The Multi-Faceted Icon: Celebrating the Artistry and Influence of Jim Lee!
Jim Lee is a businessman, a superstar artist, the talent behind the best-selling single issue of all time, a figurehead of the indie revolution, and the co-publisher of the oldest established comics company.
Lee went from struggling artist to industry-topping fan-favorite, he co-founded Image Comics, and he helmed many of Marvel and DC's highest-profile projects. His hyper-detailed, fine-line technique has inspired legions of imitators, and influenced generations of creators, making him one of comics' best-known and most recognizable personalities. And today is his birthday.
Jim Lee was born on August 11, 1964 in Seoul, South Korea, and spent most of his childhood in St. Louis, Missouri. He graduated from Princeton University in 1986, and began freelancing for Marvel the following year, pencilling eleven issues of Alpha Flight, then helping launch Punisher War Journal, inking over writer/artist Carl Potts' pencils for the first three issues, then taking over as series penciller with issue #4.
While handling his War Journal commitments, Lee was tapped to provide the art for issue #248 of Uncanny X-Men, filling in for regular artist Marc Silvestri, and a few months later, took over as the bestselling series' regular penciller.
Lee's sketchy, fine-line style resonated with readers and provided an energetic counterpoint to Chris Claremont's character-driven plots, and within a few issues, sales were through the roof and Marvel's mutants were hurtling headlong into the '90s. Each issue of Uncanny seemed to outperform the last, as Claremont and Lee introduced new characters and turned the established cast inside-out, redesigning and reinventing the franchise with every step they took. Jim Lee was comics' newest superstar, his pin-up worthy characters bursting off covers and tearing up the sales charts.
In 1991 it made perfect sense for Marvel to capitalize on all the commotion and have Lee and Claremont launch an all-new series featuring their signature characters.
X-Men #1 hit stands on September 10th, and set a new standard for industry overkill, with five different editions appearing simultaneously --- four in standard format with interlocking cover art, and one "deluxe" on higher quality paper, with a gatefold cover that collected the entire image. Helped by the multiple-cover device, immense hype from the media, and rampant speculation from "investors", X-Men #1 immediately became the best-selling comic book of all time, with over eight million copies shipped.
But Lee was already restless. He was plotting and pencilling the top comic in the world, but he still lacked full control over his destiny. So that autumn, he began to talk privately with some of his fellow artists, and in December, he joined Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane in a meeting with Marvel publisher Terry Stewart to outline their dissatisfaction, tender their collective resignation, and inform him of their intent to found a new, creator-owned comic company.
On February 1st 1992, a press release was sent out, and the formation of Image Comics was official. Though the company experienced some initial difficulties, it quickly became clear that Lee and company were onto something.
Lee's new series, WildCATS, launched in August, was an immediate sensation, and was soon followed by a number of spin-offs and tie-in titles. Lee's imprint within Image, Wildstorm Productions, enlisted some of the industry's top talent, provided a platform for a number of trendsetting new creators, and launched a wide variety of successful new series over the next seven years.
Lee himself, meanwhile, was suddenly a massively successful co-publisher, and kept close control of his company while also continuing to pursue his own artistic projects, including a return to Marvel in 1996 for the launch of the Heroes Reborn titles.
In 1998, spurred on by widespread upheaval in the comic industry, Lee decided to move on from Image comics and find a new home for his properties. DC Comics was ready with an offer, and their acquisition of Wildstorm in early 1999 gave Lee the resources to continue expanding his publishing portfolio --- Wildstorm soon launched a number of groundbreaking new series including Warren Ellis' Planetary and The Authority, Ed Brubaker's Sleeper, and Alan Moore's America's Best Comics family of titles.
Lee now enjoyed the freedom to not only continue overseeing the Wildstorm empire, but also focus more on his own art. In 2003, Lee teamed with writer Jeph Loeb on a 12-issue run on Batman. He followed that with a year-long stint on the flagship Superman title alongside Brian Azzarello, and joined forces with Frank Miller in 2005 to launch the ongoing (and to date, incomplete) All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder series.
By the start of the next decade, Wildstorm was winding down as an independent entity, and its titles were being gradually folded into the mainstream DC Universe. At the same time, Lee's importance to the company was clear, from both a creative and commercial standpoint.
In February of 2010, almost exactly 18 years after leaving Marvel to co-found his own company, Jim Lee was named co-publisher of DC Comics alongside Dan DiDio, a position that solidified his standing in the field and gave him unmatched control over both the business and artistic aspects of the comics industry's most prestigious company.
Lee has continued to create and innovate. He's overseen a number of revamps and paradigm shifts at DC, from 2011's The New 52 to 2015's DC You to 2016's Rebirth. He's been the public face of the company, appearing at conventions, giving interviews, and enthusiastically spearheading an ongoing evolution. He continues to be one of the medium's finest illustrators, pencilling new series, contributing to stand-alone issues, handling promo art and covers, and lending his deft touch to innumerable special projects.
So today, on the anniversary of his birth, we recognize Jim Lee's contributions to comics, and celebrate the long, winding, and never-predictable path his career has taken so far. We can't wait to see where he takes us next!