Practitioners 46: Jim Lee

Jim Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea on August 11, 1964 and emigrated to the United States with his family at the age of four, growing up in St Louis Missouri. In Lee’s St. Louis Country Day School his classmates predicted he would found hi sown comic book company. Despite this, Lee seemed resigned to following in his father’s profession of medicine, studying psychology at Princeton University, with the intention of becoming a medical doctor. However, medicine’s loss was certainly going to be popular culture’s gain as Lee became one of the most influential and well known artists on the biggest selling comic book of all time. One that founded movie franchises and supported an ailing Marvel in the late ’90s and found some of the most famous comic companies in the world to rival it.

Lee’s rise to fame with Marvel Comics was inevitable as it was undeniable. In 1986, as Lee was preparing to graduate from his psychology degree, Lee took an art class that reignited his fascination with art at a time when seminal work such as Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen was reinvigorating the American comic book industry. With the psychology degree complete, Lee did something, with the reluctant blessing of his parents, that shows incredible courage and clarity of mind and self belief. He postponed his medical degree. The rest is without a doubt comic book history. He vowed he would return if he failed to break the comic book industry. Not something that should’ve worried him.

Submitting examples to various publishers, Lee did not see success until a New York comic book convention where he met Archie Goodwin, comic book editor (regularly cited as the ‘best loved comic book editor… ever), artist and writer who introduced him to Marvel Comics. Now it seems hard to believe that Lee was not snapped up immediately by the first commissioning editor to spot him but Lee exposes the nature of the industry. Retrospectively, artists are professional, passionate and confident in the style they work in and seem undeniable masters of their art but even the most capable artist can be subject to the pressures, misunderstandings, bad luck and bad timing of the industry. Lee began on Alpha Flight and moved over to Punisher: War Journal, his work there inspired by Frank Miller, David Ross, Kevin Nowlan and Whilce Portacio, as well as Japanese Manga.

Then came the crossing of two similar talents, one more senior than the other as Lee filled in for regular illustrator, Marc Silvestri on Uncanny X-Men 248, which was, due to positive response and Marvel’s own enthusiasm for Lee’s style followed up on issues 256 through to 258 as part of the ‘Acts of Vengeance’. The timing of this was key as X-Men, under Claremont was not only ground breaking and beautifully written at the time, it was on a meteoric rise in terms of popularity, beginning to challenge the more mainstream titles of Spider-man, Fantastic Four and Avengers. Eventually, Lee became Uncanny’s full time penciller, working for the first time with inker, Scott Williams, who would become his long time collaborator. To cement his position as an X-men innovator, Lee co-created the smooth talking mutant thief Gambit, with Chris Claremont. Lee’s popularity crystallised in these months, becoming more and more representative of what fan’s wanted. He gained increasingly greater control of the franchise and in 1991, Lee helped launch the second X-Men series, X-Men (Volume 2). He did so, not just as artist but as co-writer alongside Chris Claremont, giving the book a more broad and cutting edge feel to it’s perhaps more thoughtful predecessor. X-Men 1 was raw edged, fun comic book pinned with the wisdom and knowledge of an older and more restrained writer. Lee pushed Claremont’s boundaries while Claremont restrained the more inexperienced artist to just the right degree. The result was comic book history and rightfully so. However, Lee redesigned costumes, entirely successfully for Cyclops, Jean Grey, Rogue, Psylocke and Storm as well as creating villain Russian Super Soldier Omega Red.

X-Men 1 (Vol 2) remains the best selling comic book of all time with sales of 8.1 million (and nearly £7 million). This was confirmed in a public declaration by the Guinness Book of Records at the 2010 San Diego Comic con. While one aspect of it’s success was that it was released with five different variant covers as well as a limited edition gatefold edition that revealed it all in its glory, the success was thanks to Lee’s distinctive, modern take on a fan favourite and the development of the X-Men in an exciting new direction. The variant cover trick became a weight around collector’s necks in years following with Gold and Silver foil, holograms and gatefolds every few months for some titles, but this first incarnation was about piecing together a piece of art, mass produced and available to anyone who wanted it. Only Jim Lee and perhaps one or two other legends of the industry could’ve commanded such a response.

The success of X-men saw Lee hungering even more for greater creative control over his own work, and as soon as in 1992, Lee accepted an invitation to join six other artists (Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, Marc Silvestri, Whilce Portacio, Rob Liefeld) who broke away from Marvel Comics to start Image Comics, which would release their own creator-owned titles. Lee’s batch of titles included Wild C.A.T.s, which Lee pencilled and co-wrote, and other series created in the same universe, including Stormwatch, Deathblow and arguably the more successful Gen13.

Lee and his close friend, Valiant Comics publisher Steve Massarsky, arranged a Valiant / Image crossover, Lee’s characters being used, alongside those of Rob Liefeild. Four central titles would exist – two from each company – in single edition format, each edition known as a colour rather than a number, plus a prologue and epilogue book. Wildstorm produced Deathmate Black, with Lee himself contributing to the writing, illustrating the covers of that book, as well as contributing to the prologue’s interior links. The assignment was given to Valiant creators against their better judgment, in particular Editor-in-chief Bob Layton, who complained about Image’s inability to meet their deadlines. Deathmate Black came out a few months after Valiant’s Blue and Yellow installments, which had come out on time, and Liefeld’s Deathmate Red was so late that Layton flew to California to procure that chapter personally, and ink it himself in an Anaheim hotel room. Layton see’s Deathmate’s lateness as one of Valiant’s ‘unmitigated disasters’ and views that project as the beginning of the spectacular collapse of the 1990s for the comic book industry. A collpase that would pull in Marvel and a collapse that comics has not, if ever, recovered from.

Wildstorm continued on, expanding it’s line to include other ongoing titles. As publisher, Lee later expanded this by creating two separate imprints for Wildstorm, Cliffhanger and Homage (to be replaced again years later to reform as a single Wildstorm Imprint, now owned by DC).

Moving back, with Rob Liefeld, to Marvel for the Heroes Reborn alternate universe storyline of the mid-late nineties, Lee was given the opportunity to plot the new Iron Man and wrote and illustrated The Fantastic Four. Both used existing storyarcs and developed them, bringing them more up to date. The innovations on these titles, however, were arguably greater than the more successful Ultimate Universe that has existed since as an Imprint of Marvel, though that is more subject to greater popularity of the industry as well as greater sophistication in art and writing in modern comic books.

Lee returned to Wildstorm, where he would publish series such as The Authority and Planetary, as well as Alan Moore’s imprint, America’s Best Comics. Lee himself wrote and illustrated a 12-issue series called Divine Right: The Adventures of Max Faraday, in which an internet slacker inadvertently manages to download the secrets of the universe, and is thrown into a wild fantasy world.

Sourced from HERE Check out the gallery there for more awesome images. Thanks to Alexandre Bihn for the awesome scan.

In a typically astute and decisive choice, Lee sold Wildstorm to DC in 1998 because he felt that his role as publisher was interfering with his role as an artist. In an echo of the choice made many years previously, he put his calling first. In 2003, Lee collborated with Jeph Loeb for a 12 issue Batman run. Introducing a new nemesis from Batman’s past, ‘Hush’ was a tightly packed and neatly executed trip through the Bat universe. Lee’s images were sumptuous, his design work intricate, emotive and innovative. Lee, the artist, through all the pitfalls and difficulties of publishing had lost none of the values and passion he had when working on X-Men 1 more than 12 years before. He followed this up with ‘For Tomorrow’ a 12-issue story in Superman by 100 Bullets writer (and Bunker firm favourite) Brian Azzarelo, although this didn’t achieve the same level of success, Lee’s work showed a maturity and stillness that perhaps wasn’t visible in his earlier career. In 2005, Lee collaborated with Frank Miller on All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder, a series plagued by delays. Lee’s work was spotless throughout, in particular a redesign of the batmobile and a gatefold image that folded out from the book itself that revealed the full scale of this Elseworld Batcave. While Lee’s contribution was near infallible, Miller’s writing was unsophisticated and cynical in most ways and alienated a great many readers. During this period, Lee returned to WildC.A.T.S with Grant Morrison. The gap between All-Star Batman and Robin 4 and 5 was one year and to date, only 1 issue of WildC.A.T.S (Vol 4 has been published. During thsi time, Lee also drew covers for the Infinite Crisis series.

Lee was named Executive Creative Director for DC Universe Online MMORPG. This was released in 2009, with Lee responsible for concept art for the project.

Lee’s meteoric rise did not falter there, as he has now taken a position alongside Dan Didio as Co-publisher of DC Comics. Despite obvious concerns, Lee maintains that this will in no way effect his capacity as a creative. He cited two projects, Dark Knight: Boy Wonder – a follow up of the Frank Miller series he had worked on and also a painted cover for Giuseppe Camuncoli’s layouts in Batman: Europa 1. Neither projects have surfaced yet. The Wildstorm imprint was officially declared ended by DC in September 2010.

With DC’s enormous revamp of it’s entire line, A-List artists were brought to the forefront to work on the most prominent titles. With a Justice League movie in discussion /pre-production at present DC was always going to put JL first in their choices of creative teams. The illustrious team of Jim Lee as penciller and Geoff Johns as writer is certainly, still, a cocktail that no true fan of the artform can ignore. If anything that is Lee’s great talent. Enduring popularity. His art work remains so fresh and clear, and so respresentative of what people want from their books – in spite of changes in the industry itself – that Lee has proven himself a Practitioner who has wandered away from the thing he is most beloved for, but like a much younger, more south east asian Peter Cook, retains a place in every fan who ever saw his work. This is testament to Lee’s enormous talent. His offers to put out projects reveals a conflict of interests that has taken him away perhaps too much in the last two decades, however he is a brave artist who pursued greater goals. Without finding ourself in the same situation who are we to say we wouldn’t pursue those same goals…. however Lee’s example is certainly a cautionary one. Swathes of exceptional artwork, pages and pages of classic comic work haven’t seen the light of day. From the top down the industry runs on one thing – putting out the best books possible. While we can never undermine someone’s right to do whatever they want – what would we have given to see more Lee?

Advertisements

Practitioners 24: John Romita Jr

John Salvatore Romita Jr or JRJR (born August 17, 1956) is an American comic book artist best known for his extensive work with solely with Marvel comics from the 1970s to present day.

Born and still living in New York city, Romita Jr is influenced heavily by the city around him and that he grew up in. Fittingly he has remained at the company that calls New York home, 367 Park Avenue South or Marvel Comics throughout his professional career and his work has become synonomous with its most famous characters. He was born to John Romita Sr, co-creator of several notable Spider-man stories in the 1960s and 1970s. In true New York style it could be said that drawing Marvel comics is the family business.

Oddly Romita Jr began his career at Marvel UK, doing sketches for covers of reprints. His American debut was with a six part story entitled ‘Chaos at the Coffee Bean!’ in Amazing Spider-man Annual 11 in 1977. At this point Romita Jr’s artwork represented the time it was being produced with clean linework and animation standard (simplified) detailing. But his characterisation and simple adjustments to the panel by panel and simple visual storytelling that was taking place then won him a lot of fans. His characters weightier and more rounded than others, his line work curvaceous and bold when necessary Romita Jr’s style was bold and easily digestible. Romita Jr is a commercial artist, offering bold and brash imagery that feeds the eye more for the same price as other artists.

Romita’s early popularity began however with his run on Iron Man with David Michelinie and artist Bob Layton which began in 1978. He was eventually offered his first regular run on Spider-man in the early 80s and was the artist that launched the Dazzler series. In this period Romita Jr co created the character of the Hobgoblin with writer Roger Stern – a kind of Green Goblin light with his own good / evil morality in play, Hobgoblin represented a genuinely unrestricted and unfamiliar goblin for Spider-man to play with.

Uncanny X-Men 304

From 1983 to 1986 he had a popular run on Uncanny X-Men, introducing the future X-man Bishop in his tenure in a brutal and distinct storyline that battered the edges of what was being done in comics at the time. Romita Jr returned to Uncanny X-Men in 1993 in which he pencilled the Fathers and Son’s crossover Uncanny issue in which Prof X and Magneto collide and Magneto has his mind removed. He depicted the turning of Colossus and his joining of the Acolytes and the showdown between Xavier and his X-Men and Magneto and his Acolytes on Asteroid M in the Fathers and Sons X-over that made history with the release of X-Men 25. Romita Jr’s work was bold, reminiscent of 50s and 60s pop art and exploded from the page in a way nobody else’s did at the time.

But prior to his second stint on Uncanny X-Men Romita was granted an extended stint on Daredevil with writer Ann Nocenti and Eisner award winning inker Al Williamson. In this period he began to develop the Romita Jr style we see now. Shoulders and shape became more developed and something significant happened… Romita Jr broke the rules…

Most artists use a series of bubbles in place of parts of the body in order to decide placement, perspective and shape. The leg would be perhaps five parts (the longer larger upper leg, the smaller oval knee joint, the slightly bannister like lower leg / shin, perhaps a round joint at the ankle joint to indicate a change of angle and an uneven tear drop shape to form the foot). You can achieve this easily with every body part and build an entire Human frame using these bags. You then pencil over it, define the shape clearly and subsume it in ink – hiding your working underneath all that.

Romita Jr doesn’t. His characters are effectively the same set of shapes inflated and deflated according to the size and shape of the character. The sawn off frame of Wolverine is the same as the tall powerful frame as Colossus. The Punisher from Romita Jr’s very cool run in Punisher: War Journal is the same shape as Wolverine. Art law says this is bad practice. That by showing your working and working from such a clear template is not art. Romita Jr has made one thing clear in the nicest possible way. He simply doesn’t give a shit. And neither should he.

Romita Jr’s success is built on these parameters. The characters represent mannequins on which Romita Jr applies the feelings and the events that are taking place around them. He applies garish, squared and diametrically even surroundings that draw in the eye and hold it there. He isn’t a naturalist or a life artist, Romita Jr is a comic artist and a purist and never an apologist.

He has built an incredible career with the same company (even his other company credits are Kick Ass – printed through Marvel’s Icon Imprint, Punisher/Batman in association with Marvel as well as DC and admittedly 1 credit with the Gray Area 1-3 in 2004 with Glen Brunswick for Image Comics). He is a class act and no freelancer – he has a job with a reputable company which he is doing well and there is no reason he should stop doing it.

Rolling out Spider-man, Avengers (most recently the new Avengers series), Black Panther, Daredevil, Iron Man, Cable, Punisher, The Eternals, The Hulk, Fantastic Four, Thor, X-Men, Ultimate Vision, Wolverine, Sentry and pretty much the only thing worth picking up World War Hulk for by ingraining it with such force and mind-bending power on each that it was a joy to behold.

The fact is with Romita Jr, you can see the workings but you can also see the most basic rules of comic book art. Clean lines reminiscent of the 60s era in comic books, graphic and bold line work that still belongs on an Andy Warhol Pop art wall hanging. Romita Jr is keeping historic conventions alive and kicking in his work. If you look at his work you can still see the influence of Ditko and his dad, Romita Jr and the reason that everything we see in comic books today comes from it. I hope Romita Jr remains at Marvel for a great many years.

He’ll be attending the Kapow Comicon in London on April 9-10th and I hope to catch him there. My work isn’t much like his but frankly I think that’s because I’m not sure I’ve fully learned how to draw comics.