35 Years of Jim Lee

X-Men (vol. 2) #1 (1991)
Jim Lee’s four interlocking cover images for X-Men (vol. 2) #1 (1991), which is still the best selling comic book of all time.

Jim Lee entered the comic book industry in the late 1980s. Even then, in an industry filled with talent, Lee’s skills stood out. Other professionals quickly began to respect his talents and his professionalism, and fans soon began to see him as a superstar artist. Now, nearly 35 years in the industry, Lee is somewhat of an elder statesman in the comic book industry. His decades of work and creative talent have earned him the professional respect and commercial success few others have. However, to merely describe Lee as someone who is well-respected understates just how much he has impacted the comic book industry. By reflecting on his origin story and his career moves, one can better understand Lee’s lasting legacy.

The Birth of Artist and a Fan

Jim Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea in 1964, but spent the majority of his childhood in St. Louis, Missouri after his parents relocated. Lee struggled to fit in. In addition to having to learn English, Lee was also the first in his family to have to go to school in a “preppy, upper-class life” environment. This feeling of being an outsider led to Lee becoming a fan of the X-Men.

As Lee told St. Louis Magazine, “My favorite characters growing up were the X-Men,…I didn’t really think about it till later, but the X-Men is about gifted, different kids shunned by the society,” Lee said.

Lee was also influenced by artists like John Bryne, Frank Miller, and Neal Adams, though he did not feel he came into his own until he stopped referencing other artists. As Lee explained to the Missoulian, “I kind of reached a point where I was unhappy with my style, I could see these influences cobbled together like a Frankenstein monster. So, I decided to put away those comics and just do it from my own head.” By doing this, Lee felt that his “own style was coming through finally.”

An unexpected influence on Jim Lee’s style is miming. (Yeap, this type of miming.) As he told Stan Lee, he learned how to mime in college and explained how mimes have “the ability to create an illusion of weight or resistance when there is nothing there.” Jim Lee explained that one “can use a lot of these techniques, or at least the thinking behind it, when you are drawing the comic book books.”

“To create a successful book,” Jim Lee continued, “you’ve got to take things to the extreme. If a guy is big and frightening, he’s got to be huge. If a car is skidding around a corner, the wheels should be coming up and smoking should be coming out and papers should be flying.”

“You have to put clues to create the illusion of speed,” Jim Lee explained, “and miming is sort of the same thing, if something is heavy you want to see it on their face and you want to see it in their arms.”

“And that’s what we do with comics, you have to create the illusion of characters jumping or hitting each other or lifting a car,” Jim Lee concluded.

By the time Lee was in his twenties he had the passion for comic books and skills needed to get a career in the industry, but he had two obstacles to overcome first; talking to his parents and getting his first comics job.

Getting into Marvel

Punisher War Journal #7 (1989)

Jim Lee went to Princeton and intended to become a doctor, like his father. During his senior year, he took art classes and was encouraged by instructors to pursue an art career. Not interested in spending another four years in school, Lee decided to pursue a comics career. Knowing his parents wanted him to become a doctor, he told them he would only spend one year trying to become a comic book artist. If he couldn’t succeed, he would go to med school.

It took Lee only four months for him to find work as an artist, and the first company to hire him was Marvel.

“I showed [my portfolio] to a lot of smaller companies and DC,” Jim Lee said to Stan Lee in 1992’s The Comic Book Greats: Jim Lee. “The funny thing is that they, [Marvel], are the only ones to give me work.”

Lee’s first work for Marvel was penciling Alpha Flight #51 (October 1987). His second issue for Marvel was Alpha Flight #53 (December 1987) and marked the first time he professionally drew an X-Men; this one being Wolverine. Lee would draw eighteen more issues of Alpha Flight before becoming the artist for The Punisher: War Journal. Lee was eventually asked to fill in for Marc Silvestri for Uncanny X-Men #248 (September, 1989), and soon took over the role once Silvestri moved to Wolverine vol. 2. Now working with Chris Claremont, Lee and Claremont would not only go on to co-create Gambit, they would create the best-selling comic book of all time.

Uncanny X-Men #268 (1990)

Record Setting Popularity and Building Image

In August 1991, Marvel Comics published X-Men #1 Vol. 2. Lee not only penciled this issue, he also co-wrote it with Chris Claremont. Released during the comic book speculator boom with five alternate covers, X-Men #1 broke records with over 8.1 million copies being sold.

During this period, Lee was beginning to want more control over his work. Lee was especially motivated by the reality that he had become a star in the comic book industry and that his work was what often caused a book to sell, and he was not alone in this mindset.

Erik Larsen, Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri, Whilce Portacio, and Jim Valentino were also artists at Marvel Comics who were responsible for top selling titles. The seven were well aware of the comic book industry’s history of creators financially struggling because work-for-hire agreements kept them from royalties. These artists realized that the best way to improve their financial futures was not to negotiate with Marvel, it was to go into business for themselves. The seven quit working for Marvel and created Image Comics.

While all seven artists were incredibly talented and successful, it was known that prying Jim Lee away from Marvel would be the biggest move. As Todd McFarlane said The History of Image Comics (So Much Damage), getting Jim Lee “was a big moment, Jim Lee coming was a crucial moment because he was the guy that Marvel hadn’t lost favor with.” Jim Lee defecting was a clear message to Marvel “that if he could go, anyone could go.”

Unlike Marvel and DC, Image allowed each creator complete control over their own projects, their respective studios, and complete ownership of their work. Lee’s studio would be WildStorm Productions.

In the Eye of a WildStorm

WILDC.AT.S. #1 (1992)

Jim Lee’s first comic book for Image was WildC.A.T.S. While WildC.A.T.S would set the narrative foundation for what would become Lee’s WildStorm universe, WildStorm’s first issue was Stormwatch #1 (March 1993). In addition to publishing several titles, WildStorm became home to imprints such as Homage Comics and Cliffhanger; each of which produced their own comic books. Jim Lee convinced Alan Moore to create America’s Best Comics at WildStorm.

WildC.A.T.s was not only Lee’s first comic book with Image, but it was arguably his most successful. There have been five volumes of WildC.A.T.s published, and characters – such as Voodoo, Grifter, Zealot, and others – are still used in current DC stories. Moreover, WildC.A.T.s became a short lived animated series that ran from October 1994 to January 1995 for thirteen episodes.

Lee’s detail orientation and obsession with narrative is arguably what fueled the success of comics like WildC.A.T.s

“Unfortunately, a lot of comic book fans just draw superheroes,” Lee discusses in an interview. “That’s all they really enjoy drawing – they don’t enjoy drawing cars or people in normal clothes or buildings. But if you look at a comic book, you definitely see the superheroes but you get a lot of fans who don’t see the props, the backgrounds of people in normal clothing, the perspectives, and you really need to learn all that because we’re not in the business of drawing superheroes, we’re really in the business of telling stories and to be able to tell a story, you need to be able to draw everything.”

By 1998 WildStorm had the largest share of Image Comics. Despite this success, Lee’s business and family responsibilities prevented him from drawing as much as he’d like. Wanting to draw more, Lee decided to sell WildStorm to DC Comics.

Entering DC with a Hush

Artwork from the iconic Batman: Hush story arc (2002-2003)
Artwork from the iconic Batman: Hush story arc (2002-2003)

Lee remained Editorial Director of WildStorm while at DC; with WildStorm being treated as an imprint. Since this deal in 1998, Lee has worked with Frank Miller, Brian Azzarello, Grant Morrison, and several other writers on DC properties. However, it would be his work with Jeph Loeb on Batman: Hush that re-established Lee as an artistic force of nature standing the test of time.

Reflecting on Hush, Lee remembers that he initially approached it as another Batman story. However, Jeph Loeb realized that he might not be able to do another Batman story with Lee.

Talking to Syfy Wire about Hush, Lee remembered Loeb telling him, “Look, let’s do a story that has all the greatest Batman villains. I’ll figure something out that’s a great murder mystery because we want to lean into the fact that Batman’s not just a great crime fighter, he’s also an amazing detective—the world’s greatest detective.”

Hush was also an opportunity for Lee to re-prove himself in the comic book industry. Hush took the place of Batman issues #608 to #619. Due to comic books from WildStorm and Image having a reputation for not being finished on time, many questioned if Lee could handle a monthly series. This included Lee himself.

“I think just the weight and the responsibility of running my own company under Image was something that really took its toll on my ability to draw monthly comics or any sort of comics,” Lee recalled.

This motivated Lee to prove to himself and others that he could handle this workload.

“I kind of took a bet with a couple people internally at DC that I could do it, and I worked on it in secret,” Lee continued, “because I didn’t want to embarrass myself to say publicly, I was going to do it and then not be able to.”

The critical and commercial success of Hush introduced Lee to a new generation of readers. Years later, Lee is particularly proud that his work with Loeb was “a book that brought a lot of new fans into the business and a lot of relapsed fans back into the business.”

From Promotions to Present

A decade after being acquired by DC, in 2008, Lee became the Executive Creative Director for DC Universe Online. 2010 would come with mixed news. Though Lee would be named Co-Publisher of DC Comics with Dan DiDio, WildStorm – as an independent imprint – ended.

Lee started off at Marvel, founded Image, and now seems content to stay at and continue to contribute to DC. In 2018 his responsibilities expanded as he was made DC’s Chief Creative Officer, while also remaining a Co-Publisher. He would become the sole Publisher after DiDio departed in 2020.

Lee is still actively producing art as well as helping to lead DC. In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Lee and DC’s new General Manager Daniel Cherry III discussed future-proofing DC and evolving with the latest industry shifts. Moreover, WarnerMedia’s leadership sees him as being incredibly valuable, and even described him as the “connective tissue” of DC’s properties and their multi-media deployments.

As WarnerMedia CEO Ann Sarnoff told Variety, “The connective tissue in the middle is Jim Lee, who oversees DC Comics. Jim lives and breathes the canon of DC and he works with all of the divisions to make sure the storylines are true to the canon. He helps them come up with ideas for new storylines.”

Despite it being decades since Jim Lee last worked with Stan Lee, his current status echoes Stan Lee’s final role for Marvel. Like Stan Lee, Jim Lee has become the human face for DC Comics. Similar to Stan, Jim’s infectious smile, aura of positivity, and deep love for comic books has made him the perfect person from DC to talk to media outlets and announce events.

To many, when they think of the people who make DC’s titles, they think of Jim Lee first. And as Stan Lee was prone to do, Jim Lee now playfully builds up DC while putting down the competition. As he jokingly said in The History of Image Comics (So Much Damage), “having worked at DC now, if you don’t work at DC, you’re not on the map yet.”

On July 13, 2021, Jim Lee announced on Facebook that he sketched 60 images to be donated to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation. The goal was to auction off these images and have the proceeds used to help struggling comic book stores. According to GamesRadar, Lee’s 60th image was of Jason Todd and it sold for $25k, bringing this charitable work to over $800,000.

In the post, Lee wrote that “if 2020 taught me any life lessons,…is that we cannot stand complacent and that our actions (above all) count and can make a collective difference. I am thankful to have a talent which I can use to help make a small difference.”

Jim Lee has spent the majority of his life telling stories of heroes doing their best to improve the world. Now, though he lacks superpowers, Lee echoes those characters by doing his best to help the industry and artform he loves.

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