The King and I
Jim Steranko, Agent of KIRBY
By Desmond Reddick
15 May 2008 — While I am undoubtedly a Kirbyphile (hello, my name is Desmond Reddick), there is no more compelling personality in comics than Jim Steranko. Before comics, Steranko was a circus sideshow performer, a magician, a gymnast, an amateur boxer, fencer and car thief. And this all before the age of 18! He went on to be an illusionist, escape artist and jazz musician while paying the rent as a graphic artist at an ad agency. It wasn't until 1966, at the age of 28, when Steranko landed his first job at Marvel Comics — penciling and inking finishes over Jack Kirby's layouts in the Nick Fury portions of Strange Tales, a book shared with the O'Neil / Ditko Dr. Strange.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had already resurrected the World War II-era Fury in Fantastic Four and had begun the Strange Tales run in issue #135. But as was often the case with books started by Kirby, the artist was quickly replaced. It's no secret that Kirby was a superstar by this time and his very name was a selling point.
As the forward in the Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD collected edition suggests, John Buscema was originally charged with inking Kirby's layouts, but was seemingly unhappy about this. Buscema is rumored to have redrawn the entire story, and, honestly, it is a very non-Kirby looking start to this trade. The next issue saw Steranko's debut on a decidedly Kirby-looking story. Stan Lee would pass writing duties onto Marvel mainstay Roy Thomas before bestowing them on Steranko himself from issue #155 onward. This was unprecedented; not only was Steranko a newcomer, he was entirely unproven as a writer.
What happens between issue #151 and 168 is maybe the most amazing 200-plus pages of comics ever seen. It went from essentially a Kirby book with thinner inks to the most stylistic book on the rack, maybe ever. Steranko's growth as an artist unfolds as you flip each page, and it's a joy to see.
What the book eventually becomes is a bizarre mixture of science fiction, pop art, photomontage and sexy women so scantily clad that Fredric Wertham's head would explode! (Although, Wertham's inability to see sidekicks as anything but victims of pedophiliac homosexuality has me thinking that he probably thinks girls are "icky" anyway.) These weren't the comics of the future; they were the living, breathing zeitgeist of the age they were produced.
Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD is a free jazz, James Bond-inspired, over-the-top mod comic that should be looked at exactly the way people four decades from now are going to be looking at Grant Morrison's best work: with awe.
While Kirby was an enduring mainstay whose work was more and more recognized as being revolutionary with time, Steranko was creating the best comics of the time and everyone knew it. Everyone still knows it.
The good: Beyond the early issues being pretty damned good, by the end of this run the book was brilliant and, teamed with Ditko's Dr. Strange, must have been a mind-blowing read each month. The action is wild and captures the exaggerated stances and fighting styles of those spy and kung fu movies of the era. It is very clear that Steranko loved to see two rivals squaring off in the open stance for every battle. Punches are thrown wildly and men are tossed off buildings, monuments, aircrafts and space ships. This is very much the precursor to The Authority, The Ultimates and all of the "widescreen" comic books of today. It's explosive and, even better, intriguing. There are moles and death-traps like any good spy story, but the identity of the villainous Supreme Hydra is kept under wraps so long that, even though I knew who he was, I began to doubt it.
The photomontage, a direct result of Kirby's influence, under the deft hand of the adman Steranko, was mastered here and it is often Steranko who is thought of as the innovator of such a technique. Beyond that, the art begins to swirl off into psychedelia and resembles then-current European movie posters. It's the perfect mixture of style and substance.
Both art and story are amazing.
The bad: It may be pandering to say, but the worst of this collection has to be that first issue written by Stan Lee and drawn by John Buscema. It serves its function and is actually a nice little bit of Silver Age fun. Held up against the rest of the book, however, it just doesn't compare.
Even though Steranko has a ways to go from his first issue, his work is still better than the first story in this collection. There is absolutely nothing to complain about besides Stan Lee being billed first as an editor. But he deserves the kudos for giving such an untested talent so much room to breathe. (Too bad they don't do that these days.)
I suppose if there was one major negative it would have to be Steranko's overwhelming workload. He began by doing Kirby's finishes, then he penciled and inked the book. After that he penciled, inked and wrote it. From there, add uncredited coloring to the list. This, along with illustrating the odd-numbered covers, broke him.
Due to the building popularity of the featured characters, Strange Tales became Dr. Strange at issue #169, and Fury spun into Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD. But Steranko was only capable of doing three issues of that series before falling behind. He returned with the fifth, but after that did only a few covers. With such a huge workload, the transition from 12 to 22 pages per month was insurmountable for him.
After this, Steranko offered very few instances of interior work: two issues of Uncanny X-Men (where he designed the logo they're still using today), and three issues of Captain America (where Cap died the first time). Henceforth, his contributions were relegated to covers and pin-ups. Then he almost totally left the industry by the early 1970s.
The Kirby: Despite the obvious influence of Kirby's layouts on those first two stories, Steranko adopted much of Kirby's stylistic points as far as anatomy, movement and machinery. These remained intact throughout the entire run. The influence of Kirby is absolutely undeniable from these aforementioned aspects, to the photomontage to the inclusion of Steranko's inking of two Kirby-drawn sample pages that got him the job in the first place! (Coincidentally, those sample pages were of a Nick Fury story.)
There's also the crackle. Oh Lord, how Jim loved the crackle. He did it as good, or, dare I say it, better than Kirby in both application and frequency of use. Jack Kirby had a tendency to overkill it a little bit, but that's why we love him. When Steranko used it, it was vibrant and you knew he meant business.
The real Kirbyism that Steranko used, as I've already mentioned, is photomontage. This is one Kirbyism that Steranko definitely improved upon. While Kirby would use a shot of the cosmos or even the occasional cityscape, Steranko applied his superior commercial graphic design techniques to downright hypnotize people into buying the damn comics! (No wonder he did so many covers.)
Final thoughts: Beyond Kirby's influence on Steranko, it also seemed to work the other way. Jack Kirby based the character of Mister Miracle entirely on the former escape artist who I'm sure stirred things up at the Bullpen. Other than that, his recent design and cover work for Radical Comics keeps him tied to the medium he helped revolutionize. Maybe one day he'll come back to interiors.
Speaking of this collection exclusively, this is not a "how to" book for comics. In fact, I'm sure that anyone trying this kind of work would have a hard time being published these days. But it is certainly a high watermark for visual storytelling. Regardless of what comics you like to read, this should be held as an example of what this medium is capable of.