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Strange Tales: Finding Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ @$$ in 1960s Marvel Comics

There is a lot of attention on La Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine due to her portrayal by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and cameo appearances in the latest Marvel movies and shows.

But in the 1960s, all the attention was on her a$$.

1960s Marvel Comic Book Legends

Let me introduce you to Jim Steranko.

Firstly, Steranko spent some time as a stage illusionist. As a teen, he spent summers working with circuses and carnivals, ultimately working his way up to a sideshow performer as a fire-eater and in acts involving a bed of nails and sleight-of-hand. That’s quirky enough for most folks.

Then his early 20s, Steranko performed as an illusionist, escape artist, and close-up magician in Philadelphia nightclubs. Legend says that Jack Kirby’s escape artist character Mister Miracle was based upon Steranko.

This was no doubt bolstered by the fact that Steranko competed on the rings and parallel bars as part of a gymnastics team. He later took up boxing. Then, he took up fencing. By age 17, Steranko parleyed all his acquired skills into life as a supervillain, as he and another teenage boy were arrested for a string of burglaries and car thefts in Pennsylvania.

But Steranko was also shaking, rattling, and rolling as a musician. Although he played in the drum and bugle corps as a kid, when he formed his first band, The Lancers, in 1956, Steranko played a Jazzmaster guitar. He often performed on the same bill as the seminal rock and roll group Bill Haley and his Comets, where they’d rock around the clock.

By the late 1960s, Steranko was a member of a New York City magicians’ group, the Witchdoctor’s Club, and he also continued to perform as a musician where, mostly famously, Steranko is credited with popularizing America’s go-go girls craze.

Steranko was a colorful character, to say the least.

Steranko also had much in common with Jim Shooter, the infamous Marvel editor that came a decade later. Much like Shooter, Steranko grew up in crippling poverty. Steranko’s grandparents immigrated from Ukraine, settling in the Appalachian coal-mining region of eastern Pennsylvania.

Steranko’s father began working in the coal mines when he was 10 years old. Steranko himself spent his early childhood during the American Great Depression living in a three-room house with a tar-paper roof and outhouse toilet, leaving Steranko to sleep on a couch in the modest living room until he was more than 10 years old.

But just like Jim Shooter, Steranko escaped that poverty through hard work and a one-in-a-million talent. While his nights were certainly wild, Steranko made his living during the day as an artist for a printing company, designing and drawing pamphlets and flyers for local dance clubs and the like.

After a few years in printing, Steranko moved on to an advertising agency, but he had developed an interest in writing and drawing comic books. While being treated to a tour of the DC Comics offices, an editor gave Steranko a copy of a script featuring the science-fiction adventurer Adam Strange. Steranko recalled, “It was the first full script I’d ever seen, complete with panel descriptions and dialogue. I learned a lot from it and eventually went on to create a few comics of my own.”

Those few comics of his own were a few assignments at Harvey Comics on characters like Spyman and Magicmaster, where one Sterneko-penciled page included a diagram of a robotic hand.

But Steranko approached Marvel Comics in 1966 where he met with editor Stan Lee, who had Steranko ink two pages of Jack Kirby sample art for the superspy feature Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. This led to Stan “The Man” assigning him the Nick Fury feature in Strange Tales, a “split book” where two characters were featured.

Lee and Kirby’s Strange Tales featured Kirby penciling enduring items such as the Helicarrier and LMDs (Life Model Decoys). One Strange Tales gadget was an automobile airbag, years before they were included in cars commercially. Hydra was introduced as well.

Then Steranko began his stint on the comic by penciling and inking “finishes” over Kirby layouts in Strange Tales #151. Two issues later, Steranko took over full penciling. Two issues after that he took over the writing duties, following Roy Thomas, who had succeeded Stan Lee. He even became the series’ uncredited colorist by that time.

But what does that have to do with Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ posterior?

Steranko was known for his creative page spreads, bringing over techniques he learned in the printing and advertising industry, Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD comics’ most groundbreaking, innovative and creative comics in the newsstands. Les Daniels wrote in Comix: A History of Comic Books in America, “even the dullest of readers could sense that something new was happening.” Writer-artist Larry Hama said Steranko, “combined the figurative dynamism of Jack Kirby with modern design concepts.”

Steranko was inspired by James Bond, so Fury became a master spy. Strange Tales became a superhero James Bond comic, and Bond required some Bond babes. Women created for the comic – like La Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine in issue #159 – were clad in form-fitting black leather and had a go-go dancer’s flair.

A.M. Viturtia claims that the influence went both ways: “Although Steranko was primarily influenced by spy movies, after Nick Fury came on the comics scene, the directors of those same movies began to borrow heavily from Steranko himself!”

Steranko also had a penchant for injecting sensuality into comics. One of Steranko’s famous page spreads featured Allegra de la Fontaine’s backside, an illustration of which the Comics Code didn’t approve. So, rather than subject innocent 1960’s boys to the contours of Contessa’s bottom, the solution was a colorist added shading that obscured the form and curvature enough that the Comics Code gave the page the thumbs up.

Steranko went on to be inducted into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 2006.

Fast forward a few decades and culture has certainly gotten significantly looser on matters of morality. In fact, the Comics Code no longer even exits. So what was seen as titilating in the 60s doesn’t even register today.

In fact, there was another infamous Steranko spread where 4 whole panels has to be redrawn because it features a telephone off the hook and La Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine on her knees in front of Fury. But that’s a story for another time because Nerds on Earth lives by the Comic Code Authority.

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