In the universe of comic books, Jim Steranko is a superhero. While writing and drawing Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. for Marvel Comics in the 1960s, he elevated 12-cent rags into modern art, with mature themes and storytelling innovations that attacked the page and stripped it of its strictly formatted structure. Eye-patched Nick Fury had been a second-tier Marvel character who couldn't even carry his own book he slummed in Strange Tales with Dr. Strange but in Steranko's hands, his adventures read like a James Bond film directed by Salvador Dalí. ''Jim's work was very powerful, very sexual, very cinematic,'' says Scott Dunbier, director of special projects at IDW Publishing. ''It was unlike anything that was coming out at the time, and to this day, there are guys out there who feel that Jim Steranko is the greatest comic-book artist of all time.''
Steranko. The name alone evokes awe in serious comic-book fans who recognize that the 30 stories he told in the late '60s including some classic Captain America and X-Men titles were a thunderclap, and a turning point, for the industry. ''For a guy who has produced a fraction of the pages that someone like Will Eisner or Jack Kirby produced, I challenge you to find someone who has cast a longer shadow,'' says Matt Fraction, who writes Casanova, a character heavily influenced by Steranko's superspy. ''If Eisner gave comics their brains and Kirby gave them their strength, Steranko gave comics their cool.''
From the moment he walked off the street into Stan Lee's Marvel office and left with the Nick Fury assignment, Steranko himself epitomized cool. Longtime Marvel secretary Flo Steinberg used to say the staff all looked like sweaty schlubs, except for the dashing fellow who always wore a suit and skinny tie. That was Steranko, and he melded his persona with Fury's, giving the lowercase superhero his fashion sense, his attitude, even his swanky apartment.
If part of Fury was Steranko, the reverse was also true. Steranko cultivated a larger-than-life image a real-life cross between Chuck Norris and Dos Equis' Most Interesting Man in the World. Before his comic-book fame, he was a hardscrabble kid from Pennsylvania coal country who became a professional magician, a Houdini-esque escape artist, and a rocker who played dates with Bill Haley and claims to have invented go-go girls. After Marvel, he penned a noir mystery that may have been the first graphic novel, produced a two-volume History of Comics, flummoxed Orson Welles in a battle of wits, conceived the look of Indiana Jones for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and published Prevue, a long-running monthly entertainment magazine. He inspired the daredevil-turned-comics writer Joe Kavalier in Michael Chabon's award-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and Jack Kirby based the comic book Mister Miracle on his exploits. Oh, and he says he thrives on only two hours of sleep.
In person, the 75-year-old is a live wire of energy, still dapper and a master raconteur. Think Robert Evans with an acrobat's demeanor, jumping out of his seat to demonstrate a gladiator's slashing technique or firmly gripping a guest's wrist to re-create a confrontation he had with a stubborn editor who crossed him decades ago. He relishes his fame and infamy, though he mixes it with hints of humility: ''There's a lot of stuff that's been written [about me], but really it's like R. Crumb says, 'It's only lines on paper.'''
Growing up in Reading, Pa., Steranko learned to read from his uncle's dog-eared comics. Captain America was his favorite, not only because the patriot fought Nazis at a time of real national crisis but because he represented hope to a poor kid who was savagely and repeatedly beaten by a local gang of teenage hoodlums. ''I began to get the idea that they'd kill me sooner or later,'' he says. ''I never expected to live past my teens, but if you're going to die tomorrow, you can do anything because you have nothing to lose.''
He eventually took on his tormentors with knives and zip guns, followed by his own run-ins with the law car thefts and burglaries. He was drawn to danger. Studying Harry Houdini's work and developing his own methods for lock breaking, he became regionally famous for death-defying escapes from local jails, straitjackets, and underwater steel barrels.
In his 20s, Steranko rediscovered comic books while juggling a full-time job as an art director at an advertising agency he was the Don Draper of eastern Pennsylvania with burgeoning careers as the lead singer and self-taught guitarist of a jazz-rock band and the author of how-to books of magic tricks. (One card trick ultimately stumped Welles.)
At a New York comics convention in 1965, one of his etchings caught the eye of Captain America co-creator Joe Simon, who was then editing Harvey Comics. Simon hired Steranko and built issues around his characters, including the Glowing Gladiator and Magic Master, to challenge Marvel and DC. All the series tanked, but Steranko built up the courage to ask Simon if he could draw one of the minor books. ''In his infinite wisdom, Joe said, 'You can't draw.''' Steranko's response: ''F---! You! Joe!''
He took his talents to Marvel, where he inherited Nick Fury from Kirby and became the only person at the time to both write and art a book, expanding the comic-book canvas with visual storytelling he'd absorbed from film directors such as Michael Curtiz and Alfred Hitchcock. His work enthralled more sophisticated readers but irritated nervous Marvel brass. ''Marvel called themselves the House of Ideas,'' says Steranko. ''Don't make me laugh. Every idea I brought to them was just about a fight.'' To thwart editorial interference, Steranko met his deadlines, but barely. ''I learned the hard way that whenever I brought a story in ahead of time, a tinkering process would go on,'' he says. ''So if the deadline was Thursday at four, you could expect me there at three.''
Lee responded by bringing Kirby back for a fill-in S.H.I.E.L.D. issue, ruining Steranko's continuity and instigating one of their first big fights. Their friendship always rebounded, and as a consolation, Steranko wound up with a bigger assignment: Captain America. ''Captain America is in a class by himself,'' says Steranko, who wrote and drew the character in the mold of the pantherlike Burt Lancaster. What does he think of the current big-screen Cap? ''There are very few people who could play Captain America, because he is the quintessential voice of authority,'' he says. ''Chris Evans doesn't quite get there he looks like he just graduated from college.''
Steranko has long been at the nexus of comic-book culture and cinema, most notably designing Indiana Jones' look. ''George [Lucas] and I had old movies, comic books, and TV in common, so I pretty much knew what he had in his mind,'' says Steranko. ''He said, 'I'd like him to wear a hat like Bogart wore in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and a leather bomber jacket like I wear.' I added the khaki pants and whip.''
Not surprisingly, Steranko relishes modern Hollywood's recent embrace of the superhero culture he helped advance. ''This is the moment that comic books have been waiting for since they were created around 1930,'' he says. ''I can create a million-dollar set on every page, and no filmmaker [used to be able to] do that. Hollywood technology has caught up with comics, and now we're on even roads.''
He sees the seeds of his artistic storytelling everywhere. ''The people who read my books when they were kids grew up to be writers, directors, producers,'' he says. ''So the Steranko style is part of their life experiences, and they're turning it around and putting it into their work just like I did when I was a kid, being influenced by films."
Chabon credits not just Steranko's artistry for that, but also his History of Comics books. ''With the Avengers franchise cementing its place in American pop culture and psychology alongside Star Wars, where suddenly everyone considers themselves an expert on the Kree/Skrull War, that's because of Steranko,'' says the author. ''He created comic scholarship, if you will.''
That's not to say that Steranko is a fan of everything that's followed in his wake. He recently recapped the ABC drama Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for The Hollywood Reporter, and harshly suggested that the entire cast needed to learn how to throw and take a punch. As for the modern cinematic Nick Fury, a drastic departure from the character Steranko put so much of himself into, he tries to be diplomatic: ''I like Samuel L. Jackson, so I'm reserving my judgment until a Nick Fury film comes out, but [the change] may have struck a chord of desperation.''
Steranko is still looking forward. (''Tomorrow is where we'll all be spending the rest of our lives!'' he likes to say.) A new 10-pound book celebrating his S.H.I.E.L.D. issues is out this month, and he's on a personal mission to bring comic-book elements to early grade-school science and math curricula. He tweets obsessively, and still dreams of writing comic books again if the right character becomes available.
But he remains an enigma in a way. His legend is so outsize that it's tempting to think of him as a character he created rather than the man he is. Did he really slap Batman creator Bob Kane, as he claimed on Twitter? Or invent a pill that negates the need for sleep? Does he really eat one meal a day and take 2 a.m. jogs on his mountain property with his collection of attack dogs? (For the record: yes, no, and yes.)
For many fans, though, the truth doesn't matter. ''People have been trying to prove for 50 years that he's full of s---, but no one's been able to do it,'' says Fraction. ''There's a small handful of [comic-book] guys that I can't bring myself to speak to, and he's one of them. Either he is as great as the stories or he isn't. Either way, I don't want to know.''