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Comic Book Men Q&A – Jim Lee (Comic Artist)

Comic book artist Jim Lee chats about working with legends like Frank Miller, how he creates new characters (including Batman’s Hush), and why he compares drawing to music. 

Q: In the episode, you said you used to run miles chanting Frank Miller and John Byrne’s names to focus on your dreams of becoming a comic book artist. What was it like to eventually work with Miller?
A: Very intimidating! It was probably one of the coolest projects to work on. Frank is an amazing talent and his scripts are very visual. I would read them and picture what he would draw, but that was kind of dangerous because you’re hired to bring your skills and your vision to a book. I had to really think about how I would draw a certain panel to make it pop. It was an extra level of thinking that I usually don’t have to do. Frank is just a master of his craft, and you know you’re not going to be able to get anything by him. It was exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time.

Q: There are probably kids out there now chanting your name. What advice would you give to aspiring comic creatives who are dreaming the same thing?
A: Don’t waste your time running! Go back home and draw! [Laughs] It’s like anything — there’s a lot of work that goes into something before anyone will pay you for it. You can’t rush it. You’re not going to figure out how to create your style or your career in a month, or a few months. It’s going to take years and years. You really have to pace yourself and make sure you don’t burn out. There’s never going to be a time where you come upon a look or a style and you think, “I’ve got it! I’ve found my finished look! I’m ready to be a published author or a published comic artist!” You get to a point where you’re decent enough that people start paying you, but then you keep learning and keep improving your craft. You want to make sure you have that momentum and enthusiasm throughout your entire career. If this is the road you want to go on, you’re going to be running for a long, long time. If you commit to it fully, though, it really can be achievable.

Q: Batman: Hush is regarded by many as some of your best work. What was it like to work with writer Jeph Loeb to create the character Hush? How much of his appearance was collaborative between the two of you?
A: With Batman and Hush, all I knew was that the villain was a surgeon and the story was a caper, a whodunnit. This idea of “Who’s Hush?” really drove this sense of identity. I loved the idea of using bandages and referencing the Invisible Man and the unknown soldier, so that was actually an easy look to come up with. I had to take a look at Batman’s existing rogues’ gallery. There are less “superhero” and “supervillain” costumes there; I wanted Hush to fit into that look of villains. You want to make something that the writer is happy with, but you also need that character to fit into the existing aesthetic while still being something new and unique… There’s a lot that goes into creating characters.

Q: When creating new characters, how much of the work do you share between yourself and the writer?
A: I always look at it as a collaboration with the writer. They usually have the name and the powers, and then I refine the powers and the visual look based on the name. There’s always some back and forth on every character. For Psylocke’s new look, which I collaborated on with Chris Claremont, she appears on the cover in armor. That was my first take on the character, which I had to get done for the cover before I had finished the interior look, and I don’t think Chris had signed off on yet. He didn’t like that direction as much — he wanted something slinkier, more like Elektra — that you eventually see inside that issue. But that discussion led us to modify the story a little. When you first see her, she’s in that armor, and through a psychic conflict, you see it smashed off of her body to unveil the new costume that Chris wanted.

Q: When fellow comic artist John Romita Jr. was on the show, he said that the silhouette and the mood of a character is part of what makes him artistically connect with that character. What makes you connect to a character?
A: For me, I look at it purely from an artistic point of view. What can I do that hasn’t been done before? What would blow away the fans? I think about what I would like to see as a fan and get in touch with that. Then there’s another part of me that tries to connect with my younger self — the 10- and 13-year-old who was just so immersed in comic books — and how the moments that you take at face value when you’re a kid are all created by a writer and artist together. Certain sayings, certain moves — someone drew that and made it an important part of that mythology. I like to think about what I can do with a character to really help create those iconic moments, and to connect with what I first loved about a character when I was young. I also like to create a challenge for myself: Can I create something that adds to that mythology, that stands the test of time?

Q: In the episode, you compare drawing characters to music, that playing one note over and over again can get a little boring. But combining that note with something different — like Batman with Robin — can be great for both characters. Is this an analogy you use often?
A: I think I use that analogy because other people can relate to it better. Not everyone reads comics, but almost everyone listens to music, so it allows people to understand the psychology of drawing and what it means to draw the same character over and over. It’s like you’re a band and you have this one song that you perform again and again at every concert because people love it. There’s not a lot of other businesses that necessarily have that same element of repetition. Batman on a gargoyle would be that greatest hit, but I don’t want to overdo it. I’ve got 20 or so pages in an issue, so I’ve got to pace out the tone of each moment. It’s more like creating an album: You’ve got louder moments and quiet moments; you’ve got to have that contrast. It’s just a different way of talking about comic art so more people can understand what we do.

Comic Book Men airs Sundays at Midnight/11c.

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