Jim Lee (Korean 이용철; born August 11, 1964) is a Korean American comic book artist, writer, editor, and publisher. He entered the industry in 1987 as an artist for Marvel Comics, illustrating titles such as Alpha Flight and The Punisher War Journal, before gaining popularity on The Uncanny X-Men. X-Men No. 1, the 1991 spinoff series premiere that Lee penciled and co-wrote with Chris Claremont, remains the best-selling comic book of all time, according to Guinness World Records.
In 1992 Lee and several other artists formed their own publishing company, Image Comics, to publish their creator-owned titles, with Lee publishing titles such as WildC.A.T.s and Gen¹³ through his studio Wildstorm Productions. Eschewing the role of publisher in order to return to illustration, Lee sold Wildstorm in 1998 to DC Comics, where he continued to run it as a DC imprint until 2010, as well as illustrating successful titles set in DC’s main fictional universe, such as the year-long “Batman: Hush” and “Superman: For Tomorrow” storylines. On February 18, 2010, Jim Lee was announced as the new Co-Publisher of DC Comics with Dan DiDio, both replacing Paul Levitz.
He has received a Harvey Award, Inkpot Award and three Wizard Fan Awards in recognition for his work.
Lee was born on August 11, 1964 in Seoul, South Korea. He grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, where he lived a “typical middle-class childhood”. Lee attended River Bend Elementary School in Chesterfield and later St. Louis Country Day School, where he drew posters for school plays. Having had to learn English when he first came to the U.S. presented the young Lee with the sense of being an outsider, as did the “preppy, upper-class” atmosphere of Country Day. As a result, on the rare occasions that his parents bought him comics, Lee’s favorite characters were the X-Men, because they were outsiders themselves. Lee says that he benefited as an artist by connecting with characters that were themselves disenfranchised, like Spider-Man, or who were born of such backgrounds, such as Superman, who was created by two Jewish men from Cleveland to lift their spirits during the Depression. His classmates predicted in his senior yearbook that he would found his own comic book company. Despite this, Lee was resigned to following his father’s career in medicine, attending Princeton University to study psychology, with the intention of becoming a medical doctor.
Rise to fame at Marvel Comics
In 1986, as he was preparing to graduate, Lee took an art class that reignited his love of drawing, and led to his rediscovery of comics at a time when seminal works such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen spurred a renaissance within the American comics industry. After obtaining his psychology degree, he decided to postpone applying to medical school, and earned the reluctant blessing of his parents by allotting himself one year to succeed, vowing that he would attend medical school if he did not break into the comic book industry in that time. He submitted samples to various publishers, but did not find success. When Lee befriended St. Louis-area comics artists Don Secrease and Rick Burchett, they convinced him he needed to show his portfolio to editors in person, prompting Lee to attend a New York comics convention, where he met editor Archie Goodwin. Goodwin invited Lee to Marvel Comics, where the aspiring artist received his first assignment by editor Carl Potts, who hired him to pencil the mid-list series Alpha Flight, seguéing from that title in 1989 to Punisher: War Journal. Lee’s work on the Punisher: War Journal was inspired by artists such as Frank Miller, David Ross, Kevin Nowlan, and Whilce Portacio, as well as Japanese manga.
In 1989, Lee filled in for regular illustrator Marc Silvestri on Uncanny X-Men No. 248 and did another guest stint on issues No. 256 through No. 258 as part of the “Acts of Vengeance” storyline, eventually becoming the series’ ongoing artist with issue No. 267, following Silvestri’s departure. During his stint on Uncanny Lee first worked with inker Scott Williams, who would become a long-time collaborator. During his run on the title, Lee co-created the character Gambit with long-time X-Men writer Chris Claremont.
Lee’s artwork quickly gained popularity in the eyes of enthusiastic fans, which allowed him to gain greater creative control of the franchise. In 1991, Lee helped launch a second X-Men series simply called X-Men volume 2, as both the artist and as co-writer with Claremont. X-Men vol. 2 No. 1 is still the best-selling comic book of all-time with sales of over 8.1 million copies and nearly $7 million, according to a public proclamation by Guinness World Records at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con. The sales figures were generated in part by publishing the issue with five different variant covers, four of which show different characters from the book that formed a single image when laid side by side, and a fifth, gatefold cover of that combined image, large numbers of which were purchased by retailers, who anticipated fans and speculators who would buy multiple copies in order to acquire a complete collection of the covers. Lee designed new character uniforms for the series, including those worn by Cyclops, Jean Grey, Rogue, Psylocke and Storm and created the villain Omega Red. Actor/comedian Taran Killam, who has ventured into comics writing with The Illegitimates, has cited X-Men No. 1 as the book that inspired his interest in comics.
Stan Lee interviewed Jim Lee in the documentary series The Comic Book Greats.
Image Comics and WildStorm, return to Marvel
WildC.A.T.s promotional artwork.
Enticed by the idea of being able to exert more control over his own work, in 1992, Lee accepted the invitation to join six other artists who broke away from Marvel to form Image Comics, which would publish their creator-owned titles. Lee’s group of titles was initially called Aegis Entertainment before being christened Wildstorm Productions, and published Lee’s initial title WildC.A.T.s, which Lee pencilled and co-wrote, and other series created by Lee in the same shared universe. The other major series of the initial years of Wildstorm, for which Lee either created characters, co-plotted or provided art for, included Stormwatch, Deathblow and Gen¹³.
In 1993, Lee and his friend, Valiant Comics publisher Steve Massarsky, arranged a Valiant-Image Comics crossover miniseries called Deathmate, in which the Valiant characters would interact with those of Wildstorm, and of Lee’s fellow Image partner, Rob Liefeld. The miniseries would consist of four “center books”, (each one denoted by a color rather than an issue number), two each produced by the respective companies, plus a prologue and epilogue book. Wildstorm produced Deathmate Black, with Lee himself contributing to the writing. He illustrated the covers for that book, the Deathmate Tourbook and the prologue book, as well as contributing to the prologue’s interior inks.
Wildstorm would expand its line to include other ongoing titles whose creative work was handled by other writers and artists, some of which were spinoffs of the earlier titles, or properties owned by other creators, such as Whilce Portacio’s Wetworks. As publisher, Lee later expanded his comics line creating two publishing imprints of Wildstorm, Homage and Cliffhanger (that years later merged and were replaced by a single Wildstorm Signature imprint), to publish creator-owned comics by some selected creators of the US comics industry.
Lee and Rob Liefeld, another Marvel-illustrator-turned-Image-founder, returned to Marvel in 1996 to participate in a reboot of several classic characters; the project was known as Heroes Reborn. While Liefeld reworked Captain America and The Avengers, Lee plotted Iron Man and wrote and illustrated Fantastic Four. Halfway through the project, Lee’s studio took over Liefeld’s two titles, finishing all four series. According to Lee, Marvel proposed continuing the Heroes Reborn lineup indefinitely, but under the condition that Lee would draw at least one of them himself, which he refused to do. Instead, he accepted an offer to re-imagine and relaunch (in the role of editor) three mainstream Marvel Universe titles: Defenders, Doctor Strange, and Nick Fury. Though scheduled to debut in December 1997, these three relaunches never appeared.
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.
Move to DC Comics
Because he felt his role as publisher and his growing family demands interfered with his role as an artist, Lee left Image Comics and sold Wildstorm to DC Comics in late 1998, enabling him to focus once again on art. He drew a “Batman Black and White” backup story for the first issue of Batman: Gotham Knights (March 2000). In 2003 he collaborated on a 12-issue run on Batman with writer Jeph Loeb. “Hush” became a sales success. He followed this up in 2004 by illustrating “For Tomorrow”, a 12-issue story in Superman by writer Brian Azzarello. In 2005, Lee teamed with Frank Miller on the new series All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder, a series plagued by delays. Lee himself took full responsibility for the delays, explaining that his involvement with the DC Universe Online video game were the cause, and not Miller’s scripts, which had been completed for some time.
Lee continued to run Wildstorm as Editorial Director, sometimes working on both DC and Wildstorm properties simultaneously. In September 2006, Jim Lee returned to WildC.A.T.s with Grant Morrison as the writer, pencilling both WildC.A.T.s and All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder, both of which were characterized by publication delays. The gap between All-Star Batman and Robin No. 4 and No. 5 was one year, and to date, only one issue of WildC.A.T.s vol. 4 has been published. Lee drew alternative cover art for the Infinite Crisis series.
Lee at the August 31, 2011 midnight signing of Flashpoint No. 5 and Justice League No. 1 at Midtown Comics, which initiated DC’s The New 52 initiative.
In February 2006 it was announced that Lee would be involved with the concept art for the upcoming DC Comics MMORPG, DC Universe Online. In 2008, Lee was named the Executive Creative Director of the forthcoming game, which at that time was expected to be released in 2009.
In 2009 Lee provided artwork for the album booklet for Daughtry’s 2009 album Leave This Town.
In February 2010 Lee and Dan DiDio were named Co-Publishers of DC Comics by DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson. According to Lee, this does not indicate another move away from the creative side of comics, as his Co-Publishing duties grant him greater creative involvement in the entire DC line and allow him to illustrate titles, such as Dark Knight: Boy Wonder, a re-branded conclusion to the story he and Frank Miller began in All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder. He was to supply the painted art over Giuseppe Camuncoli’s layouts in Batman: Europa #1, a 2011 miniseries inspired by Lee’s time living in Italy, though as of June 2011, neither of these projects have materialized. According to a March 2013 article, DC insists that Europa is not cancelled. DC announced they were ending the Wildstorm imprint in September 2010.
In September 2011, DC Comics instituted a program called The New 52, in which the publisher cancelled all of its superhero titles and relaunched 52 new series with No. 1 issues, wiping out most of the then-current continuity. Lee and writer Geoff Johns, DC Comics’ Chief Creative Officer, are the architects of the relaunch, which was initiated with a new Justice League series, written and illustrated by Johns and Lee, respectively. The series’ first story arc was a new origin of the Justice League, which depicted the return of DC’s primary superheroes to the team. Lee’s illustration for the cover of issue No. 12 drew media attention for its depiction of Superman and Wonder Woman in a passionate embrace, a rendition that Lee said was inspired by Gustav Klimt’s painting The Kiss and Alfred Eisenstaedt’s 1945 photograph V-J Day in Times Square.
In October of that year, DC Entertainment and Kia Motors America entered a partnership to benefit We Can Be Heroes, a campaign dedicated to fighting hunger in the Horn of Africa. The campaign involves the creation of eight Justice League-inspired vehicles, on whose designs Lee collaborated. Each vehicle is tied thematically to a member of the Justice League, the first of which was a Batman-themed Kia Optima. A Superman-themed version inspired by Lee’s art followed in February 2013.
In 2013, Lee designed a new version of the Mortal Kombat character Scorpion for use in the DC fighting video game Injustice: Gods Among Us.
On May 4, 2013, DC published a Free Comic Book Day sneak preview of Superman Unchained, an ongoing series written by Scott Snyder and illustrated by Lee, which was published on June 12, 2013, and intended to coincide with the feature film Man of Steel, which opened two days later.
In 2014, General Mills enlisted the help of DC Comics to create new designs for its monster-themed cereals in time for Halloween. The designs, revealed on August 6, consisted of a Boo Berry design by Lee, a Count Chocolua design by Terry Dodson and a Franken-Berry design by Dave Johnson. Describing the task of designing a cartoon character, Lee explained, “Drawing simpler characters is a lot more work and harder than drawing something that’s more complicated or has a lot of renderings. Every line counts and every distance between the eyes and the ears, it’s all super critical.”
In 2015, Lee drew The Multiversity: Mastermen, the seventh issue of Grant Morrison’s The Multiversity project.
November of that year will see the debut of the miniseres Batman: Europa, on which Lee collaborates with writers Brian Azzarello and Matteo Casali and artist Giuseppe Camuncoli. The book, which was inspired by Lee’s time living in Italy, and was announced by DC in 2004, but not produced. It was then resolicited in 2011, and indicated that Lee would supply painted art over Camuncoli’s layouts, but was again delayed. When it was revived again in 2015, it was decided that Lee would provide conventional pencils and inks, rather than painted art. Lee also announced in September 2015 that he and Frank Miller may return to finish All-Star Batman and Robin, saying that Frank Miller had a “great” ending to the storyline, and that a break from drawing Batman, and having resumed work on that character with Europa, Lee was anxious to return to that book.
Technique and materials
Lee is known to use F lead for his pencil work. While inking his own pencils on Punisher: War Journal, Lee began using a crowquill nib for the first time.
In talking about the artist’s work ethic, Lee has said, “Sometimes I wonder if we ever really improve as artists or if the nirvana derived from completing a piece blinds us enough to love what we have created and move on to the next piece. If we could see the work as it is, with years of reflection in the here and now, how many images would end up in the trash rather than on the racks?”
In a 1996 interview with The Comics Journal, writer/illustrator Barry Windsor-Smith criticized the depth of the work of artists like Lee and Rob Liefeld, and those whom they influenced, (whom he referred to as “the Liefelds and the Lees”), stating, “Your Jim Lees and all this lot, their product hasn’t got anything to do with them, you know? There is no emotional investment…I look at Jim Lee’s work, and the guy’s learning how to draw. He has some craft to what he does…I don’t think it has even crossed their minds that comic books can be a medium for intimate self-expression.” The Comics Journal publisher Gary Groth concurred, stating “Lee’s work is obviously more technically accomplished than Liefeld’s, but otherwise it’s conceptually comparable.” Windsor-Smith added that he believed in the Image Comics’ founders’ exodus from Marvel Comics as an important step for creator autonomy and creator rights, and was angered when they returned to Marvel to do “Heroes Reborn”.