Very few comic book artists live a life as adventurous as the ones led by the superhero characters they bring to life on paper. One such artist who can boast that claim is the legendary Jim Steranko. Best known for his revitalization of the Marvel Comics character Nick Fury during the late 1960s, he turned the D-list World War IIaction hero into a super-slick secret agent with a wealth of high-tech gadgetry that would rival NASA. Even more colorful than the action he created on the printed page, is Steranko’s real-life escapades that served as his inspiration.
Growing up poor in Reading, Pennsylvania, he gravitated toward art and creativity despite his parent’s deriding. Not to be controlled by the opinions of others, a common defiance in his adult career when dealing with editors, he collected cans and bottles for deposit money to buy art supplies. As a young man he enjoyed a career as a successful escape artist, developing his own methods for lock breaking, and became regionally famous for death-defying escapes from local jails, straitjackets, and underwater steel barrels. Inspired by Steranko’s escapology exploits, Jack Kirby created the super escape artist Mister Miracle for DC Comics in 1971.
By the mid-’60s, Steranko began working as a comic book illustrator first at Harvey Comics then eventually for Marvel Comics. He was less than impressed with many of the comic artists of the time, thinking of them as machines cranking out work for their page rate. He said he wasn’t there to earn a living, he was there to make a kind of statement.
His work did exactly that. Blending elements of graphic design and current pop culture esthetics into his work, he created comics that were psychedelic and cinematic masterpieces that are still influential and relevant even day. Like most who break the current accepted molds, his unique style often led to confrontations with editors who wanted him to conform. Steranko was never one to buckle and instead walked out of more than one job rather than compromise his ideals.
Jim believed in protecting the creative integrity of other artists as well as his own and the most well known story about him involves Batman’s “creator” Bob Kane. Originally credited as the sole creator of Batman, Kane had a small group of artists who did much of the work in creating the mythos of the character while Kane took all the credit and half of their pay. One such artist was Bill Finger, who was a close friend of Steranko’s. Despite knowing the truth about Kane, Steranko wrote of him respectfully in his self published “The Steranko History of Comics.” When later meeting Kane for the first time at a comic book convention, Steranko bit his tongue as he listened to Kane complain that he gave Finger too much credit in his book. The boiling point for Steranko came as Kane was leaving, who cuffed Jim’s face and spoke to him in a condescending manner while saying goodbye. Along with the ill treatment of his friend Finger, Jim was incensed that someone he just met would dare lay a hand on him. He spent much of the next day hunting for Kane at the convention. Upon finding him, he gave Kane a few condescending words of his own and slapped him hard enough to knock him to the ground and leave him stunned.
Jim Steranko continues to flex his creative muscle to this day. His lifetime body of work goes beyond comic books and into commercial and graphic design and publishing. He’s even responsible for creating the iconic look of Indiana Jones right down to the bullwhip. At 76 years old, he’s still a regular at major comic conventions, has one heck of a handshake and is all too happy to share some amazing stories that you’ll definitely want to hear.