A question that inevitably arises whenever a comic book fan speaks with a writer or artist is, “How do I break into comics?” At Emerald City Comic Con, convention-goers were treated to answers by many luminaries of the industry in a cozy interview format hosted by Blair Butler (co-host of G4’s “Attack of the Show”). Fans who came to Saturday afternoon’s gathering were treated to an intriguing discussion with artist Jae Lee (“Hellshock,” “Dark Tower,” “Before: Watchmen: Ozymandias,” and the upcoming “Batman/Superman”) about his humble beginnings, where he is now and what he learned along the way.
Lee said he started out like most fans — he went to comic conventions in Washington D.C., where he grew up. He was fourteen and didn’t want to pay to enter, but almost all of the conventions had art contests that included entry and small prizes. Lee then entered art, received praise and actually won several of these contests; however, he kept using the same pieces of art. Eventually convention organizers caught on and he was banned from local conventions. Lee noted that, ironically, many of these same organizers called him years later to be a guest at those conventions.
Regardless of this setback, a local inker named Bob Downs had made note of Lee’s potential and offered to mentor him. He introduced Lee to many of the more “classic” comic book artists, and Lee learned quite a bit. One day, Downs accidentally spilled a bottle of ink on a Rags Morales-penciled page (Lee believes) of “Young All Stars.” Downs was under a tight deadline and — as this was pre-computers — there was no back-up of the page. The inker quickly called Lee and asked him to secretly redraw the page. Lee penciled the page, they didn’t get caught, and the page ended up being Lee’s first published work…albeit uncredited.
As for any formal art training, Lee said he did attend an art school for three months, but decided it wasn’t for him. He kept working on his trade and eventually received his first paid work in the form of “Marvel Comics Presents” (a series which contained several short stories) written by Scott Lobdell. The job was an eight-part story made up of eight pages each. Rob Liefeld had done two parts, but was then hired on “New Mutants.”
Lee completed the work and did well enough that he actually received two job offers from Marvel. He was asked if he would like to do back-up stories in “X-Men” or take over the art for the “Namor” series. The editor on “Namor,” Terry Kavanaugh, was offering him full issues and a chance to work with one of Lee’s idols, writer John Byrne. Lee gladly accepted the offer, as it provided more job security.
The artist said the book was written in Marvel-style: he would receive four pages of plot and then write the book. After a few issues, Marvel offered to bring Lee to New York to meet Byrne. Since Byrne lived in Connecticut, Lee and Kavanaugh had to drive there. Lee was looking forward to meeting one of his heroes and talk about comics; instead, they went antiquing for four hours.
He wrote approximately twelve issues of “Namor,” and during his run, several notable Marvel artists left the company to form Image. After this, Marvel warned employees that anyone who worked for Image – or (potentially) even talked to them – would be fired. Naturally, this made Lee very nervous when he received a call from Liefeld.
The artist called Lee (while he was still working on “Namor”) to see if he wanted to draw something for Extreme. Lee was reluctant and turned down the offer. Image continued to approach him, but he kept refusing, preferring the “security” of Marvel. Eventually, Liefeld called Lee and asked about his page rate. At the time, Lee was making $80 per page for Marvel. Liefeld then offered Lee more than he would make in one year at Marvel for just penciling a few pages. Lee was a bit skeptical, but Liefeld overnighted him a check and paid him in advance. Finally, Lee made the leap.
His progression at Image was a bit different than some of the other artists who worked there. Although he was offered the chance to create his own book when he came, Lee said that — at the age of nineteen — he didn’t feel confident enough. Liefeld offered him work on “Youngblood: Strikefile,” with Lee doing half the work and Liefeld doing the other half. From there, Jim Lee called him up and offered work on “WildC.A.T.s Trilogy,” which he gladly accepted. Finally, in 1994, he felt as though he could do his own book and came out with “Hellshock.”
“It was a disaster,” Lee said.
The first issue was supposed to be a twenty-two page book (like most books of that period). However, Lee ran out of time and turned in a fourteen page-page comic (plus several pages of pin-up art). He explained that no one checked the book, so it was printed and came out. Upon seeing it, “the Image guys flipped out.”
Lee said he apologized profusely and became one of the only creators ever to be fired from his own book. Fortunately, Jim Lee then stepped in and offered to oversee the book, convincing everyone to give the artist another shot.
He then did “Hellshock” issues #2-4, but he wasn’t happy with his own work. When Lee did “Hellshock” Volume Two later, he said he really took his time beforehand and “did the research.” To make up for the fourteen-page #1 issue of the first volume, Lee did a thirty-eight page first issue for Volume Two at the same price as a normal-sized book. Lee really wanted to make sure it was worthwhile experience for fans, and even timed himself — more than once — so he could reliably tell people that issue #1 takes forty minutes to read.
When asked by Butler why Lee took so long between issues of “Hellshock,” Lee said, “It was a different time and artists were expected to be late. The culture was, ‘If you weren’t late, you weren’t doing your job.’
“Doing one book for Image made me more than working ten years at Marvel. But because there was so much money to be made, people would do one book and then [stop working]…If you talk to any Image creator from that time and ask them what their biggest regret was, they’ll say, ‘I should’ve done a monthly book.'”
In discussing his past, Lee mentioned that he had a hard time looking at his old work. Butler then asked the artist when he stopped having that feeling. Lee replied that the first comic that truly felt right to him was “Dark Tower” #1. He said he spent a lot of time on that first issue and put everything he had into it. While Richard Isanove’s paints changed some elements of his art, he mentioned that it felt very close to his intentions. Lee also added that his colorist now is his wife, June Chung, and that their work together is what he had always envisioned.
Going back to his “Hellshock” days at Image, Lee said he finally felt comfortable returning to Marvel when Joe Quesada gave him a call for Marvel Knights. According to Lee, the goal of Marvel Knights was to bring back artists who had left the company and treat them better than previously.
Lee said he was first offered the “Angel of Death”-version of the Punisher, but he passed on it. Quesada asked him what he wanted to do, so Lee pored into a Marvel Universe Handbook with a friend and came up with the Inhumans. Paul Jenkins was pulled in as the writer, and Lee was back at the House of Ideas.
The artist said he felt very validated when he won an Eisner for “The Inhumans,” because no one inside the main Marvel offices believed in the book. They didn’t think an Inhumans book could last twelve issues, as there had never been a comic about that group before.
After “The Inhuman,” Lee did “The Sentry.” He didn’t know anything about the marketing campaign for it — which said that the Sentry was a long-lost Stan Lee creation — but Lee knew Jenkins was working on it, and that was enough for him.
Lee said he designed the Sentry’s costume, although he doesn’t always receive credit for it. In the marketing of the project, they had John Romita Sr. do some fake drawings of the “old” Sentry that Stan Lee had supposedly created, which were based off of Jae Lee’s designs. Many years later, Alex Ross did a lithograph with all of the characters that Romita Sr. had designed, and Lee noticed that the Sentry was on it. He laughingly joked that Marvel has probably even forgotten he’s the one that designed the character.
As for “Dark Tower,” he knew of the book, but hadn’t read it. When offered the chance to work with Stephen King, he accepted and started reading quickly. However, he never actually worked directly with King. Stephen dictated the story to Robin Furth; Robin then took that and wrote out Marvel-style comic scripts; Lee took those and drew the comic; finally, Peter David came in and scripted the story.
“Before Watchmen: Ozymandias” was a job that came to him when he signed with DC. At the point he joined the company, Lee said most of the “Before Watchmen” books were already assigned. He received “Ozymandias” somewhat by default, but it made him happy.
Lee gives DC a lot of credit, because with his style, DC has put him on books that other publishers might not consider him for. Lee said he’s usually known for dark, horror-type books, but he appreciated that DC has given him “lighter” characters like “Ozymandias” and “Superman/Batman” (the Superman portion is “light,” at least).
The artist mentioned that he’s been looking at Steve Rude’s “World’s Finest” as a bit of an influence on his upcoming “Superman/Batman,” and that he’s currently moving in a more classic, retro-style and is looking at more traditional artwork — like Norman Rockwell. And with that final query, Butler thanked Lee for sharing his “Secret Origin.”