A Life Long Love Affair With The Pop Culture Pin Up!
by Steven Ringgenberg, Betty Pages #4, Spring 1989
The teenaged boy stopped what he was doing, his task momentarily forgotten as he stared at the wall inside the garage where he worked. The images that the wall contained made such an impression on Steranko that he was able to vividly evoke them over thirty years later: "One of the first jobs I had when I was a kid, as working in a garage, and one wall was covered with, was alive with pin up art, hundreds, perhaps thousands of sheets of paper, calendar pages that were from discarded, decade-old calendars, ink blotters, matchbook covers, advertising brochures, just a multiplicity of images of pin up girls. That wall had a resonance. I can remember many of the images today." It is unquestionable that pin up art had an effect in shaping Steranko's artistic sensibilites, not so much in his choice of subject matter as in his approach to depicting his subjects. "I think I've always been attracted to pin up because it idealized the female form".
Another type of idealization also had its effect of shaping Steranko's conception of the female image: "I remember as a kid growing up, looking at films where fully grown women, like Ann Sheridan (The "Oomph Girl") would be playing teenagers. I don't know how it was with you, but in my neighborhood there were no teenaged girls that looked like Ann Sheridan, and I found that rather disconcerting. I think I spent most of my life looking for a girl that could be kissed, and there'd be a full orchestral score rising up out of the floorboards in the background... whose hair was always perfectly in place, who had eyelashes that would keep you at a three-foot distance, who would be bathed in this wonderful backlighting that Hollywood photographers used during that period."
The women in Jim Steranko's comics and illustrations carry a similar kind of resonance, that linger in the mind's eye, because they are products of his uniquely American sensibility. His work represents a complete distillation of decades of pop culture: not only movies and pin up art, but stage magic, radio, pulp magazines, comics, music, advertising, and TV, all fields that have had a profound effect on his art and life.
James Steranko was born on November 5, 1938, less than a week after Orson Welles's famous "War of the Worlds" broadcast, an event he would later claim had shaped the course his life would take, for, like Welles, Steranko would deal in illusions, at first making the impossible seem plausible on the stage, then later in Jim's life, by making believable scenarios in only pen and ink.
Almost from birth, Steranko had a voracious appetite for pop culture. An uncle used to bring over shopping bags full of comics, which inspired young Jim to teach himself to read by looking at Superman, funny animal comics, and the adventures of other comic book heroes. At the same time, his artistic tastes were being shaped by some of the best newspaper strips from the Golden Age of the comics.
The influences from his youth, combined with later heroes, (like Robert McGinness, the man who painted the James Bond posters), fueled Steranko's steady growth. With an expansive mental file of images culled from every new painting and drawing he saw, Steranko refined his own version of the perfect girl. "It wouldn't be unrealistic to describe me as an artistic voyeur, especially when the images encompass superb design, composition and rendering - all of which are synthesized through my own style and ability."
By his late teens, Jim was honing his considerable artistic skills as the house artist for a small Reading, Pennsylvania printing company, sometimes producing pin up style ad flyers for monthly dances at the local pub. "I created many brochures that might be classified in that area, especially when they advertised Halloween or Valentine's Day dances. I'd frequently draw a sexy girl in an approriate outfit." Working there gave Jim a thorough knowledge of the business, but, after five years it was time to move on; he soon landed a job in an advertising agency where he solved a variety of design problems, from packaging to billboard campaigns. He worked on accounts that included everything from baby carriages to bottled beer, and as usual, pretty girls were frequently pictured.
As all of this was transpiring, Jack Kirby was causing shock waves with his unmatchable art and story at Marvel Comics. A lifelong comics fan, Steranko set his sights on the business, and squeezed the trigger. In 1965. he struck the bullseye at Harvey Publishing. Editor Joe Simon was attempting to construct a super hero division for a company that specialized in funny animal books, and Steranko presented several ideas that were quickly accepted. He created and wrote MAGICMASTER, SPYMAN, and THE GLADIATOR. Although the strips were short-lived, he had credits under his belt, and the confidence to try his luck elsewhere.
He made two appointments, and drove his red VW to New York City with a portfolio bursting with ideas. His first stop was at Paramount's TV animation unit, where his SECRET AGENT X was accepted for production as a Saturday morning television series. Riding on air, Steranko then met with Stan Lee, Editor-in-chief with Marvel Comics. When Lee saw the artist's work, his response was surprising: "Well, what book would you like to draw?!" Marvel was a smaller operation in those days, and for an artist to debut without previous experience, was unusual.
Steranko's Marvel work became a benchmark of '60s pop culture, combining the traditional comic book art styles of Wallace Wood and Jack Kirby with the surrealism of Richard Powers and Salvador Dali. Steeped in cinematic techniques picked up from that medium's masters, Jim synthesized a style he christened "Zap Art" -- an approach different from anything being done in mainstream comics, though it did include one standard attraction: lots of females in skintight, sexy costumes. Countess Valentina (Val) Allegro De Fontaine, made her debut in STRANGE TALES #159 (Aug. 1967) by flooring Nick Fury during a training session, proving that she could take care of herself! She looked like a character who had just stepped out of a James Bond poster.
Jim started work on the NICK FURY, AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D. strip with STRANGE TALES #151 (Dec. 1968) by finishing loose pencil guides by his idol, Jack Kirby. Within a few issues he'd graduated to plotting, penciling and inking. Four issues later, he was scripting too. Things were moving along for the ambitious creator.
Before readers knew what was happening, the S.H.I.E.L.D. strip went high tech asJim's style began to mature. The strip became more adult in its tone, something that the supposedly hip Marvel Comics Group wasn't ready for. Jim recalled: "I remember having problems with Marvel about the way I dressed my girls in the strip, both Val and Madame Hydra." He'd inherited the green Hydra uniform design from Kirby, but didn't think it worked for a woman. "I felt readers would find it more interesting if Fury battled villainesses who wore skintight outfits. I disliked those baggy, green outfits because they conceal the figure." From her jumpsuit to her eyeshadow, lipstick and nail polish, (all in the approved shade of green,) Madame Hydra "embodied everything that the well-dressed villainess would wear." The cumulative emerald effect was sexy, in a bizarre way.
To Marvel's dismay, Fury was given a love life too. "I remember two sequences that got me in trouble," Jim reflects, "One was a love scene that had no words. It took place in Fury's apartment. The Comics Code ordered the girl's cleavage removed. I was distressed by it, because there wasn't anything distasteful about it. The women in my paintings and comics were inspired by ladies I knew. I've gone with girls that couldn't appear in comics!"
Another bit of tinkering in STRANGE TALES #168 (May 1968), must have set a precedent. "There was a page-tall figure of Val seen from the back, and I put a lot of shine on the outfit, particularly on her buttocks. I defined the form on satin material -- and they eliminated the shine. Blacked it all in because it was too hot!"
Dealing with the Comics Code had its silly side, which Jim sometimes found amusing. In NICK FURY, AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D. #2 (July 1969), he'd included an amorous encounter between Nick and Val. It ended with the figures embracing on the floor in a kneeling position. The code substituted a panel enlargement from the top of the page. "They reproduced Fury's holster slung over a chair, which was much more suggestive: a big gun fitting very tightly in a holster, which was a sexual metaphor much more potent than my figures.
"One panel also showed a telephone that was off the hook. They considered it suggestive, and put it back on. Now, every time I pass a phone that's off the hook, I get horny!"
Among other classic stories Jim drew for Marvel was the seven-page story "My Heart Broke In Hollywood" for OUR LOVE #5 (Feb. 1970), his only romance strip. He employed a Peter Max-ish style without feathering and heavy blacks, for a style that was perfectly suited for the genre. The strip was riddled with mini-skirts and go-go boots and represented the time perfectly.
Marvel's tampering with Steranko's art finally drove him away from the company. He decided that if he couldn't see his work reproduced the way he had envisioned it, he'd find a new career. He was ready for something more difficult, anyway. Steranko called in his resignation and pondered his future.
"That afternoon I visited a friend of mine, an artist who also happened to be the best painter in town. I said that I had left comics just a few moments before, and I was planning to paint paperback covers." The man politely inquired how much Jim know about painting, and was told "Not a thing." The result was an hour-long lesson that included the suggestion to paint with acrylics because Steranko worked fast, and acrylics dried faster than oil paints.
Armed with a crash course and his own abilities, Steranko prepared to break into the cover painting business. His ambition to succeed spurred him to do a half-dozen samples (including the raincoat girl reproduced earlier), two westerns, a McGinness style girl, a gothic horror piece, and a sword and sorcery painting).
Working as his own agent, Jim showed his portfolio at Lancer books, and Art Director Howard Winters bought the fantasy piece out of Steranko's sample case. It was one of dozens of covers Jimi would paint over the next two years, for a variety of publishers.
Even though he'd accomplished everything he had set out to do, from printer's apprentice to paperback illustrator, he was still unfulfilled. He seemed to only be able to use one area of his hard earned expertise in any given job.
In 1969, shortly after getting out of comics, Jim founded Supergraphics, his own publishing firm, in Reading, Pa. His first projects were the LIFE magazine-sized HISTORY OF THE COMICS. The books' wrap-around covers feature some of his favorite crimefighting cuties, among them a fresh-faced Sheena, a satin wrapped Black Cat, Lady Luck and the Queen of Comics, Wonder Woman.
Paperback painting slowed while he researched the second volume of THE HISTORY, and at its conclusion, he found himself more committed to his company than ever. Supergraphics allowed Jim to chart his own course, and the finished product was his alone. No outside job could utilize all his abilities, so he created one for himself!
One project under consideration was TALON, THE TIMELESS. The comic strip only got as far as a mini-portfolio of full page drawings in WITZEND #5 (1968). Rather than plunge into another massive, time-consuming project, Steranko opted to have some quick fun. He'd always wanted to draw a pin up calendar, but couldn't figure out how to make it unique as well as saleable. The answer was THE SUPERGIRLS, which wed two of his favorite subjects. The twelve plates are his versions of many well-known male superheroes done as females in pin up poses. The dozen images included Green Lantern, Captain America, Uncle (Aunt?) Sam and many others. Science Fiction writer Robert Heinlein was so taken with the Archeress that he attempted to purchase the art during an exhibition, Jim was flattered, but turned him down. The artist is notorious for retaining his best work, and few fine examples are in private hands.
The next Supergraphics project was something far more involved than just a calendar. COMIXSCENE was a tabloid newspaper which at first only covered comic books and similar pop culture. By the seventh issue, however, Steranko decided to broaden the scope (and potential readership) changing the title to MEDIASCENE. If we had only been seeing the comic book portion of his brain before, it was now as though his skull had unhinged for our inspection. Movies, Science fiction, pin ups and everything else in which he was interested all got their moment in the spotlight. Each issue focused on a different theme, and notable among these is #8, the Pin Up issue. Steranko, the editor, served up a concise visual history of the pin up and its creators. Steranko, the artists, contributed a lavish spread painting of Marilyn Monroe. MEDIASCENE #37 followed up with an investigation of Girls in the Comics ranging from Chic Raymond's milk-fed BLONDIE to Bill Ward's martini-quenched TORCHY. Ward contributed the saucy stripper-centerspread for that issue.
Issue #38 introduced the modified title MEDIASCENE PREVIEW, and finally PREVUE with issue #41. The format also switched from tabloid newspaper to slick magazine. The contents were also modified to include current films and screen personalities. The covers now regularly featured contemporary starlets like Bo Derek, Morgan Fairchild, and "B" Movie Goddess Sybil Danning (four times). Through experimentation and development, Steranko made PREVUE into one of the few contemporary exponents of old-style film glamour. The mail order department at Supergraphics scoured the globe to uncover books his readers might otherwise have missed.
Steranko continued to create sporadic comic covers for Marvel. This gave Jim a chance to depict wide variety of heroines, from a cowgirl dressed in buckskins on TEX DAWSON #1 (Jan. 1973) to exotic fantasy women on the covers of CREATURES ON THE LOOSE #21 & #22 (Jan. & Mar. 1973). The artist clearly has a fondness for jungle girls, for they frequently crop up in his illustrations; all are tributes to Sheena, from the Fiction House line of 1940's comics. Two of his best can be found on SHANNA THE SHE-DEVIL (subtle, eh? ed.) #1 (Dec. 1972) and #2 (Feb. 1973).
In 1976 Jim produced CHANDLER, his first graphic novel, for Pyramid Books. The detective story was something Steranko had never tried, and he was determined to give it his best. The result is a book with the flavor of THE MALTESE FALCON and OUT OF THE PAST, yet stands on its own as pure pulp entertainment. Although Jim regards CHANDLER as only a partial success, it gave him a chance to depict one of his most luscious villainesses ever. Blonde Bombshell Anita Ekberg was the model for his character, but Jim points out that: "There was no attempt to slavishly capture her, but I liked the straight nose and full lips. The essence of her image was what I was trying to capture." The strip was drawn completely in pencil in a series of twenty-hour sittings; CHANDLER's stylized 1940's realism represents a high-water mark in Steranko's artistic growth. He painted the cover, wrote the script, illustrated and colored the art, designed the logo, mechanicals, and even handled some aspects of the book's promotion, making it one of his most completely realized projects. It is an entertaining tribute to a bygone era of romance, style and mystery.
Pyramid Books was also responsible for Jim's paintings for the reprints of his favorite pulp character, THE SHADOW. Created over a period of ten years, these thirty paintings rank as some of his best. Each piece revealed a more confident, assured artist. Without copying the work of the classic SHADOW artists, Steranko managed to evoke the feeling of the 1930 covers with bright color, weird lighting and bold design. Over a dozen covers had initially been produced when Pyramid decided to repackage the entire SHADOW line. Jim re-painted the original set, this time with a pin up girl as a key element, even when none appears in the story inside. It was a rare opportunity to "go back, and do it all over again".
On painting in general, Steranko remarks: "I don't like to work on a painting for more than three or four days, because I begin to lose interest. If I can't complete it fast, it wears me down. Painting at high intensity is like holding a very high note on a musical instrument. You can only blow it or sing it for so long, then it disappears. That's the way it is for me. Painting is done in a burst of intensity. I really become part of it. i become all the characters. I light the sets, I create the props. It's like being every filmmaker on the set, all at once, working in a burst of intensity, of passion, of fury -- it really gets my blood up."
Whether visualizing a comic book cutie or a film noir bitch, Steranko digs deep into his memory for the raw material with which to build her. Pulps, movies and trips have all contributed to the females that pepper his work. The ladies he has known and loved supply the soul for his two-dimensional lovelies.
What mountain Steranko decides to climb next cannot be predicted, but two things are certain: He will succeed at what he does, and the female touch will always be present.
Captions (click number to see the image):
[1.] Two examples of the pin ups Steranko produced for local dances. For Speed's sake, they were often done directly on the printer's plate.
[2.] Black Bottom. Marvel decided that this tush was too graphic for the readers and blackened it out. It is shown here, for the first, unretouched, for the first time.
[3.] The censored scene from NICK FURY #2 (Jul. 1969).
[4.] Steranko's only romance strip "My Heart Broke in Hollywood".
[5.] Cover to CHARG, MONSTER (Pyramid, 1978). The girl never appears in the story.
[6.] Steranko helps out a photographer friend by posing as a hood. TRUE MYSTERY DETECTIVE (Oct. 1970).
Copyright © 1989 Betty Pages Magazine, and for all images: Jim Steranko.