Jim Lee, who cut his teeth as a comic-book artist here in St. Louis, is now the co-publisher of DC Comics. And, no, he’s no relation to Stan…
Photograph courtesy of Howard Thompson
Jim Lee is a cult leader. If you know comic books, you know Lee. His sharply detailed work on the X-Men comic in the ’80s turned a new generation of fans on to the Marvel franchise built around “mutant” teens. In the ’90s, he and a small group of other creative types started a company called Image that successfully challenged the big boys, Marvel and DC, for a chunk of the comics market. In the 2000s, he took care of some unfinished business, reinventing Superman and Batman comics for DC with artwork so stunning it seemed made not just for comics, but also for posters in teenage boys’ rooms, which of course is where much of it wound up.
So if you’re a kid who reads comics, or an adult “fanboy,” as they (OK, we), are sometimes called, you know Lee and his work. But if you don’t read comic books, well, you could wait behind Lee at the DMV for an hour and never know you’re inches from a man who, as he recounts, has been known to make kids “tremble and cry” from overexcitement when they ask for his autograph at comic-book conventions. A man whose operatic artwork has a way of turning kiddie plots into Wagnerian drama. A man who just accepted Warner Brothers’ offer to be co-publisher of DC Comics, a cult that has tasked him, a St. Louis boy who became the ultimate fanboy, with saving the whole religion in an age of dwindling readership.
“It wasn’t abundantly clear that I was going to become a guy who would make a living drawing people running around with their underwear outside of their clothes,” explains Lee, with a laugh. “I thought of comics as a hobby for a long time.”
Lee, who now lives with his family in the San Diego area, admits he “got in trouble for drawing in class a lot in grade school” at River Bend Elementary School in Chesterfield. “In third or fourth grade, a substitute teacher ripped a drawing out of my hand and was about to crumple it up and throw it away, but instead she got this look on her face like she liked it, and she hung it up in front of her desk,” recalls. “I was incensed. I thought if she wanted to act like a member of the thought police, she should have went ahead and thrown it away.”
Comic books were a delicacy for the young Lee, just as magical as they were rare. “Comics were hard to find when I was a kid,” he says. “There was one place downtown that sold adult magazines, with a small area for comics. My parents took me there, and it was super-embarrassing. All along the rows were images of naked girls. My parents were mortified, but we all just looked straight ahead,” he laughs.
Lee entered Saint Louis Country Day School, where he drew posters for school plays, and his classmates actually predicted in his senior yearbook that the avid doodler would found his own comic-book company. Still, for a kid born in South Korea who came to the U.S. and had to learn English long after his peers had mastered it, there was often a sense of being an outsider.
“My favorite characters growing up were the X-Men,” he says. “I didn’t really think about it till later, but the X-Men is about gifted, different kids shunned by the society they’re trying to protect. At Country Day, it was a preppy, upper-class life, and I was the first generation of my family to do something like that. My parents had come to the U.S. to escape the Korean War, and everything was new for all of us. There was a cultural gap. Some of that has benefited me as an artist, when you’re drawing characters that are disenfranchised, like Spider-Man, a nerdy kid who can’t get a break and has to keep his powers secret. Superman was invented by poor Jewish kids from Cleveland during the Depression, as a hero to lift their spirits.”
After graduating from Princeton University with a psychology degree, Lee didn’t relish the thought of medical school, residency, and the years of practical work that form the foundation for an M.D. “I was anxious to get out there and do something,” he says, “so after I graduated I went back to St. Louis and put a drawing table next to my bed and drew for eight hours every day, as if I had a real job doing it. That level of intensity is how I got my break. A lot of artists draw once a week; you have to do it every day to get better.”
Lee also befriended professional comics artists Don Secrease and Rick Burchett, who still live in the area. They convinced him he needed to show his portfolio to industry reps in person, so in 1985 he went to a comics show in New York and got the attention of a Marvel editor.
From that point, Lee scaled the heights of the comics world in superhero-sized leaps and bounds. The readers went crazy for his hypermasculine treatment of characters like Wolverine and the Punisher, and his supersexy take on those such as Rogue and the Invisible Woman. Lee updated the heroes’ costumes, and co-created heroes and villains like Gambit and Omega Red who would go on to live long lives in the eternal universe of comics. In 1992, Lee and five other artists left Marvel to do the unthinkable: They started their own comics-publishing house, Image.
“At the beginning of the ’90s, comics sales soared,” Lee recalls. “We started selling half a million copies of the X-Men a month, and the 1991 relaunch sold 7.7 million copies. The smart thing would have been to stay at Marvel, on the gravy train. But I had befriended a bunch of other young, hot artists, and there were a lot of creative things we wanted to do with our characters but were told we couldn’t. So we left and started Image. We were betting that with our names and the art, we would succeed, even though people told us we’d come crawling back to the majors. The first comics started selling in the millions, and it was off to the races. For about five years, things were off the hook, as the kids say. We were repped by CAA [Creative Artists Agency]; we had meetings with Oliver Stone, and Steven Spielberg, and a meeting with Demi Moore, who wanted to be a superhero. Superheroes were becoming part of the dominant business model in Hollywood. Batman came out with Michael Keaton and really took off, and eventually [there were] the X-Men movies, and movie franchises became the name of the game.”
Lee eventually sold his stake in Image to DC, and was cruising along, occasionally drawing Batman and Superman looking magisterially into the distance and kicking bad-guy butt, when DC came a-calling earlier this year with a shocking offer: How would Lee like to steer the whole ship?
“It was literally an offer I could not pass up,” says Lee, who was named co-publisher. “Warner Brothers reached out to me to rebuild from the bottom up as if DC was a new company.”
“One of the things I’ve been tasked with is building a digital comics initiative and trying to figure out what the DC Comics experience should be like,” he explains. “How will these stories play out in a digital environment, will there be animation, how will they be distributed, how will we compensate creators, how do we leverage this for ancillary media, and what will it be like as a kid to absorb this new medium?”
“We’ve been meeting with Apple,” he reveals. “The iPad could be a game- changer in the way people read comics. You can put it in your lap and lean back with it. Leaning forward into your laptop is something people associate with work. We’ve got to figure out who the new digital consumer will be.”
Despite all of Lee’s high-profile work, he’s largely invisible. “There’s ‘comic-book fame,’ and there’s real fame, and I’m very happy with the former,” he says. “I have privacy. And at the end of the day, what I really like to do is just put my head down and draw.”