Few creators have remained as consistently relevant, revered, and forward-thinking in the comics industry over the last few decades as Jim Lee.
After first breaking into the scene with his celebrated work at Marvel Comics (including co-authorship of the best-selling comic of all time, "X-Men" #1), Lee went on to co-found Image Comics, create his own publishing company, Wildstorm Productions, and eventually sell the company to DC Comics in the late '90s in order to re-focus on his artwork. Most recently, the prolific creator was named co-publisher of DC Comics, and serves as Executive Creative Director for "DC Universe Online," the upcoming online multiplayer game featuring DC's massive cast of characters.
Next week sees the release of "Icons: The DC Comics and Wildstorm Art of Jim Lee," a new hardcover retrospective on the award-winning artist's work with DC and Wildstorm over the years, featuring an extensive collection of art (including some never-before-seen pieces) from Lee's archives. Presented alongside commentary from Lee himself, the art in "Icons" is only part of the project's appeal.
I spoke to Lee to get his thoughts on seeing his work collected in "Icons," what it says about his evolution over the years, and how the comic industry's growth in other areas (Hollywood, television, gaming, etc) has influenced his work.
MTV NEWS: First off, the book looks beautiful, Jim. When you looked through it yourself for the first time, were there any surprises for you?
JIM LEE: Yeah, I tend not to look at my work after I’ve done it. In fact, the only time I typically get to review it is when the fans bring up comics at shows and I kind of flip through it and be like, "Oh, I remember doing this!" So having something like this... Yeah, it's tremendous. There’s stuff in there that I literally don’t remember drawing. [Laughs]
MTV: When you went through the book, remembering some of these characters and your work with them, were there any that made you think, "Hey, I want to work with that character again."
LEE: Sure, there’s a whole section where I did Legion of Superheroes. I loved the fact that when Dave Cockrum worked on those books — and actually on X-Men as well — he just sat down and created costumes, and wouldn’t even necessarily know who those characters were. He just kind of created these looks. I’ve always been inspired by that kind of notion, so I just kind of sat down and just started sketching costumes and seeing what worked and what didn’t work, and it was all very rough draft stuff. None of that stuff was thought out — it was just kind of spur-of-the-moment, you know? Going with the moment?
And I liked how a lot of them turned out, so it just got me excited by the idea of actually working on these costumes. The Legion has gone through all these eras where they all had major fashion changes in the styles of costumes that they’ve had, and that’s always been part of their lore, I guess. So the idea of working on that and redefining them for the 30th Century was something that was very appealing to me.
MTV: What about some of the characters you haven't worked on in a long time? Were there any that were a real blast from the past for you?
LEE: Yeah, what’s interesting about the book is that it’s a lot of existing art I’ve done, and it kind of blows it up and crops it so you have a fresh perspective on stuff you’ve already seen in print. Most people have seen all this work published in regular periodic form, but... Obviously, a lot of that stuff was created a long time ago, and you know what? When I go through that book, I just wish I had more time to work on all that stuff. I mean, beyond the Legion, beyond Wildstorm, there is a fair amount of Batman stuff in there, so I feel like that’s pretty fleshed out. But even Superman and Wonder Woman, I feel like I just scratched the surface on that stuff.
MTV: Are there any changes you noticed about your art style while looking through the book? What can readers pick up about your growth as an artist by paging through it?
LEE: Well, I think that one good example was the Batman stuff. Even before I started "Batman: Hush" I had done a Dark Knight pin-up, which was very much an homage to the Frank Miller style in "Sin City." And then I did a promotional piece with Batman and Robin where they are sort of leaping together, and a cover for "Batman: Black and White." All three of them very, very different and it was very much me trying to figure out how to handle The Dark Knight. Then when I got onto "Batman: Hush," I made him very big and blocky and very, very muscular, but as you go through the series, by the time you get to the 11th issue of that run, he’s actually much more light and lean and graceful. So I guess I became comfortable working on that character through the run and I kind of changed and evolved as I worked on it.
That’s an example of how the style changes as you’re working on it, and as you’re drawing in new influences and things like that. It's just making minor changes, progressing over issues, and I don’t know if readers necessarily picked up on it, but by the time you got to the last issue and you compare that to the first time you see Batman in that first issue where he’s huge and blocky, it’s a very different Batman.
MTV: Is there a character that you look back on and remember having a rough time with?
LEE: Superman is the hardest character to draw. There are a couple of things that make him difficult. He’s got a very simple costume, and doesn’t have the long cape like Batman. He’s not a character that is necessarily always in shadow, and he doesn’t have a mask. He has to be Superman. He has to be the most grand, the most idealized form at all times, so he has to look powerful, but he can’t look bloated. His face has to look noble and handsome and rugged. It’s a war of subtleties. Every little change on that character makes a big difference in how he finally looks.
I think that I erase that character more than I draw that character, to be honest. He’s a character that doesn’t have the gloves, and doesn’t have the big boots, so you're really drawing sort of an idealized human form with a very simple costume. He’s got to be in a pose that suggests nobility. It's got to be a pose that suggests his idealized form, and it's tricky to do. Batman hunches over. He’s crouched and he’s in the shadows, so he’s in slightly more dynamic poses. Superman tends to stand very upright and he’s very symmetrical, and those are actually the most difficult poses for me to draw.
MTV: Your work on these characters covered such a long stretch of time. Did you find any of your styles influenced by other versions of the characters as they became more prevalent in other media — like movie or television versions of the characters, perhaps?
LEE: Actually, the "Hush" run was before "The Dark Knight," and I did the comic book version of Batman — the grey tights, the dark blue, etc. I always liked that look and I always felt that the grey was kind of apologizing for the fact that this character was a comic book character and had his roots in four colors. So I always felt I could carry that off and still make it look cool. ... To me, there's nothing wrong with the classic costume, and that wasn't a costume I’d seen a lot of lately.
While it's not so much other versions of the characters [that have influenced me], per se, sometimes you see the cities in animation or movies and that can inspire you. The first designs from the original Batman movies was very influential [on my Batman], but then of course when Christopher Nolan did a very more realistic Batman, he kind of fused the two — so again, people aren't alienated by the fact that this Batman [in the comics] doesn’t look like the Michael Keaton "Batman" era, but it also suggests sort of this Christopher Nolan "Batman" era. I guess some of that thinking goes into the art, but it's more in terms of the environment and things like that.
"Icons: The DC Comics and Wildstorm Art of Jim Lee" hits shelves soon from Titan Books. You can find out more about it at www.TitanBooks.com. Titan has also provided some art from the book that you can check out below: