The great experimenter’s greatest experiment
By Matt Seneca
Copyright Matt Seneca 2010
Jim Steranko’s career in comics is one epic movement from familiar forms to newer, more experimental ones. His journey begins with the straightforward pulp action of Spyman and winds through increasingly avant-garde formal gestures on SHIELD before exploding to life in his hugely innovative three-issue run on Captain America. Here Steranko cemented an entirely unique way of drawing mainstream comics – both in concept and execution – and he played it to the hilt in his final two Marvel shorts. There was the exuberant, flowing ‘60s romance of My Heart Broke in Hollywood, and then the oppressive, harsh-noise formalism of At the Stroke of Midnight, which saw expansions of its claustrophobic, meticulously staged aesthetic in the self-published The Block and the unreleased Dante’s Inferno. What all of these works had in common is that they were genre stories elevated to the level of art by the unique approach Steranko brought to them. Tightly gridded, drenched in blacks, and displaying unexpected syntheses of cartoon and photorealism, they were comics unlike any that had come before, statements on an entirely new way of doing things by an artist who had mastered every aspect of his craft.
Still, ever hungry for new frontiers and perhaps disenchanted by the shorts’ uniform failure as commercial items, Steranko turned away from the sliced-up darkness of those stories and focused his energies elsewhere. A bewildering succession of strange experiments marks his next decade in graphic storytelling. There was the techno/horror freakout Frogs!, which pushed the gridded comics page to its absolute storytelling limit in a way that only Chris Ware has come close to since. Then the glorious neo-noir sleaze of Chandler – a work that rounds back onto the archetypal private-eye yarn while pushing the comics form into an utterly bizarre hybrid of prose and spot illustrations. Not to mention sundry previews and concept art for a raft of projects that promised untold riches but never materialized, their very nonexistence lending what fragments of story and art we do have from them the mysterious aura of the “deconstructed narratives” that have so recently become popular in comics.
In 1978 came Steranko’s final work of graphic storytelling before his return to a more traditional mode of comics narrative in Outland. It was, of all things, a collaboration – or at least something very close to one, an image/text dance that mashed up 3D Steranko illustrations with Harlan Ellison’s classic sci-fi short story “Repent, Harlequin!” Said The Ticktockman. The product (published in The Illustrated Harlan Ellison alongside forgettable work from artists like Alfredo Alcala and Tom Sutton) was a strange, unforgiving thing, yet another ‘70s Steranko work with little hope of ever connecting with a wide audience, but no less interesting for that. It’s notable as the furthest Steranko’s storytelling ever went from the comics form, and that alone marks it as a culmination of sorts. But it is also the culmination of many threads seen in Steranko’s better-known Marvel works, a wrapping-up of old concerns before his Outland began a journey (only ever half-completed) back into more familiar story forms.
Steranko hadn’t collaborated with a writer since his earliest SHIELD stories with Roy Thomas and Stan Lee. The ability to work on his own and retain control of as many aspects of his work’s production as possible had been what allowed him such tremendous growth as an artist, not to mention the freedom to exercise his unique ideas on format and concept with a minimum of interference. From this perspective it was surprising that Steranko would ever be seen illustrating another author’s work again. From another, though, it makes a kind of sense. Steranko’s ‘70s work as a body contains very little narrative work in proportion to the large amount of purely visual art he cranked out (book covers, posters, portfolio plates, et cetera), and it seems reasonable that a team-up with one of genre fiction’s best-known practitioners would have appealed to his often subsumed desire to tell stories. Too, Steranko and Ellison have their similarities; Steranko was a hero of comics’ 1960s creative renaissance, becoming one of the defining graphic storytellers of the era and taking part in a movement toward sophisticating the comics form, while Ellison rode sci-fi’s “new wave” to prominence as a proponent of the literary in genre writing. Both were restlessly creative artists whose aesthetics reached always for the new, and whose outsize personalities on occasion loomed larger than their actual work.
That said, Steranko and Ellison’s collaboration on Repent is not without major idiosyncrasies. It is far from the kind of script-based comics team-up Steranko was used to, given that the story was written over a decade before being illustrated, and the text carries the entire narrative weight on its own rather than interacting directly with the images to create the story. Thus, though Repent takes the term “graphic storytelling” nicely, it has very little to do with “comics”. Rather than a progression of sequentially ordered panels, the story is told in a style that crosses Steranko’s strict image-above-text Chandler page designs with the look of illustrated pulp magazines. One large illustration in black and 3D red-and-blue dominates the top two thirds of each page; three neat columns of black text take up the bottom third. The layout is an aesthetic success, clean, modern and as immediately appealing as good advertising art. But there is an inherent disconnect between the pictures and the words – rather than apprehending text and image at the same time, the reader is immediately struck by each new image and can proceed to the separated text only after digesting it. This alone takes it further from comics than any other Steranko story – any connections made between writing and art by the reader must necessarily be of a more abstract nature than those created by comics’ “moving pictures” and incorporated soundbites. There is also the problem of the 3D – do you read it with the glasses on? look at all the plates with them on first? or after? The story seems designed to be read (or at least viewed) multiple times and in multiple ways – a typically meta Steranko approach, but one which has trouble fitting in with the “sit there and entertain” ideal most media follows and most readers expect. Repent is a difficult work which does not go down easily, demanding a large amount from the reader in proportion to what it has to give.
Steranko gets around the problem of the story-art disconnect by creating a succession of images that has little direct relation to the text; rather, it is an allegorical visualization of Ellison’s tale. An endless line of identical men march up to a guillotine as Ellison begins his narrative with a Thoreau quote on the machinelike existence of the working classes; later, a single image of a man running a maze is repeated again and again as a giant, ominous figure looms in the background and Ellison waxes didactic about the impossibility of escape from a totalitarian regime. Repent goes beyond the scope of the traditional comic’s abilities. A narrative backed by images that do not depict its movements and moments but rather give its drama counterpoint and rhetorical heft, the word-picture interplay here is perhaps most akin to that of a film and its score. Both elements of the collaboration are incredibly abstract: Ellison’s story contains only one concrete visual image, that of multicolored jelly beans raining down on a futuristic metropolis, and it appears nowhere in Steranko’s illustrations, which instead occupy themselves with creating a tone, an air of futuristic sterility that sharpens the starker, more interesting aspects of Ellison’s dystopian vision while de-emphasizing some of the writing’s embarrassingly verbose qualities and over-emotional moments.
In fact, the art points toward a de-emphasis of any emotion, of humanity in general. As finely crafted as laser-cut steel, it is more concerned with the portrayal of frozen body shapes and mechanical creations than anything like human heart. Certain images are repeated mercilessly: a looming, faceless man’s silhouette casts his shadow over page after page, photo collages of deconstructed clock gears float endlessly across blank skies, flat Surrealist landscapes stretch out until they are chopped off at their horizon lines. Most noticeably, the image of a cube imprisoned within a larger cube is repeated on every page, an enigmatic catchphrase that serves only to destabilize the mind, defying readers to understand its significance. In the end it has no objective meaning at all, only the context the reader gives it – just like most every other element of Steranko’s boldly non-literal visualizations of Ellison’s prose. The effect is that of the two artists working in synch with one another on related but completely different projects. The images and text rarely match, but they often dovetail beautifully, especially towards the end, where Ellison’s story moves away from wordy abstraction and into a more simple, human realm while Steranko fills up the final picture with black space and introduces a single organic form, a fluttering leaf, to his high-tech panorama.
Outside of any service to the story, though, Steranko’s visuals are a career highlight. The minimalist design of the pages holds a well-considered blend of text and image, especially impressive as compared to the clumsy fusions of panel-to-panel comics storytelling and large, typed caption boxes that appear in the rest of the Illustrated Ellison anthology. As always, Steranko was considering the page as a single design unit, and the results are impressive. The pictures themselves are similarly masterful work. Crisp and dynamic, they are equal parts midcentury modern, futurist symmetry, bold figure drawing, and surrealist muraling. Swap the printed pages of this book out for canvas and Repent is a museum-worthy modern art exhibit. It is also the end of a long progression in Steranko’s art toward synthesizing drawing and photographic elements. A decade in the trenches of commercial illustration had sharpened Steranko’s penwork to perfection, and here a glossy, graceful aptitude for figure drawing, a painter’s instinct for spotted blacks, and a perfect smoothness of form and line blend seamlessly with high-contrast photocollages of spires, scaffolds, endless clock gears. Memorably, the story’s last picture replaces the mechanical elements with photographs of birds taking flight across a pure-white sky, hitting one wild blue emotional note before simply shutting down. It’s a final victory in the attempts at crossbreeding drawing and photos that began way back in SHIELD, a symphony in lines and film without a single element of discord. Steranko’s art had finally reached a fully-formed, unified whole.
This arrival at a harmonious coexistence of photography and illustration also gives us a clue as to why Steranko never left print for canvas, museums, the fine-art circuit. As an artist, he was in love with the printed page and the opportunities it gave him. Steranko’s Repent art revels in the utter cleanliness and control that the print process offers, as opposed to the mess and energy of original art. It’s in the exactitude of every form, the geometric shapes that pop up in the corners of the images, the early computer graphics-inspired line matrices. These pages look like they were spat out by some machine in the process of developing an ideal of beauty. The 3D-processing of the art is perfectly in tune with its mechanical feel; never before or since has the necessity of red and blue holding lines been such an enhancement to an artist’s pages. Steranko’s compositions are improved by the tones and the doubled, split-up images of 3D, a bizarre dimensionality creeping into them out of the sheer artifice of it all. Color always brought life to Steranko’s visuals, but the life brought out by these hues is completely manufactured – a marvelous constructed thing that glories in technology’s “inconveniences”, the blunt perfection of color separations and mechanical grids. More than any other Steranko work, the Repent illustrations leave the look of the hand-made image behind, creating some of the most interesting material of his career.
The full rein Steranko gives his technophilia has a marvelous tonal inconsistency with Ellison’s splattery, anti-order text. While Steranko’s pictures shoot perfectly straight lines toward a single vanishing point and find the clinical joy in peeling single images apart into red and blue doubles, Ellison’s story glories in the indefatigable, merry-making Harlequin’s upsetting of a perfectly planned status quo. Indeed, the two opposing absolutes powering Ellison’s narrative – Harlequin the rampant anarchist and the mathematical, order-keeping Ticktockman – find perfect parallel in Steranko’s illustrated version of the story. Ellison is with the rowdy Harlequin all the way, his effusive witticisms and Lewis Carrolesque language-play totally overpowering the oppressive order of the regime that is supposed to be crushing the characters’ lives. Without the art, it’s a one-sided battle. But Steranko gives us the Ticktockman, the beauty of mechanical reproduction, of clean lines, of not a single black spotted out of place, even signing his name to every image with a computer-printed font. Repent is a story about the twinned beauties of perfection and imperfection at war, and Steranko’s images change the one-sided conflict of Ellison’s prose into a battle whose outcome can only be decided by the reader.
The results are a fitting climax to the most unconventional phase of Steranko’s career: a unique, esoteric work that finds its power in its utter difference from anything else out there. By turns a visual triumph, an intriguing concept from two master conceptualists, and a paradoxical work that draws strength from its potential weaknesses, Repent is one of the oddest, most subjective pleasures around, wildly leaping into the unknown territories of a master’s imagination. A new form that never got picked up on, an obscure entry in an oeuvre full of obscurities, and a sublime beauty, it is a message to a future that has not yet arrived, a strange thing unlike any other. This isn’t comic books, not by a long shot – but it’ll do.