Jim Steranko could’ve just been one of two things in order to be remarkable. He could be a ground breaking, innovative artist, one who altered the art form of comic book storytelling forever. He could also be an engaging, charismatic individual, one who could never be forgotten by anyone who meets him. As it turns out, he’s both.
Part of the first generation of comic book creators who grew up as fans, Steranko added a third career to his advertising artist/musician repertoire when he went to work for Marvel in the late sixties. In a handful of years and not that many more comics, Mr.S blew the doors of perception wide open by combining what he learned from studying Kirby with Dali, Wally Wood with Warhol, and turning the Ben-Day hose back on it’s source in a style he called Zap Art.
Although he’s best known for his work on Nick Fury: Agent Of SHIELD, Steranko also did a number of covers, a very intense 3 issue Captain America story in which he seemingly killed the main character off, a troubling horror short for a short lived anthology, and a trippy romance story.
The comics work is merely the tip of the iceberg, however. Proving that truth often trumps fiction, Steranko is also known as a magician, escape artist, and magazine publisher, having created and edited Comicscene and then Mediascene before it evolved into Prevue magazine under his leadership, a publication that stood head and shoulders above it’s competition by virtue of it’s one-two punch of insightful articles and knockout design. It was in that magazine that the world first saw perhaps one of the most remarkable yet least known achievements of Mr.Steranko’s career:
Steranko created the original concept art for Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and rarely even mentions it. He’s done a good deal of work in Hollywood, including some storyboards and design work for Coppola’s Dracula. He would personally be the inspiration for Jack Kirby’s mister Miracle as well as the protagonist and his comic book Escapist character from the best selling novel The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay. This was all after his creation of Red Tide, the first true Graphic Novel.
Of late, he’s developed quite a following on his twitter feed, where he has utilized the character limit of the posts to create what he calls TNT, or Twitter Narrative Technique. For anyone who has ever gotten to meet him, it’s a treat to get more insight from his off the cuff storytelling, and he’s been a revelation for those who didn’t know about the personality behind the art.
As follows are a couple of my favorites from his stories from Twitter:
Anybody ready for another bedtime story?
I often get ideas about the kinds of stories you’re interested in from your comments & often deliver the first thing that jumps into my head But I think I may have given you a wrong impression–that I take out whatever’s in front of me, one way or another. No way in hell, junior!
Sometimes it worked out that way, especially after I wised up and discovered a few things. But in the beginning, I learned the hard way. Because my father had tuberculosis, he was confined in a sanitarium for several years. And as a grade-school kid, I tested positive, likely to have breathed TB-causing bacteria into my lungs. Apparently, my immune system prevented infection by building a wall around the bacteria, which is termed latent TB and cannot be spread to others. Nonetheless, I began third grade at what was called an “open-window” school, a facility across the city that had a healthy program for kids with special problems.
I was bussed to that institution for four years, then dropped into standard junior high. Since I’d started school at four years old, I was younger and smaller than my peers, and coming from the cross-town facility, was a stranger to most of my classmates. Quiet, introverted, lacking certain social skills, I did not fit into the traditional seventh-grade mold. Additionally, my hair was long at a time when it was very unfashionable; crew cuts were the accepted style. My hand-me-down clothes and artistic preferences further set me apart. I was an honor-role student and just wanted to be left alone to pursue my creative goals–but somehow, my manner was perceived as somber and brooding.
Whether it was those attributes or something else, I became a target, particularly of one gang who went out of their way to ransack my locker, grab my books and throw them down a stairwell, or simply crack me across the back of the head as they walked by in the crowded halls. Eventually, I recognized them as a gang called the Baer Park Razors; their turf, the opposite end of a long, river bridge that began in my neighborhood. They wore bright, yellow jackets and muscled their way through school, threatening and hammering anyone who defied them.
They always traveled in a pack, never alone, and even the jocks gave them room. Together, they would have made Sonny Liston think twice. I gradually became a focus, a punching bag for three of them. The Pope (which aggrandized his real Italian name) was as handsome and well-groomed as a movie star. He boasted he could “lay any chick on the first date” and never missed an opportunity to throw a punch at me. Freddie the Fireman aka Freddie Flames (his real name was Fernando) was half covered with puckered, red scar tissue earned when he attempted to set his father ablaze with gasoline while he was sleeping. Instead, the old man awoke and turned the tables, giving him–and anyone who could bear to look at him–something to remember for the rest of his life. Freddy added to his psychotic rep by pouring gas on neighborhood cats and dogs he caught–and setting them on fire for the fun of it.Metz was the third. A head and a half taller than me, he had dirty blonde hair, crooked teeth, and arms like tree trunks. A pachuco cross was tattooed (probably with a ball-point pen & three sewing needles taped together) in the pad of flesh at the base of his left thumb. He had skin like a pizza, heavy on the olives. He was their leader.
I tried to stay out of their way, but for more than a year, it was impossible. We shared numerous classes & they began waiting after school to rough me up. Almost every day was Three O’Clock High. I used every trick I could think of to outwit the Razors: leaving from different exits every day–sometimes late–and zigzagging out of my way through streets and alleys to throw them off. I’d never know where their ambush might be because they moved around constantly, and the area was a maze of shortcuts and narrow driveways, alleys, and dead ends. Sometimes, I’d spot them and outrun the gang (once right through a stranger’s yard, into their back door, through the living room, and out the front). But it only worked for a little while.
Soon, they realized there was one point at which I could not elude them: at the bridge that crossed over to my neighborhood, the only way to get there from the school’s direction. And that day, I didn’t see them until it was too late. Coming from behind, the Pope kicked my books like a football player, scattering them twenty feet or more in the air. Freddy Flames and the Pope moved behind me; Metz stood front and center, narrowed his eyes, grinned. “Waddaya gonna do about it, faggot?” I did exactly what he wanted and threw a punch, but Metz was faster. He shifted slightly to the right so my fist grazed harmlessly by.I threw another. Metz tapped it away with the back of one hand, stepped aside in a manner that could have been choreographed, easily anticipating what would happen next. I’d been in my share of streetcorner skirmishes and thought I knew my way around a brawl, but in a couple heartbeats realized I knew nothing. Metz didn’t even raise his hands to defend himself. He was toying with me like a kid torturing a trapped bug.
A circle of highschoolers surrounded us. Metz waited for the next move, playing to the crowd. “You wanna start a fight with me? Guess I’m gonna have to protect myself!” Freddie and the Pope laughed behind us.I threw another punch, but before it could land, I realized that Metz had positioned me at a particular angle,one that provided a perfect opening. He threw a brutal hook into my mid-section, pile-driving the air from my lungs.I’d been in street fights, but had never felt a punch that hard. The blow doubled me over, dropped me to my knees.My vision shimmered, ears rang. I was paralyzed, pointlessly gasping for air, unable to breathe or talk.Metz backhanded me with a vicious left across my face–his rings cutting into my cheek–then snapped it back again with a fist to my right ear that scrambled my senses. to my right ear that scrambled my senses, splattered blood across my shoulder, down my shirt. I fell to the ground, wretched, spewed my lunch.
“Now beg and maybe I’ll let you get up!” I couldn’t speak. Metz, maybe one of the others, wiped his shoe on my face and strolled away. “OK, have it your own way. We’ll see you tomorrow, punk. Don’t be late!” Someone had collected what could be found of my books and papers and piled them nearby. I lay there, unable to move, in a pool of blood and vomit, unsure of what hurt more: the beating, the humiliation, or the anger that emerged from a place too deep to assault physically. Five or ten minutes went by, before I could take a choppy breath again. It took another five minutes before I could walk upright, but I felt that first punch for the next three days. I knew I had just entered a new kind of hell, one that would change my life forever.>>
Anybody out there who wants to hear another tale of the SWITCHBLADE YEARS? Jump in NOW or forever hold your peace! Countdown begins…Remember last night’s story about my clash with the Razors gang? I’ll give you a couple moments to catch up, then we’ll begin round two…
>>The Razor’s cat-and-mouse beatings continued for the next year and a half, leeching at every waking moment. I’d fall asleep tasting blood and awaken spasming from raw flesh. The beatings were even more terrifying in jolting nightmares (which continued for the next 40 years). No place was safe because demons licked my spine, waking or sleeping. I’d get even more hell at home because my clothes were torn and bloodied. Sometimes my eyes were swollen shut, my teeth loosened. My ears would ring for days at a time. Yellow-purple welts corrupted my flesh, but RAGE, FEAR, and HATE bore even deeper. As angry as I was at the Razors, I was angrier at myself for being incapable of stopping them. I dreamed of slaughtering them,of being drenched in their blood. Controlling my fury became a primal effort and set a pattern for the rest of my life.
Eventually, I was forced to admit my fear, yet feared the knowledge of being a coward even more. I’d been in lots of fights and thought I’d proved myself many times. There were maybe a dozen dares I’d faced that were wildly dangerous (like late-night THE TRAIN stunt) and a few where a single slip could have cost my life (RIDING THE WALL). Hardly anyone–even the biggest and craziest–duplicated those challenges. And there were a couple, no one EVER attempted. I knew the beatings might end when I “begged” and accepted the repulsion of failure, submission, and defeat. I knew that to become a man, one must have the courage of a man. Yet my life was being driven by fear. Perhaps even more than the physical pain was the spiritual degradation of having less control over my life than a cockroach.It went beyond the humiliation of poverty and sacrifice that I already knew. In terms of the material–clothing, food, a well-appointed home, an education, a place in society–my life was bleak and desolate,nothing but leftovers. How many beatings could I take before I submitted to scum? I was afraid to learn the answer, but realized I was reaching my breaking point. As crushing as they were,the daily fistfights concerned the corruption of the spirit, about losing the ONLY thing that actually belonged to me.Was that something I’d fight for? Kill for?
I viewed it as my problem, refusing to take it to school authorities (the beatings took place off school property, anyway). I wasn’t a little kid anymore and needed to solve my own difficulties. My family never confronted my problems;they were too busy with their own conflicts to notice.I began withdrawing into paranoid seclusion, trying to shut out the anger and alienation that dominated my life, a kind that I had never experienced before. The violence escalated, but I knew I could never outfight them.
Still, I tried by changing the odds.I bought a thick, leather belt with a massive, brass buckle that I wielded like a mace. In that round, I caught Freddie the Fireman in the face, the strap circling his head, the buckle smashing into the zygomatic arch under his right eye. Blood gushed magnificently from the wound as he backed off. I knew I’d pay for it next time, but now was all that counted. Metz lunged at me, but I smashed the belt across the knuckles of his right hand that put him out of action for a while. The Pope backed off, taking no chances with his Roman features. It was only a temporary standoff that heightened the game, one that escalated to the concealed weapons stage. I began wearing gloves to protect my hands and a heavy leather jacket that buffered punches and kicks. I found a knife with a 4″ blade that thrust outward from the handle by sliding a button, but soon replaced it with a 6″ pocket knife I rigged with a bent straight pin under the closed blade. By dragging the knife against my jeans, the pin would catch and snap the blade open instantly. Soon, that knife was replaced by a switchblade that opened to 17.” I carried it around the clock.
Sometimes I’d skip lunch and use the money to take a bus across the bridge, bypassing the Razor’s ambush. Sometimes I’d pick a vantage point where I’d watch them at the foot of the bridge, unseen at a distance– and wait, sometimes for hours, until they’d tire and leave. Sometimes, they’d waylay me between school and the bridge, initiating ferocious chases through alleyways, hiding under porches, escaping beneath trucks, scrambling over garages. Clutching lengths of pipes or socks filled with buckshot, they’d pursue me through neighborhood yards and streets, sometimes in pelting rainstorms or thick snow. Eventually, I became better at eluding them and striking back, ut knew I could never beat them–not at their game, not on their terms.
In desperation, I withdrew deeper, trying to escape the brutality, yet becoming part of it more each day. Slowly I realized that I could not continue nor could I admit I was a coward by begging them to stop.No one, even school authorities, could break up the Razors. They were too wary to be caught on the premises, too psychotic to be reasoned with, and too sadistic to fear reprisals. I soon realized that in the heat of combat, they’d eventually beat me to death. I had been trapped into playing someone else’s game–the formula for failure! I could never beat the Razors at THEIR game. I needed to sucker them into playing mine. The question was: would I live long enough to do it?
I dropped back to what defined me at core level: intellect, aggression, imagination. I’d made many mistakes, including facing them in three-against-one fights. Then, I redid the math. The only way was reaching them separately. The strategy made all the difference in the world. One night the brakes on Freddy Flames’ motorcycle failed resulting in a serious accident. He was hospitalized for broken legs and a shattered hip. He would never run again. Then, the Pope was busted at school, when a stolen wallet was found in his gym locker–even though he claimed innocence.(Coincidentally, we were in the same gym period.) He was expelled, and cited with a theft charge in juvenile court.
The same week Metz was surprised to see me walking in the open after school, heading for the bridge where many of the beatings occurred.For the first time without his gang, he followed me to the intersection, then sprinted ahead to cut me off from the bridge’s access. He laughed when I ran alongside the structure to get away, heading for the shadowed arch under the bridge that was usually deserted. I climbed over a guard rail, continued down the embankment to escape my pursuer, who had slowed his pace, knowing the river beyond was a dead end–unless I planned to swim across. Metz jumped the barrier, ambled downhill, closing the distance between us, cutting off either side by shifted right or left.Then, I stopped, turned around, stood still. Metz was puzzled, but continued until he was about six feet away.
“This time, you’re gonna beg real good or I’ll drown you in the river like the little, fuckin’ rat you are!”
He shuffled closer, bristling with the blood lust of his capture, pumped with adrenaline at the thought of administering a slaughter without witnesses, at punishing prey that had eluded him and his gang too many times. He grinned, reached into a pocket, pulled a switchblade. He smiled, clicked it open. But he couldn’t figure out why I didn’t run, just stood there.
My turn. I raised my arm and Metz got the message. I was pointing a pistol, more precisely, a loaded zip gun at his face. I’d read about them in the newspaper: big-city kids constructed them as gang weapons. I made mine in metal shop, milling out a short, steel bar to accept a .22 bullet. The barrel was fastened to the framework of a toy Colt automatic grip that I’d cut down for a precise fit. It only took two classes to complete. The hammer (with a metal screw for a firing pin) was held in place by thick rubberbands, which when pulled back and released, would fire the cartridge.
The spider had trapped himself. He said nothing as I shifted our positions, moving him toward the river. He stumbled backwards on the riverbank rocks, trying to keep some distance between us. I moved closer, forcing him into the water. Each of his beatings had stolen some life from me. Now, it was my turn and I was going to take it. He knew it. He backed into deeper water, against the current, now up to his waist and climbing. I followed along like a shadow, and a calmness I’d never known transformed me at that moment. I pulled back the zip-gun’s hammer.
He began breathing hard, shaking, babbling about being sorry. Snot bubbled from his nose. “I can’t swim,” he said. “I can’t swim!”
“Beg, you ugly bastard!”
He knew I was about to kill him.
The gray water reached his chin.
He began to pray at me like a child, fear tearing his eyes, unintelligible apologies mixing with river slime.
I released the hammer.
Nothing happened. A misfire. He went underwater, screaming. I heard a voice behind me. From the house on the westmost corner, about sixty feet away, a woman was shouting, “What are you boys doing under the bridge? I see everything! I’m calling the police!”I left the way I’d come there and was never ambushed again. Metz and the Razors were through with me.
But I wasn’t through with them.<<
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