Jim Lee is arguably one of the best and most well known artists of his generation. A comics industry greats who honed his talents on the X-Men, co-founded Image Comics, created his own WildStorm Studios and is now serving as co-publisher of DC Comics where he helped spearhead the New 52, Lee’s resume is filled with highlights. And yet, despite his high-level position in the industry, interacting with his fans continues to give Lee a noticeable sense of joy and energy.
During the third day of WonderCon, Jim Lee had that chance once again. Early in the afternoon, one of the larger rooms at the Anaheim Convention Center slowly packed itself full of fans, a crowd that waited patiently for the superstar artist, who was running a little bit late.
Lee’s arrival was met with thunderous applause as the DC Comics Co-Publisher apologized for being late, and then apologized again as he excused himself to use the restroom. The mood of the crowd was warm and friendly, so there was no problem with the slight delays.
Out of breath when he returned, Lee started by saying the initial reason he was late was he had been pulling photos from his iPhone to show the fans. He continued, saying that in the days before the Internet, anything could happen at a panel without going beyond the room in question. Now, cameras and recording devices are everywhere. Noting that some of the audience members had theirs in use, Lee asked folks to refrain from posting photos online, but embracing a relaxed attitude, he acknowledged that if it happened, it happened.
Lee asked how many folks had attended one of his panels before, because he was afraid of showing the same stuff to the same crowd. Less than half of those attending held their hands up, making Lee feel better that he wasn’t continuing to speak to the same people at each convention.
Lee started the slideshow by accidentally showing with a family vacation photo of horseback riding, though the crowd reacted well to it. Next, Lee showed his dog, saying it was for the non-fans, just to keep them happy and entertained while they were attending the panel.
Next up was a photo of a partially-inked sketch, taken with his iPhone, of a piece for Brian Wood’s “DMZ.” Through the next couple of slides, showing the development of the image, Lee talked about the looseness of his inks in the piece, explaining that it looked different from his usual work to reflect it being done for Vertigo. “It’s the little details that make or break the final pieces.”
Next was his first take on the New 52 Superman design, with and without he red trunks. Another slide showed a different design for a more complex, “evil”-looking armor for the Man of Steel.
From there, Lee showed a series of doodles for business cards, testing out the idea of doing digital comics for the iPhone. Lee mentioned Marvel’s recently announced Infinite Comics, saying he, too, was looking for ways to tell stories for other delivery systems. He figured out, through the doodles, that his work might not work well on the iPhone because of size and the loss of detail. There was a sketch of a Green Lantern variant cover in the background of one of the final images in the set, which Lee pointed out, mentioning that the cover was a good example of showing how he has to work through his ideas. Lee then showed other passes on the Green Lantern cover, saying that by working through the other ideas he would often return to his first thought and sketch.
Lee then shared a screen capture from DC’s MMORPG, “DC Universe Online,” which was met with loud applause. At first, Lee thought he and his WildStorm artists would stay faithful to the source material in their designs for the game, but the more they drew and designed and played with images, the more they wanted to change and modify the look of the characters. This turned out to be a precursor to the New 52. To Lee, sticking to the past was preventing the artists from pushing forward and coming up with new ideas.
Next up was a series of photos showing the development of a Batman cover done for a charity, through the inking process. Lee commented that doing work like this he found his mood about the work was more relaxed than normal. He would return to this theme later on. For example, Lee said there was a mistake with Batman’s cape that he worked with by covering it with foliage, saying he wouldn’t do that with more commercial work.
A pair of head sketches of Batman and the Flash were then shown, created as prizes he would mention on Twitter at conventions. Lee recalled how one fan tore up a women’s bathroom at a convention to retrieve one such sketch hidden there by Lee’s wife.
Speaking of his significant other, the next pic was an iPad sketch of his wife, which he had drawn on a flight. Lee said he appreciated doing work on that way without having to carry any bulky art materials.
A photo with Todd McFarlane and Stan Lee with Jim and his wife prompted Lee to joke about it showing him in a compromising position. Talking about the photo led Lee to recall seeing the first printing of “Origins Of Marvel Comics” at a library, and how Jim considers Stan the Man a mentor and an inspiration, still creating at his age. Jim Lee expressed his desire to keep working in comics for that length of time.
Next was a sketch of a “Legion of Super-Heroes” variant cover that featured Superboy and Krypto. Lee mentioned that he doesn’t like drawing animals because of the different kinds of anatomy involved. So, he said, having to draw Krypto was a challenge. Lee continued, saying the point of cover was to show Superboy happy with his dog. The next photos led the audience through the penciling and inking of the cover, Lee joking about how his Krypto in “Hush” looked more like a rat, so he wasn’t sure about how this version turned out, to which an audience member said this Krypto looked like a Lab mix, to Lee’s relief.
This was followed by two slides showing a Watchmen piece, originally created as a jam piece by the WildStorm artists for the 20th anniversary of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ landmark series, first in color and then in black and white.
After a few more slides, Lee showed a number of “Justice League” covers and pages in various stages of development. Lee talked more about the difference between sketching at a show versus working at home, referring to a number of YouTube videos showing his sketching and how fast he can create do a cover-type image. When it came to the image on screen, Lee said it might take him three hours at a show but would take eight hours when done at home. He wondered aloud at the the difference in development time, perhaps because of the time available at his home studio to fix and rework the images.
After a few more sketches and cover images, the artist shared a photo of his new daughter, born last fall, sleeping. “This is what she thinks of my work,” Lee quipped.
Thanking the audience for sitting through the slideshow, Lee opened the floor to questions from his fans..
The first questioner asked if, when designing the New 52, had there been any redesign considered overly controversial by the artists or DC.
The danger was in not changing enough, Lee replied. The designs for the New 52 had to be pushed in order to be considered real change. Naturally, the looks of the characters couldn’t change past the point where they would be unrecognizable, but had to go as far as possible to get the audience to believe in the changes. Lee added, the DC Universe and its characters needed a fresh direction. The guiding principle from the Golden Age to Silver Age, as mentioned above, was to change what needed changing without fear.
Asked if there were there any plans to incorporate anymore WildStorm characters into the New 52 — in particular Deathblow –Lee answered there were plans, but that there are more characters than talent available at this point.
Asked about why Wonder Owman’s high heels disappeared when she was introduced in “Justice League,” Lee said there are many visual continuity mistakes in his work due to pages being drawn out of order. He was glad this guy found this one and only this one and said now that folks are paying attention, there will be heels on his Wonder Woman.
Tackling a question with regard to the DCU inhabitants making fun of Aquaman, Lee responded that it’s Geoff Johns’ arena, but Johns loves the character and likes to balance the other cast members making jokes about Aquaman with cool action set pieces for the Atlantean monarch. The idea is for the Justice League to be portrayed like normal people, so League members are not perfect and shouldn’t be written as such because it would be boring. In real life such characters working together would have conflict with each other.
The next questioner wondered why Punisher/Nick Fury graphic novel Jim Lee was scheduled to draw was never released. Lee said he had only completed 20 pages of art, which were left with Marvel before Lee left for Image. Along the way, some of the pages were stolen from Marvel’s offices. He has some photocopies, but they aren’t not worth printing.
A fan of Lee’s “Divine Right” asked if there were any plans for Max Faraday in the New 52. Lee responded that Scott Lobdell, who wrote the last issues of the series, may have some plans for Faraday, though nothing definite at the moment. Lee added he was not riding shotgun on WildStorm characters in order to force them being integrated into the DC Universe. What he wants are for other voices to go different places with them, and Lee will only speak up about their treatment if necessary.
Asked if he saw any danger of DC becoming too Batman-centric, Lee said he doesn’t believe so. There are other characters in the DCU, like Superman, Wonder Woman, Swamp Thing, Animal Man. Those titles are doing well. As far as he and DC are concerned, it’s not all about Batman.
The questioner followed up by pointing out that Batman seems to be the only character living up to his full potential, to which Lee joked about Batman scoffing at Superman for only having three titles to Batman’s five.
The final questions asked how Lee developed his style and what it was that kept him in love with the comic book medium. Lee said he got his start by imitating his idols, then he tried to figure out what his own style was, figuring that his work would never advance as long as he dimply imitated others.
As for his passion for the artform, Lee was not sure what exactly kept him going, but he is has always been driven to succeed. He remembered a classmate in medical school who said to Lee that if he wanted anything bad enough, he would do what it took to get it. Hearing that, Lee realized he didn’t want medical school enough but did want to break into comics, so he moved back home, set up a drawing table and started drawing. Lee said he did everything as if he had an art job already, drawing for 8 hours a day every day.
Lee continued, saying he hurt his shoulder doing that, finding out that sitting all day at the drawing board was physically grueling and demanding. To him, though, it was a trial by fire. That experience taught Lee how to overcame obstacles in career. He has the same attitude about New 52 and “Before Watchmen” and their respective negative fan reactions. Lee welcomes the challenge and criticism, saying that ultimately, the folks buying the comics will judge the work. Just as when he took over art on “X-Men” knowing the big names that drew the characters before him, Lee appreciates the challenge of doing new things.