Comic book god Jim Lee walks a funny line between celebrity and anonymity. The renowned artist has worked on and helped shape the vision of such iconic comic franchises as X-Men, Superman and Batman and Robin, as well as launched one of the most edgy publishing imprints, Wildstorm Productions, and over his 18-year career he’s developed an almost cult-like following. Online fan sites are dedicated exclusively to Lee, he lays claim to illustrating the best-selling single issue comic book of all time (1991’s X-Men #1, with more than 8 million copies sold) and his upcoming appearance at Missoula’s Muse Comics is momentous enough that owner Amanda Fisher calls it “easily the biggest thing to happen in Montana in comics ever.” In the comic book world, Lee is a living legend.
“Which really means, of course, not much,” Lee says. “I get recognized sometimes when I go out, but no one follows me around, no one cares where I eat. It’s not real celebrity-ism. When I go to a show, yeah, people will wait in line for hours for your signature or follow you into the bathroom or want to take pictures of you. But I get the best of both worlds because for a couple days each month when I’m at a show or make an appearance I get treated like a king and the rest of the time I can just go about my daily life.”
Perhaps it’s telling that Lee, while clarifying his celebrity status and how he maintains a routine daily life, is driving from his home in La Jolla, Calif., to the Hollywood premiere of Superman Returns. A few hours after his phone interview, Lee will be serving as a representative of DC Comics, walking the red carpet with the big names behind the superhero’s cinematic return, such as director Bryan Singer and leading actors Brandon Routh and Kevin Spacey.
“I’m like the lowest man on the totem pole at these things,” he says. “They’ll ask what I do and I’ll say I draw Superman comic books and they’ll say, ‘They still publish comic books?’”
They do still sell comic books, and almost since the beginning of his career Lee’s have been among the industry’s most popular. After graduating from Princeton in 1986 and deciding against following in his father’s footsteps as a doctor, Lee pursued art and comics instead. He landed a job almost immediately as an illustrator at Marvel Comics and soon went to work on the popular X-Men series. Despite substantial success at Marvel, he broke off with some colleagues in 1992 to create a new company, Image Comics, which included Lee’s personal Wildstorm imprint. In 1998, he sold Wildstorm to DC Comics, where he’s continued with his own line of stories while also contributing to established DC series like Superman and Batman (he recently signed an extension to stay with DC through 2010). The agreement not only maintains Lee’s autonomy from the comic giant on his own projects, but also affords him access to some of the most recognizable comic book characters in history. His biggest current project is All Star Batman and Robin, a new book written by Sin City creator Frank Miller.
“He was instrumental in me becoming who I am today in that his very first Dark Knight book came out in 1986,” says Lee, 41, of working with Miller. “That was my senior year in college and I had just decided I didn’t want to attend medical school. That book was so different from a lot of the comic books I read as a kid just in format, concept, approach and storyline—just much more sophisticated—and it inspired me to try to break into comics. I’ve embarrassed him with that story many times, but in the end I’m getting to work with someone who I essentially idolized.”
As an illustrator—or penciller, as he’s specifically referred to in the comics world, outlining images before passing them on to an inker—Lee is in the position of incorporating a writer’s specific vision for a character with his own aesthetic ideas. It’s a tricky balance. For instance, Lee was caught in a public airing of “creative differences” when working on X-Men with long-time writer Chris Claremont. The feud eventually led to Claremont leaving the series.
“What happened with X-Men was—what was it 1990? 1991?—was a different type of situation in that Chris was a veteran and had been working on the book for 16, 17 years and I was just a young punk,” Lee says. “It’s not as conducive to working things out when the situation’s more like that. Later on, after you’ve shown creative chops and displayed it working with a number of other great writers, I find that writers are much more receptive.”
In fact, the Claremont situation is a rarity. For the majority of his career, Lee says, he’s had better experiences collaborating with writers than working on solo projects, such as Wildstorm’s Deathblow and Divine Right. And he’s at a point in his career now where he can cherrypick projects to work on with the best writers in the industry, like Miller.
“Frank has a very clear vision of what the [Batman and Robin] series will be like, but when we met we really talked more about the characters and the kinds of stories we liked growing up,” Lee says. “He took those elements from the conversation and incorporated them into the storylines he already had.”
And if there was a disagreement or disconnect in Lee’s transfer of an idea from Miller’s script to his drawing board?
“Thank God the industry is not so overdeveloped where it’s you have your people contact their people,” Lee says. “You just call the guy directly, sit down and talk about the storylines and what you see. For the most part, writers are very open to changes and modifying what they put down.”
In that way, comics are much different from the more cutthroat, high-stakes, controlling environment of Hollywood, which, based on the success of everything from Spider-Man to Hellboy, is constantly trolling the comic industry for more ideas. Despite his notoriety in the business and increasing fame, the movie-making stuff is a side of the business Lee says he wants little to do with outside of attending the occasional premiere. It’s part of the reason he sold Wildstorm to DC Comics, to refocus simply on art and storytelling.
“For me, I lean more toward the entertaining aspects in comics,” he says. “I think there are some comics that are more literary or try to be more culturally influential. As an artist, my job is to best interpret the script and to really do it in an original way, and then take the readers on a roller coaster ride. We’re dealing with superheroes here—we’re not dealing with My Dinner with Andre-type books. Our characters are traveling through solar systems and picking up buildings or flying through the core of the sun. I try to make that believable and to pull that reader into the experience. The very best comics do this—Dark Knight Returns, The Watchmen. To me those are just as strong on a visceral level as watching it on film. Sometimes, they’re even stronger.”
Jim Lee appears at Muse Comics, 2100 Stephens Ave., Friday, June 30, at 5 PM. The store is also offering fans the opportunity to view a screening of Superman Returns with Lee Friday night. Tickets for the screening (time TBA) are $10 and available at Muse Comics. Call 543-9944.