RED TIDE: The First Modern Graphic Novel
By James Romberger
Jim Steranko hit comics like a smart bomb at the height of the 1960s psychedelic era. Young readers were barely prepared for the sophisticated sequencing and eye-popping op art effects of his furiously inventive Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD for Marvel Comics. Steranko’s work was informed by his comprehensive grasp of comics history and his inventive incorporation of a wide range of techniques imported from his graphic design experience and his study of film narrative. For this writer, what really set Steranko apart from his contemporaries was that he controlled every aspect of his work; he wrote, drew, and colored his own pages. That an artist was writing for himself was unusual enough, but the consideration of color is inexplicably still rarer amongst cartoonists. Even among the past and present masters of the form who both write and draw, very few have had either the ability or inclination to color their narratives. Steranko’s color has always been intrinsic to the form and content of his work. In SHIELD and his subsequent work he used color to add psychological depth, or to layer imagery, or the image was the color; Steranko could achieve a painterly finish in four colors with no black drawing at all. As a consequence, he raised the production bar in comics with each successive comic he did.
Steranko’s talents coalesced in the innovative, exquisitely finished short story The Lurking Fear at Shadow House. All textual and visual elements are superbly controlled and the coloring is perhaps the finest ever done for comics’ traditional four color printing. In the list I have compiled of 150 innovative narrative and graphic devices created by Steranko, there are many entries from this eight page story alone. However, editor Stan Lee marred this meticulous work, renaming it At The Stroke of Midnight and making other seemingly irrelevant changes, each crucially detrimental to Steranko’s painstaking balance of word and image.
Steranko’s response to this affront was to withdraw from mainstream comics. He created his own publishing house, Supergraphics. He wrote and printed two volumes of his seminal History of Comics and founded his tabloid prozine Comixscene, that expanded its multimedia coverage to become Mediascene, then transformed into the slick Prevue, the format forerunner of Movieline and Premiere. Steranko’s magazine offered news and in-depth interviews with the stars and directors of Hollywood blockbusters, well in advance of the media of its time. The connections he forged in these years led to collaborations with some of the most popular filmmakers of our time.
Steranko had not abandoned comics completely, though. He also worked throughout the 1970s with innovative book packager the late Byron Preiss to create experimental comics hybrids to be sold in bookstores as well as newsstands, a strategy well ahead of its time. These were first realized as the paperback text-with-illustration series Weird Heroes, as well as the full-color, digest-sized Fiction Illustrated series of books, of which Steranko’s Chandler: Red Tide was published as the third volume in 1976 by Pyramid Books. A deluxe version was also printed, in a larger format resembling a paperback version of European comics albums; this was distributed solely to bookstores. Both editions were billed as a “graphic novel” in the promotional material and in the introduction by mystery writer Joe Gores.
Red Tide emerges for me as Steranko’s career masterpiece thus far. The break from the standard comic book format allows him one of his few opportunities to make a unified, long-form narrative. His growing dissatisfaction with the standard comics devices of word balloons and captions is resolved with deceptive simplicity; he limits his format to two vertical images per page, those occupying the upper two-thirds of the page over two type text boxes on the lower third. Occasionally dialogue is added unobtrusively to upper panels, but overall the text is written to a precise line-count measure which accentuates the progression of time that is integral to the storyline. What may seem on the surface like a Big Little Book colliding with Prince Valiant actually works amazingly well; the space between word and image falls away as both are apprehended simultaneously, absorbing the reader completely into Steranko’s dive to the nocturnal depths of Manhattan in the 1940s.
The unique nature and completeness of Steranko’s statement distinguish Red Tide from his earlier achievements, as well as from the subsequent development of the graphic novel form by other artists. Steranko’s auteur approach is seen here in its fullest manifestation. In Red Tide, he finishes his drawings in pencil; this gives the depicted surfaces hard edges where needed, but also creates softer modeling without recourse to traditional comics feathering, resulting in a full-bodied, tactile feel and a fiercely moody chiaroscuro, much like the texture of film noir, as well as the illustrations in the pulp crime magazines of the era depicted. Few if any in comics have applied color with the intelligence of Steranko; his hues are superb and enrich the art and storytelling immeasurably throughout. The story moves like a runaway train and leaves the reader feeling they had been there, as Steranko skillfully manipulates the trappings of the crime genre to achieve a visceral reality far beyond even the greatest works of previous crime cartoonists.
If all that wasn’t enough, Red Tide is one of the first, if not the first graphic novel published in America, and certainly is the first modern graphic novel, by standards I shall explain. I believe that earlier graphic narratives such as Gustave Dore’s copiously illustrated Dante’s Inferno and Lynd Ward’s wordless narratives such as God’s Man (1929), or even the works of William Blake and Beatrix Potter are graphic novels, or at the least, precedents for the graphic novel. A case for first American graphic novel status has been proposed for the racy 1950 black and white romance digest, It Rhymes with Lust by Arnold Drake and Matt Baker, though the format and content leave this writer with some ambivalence. Gil Kane’s 1971 Blackmark also has been held as an early graphic novel, but had uncredited “ghost” contributions from Harvey Kurtzman, Archie Goodwin and Neal Adams; it also shared its format with the collections of comics repackaged as paperback books at the time, such as the Mad and Marvel reprints. Will Eisner’s A Contract with God is often mistakenly given the credit of being the first graphic novel, but rather than a novel, it is a collection of short stories that were first published in book form in 1978, two years after Red Tide.
Other early graphic novel contenders have been proposed, but are collections of periodical comics or are long stories about corporate comic characters done in typical comics style, bound as books. Steranko says, “Comic books don't become graphic novels because more pages are added or they're bound in hard covers; they just become fat comics.” He then goes so far as to say that graphic novels should not utilize the standard comics devices that were developed for the old newspaper and pamphlet formats such as holding lines and word balloons. I will table that discussion for later, but certainly Red Tide was done to be a single book, complete in itself; and it eschews the standard comics format of holding lines and word balloons that mark the two earlier, less remarkable Fiction Illustrated volumes done by Preiss with artists Steve Fabian and Tom Sutton. Red Tide is a complex and rewarding effort that, while still promoting a genre storyline, reaches far into the reader’s cognitive functions to meld text and image into a singular reading experience.
Even if Steranko’s book didn’t qualify as the first graphic novel on those compelling grounds, though, consider this: according to current critical consensus, the ideal model of a modern graphic novelist is that of a single author in absolute control of their medium, as in comics auteurs like Art Spiegelman, David Mazzucchelli and Daniel Clowes. Their only precedent is Steranko. Great works can and have been done by collaborators, but effective teams are not often seen. Anyone looking now at the graphic novel sections in bookstores can see that there is little or no barrier between an emerging literate art form and the products of the assembly-line mentality that has profited the mainstream comics publishers, but has also held the medium back from serious development for many years.
Red Tide is the first modern graphic novel because it is the result of singular dedication, invested by its author as is a work of literature; because it conforms to the definition of a novel as regards text, chapters, plot complexity, characterizations, word count and page count; and because the author has unified these qualities with his unique visual expertise to create a new form of narrative exposition. Red Tide stands as Jim Steranko’s most ambitious and sophisticated effort in the art of graphic storytelling…so far.