G.I 'Jae' Rolls Out: artist Jae Lee talks 'Transformers/G.I Joe'

When you're one of the most popular artists in the comic book industry, fans haven't seen much of your work lately and you're getting off a small run on one of Marvel Comics' flagship characters, what's the next project you choose?

A team up of the most popular 80's properties, of course.

And then you turn them on their heads.

Starting in August, penciller Jae Lee and writer John Ney Reiber will be presenting Canadian comic book company Dreamwave Production's vision of the Transformers and G.I Joe crossover with Devil's Due Publishing (each company is producing separate mini-series). Lee's fans might not have expected this project from him and as the artist explained to CBR News, it wasn't the first thing that he thought he'd be doing either. He spoke with CBR about how he became involved with the project and explained what readers would need to know entering into this particular series.

"I don't want people going into this thinking that this is a crossover between the G.I Joe characters and the Transformers characters, and this is going to be some kiddie affair," explains Lee. "Or something that can be in the cartoons. It's not. We're taking a very adult approach to it, a very realistic approach and it sounds crazy to hear that about these particular properties, but I think that's why Dreamwave approached John Rieber and myself, because they wanted a different take. When they first asked me about it, I asked them, 'You do realize that I don't draw like what you would see in the cartoons and it's not manga influenced, right?' But they didn't want anything like that. So I don't think fans need to know anything going into this. This is a unique presentation of the G.I Joe and Transformers as if they existed in the real world. Imagine being a soldier in World War 2, where the story is set, and seeing these giant, towering machines that can do these incredible things? It would be like a caveman seeing a spaceship. We hope to capture that awe and fear that people would have for these giant constructs. Wipe out everything that you know about the Transformers and G.I Joe and you can pick up #1, with everything being explained."

After "Fantastic Four: 1234" from Marvel Comics, fans didn't see much work from Lee for a year until his recent work on "Captain America" and it's obvious that he's specific about the projects he chooses. A lot of people must wonder- why would he choose to work on the Transformers? Despite the extraordinary sales of the franchise, the property isn't critically acclaimed and Lee admits to having vague memories of the show from his childhood, but he says there was just something attractive about this project. "When Dreamwave first approached me with this, I turned it down: I thought, 'I hate drawing robots, this doesn't sound like anything I want to do, licensed properties sound like a nightmare,' but when I read the pitch, I thought that it was so far out there, so crazy that it just might work. I've never drawn anything on this scale this before. It's like my past comics have only featured single characters before, even 'Inhumans,' each issue only spotlighted a few characters at a time. The books I did in the past, if compared to movies, would be like introspective dramas about specific people, whereas 'Transformers/G.I Joe' is like a big budget, summer extravaganza- all action, tons of characters, tons of references… I've never handled anything like this and it's kind of daunting. I kind of wanted to challenge myself. In the past, it kinda felt like I had hit a wall and it didn't feel like I drawing; in fact, it felt like my art was stagnating, so I wanted some things to motivate me."

Being a child of the eighties, Jae Lee has some fond childhood memories of the Transformers and their ilk, but that doesn't mean he was one of the many in line to get their comics with the so called nostalgia book kick started (at least in the comic book industry) in 2001. ""I really wasn't into that," admits Lee. "When I first saw the 'Transformers' books or the wave of eighties books, I didn't see the appeal, but when I actually read the 'Transformers' comic, I was really, really, impressed. I felt like a kid again, I felt like I was watching the cartoon, but this comic was so much more advanced than the cartoon. It's more violent and I'm surprised at some of the subject matter they can deal with in the comic. For example, in the cartoon, you never saw a robot stomping on a human, but in the comics you'll see that and a pool of blood. When I was a kid and I watched the cartoons, I thought they were great, until I saw the Transformers' movie, and in that movie, robots died, there was a war on a cosmic scale and you couldn't go back to watching the cartoon again. It was too sugary sweet and no one ever died. Once you get a taste of the realism, you can't go back to that. As long as the comics appeal to an adult audience, I can get into it: I've tried reading some other books based on eighties' properties and they read just like when I was a kid, so as an adult, I can't get into it, because it's sorta written for a twelve year old."

With his personal tastes in mind, Lee's done his best to make sure that "Transformers/G.I Joe" is a project for adults who want a comic that is a good read devoid of any nostalgia and believes that's a great "hook." "I would not be interested in this series if I did not know anything about it. I would think it would be a piece of crap," explains Lee. "In fact, that's what I thought when I was first approached with this, till I read the pitch and saw the depth of the work. The Transformers and G.I Joe fans will always buy it no matter what I think, because they like it for the characters, but a person that's used to reading let's say a Vertigo title or used to reading a mainstream DC or Marvel comic will look at this and say, 'What the hell is this? I'm not going to buy this.' I'm just saying give this a try. I'm like the last person you'd expect on something like this and if I can be turned around, you can expect the average reader to be turned around."

Lee's work has been lauded in great detail for his attention to detail and ability to bring a real atmosphere to any project he works on, though he admits the work usually feels darker, and that might seem at odds with the general perception of the bright, shiny world of the Transformers. "I'd like to think that with every project I do, I bring something new to it and do something I've never done before," says Lee. "With 'Fantastic Four,' it was very important to my career because it was the first time I did backgrounds and before that I just enjoyed drawing figures, I really skimped out on the backgrounds, because I hated drawing inanimate objects. But the story was so incredible and deep that in order to capture all the elements that the writer asked for, I had to draw the backgrounds, so that book made me realize the importance of drawing background and incorporating 'acting.' Before, I thought my characters were kind of stiff and I had them walking around like robots, I wanted to draw cool poses so I drew whatever, I didn't try to draw the characters in way that seemed most natural for the characters to be in each scene, but in order to capture the nuances of the story, I had to learn to develop that. Because Grant Morrison was such a great writer, I had to step up to the plate, do better than before and with 'Captain America,' when John Reiber first took on the series, it was different from the way it turned out and what happened was that Chuck Austen came on in the middle of the storyline and the story changed completely, so I sort of lost interest in that. With 'Transformers/G.I Joe,' I'm really reinvigorated because I'm actually doing a story I like and because of all the things that are going on- the scale of the book, armies fighting armies, and not just one of them, but fifty of them on a page. It's really tough trying to break things down. Normally, if I can do a page a day, that's great, but with this it's taking me a page a week- now of course I have to speed up, but because there's a huge learning curve any time you start a new project, it's gonna take a while and with the amount of characters, I gotta get everyone to look right. It's a whole new experience."

One might assume that with a licensed property like G.I Joe or the Transformers, where the look of the characters is very important for fan recognition- Snake Eyes couldn't be wearing a pink tutu and sucking on a pacifier, could he? - Lee would be slowed down by having to slavishly follow the past work of others without any of his own creative input. "That was one of my concerns. Because my style is so different from anything that Hasbro is used to, I didn't want them coming back and saying, 'why does everybody look like they're in a dark room?' or 'why do the robots look like they're broken?' I wanted some artistic freedom and so far they've been excellent about it. They're open to a different artistic take on the characters and it's great so far."

That interpretation, however, hasn't extended to the redesigning of the characters- that was done by Dreamwave themselves and completed before Lee arrived on the project. "I didn't want to handle the redesigns. I left that to Dreamwave and they had that completed before I came on the book, but they told me that I could tweak the characters to my particular style. I'm working off the designs, but I'm not obligated to follow them. That being said, there are certain characters that have to look a certain way- Optimus Prime's face has to look like Optimus Prime's face. I change his body, make him look like he's been in a war, make his wires apparent and hanging out, making him rusty- I'm having fun with that."

Though "Transformers/G.I Joe" will be set in World War 2, there will be no Nazi's or Axis villains of any sort, something that isn't the creators' choice, but does focus the story squarely on the fictional heroes and villains. "I'm ok with just the Cobra against the G.I Joe, it's simpler really," explains Lee. "I'm used to companies saying you can't use the Japanese or Nazis as villains from when I was at Marvel. I think it would have made the series more realistic and raised the stakes if we could have used them, but people will be very surprised at what we can get away with."

Ominous is probably the best word to describe the artist's comments and Lee says while this series won't be all blood and gore, it will have a much darker tone than the normal "G.I Joe" or "Transformers" series. "This is a war comic. We're not going to go blood and guts- it's not about that. It's about the emotional impact of war. We're trying to capture the realism of war but no go overboard."

Every comic book creator approaches a new project with unique ambitions and Lee says he wants fan to walk away from this project seeing a different side of his artistic ability. "I just wanted to do something different. I want people to pick this up and not think of it as a kiddie license, that no matter what the subject matter is, you can take it seriously and you can tell a really good story. There's such a stigma against these characters and I think that people are so close-minded when it comes to characters that they're not willing to give things a try. It's not really the characters: it's the creators. You can stick Alan Moore on 'Howard the Duck' and I'm sure it'll be great. It's all about what the creators do with it."

After "Transformers/G.I Joe," don't expect Lee to take a break from comics- he's back in full force and ready to win over new fans every month. "It's funny that you mention I haven't been working a lot in the recent past, it's true, I've been doing a few things here and there, but I really want to jump back into comics. Last year I didn't have anything come out, but this year I'll have a book coming out every month because of 'Captain America' and then 'Transformers/G.I Joe' in August, then a Batman mini-series, with Paul Jenkins, that comes out in the beginning of 2004. People should expect to see work coming out from me regularly from now on.

"My dream project is Batman and I've always wanted to work with that character- my style would be perfect. That's my dream. After finishing that, I'll unfortunately need another dream project [laughs]. I would love to do Superman but I've never been able to draw him. There's something about his hair that I can't right. It would take a lot of prep work on my part to do that. I also tend to cast everything in shadows which work well in shadows, but that isn't Superman- plus you have to deal with Metropolis. I think the reason that this Transformers project works for me is because I wasn't asked to draw it in the traditional way and I've been allowed to approach the characters differently. The robots are rusty, broken- there's a lot of character to it."

While Lee earlier admitted to not being enthralled by most of the comics based on cartoons from the 1980's, he does believe that a good comic is a good comic and the inspiration shouldn't be used to undermine it. "I think any good comic should stand alone as a good comic. They shouldn't be categorized into a certain wave. Just like the fact that all Vertigo books are not the same quality, not all of Marvel's lines are of the same quality and the same can be said of 'Transformers' and related comics. People write it off as kiddie stuff without looking closely and taking it seriously, which I was guilty of in the beginning. I challenge people to pick this mini-series up and still call it a kiddie series. It's not."

If you're still not sold on "Transformers/G.I Joe" and not sure if you'll pick it up in August, Lee presents his final reason for why he believes readers should put this on their buying list. "I think it's the best artwork I've ever done. It's kind of surprising that this project would bring out the best in me, but it's because I've been pushed to do things that I've never done before. And it's certainly the most detailed work I've done before."

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