Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Jae Lee, and the issue is The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born #1, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated April 2007. These scans are from the hardcover trade, which was published in 2007. Enjoy!
I own this hardcover for some weird reason – I can’t quite remember why I got it, and I’m pretty sure I got it for free. Anyway, it’s a major shift in style for Lee, at least I’m pretty sure this is where it began. He had been moving toward this kind of style, but when he and colorist Richard Isanove teamed up, we got this kind of work. It’s pretty neat.
Lee, as we see, still loves using silhouettes, as everything in this sequence fades to black as we pull back and the mist comes up. His work has become highly stylized, as we’ll see below, but he’s still able to pose characters very well in motion – Panels 2 and 3 are very dramatic, and while Lee might have some issues with action between two or more characters, when he’s able to pose figures, he’s still very good at it. The vultures’ wings and the rib cage in Panel 2 help frame the Man in Black, hinting at death and decay in his wake. The way the sequence is composed is quite nice – the vultures tear at the flesh in Panel 1, the Man in Black upsets them in Panels 2 and 3, and then, inevitably, they return to their meal. Lee does a nice job in Panel 2 – we can see some of the details on the Man in Black because the sun is still shining, but by the time we get to Panels 2 and 3, the mist has risen and the figures become silhouettes. I don’t know how Lee drew this, but it continues his evolution from a precise but somewhat manic artist to a precise but more controlled artist. His inks are still strong, but the blacks aren’t quite as ragged as we’ve seen in the past. Isanove, meanwhile, appears to have an influence over the art, but we’ll see more of that below.
This is a beautiful image, the kind that Lee has gotten much more comfortable with over the years. He uses thick blacks to score the landscape, so that everything looks very old and shaped by the winds. In the middle ground, he doesn’t overuse the inks, so we get a hint of the sandstone of the edifice but it doesn’t overwhelm the drawing. In the foreground, we get the figures, and once again Lee uses a lot of blacks, but where he doesn’t, once again we see the thick black folds, giving the clothing a very tough, lived-in look. Lee surrounds the figures with black branches, which creates a bit of a cage, adding to the eerieness of the scene. Lee uses exquisite brushwork on the grass so that the ground looks soft, contrasting with the hard rocks rising above it. Isanove is using bright paints, but because he blends them well with duller hues, the brightness is muted just a little, while the colors on the clothes are also muted by Lee’s inking. It fits the misty scene well.
Here’s another example of Lee’s new style, as we see once again the richness of the blacks making the folds in the clothing deeper and the images – especially Panel 3 – starker. Lee uses the branches again almost as a web, encircling the figures as they train their birds. Lee still uses some harsher blacks – Roland’s hair in Panel 2 is an example – but generally, his blacks create a lushness in the scene. One thing that also helps with this lushness is Lee’s amazing brushwork – note the gorgeous feathers on the hawk in Panel 1 and, as we saw above, the grass in Panel 3. This rich, textured work gives Lee’s work an ethereal aesthetic, and the posing of his characters, as we see in Panel 3, highlights that sensation.
There’s still some tension in Lee’s action scenes, because he obviously knows how to draw them but his newer style is less friendly to the fluidity that you often see in the best action sequences. David, Roland’s hawk, attacks Cort, and Lee gives us this nice page. As is becoming usual, the silhouettes of branches twist and turn around the combatants, once again making the scene creepier than we might expect. In Panel 1, the flurry of feathers help create the illusion of movement, as Lee uses them almost as motion lines. Cort’s twisted body works, too, as it’s a pose we’d expect from someone getting attacked by a hawk. Panel 2 is a brutal drawing of David scratching out Cort’s eye, and while it’s gorgeous, it’s also static, as the feathers around David don’t act as motion lines because we’re too close in, so they become too specific. In Panel 3, we see once again that David’s flying feathers act to make the drawing more dynamic as Roland attacks Cort. It’s a clever trick by Lee, and it works very well. Once again we see Lee’s use of blacks and his beautiful brushwork, as we see the feathers on David’s body clearly, especially in Panel 2, and Cort’s old and ravaged face as David rakes his claws across it. Isanove uses a lot of orange on this page, as the light is dying, and it works to foreshadow the passage of an age, as Roland rises up against his master. Isanove gives Cort a reddish nose, implying drunkenness, even though it’s not clear that Cort is drunk. It makes him a more pathetic creature as David tears into him – the world has passed him by. The composition of Panel 3 is nice – Lee places Roland’s friends in the foreground, leading our eyes back to the fight so we become spectators, but it also lets Lee show the entire scene, with Roland, David, and Cort all wrapped around each other. Roland is driving Cort off the page, too, which is clever.
Lee’s move away from “regular” superhero art to this more stylized work comes, as I’ve noted, with the sacrifice of fluidity, and we see that on this page, which is absolutely gorgeous but doesn’t flow very well. In Panel 1, Roland clocks Cort across the face with that staff, but we don’t see the staff (nor do we see Roland), we just see Cort’s reaction to getting hit. Lee gives us the flying tooth and some bloody strands flying off his face, but the panel doesn’t “move” as well as some of Lee’s work in the past. Isanove does make Cort a bit redder than we saw, so that while the blood is black lines, his skin looks stressed, as of course it is. Panel 2 does show us Roland and the staff, but once again it appears that Roland is posing in front of Cort, who is simply lying backward. As I’ve noted a lot during this series, it’s very hard to show movement in static panels, but Lee has been able to do it in the past, but it appears he deliberately sacrificed it to make the drawings that much nicer. As he pulls back in Panels 3-4, he once again uses heavy blacks, placing Roland and Cort almost completely in silhouette and, as we’ve seen, bringing the branches in to snake around the participants, until finally he pulls back so far in Panel 5 that we no longer see Cort, leaving us to wonder if Roland killed him (he didn’t). Lee pushes Roland and Cort into the extreme right and makes the branches bigger, dominating the panels, minimizing their struggle in the face of overwhelming nature, which cares not for the machinations of man. We go from the earthy pulp of Cort’s face in Panel 1 to the stoic wood of the branches in Panel 5, and it’s an interesting comment on how petty men can be. Isanove, as we saw above, uses orange liberally, glossing this with the haze of nostalgia and regret as Cort’s age comes to an end and Roland’s begins. It’s a good choice – red would be too obvious and overwhelming, but orange hints at violence without being too precise. The nostalgia part comes from the mythic aspects of Roland’s childhood – this is a flashback, to some degree, and so Roland would look back on this through the haze of wistful longing for a simpler time, when bad guys could be easily pummeled.
Lee continued to refine this style, until he became even more ornate than he is in this comic. For our last day, I’ll take a look at one of his most recent comics, and we’ll see how he changed even from this to that. It should be fun! More fun can be had in the archives!