On Day one of Comic-Con International, the long-recurring Spotlight on Jim Lee returned to a throng of enthusiastic fans. Though Lee has scaled back his time penciling since moving into management at DC Comics, the fans were still happy to sit for an hour and a half to listen to Lee talk for an hour about his youth, his family, his art, his career – all while doing a couple sketches, right in front of the audience (projected on the video screens).
After entering to a roaring applause, Lee sat, and as he pulled out some penciling supplies, he noted that this is his 31st time in a row at SDCC, having started the year he became a professional. He asked how many people were attending his Spotlight panel for the first time, and was surprised to see almost a third raised their hands. Even more stated it was their first time ever at SDCC, so Lee explained he holds a casual panel, and would do some sketches for the audience as he talked. He asked the audience which superhero he should draw; when a fan shouted “Animal Man!” he asked the question again and several fans shouted out new suggestions. “Wonder Woman? That’s what I was looking for. They made a movie recently,” Lee said.
Dejected Animal Man fan aside, Lee began with surprisingly personal stories of his youth in Iowa and Ohio. “I’m an immigrant, yay!” he said, a theme he explored quite a bit as the hour unfolded. “My father heard there were shortages of doctors in America, so we emigrated to America.” As a result, he was thrust into small town life in Iowa, “I love Iowa, but there’s just not much there.”
“When I came here, I was only five years old, I didn’t speak any English… I remember when they were trying to teach me a word, and I was actually upset. I thought, ‘I already know a word for that, why do I need to learn another word for it?'”
“So, I didn’t speak English, and I learned by reading comics.”
He continued to live the immigrant experience as he grew up. “My parents wanted me to be a doctor, follow in my father’s footsteps.” But when he got a job at his dad’s hospital, “I noticed the doctors were always talking to each other a lot, and it seemed like a job with a lot of interaction, and I didn’t want that, I wanted to be able to go off and do my own work”.
Lee continued about his upbringing, noting that despite all the times he’s been to CCI, “this is the first panel that someone from my (graduating) class from high school came to a panel.” The crowd cheered as he insisted his old classmate stand up. He segued into weightier remembrances, including how he felt isolated in school. “There were two other Asian guys at school,” an all boys prep school with merely “sixty-two people in my graduating class.” A fan in the crowd asked if he liked the other Asians, but only said, “They were OK.”
He also spoke of his parents and their domineering tendencies. As immigrant parents will often do, they tried to raise him in the style from their home country. “They didn’t want me to date. They wanted me to focus on school. ‘Then you can date, when you’re in college.’ And then in college, they didn’t want me to date and said I had to focus on school, and I could date when I graduate. So there were a lot of times of sneaking out, when they didn’t know where I was going… hey wait, why am I saying that, my kids are here!
“They also wanted me to date an Asian girl,” he continued, pointing out that he didn’t follow their wishes on that, so he pretty much broke all their main rules. Now happily married, he and his wife Carla have nine children.
Lee also recounted his shyness, which was largely rooted in being thrust into a foreign culture and language as a child, and then segued into his professional career. “The beginning of my career, there were no cell phones… You’d email, or maybe if you were forced to, pick up the phone and call… When I first started writing for Marvel, I worked with Bill Mantlo, who was a lawyer, and hard to get a hold of, so we communicated through my editor.”
While he was often successful at avoiding interpersonal communication as much as possible, sometimes he was forced to under go it – and in at least one case took extra precautions. “When I got onto the X-Men, my favorite comic growing up, I wanted to call Chris Claremont. He was my idol. And at the same time, (the prospect of calling) was very very nerve-wracking, kind of scary – thinking about it. So I was making notes about what I would say… ‘If he says this, then I’ll say…,'” Lee said, with the final bit drown out in laughter.
Asked him about the ’90s X-Men cartoon, largely based on his character designs, Lee didn’t have much to say, though he did mention the one time he got to sit in on a voice recording session, and actually performed one of the voices. “I was a Sentinel robot… ‘Halt, mutant!’ But you can’t recognize the voice because of the distortion.”
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