Considered something of a Rock god among comic book fans, publisher and artist Jim Lee is a true American success story. Immigrating to the United States from South Korea at the age of four, Lee grew up right square in the American Heartland – St. Louis, Missouri. Excelling in school, Lee was on the pre-med track at Princeton with a major in psychology when an art class rekindled his childhood loves of drawing and comic books. The year was 1986, and with comics evolving and growing up thanks to such game changing series as The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, Lee made a deal with his parents to try for one year to break into comics. If unsuccessful after that time, he would go forward with his education and attend medical school.
Lee never looked back because, by 1987, he had broken in to the comics industry drawing the Alpha Flight series for Marvel Comics as his first regular assignment, debuting with issue #51, dated October of that year. Lee's star continued to rise at Marvel, as he became the penciler on the first Punisher spinoff book, Punisher War Journal with the first issue, dated November 1988. On the fourth issue of that series, Lee's pencils were inked by Scott Williams for the first time, beginning an artistic partnership that continues to this day more than 20 years later.
However, it was a fill-in issue he did on Marvel's top-selling series that would change Jim Lee's life forever. Dated September 1989, Uncanny X-Men #248 introduced Lee's art to a far wider audience, and his successful pinch hit on that issue and three others led to Jim receiving the plumb assignment of regular penciler on Uncanny X-Men beginning with #267, dated September 1990. Within a few months, Lee's artwork on that title re-energized the series and drove sales even higher, and his earlier issues were fetching top dollar on the back issue market. Now firmly ensconced on one of Marvel's best-selling titles, Lee joined the ranks of other fan-favorite Marvel Comics artists, Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld, who had been enjoying similar successes on Spider-Man and New Mutants, respectively.
A year later, Jim Lee one-upped himself as he became the artist on what is still the best-selling comic book of all time, October 1991's X-Men #1, which has sold over 8 million copies – a feat confirmed by the Guinness Book of World Records. Not bad for someone who had just been hoping to get his foot in the door of the comics industry a scant four years earlier.
Success followed success for Lee as, in 1992, he broke away from Marvel along with its other top artists to form the upstart Image Comics where Lee created his signature series, WildCATS. 1996 brought him back to Marvel, by then struggling with bankruptcy, to take on their Iron Man and Fantastic Four titles for about a year.
In late 1998, Lee stunned the comics industry by leaving Image Comics and taking his intellectual properties, organized under the WildStorm Productions banner, and selling them to DC Comics, making WildStorm an imprint of DC where Lee continued to serve as Editorial Director. The comics industry had entered a major slump in mid-1994, and by the late-1990s, the lofty sales once held by any title published with an Image Comics logo were no more. Selling WildStorm to DC allowed Lee to keep his characters alive and published by a stable company with a superior presence in the trade paperback bookstore market – a combination that no other comics company had at the time.
One of Lee's wishes in selling WildStorm to DC was to concentrate more on his artwork. He didn't quite succeed in that goal as his artistic output has been scattershot over the last decade. However, he has illustrated a few significant stories for DC including the twelve-issue story arcs, "Batman: Hush" and "Superman: For Tomorrow." More recently, he penciled Frank Miller's controversial, hard-edged – and more than slightly unhinged – take on the Caped Crusader in All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder. Upcoming projects include painted art in Batman: Europa #1 and his spearheading of DC's online gaming presence as the Executive Creative Director of DC's MMORPG, DC Universe Online, set for release sometime in 2011.
In February 2010, a company reorganization at DC led to Jim Lee's appointment as Co-Publisher of DC Comics. Later in the year, the WildStorm imprint was scuttled and its characters will be folded into the mainstream DC Comics titles.
So how does one even begin to showcase the career of a man who has risen to the top of his field and whose influence has extended over no less than three different comic book companies? Titan Books may just have the answer with its breathtaking new coffee table tome, Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee (ISBN: 978-1845765194), written by William Baker, whose text informs and gives context to the artwork, but is wisely used sparingly in order to let the pictures speak for themselves.
Weighing in at almost 300 pages, Icons, by necessity, leaves out Lee's non-DC owned work, but what it includes should be more than enough to satisfy the cravings of any fan of Jim Lee's dynamic comics art. No stranger to producing high quality art books, Titan adds yet another impressive title to its roster. The production values on this book are superb as each page of Lee's drool-worthy art is rendered on a generous 12.2-by-9.4 inch page in sharp detail using heavy paper stock.
The book is divided into several sections: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, DC Heroes, WildStorm, Vertigo, and DCU Online. Given that Lee's DC art has been heavily weighted toward Batman, it should come as no surprise that a full 85 pages are devoted to the Dark Knight and his extended family such as Robin, Nightwing, and Batgirl. At the opposite end, Wonder Woman receives the comparatively short shrift, but Lee's insights into creating different looks for Diana for various projects, ranging from All Star Batman to Just Imagine Stan Lee and Jim Lee Creating Wonder Woman, are interesting as he admits to having some difficulty with interpreting the character.
Like Neal Adams before him and Alex Ross after him, Jim Lee became a fan favorite on the strength of relatively few projects. It might surprise some that, in his entire career through Marvel, Image, and DC, Lee has drawn fewer than 150 complete comic books, yet his influence in the medium and on the next generations of artists far outstrips his artistic output – a sure sign of a great artist. If it's true that familiarity breeds contempt, scarcity seems to have had the opposite effect as, 20 years on, Lee's name attached to any project sends waves of anticipation and excitement throughout comics fandom and catapults said project to the top of the sales charts.
What makes Icons such an important book is that it not only has lots of splashy images of Lee's most memorable scenes from the comics he's drawn, but through the use of pencil sketches, thumbnails, concept art, as well as narration from the artist himself, we get a glimpse into Lee's artistic process and gain an understanding of how Lee approaches character design and staging a scene. Lee is meticulous and detail-oriented in his work even when taking on characters that are familiar worldwide such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman – the so-called "trinity" of the DC pantheon. Readers will surely enjoy seeing the concept sketches that Lee put together before tackling Batman in "Hush" or Superman and Wonder Woman in "For Tomorrow." The section on All Star Batman and Robin is surprisingly revealing as we see how Lee approached the development of these characters from the ground up, and we get to see proposed new costume designs for both Batman and Robin that were quite different from the classic looks that actually saw print. This meticulous approach also extends to Lee's work in creating the art from which many DC statues are made, samples of which are also evident throughout the book.
The section on WildStorm is particularly instructive as the brand was home to Lee's artistic and editorial input from its inception in 1992 as a unit of Image Comics until the present day as a unit of DC Comics, so while these characters will be less recognizable to the more casual comics reader, WildStorm does represent Lee's longest and most consistent work in comics. Readers can meet, or reacquaint themselves, with, among others, WildCATS, Gen13, Divine Right, Stormwatch, and Deathblow – characters that could only have come from the 90s – in all their gritted teeth, sword-wielding, gun-toting, shoulder-padded glory. Even readers who think they've seen it all will raise an intrigued eyebrow over the juicy tidbits of new information that are revealed by the copious amounts of unpublished art and rejected conceptual drawings taken directly from Jim Lee's sketchbooks and uninked artboards. Did you know that names such as M-Force, N-Force, World N-Forcers, and Multinational Force were considered for the United Nations sponsored team of superhumans that eventually became known as Stormwatch? You do now, and there are many more such bits of trivia and insight to be found within these pages.
A further bonus is Jim Lee's first work on a story of DC Comics' first Silver Age superhero team, The Legion of Super-Heroes. This story was produced especially for Icons and rounds out the book and ends things on a high note. Lee is clearly a fan of the 1970s Dave Cockrum designed version of the Legion as that era is where Lee's story (written by Paul Levitz, longtime Legion scribe and Lee's predecessor as Publisher of DC Comics) takes place. In an odd way, this brings things full circle somewhat as Cockrum gained his greatest fame in 1975 by co-creating the new X-Men.
In summary, Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee makes a great gift during this holiday season, and is mandatory reading, not only for comics fans, but for those who aspire to enter into a career in art whether it be comic books, commercial art, or movie storyboarding. Regular folks who just like to look at eye-popping images from a consummate craftsman will surely get hours and hours of enjoyment from this book as well.