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Saturday, June 06, 2015

Did one of the great comic book artists work for the CIA?

Jim Steranko is a legendary comic book artist and writer best known for his work on Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD back in the 1960s. Nowadays, everyone knows who Fury is and what SHIELD is. Although Steranko did not invent Fury, we may fairly say that he made the book very much his own -- so much so that that character came to resemble the artist.

Late last year, I wrote a post about a mysterious member of the supporting cast who first appeared in a Nick Fury story published in 1967. The August issue of that year introduces Sidney Levine, a.k.a. The Gaff -- later The Gaffer. He's basically the Marvel Comics version of Q in the James Bond films.

But: "Sidney Levine" is also the Marvel Comics version of Sidney Gottlieb, the real-life scientist who headed the CIA's Technical Services Division. It is fair to say that Gottlieb was Q -- a very American and very non-fictional Q. Steranko's character looks and talks exactly like Gottlieb, so please don't try to sell me any "coincidence theories." I ain't buyin'.

Here's the problem: Back in 1967, nobody outside of the intelligence community knew who Gottlieb was. To the best of my knowledge, nothing was published about the man until after his retirement in 1972.

How did Steranko know?

The other day, I thumbed through a book titled The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception, by H. Keith Melton and Robert Wallace, both of whom have backgrounds with American intelligence. This work explains how Gottlieb's division (then called TSS or TSD, now called OTS) incorporated much of the trickery devised by professional magicians and escape artists. Sidney Gottlieb worked closely with professionals in that field -- especially with John Mulholland, perhaps the most famous magician of his day.

Before he became a comic book artist, young Jim Steranko had been a magician and escape artist.

One chapter of the Melton/Wallace book is headed by a quotation from "Escape artist Steranko": "Anything that one man can lock, another can unlock." When I saw that quotation, my first thought was: "How did Jim Steranko get on their radar?" Melton and Wallace are spy historians, not comic book fans.

I decided to do a little more research into the mysterious Jim Steranko. My first stop was this 1971 Rolling Stone story on Marvel Comics -- an article I recall reading as a boy. In this piece, we learn that Steranko became a fairly well-known escape artist while still a teen. Since he was born in 1938, we may fairly presume that his heyday as an entertainer occurred between 1955 and1965.

This was also the period when Gottlieb sought the aid of professional magicians and "escapologists."

To generate publicity, Steranko would arrange to escape from locked jails, even after being handcuffed and frisked thoroughly by the cops. He accomplished this trick by hiding lockpicking equipment of his own design in a certain body cavity that most cops would hesitate to search.

The CIA Manual referenced above contains an illustration of a tube that agents in the field were supposed in a very intimate place. The tube was four inches long. It contained saws, picks, and other useful items.

(Yes: Four inches. The Bond movies might have been more accurate if Sean Connery had walked bow-legged,)

According to the manual, CIA agents were also fitted with false scrotums, in which they could hide various items. Whatever else you might say about the Agency, those guys sure had balls -- the best that money could buy. Or rather, the best that Sidney Gottlieb could manufacture.

Steranko's comic book work was sparse -- and although he earned top dollar, he did so at a time when top dollar did not amount to much in the comics industry. Yet he was always known to be a sharp dresser. When he quit doing comics, I wondered what he was doing for bread and cheese money. Although there were reports that he headed up an ad agency, nobody seemed to know which agency.

Maybe...THE Agency?

The opening segment of this YouTube interview with Steranko is difficult to understand due to poor audio quality, but if you listen through headphones, you'll hear him claim to have survived many knife wounds and gunshots. Not many artists tell such stories.

Although it is tempting to suggest that these harrowing incidents had something to do with the world of espionage, it seems likely that Steranko's "close shaves" occurred earlier. He grew up a rough neighborhood and had many encounters with a violent gang. The full story is here.

I suspect that Steranko came to the Agency's attention via a "magic club" called the Witchdoctors in New York City, where he met Orson Welles. This site contains his reminiscences of the time he impressed a roomful of club notables, including Welles and Martin Gardner (of Scientific American fame -- and I do hope that I'm not the only one who recalls Dr. Matrix). Steranko:
We all feasted, then got down to some serious drinking and performing. As their newest member, I was chosen first to open the show. And I dug out my heavy artillery. Magic for magicians is in a class by itself. I borrowed a deck of shuffled cards and did the impossible. Dealing one card at a time off a face-down deck onto the table, NEVER looking at their faces, I separated them into two piles determining the color of each simply by FEELING THE INK with my fingertips! No cheating. No gimmicks. They would have caught me cold. It was as close to real magic as they’d see that day; a wild, new principle and they knew it! They were baffled.
The story goes on from there. But there seems to be a chronological problem: Steranko places this incident in the early 1970s, while Magicpedia tells us that the heyday of the club dates to "the late 1950's into the mid 1960's."

The same source also confirms that a leading member of the Witchdoctors was John Mulholland.

We now know through multiple sources (including the Melton/Wallace book cited above) that Mulholland worked for the CIA throughout this period. If Jim Steranko was as extraordinarily gifted as he now claims -- and I'm sure that he was -- he might well have have come to Mulholland's attention.

Did Jim Steranko work for the CIA? I have few doubts. Is "The Gaffer" really Sid Gottlieb? I have no doubt.

If "The Gaffer" ever shows up in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I hope someone hires Jim Steranko to play the part.

That must be the same Mulholland who supposedly hypnotised Frank Olsen.
Whatever his background, Steranko was one of the great comics artists of his day. His creative layout of panels and text, and his cinematic sensibility was hugely influential to comic artists who would emerge in the 1970s. Steranko's books always flowed with dynamic energy, and seemed a level above simply stories for kids.
Speaking of comics, when are you going to write your graphic novel, Joseph? Don't tell me you don't have one. I bet you have a dozen great ideas.
Very interesting suggestions here.

I read a lot of Marvel comics, but only occasionally read the Nick Fury title. Did this man's work on it include the current movie and television show narrative arcs of Cobra's taking it over? I know he inherited the former Nazi network aspect, but I'm unsure where he himself took it from there.

XI, you're thinking of Hydra, not Cobra. And this was many years ago, before the paranoia and the cynicism set in. There was still a lot of flag-waving back then, and not much self-doubt.

You know the Jasper Sitwell character in the movies, the one who turns out to be a Hydra bad guy? Steranko invented the character, who was very different in his original incarnation. He was a kind of loving parody of the Young Americans for Freedom -- crewcut, glasses, bowtie, checkered brown sportscoat, totally dorky, always spouting patriotic slogans. Steranko made fun of his dorkiness, but never would have portrayed him as a bad guy.

(Didn't Sitwell become a member of the supporting cast in Iron Man comics for a while...?)
Most of these stories go well over my head, so I was VERY excited to see Martin Gardner (of Annotated Alice fame!) enter the tale.
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