On October 28th and 29th, Derby City Comic Con will take place at the Kentucky Expo Center, attracting thousands of Pop Culture enthusiasts from around the country. This year, the guest of honor is the great Jim Steranko.
Steranko, now in his seventies, has led a fascinating life. In addition to handling graphic design at an advertising firm during the sixties, he was a guitarist in a successful Rock & Roll band in his native town of Reading, Pennsylvania. He also performed onstage as an escape artist, a magician, and, for a short window of time that has been hugely celebrated ever since, he wrote and drew comic books for Marvel. Marvel, as you may know, is the little comic book company that is now the entertainment juggernaut that brings you the Avengers, Spider-man, and the X-Men, just to name a few.
A brash 27 year old in a sharp suit and confidence to spare, Steranko walked right into the Marvel office circa 1966 and sweet talked his way to a face to face meeting with editor-in-chief Stan Lee. Stan was instantly enamored with his work, and told him to pick a monthly comic series to take over. Steranko gravitated to the character of Nick Fury, a holdover from a World War II comic who had been restyled into a mod secret agent, true to the Cold War inspired entertainment of the day, such as James Bond and the Man From UNCLE.
The series had been a bit flat before that, but once Steranko arrived, it became the most engaging thing on the spinner rack. He was a lifelong comic fan with not only an innate understanding of that medium, but also an appreciation of and experience with high art. Steranko introduced outside influence concepts that had never been utilized in comics, to stunning results. Surrealism, Op Art, and a cinematic point of view all combined to create an ongoing Pop Art experiment, available to the masses monthly for a mere 12 cents an issue. Letters from tuned-in college students began pouring in. Something as unlikely as comic books began to feel somewhat countercultural.
After a few years and just 29 comics, Steranko moved on to other pursuits, eventually getting into publishing with the magazine known as Mediascene. His work has been endless influential, both inside and outside the comics industry. Fans included Steven Speilberg and George Lucas, who approached Steranko for assistance in the early production period for a film they were beginning to collaborate on.
Speilberg had Jaws under his belt at this point, and Lucas had just finished Empire Strikes Back, the first of many Star Wars sequels. They had an idea to resurrect the kind of adventure movies they had grown up with, like Treasure of the Sierra Madre or Lawrence of Arabia, but weren’t sure if it would work using then very modern camera technology, or appeal to a contemporary audience. They needed to see how it would look before they cast anyone or spent a single reel of film, they had to determine if what they had inside of their minds could live anywhere else. So they called the man who had a proven record of making far-out concepts work.
Steranko’s first task was determining a novel, non-lethal weapon their hero could use. Lucas and Speilberg had been considering knives or swords, Steranko had the idea to give him a whip. The duo of directors liked it, and commissioned him to create paintings depicting potential scenes for this theoretical film. The scenes have became familiar: a fedora wearing man leaping from a horse to a moving truck, or battling a Nazi in front of a large plane about to take off, propellers spinning.
When Steranko brought the work before Lucas and Speilberg, they were thrilled. They could see that their vision could be realized. On the spot, they offered him more work on the production of what would become Raiders of the Lost Ark. Steranko thanked them, and then promptly turned them down. He had done as much work on the project as was interesting to him, and, as has always been his practice, moved on to something else.
Jim Steranko is a man who does what he wants. Right now, he wants to meet and swap stories with attendees of the Derby City Comic-Con.
For more info about Jim Steranko’s visit to Louisville and the Derby City Comic-Con in general, check out the Derby City-Con site here. Images are courtesy of Tony Roberson here, and are Copyright© of Jim Steranko/respective copyright holders. Guest author Rocko Jerome is a superlative writer at Tops and all sorts of places. You can learn more about his writing.