ANS Interview – American Comic Legend Jim Lee

By Jonah Morgan

Jim Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea in 1964. He graduated from Princeton University with a degree in medicine but decided to try his hand at comic-book art – his childhood fantasy. He found work at Marvel Comics, where his work quickly proved so popular that the company created a new X-Men title just to showcase it. In 1992, Lee formed his own comics company, WildStorm Studios, which became one of the founding components of Image Comics. There, he launched the best-selling WILDC.A.T.S and helped to create many other characters. He also helped to discover and train a phalanx of writers, artists, and colorists. With its steady success, WildStorm as a business grew so demanding that Lee found he no longer had any time to draw, leading to his decision to sell the company to DC Comics. He remains WildStorm’s creative director but now concentrates on his first love, art including penciling ALL-STAR BATMAN AND ROBIN, THE BOY WONDER. He lives in La Jolla, California with his wife Angie and three daughters. Jim is also the spokesman for DC’s CMX Manga line.

ANS: I was a hardcore American comics fan in my early teens when I was first introduced to your work. You were a favorite artist among myself and circle of friends who were drooling over your incredible illustrations and there buying your books towards the end of your stint at Marvel. So naturally, when you and the other guys at Image (Mcfarlane, Larsen, Liefeld) broke out and started doing your own thing, I can still recall how much of a revolution in the industry it was. From that point, it seemed more attention was being given to Indy books by the fans. It was during this period that I first discovered Manga. A lot of my friends started passing around Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (released by Marvel) some of the early Eclipse (VIZ) titles and the odd one-off book you could get through the Previews catalog (Masamune Shirow’s Intron Depot 1 comes to mind). Seing just the miniscule amount Manga available on these shores (USA) even then I knew, this type of art and storytelling was destined to become something big here. It took a while, but here we are in the Manga revolution. The stuff is so hot that even the big three (Marvel, DC, and Darkhorse) have gotten involved releasing Manga and bringing in Manga artists in to draw their original books. Can you tell us your perspective on Manga’s march in fan popularity and industry impact from around the early 1990’s to the present?

Jim Lee: Funny thing is that my experience was very much like yours and probably many other hardcore American comic book fans. I started buying the early Marvel colorized editions of Akira but it was hardly a household name. Most American artists loved not only the attention to detail and visualization but the storytelling really opened up our eyes to what was possible in more ‘decompressed’ style. In other words, the cinematic approach of Otomo to the presentation of static images and the use of ‘speedlines’ and blurring of moving objects through rendering (vs the use of the blur filter in Photoshop these days) really made the action on the page feel alive and kinetic. Also, the way manga artists values and textures through gray tones really opened a lot of eyes here to how flat our standard black and white artlook could look. I think that probably helped usher in or at the very least inspire the drive to bring fuller color palettes and color rendering techniques to our work, perhaps as a substitute to the richness we were seeing and experiencing from all this great, imported material.

I also had purchased the laserdisc of the animated movie and was really impressed with Otomo’s conceptualizations of the future megapolis. I think one still sees these influences in the way many American artists visualize the look and feel of the near future. It certainly was a big influence when I was drawing X-Men for Marvel. I also bought Appleseed and fell in love with the tech and mecha look that Shirow Masamune crafted. That too made a huge impact in the way I approached the design of battle armor, spacecraft, vehicles and even standard Superhero costumes. I must have bought 3 or 4 different editions of the same Appleseed material over the years as well as the video tapes. I also loved Gunsmith Cats (published by Dark Horse I believe) being a big gun nut and Lone Wolf and Cub. So even though much of our readership were not following manga, the artform certainly affected the artists creating American comics and their approach to storytelling. Even as I was impressed with all this material, I had no idea that it would grow to the phenomenon it is now today. Moreover, it’s very interesting to see that the explosion of manga in the US has not been limited to just the action genre. The popularity and support of shojo manga really shows how diverse and strong the movement is America today and bodes well for the future of our craft and artform.

ANS: With such a variety of Manga titles on the shelves these days, how does CMX distinguish itself as a label and continue to sell books?

Jim Lee: Our goal for CMX is to have a tightly focused line of high quality books. The marketplace for manga is changing and has become far more demanding. Overwhelming fans and retailers with sheer quantity is not an effective strategy. Each prospective title is evaluated carefully by the CMX team based on how interesting the story is, the quality of the artwork, and whether or not we believe the series fills a currently under-represented but viable niche in the marketplace. If the series also has a tie-in to a well-known anime series and is a fan favorite, we certainly consider those factors as well. We publish books we want to read!

Additionally, we stress high production and editorial values. It’s important that our books are reproduced in a manner in which the creators intended. To that end, we work very closely with the original creators and publishers, and take great care in reproducing from the original works.

ANS: There are even calls that Manga publishing is now past the market saturation level, do you have any observations on this?

Jim Lee: Terms like ‘market saturation level’ are useful tools for industry analysts and pundits to assess and quantify changes in our business and predict future growth and revenues. That being said, I think it overlooks the core of what it is that we do. By ‘we’ I mean comics publishers and creators…and that is to tell stories. So as long as we tell and keep telling intriguing, exciting and gripping stories, I think the readership will be there. I think the danger is in flooding the market with a lot of subpar, lackluster material which at the end of the day naturally discourages new and existing readers to keep sampling and buying new material. However, the fact remains that we are tapping into a gigantic library of material from overseas and are able to cull the very best of the best for import and that we are literally just scratching the tip of the iceberg.

ANS: What’s coming up from CMX in the next 6 months – 1 year that our readers should watch for?

Jim Lee: We would love to tell you everything we have lined up for the coming year, but can�ft right now! We are so close to finalizing several high profile properties that it�fs real tempting to spill the beans right now. Unfortunately, contracts have still to be finalized, which means we are not privileged to reveal this information just yet. But trust us — these new titles will include names that you will immediately recognize, and we will announce these new titles shortly.

Of course, a number of our already launched titles will be continuing throughout 2006, such as the critically acclaimed and fan favorites, Kamikaze Kaito Jeanne, Testarotho, and Kikaider Code 02. The always controversial Tenjho Tenge continues, but now on a bi-monthly schedule by popular demand.

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