An Interview with Jim Steranko
by Robin Green

newly transcribed by The Drawings of Steranko
printed in Rolling Stone issue 91, September 16, 1971.

cover by Herb Trimpe

Jim Steranko was at Marvel when I worked there. Even though Jim had only done about 25 books, there wasn't a fan who didn't know of him and dig his work. He used to do the Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. books, and was always getting into hassles with the Comic Book Code people.

The Code had come into existence during the juvenile delinquent scare of the Fifties. At the time EC (Entertaining Comics) was coming out with a crime and horror series that was pretty gory and horrifying. People killing their wives and stuffing them into garbage disposals which would backfire and blood would gush all over the place. And Marvel was doing its share of gore, too.

The Code completely banned all horror and terror comics and all material which might be immoral or in poor taste, anything which could stimulate "the lower and baser emotions." It fosters respect for parents, for police, judges and other government officials. It forbids profanity, obscenity, vulgarity; it requires that females be drawn realistically "without exaggeration of any physical qualities." Each of its 41 provisions is a bulwark against the inclusion in comic books of any material which "may be undesirable for exposure to youthful readers." In short, the Code is a drag.

Steranko's female characters were always too sexy, and they'd come back from the code, where all material was sent for approval, with modified bosoms and asses. There was one beautiful page which was perhaps the first realistic love scene in comics. It was a silent page, no words, because "there is a time for talking a time for silence, and this was a time for silence." So one panel had the stereo in Fury's apartment to show there was music playing, cigarettes in the ash tray in one, there was a sequence of intercut shots where she moved closer to him, much more intimately, there was a kiss, there was a rose, and then there was one panel with the telephone off the hook, which the comic book code made him put back on.

The telephone off the hook must have appealed to the prurient interest of someone at the dusty little Code office, maybe Lee Darwin himself, or maybe Tania Fredricks, his assistant in rooting out the dirty. Jim Steranko said after that he got horny every time he saw a telephone off the hook. Anyway, the last panel on that page had Nick and his old lady kneeling, with their arms around each other, and that was entirely too much for the Code, so the panel was replaced with a picture of a gun its holster.

I used to dig it when Steranko came to town. He didn't work at the office, but like many artists freelanced the work at home. One day he took me for a ride in the big convertible Cadillac he was driving in those days. We got to talking and he told me about himself.

"Maybe because I grew up reading comics, I was always less realistic than most people. I'm kind of a dreamer, I'm still a dreamer. I live in my own world. When I get up in the morning, go to bed at night, even while I'm sleeping, I'm thinking of fantastic things. I don't want to live the life that those people live out there. It's a dull life.

"My dad did many things and one of them was magic. I grew up seeing him work, do tricks and things. Whenever I could I'd dig out those books and read them and eventually began to do magic and that led into escapes. Escapes meaning that when I was 15, 16, and 17, I was breaking out of jails, out of strait jackets and handcuffs, out of safes and vaults, out of packing boxes dropped to the bottom of a river. I did TV shows and Elks and the American Legion.

"And I was into locks. I have no mechanical ability whatsoever except when it comes to locks. In school a week never went by when I wasn't called over the loud speaker to unlock a car when some teacher had locked his keys inside it. They'd say, 'Steranko, bring your tools.'

"I was fourteen at the time, new in the lock business, and I didn't know much about locks, so I could say crazy things. I had an idea that combination locks could have many combinations. And I told this locksmith, who really didn't want to be bothered, 'cause it's like secretive stuff, these machines around us to protect us. I told him that I had my idea and he said, 'Get out of here, kid, don't bother me.' I came back a week later and I said, 'Give me any lock that you have' and I showed him various combinations that could open it, which knocked him out. I had a device I made up that could give me multiple combinations, a device about as big as my thumbnail. I invented many devices for my escapes and I wrote a book with all that material in it.

"My first jail break I did for publicity purposes so I could book my act. I had to create a demand for this act, because who wants a 15-year-old kid cluttering up their stage? So when I was ready, I went to the police department and I talked to a guy named Captain Feldman who was very amenable, a hell of a nice guy, an Edward G. Robinson-looking guy, and he said OK, we'll try it. I told him I'd be by the next day after school. From there I went to the newspaper office, and said I'd be at the jail at 3:30, so they should send a photographer and a reporter and I'd bust out of jail. The police department didn't know there was going to be publicity, and Captain Feldman was a little pissed off that the reporters were there, but of course they had to be. This time wasn't really a jailbreak. They handcuffed me spreadeagle to the outside of the cell, hands and feet. They had given me half an hour to do it. It took me 27 minutes. They had searched me head to toe, but I had these minuscule devices."

The transition from escapes to crime was easy, and at 17 Jim became a very ingenious juvenile delinquent. He believed anything that could be locked by one man, could be opened by another: him. "I was familiar with safes from the inside, so I knew things, like there's a particular kind of safe, if it fell on you you'd be crushed, it's a big heavy monster. But all you have to do is hit the right corner with a sledge hammer. That's all it takes to open it up. You have to hit it at the right spot, but that will knock the bolt that holds the thing. It completely bypasses the tumblers. And the door will fly open.

"One of my stratagems in my career of crime was to change cars frequently. If I'd steal a car in Reading, I might replace it with another car in Allentown and another one in Easton. If you use one car for a whole night's work, you'd stand a pretty good chance of being nabbed. And of course cars were no problem for me to steal. Eventually I became so particular, if a car didn't have a radio, I'd stop after a block and steal another one. Or if it didn't have a full tank of gas. 'Cause how's an honest thief going to make out if he has to spend five bucks to fill up the gas tank? So it had to be a nice car, radio and all the conveniences.

"I remember once, me and another guy committed our only armed robbery. There's a difference between armed robbery and burglary, around 15 to 25 years. Armed robbery is a heavy rap. What I was was a burglar. I hit places like gas stations, or wherever there were cash registers.

"Most of our burglaries were committed without a word. We'd just pull up to a likely-looking place and there was my getaway man and me. He'd sit in the car and I'd get through the doors or windows, and go through the place. But this one time we were going to do one armed robbery.

"We were driving around, not in Reading, because none of the things we did were done in Reading, maybe one or two. I stole a submachine gun in Reading, but that was all. Anyway it was a spur of the moment thing. We saw this man coming out of a building. He was locking up, very well dressed, he had like a homburg, an old man about 60. Got in this brand new Lincoln Continental.

"I said, 'Follow that guy, I've got an idea,' So he drove across the city with us following him, and finally he pulled up in this very nice section of town, parked the car, and I said to my partner, 'Pull up in front of him and you get out and cover one side of the car,' and I pulled out one of my pearl-handled .38s and stuck this gun in the man's face. And I said, 'Your money or your life, motherfucker, let's go. Get it out, whatever you got.' And the other guy was on the other side with a gun. And the man laughed. He laughed! This was a nervous laugh, you know, like when you have an embarrassing moment, like in church when you start laughing and you can't stop.

"Well, here were two guys, you know, with guns, and I don't know if you've ever been on the other end of a gun barrel, but it's an uncomfortable feeling. I didn't know what to do. Like, I never saw in all the movies that I have seen with Cagney, Bogart and Robinson, nobody ever laughed. This was a situation not covered in the books.

"So we like stood there looking at each other, and I realized that sooner or later somebody was going to walk by or drive by. This called for the right decision. And I finally wound up saying, 'Ah, 'scuse me, mister, we thought you were someone else,' and got back in the car, and drove out of that district. That was it for armed robbery. I couldn't take another laugh.

"I don't know where your head's at, but I wouldn't shoot anybody for any amount of money. I don't mind stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, which was myself, but I certainly would never shoot anybody, that's just too far out.

"Eventually they caught me and I had to give up my guns. I had many guns. A complete arsenal. My two pearl-handled .38s, 30 pistols, and countless rifles, we had .45s and a submachine gun that shot nine millimeter parabellum shells. I carried that gun home, walking along the streets of Reading with it over my shoulders, across my back, like you carry a baseball bat when you're a kid. And nobody noticed me, I guess, 'cause they didn't stop me. I was only in jail until my trial, about a month, and they had me in solitary with a 24-hour guard because of my history as an escape artist. They knew all it would take me was three minutes and I'd be out. I was placed on probation--I was still a juvenile delinquent at the time. But I had to pay back what I had stolen, make restitution for whatever stuff I had done. It took me a couple of years to do that.

I drove down to Pennsylvania to visit Jim. He still lives in Reading, which turned out to be a funky old railroad town. I walked through an iron gate, through an old heavy door and into a dark hallway with pink faded flowered wallpaper, and the smell of somebody's grandmother's cabbage soup. Up three flights to a dark wood door, which Steranko opened, dressed in white from turtleneck to ankles, with pointed black Italian boots. Jim is a fantasy character who really exists. "After all," he once said, "the mask is the man." The color TV was on, an Edward G. Robinson movie, but no audio. Jim is a good looking guy--he looks a lot like Nick Fury except for the eye patch, compact and strong looking, with a lively gleam in his eyes. He hasn't been working for Marvel for a while.

Jim Steranko would like to be the Michelangelo of comic book art. But as he said, who's going to pay any attention if you have Michelangelo working and it costs only a dime? People don't see all the work that goes into comic book art. They don't realize there's a writer and an artist and an inker and a letterer and a colorist. Even so, Jim thinks most of what's done is trash. There are a few creative people and the rest are imitators and the work that's done is repetitious.

"Comic books are trash. But that TV set is trash, and so much of music trash. And books like Peyton Place and Gone with the Wind and The Power of Positive Thinking and The Love Machine. It's all trash." I asked if he considered the stuff he did to be trash. "Of course," he said. "So you like trash?" "Well, yeah, of course I like trash. Of course, human flesh is trash, too.

"Comic books are throwaway art, they're just temporary. But the whole form has a chance to endure. I believe that ideas are more important than human life. I think that in every person there is maybe one idea, one grand idea. I know that I will be immortal because I have turned out words and pictures and as long as one of these lasts, I will truly endure. At least until the end of this planet. I haven't done that one thing yet that I can call really redeeming. That will be in the future.

"I don't believe in peace either. I used to think, 'Love and Peace.' But now I have changed my mind about that. I have a new philosophy. It's this: I believe that I am an agent put here to maintain the aspect of equipoise in the universe, the balance of nature. That means warmth and cold, night and day, light and darkness, order and chaos, good and evil, peace and war, love and hate. I think there's a reason for those things being, and I do whatever I can to maintain that.

"For example, before you came, I ripped up that Life magazine. It came in the mail today, and I destroyed it by ripping out things that I wanted. Now tomorrow I might destroy an idea and the day after I might destroy a person. I believe that in order for life to endure there has to be movement and change. Static is death. Motion is life. So every day I create something, a drawing, some writing, something new. And in order to maintain that balance, I'll destroy something. After you've done it for a while, you begin to see signs that something will beg to be destroyed."

There are no bounds to Steranko's imagination. He said that when aliens land here, or when we land on another planet, we are going to communicate with pictures, illustrated stories, comic books. I asked him if he really believed there was someone out there. "Oh, sure," he said, "there's someone out there. It's staggering no matter how you think about it. Either there's no one out there and you're alone, or there is someone. Either way it's overwhelming."

Steranko works in the back room of his apartment. His walls are covered with posters of sexy girls dressed in leather, original comic artwork, paintings he's done for paperback book covers, and a huge library of pulps and comics. He has an antique colt .45 gun, and on the floor in a cage is a giant hare ("what's a magician without a rabbit?"). He showed me a book he'd written about escaping when he was a teenager. It was a special Houdini Memorial issue of the magazine, and it had pictures of Steranko handcuffed to the cell of a jail, Steranko in a strait jacket, Steranko hanging from the face of a huge clock by his ankles, and all kinds of pictures of the devices he had invented for escapes. He told me about one stunt he did where he was buried alive three feet under for 15 minutes. He had made an air pocket in front of his mouth with just enough air to survive if he timed his breathing right. He is a man who likes to escape.

"I have led the loneliest life of all the people I have ever known. All the things that I do, like writing and painting, are solitary proceedings. You cannot write with someone else, unless you're collaborating, which I don't do. That means you spend hours alone. I spent an entire childhood writing and drawing by myself, studying and practicing magic. To this very day, I work alone in this back room.

"But I believe that happiness is nothing. Like most things, it is temporary. I don't think people were put here to be happy. I think if you decide to be an artist or a writer, you automatically accept the responsibility of being alone. However, after your 50 or 60 years are up you'll be able to look back and see this output that you've done that will endure long after you're gone, and will continue to fill the minds of millions of people."
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(c) 1971, Rolling Stone

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