It's hard to imagine comics without Jim Lee, but it's also tough to imagine Jim Lee without the world of comics.
Back when he was a student at Princeton, he thought he'd follow in the family business and become a doctor. Sure, he'd earned a reputation for his comic book art in high school, but a guy has to make a living.
After graduation, the young Lee made a decision to try out being an artist — a decision that has had more of an impact on comics than anyone could have predicted.
Today, Lee is not only one of the best-known artists in comics, but in February, he was named the co-publisher of DC Entertainment.
Fans of his work over the years — whether his awe-inspiring artwork, or his bold co-founding of Image Comics, or his creation of the WildStorm universe — are well aware of the impact the artist has had on comic books over the years. But little did anyone know he'd one day be running the show at DC.
In this first installment of a two-part interview with Lee, Newsarama talked with the artist about how his career path led to his current position at DC.
Newsarama: A lot of people know about your story and the fact that you went to Princeton thinking you'd go into medicine. Now that you're co-publisher at DC, have you looked back and thought about the choice you made to leave that career behind? Or has it been awhile since you thought about it?
Jim Lee: I actually think the co-publisher thing makes more sense, given my background. I think the more interesting time to look back was when I was just purely a freelancer, maybe working on the X-Men, because that's so different from what I went to school for, being a freelancer and drawing comic books for a living, and selling 8 million copies of a comic book or something like that.
Once I started down the path of co-founding Image Comics, and even co-publisher, it just seems a lot more like a career path that isn't that atypical for someone with a college degree. Whereas someone who draws comic books as a freelancer and lives from job to job, is a more unusual story.
Nrama: Looking back at your career path, you seemed to have some things happen that were just right to prepare you for the job of co-publisher. What do you see as the key decisions that led to you being co-publisher?
Lee: It's interesting, but I think looking back on it, you could never have predicted it, but it all makes sense. Obviously, having some success as a freelancer and then co-founding Image Comics and having that entrepreneurial start-up, and now at the age of 45, having been part of DC for, I guess 12 years now, moving into the position of co-publisher seems to make logical sense. Evolutionary sense.
You couldn't have predicted it, but looking back, I was picking up valuable pieces of experience and knowledge every five-year period to the point now where I feel like I can do this job with experience to back up my decisions. I didn't have that, necessarily, when we started Image Comics back in '92.
And, the formation of DC Entertainment is all about bringing comics more within the Warner Bros. umbrella -- all the Warner divisions. So it makes a lot of sense, given all the businesses I've been involved in, not just with Wildstorm but Sony Online Entertainment and the DCU Online game, and all the licensing stuff I was doing with DC Direct. And actually, some of the experience I had overseas dealing with foreign publishing and licensing has all added up to give me a certain amount of experience and understanding of a lot of the different businesses that DC Entertainment is involved in.
Even going back to the Image days when we self-funded our own animation project, Gen 13, and then ended up doing distribution deals with Paramount and Disney, and being involved with the agents and trying to drum up movie deals.... you definitely get an understanding of the businesses that DC Entertainment is involved in, but from the freelancer/creator point of view. Having worked both sides of the fence, as a creator and as a publisher/executive, I think it gives me a perspective that a couple other people within DC Entertainment share, like Geoff Johns and Dan DiDio. And I think that was part of the plan, to bring in that kind of experience and those points of view to make DC Entertainment as creator-friendly and as forward-thinking as possible.
Nrama: It was generally reported, when you did Hush six or seven years ago, that you were trying to get back to illustrating while getting away from publishing. Were you trying to do that? Did you end up missing the executive work?
Lee: I think it's cyclical. As you're knee-deep in penciling deadlines, you're wistfully thinking of the days when you were in budget meetings [laughs] or planning and publishing. I think when you're knee-deep in coming up with editorial plans, the desire to sit down and pencil something is pretty strong.
But I seem to go through these cycles where I get focused on one aspect of what I'm doing. There was Batman: Hush, and then the past five years have been pretty consumed by the DC Universe Online game. And now, being co-publisher, that comes to the fore.
That said, it's always been the intent of the company that I'll continue doing artwork and continue drawing books. That's actually part of the game plan. Right now, it's difficult because of the transition and all the work that's required for the new team to take over the existing company and make sure it's running the way we want it to. I think, once that's accomplished, I'll have time to get back and focus on some of the page-to-page work that I want to be involved in.
It's my connection to what we do as a business; it's my connection to all the people we work with; and it's my connection to the readers.
There are a lot of global decisions that you can make as a co-publisher, and only publishers can make those kind of decisions. At the same time, there are some things you can do only as a penciler or creator. I want to keep my hands in both pots, so to speak.
Nrama: Since we're on the subject of you drawing, I think when it was first announced that you and Geoff were part of the DC Executive team, you indicated there was a chance you two could work together on a comic book. There have certainly been a lot of rumors floating around that you guys are. Is that still a possibility?
Lee: All things are possible, especially if you're co-publisher, because you can say, "yeah!" But because you can move products forward more easily as co-publisher, I think the danger is actually announcing something big that will whet the fans' appetite, then not deliver.
Right now I'm very focused on making sure the Dark Knight: Boy Wonder comic gets done and in stores in February as promised, then not to promise anything beyond that. Once that's under way, who knows what will be announced or discussed?
I'm a big fan of Geoff's work, and it would be remiss upon anyone who was publisher not to try to pair certain creators together, and he and I have never worked together before. So that would be awesome.
But at the same time, we would be shooting ourselves in the foot to announce something that doesn't come out. That's the most important thing: To make sure that what you announce actually does get done.
Nrama: Do you feel more pressure, since you're co-publisher, to release things in a more timely manner? Are you more sensitive to timeliness now that you're the guy in charge?
Lee: I was always aware of that. At Image Comics, that was one of the top things that really dogged the company, for years. And it's still an issue within the business of comics today. Quality vs. quantity, or being on time.
I think there's a responsibility of the publisher, of the company, to make sure the staple books that have been around for decades come out in a timely manner. Monthly books should be out there every month, on the weeks that they're supposed to be out.
But beyond that, some of the special one-off projects are the result of a certain creative team that wants to do a specific story about specific characters for a specific number of issues. They're not jumping onto a collaborative storyline that's been in the works for decades. I think it behooves the company to allow those creators the flexibility to make sure their vision gets done to the way they set out to do it, otherwise, why bother?
I think you can have both types of products under one roof.
Scheduling is always difficult. And if there's not a date, people tend to move slower. I know an easy argument to make is, "Why not solicit anything until work is done?" Well, a lot of times, creators won't do anything until something's announced. It's difficult in this day and age to motivate creators to make their deadlines. It's a very different kind of business now than it was decades ago. Your top creators are so busy in so many different kinds of activities. Sometimes you want to grab them and say, "look, let's just focus on the book." But we're talking about creators and inspiration and passion, and it's not factory work. It's not something where you can pencil in creator A and creator B and predict with 100 percent reliability.
That said, scheduling is important, and every publisher has to deal with it. We're often times dealing with the same group of creators, and it will continue to be a point of discussion going into the future.
Check back soon for Part 2, as we talk to Jim about his new responsibilities as co-publisher, his thoughts on the changes to Zuda, what Green Lantern will mean to DC next year, and what he thinks of the response to his new costume design for Wonder Woman.