In Newsarama's ongoing discussion with the artists on Grant Morrison's mind-bending epic The Multiversity, it was tough to get the artist on February's Mastermen issue to sit down long enough for an interview.
And for good reason — the issue's artist, Jim Lee, spends his days helping run DC Entertainment as co-publisher, and usually spends what little free time he has drawing comics.
The superstar artist is the latest of a diverse list of creators working with Morrison on Multiversity, which features a different art team on every issue. Since the limited series launched in August 2014, the story has taken readers on an adventure that spans DC's rich landscape of characters and concepts while adding new dimension to the Multiverse — and, in a completely Morrison-esque way, to the idea of comic books themselves.
February's issue took readers to Earth 10, where Superman's childhood rocket crashed on Earth in Germany during the 1940's. Superman is called by the name Overman, and he was raised in Hitler's Germany instead of sleepy little Smallville. And with Overman on their side, Germany ended up winning World War II and Hitler now rules the world.
In our ongoing series of interviews Vivisecting Multiversity, we talked to DC Co-Publisher and legendary artist Jim Lee about his approach to Earth 10, his artistic process, and what he enjoyed most about The Multiversity: Mastermen.
Newsarama: Jim, it seems like you could be selective about what projects you draw. What appealed to you about working on this issue for Multiversity?
Jim Lee: First and foremost it was the chance to work with Grant Morrison. I pick my projects based on who I get to work with because I love learning about the craft of creating comics with talented collaborators.
At the end of the day, everyone takes a different approach to storytelling, and I find it fun and challenging to try and deliver what each writer hands me when they send me their scripts.
Beyond that, I think Multiversity is an amazing project — just so unique and brilliant in it’s basic premise. I was floored by Grant’s pitch a couple years ago when he talked about the scope and magnitude of the project. It’s so uniquely Grant in it’s creativity and a testament to his genius, really — to see him tell one overarching story while also telling gripping, dramatic individual one-off issues.
Seeing it come to life with so many great artists made it feel like a once-in-a-lifetime kind of project that got me excited to join in and do my take on a world dominated by superhero Nazis!
Nrama: The last time you worked with Grant, on the Wildcats relaunch, the story got cut short. Did that experience influence your decision to work on this project?
Lee: Well, "cut short" is an euphemistic understatement! Yes, I would have loved to continue that series but for a variety of scheduling reasons, the project derailed after that first issue.
Thing is, I had a blast working with Grant, love his take on the ‘Cats and would draw pretty much anything he asked me to, so in my mind, I would love to continue to tell that story so, who knows?
Nrama: As co-publisher, I assume you heard about Multiversity pretty early — so did you get to select which issue you drew? How did you land upon this issue, and what was your approach once you realized what you were drawing?
Lee: I think Grant and I agreed that this issue made the most sense to draw, and I was a bit of a history nerd back in high school, so I looked forward to drawing the World War II historical elements of the story.
So I Googled a ton of reference, down to Messerschmidt 262's, the first jet planes ever, old Panther tanks and of course Nazi uniforms.
I used to build TAMIYA model kits of tanks, planes, soldiers, etcetera, back when I was a kid and create 3-D World War II dioramas, so getting to use that experience and knowledge was fun.
The hardest part to find reference for was for Nazi toilets. Had to wing it a bit there.
As far as the tone of the story, well, there’s both a grandeur and suffocatingly cold beauty to the world when the Nazis end up taking over the planet. Grant postulated that such a future would represent the end of art, culture and social progress so he must have felt my style encapsulated that feeling perfectly [laughs].
Nrama: How familiar were you with the Earth-X story that had been told before about the "Nazi" version of the Justice League?
Lee: Man, my parents hated me reading comics as a kid so my collection was super spotty for both Marvel and DC.
I did have a lot of Justice League comics from that period in the '70s because that’s probably my favorite era for the team, but almost all my issues were the 100-pagers-for-60-cent variety. Not really sure why…I was only 9 years old so maybe my parents bought those because they thought they represented better value for the penny?
In any event, I regret not reading that classic Earth X story from the '70s because that would have given this Multiversity assignment a cool nostalgic vibe, but alas, I came into this pretty cold.
That said, given current events, drawing a group called the Freedom Fighters who have no issue killing millions of civilians to overthrow the Nazi occupation, and a character called the Human Bomb who incites fear through his powers, gave this project an underlying political point of view that I found both intriguing and unsettling.
Nrama: How much did you contribute to the design of the New Reichsman and Freedom Fighter characters? Can you talk about any of the designs you did and your approach to the characters and their costumes?
Lee: All the designs either pre-existed or were created by Grant, such as Lightning and Leatherwing. Mike Hawthorne did a terrific pin-up for the Multiversity guidebook in which he designed Brunhilde and Phantom Lady, which helped out immeasurably with deadlines as there’s nothing more time consuming than world building. So it was helpful having that direction…I just did my take on the designs as needed and tried to synthesize it into an aesthetic whole.
Nrama: The issue centers on this world's version of Superman. What was your thought process as you drew Overman? What had to be different and/or the same about him?
Lee: I was very conscious of drawing Superman when I drew Overman. I made it a point to appropriate certain poses and homage what I had done with Superman before, such as the cover to Superman #204 for a shot of Overman gloating over the conquest of Washington DC.
At the same time, I tried to instill a certain edge in Overman's demeanor to show that he’s more conflicted than Superman ever was. By this I mean that after decades of Nazi rule, Overman realizes that nothing in this world turned out as the Nazi propaganda machine had prophesied — that by eliminating dissent and killing artists, activists, scientists and free-thinkers and anyone else the Nazis felt to be sub-human, that in the end you are left with a world that is bereft of culture and art and love.
You see it in a broader sense in the aesthetic stagnation of fascist architecture and art in the book, and on a personal level in the discord between Overman and Lena.
Nrama: What scene or page do you think turned out particularly well?
Lee: I always have my favorite pages in issues I draw that aren’t always the ones fans single out as being their favorites. Primarily because there are certain things I look to do on a page, and whether I pull it off or not is my measure of a successful page.
The things I try and pull off may be as simple as a subtle facial expression or as complicated as a three-point perspective grid. I may be obsessed with a detail most readers will not even spend a second worth noticing, but for me, it’s those details that elevate certain pages over others in terms of the pages I am proudest of in a given issue.
On this particular issue, though, I can say that I really enjoyed two pages or rather two panels — the first being the shot of Hitler in the Nazi toilet. I can honestly say I never, ever thought I would be drawing something that weird and funny and odd in all the years I have been in this business.
What’s crazy about this is that it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility. There were comics printed back in the '40s that had Superman facing off against Hitler. It’s not inconceivable that Hitler got a copy to look at, even if it was to sneer at the absurdity of it all. And it’s historically accurate that Hitler suffered from severe gastrointestinal issues so, again, the opening scene isn’t as far-fetched as it might have originally seemed.
The other panel I really like how it turned out is page 3, last panel. There’s the shot of Hitler arriving at the military base in his Junkers Ju 52 transport plane. Took me a bit of time to find the right plane he would have travelled in, and I wanted to make sure I got the drawing of it just right.
I just like how the entire small panel turned out in terms of setting up the environment at the Peenemünde Army Research Center, extrapolating from aerial shots what the ground level perspective would be, and then placing the Junkers and Hitler’s entourage emerging from its fuselage.
Nrama: I bet a lot of readers didn't even think about how much time you spent on that plane. Looking at the pencils of this page makes me realize — how much of your work do you complete by hand? Do you do anything digitally?
Lee: I work 99 percent on paper with pencil. I make changes on the inked file on the digital file using a Wacom Cintiq tablet you can draw on with a “digital pen.”
For instance in Mastermen, I drew a shot of the Black Condor but I used the reference editorial provided me, which was the classic Caucasian version. In a later iteration of the character, he was Afro-American, so I had to do a face redraw, which was a shame because I liked how the original version looked in the expression.
But that’s modern day comics for you…digital advances allows us to make all sorts of changes at the last second, and there were more than several in this issue — the most prominent being the Black Condor change and also making the destroyed building on the last page of the book look more like Lord Gentry. In the script, it called out for a shot of a nearly destroyed edifice in the background with an open door to suggest the haunted house façade of Lord Broken of the Gentry. My original attempt was way too subtle, so I went in and added some more broken beams to mirror the twisted, arched shape of Lord Broken. In the end it may still have been way too subtle…
Nrama: Now that you've drawn this issue — and I know you try to continue drawing despite how busy your co-publisher work schedule is — but how does spending your time on artwork, immersed in drawing DC's characters, inform your "day job" as co-publisher?
Lee: I think it keeps you creatively dialed in in a way you couldn’t even imagine if you didn’t personally spend countless late nights working endlessly on trying to get a shot or a panel or a line just right. To care so much about a panel that you spend hours on the smallest of details. Because you understand and empathize with how every single creator who works at DC feels about the work they create each and every month.
So I think it critical to have that "in the trenches" perspective, especially when you are helping shape and guide strategy at 30,000 feet above in the day job.
Nrama: That makes sense. Jim, to finish up, is there anything else you want to tell fans about this issue and Multiversity?
Lee: Well, I’ve had the pleasure of reading a lot of reviews of Mastermen so far, and it’s been great. Not the reaction to the book per se but the fact that the work has elicited so much discussion. There are those who love it and those who love to hate it, sometimes without even reading it [laughs].
In the end, I love the engagement and the analysis because at the end of the day, you just want someone to give a damn about something you slaved away over — and hope that maybe there will be a longer, more in-depth look at this fascinating world Grant has re-imagined for the 21st Century.