Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Jim Lee, and the story is “Rocket-Man” in Flinch #1, which was published by DC/Vertigo and is cover dated June 1999. Enjoy!
After some years at Image and then some years back at Marvel, Lee sold his imprint, Wildstorm, to DC, and so began his very long association with National Publications, which saw him rise up the ranks in the corporate setting and also allowed him to sink his teeth into some iconic characters. But today I want to look at his short story in the first issue of Flinch, Vertigo’s horror anthology, because it’s such a departure from the art we had come to know and love from Lee!
What, you might ask, is so different about this art? Well, you might notice the shortage of cross-hatching, which through the Nineties became a trademark of Lee’s work. I’ve seen some of Lee’s uninked pencils, and he loved hatching himself, but in this case, he reins it in very well to create a much more contemplative work. In Panel 1, he uses big, thick lines to outline our unnamed hero, creating heavy shadows as he faces the dusk and giving colorist Tad Ehrlich a clear place to color the light brown that the dying sun sheds on him. In Panels 2 and 3, he doesn’t over-hatch the man’s face, but he makes the wrinkles he does show deeper, creating furrows that show a lifetime of hard work. Ehrlich’s textured coloring helps with this effect, as well.
The dad talks to his family about how everything is going to change, and Lee gives us a nice sequence here showing all the people in the family. In Panel 1, the father dominates the scene, but Lee doesn’t forget to add a swing set and a tricycle, nice signifiers of family but also an innocence of youth. The dad’s exuberance is countered in Panel 2 by Fran’s world-weariness and in Panel 3 by Bill’s sullenness. Once again, his restraint with lines lets us see the hardness of Fran’s face, as the few lines toughen her instead of overwhelming her, while Lee simply uses sideways eyes and a downturned mouth to show Bill’s anger at his dad’s pipe dream. The thick lines on Fran’s hand in Panel 3 and the slight imperfections in her fingernails make her look more hardscrabble, which is nice. Then we get Cassie, who still thinks her dad is awesome. Lee widens her eyes in wonder, gives her a happy, smiling, wide-open mouth, and leaves the subtleties of her face to Ehrlich, who does a nice job with the whole sequence, from the shadows on Fran’s and Bill’s faces to the lighter touches on Cassie’s. This is where this kind of digital coloring can work nicely – it alleviates the need for a lot of hatching, and if the colorist knows what he or she is doing, it can add more nuance than simple lines can. In this case, it seems to work well.
Lee goes very minimalist here, and it’s pretty neat. He knows that the man and Cassie are standing in the open, where the sun’s rays can strike them, so he uses bold lines to create a dividing line between the well-lit areas and the shadowed areas. He draws some folds into clothing, but not too many, so that the chiarascuro effect is maximized. He keeps the hatching on both faces to a minimum, knowing that the light orange and the darker blue will pop on its own. I love how he suggests fingers instead of drawing them in – this takes place at “magic hour” (deliberately, I imagine), so Lee knows to suggest things rather than make them definitive, allowing the reader to fill in the blanks.
The dad activates his device, and heads for the skies. I’m not going to give away the ending, but let’s just say it doesn’t turn out very well (it’s a horror anthology, after all). We see that despite not over-hatching, Lee is still meticulous, as the man’s suit is very detailed, and Lee doesn’t skimp on the line work. But that still doesn’t make it excessive, as he still shows restraint on the man’s face and even the suit looks like we’d expect it, and Lee “colors inside the lines,” so to speak, making the details solid and controlled, rather than some of his hatching, which looks a bit more insane. Ehrlich does nice work on the page, too, moving from the thick oranges and browns as the dad turns the machine on to the lush blue and white of the sky, which, as we know, creates a complementary pop when paired with orange. Ehrlich paints in the fluffiness of the clouds so Lee doesn’t have to use too many lines, with makes the scene more filled with wonder. As I noted, it doesn’t turn out well, but at least the dude’s happy for a minute, right?
Lee didn’t stick to this style, and I’m not sure if he just didn’t like it or if it took him too long to do it. So tomorrow we’ll look at “Mature Lee,” which you could argue he reached in 1991 and never left. But I’m going to look at something from this century, at least! Stick around, spend some time in the archives, and have fun!