Reviewed by William T. Ayton
Jim Steranko. A name to conjure with. It’s been about 35 (but who’s counting?) years since I first got my grubby little paws on his work. Then, it was Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (who makes an appearance in this current portfolio) in the final issues of Strange Tales, as Steranko was preparing to go supernova & leave comic books forever (though, kind of like Sinatra’s farewell tours, he never really left).
Jim Steranko (as has been said ad nauseum, but here we go again) was the mutant offspring of Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Wally Wood, Bernard Krigstein, and many others, but mostly the creation of Jim Steranko. He took the conventions of comic books, turned them upside down, shook them up, created some new ones, reinvented the old ones, and plugged the whole thing into the pop-culture, 60’s Op-art, pop-art, psychedelic matrix. Like wow (as they say). Apparently he could also sing & play guitar pretty good, knew some card tricks, could get out of a tight spot, had an eye for the babes…Who knows what darkness lurks in the heart of Steranko? Michael Chabon knows…
Jim Steranko’s art, which is a form of pulp art, popular culture illustration, appealing to some of our basest instincts and desires (superheroes, detectives, wild women, and the like), should not have lasted as well as it has. It’s a disposable art form, printed in four colors (or less) on cheap newsprint (or worse). Somehow, it beat the odds. Steranko has returned from the edge of obscurity and seems to be doing pretty well for himself, thank you very much. The item currently in hand (that Visual Theory thing) is the fourth installment released in the last few years documenting his continuing career, the three preceding chapters being the 38 page Steranko section in “Comic Book Marketplace #28”, the docu-comic “Graphic Prince of Darkness” and the retrospective “Arte Noir”. I’m not going to dwell on those pieces here, though any serious Steranko aficionado should, of course, be familiar with those documents, as well as the Marvel reissues of his classic comic book work.
Jim Steranko’s Visual Theory is an oversized comic-book style publication, with 30 interior pages in monochrome with a 2-color (by my count) wraparound cover. That cover depicts a Sherlock Holmes illustration originally published in Mediascene, the magazine Steranko published, edited and designed from 1972 until 1994. This portfolio represents a sampling of more obscure, sometimes (often) unfinished works from Steranko’s personal files. There are finished renderings, finished pencil works, pencil sketches, rough sketches (thumbnails), and the famous Marvel Comics Fury tryout pages (Steranko finishing Kirby layouts), arranged thematically, from all stages of Steranko’s career.
I could go through the book systematically, but that would take the thrill of discovery away. It’s a Pandora’s box of treasures. I’ll list some random items: an unpublished, latter-day Fury cover in pencils, working sketches for Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger, a finished Batman piece, a Norgil The Magician cover, and many pieces depicting the Sherlock Holmes project, "The Revenge of the Hound". Most of the works are either previously unpublished or relatively obscure. As the cover would suggest, Sherlock Holmes is featured extensively. A bit too extensively for my taste. But more anon.
Let’s examine the highlights. Where this book really clicks & executes its primary mission, for me, is in the side-by-side versions of the opening splash page for a planned story called “Waxworks”. Here, we really get to see Steranko’s thought processes churning, as he makes decisions, rejects elements, refines others, then polishes the whole thing to near gemlike perfection in the finished piece. These two pages are practically a master class in, uh, visual theory…
That’s the high point for me. There’s also a rather wonderful Steranko/Sinnott collage- style piece of Captain America (Joe Sinnott was the only inker who could do justice to Steranko, except Steranko himself, IMHO). The Fury cover drawing is interesting as Steranko modulated Fury as time went on & he returned periodically to the character, as though Fury were aging and changing along with Steranko. There’s a pretty much finished movie poster (or box cover, I’m not sure) pencil drawing, which shows Steranko’s range & more mainstream abilities. And various other pieces.
The book is basically a grab-bag of interesting, warts-and-all, flashes-of-genius, sleight of hand, derring-do, and plain ol’ blood, sweat & tears, as we see Steranko thrashing out ideas, hitting dead ends, turning round again, and finally striking gold. Or not. It's not supposed to be a work of pristine beauty, which is just as well, because it isn’t. Like life, it’s seriously flawed, overindulgent (Sherlock Holmes gets way too much space, unless your name includes the words Conan & Doyle, and it’s possible to see too much of someone’s creative thought processes), and rambles quite a bit (like this sentence), though Steranko’s commentaries, listed on the inside back cover, are pretty terse, ironic and witty. There’s also a neat self-portrait on the inside front cover, done some time ago, I’d wager.
Visual Theory: all in all, I kinda liked it.
You have to be something of a Steranko fan to want to own this book. It’s not for everybody -- just those of us born under the sign of Scorpio (machines, sex, venom, and other good things) and those similarly inclined. That would explain why he only printed 1,000. Catch them while you can. Also, it’s volume 1, so historically we can expect at least one more volume. At least.
William T. Ayton is a British artist (not the comic book kind, though he wanted to be one when he was a kid) living in Upstate New York. See his work at the Art of Ayton .
Visual Theory: The Steranko Archives Volume 1 is available from Supergraphics in the Steranko Collectibles section at prevuemag.
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