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Friday, March 14, 2014 

The short but splendid career of Jim Steranko as an artist

The Lexington Herald-Leader spoke with veteran artist Jim Steranko, who's famous as one of Marvel's most prominent artists in the Silver/Bronze Age. Most interesting is that he didn't choose his projects by a hero's popularity ranking, but by how well he could contribute to any assignment he chose:
As Steranko tells it, Lee offered Steranko his pick of Marvel's popular superhero titles — including The Amazing Spider-Man, The Mighty Thor and the Fantastic Four — but that would mean following legendary artists Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, who established those characters.

Instead, Steranko picked an unloved feature starring cigar-chomping Nick Fury, a secret agent for the covert operations group known as S.H.I.E.L.D. In a few months, Steranko went from drawing over Kirby's layouts to doing it all himself: stories, full art, even the coloring.

Nick Fury quickly became as popular as any Marvel superhero. The art was exciting, and Steranko kept the censors busy trying to cover up his characters' revealing costumes and passionate love scenes. It's due in large part to Steranko that Nick Fury is now played in blockbuster movies by Samuel L. Jackson and that a weekly television series called Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. launched last fall on ABC.
I think he was being clever and creative when he chose Nick Fury for art assignment. Even a guy who doesn't have the powers Spider-Man and Thor do still has the potential to be made very entertaining with talented writers and artists, and Steranko played his part well. He did his work during the 60s/70s and then moved on to work in other projects, but his art had a very positive impact in its time, something not many artists today can duplicate today, at least not in mainstream, because the editorial mandates affect them as much as they do the writers. A telling example is whether the editors will allow Nick Fury to smoke cigars anymore. Joe Quesada may not be EIC anymore, but his influence is still lurking in the background, with Axel Alonso carrying on much of what he started, and that's why artists may not be able to do it anymore, even if they do depict smoking as an unhealthy practice.

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Jim Steranko's late 1960's work is still well remembered and admired, both on Nick Fury and Captain America. With Fury, it was probably an advantage to take over a secondary strip rather than a flagship title. The artist has more freedom to play with the formula. With Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four, there might have been mandates like, "You can't change the costume because it has to be the same as in the TV show." And S.H.I.E.L.D. was a good playground for Steranko; I get the impression that he was a James Bond fan, and spies and secret agents were the fad in 1966-67.

I have a trade paperback of Steranko's SHIELD run. It's really good and you can see the Bond and Man from UNCLE influences in the stories.

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