Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Jim Lee, and the issue is Alpha Flight #53, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated December 1987. Enjoy!
Alpha Flight #53 is, as far as I can determine, the second comic that Jim Lee ever penciled, but I don’t have Alpha Flight #51 (perhaps it’s hard to find because it’s Lee’s first work?), so we’ll have to be satisfied with this. As usual, it’s odd seeing someone whose work is so distinctive doing stuff from early in their careers, when that style hadn’t fully evolved. Let’s dive right in and see what I mean!
Wolverine guest-stars in this issue, because of course he does, and here he helps Madison Jeffries shake off a temporary bout of madness. It’s interesting to see how much Lee aligned with what was a pretty standard Marvel house style of the mid- to late-1980s, before he became their house style in the 1990s. Lee is perfectly fine with the storytelling here – Jeffries falls out of his box robot (no, I don’t know what the deal is with that, but I’m sure you know more than I do about it!) into Logan’s arms, and he’s acting a bit out of it, so Logan douses him with water to snap him out of it, and then prompts Jeffries to tell him what happened. Lee’s style is a bit stiff, but not too much – he’s better at movement than a lot of artists at this early stage of their careers. His points of view work well – Panel 3 shows a perspective from above Logan, and Lee makes sure to show the bathtub so that we realize he’s slicing water pipes in Panel 4. The movement in the bottom row, where Logan takes his cool-ass bomber jacket off (Geoff Johns read this comic when he was young and thought Hal Jordan would sure look neat in one of those!) and drapes it around Jeffries, is well done. Whilce Portacio inked this, and I don’t know if he and Lee knew each other before this, but I guess they hit it off because they co-founded Image five years later. Portacio hadn’t been around very long, but he was a solid inker (including doing some of Arthur Adams’s pencils in Longshot), so I imagine he helped out a bit. The ruff on Logan’s jacket looks inked in, and while Lee probably wanted to spot blacks on Jeffries’s face in Panel 6, it might have been Portacio, too, and it’s a good effect. As usual, I don’t know how much influence the inker has on the raw pencils, but Lee and Portacio seem to make a good team.
Lee was already a pretty dynamic artist, as we see here. Bedlam the Brain Blast (COMICS!) is a solid bad guy, and Lee gives him nice presence on the page. Jeffries’s attack is done well, as Bedlam turns, deflects the missiles Box fires at him, blasts his brain (it’s part of his name, duh!), and tries to force him down in Panel 4. The layout is a bit off-kilter, as the flow in Panels 2 and 3 is interrupted and we make a jump to Panel 4, but it’s still a good utilitarian sequence. I’m sure someone knows how artists got that “negative” effect that we see in Panel 5, with Jeffries’s human head inside the robot. It’s a neat trick. I assume Lee penciled it and then perhaps used a photocopier to overlay it onto the main page? Beats me. It’s still pretty cool. There’s some nice inking on the page, too. Portacio uses thick brush strokes to create a more metallic sheen to Bedlam’s armor, while he uses that nervous spotting to create a halo of smoke around Box as he approaches. As we saw above, it’s a good match to Lee.
I don’t have much to say about this except that it’s a 40-panel grid. If you showed the present Jim Lee, with his inordinate love of double-page spreads, this page today, he might have a stroke. Save his life and don’t show him this page!
As we’ve seen, Lee isn’t doing anything too shocking here, just giving us pages that are laid out well and drawn competently. He manages to cram all the characters in Panel 1, and while the perspective is a bit odd, we get a good sense of what’s going on. Bedlam has caused four super-powered characters to fight Alpha Flight, even though neither of them wants to fight. The problem with this panel is basically one of Lee trying to show everyone so that we can see them clearly, which leads to some wonkiness. The characters on the ground are okay, although Janus (the blue-and-white dude) seems to have moved from a position far too close to Breakdown, who’s in the green. On the right side, Manikin (man, the less said about him, the better) seems angled a bit too much toward us if he were really standing on the ground. Heather and Freakout, the two flying ones, are where the page looks a bit bizarre. It’s as if we’re seeing Heather and Freakout from a position of standing on the ground, as she flies upward from the ground and he jumps off of it to grab her. But they’re both already in the air and above the rest of the group, so is she on her back? Lee wants to get everyone into the frame, so I get it, but it’s one of those panels that the more you look at it, the weirder it is. Bill Mantlo (who wrote this) and Lee didn’t want you to linger, I guess!
Also notable about this page is the amount of blood coming out of Freakout. I know 1987 was long past the more squeamish age of comics, but Marvel and DC, for the most part, still tried to pretend their comics were for children and often didn’t allow so much blood. But look at that! Sasquatch is totally gutting Freakout, and Bob Sharen gets to color it a brilliant red. He was probably astonished they’d let that go!
Even Lee’s women weren’t anywhere near Lee-ish at this point, as we can see Sasquatch in his/her female form. (A quick look at Wikipedia gave me a headache. This is still Walter Langkowski, right? And his spirit is inhabiting the body of Snowbird? And he calls himself Wanda? Man, comics are awesome.) She’s perfectly fine, but other than a small blob of a nose, which certainly isn’t unique to Lee, there’s not much that shows the way Lee would eventually draw women. He does a nice job with “her” facial expression in Panel 4, as she’s willing to let Freakout beat her if that’s what he wants, but man, that whole scene is charged with weird sexual energy, isn’t it? “Wanda” is not wearing a lot of clothing (although it’s perfectly reasonable, it’s still not a lot), and then she lies on the ground, which Portacio inks fairly uniformly and Sharen colors brown to give it the appearance of a rug, not a rocky surface. I wonder if that pose is taken from a magazine or photograph, because it certainly looks very strange and seductive. Freakout stands behind “Wanda,” and while we’re supposed to interpret it as him about to bring his fists down, it could certainly appear like he’s raising his fists in triumph. Then she gives him that come-hither look and tells him it’s his move. In Panel 6, Bedlam tells him to be “my man,” which fits within the context of the comic but is still rife with darker meaning, while Wanda twists around, her butt to Freakout, with almost an expectant look in her eyes. The fact that Freakout is wearing a hockey mask, which puts us in mind of slasher movies and their sexual text and subtext, is just the final touch. It’s a very odd sequence.
Here’s another pretty good sequence, as Heather uses her mind to activate her armor, which Bedlam can’t control (he can control their bodies, but not the armor!). Lee lays the page out well, as Bedlam becomes increasingly scared that Heather will take him out. Like we saw above, we even get some Kirby Krackle when Heather unleashes her energy against Bedlam in the final panel. What I found interesting about this page is that while in some places (especially with Purple Girl … yes, one of the Alphans is called Purple Girl), Lee appears to be channeling McFarlane, that last drawing of Heather blowing the shit out of Bedlam looks straight lifted from an issue of Elementals that Willingham drew. Obviously, Jeanette and Heather are both red-heads with flame-y type powers, but it’s still uncanny how much that looks like Willingham. I don’t know how much Lee knew about Elementals at this point, so it might just be a coincidence, but even if it’s not, we’ve seen before that young artists tend to copy the way others draw until they become better at their craft, and Lee certainly got better. I just thought this was an unusual influence, if it was indeed that.
Despite the somewhat bland style Lee had at this time, he still got the job done, and he drew Alpha Flight for a while before moving on, which is where we’ll pick him up tomorrow. Will his style be more “Jim Lee”? Well, you can probably guess which title I’m going to feature, so you can probably grab your old issues and check them out before I even get there! Or you could dig through the archives, which might be more fruitful!