, “Okay, I understand.”

From there, I can’t quite explain this to you, but from there, I went to… I was running out of places… I went down to 44th Street, and I went to Paramount, that building there. Half of the [overlap talk] buildings at Paramount are still there.

Alex:          Yeah, yeah. A movie… Or a cartoon or something. Yeah.

Steranko:   And I walked in, and I knew they had their Animation Studios there… I can’t explain this exactly, what the hell was I doing at Paramount Animation Studios, but hey, you roll the dice, right?

Alex:          [chuckle] That’s right.

Steranko:   So, I walked in, the receptionist said, “Can I help you?”

“I’ve got an idea for a cartoon series.” She said, “Well, what would you like me to do?” I said, “Is there somebody here that could take a look at it, make a decision, that I could talk to… Five minutes. Three minutes. Three minutes.” And she said, “There’s a new guy that just started here a little while ago.” She said, “You want to talk to him?”

“What’s his name?” … “Ralph Bakshi.”

Alex:          Oh, really?

Steranko:   He wasn’t yet the real Ralph Bakshi. He was just starting…

Alex:          Yeah, the one that we came to find…

Steranko:   Ralph came out as a Brooklyn guy. We talked the same language, and he’d liked the work, and he said, “You want to talk to Shamus Culhane.”

In the animation world, Shamus Culhane is a big a name as Walt Disney. A brilliant, brilliant animator. No kidding.

Alex:          Yeah.

[01:30:00]

Steranko:   And he said, “Come on, I’ll introduce you.” Went into Shamus’ office, and… Very energetic guy. He solitaired, all 20 Agent X pages out on the floor. Like you’re dealing, playing solitaire, so he could see them all at once. That’s what animators do. They usually do it in 3 x 5 cards, they put up on bulletin boards so they can see entire sequences. He laid them out on the floor, walking back and forth, and absorbing its action, and the characters and costumes. And he said, “You know this would make a hell of a Saturday morning TV show.”

Alex:          Yeah, right.

Steranko:   [chuckle] Sam Schwartz, I’ll see you in hell.

[chuckle]

So, he said, “I want you to come back in two weeks. I’ll have a contract for you.” He said, “Let me keep…” He kept some of my cover designs, and he puts them on the bulletin board. He said, “I want to keep these here to look at, very inspiring.” He said, “You take the rest.” And my job was over, I did what I set out to do…

I have this trick that I used in my show business years of psyching myself up. I don’t know if you’ve quite have experienced that but often when musicians, performers, actors, before they go on stage, they get themselves into a particular state, a creative state.

Alex:          Mindset… Yeah, sure.

Steranko:   And when I was driving up there that day, I got myself into a state, and I had done this for years before, that selling people at the ad agency things, and performing on stage doing magic escapes, and all kinds of other stuff. And I got myself into a state where people could not say no, to me. If that makes any sense?

Alex:          Yeah.

Steranko:   Couldn’t do it.

Alex:          I mean, I couldn’t do it now. [chuckle]

Steranko:   So, I thought it was quarter to 5:00, it’s the end of the day. I had 15 minutes left. You know how much trouble I can get into in 15 minutes?

Alex:          Yeah, probably a lot… If you wanted to.

Steranko:   I took a cab over to Marvel.

Alex:          Yeah, there you go.

Steranko:   And I got there about five minutes to 5:00, and they we’re closing the joint. And I went up to the seventh floor of Marvel Comics, walked in. And there was Fabulous Flo Steinberg.

Alex:          Nice. Yeah.

Steranko:   Really cute go-go boots, short skirt. She was just really cute. And I wasn’t even caring about comic books at this point. Anyway, I said, I’d like to see Stanley… She laughed at my face. “Nobody sees Stan Lee”, she said. So, I grabbed her wrist, and I levered her arm up, and I put my Super Agent X pages under her arm, clamped it down, and I said, “Stan will see me.” And I pointed her to the door.

She left. And she came back about two minutes later. She had this stunned look on her face.

Alex:          And he said yes.

Steranko:   And no pages… You get it?

Alex:          Yeah, he took them, or he’s looking at them.

Steranko:   It was like she’d been hit in the head with a ball-peen hammer. She was like stunned drunk. She said like, “Stan, will see you.”

And it was the cleanest office I’ve ever been in, in my life. Facing Madison Avenue, and it was at 57th and Madison… Am I close?

Alex:          Yeah, something like that.

Steranko:   And he’s right at the corner… No, I don’t think he was in the corner office yet. Anyway, I handed the pages over to him. And I told him the story about Tower, where I’d gotten into a fight. [overlap talk]

Alex:          Okay. You told him all that stuff…

Steranko:   And he’s looking through my pages. And he’s asking me like, “Who the hell are you?” And I’m having a conversation with him about Kirby and Bill Everett and Johnny Severin. The guys that I love and I grew up with. So, we’re having these alternate conversations, he’d do two minutes, and I’d do two minutes.

[01:35:00]

And there’s one when he got through all the 20 pages, and he said, “This work is really crude.” [chuckle] “But… “ And I’m saying like, “Well?… But what? You going to fill me in or are you going to make me guess?”

[chuckle]

He said, “No, no, no. Look,” he said, “It has something here that I could really use. I could sell. I can market something that I see in these pages.

Alex:          Nice… That’s great.

Steranko:   I said, “Name it.” And he said, “Your work ripples with energy.” He said, “I can sell that.” And I said, “So, what are we going to do?” And he said, “You know what? All my books are taken. I don’t have anything for you. Everything there…”

What the hell did I care? I just sold a Saturday morning TV series to Paramount Pictures.

Alex:          Sure. I mean, you’re on top of the world.

Steranko:   Yeah. I already had two other full-time jobs. What the hell did I care?

So, he said, “I know what you’re going to do.” I said, “Fill me in.” He said, “I know you’re going to go over to DC. And in three months from now, you’re going to be my competition.” And he said, I cannot afford you to be my competition.”

I said, “What?… Make up your mind. What’s it going to be?” And he said, “Okay… “ Above him, he looked at, up on the wall above his desk, was a huge rack that had all the monthly comic books. And he pointed the rack and he said two words that changed comic history… “Pick one”, he said.

I looked. I could have had Spider Man… Pick one. I could’ve had the FF. I could’ve had Thor… But there’s a word, for competing with Jack Kirby, of following Jack Kirby.

Alex:          Right. To be right after those guys…

Steranko:   Following Jack Kirby, there’s a word for it… Suicide.

Okay, look, I might be crazy, but I’m not stupid. I picked the lowest book that they had. All these guys had really cool masks, and colorful costumes, and cloaks, and superpowers, and electricity, and they could fly, except this one joker, he had a cigar. I said, “I’ll take this guy, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D, because I knew I had nowhere to go but up on that strip.

Alex:          Right. That’s true…

Steranko:   And the rest is history.

Alex:          So, did you put a lot of like, ideas for Super Agent X – SpyMan into the Nick Fury, Strange Tales run?  Or like in the beginning, it’s just kind of de novo, just kind of fresh slate?

Steranko:   No. No, I took Marvel’s lead and went into another direction. For one thing, those were superhero strips. And what I decided to do was kind of follow up on something that Kirby and Lee had developed, but they didn’t know what to do with.

Remember, Kirby did the first S.H.I.E.L.D half book story. And then he moved on to other things.

Alex:          And then John Severin or something.

Steranko:   S.H.I.E.L.D. was originally called the Man Called D.E.A.T.H. – D.E.A.T.H. It’s an anagram.

Alex:          Oh, I see.

Steranko:   Man Called D.E.A.T.H. But that was too harsh, too stark for comic readers, they felt, and so they changed D.E.A.T.H. to another anagram S.H.I.E.L.D. which is a smart move.

Alex:          Right… Yeah, that’s a good move.

Steranko:   And they imported Howling Commandos’ Nick Fury into it.

Alex:          Yeah, smart, smart.

Steranko:   But nobody knew what to do with it. It went from one artist to another. Johnny Severin, great artist, tried to do what he could. Nobody knew what to do with it. Finally, it got down to like… I don’t know… wearing a some sort of something. I mean, it was awful.

[laughter]

I think by the time I took a stab at it. It was truly pathetic. I believe when I took over, Fury was fighting druids in England.

 

[01:40:02]

I could be wrong about that. It could have been even worse but… I mean, they just didn’t know what to do. But isn’t it obvious?… Fury had to compete with all these other cool superheroes. And I figured, the way to make him do it was to create super technology that would put him on a par, a fighting par, with the rest of those sons of bitches.

Alex:          Okay. There you… [chuckle]

Steranko:   And I could also do a number of things. I can also make him comic books’ 007.

Alex:          Yeah, right.

Steranko:   That was important because James Bond led the parade in the spy world.

Alex:          Yeah, especially in the ‘60s. Yeah.

Steranko:   So, I think Kirby and Lee made a terminal mistake by taking foxhole Nick Fury. And making him the Supreme Commander of Secret Service Spy Forces in America. So literally, I shaved him on panel. I took away that five o’clock shadow where … [overlap talk]

Alex:          Oh yeah, you did, from day one. Okay.

Steranko:   I took away those stogies… They were smoking down to like an inch and a half, and gave him some real cool Havana cigarettes, along the way.

Alex:          You made him cool.

Steranko:   I gave him my tailor. I took him to my tailor, and even in one scene, I even gave him my apartment, one night. So, I revised Fury to bring him up to date, and make him compete with the rest of the characters in the Marvel line up. This is what I was thinking of…

Alex:          In skin tight outfits, and all that. Right?

Steranko:   I put him in a zip suit, black leather zip suit. So, he’d have a similar look to those guys, and I literally dressed him up with weaponry. Everything he was wearing was just about a weapon. He’s a human weapon anyway.

I’ll tell you something you didn’t know about Fury. You wouldn’t like him. He’s not that kind of a guy you’d want to go out drinking with at night, because you wouldn’t come back. Fury is not a particularly nice guy. He would be… He’s just the world’s most dangerous man. I mean, he’s like Danny Trejo on speed.

[laughter]

He’s just that, but he’s not a likable guy. He’s just very, very capable.

Alex:          Yeah, he’s very capable. That’s right.

Steranko:   When he says, he’s got to do something. It’s a fait accompli…

Alex:          That’s true.

Steranko:   It’s over. It’s over…

So, I began to develop a whole series of technological miracles for him to tinker around with and tried to match it with my visuals. Ultimately, developing things like the maze page where if you wanted to go from act one to act two you actually had, as a reader, to go through a maze to get to the next page, or you’d be stuck there. That’s all you had to do. You actually had to go through the maze. I figured I could do this on every other page. I could create a million-dollar set, on every other page.

Alex:          Yeah, that’s true… Yeah, you put architecture in this comic.

Steranko:   That’s how I competed with James Bond.

Alex:          Yeah, that’s right.

Steranko:   Eat your heart out, cover it with broccoli… It’s my life story and I’m sticking to it.

Alex:          Yeah, because his loft and everything, his fashion, everything was just a whole another level when you took that character on.

Steranko:   That’d be that way.

Alex:          That would be that way.

Steranko:   It’s development.

Alex:          Did you feel yourself growing as a comic artist during that run? Or did you just get more brave with what you felt like doing? And I’ve also heard that you also encouraged Stan Lee to then let other artists also start kind of doing their own thing, and not stick so close to the Kirby aesthetic as well, because he liked your outcomes.

Steranko:   Not really. Those sons of bitches can fight their own battles.

[01:45:00]

I’ll fight mine. But no, that never happened, what did happen is when I got there, Stan’s ruling was for everybody, not only me, everybody – draw it like Kirby, that’s the house style.

Alex:          That was the house style.

Steranko:   And he told me that. “Draw it like Kirby.”

Hey look, do you know the quintessential insult to an artist?

Alex:          Is draw like someone else.

Steranko:   Don’t draw like you want to… Don’t draw it like your vision, copy somebody else’s. Stan didn’t mean it maliciously. He was just saying, “This is our house style”, that’s what he had in mind. It was a commercial thing.

I didn’t like that, and I’m no Kirby. Kirby’s the world’s greatest comic artist. There’s only one Kirby. I wouldn’t even, I couldn’t even pretend to be Kirby. Couldn’t do it. But I have other ideas, I bring other skills, other strengths, into my work that are different from those that Jack Kirby brings into his work.

And so, I made a thing of them. Initially in the S.H.I.E.LD. strips, I brought my design sensibilities. I brought my compositional strengths. I brought my layout skills. I brought my storytelling; my narrative chops, taught by the world’s greatest film directors into it. I bought other things.

I still had two other full-time jobs. I was playing four or five nights a week playing rock’n’roll, and holding down an 8:00 to 5:00 job. So…

Alex:          And what about Peter Max, Andy Warhol? Do you feel like you put that stuff into it, at all?

Steranko:   Not really. They were doing… Warhol was copying comic panels.

Alex:          Right.

Steranko:   And blowing them up. And making them into fine art.

Alex:          Yeah, true. That’s true.

Steranko:   There was nothing for me to copy.

Alex:          That’s right, because he’s copying comics. Yeah.

Steranko:   Except there were times when I bought a pop art quality into the work. And I can’t tell you something that I never told Stan because I know he’d the roof. I worked on three separate levels. The most basic level was for kids who were maybe five years old, couldn’t read. They could understand my stories, just by looking at the pictures. I always had that, foremost, in mind as I drew my stories, that there was something they could understand. Maybe not all the subtleties, if there were any subtleties, but the nuances of the stories. They could still know who the good guys and the bad guys were, and they could follow the story. Got it?

Alex:          Yeah.

Steranko:   Then I did another level for the Marvel comic reader, young Marvel comic reader.

Alex:          Oh, I see that.

Steranko:   The 11, 12, 13, 14-year-olds, who were the basis of the comic book market. And they read it on that particular level, a kind of straight action-thriller-suspense kind of a level, standard comic book stuff.

And then on top of that, I wrote for the college level. And I’d often create scenarios, characters, scenes, dialogue, that would be so over the top, it would be satirical. I mean, you couldn’t help laughing if you really thought about it.

So, I was working on those three separate levels, trying to find three different audiences simultaneously. And it must have worked because eventually, instead of splitting Strange Tales with another character, in doing the 12-page stories… Stan called me up one day, and it doesn’t happen often in the lives of comic book artists, and actors too, for that matter… Sometimes actors work for five, eight, 10, 15 years, they’d be working behind the scenes, doing one line, a dialogue in a commercial or a TV series or something. I mean, they’ve been there. They’re building sets.

Every so often, they’ll get a call from their agent saying, “Hey, kid just signed you to star in a film.”

[01:50:07]

“You’ve got the lead. You’re going to be a star.” That’s just about what Stan Lee said when he called me up and said, “Hey, kid, you got your own book. You’re going to be a star.”

Alex:          That’s awesome.

Steranko:   So, I knew I was doing something right.

Alex:          Did you enjoy working with Stan during those years?

Steranko:   I enjoyed working with all of the guys up there. They were my heroes.

Alex:          Yeah.

Steranko:   They were my heroes. My childhood heroes, and many of them were really special to me. Like Frankie Giacoia and Joe Sinnott, who inked my work. I say that they took my really crude, in the words of Stan Lee, my really crude amateurish drawings, and turn them into professional material with their inking because they were such great artists. I think Joe Sinnott put me in the map.

Alex:          You feel like the way Murphy Anderson did for Carmine (Infantino)… You feel like Joe Sinnott I did something similar on your pencils?

Steranko:   No, Carmine was already there. He was already a skilled [overlap talk] technician.

Alex:          I see what you’re saying… But he fine-tuned your [inaudible??? 01:51:23].

Steranko:   But Frankie G and Joe Sinnott added a new dimension to the work that wasn’t there. They made it look professional. I wasn’t ready quite yet to get there, but they added the extra element that really worked.

You don’t know how much I fought to get those guys to ink my work. They were Marvel’s top inkers.

Alex:          Oh, really?… Yeah, yeah.

Steranko:   The top, and to get them to ink the books, I had to do a lot of fighting.

Alex:          I see.

Steranko:   I’m not getting a lot of fighting to get them on to my book and my schedule because they were essentially scheduled for the top books for Thor and FF, and the big selling books. But along the way, I found a few kinks to make it happen. Yeah.

Yes. And I had a great rapport with Stan. The only thing I regret at this moment… And this is a particularly tough time to discuss it because we’ve lost Stan this week… Stan is very congenial guy. The guy that you see on those interviews on TV shows, and on his cameos. That’s really him.

Alex:          Right. He enjoys being there.

Steranko:   He’s not inventing a fun guy to be with just to impress you. No. He’s not doing it. He’s that way all the time. He’s a very charming guy.

On the other hand, I’m a very confrontational guy. As soon as I sense anything going wrong in my world, I don’t care who you are, I’ll be in your face in a moment about it because I’m prepared to fight for what I believe in. Stan and I had a lot of confrontations along the way. And some of them weren’t very pretty. But I’ll stand by my philosophy.

It’s like this, Marvel, like all other comic book companies, they pay for words on paper. They pay for lines on paper. But unlike every successful company in the world, they do not pay for ideas. You know how GE stays on top? You know how Apple stays on top? They’ve a whole team of guys that they hire just for ideas. They keep their product competitive by thinking of new and exciting developments all the time.

But comics don’t. I only ever did 29 books for Marvel. Or maybe not even for Marvel, but 29 comic books in my life. That number is significant, by the way. Do you know that number? You know that number 29? You know what that is?… You know the great blues guitarist at the crossroads?

[01:55:01]

You know what I mean? Johnson?…

Alex:          No, I don’t know who that is.

Steranko:   Come on, helped me out here…

Mike:  I heard of the name.

Steranko:   Check it. Check it out… Early blues guitarist. You can cut this out.

Alex:          Yeah, sure.

Steranko:   What the hell is Johnson name?… Very, very famous…

Mike: Robert?

Steranko:   Robert Johnson.

Alex:          Robert Johnson.

Steranko:   He sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads. Don’t you know that story?

Alex:          Yeah… I’ve heard it. But I don’t know very much about it.

Steranko:   Okay. Well, it’s a very famous story. That’s how he became… And he recorded 29 songs.

Alex:          Oh, I see what you’re saying. Okay.

Steranko:   So, you get the significance? I did 29 comic books.

Alex:          Yeah. I do… Sure, sure.

Steranko:   The only difference between Robert Johnson and me, is that I sold my soul to Stan Lee.

Alex:          There you go.

Steranko:   Simple as that.

Alex:          Now, Sol Brodsky… You don’t want to talk about?… Okay… So then…

Steranko:   Not here.

Alex:          All right. Fair enough… So then, as far as what were the circumstances that…

Steranko:   Oh, I was telling you this… Like 29 books – this is why I got on this subject. That’s a very small number of books.

There were two Canadian professors that mounted a show of my work, years ago. Maybe it was in the mid ‘70s or maybe the ‘80s… I think maybe the mid ‘70s… You know, maybe. I don’t think it would be the very late ‘60s… But I forget… Winnipeg Museum and Art Gallery, the show was massive. They actually built a wall. They built a wall in the museum to house some of my work.

Alex:          That’s great.

Steranko:   In the course of our interviews… These guys were very savvy. They said, “Do you know that you created…” I think they said, “76 things that had never been done in comics before.” I wasn’t aware of that.

Alex:          Oh, really… Okay, so they catalogued the things that you pioneered.

Steranko:   They produced a book, a catalogue for the show, which was a thick book. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it but its size is about…

Hey, how come you don’t have that book?… I think it’s called Graphic Narrative.

Alex:          Oh, okay.

Steranko:   That was the title, Steranko: Graphic Narrative, (Storytelling in the Comics and Visual Novel). And that really interested me because as a life-long comic reader, I couldn’t think of another artist, even those that were extremely prolific like Kirby, or (Gil) Kane, for example, or Johnny Severin, I couldn’t think of any of them that really produced something new. I’m not talking about new kinds of pictures with these characters on the left and this guy is on the right. This is a close-up… I’m talking about storytelling troupes, devices, that are used in narration.

In other words, like in films for example, the lap dissolve, where one scene turns into another. Or a straight cut where one scene – bang, ends and another one begins. Or a wipe. Do you know what a wipe is?

Alex:          Yeah, in the transitions…

Steranko:   Spielberg used it in the Raiders movies.

Alex:          Right… And Flash Gordon had that.

Steranko:   Where one scene kind of wipes across the screen… Flash Gordon, right.

Alex:          To turn into a new one.

Steranko:   Those are the kinds of devices I’m talking about. Their narrative devices. Even knowing Kirby’s work, the warrior god of comics, I couldn’t find more than… I’m not even sure… Two or three, of things that had never been done in comics before.

Alex:          Right.

Steranko:   In thinking about this over the years, and talking about it, here and there, to people who really knew the form, or really knew about comics. I met a guy, James Romberger in New York, who’s a writer and an artist, very famous, terrific guy. Do you know who I mean?

Alex:          No.

Steranko:   Worked for DC. Did some stuff on the Vertigo line.

[02:00:03]

Alex:          Oh okay.

Steranko:   Very savvy guy. He’s a teacher in his own right. He said, “I counted every page in your 29 books, and I found 200 things that had never been done in comics before.

Alex:          Oh, really?

Steranko:   And I said, “Did you list them?” And he said, “Absolutely.” I said, “Send me the list, I’d like to see them.”

Alex:          Yeah, yeah, curious.

Steranko:   Because I just don’t think this is possible… I looked at his list, I knocked out 50, 50 of them that I had seen before in comics. And I knew that they weren’t original ideas…

Alex:          That they were… Right, right.

Steranko:   That left a 150. And I’ll stand by that 150.

Alex:          You pioneer those.

Steranko:   Can I tell you a few of them?

Alex:          Yeah, sure.

Steranko:   It’s things that have never been done before in comics. They range from large to small, why not? They covered the whole spectrum. In one of my comic books, I have an actress who is doing a scene with her leading man. And if you spend any time around film sets, you know that what you see on screen and what happens in real life could be two entirely different, as in an enormous amount of jealousy and hatred that goes on in movie sets. Regardless of those people that sit around in chairs doing promos. If you only you really knew…

So anyway, I tried to convey this idea, without actually, stating it over a three-paged scene. Right? It was a nuance. And so, I gave my female actress, a balloon in a scene. And the balloon was empty. You know how women are?… Did you ever get the silent treatment from a woman?

Alex:          Yeah, sure.

Steranko:   Well then you know – the silent balloon. Never been done in comics before.

Alex:          That’s pretty cool.

Steranko:   To make it even cooler…

Alex:          Yeah, it’s very… I don’t think… Never seen it.

Steranko:   To make it even cooler, pun intended, I drew a couple of icicles underneath it.

Alex:          There you go. That’s nice.

Steranko:   [chuckle]

Alex:          That’s good storytelling.

Steranko:   So, you see, they range from very small … I’ll tell you one of the biggest ones. I think I was the first in comics to do a nine-month story, a story that lasted nine months, the Yellow Claw.

Alex:          Yeah. That’s a great one.

Steranko:   It lasted almost a year, never been done in comics before. And I’m kind of grooving along, month after month telling this story. And I’m getting to the end now, we got to the… This is why I wanted to end it. It went on long enough, I’ve made my statement, and I’m thinking, “I really got to come up with a big finish.” Because if you tell a little story, if you write a little story that’s like 300 words, you could put a little joke at the end. Right? But, the bigger the story, the bigger the novel – if you write a 900-page novel, you had better come up with one hell of a climax…

Alex:          One hell of a good ending. That’s right.

Steranko:   Or you will be tarred and feathered, if you’re lucky… You follow me?

Alex:          Right… Yeah

Steranko:   Well, cut it out, it makes me nervous.

[laughter]

So, here we are at the end of this nine-month, and I’m thinking, I got to really put a cap or climax on this that knocks everybody out. I didn’t have an idea. I was ready to move to Guam… I just didn’t know.

And simultaneous to this, I happen to be watching a James Bond movie. And that’s where I got the idea. I got the idea from a Ken Adams set design. Something that had never been done in comics before. And of course, I wouldn’t dare tell it to Stan because if I… Anytime I told him anything that I was going to do ahead of time, like this…

Alex:          Yeah, he would say no or something, or discourage you…

[02:05:00]

Steranko:   He’d stop me, “Don’t do that. Just do it like Kirby… Just do it like Kirby.” So, why would I tell him?

Alex:          Yeah. So, you have to turn it in somewhat right before the deadline, and then they have to print it.

Steranko:   Well, I don’t know if you know this, but I have kind of a reputation for being late, with my material. Completely bogus. I was never, ever late. I’m a pro, when I sit down and work, that work gets done on time. That’s the way it was in my Marvel years.

But this is what happened. I learned very early, that when I brought a story in on Monday, and it was due one Thursday, it would give them four days to tinker with my work. Do I look like the kind of guy that will put up with tinkering with his work?

Look… Remember, I was talking earlier about every company in the world paying for ideas, except comic book people. I was giving them, what I call innovations. Things that had never been done in comics before, 150 of them. They never paid me a cent for any of them. Those are major developments. They are being used in comics now, every day. Not all of them, but many of them. I never got paid for them. I should have been paid for them.

Ignominious treatment of creating something new that had never been done in comic books before, not just hitting my Xerox machine, and grinding out the same stuff that I did over the last month, year, decade, like many artists. I was giving them really new, fresh ideas, and not getting paid for it. And then on top of that, I had to fight for it… Wait a minute.

Alex:          So there. Yeah.

Steranko:   I want to be paid for fighting. Okay? I want to be paid for my work, and if I have to fight for it, I want to be paid for fighting too. Is that unreasonable?

Alex:          Right, it makes sense.

Steranko:   So, Stan and I had these many conflicts. Anyway, all said and done, 150 innovations that I gave them. And often, when I used to bring my stories in on time or early, they’d wipe them out. They’d destroy them. They’d change them. They’d reconfigure it. They’d take these things away that they didn’t understand. And I find that to be terribly bothersome… That’s painful.

To create, and having somebody who just is thinking along the old threadbare traditional ways of doing things that have been done that way thousands of times, “But this is the way we do it here.” … You got it?

I work at the house of ideas… It don’t make me laugh.

So, when I brought the climax of this nine-page story in, without telling Stan what it was. I brought it in at the last moment. I brought it in Thursday afternoon, an hour before it had to be sent to the engraver, right? You know how long it took me to figure out that strategy? Bringing my work in at the last moment… That’s how I got my reputation for being late. You know how long it took me to figure that out?

Alex:          Maybe four months.

Steranko:   Took me about two seconds.

Alex:          Two seconds [chuckle].

Steranko:   After I saw, they changed my work… Pfft… That was it.

Alex:          Yeah, turn in at the last minute from now on.

Steranko:   So, I brought the climactic scene to the Yellow Claw saga in, at the last minute. And the innovation was that I did it over the climactic scene over two double pages – two double pages, one panoramic scene. One really spectacular scene. And I laid it out on Stan’s desk, and I said, “Here’s the end of the story.”

And he hit the roof. “Oh my god, Jim! Why must you always do this crazy stuff? Why can’t you just do it like Romita?… Just do it like Kirby.”

[02:10:06]

I said, “Stan, you don’t get it?”

Steranko:   And he said, “I don’t get it? I’ve been the editor here for like 30 years or whatever it’s been,” you know 40. He said, “I don’t get it?” And I said, “No, you don’t get it. Don’t you understand? They have to buy two comic books, and put them side by side…

Alex:          That’s’ right, and get all four pages…

Steranko:   “To see the whole climac-…” [slams the table] “Great idea, Jim!” [laughs]

Alex:          Yeah, there it is, a sudden turn around.

Steranko:   Yeah, I wasn’t talking his language there for a moment.

Alex:          Yeah.

Steranko:   So, what I’m saying is that my innovations range from, massive down to atomic size along the way.

Alex:          Yeah, random little details. Right. Right.

Steranko:   I believe. Jim Romberger mentioned this in a book, or maybe did it an article first, when talking about the innovations. I think he said that if you took every new idea on a storytelling level, that artists contributed since the beginning of comics, every one of them put together, not only wouldn’t they match that 150 – my contribution in 29 comics. I think he said, “You could multiply them by 10 and they still might not be there.”

Alex:          I see.

Steranko:   I think that’s my legacy in the comics world.

Alex:          That is. Absolutely. Absolutely, it is, as a visual narrative language, it certainly is…

So, tell us, 1969 is kind of an interesting year because…

Steranko:   I thought I gave you a great ending for this interview.

Alex:          No, you did. You did…

Steranko:   [chuckle]

Alex:          You did. But that being said, 1969 was an interesting year because, basically, you leave… Your leaving Marvel around 1969, 1970, you’re writing your History of Comics volumes, and you start your Supergraphics publications, and you start getting a book deal – to paint the covers for books. So, it was one of the reasons why you left Marvel, other than just kind of pushing against the grain, and getting kind of annoying after a while, was because you had so much more going on that you just felt like you wanted to grow in those other directions?

Steranko:   That’s one way to say it. But I figured I had done, maybe all I could do for Marvel. You mentioned earlier, that Stan would coach his artist by saying, “Do it like Kirby.”

I didn’t know this until Barry Pearl, who wrote a couple of books about Marvel, kind of really heavily researched. Barry discovered that somewhere along the way, during my Marvel tour. Stan began to tell his artists to draw it like Steranko. I never knew that until Barry discovered it when he interviewed various artists from period, that was kind of after…

Alex:          Right, after you… The ‘70s.

Steranko:   Yeah, after my Marvel tour. So, I figured I had made a significant statement at Marvel. It wasn’t like… I do a lot of things. One of the things I don’t like to do is to repeat myself. Like being a human Xerox machine, grind out the same thing week after week.

Alex:          Yeah, repeating the same stuff.

Steranko:   I don’t do that… And I figured it was, it was time to move on. Especially, since I was still getting resistance on the editorial level.

Alex:          Yeah, the resistance.

Steranko:   And I think I had about enough fighting for my… If I hadn’t proved myself by that time, I’m not sure I wanted to go on at that particular level. And I probably could have had my own way. I think it was the only guy at Marvel who was actually writing… The only guy at Marvel, up to that point, writing and drawing his own material. Who else did it? Nobody that I know.

Alex:          Yeah, you packaged the whole thing.

Steranko:   And then I colored my own work too. So, I was the only guy maybe ever, who did all those three things at Marvel.

[02:15:04]

Alex:          Right.

Steranko:   I’d certainly had a lot of autonomy, but I was still not at a place where I could experiment to the level that I wanted to. And maybe, Stan was correct in not allowing me to do that because Marvel readers wanted Marvel material. They didn’t want to experimental Steranko stuff. The 150-innovations is maybe all they could possibly stand.

And I could tell you something. There are still some of those that people don’t even know about that haven’t yet been discovered. Which I think is a pretty wild idea, they’re so there’s so subtle. They’re so nuanced in the stories, that people have yet to kind of catch on to what I was getting at.

On the other hand, many of them have been adopted and are being used today by artists who don’t even know where they came from. They came from the books during that period. The S.H.I.E.L.D and the Captain America books that I did.

And one other book that we haven’t mentioned, and I’ll just bring it in because it was my most controversial story. It was in a horror comic book, Tower of Shadows #1.

Alex:          Yeah… Right.

Steranko:   And I think…

Alex:          And he didn’t get the Lovecraftian implication in it or something, and that created some argument in… He wanted to change the name.

Steranko:   He wanted to call the story to Let Them Eat Cake. I wanted to call it The Lurking Fear at Shadow House. And I think it has another title. I’m not too sure what it was (At the Stroke of Midnight).

Alex:          I don’t know… And that’s when you quit, right? From a conflict over that.

Steranko:   Yes, we had an argument about that story. Stan looked at it, he wanted to change things and it was really my most inventive and experimental story. I put a lot into it.

Alex:          Into that one.

Steranko:   I really did… And we got into an altercation, and I’d said to Stan, “Here’s where I stand on this, if you change one word, one – find yourself another artist.” And he fired me on the spot.

Alex:          Right. Okay, so he fired you actually. Okay, I got you.

Steranko:   He fired me. I’ve never seen Stan mad. Have you ever seen Stan angry?

Alex:          No, of course not.

Steranko:   I’ve never seen him angry. That was that was his moment. That was his angry moment. We made up. [overlap talk]

Alex:          Yeah, yeah, just after a few months or something.

Steranko:   I was back doing… But I no longer did stories for Marvel, I just did covers for them.

Alex:          Right, just covers.

Steranko:   I do think I was the top cover artists for three or four months.

Alex:          Did you kind of pick and choose which covers you were willing to do? Were you experimenting with different genres when you were picking those different covers?

Steranko:   Not really.

Alex:          Okay.

Steranko:   Not really. I mean, I’d get a call from Sol Brodsky and he’d say, “Hey Jim, I got three covers coming up, can I get them in two weeks?” or whatever [overlap talk].

Alex:          I see. So, it’s kind of more casual like that.

Steranko:   I took whatever they had… I thought I could make my point philosophically by changing Marvel’s look. Adding new fresh concepts and ideas… I think Stan paid me for a story that you don’t know about called Dante’s Inferno. A new character that…

Alex:          I think I saw maybe two pages of it. It was like a turban character… I don’t know maybe I’m thinking something different.

Steranko:   It was a suspense thriller with a hero.

Alex:          And it didn’t look Marvel enough, right? Wasn’t that the deal?

Steranko:   It had no feathering on it. It was in a style that was fresh to comics. And Stan didn’t like the… He said, “This is not a Marvel story.” And I said, “Am I in the house of ideas?”

And I knew he’d change it drastically, and I said, “Forget it.” They had already paid me for the story. And I said, “I’ll just do something else for you. I’m not giving you this story. It’s just too good to spoil, by changing all of these ideas.”

[02:20:05]

I said, “The idea is of great value. The story may be worthless. But the technique that I used, the narrative technique. To get there, I think has enormous value to you.”

Alex:          Yeah. I see.

Steranko:   “And if you don’t feel that your readers deserve that, as I created it, I’ll just pull the story, and I’ll do something else for you.” And I did another experimental story…

Alex:          The romance comic.

Steranko:   Yeah, the only romance story that I ever did.

Alex:          Yeah, which is beautiful. I love that, I love that comic.

Steranko:   It was the only story Stan ever wrote for me. It’s our only true collaboration.

Alex:          Nice.

Steranko:   He wrote every word in it. We didn’t do it… I mean we did it Marvel style, but he actually wrote every word. He didn’t give it to Roy Thomas to edit, and so forth.

Alex:          I see.

Steranko:   My Heart Broke in Hollywood. My heart be still.

Alex:          Yeah… That’s a beautiful piece, I’ve looked at that quite a few times.

Supergraphics, when you started Supergraphics Publications, you used a lot of techniques that you’d learned throughout your advertising years and whatnot. And you used that to make a few things. You used that to make the History of Comics, the Comixscene (Magazine), which then turned into Mediascene and then Preview. Then you used some similar techniques to make the first four FOOM fanzines. Tell me what about that transition, and your production during that time.

Steranko:   I’m not sure what you mean, I used that to… What technique?

Alex:          Well, I’m not sure, because I don’t know anything about it. I mean, it seemed like stylistically, Comixscene and FOOM looked somewhat similar to me when I look through them.

Steranko:   But what…

Alex:          Because you designed them both.

Steranko:   I thought that there was room in the comic book world. Comic book fandom was exploding because of the Marvel age. And most fan publications were really amateurish. I mean they were run off on little mom-and-pop copy machines.

Alex:          Lithograph stuff… Yeah. Right.

Steranko:   The machine had names that we can’t even think of these days. They weren’t even Xeroxes… It was something…

Alex:          Yeah, mimeograph… I don’t know.

Steranko:   Really, really crude duplicators.

Alex:          Yeah.

Steranko:   And they were at the matrix in like 30 copies, which were typed on a piece of wax paper to make copies from.

Anyway, the fan world was very amateurish at the time, and I thought, I can deliver something really professional, which is why I created Comixscene. Comixscene was printed on web presses like newspapers, and using magazine technique. It is a very sophisticated publication.

But that comes from the background that I told you about, early in the interview, when well… While we were discussing my tour with printing company and so forth, where I learned all of the techniques that go in to reproduction process. So, there were a lot of tricks…

Alex:          That you employed when you made those.

Steranko:   Tricks, you have no idea, the amount of tricks that… I use to actually go down to the printers, when they ran them, so that I could do things right there on the press that even those pressmen didn’t know about. One of my tricks was to create four-color work on a two-color press. That’s impossible. But I know how to make that work. And did it, numerous times in the magazine. So, that saves a lot of money.

Alex:          Yeah right, it does.

Steranko:   When Stan decided to…

Alex:          Make a fanzine.

Steranko:   Do another Merry Marvel Marching Society.

Alex:          Marvel mania type thing. Yeah.

Steranko:   That was a result of many conversations that I had with him. I saw that Marvel was exploding across the cultural world, everywhere. And I said, “You’re sitting on a billion-dollar operation.” To give you an example, they farmed out their advertising department, all the ads in Marvel comics were done by a separate company.

[02:25: 05]

I said, “That company should be in house. That should be a Marvel operation. Why should these guys who’d done it for years, benefit from your success? You can control that right here. You should be doing it. You should be controlling your own destiny.” That eventually happened. He instituted that.

I said, “You should be aiming at film, at TV, at paperback. You should be exploring other mediums. And the world is ready. They’re going to accept them.” And Stan’s comment was, “Jim, I’m already so overworked, all I can handle is my comic books.”

And I said, “You have to relegate.” But Stan is really not so good in doing that kind of thing. I mean he’s great at doing what he does. But on a business level, there’s something to be desired. Okay. I’m not faulting him for that, few artists, few writers have that ability. But I was kind of laying it out for him.

Anyway, all of the conversations we had on this level, I think, finally materialized when he decided to bring back the Merry Marvel Marching Society and called it Friends of Ol’ Marvel, FOOM.

Alex:          Yeah. He came up with that name, right?

Steranko:   He came up with the name. But because I had been hounding him about this, he said, “Maybe you could…”

Alex:          [chuckle] There you go.

Steranko:   “Maybe you could edit, design, construct the content of this book. Give it some real persona. Here’s where you can bring your imagination, your inventive graphic quality into it, because it’s a separate entity from the books.” And I liked that idea a lot.

So, we had dinner one night with Sol Brodsky and me, and a guy named Ivan Snyder, who he had brought in to do marketing work, and we made the agreement. And I made it irresistible for Stan, and for Marvel because I took no payment. Did you know that?

Alex:          Yeah… So, you didn’t actually get paid to do those first four FOOMS?

Steranko:   No.

Alex:          Oh, I didn’t know that.

Steranko:   I designed the whole kit.

Alex:          Wow.

Steranko:   The Marvel poster, the whole membership kit. I had it printed, I did [overlap talk].

Alex:          And there’s like a game on each one and all that.

Steranko:   A game in every one of them. It was a fun show.

Alex:          Yeah. You didn’t really… So, you just did it for fun.

Steranko:   No. No, I said to Stan, “I want you to pay me, but in a way that will cost you nothing.” In other words, “I’m going to make an offer you can’t refuse. You got it?”

Alex:          Right, right. That’s good.

Steranko:   Cost him nothing. I said, “I want two pages for myself out of every one of these books, two ad pages.”

Alex:          There you go.

Steranko:   “For myself, I’d do with them whatever I want, and what I want is to promote my own products for myself.

Alex:          Okay, that’s cool… That’s good idea.

Steranko:   Cost him nothing. Right? And they liked that idea, they wouldn’t have to pay me, a couple grand to put this book together, whatever it would be. And then they when they saw how successful it was…

Alex:          Yeah, you got free advertising space.

Steranko:   And how the mail order, that material, how successful, how much money was coming in because of that – other powers, and it certainly could have been some of those people. I don’t really lay this on Stan, because he just doesn’t think in this direction. But I think somebody at Marvel got very greedy. “Hey, why should we be giving this stuff away to Steranko when we can do it in house?”

I already created the master plan… So, they took it back.

Alex:          I see.

Steranko:   I think it lasted something like… I could be wrong… 22 issues. It was something like that.

Alex:          I think you’re right, yeah. Something, 22, 23; something like that.

Steranko:   They beat the horse to death, as far as it would go and they couldn’t anymore, and that was it. It was dead, and bad in the end.

Alex:          What creative bug did you get that made you want to…

Steranko:   Don’t you love it when people are so smart, they outsmart themselves?

Alex:          You didn’t make a reference to that before. Yeah.

[02:30:03]

Steranko:   Perfect example of it.

Alex:          [chuckle]… So, what was the creative bug that had you make the Red Tide Chandler (Chandler: Red Tide) graphic novel? And would you call it a graphic novel?

Steranko:   I call it the first American graphic novel. It’s not a fat comic book, what you’re seeing on newsstands is fat comic books. That’s not graphic novel material.

Alex:          Right.

Steranko:   Yeah, let me put it to you in another way. How may pages is a normal comic?

Alex:          I don’t know… Like 22 pages or something.

Steranko:   22 pages, okay. Suppose I added five more pages, and made it 27 pages. Would it suddenly transform from a comic book into a graphic novel? That’s a yes or no question.

Alex:          Yeah, no. Yeah.

Steranko:   Okay, suppose I added 10 pages and made it 33 [overlap talk].

Alex:          Right… Well, because length isn’t enough. There’s like a certain…

Steranko:   Okay. Suppose I add in 30 pages…

Alex:          Yeah, no, length isn’t enough of a definition. It needs like a serious narrative.

Steranko:   It just becomes a fat comic book …

Alex:          It has to have some adult theme in it, in some way.

Steranko:   Well, no, there’s more to it than that.

Alex:          There’s more to it than that. Yeah.

Steranko:   Now, what makes a comic book a comic book? Do you know?

Alex:          [overlap talk] You know, full…

Steranko:   What’s the definition of a comic book?

Alex:          Well, yeah, I mean there’s panels, and it sequentially tells a story, but then there’s like a four color, almost like a funny book quality to it. It’s monthly, it’s a serial, or it’s a series. It’s a regular book every month.

Steranko:   Not necessarily…

Alex:          Not necessarily…

Steranko:   I can show you comics that are one shots.

Alex:          That are not… Yeah, that’s true. There’s comic book, ones. Yeah, that’s right… Whereas graphic novels though, I feel like they have to have some something cinematic or adult way to something…

Steranko:   Weight… Weight.

Alex:          Yeah, wait to it. There you got.

Steranko:   Weight… Weight.

Alex:          I guess… Oh, weight. All right…

Steranko:   [chuckle] There are three things.

Alex:          Okay good.

Steranko:   Three elements – the size, 7×10 pamphlet, that’s comic book.

Alex:          The size.

Steranko:   Second thing, sequential art.

Alex:          Yes.

Steranko:   That is page after page of panels and balloons. Right?

Alex:          Yeah, balloons, sure.

Steranko:   Panels and balloons. Balloon is a comic book device. I want you to look up the definition of novel in the dictionary, and tell me if it says balloons.

Alex:          Yeah, you’re right, there’s… Yeah, sure…

Steranko:   It doesn’t say balloons.

Alex:          It doesn’t say balloons. Yeah, that’s true.

Steranko:   And third thing is, a holding a line around everything. That’s a black line that traps the color.

Alex:          Hmm, okay.

Steranko:   Those are the three things.

Alex:          Yeah, it needs the panel, the borders, yeah.

Steranko:   Those are the three elements… If you take one of those elements out, for example, if you take panels out, and put photographs in, not a comic book anymore, it’s fumetti.

Alex:          Fumetti. Yeah.

Steranko:   If you change the size of it, like down to the digest, it becomes a digest, not a comic book. Comic books are 7×10.

Alex:          I got you.

Steranko:   So, if you change any of the elements, it becomes something else.

Alex:          Yeah, the name changes.

Steranko:   Something else. So, the idea of just adding more pages is completely and utterly meaningless.

A graphic novel, to qualify as a novel, should have about 50% text and 50% imagery. You get it? Graphic novel.

Alex:          Right.

Steranko:   That’s about a 50/50 split. I mean if you want to really create a definition of the graphic novel, that would help to define it – 50/50 split. When I put together Red Tide, created a Red Tide, I used a three to one, or two to one formula. I split the page into three sections, and a third of it was text and two thirds was imagery all the way through. And it had chapter breaks like a real novel. Chapter breaks, that’s another thing.

And the third thing which you alluded to, a moment ago, was content – complex themes, complex characters, and particularly if they’re adult. We’ll get them more into the novel area, but you can also have juvenile novels, if you want. We’re talking about some subtleties here. But those are the elements that created a graphic novel. And I created that format specifically to conform to the term graphic novel.

[02:35:09]

Do you want to hear the story of how it happened?

Alex:          Yeah, yeah.

Steranko:   My friend, and he was like family to me, Byron Preiss…

Alex:          Yeah, right. That’s who published it, right?

Steranko:   Was producing heavily illustrated books of one kind or another. And I knew him from the time he was 16 years old, or 17, but I mean when he was just a kid. I met him at one of the New York conventions. He’s really sharp, and we spoke the same language. I like him a lot. And for years and decades, he and I have been talking about all these things like graphic novels, and really advancements of the comic book form. [overlap talk]

Alex:          So, he can he cared about that.

Steranko:   When he was in a position of power, he decided to adopt the things that we have been talking about for generations. And he decided to produce a line of… I’m not sure exactly what he called it, illustrated… It wasn’t novels, but some something else, illustrative or illustration was in the title. And he had, I believe it was Stephen Fabian, do the first of the science fiction book. It may have been the first, or the second, I’m not really sure… But it was a comic book in digest form, with panels, and balloons and so forth, I believe.

And we were going out to lunch on a really cold day. I remember it was high winds, and we were going to one of our favorite deco diners. One that I happen to like a lot, and I like the food there too, but I like the ambience of the diner. And he began telling me about a new publisher that he’s working with, a guy named Norman Goldfine that had come in, who was very open to new ideas.

And I think I had been reading that day or that week, a story about Harold Robbins. He was the most successful author in America, at that time. He went to his publisher one day, and he said, “I got a little idea for a new book.” And the publisher said, “I’ll buy it.” He said, “You didn’t hear about it yet.” He said, “Well, okay, tell me.”

He said, “I call it The Adventurers.” He goes, [big clap] “I’ll buy it. We’ll publish it.” He goes, “But you don’t know anything about it.” And he said, “What else do you have?”

He said, “Well, you know, I really don’t have the characters in place yet. I just know I have this great title The Adventurers.”  “What’s it about?” “No, I don’t have the vaguest idea, but I do have a great title. You agree?” The publisher says, “Absolutely. Here’s an advance, $80,000.”

Alex:          Oh, nice.

Steranko:   Well, hell, I can’t get the story out of my head… Guy comes in and says I got a title –  $80,000.

Alex:          Right, just for the title.

Steranko:   So, after lunch we went over to the Norm Goldfine’s office, he wanted to introduce me. And he was right, Norman was open to things, and I said, “I think we can really produce, not a digest comic book, or not a fat comic book, but a real graphic novel. Are you interested?” And he said, “What do you mean?”

I said, “I’m going to design a format, never been used before. But when people see it, they’ll really know it is a graphic novel. For one thing it will be very cinematic, but it can be read like a novel because it has text and no balloons.”

[02:40:00]

He got very interested and said, “What’s the story about?”

Well, hell, I just got the idea on the cab ride over there. I said, “No. I really don’t know. I’ve not worked that out yet.” “Well who’s in it? Who are the characters?” “No, I can’t tell you who the characters are in it yet. It’s too early to say it this…”

I’m thinking about this Harold Robbins story that I read earlier that day. And he said, “Well, do you have a title?” And I said, “Yeah, I do. Red Tide. And he said, “I love it.” And I said, “Is it a deal?”

He knew about me. He was one of my fans. He’s a Marvel fan. He knew my work. It wasn’t like I was just… [overlap talk]

Alex:          Some schmuck, yeah.

Steranko:   And he said, “I love it. We’re going to give you an advance right here.” And he wrote out a check for me.

Alex:          Hmm. That’s great.

Steranko:   Right on the spot. That’s my Harold Robbins imitation. [chuckle]

Alex:          And you should use a lot of the blacks, like you were talking about with Frank Robbins and Noel Sickles’ style, you use a lot of that.

Steranko:   I did not.

Alex:          Okay, you did not.

Steranko:   No.

Alex:          Because it seems like there’s panels that look that way to me, when it’s in black and white.

Steranko:   That’s because they looked like images on the screen from the great noir films, Hollywood produced from about 1938 up into the mid-50s.

Alex:          I see.

Steranko:   Films like Sweet Smell of Success, photographed by James Wong Howe.

Alex:          I see.

Steranko:   Not Frank Robbins. You understand what I’m getting at?

Alex:          I do. Yeah, more from the movies and the directors.

Steranko:   Or Out of the Past, great Jacques Tourneur of film noir with Kirk Douglas.

Alex:          I see. It’s more on the movie spectrum.

Steranko:   So, those images came from cinematographers such as (Elwood) Woody Bredell.

Alex:          I see what you’re saying.

Steranko:   Who shot The Killers, I believe, with John Seitz, and from that resource.

Alex:          I see.

Steranko:   I wanted it to look like movie frames not like a comic strip panels.

Alex:          Look more like movies. Yeah… Not like a comic… I see what you’re saying.

Steranko:   Nope.

Alex:          So, it’s a different artistic statement altogether.

Steranko:   Even the narrative technique from panel to panel, and page to page, does not play out like a comic book.

Alex:          Yeah it doesn’t.

Steranko:   It has a different feel to it. The feel is cinematic.

Alex:          Right. It is.

Steranko:   That’s where I was going. See, I was trying to evoke the same kind of feeling that you have while you’re watching the great war pictures. You’re looking at my images saying, “You know what, I’ve been here before. I know what these characters are like.”

Alex:          To bring that energy with them when they read it.

Steranko:   I wanted you to just about hear a Miklós Rózsa score, as you were reading my book. That was my goal.

Alex:          Nice… Now why did… This is just more of a random question, and it takes place later in the timeline, or actually about after… Why did Mediascenes name change to Preview? What was that transition? And that’s around when it started turning to more of a slick magazine, right? So, what was that transition about?

Steranko:   I told you I had this idea, initially, to create a publication for comic fans, called Comixscene. Comixscene. And we were pretty successful at it. They weren’t used to these kinds of graphics, and higher end stories, and really penetrating insightful interviews, and great art in big sizes. I mean I could compete with any magazine with my layouts, my design sensibilities. You’d open those early issues; you didn’t see anything quite like it. You know – BAM! It was right in your face.

Alex:          It was.

Steranko:   So, I felt that after, I don’t know, maybe it was like a dozen issues Comixscene, that I was limiting the scope of material. I’m a pop culture guy. I do not live entirely in the world of comics. But in the worlds of music, of cinema, literature, architecture, dance. I mean I’m interested in many, many things.

[02:45:10]

So, it was natural for me to bring some of those things into this publication. Because I felt that you guys would be interested in reading about some of those things that I know a lot about. And you could know what I know if you read the magazine.

So, I changed the name to Mediascene, embracing wider areas of media.

Alex:          Different media.

Steranko:   And then, it was still in tabloid format, our circulation continued to build. It was pretty successful. And we reached the point where my distributors… And we took surveys and, we tried to find the right market. We did promotion, and there were things going on. And I finally got this feedback from the public, and from distributors that the word I had coined, “Mediascene”, there is no word like that. I coined that term. It’s like, people don’t understand it… Is it a medic, is it a medical magazine? Is it…? They just didn’t get.

And when I had enough of those comments, I realized that in order to grow to be successful I had to take a different tact. And then I called it Preview. Mediascene Preview for a while. Then I dropped the Mediascene and just called it Preview Magazine, which is like previews of coming attractions.

Alex:          There’s more movies.

Steranko:   So, by that time, I was getting deeper and deeper into…

Alex:          Hollywood?

Steranko:   Yeah, into the into the cinematic world, because the market was bigger, and it’s in my interest. Be a publisher to reach bigger markets, reach more people, influence more people, and maybe make more money along the way.

Alex:          That makes sense.

So, that leads me to the next question, 1981, you did Outland the Sean Connery film, graphic novel, or adaptation for the Heavy Metal magazine, and in that same year for Hollywood, you designed the Indiana Jones aesthetic, all around that same time. So, you really went into the Hollywood scene pretty good around 1981 then.

Steranko:   I’ve always been interested in film, you know that.

Alex:          Yeah. Well yeah, definitely now.

Steranko:   Always. I still remember to this very moment. You wouldn’t know what this was like, because you grew up in a different era. But I remember the first time I went to a movie theater. I was just a little kid, and sitting in this huge dark room with strangers surrounding me. It was one of the most alien things, I think I’ve ever experienced. And then seeing this 30-foot-high image of people – walking, driving, running, playing, whatever they were doing, was staggering to a little kid.

Alex:          A big impression it made.

Steranko:   I remember the first movie I ever saw, The Mask of Dimitrios, a Warner Bros film. So, it had a profound impact on me. I’ve always been a cinematic guy.

Alex:          A cinematic kind of guy.

Steranko:   You see the show up again and again, in my work, in my writing, in my artwork, in my painting.

Alex:          I see.

Steranko:   I refer back to this sensibility often.

Alex:          When you made the Indiana Jones aesthetic, did you gather like pulp influence, and Terry and the Pirates and also… Because that imagery, when you look at every Indiana Jones movie, and you look at every Indiana Jones cartoon or whatever, or the TV show, it all goes back to that design you put together. That flavor is everything to Indiana Jones. So, what fit into the influence of that design.

Steranko:   I believe that (George) Lucas and (Steven) Spielberg were comic book fans.

[02:50:01]

I mean they’re pop culture guys. They’re from our generation. They grew up with the same stuff that we did. We love the same material. We spoke the same language… I used that several times, but that’s an important thing in my life. If I connect with people that I speak the same language to, I know I’m on the right track. Because you cannot be successful by talking a foreign language that nobody understands.

Alex:          Right. You have to interact with people.

Steranko:   So, the timing was very early. Steven and George had developed about 30 pages of material on a beach in Hawaii during vacation… What do great filmmakers do when they’re on vacation? They talk movies.  What else can they do?

Alex:          You’re right. That’s their passion.

Steranko:   And they came up with this idea because they loved movie serials. They loved adventure films. They love the comic book sensibility. They wanted to create something that had all of that magic, that action, that kind of hyper romance in one magnificent baggage. And they needed somebody to define what it would look like, what are the rules, graphically. So, they asked me to produce I think a half a dozen presentation pieces with various scenes.

And George and I had conversations about the content. We talked about the 30 pages, and sort of where it went. And I pulled out six of the best kind of images, visually, that people would be interested in, in defining a look of Indiana Jones.

I painted them. Sent them off. I remember I did one, I think I had all the paintings done except one… And I had a show that weekend which I think was down in Atlanta. Producing those paintings in one day, especially if they had a lot of stuff in them, is not easy to do in one day. Because that’s not a pencil drawing [overlap talk] …

Alex:          Yeah, it takes time to do that stuff.

Steranko:   It’s paint, it’s photographic. I need to make it look realistic.

Alex:          Yeah, that’s right.

Steranko:   Because that’s my style. And I called George’s assistant up, and I said, “Would you pass something along to George?” I said, “I have a show to go to tomorrow. And I’ll be gone for the weekend but I could come back and finish this when I get back in a couple of days.” She talked to George about it and George said, “We’d like it now.”

So, I didn’t sleep that day, I did… It’s the one in the kind of, whatever it is, the Inca Tombs, where I think he is pulling a… Is he pulling a gun in that scene or it’s like a holster? I forget… He was holding something.

Alex:          In the beginning? Yeah, well…

Steranko:   But there’s like vases, and broken vases, and vines, and the Inca kind of architecture. That was done in one sitting.

Alex:          Oh, wow. That’s incredible.

Steranko:   When I started, that canvas board was blank, when I got up the painting was done. And then I went to Atlanta an hour later.

Alex:          That’s amazing… Right. And were you drawing from like pulp influences, or was that just out of your imagination?

Steranko:   Well, you asking the question, did I research? Did I go back to pulp? I already knew all that stuff; part of my life, I don’t have to look anywhere.

Alex:          You already knew it all. It’s all in your mind anyway. Right.

Steranko:   George and Steven knew that about me.

Alex:          Yeah, I see what you’re saying.

Steranko:   I didn’t have to study. I’ve been studying for it my whole life. It was a natural for me.

Alex:          It just came out. Yeah.

Steranko:   And I remember how cool it was… George and Steven took the 30 pages of script, and my six production paintings over to Paramount.

[02:55:08]

To see if Paramount was interested in developing it. And BAM… They got the money right there.

Alex:          Wow, that’s awesome.

Steranko:   They made the deal.

Alex:          Yeah, I mean that’s a whole series of movies from that.

Steranko:   Two years later, the first, rushes came in. You know rushes? That’s raw footage, it’s not color-corrected, no music, no dialogue necessarily, they dubbed that later. Just raw footage. I got a call from Carol Titelman, George’s personal assistant. She said, “We just got the first rushes from Spain. Today, this morning. We just spent like the last hour in the projection room looking at all this raw footage.” She said, “We were stunned.”

Alex:          Yeah, that’s great.

Steranko:   “About how much Harrison Ford looks like that guy you painted, two years ago, in those paintings.” She said, “I couldn’t believe how much it looked like that.”

Alex:          That’s amazing.

Steranko:   So, I guess it was a case of… I don’t know what to call it, déjà vu or something. I happened to hit the nail on the head.

Alex:          Yeah, you did.

Superman 400, what made you decide to try comics again after kind of being deep into the Hollywood stuff at that point?

Steranko:   Julie.

Alex:          Julie Schwartz.

Steranko:   I got a call from Julie one day… Julie also remember the kindness that he had shown me, that very fateful day when I walked in, and I was just a kid. He spent an hour with me. And he said, “I might have to call in that favor.”

[chuckle] I said, “Sure, what’s on your mind?” And he said, “This milestone issue, Superman 400, coming up. We want to do something special. So, we’re asking artists who have never drawn Superman before to contribute to the issue for it. He said, “You’re on the top of my list.”

Alex:          Wow… Because you had a special dedication to him at the end of that. I remember that.

Steranko:   Very heartfelt. And I said, “I’ll do 10 pages for you, on one condition. Whatever you get for me, you use. You get it. You use it. Don’t change a single word. Not a line. Not a word. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. You have no editorial power on it. You have to guarantee me, even though you’re Julie Schwartz, and I’m only a lowly comic book artist and writer, you have to promise me that nothing will happen.”

“I guess we can do that.”… Who wrote that? Who was writing that book? Was it Elliott Caplin or Elliott Maggin?

Mike:  Maggin.

Steranko:   He said, “Elliott is writing the book.”

“Julie, what did I do to deserve that?”… “What did you say?” I said, “Why did I get that slap in the face?”

Alex:          Yeah, you want to write your own thing.

Steranko:   He said, “What are you talking about?” I said “I’m a writer. I’ve written millions of words. Published millions of words.” I said, “You just slapped me in the face. I am a writer. Why would I have somebody else write my work?”

“Oh, Jim, come on, you know, I didn’t mean that.” “Well I only know what you tell me, and you want to have somebody else writes to me. You know what that would mean?… It’d look like every other story in the book… You want just some other… You just want to feel 10 pages, whatever it is, with standard stuff. You don’t need me to do that. You already got.”

I said, “Look, I know Elliot, like Elliot…” He said, “Well he’s writing. He already had the assignment to write the whole book.” I said, “Well then, where are we?” He said, “Look, I’ll give you Elliott’s phone number, you guys work it out.

[03:00:03]

I called Elliot up. “Elliot, look, I just got this call from Julie, and blah blah… I want to pay off this kindness he did for me. I want to square things. But I want to write my own story.” “Sure, go ahead and do it.” That’s all there was to it.

Alex:          That’s awesome.

Steranko:   And so, I delivered a very un-DC-ish story.

Alex:          Unconventional. Yes.

Steranko:   They never had anything like it before, or since. However, I noticed that it shows up in their reprint of DC greatest Superman’s something… I don’t know. [overlap talk]

Alex:          Yeah, of course.

Steranko:   But something like that. So, somebody must have liked it.

Alex:          Someone liked it. Yeah

Steranko:   I said to Julie, “I’m going to write and draw the last Superman story that can be told. It’s the end, finite, after the story. He said, I can live with that.

Alex:          Bram Stoker’s Dracula, so that was a 1992, or so. And you actually did designs for that movie as well, the aesthetic. What led into that experience, design wise?

Steranko:   I’ve had a fair number of offers from Hollywood over the years to work on feature films. But I’m really careful about…

Alex:          The ones you choose.

Steranko:   Who I collaborate with. And I just turned down, those that I feel wouldn’t be assets to me; I don’t particularly like what they produced. The low-end pictures, or I don’t like the content, whatever it is.

But I find it very gratifying to work with the best in the business, like George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg, and Oliver Stone, and Francis Ford Coppola.

Alex:          Yeah, sure. Artists, true artists.

Steranko:   So, I try to keep my Hollywood assignments as pristine as I can. Good productions, where I know the people, and what they do. I’m already familiar with them, and that I feel like I could get along with them.

And I got a call from Francis out of the blue.

Alex:          Nice.

Steranko:   He was familiar with my work, and they felt that Dracula was a project. I might have been the third person hired on that picture.

Alex:          On that movie. Okay.

Steranko:   Really, really early. And he said, “I think this is something that you’d enjoy doing.” He said, “Correct me if I’m wrong.” Well, I don’t know how you can go wrong with a Francis Ford Coppola movie. [overlap talk]

Alex:          Yeah, right. These are great filmmakers, this list.

Steranko:   The godfather of American film culture.

Alex:          It’s huge.

Steranko:   Can it be better than that, I don’t know. Not that I know of. So, he flew me out there and we worked on it for about seven months. All total, I think.

Alex:          Oh, that’s a long time. Okay.

Steranko:   We used a series of production paintings. I didn’t stay out there for seven months, I came back, and I was back and forth working on it.

Alex:          But working on it. So, it wasn’t just a one shot, one afternoon. I mean you were actually involved in this movie for about that long.

Steranko:   Yeah… Francis would bring me in, or because I was in very, very early, I was involved on many, many levels – from casting to specific scenes. There are certain things in the film that are Steranko scenes. And I had a lot of ideas. I regaled him with ideas.

Alex:          Nice.

Steranko:   Francis is an idea man himself. And we spent entire days together, or whole days, full days where I just sit in his office and we’d talk.

[03:05:02]

I mean, he’d be answering the phone. I’d be privileged to listening to these private conversations that he had. And I learned then, what a really tactful creator, could be like, because in over hearing from his conversations with movie producers, and about money… Some of it was so exasperating, I know I couldn’t handle it at that level. But Francis is so good at it, what a pro. I learned a lot.

Alex:          That’s awesome.

Steranko:   A lot working from him. And we brainstorm. We brainstorm ideas constantly. And, and develop scenes, and reject them, and recreate them, and recast them. We spend our time, just juggling around, for a while, and this came really close.

I said to Francis, “There been like 150 Dracula films.”

Alex:          Yeah, this one was certainly unique.

Steranko:   They’re all over the place. And, for Francis, his idea was to do the entire Dracula novel, usually the movies end it like, I don’t know, a third into the book. And he wanted to be kind of be true to the book.

Alex:          Do the whole thing.

Steranko:   And so, did Jim (James Hart), the writer. And that purity interested Francis, a lot. And if there’s anybody who could do it that way, it would certainly be him. Francis is a writer in his own… He contributed enormous amounts of material, as a writer, to The Godfather movies, for example. All of his movies for that matter. He is maybe first and foremost a writer.

So, we spent this kind of development time brainstorming, and I love to do it with him because when Francis would bring somebody else in, and begin to talk about the film, virtually every time he told the story, the same story… Let’s say, half a dozen times, over the period of several months, from beginning to end, he’d go through the whole story with somebody. He always told it differently. I was flabbergasted by that. You think you’re finding things that work, and how to say it. Keep honing down to it. But he didn’t do it. He always brought in fresh takes.

The thing I was going to tell you about was, after all of these films, and we were screening the old Dracula movies to see how they did things, and what we might use, or what we’re inspired by. And I said, “Francis, I can’t help feeling that worldwide audiences are really tired…

Alex:          Of the same thing.

Steranko:   Of seeing the same castles, the same old murky rooms, the same candelabras, the same clothes. And he said, “What are you getting at?” And I said, “What do you think about moving it up into the 1930s, into the deco era. I’ll design a deco castle for you. I’ll design clothing for you, that’s still rooted in turn of the century, but has this modern quality to it. I’ll make it up. I’ll make up the architecture, the clothing, the hairdos.”

Alex:          That’s great.

Steranko:   “I’ll make up this whole new world but it’ll be… They’ll be in cars, instead of horse drawn coaches and wagons. There’ll be modern things.” I said, “I can see Dracula walking up… This is what else we’ll do. We’ll take away all the shadowy, dark, gloomy… We’ve seen it 150 times, there isn’t any more to do with this.”

I said, “Let’s put him in a marble castle.”

[03:10:02]

Alex:          Marble.

Steranko:   Marble. White marble and stainless steel… I said, “Can’t you see Dracula walking up this marble staircase, and on the walls, beautiful photographic blow ups of the most exquisite women that he’s known through the ages.”

[chuckle]

And Francis would pick up on this idea, and he’d elaborated on it. And then I’d pick up an idea that he had and I’d elaborate on that. We spend days just brainstorming what Dracula could be but we came close, we really came close to moving it up into the ‘30s. He loved that idea. But I think the screenwriter convinced him to do the Bram Stoker version.

Alex:          There you go.

So now, why did Preview end in 1996.

Steranko:   I was just repeating myself.

Alex:          I see, so that same reason.

Steranko:   I had done so much, almost 100 issues. And I had covered the same actors, same directors, the same screenwriters, the same musicians, doing the same kind of material, so often already that there wasn’t anywhere else to go. I became a human Xerox machine. I could not live my life that way. So, I gave it up.

I saw something else happening too. The age of the magazine, the dominance of magazines had been…

Alex:          Internet kind of destroyed that.

Steranko:   Had been deeply mitigated at that time by the internet. And I saw what was coming, five, 10 years down the line, when you could get anything on the internet seconds after it happened, instead of weeks after it happened, and magazine production, and distribution, and shipping. It didn’t work anymore because my concept with Preview… You know how exciting movie previews are? Coming attractions.

That was the concept of my magazine. I wanted to bring you, I want to show you what you’re going to see next week, next month.

Alex:          Yeah, that’s right. Internet and social media kind of takes that out.

Steranko:   It did. It did.

Alex:          What’s your feeling on the modern comics industry? As essentially, a conclusion of our interview.

Steranko:   I really don’t discuss that.

Alex:          Okay.

Steranko:   It’s not something I’m too deeply involved with, although I did a year’s worth of Captain America variant covers.

Alex:          Yeah, cool.

Steranko:   Several of which were #1 bestsellers, on the Diamond Charts.

Alex:          Yes, that’s right.

Steranko:   And I’ve done a number of Superman variants, like on Superman Action #1000. And I’ve got one coming up that you don’t know about, Detective #1000.

Alex:          Oh, wow. Okay.

Steranko:   And I did, I think I was the only artist that made the cut on Action #1000, Detective #1000, and Captain America #800, all milestone books.

Alex:          Nice.

Steranko:   So, I’m still involved with the form. but I’ve got so many other concepts, and ideas that I’m currently working on. And I think, the time is right now. I think the new administration has brought us back into prosperity. I think, disposable income is at its highest that it’s been in the last 12 years. And I think the time is right now for me to develop, and perhaps realize ideas and concepts that I’ve put away over the last 40, 50 years because they were too good to give away to companies.

Alex:          That’s exciting.

[03:15:00]

Steranko:   And I think I’m ready, finally, to be my own boss on those…

Alex:          Nice… On those ideas. That’s exciting. That’s exciting to know that there is always some nice pioneering Steranko on the horizon because I think everyone’s always curious about what you’re going to do next.

I think everyone who tries to kind of figure you out, they can’t because you’re this creative force. You’re a real dynamo, and you’re a man of your word, and you’re a real unique individual. And I feel really lucky to know you, and talk to you today. Thank you so much for doing this interview with us. From a heartfelt standpoint, thank you so much.

Steranko:   Appreciate that very much. And with a little luck, you and I will have another conversation when I have an array of material in front of you, and you’re going to ask me how that happened.

Alex:          I am excited about that.

Steranko:   Looking forward to it.

Alex:          Thank you, Jim.

Steranko:   Later, Alex:

[03:16:10]

 

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                                      Danny Fingeroth is widely recognized for his roles as a comic book writer, editor, and expert. However, the term ‘Truth Seeker’ is also fitting when considering his impressive literary contributions. His works, including Superman on the…

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    Introduction   Steve Ditko (1927 – 2018) was one of the most distinctive illustrators to work for Marvel Comics during the formative years of the early 1960s and is probably best remembered for his definitive runs on ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘Dr Strange’.  Many of Ditko’s conceptual/visual contributions to these strips continue to be utilised…

Celebrate David Armstrong’s Interviews at SDCC panel: Video Profiles – Golden / Silver Age Creators SDCC 2023 Panel

Moderator Alex Grand (Understanding Superhero Comic Books, Comic Book Historians founder), N. Scott Robinson, Ph.D. (Globo Comico founder, Comic Book Historians editor), and Bill Field (Neal Adams Master Illustrator co-writer, Comic Book Historians co-host) congratulate and engage in scholarly discussion with David Armstrong (American Association of Comicbook Collectors, Comic Book Historians moderator) about his renowned…

The Entertainment Makers: Film & Comics by Alex Grand

Read Alex Grand’s Understanding Superhero Comic Books published by McFarland Books in 2023 with Foreword by Jim Steranko with editorial reviews by comic book professionals, Jim Shooter, Tom Palmer, Tom DeFalco, Danny Fingeroth, Alex Segura, Carl Potts, Guy Dorian Sr. and more. At the onset of the 20th century, two pivotal developments forever altered the landscape of…

John Romita Obituary by Alex Grand

John Romita Sr., a transformative figure whose ink-dipped brush stroke captivated millions of Marvel fans and irreversibly shaped the face of superhero comic books, passed away on June 12, 2023, at the age of 93. He was a legendary artist and inspiration to many who followed him, whose influence remains embedded in the pages of…

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