An American Art Hero: Steranko at Butler

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The Butler Institute of American Art became a museum of heroic proportions when the long-awaited exhibition by comic book and pop culture legend Jim Steranko opened March 13.

The 65-piece “Steranko and the American Hero” exhibit is one of the most high-profile shows ever presented by The Butler, and fans of the innovative artist, film consultant and author are expected to descend upon the museum from across the globe.

The show runs through May 29. It was originally scheduled for 2020 but was postponed because of the pandemic.

Steranko is revered in the industry as a creative innovator in multiple platforms. He’s best known for his key role in creating the Marvel Comics phenomenon with Stan Lee in the 1960s, as writer and illustrator of the Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. comic. He revolutionized comic books by introducing many new approaches to storytelling and art. He was a key player in shaping the Captain America, The Hulk, Superman and the X-Men characters.

While Steranko’s work has been exhibited many times across the globe, The Butler show will be his first in an American museum to focus solely on his paintings. It will include everything from book covers to art made for the film production process.

But it’s not just for diehard comics and action movie buffs. The exhibit, he told The Business Journal, will appeal to even casual fans of pop culture.

“The characters in the exhibit are from every medium – cinema, novels, TV series, newspaper strips, magazines, radio, paperbacks, comics and even history,” Steranko said. “So, it’s impossible for the general public to have no affection for or experience with them. Americans have lived with these characters. They’re in the blood. They’re family. The X-Men. Conan the Barbarian. Luke Skywalker. Captain America.”

Although the artist spent only a few years creating comic books, that work has overshadowed his painting career. The Butler exhibition, he said, will therefore be a unique opportunity for his fans.

“They will witness a mother lode of Steranko imagery they never knew existed, from superheroes to science fiction to sword and sorcery, from Sherlock Holmes to Star Wars, from Mickey Spillane to Steven Spielberg,” he said. “They need to see it to believe it.”

The idea for this exhibit took root several years ago when one of Steranko’s colleagues pointed out that he has likely painted more hero characters than any other artist in America.

“That seemed to be a compelling theme for my first American one-man painting exhibit,” Steranko said.

It also makes The Butler show unique.

The 83-year old’s magnetism as an artistic force was first demonstrated in a 1978 exhibition at the Winnipeg Museum and Art Gallery that subsequently toured Canada.

Another exhibit in Spain in 2002 attracted 1 million viewers over its 10-day run.

“Those shows highlighted a spectrum of my work,” Steranko said. “But The Butler exhibit will focus exclusively on my paintings.”

He said he hopes The Butler exhibit will blossom into a series of shows across North America and welcomes inquiries from interested museums.

Although Steranko’s stint in comics was groundbreaking, he quickly moved on to other media.

His two volumes of The History of Comics have sold more than 100,000 copies and is considered the definitive resource on the genre.

His unusual and wide ranging career includes success as an escape artist, designer, magician, historian, male model, sideshow fire-eater, publisher, ad agency art director, pop-culture lecturer, typographer and filmmaker. He was key in developing the Indiana Jones character for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981).

Like the characters he created, Steranko’s story is larger than life.

A descendant of Ukrainian immigrant grandparents, he grew up poor in an unheated primitive house in northeastern Pennsylvania, where his father was a coal miner.

As a child, he taught himself to draw by studying newspaper cartoons. Despite his disadvantages, and having no formal art training, he made his way to New York and launched his landmark career.

The main character in the acclaimed 2000 Michael Chabon novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is based on him.

Steranko said his art is “a reflection of my tangled, twisted life experiences, my energy, my imagination, my passion.”

Wendy Swick, Butler spokeswoman, has been preparing for this exhibition for four years.

Steranko got the ball rolling when he contacted Louis A. Zona, executive director and curator of The Butler.

“Lou was recommended to him when he started telling people that he wanted to get an exhibition together,” Swick said.

The Butler exhibition will be the largest Steranko has ever assembled that focuses on his solo paintings.

In conjunction with the show, Steranko  will give an artist talk on April 9 (tickets are sold out) and is also planning an autograph reception for fans at the Doubletree Hotel, downtown, that evening.

Not surprisingly, the artist and publisher has taken it upon himself to put together a catalog for the exhibit. Sales will benefit the museum, Swick said.

“It’s a typical catalog but there will be some extra Steranko in it,” she said. “He is putting it together and will include anecdotes about the pieces.”

Autographed copies of the glossy book, which will have close to 100 pages, will be sold at The Butler, as will autographed posters of Steranko art.

Anything Steranko produces tends to become a collector’s item, Swick said, noting the artist wants to use his influence to widen The Butler’s audience.

“He wants to appeal to new audiences, fine art audiences,” Swick said. “This exhibition will bridge the two. It will also bring in new audiences to the museum and expose them to visual art. It’s what he wanted to accomplish for The Butler.”

Swick has been getting calls from Steranko fans across the globe ever since word of the exhibition got out a few years ago. She expects visitors will come from across the country and abroad to see it.

“His reach is international,” she said. “And though his work is not fine art, it is cinematic and literary art. It is part of art history. And The Butler shows American history through art.”

Steranko last visited the Valley in 2019 when he was a guest at the Youngstown Comic-Con at Covelli Centre. He appeared at the same event in 2014 when it was held at Packard Music Hall in Warren.

Greg Bartholomew, founder of Youngstown Comic-Con, said Steranko’s status in the pop culture pantheon cannot be overestimated.

“He is a true superstar in the comic book field as both an accomplished artist and writer,” Bartholomew said. “He is also a tremendous human being from every encounter I have had with him … and no one can tell a story and hold a crowd in the palm of his hand like Jim can.” 

Bartholomew said the artist is as excited about The Butler exhibition as his fans.

“The range of his art spans all of popular culture and the man is a true treasure,” Bartholomew said. “To be able to see over 60 original paintings from a master artist will be a treat for everyone, regardless of whether they are into comics or sci-fi or detective novels.”

Pictured: This painting by Jim Steranko depicts Indiana Jones, a character that he helped to create for the 1981 movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”