SUPER-Stars (Part 11): Jim Lee talks "Superman" & life advice

You've seen him sell over eight million copies of a single comic.

You've seen his Image Comics studio break away, join with DC Comics and become one of the most successful of the Image founders.

You've seen him reinvigorate the comic book market with "Batman."

But you'll never see him at a strip club in Bristol (despite the intentions of others) and you will see him drawing superheroes blindfolded at the Comic-Con International in San Diego. And you'll always see him smiling.

If you haven't guessed that CBR news is talking about superstar artist Jim Lee, whose name is known fondly by even those who know little of comics, then you're about to learn about who some call the nicest man in comics. And the man considered the number one artist in comics. As part of CBR News' Superman celebration, Lee spoke about working on "Superman" and his top level status.

"It beats sitting around, talking about doing work and never doing it, that's for sure," laughs Lee. "Or going online and hyping up projects which never come out. I'm only half joking here…it wasn't that long ago that it seemed so difficult to get out 3 issues a year, much less 12.

"I'm just trying to be more serious and diligent about the work I do so even though it's an incredibly exciting time to be back in comics again, I would have to say that this time around, I am much more focused and determined to not let the things get between me and the work. So as far as my world…it's pretty unglamorous. I work nearly every day well into the night, sometimes I skip meals if I have a particularly heavy deadline. It's ironic but when things are going good, there's actually less time to enjoy your life and your success. Time gets eaten up doing the work and attending to all the things that come from having a successful book-con promotions, signings, interviews such as this."

The former "X-Men" artist is seen as the driving force of the Superman reboot, which begun earlier this month and Lee isn't sure how comfortable he is with that assigned role. "To an extent…I know on one level, it's easier for fans and the comics media to focus on one word, one catchphrase to describe a much larger, more complex type of event but the Superman relaunch…reboot…Big Mofo event, whatever ya want to call it, is so much more than just about my drawing Superman that there is definitely some level of discomfort in hearing it termed that way but at the same time, if attaching my name helps bring in fans into stores to check out the work of such heavyweight writers as Greg Rucka, Chuck Austen, Brian Azzarello, Rick Veitch, and Micah Ian Wright and top notch artists like Matt Clark, Lee Bermejo, Ivan Reis, Carlos D' Anda and Tommy Lee Edwards, then it has some purpose and value to it. Being in the business of publishing books, I know how much work goes into making a successful comic. It's never just about the art…the art may draw people in, no pun intended, but it's the words, the stories that keep ya there so in some respects, I have the easiest job in all this. I'd rather have one really kickass idea than 10 pages of 'hot'art. All the projects this industry considers to be the best do not necessarily look the prettiest or the most commercial, but they all do certainly share one thing in common… a great story."

Some of the cynics wonder what Lee and scribe Brian Azzarello (who spoke recently with CBR News) will do that is "new" to the Superman mythos and Lee provides a revelation that will have fans talking for years. "Well, Superman eats a peach. I think I may be the first artist to ever draw him doing that," says Lee, trying to suppress a grimace. "That was fairly challenging. Making someone look good while eating isn't as easy as it sounds. Getting people to pose for that shot for reference is harder than it sounds and try finding a peach during the winter when they are out of season…

"All kidding aside, it's very different from what has come before. I hate to overstate it, but I think the stories are really rich, very complex in a very simple, direct way. They work on a number of different levels and I think fans who enjoy reading stories, those who enjoy ruminating on the dialogue, those who want to understand what Superman truly is will love what Brian has written. I say I hate overstating it because I think if you have to say that a story is 'deep,' that if it has to be explicitly stated that way, then perhaps it truly isn't…but…

"It starts out fairly somber but it goes into high gear by the 3rd issue and in the end, there will be some serious changes to the world of Superman. That's all I want to say really…I hate giving out teasers. I never watch previews if I can help it. I really enjoy being surprised when watching movies or reading comics and I think our run on Superman is definitely going to create a lot of interesting dialogue and debate amongst the fans. It's definitely different. In a very good way."

While Lee is a veteran storyteller, from writing "X-Factor" and "X-Men" to co-creating and writing a variety of Wildstorm comic books, he isn't going to try and interfere in Azzarello's work. "Yes, if I am working with a veteran, I defer to them. It's their job to come up with the story. My job is to bring the words to life. But that said, I rarely work in a vacuum. Yes, Brian writes the scripts and I draw the pictures but I usually work with writers I know and there is a lot of discussion that goes on before a book is even started…probably to make sure everyone on the team is on the same page creatively. Whatever impact I have or don't have comes from those discussions. I also know there is a huge leap between having a good idea and being able to transform that idea into a kickass story. That's why I want to work with the best writers working in comics today. There are a lot of good ideas that are poorly executed. The really top notch writers have a way of surprising you, of showing something interesting in even the smallest of things."

Lee has worked with a number of popular writers, but most recently Loeb and Azzarello are the ones with whom he's been collaborating. He respects both and explains how working with each of them is a wonderful, unique experience. "They are both terrific writers with a flair for solid, hardhitting dialogue. Brian works the fringe more, the dialogue is more elliptical, more circumspect. Jeph, at least when he is working with me, writes more in a big summer blockbuster mode, mostly because he writes to his artists, and I think he has a very keen sense of what artists are good at and not so good at. On the other hand, I think Brian is writing a story which any number of artists could do a great job on. Maybe even a better job. He has a more definite sense of what his style is and is expecting me to bring my game up to his writing. It's a reversal of expectations I think. I like working with both of them because while the raw pictures may look the same, the thinking that goes into each book is very different and you never want to be in a situation where you are on autopilot.

"Jeph's scripts are more like screenplays, that's the world he comes from. There's a lot of camera direction, a lot of information put forth in a concise and exciting way. Brian is comicdom's more streetwise cousin of Harold Pinter. His work is more like that of a playwright. Very little stage direction-it's all there in the dialogue and not necessarily in the action. But having said that, there are so many different ways you can interpret scenes that you spend as much time figuring out gestures, facial expressions as you do composing the shot. So all you Harold Pinter fans, come check out Superman [laughs]."

There's a large segment of the comic fan base that believes that Superman is a unique character and that it'll be hard to ever recreate that same kind of character, despite the homages found in characters like Supreme or Mr. Majestic. "Well, I think being first is a big help," laughs Lee, answering why he feels fans have that perspective. "Supreme, Mr Majestic, Hyperion, the Prime, the Samaritan…the list goes on and on but you can't replicate Superman and I don't think anyone who was creating these Superman type characters were trying to do that. I think there are some stories about a Superman like character which can not be told using Superman because of his iconism, because of his supporting cast, the nature of the DCU, the way TW views the character, and probably most importantly, the way, we as fans, casual readers, or straight out 'civilians' want Superman to act. Writers, being creative by nature, don't necessarily want to be hemmed in by these restrictions-hence all these other Superman like characters. What makes him unique? See my answer from the previous question…ok if I had to say one thing, then it would be that he is the ultimate hero. What makes all the knockoff characters interesting is that they are not. They are explorations of the Platonic ideal that is Superman. That's what makes them interesting."

The foundation for Lee's fondness of Big Blue can be traced back to his childhood and admits to doing some unique research before tackling the character head on (as opposed to the limited appearance by Superman in "Hush"). "IAs far as inspirations, it has to be Neal Adams. I remember the day I saw my first Neal Adams Superman…it was the cover to an issue of Justice League where all these starving people are pulling at him as he faces towards heaven in despair. My favorite though was 'Superman vs Mohammed Ali.' WOW…that changed everything. I still have my beat up, dog-eared copy of that book! And I also was a big fan of Dick Dillon when he worked on JLA. He drew the ultimate versions of all the classic characters.

"More recently, I think it's hard to take a swing at Superman without acknowledging the works of Curt Swan, John Byrne, Frank Miller and Alex Ross on the character. I also was a big fan of the few issues Mike Mignola did…I thought he did a great job interpreting Superman's costume and physique.

"At the moment though, I would have to say since I am working side by side with Lee Bermejo (who is the artist on 'Man of Steel: Lex Luthor' with Brian Azzarello) that it is Lee. Not so much in terms of style but we will often talk about interpreting Brian's scripts and what and who Superman is. Plus he did the designs for the new, retro Metropolis and I am embracing that as much as my style will permit. He does a great Luthor…it's a pity I won't have the chance to play around with his interpretation."

Fans of Lee's latest work will have noticed his work looked slightly different in "Coup D'etat: Sleeper" and the artist explains why it was different, relating it to the differences fans will see in his "Superman" work. "Well, I inked 'Coup' so 'Superman' will look different right off the bat as I do not have the inking skills that Scott Williams has. I compensate for that in a number of different ways but when I know he will be inking my pencils, I will draw shots and render figures in ways I know only he can bring to life. Batman was the first regular work I had done in a long while and so in some respect, it was a warm-up to Superman. That being said, I have to say that each issue of 'Superman' is feeling easier to draw which is a good sign…a sign I am getting a better handle on drawing the character. Batman has more shadows but I think we are still trying to incorporate as shadows and spotted blacks with Superman as possible. Superman is just harder to make look natural in that kind of lighting as his colors are so bold, bright and primary in nature."

If you didn't visit Internet Message Boards (like CBR's own DC Comics forums) last year, you may not have noticed the Jim Lee renaissance taking place- fans praised his work almost universally and while he may have been tackling a big character like Batman, one has to wonder if "Superman" has even more pressure. "If there is pressure, it doesn't come from the external," admits Lee. "It comes from me trying not to embarrass myself on a daily basis. Drawing is all about drawing what you see in your mind and making sure others see what is in your mind through your work. The worst case scenarios are when you draw a figure that you think looks dramatic or dynamic and the only thing other people can see is how one arm is longer than the other, or that his head is the size of a peanut in relation to his torso. I think Superman will differ from Batman also in the number of reaction shots. There is a lot of cutting back and forth from characters as they speak and that requires matching panels, figures, and backgrounds which is harder than it sounds. It's a lot easier for me to draw something different in each panel than to try and replicate what I just drew but with a slightly different gesture. Those are the types of skills I need to address and improve upon and Superman will give me that opportunity."

It's a known fact that Superman comics haven't been selling quite so well, excluding the sales juggernaut that is "Superman/Batman," and Lee says that while fans might not expect it, lower sales doesn't always mean more creative freedom. "For a book that was a low to mid seller, it seems everyone and their mother has a very strong belief in what he is and how he can be best represented. I think there is some pressure in giving everyone what they want. I think my and Brian's goal is to give them something slightly different which they will love just as much or maybe more."

With writer Chris Claremont, Lee helped solidify the X-Men as "the" money making comic book franchise by the early 90's and though he went to start his own studio, Wildstorm, the artist had a feeling he'd be working with the proverbial "World's Finest" sooner or later. "Well, selling a lot of comics is fun and exciting. I think everyone who creates, whether he is a writer or an artist, wants to do work which will last. Work that will as they say, stand the tests of time. That test is fairly independent of sales records. As far as imagining working on these characters…I think I always knew I would take a stab at Superman and Batman. I had no idea it would be for more than a one-shot but I am glad for the opportunity. In my opinion, a career in American mainstream comics is not complete without working on these characters…they are the heroes of our youth and it's an honor to be adding something to their very long and prestigious legacy."

Speaking of Image Comics, a company that has seen many ups and downs since his departure, Lee doesn't really think about how things would be different if he had stayed with the company. "No, I rarely think about the past in that way. It was a great experience and I have absolutely no regrets being part of that great group and none whatsoever about leaving. It worked out better for both of us. There were too many cooks in the kitchen with too many recipes as it were."

Arguably, 1991 was the big year for Jim Lee, when he helped to sell 8.1 Million copies of "X-Men #1" (a feat no one has come close to since), the year when he was at the height of his popularity and then left Marvel to found Image. Despite having produced a relatively limited amount of projects since then, Lee's fans have stuck by him and proved last year with "Batman" that Lee is still the biggest draw in comic books. But why is Lee so popular? "That is a question I ask myself a lot actually, because if you know why, maybe it's something you can teach, something you can impart to others who want to learn," explains Lee. "But the truth is I don't know exactly why…I mean, I have my theories but they all approach the same question from different angles. There are those who like the action, those who like the babes, those retailers who know they can count on me to deliver a certain level of quality and now that I have been reliable for the run on 'Hush,' there are those retailers who know I will deliver the goods when they place their bets. I look at a lot of different books-good and bad-looking to learn why one style works better than another, why one book sells more and one less…why fans don't like artists who I think are fantastic. I think the reason ultimately may be that when I was a fan, my tastes were very, very mainstream, partly because I just ordered comics through the mail, and that my interpretation of heroes, my take on what a superhero looks like, and more importantly acts like through body language and gestures, is something that resonates with the a large part of the comic buying public."

It is no secret that Jim Lee would love to draw DC's Legion of Superheroes, a remark that drew cheers from crowds in San Diego last year, but there are more characters that Lee would like to illustrate… though he'll keep them to himself for now. "Yes and Yes! There are several characters at both DC and WS I would love to take a crack at but I also want to take a break sooner than later. Drawing regularly and doing my day job at WS can be grueling. A hell of a lot of fun but it would be nice in a year or two to take a bit of a breather and reassess where I am at, how I feel about my work, what new, if any challenges I want to take on."

Being the head- and founder- of Wildstorm keeps Lee quite busy, which is part of the reason so many people were surprised Lee was not only illustrating "Batman" but now tackling "Superman," and with 2004, Lee wants to remind readers that Wildstorm is the best kept secret in the industry. "Well, I'll be very blunt and honest with you because I take the health of WildStorm very seriously. I think we are looking to return it back to some of the stature we had in previous years. We have had more than our fair share of critically acclaimed books but awards don't pay the bills. I think 'Coup' was a good step in the right direction and we have several killer projects like the 'Intimates' by Joe Casey and Giuseppe Camuncoli and 'Ex Machina' by Brian K. Vaughn and Tony Harris, a new 'Wetworks' series by Mike Carey and Whilce Portacio which I think fans will be raving about. Creators love the environment we have created at WildStorm and those three projects are just the first wave of several we have lined up.

"I know that if I can personally help a lot by doing a series for WS and I am sure that will happen sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, I can only draw one book a month otherwise you would see one DC book and one WS title a month.

"We are also streamlining all the different labels and brands we have in WS so I think the end result will be a higher density of kickass material to books published."

DC is keeping their Wildstorm event news close to the chest and even Lee won't go into too much detail. "Other than the ones I mentioned…well as a big Jeff Campbell fan, I am looking forward to his return to regular interiors. I think many creators have seen that better days are ahead of us when books ship regularly and on time and I think that is a trend which is in sharp contrast to previous years."

Another constant collaborator of Lee's is colorist Alex Sinclair, who spoke recently with CBR News, and Lee isn't sure where to begin raving about Sinclair. "Alex is the best. A miracle worker. I love working with him because he as passionate or more in some cases about the projects than the other creators. He is a perfectionist and works endlessly and tirelessly to make the books look as dazzling as possible. And like Scott and myself, we work really well together in terms of giving each other feedback in what we think is hitting and missing as far as pencils, inks, and colors goes."

Co-editing "Superman" is editor Eddie Berganza (who spoke extensively with CBR News as part of "SUPER-Stars") and Lee enjoys working with the editor who is much maligned by "fans." "Eddie is co-editing with Will Dennis and while I deal with Eddie and his office, I probably kibbitz as much with Will. It depends on what needs to be addressed. Both have been a pleasure to work with. As far as fan's opinions, I think they may not always know what an editor contributes to a project. I think editors often get the short end of the stick. If there is something the fans love about a book, they attribute that to the writers or artists. If they hate the direction, the editor is often maligned since they have the power to change writers and artists when things aren't going the ways fans want it to. I have to think editing Superman is one of the harder assignments. You can walk up to just about anyone on the street and illicit some opinion on who Superman is. The fact that we all think we all know the character as well as the next person can make for some…spirited debates."

As someone who constantly seems at peace with himself and his life, CBR News thought it'd be interesting to ask Lee about his one piece of life advice for fans and as usual, the artist delivered more than one expected. "Eat well for starters. Never met a happy person who ate unhealthily…and of course, plan for tomorrow but live for today. Follow your dreams…or just tell them to go on ahead and meet them there at the end. I have to credit that joke to Mitch Hedberg. Go buy his latest CD-it's hilarious. OK that was more than one piece of advice [laughs]."

Knowing that Lee enjoys working out, it seemed apropos to ask: in a steel cage submission match (refereed by famous wrestler Bret "The Hitman" Hart), who would win: Eddie "Super" Berganza, Will "I'm packing 100 Bullets" Dennis or Jim "I'm a Wild Cat" Lee?

"This sounds like a CBLDF charity event in the making!" smiles the affable artist.

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