C2E2 2012: Janet Lee, The Artist Evolving the World of 'The Dapper Men'

When you get right down to it, artist Janet Lee just can't seem to stop pushing the boundaries of what she's putting on the page and how she's putting it there. The Return of the Dapper Men and Emma artist continues to mix media and visual elements in ever more elaborate ways to tell stories both mundane and fantastic. And again, she's not stopping, carrying on this evolution of style in the upcoming Dapper Men sequel, Time of the Dapper Men as well as her illustrated alphabet project, The Wonderland Alphabet: Alice’s Adventures Through the ABC’s and What She Found There, both titles coming out from Archaia later this year.

Just before C2E2 2012, we caught up with Ms. Lee by e-mail to talk about her work and what she's got next for us to feast our eyes on.

MTV Geek: How did the Wolderland Alphabet come about?

Janet Lee: The year was 2009. There were a bunch of us in the Nashville arts community who had always wanted to illustrate a children’s book, so we came up with a gallery show called “Protopulp: Classic Books of the Future” as a sort of kick-in-the-pants to get us all to finish our books. Unfortunately, MY original book idea was Return of the Dapper Men, and I couldn’t show or sell pages from that until after Return was published. Silly me!

I was working on Return, and the show was creeping up. I still didn’t have a solid idea for another book. So, when my husband was asked to be a guest at Dragon Con, I went with him. Had a fun weekend, and on the way back, the idea for an Alice in Wonderland alphabet book hit me. I only had two weeks left before Protopulp, so I asked my friend Alethea Kontis—a published children’s author of two amazing alphabet books—if she would help. Alethea, saved my life: she researched and pulled things from wonderland that went with each letter; when I picked which one I wanted to draw, she wrote the verses. And with Alethea’s help, I was able to finish almost all of the letters in time for the show.

Protopulp was such a success that the gallery reprises the show every year; Alethea and I got an agent who started shopping the book to publishers.

Geek: It’s been about three years now that you and Alethea Kontis took on this project. What did the extra time give you in terms of fleshing out the work here?

Lee: Ha ha! Well, for the next three years, I was working 70-80 a week as a comic artist. ? I didn’t really pick up the project again until it got the green light at Archaia. By then, Alethea had moved to Washington, DC and written a YA novel (Enchanted, which is coming out this month). It’s actually surprising how well the work stood through the years. My own artistic style has developed significantly, but the original pages include some of my favorite pieces I’ve ever done. We only wanted to make one change to Alethea’s verse, and I completed letters N, X, and Z. And we had to correct some questionable pagination choices I’d made. Otherwise, this is the book as it was originally envisioned.

Geek: What were some particular challenges of working on the book and getting it to print?

Lee: Well, as I said, I made some wacky pagination choices. When I did the Protopulp show, I’d never illustrated a book before, so I didn’t understand basic printing needs—like bleed and gutters. I also apparently didn’t understand that you couldn’t make “A” a 2-page splash, then have “B” be a single page, then have “C” be a 2-page splash. Flatly doesn’t work. So the design team at Archaia did a wonderful job restructuring those 2-page spreads into a singe page. They all look wonderful now.

Basically Wonderland Alphabet is my love song to two of my favorite things: Alice and typeface. I LOVE fonts and hand lettering. And I adored designing the letters on every page as well as the letters on the cover.

Geek: Were you using the same style of layered art to produce your work here? Given the nature of the project were you able to mix it up a bit?

Lee: The Wonderland Alphabet illustrations are all done in the decoupage layers. It’s very much a glimpse into where I was artistically about the time I started Return of the Dapper Men. And I still have a deep love of decoupage: it gives a 3-D effect to the art that is hard to recreate in other media.

Now, the upcoming Time of the Dapper Men is another matter entirely. There’s a page in that book where I’m using photography, wood burning, and actual moss!

Geek: Besides Carroll’s original work, what were some other points of influence for you in illustrating the Wonderland Alphabet?

Lee: I looked at all kinds of things when illustrating Wonderland Alphabet, but I probably spent the most time researching Art Nouveau wallpaper and decorative patterns. I used those extensively when designing the patterns of the letters.The late 1800’s were a period where illustrated periodicals and books basically became the TV of their day, and Victorian illustrations for both children and adults were (and remain) incredibly inspiring.

Geek: So what do you and Jim have in store for Time of the Dapper Men?

Lee: Jim likes to call Time of the Dapper Men our Empire Strikes Back. Where Return was more of a philosophical fairy tale, Time takes us on Ayden’s Heroes Quest. The scope is global this time: instead of seeing only one city, we get to travel with Ayden and discover a whole world. I get to design killer robot animals and floating, utopian cites. And we have a love triangle.

Geek: How has your style evolved on that book over the last couple of years?

Lee: Mainly I can see the change in my line work and detail. When I did Jane Austen’s Emma and Northanger Abbey for Marvel, it was the first time I worked on art board, believe it or not. The decoupage pages for Return allow for fluid planning, for the pages to grow organically. If I didn’t like something, I could cut it out—or conversely, I could add a flower to cover a poorly drawn ear. Suddenly, for the Austen adaptations, I was forced to really plan the page.

For Emma, I handled everything—pencils, inks, coloring (by hand). For Northanger, we wanted a much more brooding, gothic look and my colors tend to be pretty bright. So we brought in Nick Fillardi to color. I had never NOT colored my own inks, though, and I think I overcompensated. I was so afraid that I was not giving Nick enough information with the inks, that I got much, much more detailed.

What can I say, working for Marvel makes you grow as an artist.

Geek: What’s next for the Dapper Men universe?

Lee: We’re working on Time of the Dapper Men now and will have a release date very soon. Then there’s a third book in the series which will be called World of the Dapper Men; a great deal of the design work I’m doing now looks ahead to WORLD. So, I guess I’m designing our Return of the Jedi now.

Geek: You also contributed to the Womanthology project. Could you tell us a little about your work there?

Lee: I got the opportunity to collaborate with two wonderful writers for our story in Womanthology: Heroic—Jenna Busch and Rachel Pandich. I think just about everybody knows Jenna (since she plays board games with Will Wheaton!!), but you may not know Rachel. Yet. She is definitely a name to watch! Our piece is called “Ladybird” and it’s a retelling of the classic children’s nursery rhyme set in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. So—cheerful like Titanic. ?

The Triangle fire, for those who don’t know, was the most horrific workplace disaster in US history before 9/11. 147 workers (all but 24 were young, immigrant women) died within 18 minutes when the shirtwaist factory they worked at caught fire. And the enormity of the tragedy mobilized America to legislate workplace safety and working conditions. This year marks the 100-year anniversary.

The script from Jenna and Rachel packed such a beautiful, intricate story into four pages—still leaving me room to play with borders and gargoyles, and a sense of the nursery rhyme. It’s honestly one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. We loved the story so much that, in our free time, we’re working it into a full-length graphic novel.

Geek: What are you working on next?

Lee: Let’s see: in addition to Time of the Dapper Men and the full-length version of Ladybird, I’m involved with an amazing project called The Graphic Textbook. The Graphic Textbook is a Kickstarter project from a not-for-profit group called Reading with Pictures, which is dedicated to making comics a part of the US school curriculum. Each writing/illustration team is producing a story that teaches a core concept in the areas of Math, Science, Social Studies, or Language. I’m collaborating for the first time with my husband, Mike Lee, who writes novels and game scripts by day; our story features the pulp adventures of Kid Jules Verne. SO MUCH FUN!

As a community, we’re always talking about ways to introduce kids to comics. How fabulous is the idea that they are part of school? I dream of a day when kids learn onomatopoeia by reading about Spider Man who (BIFF! POW!) takes out the bad guy.

I would encourage everyone who can pitch in for the The Graphic Textbook Kickstarter to do so. Do it for the children, or do it for the great rewards, but do it!!

The Wonderland Alphabet is coming this May and Time of the Dapper Men will follow sometime later this year.

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