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?

Practitioners 27: Frank Cho

We here at Beyond the Bunker hope to list the greatest and best creatives in the history of comic books. In a continuing series (available every week on Tuesday) the most innovative, inspirational and important comic book visionaries will be appearing here. Check on the link below to see if one of your favourites has been included yet.

Frank Cho is a controversial character in current comics. In a market where female depiction has been maligned at times and mistreated, female characters often portrayed as goddesses or weak and endangered victims. Some have broken these rules and if considered more carefully, Cho has in some ways. You will not see a continually weakened or needy figure in a woman but neither will you see a dominant and removed amazon at all times. His female characters dominate with their looks, exposing most of all the weaknesses in the surrounding male counterparts and the effect a beautiful woman can have. Not always sympathetic, at times mysoginistic in its post card humour level of nudity, Cho’s work hails back to older (and not entirely gone) ideals. While women now can (and should) enjoy all the same rights as men in society why can we not still marvel at their appearance as an ideal? While both sexes obsess about the ideal image of women in society, Frank Cho has decided on his and he loves them dearly – and frankly would like us to too.

The second of three children, Frank Cho, born Duk Hyun Cho, he was born near Seoul, Korea in 1971, but moved to the United States at the age of six, raised on Beltsville, Maryland. After graduating High Point High School in 1990, he attended Prince George’s Community College where he got a scholarship to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, which he declined because he disliked the school’s academic focus. Cho ended up transferring to the University of Maryland School of Nursing, which he says was his parent’s idea. Cho eventually graduated with a B.S. in Nursing in 1996. None of this is relevant however because his education never impacted on his art work.

Cho received no formal training as an artist. Looking at his work this defies belief as his line work and control of layouts, composition and detailing is level to the most advanced draftsmen.

He got his start writing and drawinga cartoon strip called ‘Everything but the Kitchen Sink’ in the weekly Prince George’s Community College Newspaper ‘ The Owl’ where he was also comics editor. He then started drawing the daily comic strip University2 for the Diamondback, the independent student newspaper of the University of Maryland, College Park. After graduation, Cho adapted elements of his work for use in a professionally syndicated comic strip, in the form of Liberty Meadows, in which Cho created a comedic comic strip about the activities of the staff and denizens of the titular animal sanctuary / rehabilitation clinic.

In it Cho mixed up his styles freely borrowing Walt Kelly’s (classic American animator and cartoonist) style of drawing anthropomorphic animals, throwing in savage muscle men, apes and dinosaurs in an elaborate homage to multiple illustrators, including Frank Frazetta and Barry Windsor-Smith’s original Conan the Barbarian run. Cho even referenced other comic strips in his own with cameos by Calvin and Hobbes, Lil Abner, Hagar the Horrible and Dilbert. He created a weird little world he found personally appealing and others did too. He made cultural references from Michelangelo to the movie Deliverance and adverts for Crest Toothpaste.

But it was Brandy Carter – a beautiful animal psychiatrist and Jen – Brandy’s roomate. A sexy Rocket scientist who enjoys toying with men, the central characters that caught the affections of most of the readership. Many assume Cho began with Good Girl art as he is second only perhaps to the legendary Adam Hughes in reknown for his versions of vaguely realistically depicted (if unrealistically proportioned) beautiful ladies. In this respect, Cho borrowed predominantly from Dave Stevens, the creator of the lavishly designed Rocketeer comic book who died in 2008. His good girl artwork was part of what made Rocketeer a massive success, thanks to clear, beautifully rendered anatomy (male and female) and exaggerated bomber art style.

Cho signed a fifteen year contract with Creators Syndicate, an independent distributor of comic strips and syndicated columns for daily newspapers. Cho has since admitted this seemed a long time eventually but blamed it on ‘having a bad lawyer.’ Getting tored of Newspaper censorship, Cho severed his contract with Creators Syndicate and converted Liberty Meadows to a monthly publication. It was during this period that Cho came into contact with Marvel comics as part of more wide professional material he has worked on independently over the years. For Marvel, in 2005, he completed a 7-issue run of Shanna the She-Devil. His Shanna series was supposed to feature ‘mature’ artwork, including nude drawings of the heroine, but Marvel baulked at the last moment and decided to have Cho censor his already completed pages for the first five issues and the final two featuring no nudity. Cho has since hinted that Marvel plans to release a hardcover version under the MAX Imprint, which’ll contain his uncensored artwork.

Frank Cho pencilled issues 14 and 15 of New Avengers for Marvel Comics. These issues include trademark Cho-isms; the character of Wolverine is depicted wearing a t-shirt that bears the logo “Beltsville”, and many Liberty Meadows characters make cameo appearances.

Cho frequently makes use of absurd or anachronistic elements in his work, such as dinosaurs, pin-up girls, and Pogo-style anthropomorphic animals. He also enjoys breaking the fourth wall, frequently inserting himself into his work in the guise of a talking chimpanzee, and on several occasions he has drawn strips that feature his characters interacting with other popular syndicated features (for example, a character stuck in a pipe being ejected into a nearby panel apparently taken from Blondie).

To dismiss Cho as a good-girl artist is to fail to acknowledge his sheer ability. The most talented artists are always reknowned and gain success by doing what they do best and Cho is globally reknowned for drawing exceptionally beautiful women. For as long as men like ladies, men like Frank Cho will excel. If his words are as much to bring forward a beautiful female form then all the better. No one reads a Frank Cho book for plot or insight. His is a world populated by Garfield and Hagar. What he presents and represents is not a depiction of a world as it is (or as it should be) but as we like it on a page. Frank Cho’s depiction of the female form has become the reason to read Frank Cho works and the reason is that it is art that is worthy of acknowledgment. If you have to alter a plot to incorporate a Cho femme then you will. Much in the same way that you would alter a plot for Frank Miller to incorporate muscle. Cho is not a limited artist that is at his peak, he is an incredible artist that has been limited by popular demand. His good-girl art so strong that a Cho work without a strongly built, busty beauty inside it is an enormous disappointment. Frankly, I’m sure its an expectation that Cho is willing to bare.

He illustrated the first six issues Marvel Comics’ 2007 relaunch of Mighty Avengers with writer Brian Bendis. He is the plotter and cover artist of Dynamite Entertainment’s Jungle Girl. Cho drew issues 7-9 of Hulk, which were published in 2009.