Wednesday, 7 December 2011

STERANKO! Part 1

Jack Kirby was the most influential comic artist who ever lived. Osamu Tezuka was probably the most prolific, but the man who is without doubt the most innovative creator in comics is Jim Steranko. He arrived like a comet at Marvel and within a very short period, changed the way we perceived comics forever. His body of work was relatively small, but virtually every panel was unique.

Later, I'll be posting a series of images that chart his incredibly rapid development in the pages of Strange Tales. Today though, I'm scanning one of my favourite Steranko images, a spread from this comic:


You'll notice it's looking a bit tatty. I'm a collector, but not the kind of collector who seals comics in a slab of plastic. I have many many thousands of comics. None of them are in long boxes or plastic bags with backing boards. They are on shelves, where they are always accessible to read. My Steranko comics have been read and perused so often they are crumbling away. It's hard to believe and a little scary to contemplate, that when I bought these comics they had slick shiny covers and pristine white pages. We've grown old and wrinkled together. 

About 18 months ago I got to meet Steranko. He was doing some design work on a comic I was writing for Radical called Ryder on the Storm. So I got to chat to one of my childhood heroes. I'm not often intimidated when I meet professional comic creators, but this was special and when we were first introduced I became a tongue-tied fan boy. Before I could even think about discussing work there was something I had to get out of the way. I pulled out an envelope with a few of my all-time favourite comics and asked would he mind signing them for me. I was apologetic about the state they were in. Really I should have taken more care of them. The first  I handed over has marks where I actually took the cover off and taped it to my bedroom wall.

One of the most imitated cover designs ever - nothing matches the original.

Look at that! All those years on my wall and I finally got Jim Steranko to sign it! Holy Crap!!!

Now here's the classic spread from the interior of Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #3. I still remember literally having a chill run down my spine the first time I saw this - the sheer simplicity and beauty of the design, using the the letters of the title as panels to tell the narrative as the hunted man gazes in terror at us out of the windows formed by the letters. He races away from us, but there is no escape. He meets his fate within the letters that spell out his doom: "KILL!"


The rest of the spread is sheer visual poetry. The deceptive simplicity of the design - the half submerged feet and the footprints leading to that powerful chiaroscuro image of the hound in silhouette against the yellow moon. Negative space has rarely been so effectively used in a comic. You could almost walk into that landscape. You can almost hear the howling...

I've spent many hours studying this image, but Jim gave me an added insight into just how brilliant his creative process was. This design was a perfect solution to a very simple problem. With the cheap printing techniques used on these comics, it wasn't possible to perfectly line up pages. You couldn't do a real double-page spread unless it was across the center pages of the book. Jim's spreads often were calculated to fall on that center spread. But when they weren't, he had to draw a border around each half of the spread to leave the gutter free of art. The editors didn't want misaligned art running across those gutters. So Jim came up with this - a piece of art that is continuous and yet has no black line or colour running across the gutter. 

Now that is genius.