Jim Lee Covers "Image United"

The title of "Image United" refers not only to the heroes of the Image Universe banding together against a newly resurrected and vengeful Al Simmons, but also to the fact that six of the seven Image Comics founders - Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri and Jim Valentino - are uniting together to illustrate the Robert Kirkman written series. Now, the number of artists can be upgraded to a perfect seven out of seven.

Jim Lee, the prodigal original Image Comics partner and founder of WildStorm Productions, will return to his Image roots by way of his special variant cover for "Image United" #1. Given his current role at DC Comics - which includes overseeing WildStorm, working on Sony's "DC Universe Online" video game and illustrating "All Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder" alongside writer Frank Miller - Lee's involvement in "Image United" was widely seen as unlikely, though certainly hoped for. Those hopes have paid off in the form of Lee's cover, which features a vicious confrontation between Simmons and the best heroes the Image Universe has to offer.

CBR News spoke exclusively with Lee about his "Image United" involvement, the process in creating the variant cover and his current thoughts on Image Comics and the founding fathers behind the upcoming miniseries.

CBR News: Jim, how long have you known that you'd be involved in "Image United" in some way, and how did it happen?

Jim Lee: It came about pretty recently. I'd been in contact with Robert Kirkman over various projects over the years, and he kind of pitched "Image United" a while ago. I knew I couldn't really be involved in any sort of huge way, but I told him that occasionally I'm let out of my exclusive deal with DC and able to do pieces here and there. When ["Image United"] got closer to the wire, I'd make that call with my boss Paul Levitz and see if I could make that happen. And Paul is very supportive - he's always been supportive of the work I've done in the past, so he allowed me to do it, which was awesome. I definitely felt jealous seeing all the excitement on [the project]. It didn't quite feel like the '90s, but it got close.

Aside from your exclusivity with DC, what were some of the other obstacles you had to overcome in order to make this cover happen?

I think that was primarily the only one. I get along with all of the guys - much better now, actually, than I did when I was with the company - so that wasn't [a concern]. It was more a question of, "Well, what am I going to do? Am I going to do a page within the book?" In the end, we decided upon a cover, because that would give us sort of the maximum punch for the work involved, and it's easier to promote. Every time you have a new announcement - this guy's involved, here's a cover, this is a colored cover, even this interview - you get another chance to go out there and promote the project.

What went into the design of the cover itself? Did it come from a conversation with the other creators on the book or was it an idea of your own?

It's weird, because that character - the Al Simmons Spawn - is the big reveal at the end of the first issue, I guess, and here it is on the cover! [Laughs] So I was drawing it out and thinking that I didn't want to ruin the surprise, but my assistant, Eddy Choi, told me that it was already revealed.

I think I really just wanted to put a very strong image together. The first idea was to draw this Al Simmons Spawn, but then it's "Image United" and it felt odd not to have other Image characters in there, so I was thinking of a layout where they're interacting in there. Actually, the first layout I had was Spawn in the center and the Image characters standing above him, kind of up-lit with knocked out colors behind it. But [the cover] seemed kind of static and wasn't as dynamic as I wanted it to be, so I came up with the idea of the shot that I went with. It was interesting, because the way that Todd [McFarlane] draws and constructs his characters is very [different from] a lot of other artists. I had to go in there and figure out, "How does this face work, especially at a ¾ angle?" So I played around with it a little bit and tried to make it a little different and put my own kind of structure and design sense into it.

But it was cool, because a lot of those characters I'd never drawn before, like Fortress, and I can't remember if I ever drew Witchblade before. But it was fun drawing these other guys, even if it was just a little snippet here and there. I can only imagine that Erik Larsen complained about how I drew his Savage Dragon. [Laughs] If I know him, he has issues with it already!

Speaking of Fortress and the Al Simmons Spawn, you're one of very few artists to draw these characters in an official capacity - was that fun for you, taking on these new characters?

Oh yeah, absolutely. Any time you're drawing new characters, there's a lot of excitement and trying to figure out how to make it work with the original style. You don't realize how many characters really work because of the style that artists have. A character like the Hulk, the way that Jack Kirby drew the Hulk versus the way Neal Adams drew him - it's a completely different way of doing it with completely different results. You really see how that comes into play. So taking on a character like Fortress - luckily, Whilce [Portacio's] style and my style are not that far apart, so I didn't have to tweak it too much. But working on the Al Simmons Spawn, I had to try and figure out what Todd was doing with some of the ways he constructed elements of the character.

Was there a particular reason to put Ripclaw in the center of the cover?

I wanted to have a character that had some sort of weapon element to his appendages, and [Ripclaw] had a very visceral appeal out of seeing his claws against the Al Simmons Spawn and it not really even affecting the character. [Simmons] is just holding him down and taking all of the cuts and gashes that the claws wreak upon his body, so it was a way of making this villain seem more powerful in a way. Ripclaw is more of a melee type character, and having those claws dig into Spawn, it sells the story. It creates a story within the image.

He was also the right size. I wanted to have a size relationship between the Spawn and whoever he was holding down to show how intimidating and powerful he was. If you have a character like Badrock - who is literally the foundation of the piece - if he was lying on top of the other characters, he'd be crushing them to death! [Laughs]

Overall, what did you enjoy the most about constructing the image?

I think trying to figure out how to draw a character like the Al Simmons Spawn and make it look like my style, but true to the original design that Todd had done. Once I got that, the rest came fairly easy. Honestly, seeing the fan reaction to it was a rush. In a sense, it's a different group of fans out there following the Image stuff than are following "All Star Batman and Robin," so it was great hearing from a lot of longtime die-hard Image fans. Hearing their excitement on Twitter and on message boards was really thrilling.

Even after drawing the cover, do you wish that you could be more involved? Do you wish that you could be drawing interiors, or are you not envying what sounds like a pretty difficult art process?

The way Robert explained it to me when he was first putting the project together well over a year ago, it made a lot of sense and I thought it was a very doable thing. He set it up so it seemed like less work, and you get to draw all of the good stuff, which are your characters. I think it appealed to every different artist. But I was happy enough to just be involved, and I think it was the right amount, honestly. It's really about them and what they've achieved with their characters and the legacy that they've created.

As you said earlier, your relationship with a lot of these guys is better now than it was when you were at Image. What is that current relationship like?

We don't talk a lot, but whenever we see each other at shows, we'll make a point to chat. It's very nostalgic. I think we all realize what we have or haven't achieved. We did this all when we were very young, and a lot of time has passed. It's all looked upon, at least from my point of view, with a lot of nostalgia. You only remember the good stuff, which is probably a good thing. [Laughs] I think everyone has achieved a lot on their own. And as a company, it's gone the distance and has shown critics that it has legs.

What do you miss the most about your days with Image and about the company in general?

It's pretty different now than it was. At the time, I think that everyone was so busy and tied up in all of the things going on with them that they didn't have the energy or time to focus on just Image Comics, and it seems different to me now. It seems more mature, but they're still all very rebellious characters - all the Image partners - so it's always fun. Everyone is so different.

What are you looking forward to most about "Image United" once it hits the stands?

I'm a big Robert Kirkman fan, and when he laid out the basic concept, I thought it sounded really cool. I think it will be cool to see how all of the different contributions meld together. What I've seen looks good. We've done jams like this before where each of the partners drew their own characters on jam posters, but this is the first time a story has been told that way. From an experimental point of view, that's really cool. It ties into the whole concept of what the book is called and what "Image United" is about.

Is this cover the last we've seen of you in connection to "Image United," or could we see more from you down the line?

I'm pretty sure that this is it. I'm so far behind on all of my other projects. [Laughs] It's funny, when you do these things, you know that someone is going to be commenting, "Oh, I wish he'd focus on this or that instead." Thankfully, it was only like one in a hundred that said something like that, but you know you're going to have critics like that. "Why are you doing these 'Call of Duty' covers, why are you doing this other stuff?" At the end of the day, life is short. I'm still working on "All Star Batman and Robin," but projects like ["Image United"] do not come around all of the time. It's hard to say no to this kind of stuff, and being involved with the guys again is definitely something that I wanted to do.

I've said this before, but those guys are like my brothers. I've never had brothers before but this is what it feels like to me. I'm proud of each and every one of them and thrilled that they're still making a difference, not just in the world of movies, TV, toys and games, but also in the world of comics. I'm honored [that I was] invited back to participate, even with just a cover. We've all come a long way, and in many senses, we're enjoying the process of working together with one another ,now more than ever.

"Image United" #1, featuring a variant cover from original Image Comics partner Jim Lee, arrives in stores on November 25, 2009 courtesy of writer Robert Kirkman and artists Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri and Jim Valentino.

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