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Marvel Unlimited Edition: The Steranko Effect

The Marvel Unlimited app is a gigantic, messy cache of awesome and terrible old comic books: a library of 13,000 or so back issues of Marvel titles, available on demand for subscribers with tablets or mobile phones. Like any good back-room longbox, it’s disorganized and riddled with gaps, but it’s also full of forgotten and overlooked jewels, as well as a few stone classics. In Marvel Unlimited Edition, Eisner-winning critic Douglas Wolk dives into the Unlimited archive to find its best, oddest and most intriguing comics.

Jim Steranko’s reputation as one of the great American comic book artists rests almost entirely on the comparatively tiny body of work he drew for Marvel between 1966 and 1970: nine complete comic books, eighteen “Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” episodes that each occupied half of an issue of Strange Tales, and a pair of seven-page stories from anthologies, as well as a handful of covers. All of his Marvel stories can now be read on the Unlimited app… except for Nick Fury #5, for whatever reason. If you’ve never gotten to sample Steranko’s psychedelic delights, here are three excellent starting points.


Strange Tales #168 (1968)

 
 
 

Steranko's work evolved very quickly over the course of his year-and-a-half of drawing "Nick Fury" in Strange Tales, from the uncertain novice drawing over Jack Kirby's layouts at the beginning (and aping Kirby for a while after that) to the master who pulled off a four-page-long image in #167. (Incidentally, Steranko's first dozen Nick Fury episodes are reproduced from his original art in an Artist's Edition hardcover that comes out this week.)

The final issue of Strange Tales' original run features the terrific self-contained story "Today Earth Died!," in which Steranko comes up with some kind of innovative effect on every single page.

Captain America #111 (1969)

 
 
 

Deadlines and Steranko never got along too well -- his tenure on Captain America lasted three issues, the third of which ran so late that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby filled in on #112. But his sense of design and color, even with the limited palette available to American comics artists in the '60s, was way ahead of its time, and his second Cap story alternates Kirbyesque punch-ups with complicated, riveting compositions (like the opening page above) and a couple of psychedelic freakouts.

Our Love Story #5 (1970)

 
 
 

Romance anthologies like Love Romances and Teen-Age Romance had been big hits for Marvel in the pre-Fantastic Four era, and in 1969, the publisher launched two new ones: Our Love Story and My Love. Not only is this the only issue of Marvel's romance comics on Marvel Unlimited right now (not counting the 2006 miniseries Marvel Romance Redux, which is old romance stories redialogued for comedy's sake), it's not even the whole thing: the app lists this 1970 issue as being from 1973, and doesn't bother including the stories that John Buscema and Gene Colan drew for it.

That said, Stan Lee and Steranko's "My Heart Broke in Hollywood" is a little jewel, drawn in a gorgeous clear-line style with appropriate attention to hairstyles, clothes and body language.

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