Forgotten Sword and Sorcery Artists: Jim Steranko

Sunday , 4, June 2017 14 Comments

Jim Steranko (born 1938) had a brief career as a painter for sword and sorcery paperbacks in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He came out of the comic book milieu like Frank Frazetta and Gray Morrow. Steranko had started work with Marvel Comics in 1966. In 1969, he had a falling out with Stan Lee at Marvel, hence prompting his paperback cover career.

He met with the art director of Lancer Books who bought a sword and sorcery piece had painted. Steranko’s first paintings for Lancer Books were for C. C. MacApp’s Prisoners of the Sky and Edmond Hamilton’s space opera Return to the Stars.

The Mighty Barbarians: Great Sword and Sorcery Heroes (edited by Hans Stefan Santesson) was a mix of four pulp reprints and one new story. It has one of the classic images of paperback sword and sorcery. His follow up to the companion volume, The Mighty Swordsmen (Lancer Books, 1970) was not as iconic as the first volume.

He also produced covers to Neil Barrett’s post-apocalyptic Kelwin and David van Arnam’s Lord of Blood.

Steranko produced another great cover for a sword and sorcery anthology, this time for the last of L. Sprague de Camp’s four anthologies. Warlocks and Warriors (Putnam hardback, 1970; Berkley Medallion, 1971) featured what looks like Robert E. Howard King Kull in combat with a serpent man wielding a kopesh.




Lancer Books reprinted Michael Moorcock’s Martian trilogy in the early 70s with new covers and under Moorcock’s name. For whatever reason, each book had a different artist. Steranko painted Masters of the Pit (1971).

His last work related to fantastic heroic fiction was for Leigh Brackett’s Skaith triology. He continued producing colorful covers for Shadow reprints for Pyramid Books through the 1970s.

Jim Steranko produced some images for his own sword and sorcery character, Talon, but nothing came of it. There is another great painting and some black and white illustrations.

Steranko had a late entry with sword and sorcery painting for a reprint of Fritz Leiber’s Swords Against Deviltry in 2003.

Jim Steranko is someone I have met. He generally attends the Windy City Pulp & Paperback Show and the old Pulp-Cons. In 2001, he had the hotel room next to mine. My wife saw him up the hall with his pompadour and cowboy boots and said to me “Who is that!” My response is “Jim Steranko, legendary artist.”

Steranko’s art has a dynamic look with characters in action. The heroes are muscular without being bulked out parodies. He has interesting weapons and generally leather straps and harness as part of the costume. The women are very curvy and beautiful. His covers for this sort of fiction only last about six years. Not very long when you think about it. Ted White, editor of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Stories told me that Lancer Books had the best art director’s department in paperback publishing. Considering Lancer used Frazetta, Morrow, and Steranko, you have to agree.

  • Xavier Basora says:


    What does Jim do now? Does he do cover art for ebooks or computer games?


  • Cro-Magnon Man says:

    One of the great tragedies of 1970s fantasy illustration is that there is simply far too little genuine Steranko out there and far too many diluted derivative Marcus Boas imitations of him.

  • deuce says:

    What a talent. I wish there were more covers from Jim, but I’m grateful for what we got.

  • deuce says:

    Oh yeah, Steranko did some incredible art for a Sinbad movie in the ’70s.

  • Verdier says:

    Steranko also did some covers for the paperback editions of the Shadow. Even better were his G-8 covers.

    That Mighty Barbarians piece has some interesting imagery…

  • Andy says:

    He made a huge impact everywhere he went despite not being prolific. He also did a bunch of concept art for Raiders of the Lost Ark and probably a few other movies:

    • deuce says:

      Ohyeah. Steranko was just a juggernaut. Stan Lee only hurt Marvel by running off Jim. Jim did fine. In terms of sheer “cool”, there has never been anybody to top Steranko in the history of comics. Hell, Jack Kirby even based the Mister Miracle superhero on Jim.

      In reagard to “Raiders”, George Lucas saw a pinup Jim did of Robert E. Howard’s El Borak and said, “That’s what I want, only he has to have a whip and a hat.” Steranko then got a job on the art team and the rest is history.

  • Lee Breakiron says:

    His two-volume History of Comics is delightful.

  • Tony says:

    Click on my website for an almost complete collection of Steranko paperback book covers.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Steranko is one of the greats; I’m glad to hear he is still with us.

  • Love Steranko’s comic work. He’s done some fantastic crazy layouts and panels.

  • Ed indovina says:

    Jim Steranko is a true talent. In my opinion he produced a commercial art sensibility into comics.
    Like some of you have mentioned, he did film design work on not only Raiders of the Lost Ark but also Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
    Additionally he published the magazines Mediascene, Comixscene and Prevue.
    Jim was ahead of his time in ensuring creator owned rights.
    If you get a chance, run to his next appearance at a comic convention.

  • Dave says:

    The cover to the first volume of The Mighty Barbarians is one of the most iconic S&S fiction images, it definitely ranks up there with Frazetta and exceeds Jeff/Catherine Jones (who is my favorite overall of the fantasy artists). Steranko has the greatest mystique of the comic creators-artist, criminal, magician, escapist, author, publisher… Lived the dream guys like Grant Morrison are searching for. The Man!

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