Chandler: Red Tide (1976), by Jim Steranko. Pyramid Fiction.
Jim Steranko's always been the bronze medalist in the pantheon of Marvel Age artists. There's a variety of reasons why most everyone prefers Ditko and Kirby (or Kirby and Ditko) -- the relatively small amount of comics Steranko produced, his lack of original character creations, the very fan-specific and narrow appeal of his best work, et cetera. But I think the biggest reason for Steranko's also-ran place in comics history isn't how he spent his 1960s, but what he got up to over the next decade. Ditko's '70s locked into a scorched-earth mode of uncompromising work that both anticipated the '80s alt-comix wave and provided a logical conclusion to the morally absolutist strains of early hero comics; and Kirby was taken up with spiritual and aesthetic vision-questing that led to some of the most individual, enduring visual storytelling of the century. Steranko, for his part, dropped more or less off the map after his final Marvel story released in the first month of the decade. When he resurfaced, it was invariably for odd little projects: an uncompleted, hero-heavy history of comics, a brief editorship of Marvel's in-house fanzine, paperback covers, porno calendars, developmental material for series that promised the world but never materialized. And, of course, Chandler.
The most substantial work of Steranko's post-Marvel career, Chandler is one of the better selections from a crop of book-length mid-'70s comics that are forever contending amongst themselves for the title of "first graphic novel". I'm not going to enter that debate -- who's got the time? -- but what's certain is that Chandler is more definitely of its era than anything else Steranko produced. Its atypical, often unwieldy format, its over-earnest attempt at "mature" subject matter, its aimless formal innovation, its genre tropes and ad-art look are all part and parcel of comics' most confused decade. Chandler's case for "defining '70s comic" is easily the equal of its position in the graphic novel debate, probably even better. This comic is a wallowing thing, an all-stops-pulled slog through the mires and cliches of noir detective fiction, and as such a reflection of the era's market, which was forever attempting to turn away from superheroic dominance in search of some new catching thing, usually snatched from the pulps. Horror, fantasy, noir, sword-and-sorcery -- all had their day in the sun before Claremont, Miller, and Moore came along to push the mainstream back into its cape and tights.
But Chandler's Hammett-lite subject matter has less to do with market concession and more to do with a trajectory Steranko's career had been following for quite some time. Where Ditko and Kirby started out in genre and expanded its bounds outward until finally arriving in storytelling arenas of their own creation, Steranko started out on the very wildest fringes of mainstream comics. His violent, hard-psych early SHIELD stories outpacing anything either of Marvel's big boys had yet achieved, and from such outre beginnings the rest of Steranko's career was concerned with innovations in storytelling rather than story, his narrative forms moving closer and closer to the stock genre outlines that birthed them. The acid-seared newness of the first post-Kirby SHIELD books gave way to the Jules Verne and Conan Doyle pastiches of Steranko's later work on the book, which in turn gave way to the high-Golden Age reminisces of his Captain America, the men's-magazine darkness of his horror shorts, and the archeological dig through pulps and old pamphlets that was his History of Comics. Perhaps Steranko was attempting to breathe new life into yesteryear's stories with the raft of formal invention he brought to these projects; or maybe he had just gone as far into the new as he could. From a broad outlook, it isn't hard to say that while Ditko and Kirby were moving forward, Steranko was moving backward. Regardless, 1976 saw Jaunty Jim facing down a completely straight pulp private-dick story, and bringing all his formal dazzle to bear on its aging frame.
Chandler is truly innovative as far as format goes. Rather than typically word-ballooned strips or panel grids, Steranko sticks strictly to a strange design featuring two horizontal panels per page and thirteen lines of prose text below each one. As far as visual dynamism goes it isn't much, but it allows the artist the kind of subtle storytelling liberty that by this point was the real attraction of his work. As is always the case with Steranko, the writing drives the story forward, the pictures acting almost as a (ridiculously accomplished) decorative element that runs parallel to the action instead of carrying any real plot substance themselves. However, with Chandler's text-heavy format Steranko takes a decisive step away from his home medium, slapping together something that resembles a profusely illustrated pulp as much as it does an actual comic. That said, he can't really stay away from sequential art, choosing instead to drag the finer trappings of design and literature down to the comics' level and see if they can do anything to evolve the form. The book's text is neatly sliced into thirteen-line sequences that compliment each picture, with less of a premium placed on narrative flow than on the visual rhythm of the pages, a prime concern in Steranko's more traditional work. The prose is effectively bent to the comics format, turned into "panels" of its own that fit neatly with each page's pictorial content.
The text isn't totally destroyed, however; despite the clear separation between it and the images, everything is done to ensure that the two flow into one another. Indeed, what could have been a very difficult format to read is manipulated into quite the page turner -- Steranko carefully orients his pictures into a vertical flow rather than comics' typical horizontal directionality, every panel's composition and color scheme pulling the eye down through it to the text rather than across and into the next panel. It's a high-wire act that Steranko executes admirably over the course of more than 120 pages, and the payoff is considerable -- not only do the masses of blacks and sludge of color at the bottom of each panel drag us into the prose, but also into the murky, street-level demimonde of Chandler's story, the sheer downward motion of it all reeling us into the narrative's gaudy glory. As stories go, it's nothing major, but Steranko hacks his way through the winding-noir-thriller obstacle course with minimal embarrassment, even if the tale of gunplay, double-crosses, rival mobsters, and glam gals with dangerous pasts is all but impossible to keep straight by the end. It feels dynamic and important while it's moving anyway, and that's all that really matters given the well-worn tropes Steranko's putting on here. This is just a detective story, after all, and nobody's trying to reinvent the wheel.
What sticks out most about the book's text is its comic book level of bombast and overstatement, every line as tacky and ridiculously loud as a '60's Marvel caption box. "Then his partner took over to work on my kidneys. They did a good job, and I put them on my list of the ten people I'd most like to kill." "She stood there in a pale negligee the color of an amber whisper that became invisible against the morning light... the kind of silhouette that would always keep men from being at peace with themselves in her company." It's got all of action comics' amplification of popular prose forms, so much so that seeing the stuff in prose is a bit strange, almost like self-parody. What allows Steranko to pull it off is the pure strength of the shadowy, glitz-colored chiaroscuro images complimenting everything -- damn if those gorillas aren't wailing the shit out of Chandler's kidneys, and damn if that dame doesn't look like you'd devour her four times daily given half a chance. The intense conviction brought to the material is occasionally painful where the text is concerned, but put it in the hands of one of comics' all-time great artists and it's absolutely fearsome on the eyeballs. Just like the best sequential art, this book's every picture ups the stakes of the story segment it illustrates, bringing a bushelful of swerve to every plot twist, sex to every romance scene, smack to every punch.
Yep, this book's a comic just like all the rest, its formal uncertainty overridden by the sense of it, the same sense comics have: we're really here for the pictures, and Steranko never disappoints. Working in uninked pencil (another "first" this book's a candidate for) and the bizarre, squelchy brightness of '70s coloring on good paper, it brings every degree of heat Steranko's Marvel work had and injects it into a vision of New York City that's so Travis Bickle desolated the faux-1940s setting the text keep trying to foist on us doesn't stand a chance of being believed. This is a world every inch as dark and nasty as Times Square at its punk-era worst, neon lights blazing, faces blurred with shadow, streets grimy, everything so full of spotted blacks that the holding lines all but disappear unless the edifice of a building needs them to intimidate us.
There's a relentless claustrophobia to Chandler's visuals that's completely missing from the ramble of the text. Everything gets walled in by the ridiculously narrow panel format and sliced into a million pieces by the masses of black slung over the proceedings, but more than that, there's no depth to any of the pictures, no background for the forms to fade into no matter how dark things get. The rounded, blobby masses of the interiors and the flat city skylines of the outdoor scenes are more decorative set dressing than actual environments, pushing the characters so far forward that everything seems to take place on an Eisnerian stage. It's vaudeville, this, a down-and-dirty exhibition, meticulously choreographed and shoved into your face with pencilwork that never gets a thing wrong. Brutal motion against unfeeling, near-abstract backdrops, Chandler hits way harder than it could reasonably be expected to. And the impulse for the visceral doesn't just confine itself to the drawing -- though the script doesn't get much more violent than the average action comic, it goes places that remain pretty unique. Faces shoved into piranha tanks, machine guns exploding and blasting their owners with blazing shrapnel, things along those lines. When Steranko roars out of his droning plot specifics and into a purely visual sequence, nothing -- not weird formatting, not bad prose, not dated gesturing -- can touch him.
But there's a verve to Chandler's cooler moments, too. When the plot boils off for a few pages and it's just a man and the New York dawn, or the stone face of a building, or a beautiful woman's skin in the shadows, the pencil marks lose their urgency, clotting together into soft, grainy clouds of darkness. The colors spread out further, tones softening. A languid half-light falls over everything. Shadows take over the backgrounds completely, and we can imagine there's a whole world behind this sordid story. Steranko does some of his best writing in these segments ("The city offered its dim rainbow of color"; "the natural valleys of her body became a symphony of shadows"), and the advantage of ink-free reproduction really swims to the fore, with massive, rough blacks spotted and not a brush-hair out of place. Yes, this is another alternative-format comic where the artist jumps at the opportunity to show borderline-R-rated sex, but Steranko's touch is actually quite delicate when it has to be, and amidst the jackhammering sleaze of the story specifics the scenes of touch and wind and pure sensation feel elegant indeed.
It's a strange, heady mixture, with more of a happy accident's air than that of a constructed tour de force. But maybe that isn't giving Steranko enough credit. Limitations as a writer aside, he obviously knows exactly what he's doing, tossing around explicit callbacks to Eisner (through Chandler's Denny Colt taste in blue suits) and Bob Kane (with early Detective Comics issues sitting pretty on the newsstands). And in addition to the slammin' violence, the striking atmospherics, the surprisingly tender eroticism, there are a few moments of genuine immersion in a world both familiar and strikingly different from our own. Some of the Big Apple backalleys Steranko takes us up are less Sam Spade and more Robert Anton Wilson, showcasing mermaid-girls in nightclub fishtanks, near-Tom of Finland sailorboy toughs, and a six-foot-four girl cab driver named "Irish McCoy". This is pulp, without a doubt, but it's pulp-plus; there's plenty of the old SHIELD weirdness lurking in the cracks between the plot and the Eastide docks' rotten timbers. And Steranko, the master at the top of his game, wraps it all into one gloriously flawed bundle, slices it up, and dishes it out cool as a cucumber, two panels to a page.
If it really is the first graphic novel, Chandler sets a pretty questionable precedent. Offhand, I can't think of a single comic that directly engages the formal gauntlet it throws -- and heaven knows it's been forgotten by the larger sweep of history. It's schlocky, it's derivative, and it certainly doesn't deliver on the promise of Steranko's Marvel work the way Kirby and Ditko's comics of the same period do on theirs. But there's a lot here to learn from, a lot here to like, a lot that's truly excellent. And there's also plenty that's informed other good stuff on the sly; not the big classics, true, but so many little weird things that followed, like Frank Miller's later work, or Chaykin's American Flagg, or Warren Ellis's widescreen comics, or Denny O'Neil and Marshall Rogers' "Death Strikes at Midnight and Three", or Afrodisiac or Blacksad or Paul Pope. All the grit of comics, all the musty moldy stuff that makes the medium great even if it doesn't make us proud. It's all here if you look.
Chandler will be reprinted in hardcover as "Red Tide" this year by Dark Horse. I think it's wonderful that we're finally reaching a point where Jim Steranko's comics will be not just available but accessible to the interested reader. That said, the reprint will feature new colors by Dave Stewart, which will probably be grand but are also certain to expunge some of the original's Gerald Ford-era kick and sleaze. I highly recommend that interested readers track down a copy of the original printing, which is still fairly cheap and surprisingly easy to find. There's really only one way to read this junk.