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Extensive interview with Jim Steranko: More than just comic books

By Amid Amidi

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The Boston Comic Con may be over now, but you can enjoy this in-depth interview with Jim Steranko about art, his life and his future from the Summer Northeast Comic Con and Collectibles Extravaganza in June. Jim reveals his love for Salvadore Dali, his music career, his escape artist stunts and of course his comic book art. He talks about Photoshop, getting the most experiences out of life and what his childhood was like, growing up poor. At times the fellow would ask us questions and the lines between interviewer and interviewee would blur, just like a conversation should. Read on.

Marjorie LaPrade: “Are there any of your art shows that that you liked specifically, for example, I believe you had one at the Louvre?”

Jim Steranko: “That one was a shocker to me. I happened to be in Paris on a whim, as a matter of fact. I had spent a couple of weeks in Italy and I came to Paris to be with the godfather of European comics...Hugo Pratt...Hugo kinda took me under his wing. We hit it off very well. He invited me up to Paris. He was actually my tour guide in Paris. One day we just happened to be in the Louvre checking out the place and I saw my work there. It was exhibited. One of my stories, pages or covers; something or other happened to be there by pure coincidence. So that was the Louvre. But, I've had 300 exhibitions all over the world.”


orie LaPrade: “Where was your favorite place?”

Jim Steranko: “I don't know if I've had any favorites, but one of the biggest was in Canada. It was at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Beautiful place. They actually built a wall inside to house my art work. Somehow it was so significant to them that the Mayor of Winnipeg had a ceremony in his office in City Hall and gave me the keys to the city. Isn't that unbelievable?”

Marjorie LaPrade: “That's great that art can do that!”

Jim Steranko: “True story. So that show toured Canada for three years. I liked what they did for me. It did well. But, that was a long time ago. I'm currently prepping a show now to appear at San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum...They're looking for another location. I'm not sure we'll be mounted right now. Their landlord raised the rent significantly and they decided to tell them to go to hell and they're going to move elsewhere. So, I will have the first exhibition at the new Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. It should be fun and those guys are really savvy out there... One of my other favorite shows was in northern Italy...Even though I'd been to Europe other times, I was not quite aware of the historical and cultural ordinance...The government does one thing, but the people have a great respect (for art) as you know, even for their comic art. They put my work in a pavilion that hung 160 pieces. Outside the pavilion, they took one of my figures and they blew it up (to be) 30 feet high. You could see it from like 2 miles away. The show itself had a 100,000 people a day.”

Marjorie LaPrade: “That's significant.”

Jim Steranko: “10 days.”

Marjorie LaPrade: “A million.”

Jim Steranko: “It went on until 4 o'clock in the morning. I like that...It was staggering in it's presentation. I almost couldn't get into the show myself. It was so busy, with gridlock around the area that I almost couldn't get into own show, it was that packed. But, this wasn't just about me. I was just part of a much bigger celebration.”

Marjorie LaPrade: “What other kind of art work do you like, other than illustration and comic book creation? Do you have a favorite style or other medium?”

Jim Steranko: “I'm really a connoisseur of most kinds of art, but particularly commercial art. I really embrace some of the great commercial artists that worked in say, the American magazine area that have been almost forgotten about, except for people like me and you, who embrace them. Dean Cornwell, Harold Von Schmidt, Maxfield Parrish and of course Norman Rockwell, these are giants that contributed massively to American culture. In a way, they have all been influences. I mean I wish I could draw and paint like those guys, but they are one of a kind. They would be my inspirations.”

“My primary inspirations however, are filmmakers. I remember the first movie I ever saw as a kid, the first theater I was ever in. I still remember the impact that I had as a little kid, five years old, going into a dark movie theater with invisible people all around me and seeing a 30 foot high screen with cars, animals and people. Staggering. I never forgot it. You might call me a kind of connoisseur of film. I try to use what I learned about film and I've worked in the film area numerous times throughout my life. I try to invest that in my work.”

Marjorie LaPrade: “What about other arts, like music or literature?”

Jim Steranko shows me a picture of a man in half-tone print. “There I am between the ages of 18 and 30. I played rock 'n roll for 12 years. Do you know who Bill Haley is? Bill Haley would be like the godfather of Rock 'N Roll. “Rock Around the Clock”? Well, it was very early in the rock 'n roll era, but Bill lived close to me. So, I knew him very well and it was his guitar player at the time, Fran Beecher was his name, who suggested that I get a guitar like Fran Beecher, which was a Gretsch. That very day, I was in a music store and this guitar (pointing to the half tone print) which is a Fender Jazz Nest, it was the first one into the area. A.K.A., love at first sight. I played for 12 years and I played mostly in the tri-state area: Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey. Often, as the group front man.”

“Do you know that character Mr. Miracle? Mr. Miracle is based on my life. I knew Jack Kirby very well. Jack Kirby was the architect of Marvel Comics. He created the FF (Fantastic Four), he created Captain America. He created the X-Men...I was having dinner with Jack one day in Manhattan...I had been out to Jack's house many times and earned my dinner there by doing magic tricks for the kids, like card tricks and stuff, right? Entertaining Jack's kids. Wonderful family. I asked Jack this question which always baffled me, baffled me as a kid, baffled me then. I said, 'why is it that every comic book company had a token magician in their characters?' Like Fawcett had Ibis, then Timely had Blackstone Magician. Every publisher had their own magician... I said, 'Jack, magicians pull rabbits out of a hat. There's no drama there, but the kind of thing that I used to do when I was a kid, escape work, is really dangerous. That's the stuff that comic books are made of.' His ears like perked up, he asked 'what do you mean?' I began to tell him about some of the escapes that I used to do, some of which were really dangerous, like the underwater escapes. “

Marjorie LaPrade: “Like Houdini type stuff?”

Jim Steranko: “Like Houdini type stuff, exactly. The thing about underwater escapes is: there's no take two...I told him about some of my stunts and I said, 'look, I wrote a book (which appeared in a magazine segment) about my work and it explains a lot about my technique, my philosophy and stunts that I used to do. It's loaded with photographs. I'll send it to you when I get back, if I can find it.' I did find it and I sent it to him.”

“Then, I'm in Carmine Infantino's office, he's a publisher with DC. It was really funny, because Carmine was like the mafioso of comic books, an old Italian guy. He was smoking illegal Havana cigars at least 10 inches long and he had his feet up on the desk. He started laughing. I said, 'what's so funny?' He said, 'what you don't know.” He reaches into his desk and pulls out a piece of paper, scales it across the desk at me. It's a cover proof of Mr. Miracle #1. He said, 'that's you, kid.'”
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“I used to have, in my act, I used to have a screen that said Mr. Escape on it. That's where Jack got the 'Mr.' from...Do you know who Michael Chabon is?...Michael Chabon is a Pulitzer prize novelist. He wrote a book called 'The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay'. It's about a comic artist who was formally an escape artist. How many of those do you think there are? Not many. Well, Michael based part of that book on my life and my work. And I know that because, we did a signing together at this place out in California....and we had a great turn out at this event. You never know who the hell you're going to touch. His character became a comic book. Not only did I inspire Mr. Miracle, but I also inspired Kavalier & Clay and then the subsequent comic books, and Paul Pope's escape artist comic books after that. So, any escape artist that you find in the comics, might have been based on me.”

Marjorie LaPrade: “What advice might you give to aspiring comic book artists and writers?”

Jim Steranko: “...Artists need to draw every day. Draw every day. Never miss a day. Drawing comics successfully depends on the aspect of musicians. Do you play an instrument?”

Marjorie LaPrade: “I'm more of a singer.”

Jim Steranko: “Okay. I can make the example, as a singer myself...if for example, you have to concentrate, as a singer (where your voice is your instrument)... If you have to focus on hitting the right note, really concentrate on getting to that point, you cannot focus on delivery in your presentation. That's where the real magic begins. It's in selling the song. Selling it. It's the same thing with writing and with art work. If you have to struggle just to get to the basics, you're not ready. So, the first thing you have to conquer is the rules, the basics. You no longer are inhibited by the proportions of the human figure and trying to figure them out, calculating them and all of that. You can just sit down and draw. If you've drawn so much that it just comes automatically. That's where you need to be and as a writer, too. Comic books don't really pay that much money, so you have to be relatively fast. Fast and facile. I would say, practice every day and observe. Bring what you can into your work. For example, I brought all my movie experience into my work. I brought my music, my musicianship into my work, because music has very tight structure. I could use that structure. I brought literary rules into my comic book work. I think the more you know, the better your work is. The more informed, it is. The more authoritative it is...Practice is the key to it all. Master it..I think a lot of people today are very anxious to get there, so they haven't done enough homework. It's a bad pit to fall in, because I might remember your lousy work when you come back to me and you're ready. But, I might remember you from five years ago and you weren't ready and I'm not prepared to give you a fair estimate of that work. I would advise everybody to wait until they are absolutely ready. There's another thing I would advise: get on the cutting edge of technology. We can do stuff in Photoshop in like a minute, maybe a few seconds that would have taken us hours. I could have this massive painting that took me three days to do the sky, but it didn't work out. It's the wrong color. In Photoshop, I can select it and change it to any one of million colors in a matter of seconds. The time that it would take me to repaint it- paint it out and put it back in again, might be another five days. I advise everybody to be right there with the digital tools, because that's where the future absolutely is.”

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Marjorie LaPrade: “Is there anything more you wanted to add, anything you wanted to say to anybody reading this?”

Jim Steranko: “I'd say some of the most expressive artists in any field that I know, from architecture, art, music, or film making draw some of their best material from their life. I would advise people to live a major life along the way, to experience the good and bad. There's a thing going on now about..I find it to be hysterical, even people who say 'ah gee, what a good person you are'. I like the idea of associating with every kind of animal, across the board. Good, bad, they all teach me something. They all elicit particular emotions in me whether I want to kill them or love them. I can use those feelings in my work. I pick it up. I'll tell you another little trick I have. Particularly when I'm drawing a painting, I use this system called method music. I will play sometimes movie soundtracks that I find very evocative and bring out certain emotions in me that I can translate to the page relatively easily. It's like have a Greek chorus behind me, helping me create this emotional essence on the page. It's a trick I've used a lot in my life. I always have music or something else in the background. Always.”

Jim Steranko and I talked about how I always have music on, too and how I'm stuck in the music from the '80s and '90s and try to listen to more current music.

He gave me this advice: “I have found this. Being a musician for twelve years and continuing to work with music, but not as much as I really should or could, I've stopped listening to words. I've heard all the words already. I find much of word delivery to be completely and utterly phony. I think that those performers don't give a damn about how I feel, because I've never received a check from any of them, like when I needed it the most. I do however, find a greater, deeper meaningful truth in music. Music rarely lies to us. It comes at us without hardly anything filtering it in between, you know like somebody's agenda. So, when I hear Sting sing to me about whatever heartaches are going on, I have to laugh. That would be based on my background, which is much tougher than his. Much tougher. If he had my background, he probably would have slit his throat. So his words have no meaning for me whatsoever....I don't want to hear words any more, not that I don't have my favorites. Don't get me wrong, I have my favorites, great singers that I love, rock 'n roll singers, classical singers. As a matter of fact, I wish you (Marjorie) would explore some singers that you don't know about. That you might even have great resistance to. Do you hate any music? What do you hate?”

Join the  website for entertainment news. Marjorie LaPrade: “I only hate country music. I don't like twang, I find it discordant to my ears.”

Jim Steranko: “I've heard that before. I'm guessing this Tammy Wynette album I've got under here (pointing under the table) wouldn't be (what you like). There are certain kinds of country (music) that are still tolerable, I think, don't you?”

Marjorie LaPrade: “I'd say when it's closer to blue grass, it's a little bit more tolerable. I do like Johnny Cash, but that is as close to country as I will go.”

Jim Steranko: “Good choice. I saw him live a couple times, with June Carter... I was thinking of great songstresses like Anita O'Day, June Christy, and Ella Fitzgerald. Ella Fitzgerald had an amazing range and delivery. I would advise you to check out some of those. I could give you more esoteric ones, but in that area, really expressing beautiful, heart-wrenching delivery that you'll never forget. I'm sure that has a kind of resonance to you.”

“People sometimes ask me about this term that I coined called invisible epiphanies. These are things that happen to us all the time, throughout our lives, but we don't always know it. We know for example, if we lose a family member or a close friend of ours dies, we know that. We feel that. But there are hundreds and thousands of other things that happen to us all the time that we are not quite aware of, the impact that they have on us. I'll tell you a couple of mine.”

“The first time I heard 'Rhapsody in Blue' by George Gershwin, my life was never the same again. I was a different person after I experienced that, because I had never heard that kind of music before in my life. I was just a kid. Great American composer who straddled classical music and pop. Very imporant, but 'Rhapsody in Blue'...if you could ever do anything one fiftieth that important, it would justify your existence on Earth.”

“There's another one, I was really a kid when this happened, maybe seven or eight years old, something like that. I was a very poor kid. There were no pictures in our home. We couldn't afford mother was very artistic, it's true, she was and my father was a musician. So, I've kinda got some of those genes, but they weren't sophisticated at all. We were too poor, we lived in a shack that for a while had no running water in the house... There was no plumbing there for a while. There was no bathtub. You took a bath in the galvanized iron tub. These were tough times. We were cold, poor, hungry...The irony of it is that when you're that poor, you don't know how the rest of the world lives. You don't know whats really going on out there, except in this case. I had maybe the fortune or the curse to be a pretty smart kid along the way. Don't ask me how I got it, I have no idea. My mother told me one time that I was reading at a year and a half. I said, 'you don't expect me to believe that story, reading words out of books?' She said 'yes.' I said, 'no, didn't happen.' She got this baby book, you know how mother's have their baby books where they keep all the important dates of the things that happened? She showed me this baby book and she said, 'What I used to do when you were maybe a half a year old, starting then is your uncle Eugene used to bring comic books. I'd sit you on my lap and you used to point to the balloons and I'd read them to you. We'd do it over and over again. Until finally, you began to understand. We weren't sure about this, so we used to cover the pictures up, so just the balloons would show. We didn't know if you were memorizing them or really reading them. And then we understood that you were reading them.' I learned to walk very early. I must have been a precocious kid. So, I understood a little more about life and how the middle class lived. We were at the bottom of the bottom of the bottom of the lower class. My father built the shack we lived in. We were so poor that they could not afford a tablet for me to draw on. What I drew on when I was a kid, we'd get bills in the mail, statements. I'd cut the envelopes open and draw on the insides, because they were blank. In the winter time, it was so cold in our house that ice would form on the insides of the windows. I would use the heat of my fingertips to draw pictures on the ice.”

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Marjorie LaPrade: “There's something to be said about transient art like that, that's just going to end up disappearing.”

Jim Steranko: “Well, that's poor, so I had nowhere to go, but up. I would think that one of the things that really shaped me was...when I began to understand how other people lived. I found that to be a very disturbing part of my life, because I knew what I didn't have. All of my clothes, for example, were hand-me-downs, they were all used clothes...I was the first of three brothers, so I didn't have any brothers that gave me them. They came from the neighbor's kids or my uncle's kids or something like that. I never really had anything.”

Marjorie LaPrade: “What was your third epiphany?”

Jim Steranko: “My mother took me up the Main Street of this town we lived in, in Pennsylvania. We walked by this music store...there was a big show window with grand pianos, a lot off brass and everything. There was a little show card about the size of that piece of paper right here (holds up something that was on the table) in front of the window and when I saw it, it paralyzed me. My mother is trying to drag me along, but I was paralyzed. The image was Dali's 'Persistence of Memory.' When you look at the 'Persistence of Memory' or melting watches, it looks enormous, doesn't it? It's this big (hold up hand a short distance apart). It's as big as a cigar box lid, the original. Did you know that? It looks like 30 feet long. What happened was, I never knew, (having very little experience in terms of painting fine art, it never entered into our household) and seeing this image of something that could never exist, painting, a representation of something that could not exist outside of a nightmare, I was never the same again. Never. So, I had a real affinity my whole life, for surrealism and particularly Dali, but you know all surrealism. “

“I'm going to give you an ending for this story. I'm looking for a career change to move into future electronic entertainment. I think that's where we're all going to be momentarily. But, it's absolutely the most exciting and compelling arena in the world today and I want to be on that cutting edge. I'm currently in negotiation with Microsoft, Intel and few other places like that...nothing to do with any of this (points at comic book table). These are new entertainment ideas. This is my theory, my battle plan: most often, when technology is developed, the uses of those technologies follow. Right? First we needed an automobile engine, and then we needed an automobile around it. Yes, there were wagons, sleighs and other vehicles, but they had to be deeply adapted to fit the automobile engine. I'm thinking this: why wait? Why wait for the technology? I know what's going to be available in a year or two years, five years, ten years. I can project that. I can create the entertainment beforehand and if you were Intel, Microsoft or Apple, why would you want to wait until after the technology is here and then take another year or two, or three to try to get to be in the number one position....when I can figure out that material for you, ahead of time, so that when the moment the technology is ready, all this backlog of stuff will be already there.”

There you have it, Jim Steranko boldly told us about his past, his current projects and his future endeavors. All with a huge smile and a jacket, straight out of the '70s. May he continue to inspire us all.

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James F. Steranko
November 5, 1938 (age 76)
Reading, Pennsylvania


Writer, Artist, Publisher

Notable works
Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
The Steranko History of Comics
Mediascene / Prevue

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