NICK FURY: AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D. #1 – “WHO IS SCORPIO?”
Matt Seneca is the rare guy who writes about comics that can make you excited about a medium that’s in the process of chewing off its own legs and slowly bleeding to death. He’s got an artist’s eye for why things work on the page and a critic’s capacity to reduce things to their component parts. Here, Matt and me take on Jim Steranko, a guy we’re both completely obsessed with.
Oh, you know you’re excited.
- – -
Sean : Well, to start off with the big stuff – lets talk about Steranko’s legacy. I know in the piece you did with Jog you mentioned his influence is kind of disappearing recently but I don’t know if I buy it. Everything I see these days has Steranko’s fingerprints all over it – from the obvious direct references in a dozen current Marvel comics to Casanova and Bulletproof Coffin, but also there’s a real formalist urge to some of the best comics artists these days, that I think you could trace back to Kirby, but really found its feet with Steranko. The page-as-a-work of art in superhero comics, where the whole is way more important than the story, its born right here in the pages of Nick Fury.
Matt: Not saying any different: I mean, Steranko is obviously in the blood of anyone who’s trying to do more than the boring ol’ “serve the story” with their superhero pages. That’s just it though — the lack of “story” innovations, the visual thrust behind everything Steranko did, the same thing that keeps him so there in the work of JH Williams, Mazzucchelli, David Aja, Brendan McCarthy — it’s the thing that keeps him from actually getting talked about, recognized, fully assimilated. On a certain level it’s just hard to put words to pictures, and Steranko invites it less than about anybody else. If you’ve got a Steranko comic at hand it’s the easiest thing in the world to point out what he did, because you just turn to those so-often-quoted passages and point. “He did this, and he did this, and he used the screentones to do this and the colors to do this.” It’s when you try to verbalize those things that it gets tough, indefinable: fake fisheye lens perspectives, Crepax ripoffs, repeated acts of bad drawing, Krigstein layouts, figure animation? Hardly the stuff of revolutions.
SW: I guess it is difficult to speak of his outside influence beyond stuff like that – or even if we’re talking revolution, its things as simple as those X-Men covers which don’t really look particularly striking these days, even in comparison with Steranko’s other (better) covers, they were the first time someone broke those specific rules. A few years ago I remember seeing Kurt Busiek of all people go on a tirade on some forum about how he just didn’t get Steranko – and that his Captain America was the definition of “plotless”, “Image-style” storytelling, and just not understanding exactly how he could think that way and yet still going “of course you think that you write for George Perez and Brent Anderson”. Of course that guy only cares about the most basic of basic storytelling, which Steranko had little to no use for. Even in this issue the most banal moments are presented graphically with new tricks, sometimes to the story’s detriment.
MS: Well, Steranko never cared about story, at least not so you could ever tell. Let alone long-form incremental Kurt Busiek storytelling, haw! That is right though, the IMAGE comic began with Steranko — he just had more highly evolved pictorial concepts than Rob Liefeld. What Steranko comics have, often in lieu of plot, is tone, more so perhaps than any other ‘60s comics on either side of the mainstream: a thick, deeply seductive ambiance about them. The stories are rarely good, not always even there at all, and the whole oeuvre’s impact on the wider field can easily be reduced down to those ten or fifteen really famous panel sequences, the ones people are likely to have actually seen ( let’s not forget, you can’t beg, borrow, or steal these comics for the most part).
I feel like for all the Steranko put-ons we see in modern comics, few have ever really engaged with that supercold, futurist feel his work has, the total alien disregard for story, the deliberate sacrifice of sensicality and plot dynamics for pictorially based experimentation. People only want to emulate those eminently quotable “things he did”, the silent pages, the sly lettering, the psychedelia. Steranko’s biggest (only?) precept was expand the page, and the modern comics we can see him in aren’t always doing that, they’re usually just copying the same old ‘60s motifs and innovations he brought to the form. That’s what I mean by saying that his influence is disappearing: we don’t have any Marshall Rogerses anymore, nobody (except maybe JH Williams) using his ideas and broader aesthetic goals, though no end of guys want to copy that one picture of “Hulk” he drew. Maybe comics have moved on. I don’t know. But there’s more to be gotten from Steranko, things that no one since has taken up.
Your mention of Bulletproof Coffin is a perfect example of what I’m talking about: that comic is Kirby hot and Kirby loud all the way through, and when it incorporates Steranko it samples the EXACT PHOTO of the moon that he used in “Today Earth Died” — it doesn’t actually go to that barren, echoing realm of total silence where the SHIELD stuff happened. Which is a good thing as far as the reading experience goes: that place is inhospitable, hostile to the reader, and Steranko’s status among today’s artists isn’t that of a real influence, it’s that of an effect, a gimmick to pull out for added dazzle.
SW: I don’t know – I think that McCarthy and Williams have their moments where they do get close to that – I guess I would call it a disconnect between what they are telling and how they are telling it. It’s hard to quantify, but Steranko’s not even interested in how well these panels are drawn a lot of the time, that’s why calling him an early version of the “image-style” bugged me. Because I think “Image” basically means flash over storytelling, which Steranko can and will do, but it also means that kind of slavish dedication to making things look “cool” by adding as many lines as possible, or just going into tits-and-guns overdrive. Steranko would cheat whenever he could, and it didn’t matter because he was after the total effect of the image. That’s where the pop art influence at its biggest on Steranko, maybe that’s the substance. He pulled the De Palma trick a lot too – of just having a sequence just to contradict it immediately, so it wasn’t just on the page it was a part of his stories. So the total issue’s reading experience is treated the same way as the page – where it doesn’t need to make actual sense so much as feel right, look right, hang together. And Bulletproof Coffin – I didn’t realize it was the same photo, but of course it doesn’t have the same scraped-to-the-bone finality that Steranko’s page has. I remember reading that page for the first time and it didn’t recall anything for me but the terrible chapter-heading paintings in Dangerous Visions, which it doesn’t look like at all. It just shares that desolate feeling. Bulletproof Coffin, as much as I like that story, is going for the fun apocalypse of Kamandi not “Day the Earth Died”.
MS: Yeah, a big hallmark of Steranko’s stuff is that what he drew was so perfectly mirrored in the way he drew it. Anger or fear: red panel! Suspense scene: subdivision! Big machine: collage page! None of that is novel — he cribbed from the ECs here, Kirby there — but the way he employed it has become a legitimate part of the comics language. Talking about JH Williams especially — that guy’s whole thing is mirroring the function with the form in stuff like his red pain boxes and bat-shaped panels, and I’m not sure if he gets there without Steranko as a point of departure. That “newspaper sequence” at the end of Seven Soldiers? Nobody since SHIELD had been to that place, that visual conceptualization of the comics page.
SW: Oh no way that he could, but I don’t know if that’s even conscious on his part as much as the motif-jacking and framing. I think that is something that’s more processed through just general comics storytelling – he could have taken those things internally through a Frank Miller or an Alan Davis, but the way he takes on a page is a lot more of a conscious act (actually with Williams, I think he takes more from Steranko’s paperback covers than anything else.) Do you think the Marshall Rogers/Gulacy/Starlin crew directly influenced by Steranko took more from him? I think Gulacy is kind of a different beast who saw Steranko the way Eisner saw Orson Welles, as an innovator and toolbox rather than an actual storytelling influence.
MS: Yeah, Gulacy not as much, though I do think he went deeper into Steranko drawing than anybody else. His early Shang-Chi stuff, oh my goodness — it’s the entirety of the shorthand laid out for all to see, with a little better grounding in anatomy and more typical Marvel blocking. Gulacy was the one who carried the “Steranko look” into the ‘70s, though that also died a death with the ascendancy of John Byrne, George Perez superhero comics, the high ‘80s Kirby/Neal Adams fusion that hero artists are still working with today. Starlin and especially Rogers though, yeah! Definitely! Not only were they engaging with the shorthand (which with Steranko extended to production-method stuff that you can see in Starlin’s colors and Rogers’ screentones), but they were actively chasing down the concepts he had laid out on his pages. Starlin at his best got straight aggro with the non-intuitive layouts, and Rogers ended up certainly equalling and maybe even besting Steranko with the bending/welding of form to content in his panel compositions. Neither of them really went after the Steranko story feel — Starlin had his own things to say and Rogers mostly worked with writers — but they both produced art that not only looked like and called back to Steranko, it made a concerted effort to follow down the blind alleys those SHIELD issues left behind them.
I think where the coldness comes in is with Corben, his garde. The big exception, in fact, to the rule of dudes not being hard enough for Steranko’s frostbitten tone is the artists of early Heavy Metal, the Macedos and McKies, who maybe even took it too far into abstract conceptualizing and transgression — and obviously writing their stories while high — for most people to follow, and in a visual era that hasn’t aged nearly as well as the skinny-tie ‘60s.
SW: I’m less familiar with Rogers than I am Gulacy and Starlin, but I can see that. And my Heavy Metal knowledge is nowhere near yours, what I have read of those books was at least ten years ago. So I’m kind of out of my depth there. But going back to the “futurist”, “cold” approach of Steranko – do you think of the SHIELD stories as actual scifi or just gadget-y? I don’t think that Steranko particularly cared about the future the way that Kirby did, but he cared about making his pages look cutting edge? But even in doing so, there’s less of a Kirby-drawn insanity to his gadgets and machines than there is a sense of actual technology, not in the Ken Adam engineer way but closer to that than Kirby’s machines (when Nextwave came out Warren Ellis said something great about the amazing uselessness of Steranko’s gadget design) .
MS: Well, Steranko was basically a pure-visual artist working in comics, so the future he concerned himself with was a visual one. (One that largely came to pass — you ever see early ‘70s ad art?) But nah, it’s never scifi cause there’s never any actual science to it, not even on the order of the ridiculous gobbledygook Stan Lee would put in Reed Richards’ mouth. The long, massively complicated names of the scientific devices remain because they suit Steranko’s aesthetic. The rest is just drawings — drawings of a future that incorporated rockets and smooth metal sheeting for their visual flair, not the science-based implications those things carry. It’s not scifi, but it’s scifi cold. It leaves the known behind for the new, and more important than that, it’s willing to accept the new without explanation. I’ve talked before about Steranko’s nihilism — maybe that’s where it starts. Kirby, Ditko, Eisner, Krigstein, they asked the future “why?” Steranko sneers and asks “why NOT?”
SW: There is more power to Steranko’s design of SHIELD, probably because of I guess advertising influence than even the same basic ideas when Kirby did them in Captain America. I think that his stuff didn’t get dated for that express reason, because he treated it the way Howard Chaykin would treat fashion a decade later. So the nihilism, you clearly think its as much an element of the art as the storytelling, do you think that’s why Steranko would manipulate the page to – well I don’t think the right word is manipulate, but its close – the way he did? The playing to the story but still openly disregarding it?
MS: Well, some of it’s the refusal to bend his art to story. Steranko’s got nothing idea-based at the core, no warm Kirby humanisms or Ditko reformist zealotry. All he has in him is the big, thundering images, and that’s what he wraps his stories around. To finally get to the comic at hand, there’s absolutely no discernible reason why “Who is Scorpio” opens with Nick Fury climbing up a tower set into the middle of the sea. We later learn that’s SHIELD headquarters he’s infiltrating, which we know has branches in New York, Vegas, and a giant helicopter. But nahhh — Steranko felt more like drawing a scene from the Tarot, so that’s what went in the book. Playing fast and loose with logic like that isn’t dark or nihilist in and of itself — McCarthy, for example, does it with a lot of very human, light English whimsy — but in Steranko’s hands it’s not a conceit, it’s not even a purposeful expression of tone. All he’s saying with those illogical image insertions is that he doesn’t give a fuck. Not for logic, not for story, not for Marvel, not for the comics form. The man and his drawings stand alone, and whatever’s to come of it will come. Either way — he doesn’t care. This is Dada, this is punk, this is sans meaning and feeling and everything that’s supposed to power genre comics. It’s an engine that springs to life of its own volition.
SW: The opening is so brilliantly an announcement of intent. I always wondered if Steranko had seen You Only Live Twice the year earlier and thought that the protagonist killing himself to start the story was a way to one-up Roald Dahl’s underworld riff on Bond and still downplay the pretension of that as much as possible. Scorpio himself, is a villain without any spoken motivation, so that does jibe. Also Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD is wholly unlike his peers – there is no mandate for his actions, no real reason for him to do anything. This is a comic without anything driving it – even Bond paid lip service to giving him things that he was fighting for. But SHIELD, for a first issue, is just an organization with a lot of equipment.
While the story is geographically untethered (you could say that’s a part of the genre), these are entirely untethered characters. Which is the idea at the heart of the jetset, superspy appeal. And I guess the entire swath of 60s entertainment, stuff like “Thrilling Cities”, etc. That it was possible to train yourself to be completely autonomous, even from things like reason and morality. Steranko’s Fury was never a bastard like Bond, I guess, but I think that’s more about differentiation than anything else. Its a very nihilistic outlook on the world, which I guess is why its so appealing even 40 years later. You could go anywhere, you could screw beautiful women, kill anyone who gets in your way without impunity, and any jam you get in there is a technology to assist you.
MS: And most importantly, everything is meaningless, all action occurs in a total amoral vacuum. Fury isn’t a bastard like Bond because in Steranko’s world there’s no such thing, not even among the villains. Scorpio and Fury are indistinguishable in combat — both pull off ridiculously harmful moves on the other, both go for the kill, and both spout discourse that’s gone so far into comic booky stylism that it’s left the war of ideas between Good and Evil behind. They talk about what they’re gonna do to each other. Then they try to do it. Steranko’s people are all just fighting (and occasionally fucking) machines, and the idea that one of them might go about business in a less-acceptable way is just totally foreign.
SW: Of course, on top of that is Scorpio himself, who is a character (and I’m sure we’ll talk about this more later on), who has no revealed motivation whatsoever. He is a cipher who mentions revenge and “an oath sworn in blood”, but that’s par for the course. Scorpio’s powers are technological? Cosmic? Does it matter? He’s a guy in a mask who’s here to bounce Nick Fury off of, who eventually escapes for no real reason. He’s a non-character, but intentionally so, which is kind of like laying in a competing wall of static against Nick Fury’s blankness. There is a real pushbutton use of emotions in this issue as well, the subplot is openly manipulative garbage that pays a little lip service to Lee/Kirby’s device of man-on-the-street being used as a counterpoint, but Steranko does it in such a nasty, brutal way. Or maybe its an attempt at Hitchcock, with mistaken identity being just another plug and play element of the spy story. Either way, its cut short and used as a way to add punch/ distract the reader from the fact that absolutely nothing paid off here and they discovered nothing. Worse than that, this isn’t even teaser material, it’s just strung along haphazardly. But it is satisfying aesthetically so who could complain?
MS: I can’t remember if I’ve put it in print before, but I’ve got a theory about why it was the Neal Adams side of late-’60s comic art that “won out” and had a bigger influence on the field in the long run. Steranko’s best work represented the farthest out hero comics had ever been visually, taking the Kirby bombast and the underground psychedelia and amping them both up to ridiculous technicolor levels. It’s art for the social revolution that bloomed during the Johnson era, in love with the new, with complete faith in itself. For all his layout tricks and ugh, backgrounds that form big faces, Neal Adams is very much the opposite: grounded, humanist figurative realism, with that Norman Rockwell Americana thing that powers Alex Ross today. And by the time the ‘60s drew to a close, people were just tired of the revolution. They wanted the familiar and the mundane again, they wanted clean-cut simple heroes, they wanted Americana, they wanted Nixon, they wanted Adams. The future’d lost its sheen.
Similarly, it’s interesting to contrast Steranko and his stories’ march toward total meaningless noise with the rest of ‘60s superhero comics’ progression toward increased levels of meaning, even (shudder) relevance. Ditko went political. Kirby went spiritual. And Neal Adams drew comics about superheroes trying to figure out how they could punch heroin and building-code violations. All while Steranko was stripping his books down, pushing them toward pure visually powered spectacle, subtracting any larger ideological points first, then going further and by this comic basically getting rid of character motivation altogether. The players in “Who Is Scorpio” are objects who follow the laws of thermodynamics more than any personal traits or beliefs. Check out the bomb-test sequence, with Fury lying statue-still in the middle of a desert until danger threatens and he makes it to Las Vegas in under five minutes. Steranko’s wind-up toys remain inert unless acted upon, and then they spring into motion.
SW: I get you, but Neal Adams is someone I don’t automatically link to that ethos. That’s more of a Denny O’Neill thing that Adams was just kind of party to (and I love Denny O’Neill but those Green Lantern/Green Arrow comics are just ridiculous and impossible to get through). When I think Neal Adams, I immediately go to that weird identity he created – back then anyway – of commercial art and ultra-realism. His shit is entirely about verisimilitude and replicating the real world on the page. He and Steranko were barely in the same business. I know that his Batman is continually praised as dynamic, but the famous shot of Batman running is clearly more affecting because it looks like a real guy running, with drapery and physicality. On Steranko’s end, his most famous image is truly dynamic, but in a mixed-hot 00s Mogwai album kind of way. It’s levels are all peaking red. Its an amplification of what even Steranko was expected to do with a spread. Here’s the whole story at once, shirtless hero here to save the day, lady in peril, superpowered villain we’ve never seen before, like 30 actions occurring at once. There’s no photographic quality to Steranko, there is constant motion as these figures crank through their predetermined actions too fast for frames to contain them.
MS: The product is a lot truer to what superhero comics are, of course: the eye-searing quality, the aggressive lack of logic, the supreme rule of violence and sex and more violence, but it’s just so close to the bone. In an age where the biggest thing comics had going for them was college kids comparing Stan Lee to Homer, the idea of the medium as total contentless pop art, convenient marketing aside, was a tough one to countenance. Still is today: even if they got the best artist ever to draw it, the superhero fanboys would scream their heads off if Batman killed somebody because it made for a good page. Steranko’s discarding the typical superhero frameworks of morals and story makes for great reading, but he took it about as far as it’s ever been.
SW: There really isn’t another comic you can go to that wants to succeed on the same level that this book succeeds on. Because it does all of these no-content moves but it doesn’t ever come off as crass, which is something I think we should definitely talk about. Because I think there are some great comics that are truly about nothing in a really vicious, “fuck you pay me”, kind of way. For example, a good Mark Millar comic is a fight scene about nothing with a few nasty fuck-you-audience jabs and maybe something intentionally extra offensive like a Hulk rape joke or something, drawn by John Romita Jr. There is something really appealing about that to me, in a Sex Pistols kind of way. I don’t know if that’s nihilism in the same way, but its definitely nihilism because it exists for no reason. There is no core, but its not substantive. “Who Is Scorpio?” isn’t like that, I never feel like this comic is a shakedown.
(It is weird that the single book that I think picked up on everything Steranko was doing in this run is Elektra Assassin, which is both about nothing and at the same time very concerned with politics and morality and what these comics are about? Assassin is a great comic but its also a comic with a lot on its mind. It would be almost fussy if it wasn’t as assaultive as it is. What else is there? The Freakwave story in Strange Days? Nothing clicks the same way.)
MS: Hmmm… let me think. You ever read Valentina? That comic’s like Nick Fury plus in a lot of ways, just a lot less violent. All the visual stuff, the pop, the sex, the overpowering tone (though a completely different one). Elektra Assassin, I can see what you mean but that comic has some real ideological convictions behind it, even if it’s just “politics is fucked”. But I agree, it’s SHIELD for the Reagan era. Of McCarthy’s work I’d actually pick out Paradax as the more Steranko-y comic, though it has been a while since I looked at Freakwave.
But getting to your point, yeah, I don’t mean any of this to say or even imply that Steranko wasn’t fully engaged in what he was doing. The thing about Mark Millar comics is that he isn’t trying, he’s come up with the equation for bare-minimum comics that sell. Which to me makes him like the Don Heck of the modern era. (And if we’re gonna talk Sex Pistols-style comics, we need to talk about Kyle Baker.) But Steranko was trying with every panel, and that’s what makes this stuff so good to read despite the lack of preoccupation with story. It’s not like he was making a concerted choice to disregard plots or making sense, it’s that he was so into drawing the pictures, pushing the formal boundaries, designing the pages, that story had to fall by the wayside to a certain degree. You can’t make this comic do what it does with a heavier plot, then you get Casanova. And nobody wants that.
Seriously though, while there is a fuck-you aspect to Steranko’s illogical, futurist writing, it’s not “fuck you person who bought this”, it’s “fuck you convention”. He willfully ignores a lot of the storytelling devices that made comics work then and still make them work now, but it’s always so he can add in something new, some layout conceit or crazy gadget, something that will add to the comic as a good read if not as a story. I mean, there’s one hell of a lot in this one issue. For all Scorpio’s blank-screen aspect he’s kind of a fascinating character. The mystery running through the first half, if not absorbing, has some pretty dramatic high points. Fury gets some good moments (that meditating-in-the-desert page is really something, almost Jodorowskyesque). And there’s a whole B-plot layered in underneath the hero action, a sleazy ‘60s pulp thing that hints at the kind of stories Steranko would’ve been drawing if he hadn’t worked in an industry that forced everybody into spandex.
SW: I’ve only read a few short pieces of Valentina but they were untranslated so I think that I treated them in a different way because of that (in the same way I don’t consider that I’ve read any Corto Maltese because I’ve only read it in the original language). (As an aside – do you know if Steranko and Crepax had feelings about each other’s work? I’d love to know). I don’t know if I can even write-off Millar off the same way, (I mean I can, because he’s truly is like that) but the guy actually understands how to write an action sequence, which is something I tend to forgive a lot if a writer can actually do that. So he has put enough effort in that he got that part. And Kyle Baker? Shit, I’ve never even thought about that comparison. Anyway, not to say that Steranko is doing this because he doesn’t care, clearly not, but I think that its odd that you have to go to Don Heck or Mark Millar (or hey, Neal Adams) to get to that kind of quality and then its equally shitty because you can tell they don’t give a shit. Steranko is “fuck you” in the same manner as the pop art guys he respected – its about audacity more than anything.
MS: I’ve never heard Steranko on Crepax but I know without doubt that he was into it. He named Fury’s girl Valentina! He drew her in a totally Crepaxian sex scene in the issue after this one! If you look at the earliest Valentina, from back in ‘65 when it was still ostensibly a hero comic called Neutron, you can see the blue print for SHIELD just so clearly. I’d imagine Steranko never talked about Crepax because he made his reputation as an innovator and he REALLY likes to talk about himself as such, but he just ripped Crepax off wholesale. He finally starts getting past it around this time and sort of goes off into a different thing entirely on Captain America, but still. A big amount of the Steranko playbook is Crepax, no filter. Never read Crepax on Steranko either — the one interview with him I’ve seen is this weird Heavy Metal thing about pornography and Marxism — but I’m genuinely not sure how he would’ve seen Steranko. We were talking about how Starlin, Rogers, Gulacy sort of stole a big part of the Steranko approach before moving elsewhere with it; that’s what the man himself did with Crepax, and I think you just gotta be ok with that as an artist. So that’s my long “I dunno.”
SW: Oh definitely, you hear stories about Neal Adams going “hey this kid draws like me” and getting 17 year olds jobs. Its a part of the business, I guess they just accepted it. Probably more before you had kids on the internet spotting tracers every week. I was kind of hazy on the Steranko/Crepax timeline (or any comics history timeline really, to be honest). Crepax, even after being a huge fan of Steranko for years, whenever I see that stuff it still looks just a little alien to to me. Which I guess is the appeal. I don’t think I’m familiar enough to spot his influence on Steranko, is what I guess I’m saying.
MS: There’s a panel in this book — the first Scorpio appearance actually, the one at the raceway — that’s shockingly evocative of the debut Valentina story. Later Crepax went off into a style that basically shares nothing with Steranko, so I can’t imagine he cared too much that somebody was biting his early works. But getting back to your point about Millar, Don Heck, the guys who make bad comics, I actually think one of the most interesting things about Steranko is that both sides of his work are just so apparent. There’s the virtuosic passages, and then you turn the page and it’s just failing so badly. And yet somehow it keeps a self-consistent tone. It’s not like these issues are patchy comics. They just walk SUCH a thin line between transcendence and incomprehensibility. I know I’ve bitched before about how there’s a whole school of Steranko crit that’s unwilling to engage with his failures, but you literally can’t make it through a single story without hitting one. Great as the atmospheric ending is, it’s got a basis in a really weird subplot that’s like the diet-cola version of Hunter Thompson. That eye-popping double-spread has one of the prettiest girls Steranko ever drew, but then he repeats the pose on the next page and it’s this weird, distended attempt at a Crepax ass shot that just fails. All the high points are based in the low points, or lead into them. They’re inextricable.
SW: I think the subplot has to be a Stan Lee editorial influence. Because it has very little to do with the main story, it seems like the kind of “human appeal” aspect that he wanted to inject. And of course you’re right – the amazing “Fury Outruns the Rocket” page is crippled by the three worst panels in the whole story, there really isn’t a page with the exception of the splash that I would call perfect. Or the shot of Fury covered in gear being saddled with those three uninspired Fu-Manchu style panels, all at terrible angles. The inconsistencies are part of the deal. Also no one ever talks about “Steranko Girls” the way you’d hear about so many of his peers. They’re just drawings on the page, an aspect of the whole. Its not like a Frazetta where no matter how bad the page was, he still spent a ton of time drawing the girl.
MS: Yeah, he could never even get Val to look the same from panel to panel. Or even pretty. The girls are like the machines are like the costumes… set dressing. And then you realize these comics are all set, up to and including the hero: moving sets that don’t go anywhere except the visual future of the medium. “Steranko girls”, though… you wanna be the first to talk about ‘em? Let me see… it’s actually interesting you mention Frazetta because this is probably the first issue where you really see that guy leaking into Steranko’s art, and I think it’s in large part because he was trying to figure out the acme of a pretty girl. He wasn’t the pure figure artist Crepax was, not even close, so he was kinda starting to ditch that approach to girls. Frazetta had like this formula for it that you see Steranko starting to address in the splash and a few panels of the subplot scenes too. Of course his faces were still totally off… odd that he could get Fury and Dugan and Sitwell and the rest of the SHIELD gang down to perfect cartoon iconography but never even come close with a pretty girl. I mean, it’s not that hard!
SW: I think that Steranko had two specific drawings of women that stick with me – the shot of Val in The Day the Earth Died and that shot of Lady Viper in… is it Captain America? He never ever drew a page as good as that shot of Dugan talking to Val but even there, there is something really off about the proportions. Was that Frazetta influenced? I see a lot more McGinnis in there than anything else.
MS: Well, yeah that one page is weird just cause Steranko could never do a human figure until a while after he left Marvel. And even though that doesn’t have to be a problem in comics (like his men were just ridiculous too but he bound them in muscles the right way), he hadn’t learned where to mass the flesh yet on girls. I actually see that shot as really Crepax, with the long, sinuous shape, the weird proportions (which mirror some of the anatomical tics that Crepax could actually pull off), and obviously the particular subject matter. When I think Steranko=Frazetta I think stuff like the Val shot in this issue’s spread and then really a lot when we get into SHIELD #2 with leopard-skin babes jumping around all over the place. That was the big shift in my view.
SW: Just a digression back to the intent part of the conversation — do you think SHIELD #3 is just a complete mess like I do? Every time I read these things that always feels like the one time he couldn’t cohere the pages. There is a part of me that wants to say its the subject matter but literally none of it works. A lot of the time it seems like he’s just plugging the characters into layouts he’s came up with earlier. It’s rough stuff.
MS: I think SHIELD 3 is almost like a sketchbook comic in a lot of ways. You’re right, it’s way rougher than the sleek “Pop Art Productions” that the rest of the SHIELD books and the subsequent Captain America stuff were, full of pages that just don’t work in any way at all. Like we said, all Steranko’s books are this mix of success and failure, it’s never the one or the other, and I think that one just has a little higher failure rate than normal. However, it’s a pretty essential moment in his career: it’s the first one where the drawing is actually good all the way through, it gets rid of the tight, Krigstein-y sequences of smaller panels that characterize early SHIELD, especially, and when it does reuse layouts it places the shapes and colors in them really differently. It’s like a workshop issue (with a girl that looks more Toth to me than anything else), pretty much a warm-up for the more successful “At the Stroke of Midnight”. It’s got a lot of steps forward. It’s also got the single worst page in Steranko’s entire career, the massive “Nazis in the cellar” splash page with like five solid paragraphs of intricately lettered exposition scrolling down it. Painful reading, especially when you contrast it with the blue-white splendor of the spread he opens up the issue with. The learning curve’s at its most visible there.
SW: Oh yeah, but the final page of the story gives a good run for worst too (especially the guy’s face just melting sideways). Its good to think of as a sketchbook issue, I guess, then you can see a lot of ideas being worked out for greater use later. That kind of leads me to whether or not you think SHIELD is Steranko’s apex. I do, but I know a lot of people say Cap or Chandler (dunno why) – I know these books are not even complete in his style choices, story, anything… but to me they seem to be the one time where everything, even #3, was completely captivating from Steranko. I don’t even know that I care about the Cap issues the same way.
MS: Well, Chandler kinda blows, I’m sorry. It’s like the most interesting comic in the medium’s history to kinda blow, but there you have it. But I agree: from a technical perspective and a transcending-his-influences perspective the Cap stuff is way better, but the thing is that Steranko is so much about forward motion. Once he actually hits an apex he’s not blazing away quite as wild anymore, and that’s the joy of reading his comics. Yeah, SHIELD is the best stuff. Once he’s done his first year or so it’s got enough proficiency, and he’s still trying so much, innovating so much, failing so much. It’s got the most energy and verve and idiosyncracy, there’s the most there, y’know?
SW: I dunno – Stars My Destination might blow more. Energy is everything with this guy. Which, I remember the first time I saw Outland on some website I was so disappointed because I never saw the transition between SHIELD and it, right? It was just suddenly this guy who got the most out of the medium just doing stained glass spreads. It felt wrong. Now, I can see the trajectory and appreciate it, but man. SHIELD, and I say that the huge Hydra/Yellow Claw saga is the best story that Steranko ever illustrated, was just enough of a middle space between Steranko’s urge to innovate and what he needed to do to maintain his position. Even with Cap you get the feeling that he’s working without a net, or acting as if he had no editor anyway. There’s just as much energy there but I connect with it less, and I think its because that tension is missing. Even if its just something as stupid as being told to cram Dr. Doom into a single splash, that kept him thinking on his feet.
MS: Yeah, I know what you mean. This issue of SHIELD, with the hyper-action only barely beginning to gain self-consciousness and the subplot we keep threatening to talk about, is the last time Steranko’s work ever has the feel of genuine pulp. I mean, he obviously addressed pulp much more thoroughly in stuff like Chandler, but that was a big art book really, whereas those Strange Tales issues and early SHIELD are the genuine article, newsprint with an editorial agenda. I think Steranko needed to break out of that to do his best work: the first three books of his I’d show someone are Cap, Day Earth Died, and SHIELD 2, which probably bear the least traces of Lee meddling and Kirby copyism, but yeah, as comics that conform to the experience we expect and desire from the medium, it’s this stuff. Maybe if Steranko had done some kind of Frazetta thing and made his best work outside traditional comics it would be different, but you’re right: Outland is frustrating, Chandler is frustrating. It’s cool to see the progression, they’re interesting in his career context, but they don’t just hit the way the Fury books do.
SW: Well, lets talk about that subplot then – there is a pulp element to it, but there is also this weird feeling that it’s a leftover from a Richard Matheson short story for me. Its just too easily connected, and it feels like Steranko is reaching to counterpoint the Nick Fury and Scorpio relationship with these two near-identical guys, but he doesn’t seem to care enough. I would like to sit here and make the argument that Steranko wants to show us that these two men are equally as doomed because of unspecified reasons, and for us to expand that out to Fury and Scorpio. Which, yeah, they’re Marvel comic characters they are near-identical blank slates driven together for no reason. I don’t know if he’s really going there, though.
MS: I actually see this as Steranko’s big Eisner moment, not so much trying to make his usual mind-blowing meta-points as just attempting to dial into the real human world going on beneath this Marvel Universe that we were getting to know pretty well by 1968. As Silver Age Marvel goes, it’s pretty tough stuff — straightup cold-blooded murder, dudes who break the law for a living on both the “good” and “bad” sides of things, a scene in what’s basically a strip club. In a way it’s almost like Steranko’s taking the “man on the street” stuff that was so much a hallmark of Stan Lee’s
contributions to the Marvel Comic and trying to expand it into something wilder ad more interesting the way he did with Kirby’s bangin’ kinetic stuff. I think you’re right that he was trying to go for the big pithy moment where Fury and Flip Mason would’ve run into each other — “They see a KINSHIP in each other’s eyes, these two men — a strange BOND that holds the gaze!” something like that. But yeah, he forgot. Whoops! And you know, it’s just another Steranko failure in a string of many, but it draws attention and merits mention because it could have been so interesting if he had pulled it off. As it is, though, this comic still has the most hardcore ending of any Marvel comic in history. “Am I gonna get a tricycle, mommy?” BOOM! Makes me crack up every time.
SW: I really like how it kind of prefigures Lloyd’s approach to V for Vendetta, with the stark shot of Fury… actually the whole subplot is the kind of thing that ended up in Alan Moore comics. The tragic, ironic death lurking for the ordinary people along the story’s fringes. Which totally evolved from Stan Lee but, yeah… Steranko just coldcocks you with that last page turn doesn’t he? Its like he says “This is boring” between drawing those two pages. It isn’t the blind black man hanging out with Daredevil and crying, that’s for sure.
MS: Yeah, and it leads back into the darkness of Steranko comics. We’ve got two sides of the guy: there’s the ADHD, manic, expansive side who totally would decide that this part of the story was boring between drawing pages, but then there’s the darker, glowering one that I guess we’re calling the nihilist side, the one who addresses the issue by blowing the dude to smithereens. That cruelty has more than just not caring about plot dynamics as much as page appearance to it. A sarcasm, a black humor, or maybe just a lack of regard for anything. Because I mean, the total effect of it is to invalidate what up to this point has been a pretty carefully plotted (for Steranko, anyway), tight little sequence. What could’ve been the single moment of genuine human drama in the man’s entire career becomes a macabre punchline, a pointing-up of the fact that Fury the hero has done absolutely nothing good over the course of his lil adventure. That explosion turns the Steranko take on “real life” into a random collection of gogo bars, shootouts, and memories, no threads remaining to unify it, no happy endings, no point. Why not be a superhero? It’s better than this garbage!
SW: And the superhero side is torn apart too — there’s the slightest lip service given to kind of meaning and purpose that having an arch-nemesis would, but it’s pretty damn empty too. I know that the two of us grew up way after all these ideas were exploded forever — everything from Moore/Miller/Morrison to Brat Pack to Clowes to the Venture Bros have made this point since, and probably more clearly — but here’s both sides of the Stan Lee dramatic structure splayed on an operating table. Conflict for conflict’s sake, reversals, human interest subplot, inexplicable ending where the hero comes out safe, villain gets away, explosion, faux-Shakespearean closing line. He’s saying you know this story already, lets solo a little bit over this. It is a break too, from what Kirby would do which is just expand the elements he liked of Lee’s formula, or Ditko, who provided counterpoint. This is a distancing of the guy who’s telling the story from the story itself. The first page declares in Stan Lee fashion: “The first SHIELD novel-length epic of unforgettable suspense and drama” — you know that Steranko doesn’t believe that shit for a second. He doesn’t care about aping a novel anymore than he does about delivering what comics were supposed to deliver.
MS: Right, but he sure cares about the way that bullet of text sounds! It’s the style to that phrase that gets it in the comic, just like everything else. Steranko might have come to Marvel a little late to ever get the klassic “Pop Art Productions” logo on one of is books, but his stuff has got to be the greatest example — and maybe Silver Age Marvel’s only example — of comics that actually took up the Pop aesthetic. When you look at everything in this whole damn book as a pure element of style and worry about stuff like sensicality, genre, milieu — even visual import, honestly — after that, it all makes sense. That explosion in the phone booth is fire and concrete and shattering glass, and if you take it as nothing but that it’s a hell of a force to be reckoned with. Same with death itself, the elemental force that cuts off Flip Mason’s time in the mortal coil. Same with the op-art elements, same with the sexy thrills, same with the Kirbyist posturing. It’s all heavy, it’s all visceral, it’s all intense, and it all has a logic unto itself. People say artists are “playing with weighty themes” so often that phrase doesn’t even mean anything anymore, but Steranko was the only one I can think of to really play with this stuff, spray it across the pages like silly string and not worry about cleaning up the mess. Put enough that’s good in and you don’t have to worry about what comes out. This comic is a fractured, unholy mess, but it’s made up of so much that’s interesting. Unit by unit — balloon by balloon, panel by panel, page by page, idea by idea, it’s comics that go deeper and further than anything else from either side of the genre fence had at the time. Who cares if it’s a bitch to unravel?
Above all, it hits, and that’s what Steranko was interested in. I guess that’s a part of the nihilism too — Kirby wanted to turn the kids who read him into little dreamers, Ditko wanted his to be little fascists, Lee wanted his to be little Marvel addicts, but Steranko just wanted them to know they’d been marked. Effect be damned.
SW: Oh definitely, he’s unconcerned with anything other than the way these pages work – maybe not even that they work with each other. You could say he’s actually coming to a lot of these things which are revolutionary as a side effect rather than as a desired result. It’s not Steranko’s intent that he make the reader examine what these tropes are making them think in some post-modern examination, it’s not even on his radar, but the guts are definitely being shown in the course of his voodoo process. That sense of play, it was key to Pop Art as a concept, and it always gets lost in the fanboys-mad-at-Lichtenstein strawman arguments that pop up all the time (you ever notice how no one ever brings up Warhol and Tandori Yokoo did the same thing? Because they don’t know). For Steranko, it’s not a place for him to soapbox or contribute to narrative, and so the delivery system just becomes another tool.
MS: And that’s Steranko at the core, isn’t it? That’s what he did in the medium and that’s what he did for the medium. Comics as pure toolbox. The stories will sort themselves out as long as they have these friggin’ superheroes in them. So let’s use the system — this wonderful, unwieldly, insane newsprint pamphlet — to push further into what words and pictures can do. It doesn’t even matter whether or not the stuff reads well. It had never been done before. And most of it hasn’t been done since. In that respect, this comic is and has been a complete success.
SW: More than that, it may have been new and unfollowed – its still feels new, it still feels like he’s getting away with something as you go through it. Even the most outlandish work Kirby did, it’s been processed, and Ditko is way too much like outsider art — Steranko, 40 yrs later, hits that edge-of-culture button you expect from comics but rarely receive.
MS: Yeah, he belongs with the undergrounders in that sense. There’s as much Greg Irons or Corben to his weirdest stuff as there is Marvel. He was the one mainstream guy to really go further with the medium in the ‘60s than Kirby or Ditko — to me that places him with the San Francisco crowd. The guys who drew rock posters with Thor or Dr. Strange on them. Steranko was basically doing that for 20 pages at a stretch.
SW: It is a shame he didn’t splinter of a real school inside the mainstream the way some other people did – I guess that places him with the undergrounders too, because his direct influence came years later in weird, mutated forms. I’ve got to say, though – it doesn’t feel like those guys for me because you always feel that Steranko’s 60s were the swinging world of Bond and Pan Am while those guys were making out with hippy girls and smelling of bongwater and Kirby and Ditko were drawing in ties and dress shirts. Maybe thats my own prejudices but that’s always going to be more appealing to me.
MS: Right, I totally agree, but there’s a place all the great material from that decade gets to irregardless of milieu. That immortal splash page with the reams of detail and the swirling color: it could be a Kirby mural, or it could be a Zap Comix jam. It’s just the times writ large, and when ‘60s comics get truly transcendent they all end up in the same place. Single-image immensity, color, pop, drugginess, sex, action… comics. The same place it’s all trying to get to.
- Matt Seneca/Sean Witzke November 2010