Jun 2, 2010

Top Ten Most Influential Comics Artists #8: Jim Steranko

Welcome to another installment of the top 10 most influential artists of all time! Click here for the archive!

Today's influential artist is Jim Steranko!

Why Is He Influential?

Can you imagine reading comics in the 60s, when covers looked mostly like this one of the Justice League:

And then all of a sudden seeing a cover that looked like this one of Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD?

Can you imagine reading comics in the 60s, when panels generally went left to right, up to down, in tiny little boxes showing full figures, like this one of the Justice League:

And all of a sudden reading a comic that looked like this one of Captain America?

Not that there's really anything wrong with those Justice League examples. It's just that they were, well, standard, and not exactly all that eye-catching. If comics were indeed for kids, things like that Justice League story were content to keep it that way.

If you lived through the 60s, you can tell me how right or wrong I am, but what can't be denied is the influence Jim Steranko has had on graphics and their role in comics art. Of everyone on this list, he may be the one who truly put art before story, concentrating more on the visual effects he could put in to absolutely wow the reader. You had pages like this, which really had no effect on advancing the plot of the story - this is simply Nick Fury answering a phone call - but it looks great, and at the time, it was revolutionary.

Jim Steranko incorporated pop art and "top" art (his term for topical art) into comics, and he made it okay for comics to take from other forms of art just as much as other forms of art took from comics.

Jim Steranko is part of what I would call a triumvirate of revolutionary comics cartoonists of the late 60s - the other two being Neal Adams and Robert Crumb. But whereas Neal Adams' hyper-realistic style portrayed a world in front of us, making things more tangible than they were, and Crumb's neurotic style portrayed an internal world that was quite frankly uncomfortable to explore at time, Steranko, by his own admission, lived in his own world - there was no focus on the world within us or the world as we see it - he took us to another place entirely.

It also doesn't hurt that Steranko was able to write his own stuff, so he was able to tackle an issue that was pretty taboo back then: sex. Note this legendary page in which Nick Fury and the Countess Vanessa Allegra de Fontaine engage in some acts of intimacy. That following last panel was nixed by the Comics Code Authority, deeming that the embrace and the kiss were too sexual for mainstream comics.

So this is what it ended up looking like:

Symbolism, folks. In some small way, Steranko was able to influence that, too. Note, also, the color contrasts that he uses to emphasize the color red, truly setting the mood.

If you have ever come across a comics artist who experimented with the art form, chances are he was influenced by Jim Steranko, who, in 2006, was inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame.

What Works of His Should I Read?

If this list were about ratio and proportion - that is, if we calculated influence as impact divided by the volume of work done, Jim Steranko would be number one. I can't think of anyone else who had as much impact with such a small body of work. Jim Steranko cut his teeth and got famous on Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, which has, thankfully, been collected into paperbacks by Marvel Comics. It was in this comic that he really cut loose with his pop art-derived works and utilized them to tell stories as effectively as possible.

Hard as it may be to believe, Steranko did very little other comics work. But if you're willing to get into a debate, he arguably drew the first "graphic novel," called Chandler: Red Tide. I wouldn't call it that since it's technically not a comic book, but there's certainly room for debate.

Where Can I See His Influence?

The influence of Jim Steranko was already apparent back when he was still working. While he was doing stunning graphic effects in Marvel, DC mainstay Neal Adams would do stuff like this.

Those aren't just "energy lines," folks. Look at it closely - it says "Hey! A Jim Steranko effect!"

In addition to producing some of the most homaged covers and sequences throughout the years (including on an episode of the Simpsons), like I said, every time anyone has ever experimented with comics art, chances are they were influenced by Jim Steranko. The most obvious are Bill Sienkewicz, himself on this particular list:

And currently, JH Williams III, of Batwoman:

And Dave Johnson, cover artist of Punisher: Frank Castle Max.

Jim Steranko, also an escape artist, was even the inspiration for Jack Kirby's Mr. Miracle, and Joe Kavalier of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, himself both an escape artist and inventive comics artist! (By the way, if anyone could give me the source for this, I'd appreciate it -- I think it was Jim Steranko himself who drew it, though.)

But if experimentation and incorporation of other forms of art was ever utilized by any comics artist - or writer, for that matter - such as Alan Moore, you can bet that directly or indirectly, he had Jim Steranko to thank for it. And so do we.

Where Can He Officially Be Found on the Web?

Jim Steranko's official Web site is bare, but here's an awesome Steranko site: The Drawings of Steranko.


Anonymous said...

Excellent postt! It's incredible how he created just a handful of comics and yet had been an influence for almost half a century. Truly he was a visionary, a pioneer.

RockoJerome said...

Great post, but I think you might've been thinking of "Op Art" for "Optical Art."

Tony Robertson said...

I am not sure where you fond your source material for the Nick Fury and the Countess Vanessa Allegra de Fontaine intimate scene, but there were two panels changed, not just the last one. In the un-censored version, the phone is off the hook.

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