That became apparent during the Spotlight on Jim Lee Panel at the New York Comic-Con when he took to the stage with DC Editor-in-chief Dan Didio, who was there to interview him and moderate the panel.
The mood was loose and jovial and Didio and Lee cracked jokes to warm themselves and the audience into the swing of things.
The purpose of the panel was to akin to a "Jim Lee on Jim Lee," giving him a chance to talk about how he got his start, the formation of Image and Wildstorm, and his current projects, including "All Star Batman and Robin" and his upcoming return to "Wildcats."
"I just did the cover for that. I mean, you draw sketches for people and stuff like that, but it never feels like the real thing until you get paid for it… No, just kidding. These were the very first characters I created when I started for Image Comics, and it's thrilling. It still resembles the original characters, but we're taking a very different approach art direction-wise. So fans of the original book will be very happy and I'm still challenging myself creatively to give them something different.
"We're going for a Steranko Sixties Pop Art effect," Lee continued. "In the old days they used to lay plastic sheets over the artwork so you get these dots and half-tones that you don't see anymore with computer coloring, and we wanted to bring half-tones back in, and we're going to make the colors really pop out more. It's going to be zanier, art-wise, to reflect the pace of the stories, because what Grant [Morrison] wants to do with the stories are really in-your-face. He wanted to do 'Wildcats' like the original Image days, but on crack… I'm not quite sure what he means myself…
"The book is bimonthly, so hopefully it's going to come out on time. I mean, the original first issue came out, then two months later, the second issue, and four months later, the next… I really want to keep up a bimonthly schedule on this."
Didio proceeded to ask Lee how he felt about the different writers he's worked with, since they all had different approaches, from Jeph Loeb on "Batman," to Brian Azzarello on "Superman," to Frank Miller on "All-Star Batman and Robin," to Grant Morrison on "Wildcats."
"Well, I'd like to write something someday, once I've worked with enough of these guys and figured out how to do it. Jeph Loeb's scripts read more like screenplays. Azarello's read more like plays, the dialogue is the most important to him, and he leaves the art direction out of it. Frank is an artist himself, so what he writes, I can see immediately, because he's writing what he sees in his head. Grant is psychedelic. The scripts tend to divert to these rambling diversions and the characters start to speak in jargon for no reason, but it sounds cool. They're all different kinds of reads, and it's a real joy."
"I went to Princeton University and I got a degree in Psychology. I went into pre-med. My father's a doctor and that's what he wanted me to be. I told him I'd rather draw people in underwear than try to save people's lives. In my senior year in college, I broke the news to him that I didn't want to be a doctor. It's a great profession, but I always had a passion for art and comics. So after I graduated, I put together a portfolio and actually came to New York, to the convention at the Roosevelt Hotel. It was the first major comic book convention I went to. I showed my work to Archie Goodwin, and he introduced me to Carl Potts at Marvel. It's a funny story. When I went there with my portfolio, I saw Dave Cockrum, I saw Bill Sienkiewicz, Terry Austin... they were like gods to me. I was a little anxious and put off, and I didn't want to show anyone my work. Finally, I said, I came all the way out here, and I should show my work to somebody, and Archie was waiting there for someone, so he asked to look at my work. He said 'This is pretty good.' That's how I started."
"Did you ever predict the degree of success you would have?" asked Didio.
"Yeah," smirked Lee. "I knew if from the beginning." He waited for the laughter to pass before he gave a serious answer.
"No, you can never predict. I've worked with a lot of young artists and you think, 'Wow! This guy's gonna be huge!' and sometimes it doesn't happen. It's not something you can necessarily do on your own. I think if you work really hard and utilize the opportunities that you have, that's how you get there. For years, I didn't do a lot of comic book work, and people might think I was just sitting around on a beach and drinking mai-tais, but I was working hard on different things, and the things that kept me in comics is the diverse things I've been able to do, not just drawing comics. When I was working on a lot of licensing deals and just learning about the business of comics. That was really challenging. That was one of the reasons I got into comics.
"With Medicine, I felt if I went to medical school, it would've been another four years, then an internship, and then I'd be 30, 32 – that doesn't seem so old to me now, but at the time, it seemed like forever, and I didn't want to be in a profession for that long a period of time," continued Lee. "I wanted to do something now. With that path, I thought I might regret it, to get to 35, 36, and decide, 'You know what? I don't really like medicine.' There wasn't that much freedom to divert and do something different. I knew if I went into comics, I could go into movies or other kinds of media, like advertising and what-not, and luckily comics has been really exciting, and that's what kept me involved."
Didio then moved onto asking Lee about what Image was like at the beginning.
"Well, there were six of us," said Lee. "And those were crazy years. I keep toying around with trying to write something based on those years. Imagine a bunch of guys that knew nothing about the business of comics being handed 30% market-share, way too much power in terms of being able to put projects together and putting them out. We made every mistake there was and still did pretty good despite that. We learned a lot. You feel like you went to war with these guys. Even though I don't really talk to them that much, when we see each other, there's this bond that we have because we went through this great process together.
"I've never had a brother, but Todd has, and he described it to me as 'six brothers who got together every now and then, wrestled each other – and sometimes we literally did do that," continued Lee. "It was like a circus. I remember taking meetings and I had my baby with me, because he had just been born. We were meeting with Bob Schamus of Diamond Comics at a suite in a hotel, and Todd had his jeans and his shirt off… Everyone else had paper out and was drawing… Rob Liefeld was jumping up on a bed… And we're trying to cut this business deal."
"I was pretty fortunate early on in that I hired a guy named John Nee, who actually still works at DC now. He's very business-minded and he brought some order and structure to what we were doing. He represented me in a lot of meetings. He had a lot of business skills and he's not afraid to ask for things. He put together a lot of cool stuff for us, and kept the business building. As a lot of you know, apart from the comics publishing side, we started branching out and started doing trading cards and projects for film companies to develop. Those paid pretty well and allowed us to keep going as a comics publishing house, because we had a lot of side deals going as well. He's an integral part of the success we had.
"We broke away from Image and the business side for a while to bring some new talent to comics. At the time, the Kubert School was around, but there was no real formal process for it. For me, I know that if nothing happened that one time at that con at the Roosevelt Hotel, I would have moved to New York and swept the floors at Marvel to try and get my foot in the door. That's how committed I was to what I want to do. I didn't want people to have to do that at Wildstorm, not that it wouldn't help – the floors are really messy.
"Also, at the time, it was a new experience, and we didn't want to use all the same talent. We wanted a bunch of hungry people, and we got boxes and boxes of submissions. Thousands. And we picked three, called them up and flew them out. That was how we started. We got 30, 35 artists come through, like Scott Campbell, Alex Garner, Dan Norton, Ale Garza, Carl Stanza… Travis [Charest] was there, but he wasn't really an intern… It was a very different time. Inmates running the asylum. We had a ping pong table up, and all the art tables around, and we'd draw till 2 or 3 in the morning, and people would challenge each other, play ping pong. Then we'd all drive over to Denny's and eat at 3.30, 4 in the morning. And that was kind of our lives. And then we had kids and that all changed. It was something you could do when you were pretty young."
Asked what led him to join Wildstorm with DC Comics, Lee replied, "The deal happened in '98. On the publishing side, there seemed to be some interest in sales of graphic novels. Basically, the bet would be 'All right, I'm going to put all this capital that we saved, and print thousands and thousands of copies of graphic novels, hoping that I'll sell them in three to five years, maybe longer. It was a risky bet, because basically you're betting everything on this one outcome happening. That was one part of it.
"DC has incredible infrastructure to capitalize on it. If this was the way the business was going to go, those kinds of deep pockets and vision were the ones that would succeed.
"The last part was that I didn't draw a lot when I was in comics, and I kind of burned out on the business side. I was also kind of disappointed that at that point in my career and my life, I had only drawn ten comics in four, five years. I wanted to get back to the drawing board. I was pretty burned out for a while, and then a year-and-a-half after the deal went through, I started drawing again. And it feels great. This is really what I was born to do. It sounds stupid, but drawing comics, I get in the zone, it doesn't feel like work. It's not religious, you're in a fugue state, and things happen. It's great that you can draw something that's in your head and doubly frustrating when you can't. It's one of the greatest times of my day. To be able to create something and put it on paper, it's very rewarding."
Lee admitted that he had trouble starting "All-Star Batman and Robin", because he started visualizing things the way Frank Miller did.
"I really don't have stage fright when I work on a project. I just sit down and start drawing. But on 'Batman and Robin,' I redrew the first page many times and drove myself crazy, because I could literally see Frank behind me and going, 'Tsk… I don't know…' If I said 'Why don't you draw?' He would push me out of the chair. He could do that, and it's very intimidating to work with someone like that, because the way he described the panels, I could instantly see how he would have done it and I didn't want to go that way because then it would have been useless. I wanted to put my style on it and that required one more level of thinking. Maybe I envisioned the same thing he would have done, it changed because I want to do something different. I'm already confused just saying that. Because of that confusion, that first issue took forever. I redrew a lot of stuff. Now it's a lot better, because I sit down and just do it.
"Also, because I was drawing Batman again, I thought, 'Should it look different?' The differences are fairly subtle, and these are the things you go through. A lot of artists don't want to go back to do characters they'd already done, because they don't want to have to have to grapple with those kinds of issues. If I went back to do X-Men again, there'd be this kind of agonizing over, say, how long should Wolverine's claws be. It sounds silly, but that's what we think about."
As for characters he hasn't drawn yet but would like to:
"The Legion of Superheroes. I loved them as a kid. The designs are kind of fun. As an artist, you can sit down and draw quick sketches, and each sketch visualizes the characters living, breathing, moving around through the gestures that you put in. You do that very quickly in 10, 15 minutes. I would definitely like to do that at some point."
At the half-way point, Didio invited DC President Paul Levitz to make a major announcement: Warner Brothers Entertainment and Sony Interactive are currently developing a Massively Multi-player Online Game featuring the DC Universe that's being developed by Sony – and Lee and several key Wildstorm artists have been working on the art design of the game.
Levitz noted that Lee's prime motivation for coming to DC was to leave behind his legacy as an artist while still in his prime years, to do things while at the top of his form and his craft, to leave his mark and be remembered for.
Levitz feels the game is a radical new project for DC. It gives Lee a chance to play with the DC Universe, and shape its next generation.
The game will turn the DC Universe into a massive multi-player world, with Lee as the new universe creator of the online DC Universe. It would be an experience that integrates the creativity and fertility of the DC Universe, and take it to the next level. The game would feed back into the comics, which would in turn feed back into the game in an ongoing interactive experience.
"The aim is for you to eventually have no free time at all. You will wake up in the morning and put all your money in a bag labeled 'DC Universe' and give it to us." Said Levitz, not entirely jokingly. "Eventually, we'd like to implant a plug in your head so you can play the game constantly like something out of a Larry Niven story."
Lee has been working on the game for the last six months, which explains why "All-Star Batman and Robin" is running late.
Lee could not reveal too much about the game prior to its official release.
"Basically the concept art for the game, world, what the characters are going to look like, the buildings, the cars, are all going to be drawn by Wildstorm. Me, Carl Stanza, Ale Garza, Scottie, are the team working on it with an Art Director in San Diego named Matt Broome. Matt used to work for me at Wildstorm, he was one of the guys I brought in. After he left, he developed this really successful video game career, and he is our liaison with Sony in San Diego. The game developers are based in Austin, Texas.
"DCU (I'm going to break some taboos) is a fictional universe. It doesn't really exist, it can't talk, and it doesn't really express itself. My role is really to be the DC Universe for these developers. My job is to make this game the DCU. It's more difficult than it sounds, because everyone here has a different vision of it. Normally, the developer will send stuff to get approved, yes or no, and to me, it's a bit of a sterile process in that as the person controlling the property, you don't have a lot of responses. 'Yes,' 'no,' 'do it again.' My role is to be there and create this with them, to visualize it and reflect DCU in real time. I have to create a lot of things. For example, there's no map of Metropolis. There's a map of Gotham City, but no map of Metropolis for where everything is. Normally at DC, a lot of people have to consult on it, and it might take a while for it to kick out. On something like this, I can just sit down and sketch it out, identify the appropriate landmarks, where I think it should be, and we're off and running. That's something that saves them a lot of time, and makes the game more valid."
Levitz added that Lee being both a life-long DC fan and an intense gamer will also help keep the DCU game faithful to the legacy of the DC Universe's 70-year history. This is one reason why they could forgive Lee's lateness on "All-Star Batman and Robin."
"It's all research, Paul," quipped Lee.
Levitz said, "We're really tight, obnoxious bastards when it comes to licensing. This gives us the unique opportunity to turn to a single person the same way you would the director of a film and say, 'Here's the keys to the universe. Take it, shape it, build it, do a vision that will work for the game.' It makes it attractive for the licensor's side, and Jim is driving the car from both directions. It's an extraordinary moment. The lesson that I learned when I started at DC, from the great Joe Orlando, my first boss, is that our readers can smell sincerity. They know when we're phoning it in. They know when we're doing it for a page rate, and they know when we're doing it because we really care. I believe that's true in all creative media, and I believe that is equally true in the online gaming world as well. I think the sincerity of Jim in feeling both for the characters, for the game and how it's going to come together will be felt."
The last few minutes of the panel were devoted to questions from the audience. Asked about which characters Lee would still like to draw, he answered that he would like to draw them all at some point. He was a particular fan of Green Lantern as a child.
"You still feel a rush when you draw them."
On art and artists: "If an artist influences me these days, it'll have something to do more with the storytelling and other things most readers may not pay attention to. I'm as interested in stuff an artist didn't draw as what he did draw. Earlier in my career, I was more interested in how things were drawn, like 'Wow, this arm feels really three-dimensional, like it's really coming out at me and how did the artist achieve that illusion?' Guys like Neal Adams, Frank Miller, George Perez, even guys I didn't like, I'd try to figure out why I didn't like their work. It's all mathematical. You can deconstruct everything so the relationships between points… a line can really change the relationship between points on the body.
"Outside of comics, I look at a lot of modern art, but I wouldn't say that it fully impacts me. It does inspire me to create more, I think, just the same way watching a TV show or a good movie or reading a good book does. It's nice to go and see art that you wouldn't necessarily see in your own day, to be able to go up to the art and see the brushstrokes and how they created it, and try and think about the process by which they created it."
When asked if he were to go back in time, whether he would have run Wildstorm or done everything in his career the same way, Lee smiled and said, "Oh yeah. You only remember the good times. I'd have done the same thing. Another three to five years of therapy and I'll be fine.
"This is the best job in the world. When I'm at conventions, I'm on vacation, because I'm not drawing. And I get to meet people who love comics."
CBR's coverage of the New York Comic-Con is Sponsored by Comics Unlimited.