I have a lot to thank Marvel UK for. Throughout the 1980s, the company did a sterling job of republishing a large amount of the classic American Marvel comics of the preceding two decades in the form of hardback UK annuals, which could fit two or three issues of regular US floppy comics, plus pin-ups and features, between two covers. Thats the way I first read of Gwen Stacy's death, and gazed open-mouthed at Neal Adams X-Men. Its also where I first encountered the Silver Surfer, in a reprint of a two part Fantastic Four story with art by John Buscema. I read old Hulk stories with art by Herb Trimpe, the Fantastic Four by Lee and Kirby, Spiderman drawn by John Romita Sr., Captain Marvel by Gil Kane. And an amazing Captain America annual with this cover, written and drawn by a guy I'd never heard of by the name of Jim Steranko:
Steranko instantly appealed to me. His art was a little like Kirby's (which, I would discover, made perfect sense - he started out "finishing" Kirby's work on Nick Fury) , but altough I loved the stories, as a kid I never liked Kirby's artwork. It was too ugly and crude for me back then, and I was too immature to appreciate its invention, energy and the strength of its storytelling. Steranko was obviously influenced by Kirby. He had the energy and the inventiveness, but his linework was far slicker and his storytelling much more sophisticated. There was a cinematic quality to that Captain America annual I recognised but was unable to articulate at the time. It was there in the way Steranko used cutaway shots and his brilliant use of splash pages, and there in the lighting of many panels, which referred directly to Film Noir, in a way no other comics I had encountered had done before. Steranko was also a brilliant designer, and his pages felt self-conscious in their layouts, his covers self-conscious in their resemblance to Movie posters.
When I revisited Steranko's work years later, all that was great about it just leapt out at me. How ahead of his time he must have seemed in the 1960s! He introduced Graphic Design techniques to comics, alongside large doses of op art, pop art and surrealism. All of the work he did for Marvel as Writer-artist has a unique tone: a sort of jazz era sci-fi hipness, full of references to psychedelia, James Bond, Shakespeare, Hammer horror, Lovecraft and film noir. His pages work as pages, not just as series of panels. But the thing that had excited me so much as a little boy was still evident: he wrote and drew great, rip-roaring pulp stories, full of wit, action and beauty.
In a sense, he was almost too talented and too visionary for the comics Industry to contain. Unable to maintain a monthly schedule on any comic series, he gradually moved beyond it entirely, into publishing, and paperback cover art. In time he would work as a conceptual artist and designer in Hollywood, and he designed the look of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and the character of Indiana Jones. He still does the odd piece of comics work, enough to remind his fans how great he was. His influence has long been absorbed into the medium to such an extent its almost impossible to detect it, but there have been a few obvious nods to him in popular culture outside comics - Brad Bird has admitted that Steranko was the chief influence upon the look of "The Incredibles", which manages to do his legacy proud.
A few covers, pages, panels and book-covers: