“It would only take me one story to do the ultimate Batman” Steranko Speaks - 1979

A few weeks back I ran an old transcript featuring Jim Steranko taking questions at a comicbook convention.  Lately I’ve been going through all of my books and magazines to see exactly what I have on hand and came across another rarely seen Steranko interview published in the long defunct The Comic Reader.  The interview was done at yet another convention, the World Of Comics in June 1979.  As always Steranko provided some great insights to what makes him tick and how he saw the comic book industry of the time.  Of great interest is the fact that Steranko pitched a Batman story to DC in the early ‘70s, which was rejected – such a shame.  A Steranko Batman would be a delicious thing to see.

Unlike a lot of his contemporaries, Steranko has managed to hold onto his status as a creative force in the comic book world primarily by avoiding the medium.  Others who emerged during the same time period saturated the industry with work; Steranko managed to produce some influential stories and incredible art and then walked away.  In this respect he fulfilled the entertainer’s credo – always leave your audience wanting more.  By producing less than most others, Steranko has left people praying for the day that he might come back to a title, in the same way that people hold out (in vain) for Steve Ditko to do one more Spider-Man or Dr Strange story.  Still, the odds are greater for a Steranko Batman than a Ditko Spider-Man.   

Until then, enjoy the words of Steranko, a man who is at the top of my list of people I’d love to speak to, and who is never short of confidence.
Q: Let's begin at the beginning: What was your first comics work?
STERANKO: I entered the comics field by creating and writing several characters for Harvey Comics. But I was disappointed with the quality of the artwork, so I took another character, Super Agent X, to the other companies in an attempt to sell a series.  A few offered me jobs, but none wanted me to draw this book.

I went to Marvel in a last attempt because I doubted that they'd buy the character. After looking at my portfolio, Stan said that my artwork was crude, but that I was too good to let the other companies snatch me up. Paramount eventually took Secret Agent X, but that's another story. 

Q: Who decided which series to give you?
STERANKO: Stan gave me my choice of all of Marvel's strips and I opted for Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E. L.D. because it was close to what I wanted to do. I started on Nick Fury by working over Jack Kirby's layouts. But I'd look at the pages and I couldn't understand his style of storytelling, why a long shot was here, or a close-up was there. I loved Jack's approach and thought that I knew everything about it.

But every artist develops his own philosophy, his own storytelling style, and I realized at that time that Jack's style was not mine. Kirby's artwork is always drawn at the moment of impact, while mine is that moment before impact. It's an approach that is predicated on the concept of suppressed energy.

Q: What are your impressions of those days?
STERANKO: I was getting the top pay at Marvel, along with Kirby and John Buscema, and I felt privileged to be considered in their class. Both of them were better comic artists. But working at Marvel was also a serious cut in pay compared to my advertising work. My life was hectic then. I worked as the art director for an ad agency in the afternoon, played in a rock band at night, and worked on my comic book pages early in the morning. It's a peculiar thing, but the more I learned about storytelling, the slower I became. Eventually I had to stop playing in the band; later I left the agency.

There were plenty of hassles with Stan Lee, of course. I felt that if I was good enough to work for them, then they should accept my work without a lot of maddening editorial changes.

But now, I think I may have been wrong. After all, Marvel was paying the tab. Skin is a great editor. He stresses storytelling and really knows the comics business, probably better than anyone else.

Q: Chandler looks quite a bit like you. What resemblance does he and your other characters have to you?
STERANKO: I can't say Fury or any other strip had an effect on me. In fact, the opposite is truer. They take on my personality. That's why Fury worked so well. Think about it. An actor, writer -- any kind of artist does his best work when he portrays himself, and the comics are no different. In the case of Chandler, I've always wanted to be a detective and this was my last chance. Seriously, I used myself as the model for Chandler. There is one face that everyone knows better than anyone else's: one's own. So it's not uncommon after awhile for an artist to use his own features. For example, I realized, after people pointed it out to me, that I put my hairline and basic facial structure into the characters in many of my paintings.

Q: Is there anything else that you feel must go into your work?
STERANKO: Yes, everything. A comic book artist is in a rare position. He is all the characters, every piece of furniture, every object he draws. In essence, to draw everything is to become everything.

Anything I do reflects many parts of me. If I play a piece of music for you it reflects many aspects of my personality -- my painting, my magic, all of my thoughts and experiences, every-one I've ever hurt or helped -- it's all there. As an artist, one develops a philosophy that's summed up in every drawing. Ideally, it could be summed up in a dot. That's what I'm aiming for. I work with ideas. I'm not interested in lines on paper.

Q: Chandler was reproduced from pencilled art, correct?
STERANKO: Yes, I did Chandler to help out Byron Preiss. He came to me in February, I976. Ralph Reese was going to miss the deadline on Son Of Sherlock Holmes, which Byron wrote and edited for his Fiction Illustrated series, and he wanted me to do a book to take its place on the schedule.  I knew that doing a book in two months would be difficult, but if you can't help your friends, what good are you?

Chandler was so tight, however, that I had to turn in pages out of sequence, in order that the plates could be made on time. I also had to produce the actual mechanicals because the artwork was finished in pencil. The last two weeks were a nightmare. After being indoors all winter I was ready to go out and enjoy the spring weather. But I had to stay inside and complete the book. My studio is enclosed, so I didn't see outside for those two weeks. I never left the studio. It was oppressive beyond description -- never seeing the sky. I was at the drawing board all day, all night. I ate with one hand while I drew with the other. I slept there.

I'd like to do another Chandler story, but in black and white, no color. This type of material needs the look of the Robert Siodmak, Fritz Lang, Hitchcock films. The Chandler drawings are fantastic in black and white. They're really hardboiled. That's what I wanted to portray.

Q: Are there more Chandlers in the works?
STERANKO: The closest I've been to doing another Chandler is with Penthouse. An editor saw my work and he was very enthusiastic about it. He said he wanted me to do a six or seven page story. I plotted a story which took place in the 1940s on the 20th Century Ltd. [train] -- New York to Chicago in 18 hours. The editors approved the story. But it would take fifteen to twenty pages to do it in the Chandler style, so they said to split it into two parts.

I didn't have a title. A week and then a month went by and I still couldn't think of a title. Keep in mind that it was big money. I would have been paid as much for that one story as I was paid for the entire Chandler novel, which ran 120 pages. After six weeks, I called up the editor and told him that I couldn't think of a title that suited me. I wrote dozens of possible titles, but none of them clicked. Something drastic had to be done.

I threw out the story. Then I thought of the title first and wrote a story around it. I submitted the new story, the title and a presentation drawing to the editor. A week later the editor was fired. Then Art Cooper took over; he had really liked the first story. A few weeks later, Art was fired and all of his projects were aborted, including Chandler. I still feel that if I do the story now and submit it to them, they would buy it.  So I suppose it's just I matter of time.

I still haven't found a title for the first story.

Q: I read that you had formed a company with Byron Preiss. Can your reveal any details about it?
STERANKO: Byron and I incorporated last year in New York to form Futuregraphics. The contracts on half a dozen books are still being finalized so I can't give you any details on them. I will be involved in the editing and the art direction of these projects. I will design the covers and lay out all the books. And if a special project comes along, like another Chandler or something very special, I'll do it for the company.

Q: What were you trying to accomplish when you began publishing Mediascene?
STERANKO: I started Mediascene because I couldn't find a good, top-quality fanzine. They were all amateurishly written, even more amateurishly designed and printed. I felt that I could bring something of quality to the field.

I felt that I could bring my knowledge, my connections and my ability for typography, layout, printing, etc. to play in a magazine devoted to comics and pop culture. I've been publishing Mediascene for about seven years, and by the fifth year, we really discovered what our readership wanted. Mediascene has become a preview magazine -- previews and interviews -- articles that can't be found in any other magazine. I'm very proud of the fact that we've scrooped almost every magazine in the country with The Towering Inferno, Superman, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien. Almost every issue is an exclusive preview.

Q: How much of your magazine is derived from studio publicity?
STERANKO: At one time we used a lot of publicity releases, but no more.
Take ALIEN, for example. Even though the film is out and every magazine on the newsstand is running articles on it, Mediascene has still been the publication with the best coverage. Our connections are so tight now we don't have to rely on press releases; we go right to the sources.

Q: Aren't you taking a gamble in previewing movies when you don't know how they'll turn out?
STERANKO: Yes, it's a gamble in that way, but it's a calculated gamble.  We know that if a movie has a reasonably decent budget, good production people and design, that it will probably turn out well. We won't come right out and say this movie is going to be great if we haven't seen it. What we do is present the material and say this should be interesting. My criterion is that if it looks exciting to me, it will be taken the same way by my readers. If I don't like it, it doesn't get into the magazine.

Q: What is your opinion of the current comics?
STERANKO: There are a few good writers, like Roy Thomas, but comics are basically the same old thing. As far as artists go, Frank Miller looks like a pretty good bet to me. He seems to have an enormous amount of potential. It’s too early to tell, with only three or four books out, but he has a reasonably sophisticated grasp of the art of storytelling, which is something most comic book artists are very weak in. They're more concerned with lines than ideas. Comics are really 75% storytelling, 25% pictures. I think that this is what brings people back again and again. It’s not just a random assemblage of pictures.

Q: How about an example?
STERANKO: The European artist. They don't have much of a concept of continuity or graphic narrative. They have a thousand-year tradition, a heritage of art that gives them a single picture approach, which they draw magnificently.

The Americans, on the other hand, have been brought up on television, films and comics, and they have a tighter idea, generally, of the art of storytelling. So, even though they don't necessarily draw as well as some of the top foreign artists, their stories flow better.
As far as I'm concerned, comics are storytelling. Anyone who feels otherwise should go into magazine or paperback cover illustration. Put it all in one picture and forget about doing panel-to-panel continuity. Unfortunately, it's a thing most fans don't understand. Very few ever talk about a particular scene that raised the hair on the back of their neck because it was so imaginative, storytelling wise. They talk about lines. To me, storytelling is the most exciting part of comics. Kirby has given us vistas that would take a million dollars to film. Kirby can do it on every page. I really appreciate that. His work is ripe with ideas, great visual ideas. But Kirby's also a master storyteller.

Q: Is there any comic character that you would like to do?
STERANKO: The Batman. I submitted a plot when Carmine Infantino was the publisher at DC and it was rejected. My Batman would be different from everything that's come before, but it probably wouldn't fit DC's style. It would only take me one story to do the ultimate Batman. I haven't submitted it to DC since Jenette Kahn became publisher because they can't afford my price.

Q: Has there been any progress on Talon?
STERANKO: I've lost interest in the Talon project. I'd rather do something else, maybe a western.

Q: You wrote and drew a story called "At The Stroke Of Midnight" that appeared in Tower Of Shadows #I. What were you trying to accomplish with that story?
STERANKO: There are a number of things that can pose problems to comics storytelling. I was experimenting with these elements to develop an advanced technique of graphic narration. Take the placement of balloons, for example.  I was able to position them so they were less obtrusive to the story flow. I wrote the text so that all the lines would be justified, that is, they are all flush with each other. Gutters also interrupt the flow of the story. I have constantly tried to adapt, eliminate or bypass the gutters to manipulate the illusion of time. I want to make it easier for the reader to move from panel to panel. The story's original title was something like "The Lurking Fear of Shadow House" – a very Lovecraftian title, but Stan wanted to call it "Let Them Eat Cake" because I brought in the French Revolution at the end of the story. The funny thing is that it appeared with a third title. A few of the balloons were also moved and the effect I was reaching for was broken.

Q: Was that your last comic work?
STERANKO: I later did some covers for Marvel, but I told them that if they wanted any artwork from me that they shouldn't change or "correct" what I gave them. I had drawn and colored about a dozen covers when I saw the first ones published. They had been re-colored and some of the basics of coloring, such as having different colors in the foreground and the background, had been ignored. I left Marvel because I was tired of people editing my art and I had accomplished about everything that I had wanted to at Marvel.

Q: I read that a Steranko story will be included in Marvel's Epic Illustrated magazine. Can you give me some details about it?
STERANKO: When Rick Marschall called and asked if I could do anything for Epic Illustrated, I told him that I'm retired from commercial work. Then I remembered a story that I had done for Stan when the mystery-horror books were first coming out. I had created a character called Karstone (an anagram of Steranko), and Harlan Ellison agreed to write the scripts for the series. The character was a lot like The Phantom Stranger. He wore a white vested suit, a turban and had a cane. You couldn't tell if he was Oriental or not. I handed the story in, but Stan didn't like it because it wasn't drawn in the Kirby-Marvel style. There weren't any arms or legs flying out of panels. I was purposely trying to make it non-Marvel and drew it in the style of “At the Stroke of Midnight". There is a fight scene that is drawn very realistically and it's not as exciting as a Jack Kirby fight scene, because real fights are not like that. It was bloodier, more realistic, but less dramatic. The story's called "Dante's Inferno." I was inspired by the plot from the movie of the same name.

Q: What were you trying to do with F.O.O.M?
STERANKO: I wanted to make it an alternative to all the other fanzines that were filled with the same old articles and interviews. I wanted it to be a fun magazine. That's why it had games and puzzles. Then there were budget problems and arguments. When I left, it became just another fan magazine and eventually folded. It's too bad. It was a good idea.

Q: What work have you done with films?
STERANKO: I worked with Alain Resnais on an unproduced film. I designed the sets and did the production design on some of the key scenes. But the film involved a structure that was so vast that it could only be shot on the biggest soundstage in the world. Resnais could never get enough money together to produce the movie. The last response I received from him was that he had sealed all the material that he had amassed for the film in a child's coffin. Resnais said he won't open the coffin until he has those millions in his pocket.

I also made a movie at the American Film Institute in Hollywood. It was based on "At the Stroke of Midnight." John Carradine had the part of the old man and John Fiedler (12 Angry Men, Harper Valley P.T.A.; probably best known as Emil Peterson on the Bob Newhart Show), who always plays the henpecked husband, had a wonderfully meaty role as the husband.  I don't remember who portrayed the wife. The film was about thirty minutes long and was titled "Shadow House."

I'm currently ding production designing for a movie that George Lucas will produce and Steven Spielberg will direct. I can say that it WON'T be science fiction, but otherwise I'm sworn to secrecy. Between the two of them, they know everything about keeping secrets. I know because I was the one who broke the Close Encounters... plot. Spielberg was very angry with me. He cut me out of the magazine editors' screening, but I got in anyway. Since it was a big success, all is forgiven. I am delighted to work with them; they're very creative people. I've also been contacted about working on the CONAN movie, but I haven't made up my mind on that yet. There will be a time when I'm working in films as writer and director. That's the direction I'm going in. If not this year, then soon.

Q: Why don't you do comics anymore? If not for major companies, why not publish your own?
STERANKO: I have no interest in doing straight overground comic books. I've already done two dozen. I want to do my own comics, but I don't want to go back to Marvel and do any of those. I've contributed a great deal to the comics form already. The things you see being done now, I started or pioneered ten years ago. And I'm very pleased to give those ideas away and say, "Take it from here." That's why I did them in the first place. But I'm more interested in doing innovative stories, like Chandler, for instance. Whether it worked is not the point. The fact is that I was able to experiment.

So maybe this is what lies ahead. I will definitely be doing more stories. I've got things in my head that I want to get onto paper and into book form - even if I have to do it myself.


Norm Breyfogle said…
I'd love to see his Batman idea. Steranko's a King!
Kid said…
Can anyone name any of the ideas he's contributed to the comics form? Apart from some nice artwork of course. What's he done that Kirby didn't do first?
Lamont Cranston said…
well the film he was talking about being sworn to secrecy about was of course Indiana Jones.

The Conan film he was contracted to was probably the original Ed Pressman/Oliver Stone production, Stone had some very strange ideas for Conan so its natural Steranko would be be involved. Anyway they ran out of money and sold it to Dino DeLaurentis and he brought in John Milius to write-direct and he brought in Ron Cobb to do all the production design.

Biggest question: what happened to getting into film writing and directing???
Tony Robertson said…
Although he never did get the film directing assignment, he was project conceptualist (providing written ideas and drawings) for three Francis Ford Coppola projects, Dracula, Megalopolis, and Pinocchio. Ironically, like many of Steranko's own projects, Megalopolis and Pinnocchio were never completed.
AP said…
Thanks for that interview! Would anyone know the exact page numbers of the article? I would like to be able to quote it in an academic thesis about Alain Resnais's film projects. I have figured out that it was taken from this issus of the Comic Reader : Etcetera & The Comic Reader, n° 86, Special Convention Edition, June 1969.
Thank you for your help!
AP said…
My mistake : this interview is taken from The Comic Reader n°169, June 1979.

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