The Light That Burns Twice As Bright...
Who are the ten greatest comics artists of all time? Those of us who have read comics most of our lives know the question well. Invariably, it comes up in the comics shop and it's always hotly debated. The question often comes up online on forums, in IMs, on Facebook, and fans get crazy over it. We are, as a whole, an impassioned lot, and the answers to this question are as wide and varied as individual taste (or lack thereof) will allow. In my own little world, there are probably twenty artists that continually jockey in and out of the top ten. Today, the list reads thus:
- Will Eisner
- Winsor McCay
- Jim Steranko
- Neal Adams
- Geoff Darrow
- J.H. Williams III
- Bernie Wrightson
- John Cassaday
- George Perez
- Al Williamson
Jim Steranko is a legend in the comics industry. A literal jack-of-all-trades, he has worked as a printer, letterer, colorist, writer, artist, graphic designer and publisher. He is an accomplished stage magician and escape artist as well as a practiced musician. Steranko hasn't written an actual comic book for decades, though he returns periodically to paint some of the most artistically stunning covers ever presented within the comic book genre. However, the impact his covers and those thirty issues have had on at least two generations of graphic artists has been phenomenal. Many of the stylistic tropes that we think of as commonplace within the comics art form started with Steranko. He set the tone and style for a darker, more realistic storytelling nearly a decade before Frank Miller would popularize it with his work on Daredevil, and later Ronin and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Steranko brought a sense of composition and design to comics that had previously only been seen on movie marquee posters.
Marvel Comics has gathered some of Steranko's early seminal work with its' graphic novel, Nick Fury, Agent Of... S.H.I.E.L.D.: Who Is Scorpio. The book serves as a showcase for Steranko's groundbreaking graphic design. These issues serve to show how Steranko changed Marvel Comics super spy from a caricature, no different than much of Marvel's superhero fare of the time, into something closer to Ian Flemming's James Bond. He metamorphosed Fury from a one-dimensional character into a fully realized human being that just happens to live a somewhat "larger than" life. Within these pages, Steranko set the writing style for Nick Fury that is emulated to this day.
The real show here is the art. Steranko borrows heavily from Jack Kirby's style of laying out a comic book page and filters it through a design sensibility reminiscent of Andy Warhol's "Pop Art". What we get is a combination of influences that makes for a wonderfully eye-catching action oriented comic. Characters literally leap off every page as they dance through a world of patterned geometric designs, photocopied backgrounds, and gargantuan machines that are infinite in complexity yet simple in form and function. We are treated to a grand mash-up of the best of Jack Kirby, the most entertaining bits of Andy Warhol, and the genius of Jim Steranko. This is work by the artist at the top of his game and hitting every mark. Little wonder then that every single storytelling and artistic technique that Steranko pioneered within these pages is still used today.
Graphic artists and writers from all areas of the comics industry cite Steranko as a seminal influence. The lingering effect of his work in these pages can be seen and felt in the writings of Howard Chaykin, Warren Ellis, Mark Millar and Brian Azarello. Echos of it can be seen in the work of artists as diverse as John Byrne, George Perez, Jim Lee and Alex Ross. Nobody who reads these stories comes away unscathed.
From my own vantage point, I came to Steranko's work through these Nick Fury stories, and I suspect that like many from my generation, they came along at a time when the lure of superheroes was at its strongest. They showed me a different take on the usual adolescent male power fantasies. Steranko's work more than that of any other writer or artist in comics, opened the door in my head that eventually led to my eschewing most superhero fare. He showed me that above all else story is key, and that comics could be about much more than superheroes beating the crap out of each other.
If this package has one failing, it's that some of the work is starting to show its age. In the late sixties, Steranko's themes were hip and fresh. He dressed his characters in clothing that was in vogue at the time. His characters spoke using slang terms and language markers that were popular. From a writer's perspective, this is a double-edged sword that tends to make characters more believable, but does not age well. Looking back on his work nearly forty years later, it seems a bit out of date. Still, the stories are tremendously entertaining and visually stunning. The realism Steranko instilled in his characters is definitely worth a bit of surface wear.
Today, most of the groundbreaking storytelling techniques that Steranko brought to the comics page are overused to the point of banality, but his work here still shines. Marvel has given us a history lesson. They've brought back 86 pages of mind-numbingly brilliant work from a genius creator that serves as an abject lesson in where we've been as a graphic medium, and hopefully a signpost to where we're going. The reprinting of these stories opens up Steranko's work to a whole new generation of writers and artists that will hopefully enjoy and learn from them as much as their forebears did.
One of the greatest tragedies of comics is the fact that artists and writers are generally paid in abuse for their life's blood. Most of the brilliant creators within the field eventually reach a point where the editorial strictures become too much. They hit a confluence where they need to break away from work for hire and they usually go off to create comics on their own or they're lured away by the promise of recognition and fair pay offered by other venues. Jim Steranko discovered this early on in his career. After being continually censored by the now (thankfully) defunct Comics Code Authority, he went away to form his own publishing company, choosing the life of a magazine editor and freelance book artist. Steranko left us with a mere thirty issues, and a handful of covers with which to study and learn. This graphic novel reprints with re-mastered coloring, the pinnacle of an all too short career in comics. It stands on solid footing with work by other artists who have made lifelong careers from working in this field. These stories serve as a primer to any who aspire to artistic greatness within the comics field.