Honesty and upfrontness can be a hard quality to find these days. But Jae Lee is not in short supply of strong opinions, which made him an ideal, entertaining, and inspiring panel guest at Grand Rapids Comic Con.
Lee began by saying that covers have changed dramatically over the years. The challenge is “making each one different” because up until the 90s, cover artists knew the plot and oriented the cover to the story. However, in the modern era, starting in the 2000s, cover artists now are given simple prompts — no story details.
For instance, Lee says he’ll be tasked by editors to simply “draw a cool pinup shot of Batman.” No story details, and when confronted with this, it makes you realize, “this is your chance”. Lee asked the audience what they’d do in this situation, “Any ideas?” only to be met by comedic silence. He raised his hands in a shrug and laughed, “Right?” So he ended up resorting to Batman on a gargoyle, which his apparently a big no-no cliche.
Another example he cited was one of his most iconic covers for Batman/Superman #1. How could he “draw something that’s never been seen before?” According to Lee, he toiled over juxtaposing the poses of Batman and Superman…so he decided to draw “random robots.” DC said that was fine, and the writer, Greg Park, liked the robots so much, he incorporated that into the story.
But sometimes people aren’t fully happy with his covers due to misunderstanding. For a cover he did depicting Superman vs the Justice League, he said he was criticized for drawing Superman with a bored look. However, Lee makes the case that he did that intentionally. If Superman was to fight the Justice League, he’d do it “effortlessly.”
Very quickly audience questions were incorporated into the panel.
Firstly, he was asked what the first book he illustrated was. Quick as a whip, he answered it was Marvel Comics Presents #85, an anthology series he illustrated at the young age of 18.
Humorously, says Lee, Rob Liefeld illustrated some of the issue, but dropped it once he began work on New Mutants. Lee smirked, admitting that Liefeld “left all the boring pages for me.”
In the same vein, Lee was asked if he had a favorite character. “It was more the artist” he was attracted to: people like Jon Byrne and Mike Zeck. Secret Wars 2 was the first issue Lee bought because it had all the heroes on it. However, Lee clarified, “Secret Wars 2 was awful.”
When asked about whether he was familiar with KISS prior to illustrating them, he said he was, adding, “everybody knows who KISS is” and how they look, as opposed to a band like Coldplay (Lee’s own example).
Asked if he ever regretted doing a comic, Lee said he’s not ashamed of a comic but embarrassed by an old Heavy Metal cover.
About whether he draws proactively (for fun) or just upon request/for a job, Lee said when he’s home, the “last thing I want to be doing is drawing some more.” He denied needing warmups and said he’s never been a “casual artist.”
“Drawing doesn’t come easily to me. It’s always a struggle…I love it and hate it.” He compared it to being a surgeon, the stakes are so high for him. “I could either save somebody’s life or I could kill them.”
According to Lee, he dropped out of the Art Institute of Atlanta after two months. He went to NYCC and showed his portfolio to some DC editors. Shockingly, they laughed at 16 year old Lee. But Scott Lobdell observed this and offered to show Lee’s work at the office, which was instrumental in getting him work. Despite being traumatic, Lee said he’s “grateful” it happened, because the cruelty of some editors opened up doors in unexpected places. “Everything happens for a reason.”
“Everything was incredibly tough,” Lee reminisced about having to physically ship art or go into somebody’s office. But now, things are still “very competitive” if not more so because art is “so prevalent.”
On his influences, Lee cited Simon Bisley and Bill Sienkiewwicz, which, early on, Lee said he “downright plagiarized.” Eventually, he became “influenced by everything” not limited to the likes of Frank Frazetta and Norman Rockwell, who he says are “timeless artists.” Movies, like Matrix Reloaded, specifically, the stairwell fight, he cites as being visual inspirations because he wants to “capture that movement…on the page.”
In regards to how long his process is, he said it takes anywhere from a few hours to weeks. When asked if he likes drawing any particular character, he said he doesn’t like drawing “perfect” people like Superman. “I love drawing ugly things.” He cites Dark Tower as the “best job I ever had” because the Stephen King world is broken down.
A useful tip for artists, Lee talks about how he uses negative space to create eye-catching covers. Editors will ask for more, but Lee lambasted the current state of covers being “crammed…full of unnecessary information” whereas a “simple, iconic image stands out.” The simpler, the more graphic, the better. Sadly, when in a store, Lee feels like there’s “a lot of covers yelling at me.”
When asked about color, Lee revealed he never colors his own work. “I’ve never done my own colors…I don’t have the patience to learn Photoshop. I’m very stuck in my ways.”
Finally, he was asked how much he plans and how much he sticks to his plan for covers and what tools he uses (simple pen and ink brush). “Everything is fluid” he answered. Unfortunately, the finished project is “never as good as you see it in your head,” but every once in a while, one turns out better than you expected, which only happens when “you’re spontaneous.” You end up hating a piece that you overanalyze and “create self-doubt” about by noodling.
Overall, Jae Lee’s blunt, curmudgeon way of seeing the art world and his own work is both hilarious and informative. While some industry folks are too nice to say anything at all, Lee lets it all hang out, but not in an overly mean way. Instead, his honesty is refreshing and leads to many fascinating facts and tips about the industry and art in general. It may sound like a strange descriptor for a comic artist, but if you’re this honest and give no f*cks — you’re punk. And Jae Lee is punk rock.
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