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DC Comics' Jim Lee

December 7, 2011 1:16 p.m.


Jim Lee is a comic book artist and co-publisher of DC Comics.

Related Story: DC Comics' Jim Lee


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Comic book characters are probably more popular now in our culture than ever before. And part of that is due to my next guest. San Diego comic book artist and businessman, Jim Lee, revitalized comics in the 90s and is now copublisher of DC comics. He's overseen DC's collaboration with Sony to bring comics into online gaming. And just in time for Christmas, the DC new 52 omnibus collection hits the stores. Welcome to the show.

LEE: Thank you very much, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the DC new 52 is described as rebooting the super hero universe. To those among us who know very little about comic books, what does that mean?

LEE: I guess it means really a fresh start. These characters have been around for many, many decades, have gone through many changes and evolutions. And what we really wanted to signify for the new reader is that this is day one of a new universe, a new start for these characters am so even though you know the classic origins of the characters you can step into the store or down load it on your iPad and read the comic book and understand it from day one. I think that was really important to remove a lot of the barnacles that have accumulated over the years of continuity and history of these characters. To really just make them fresh and young and appealing to a new generation of readers.

CAVANAUGH: Remind us who are some of the new iconic super heros

LEE: Superman, obviously Batman, Wonder Woman, the many Trinity of characters there. There's a ton of characters from super girl to bat girl to we have all sorts of different kinds of books that sell different genres, worse than books, war book.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, when you were reimagining, rebooting this super hero universe, is there a unifying style to all of the comics? Does each super hero have a distinctive visual style in the artwork?

LEE: I think do a layman or new reader it might all look the same. But to a long-time reader, they're very different approaches. Some are more bombastic or over the top in terms of the imagery, even the way the characters stand and gesture might be more superheroic or more powerful in super than than in a worse than, per se, which is going to feel a little more naturalistic. But they all have -- we really strive to tell exciting, vanish visual, dynamic type stories. Even within that spectrum, it's probably more over the top than what people are custom to seeing in their typical TV show.

CAVANAUGH: In the first iteration of this new look, you displayed a number of different looks for the characters that you were thinking about using. How did you decide on which ones you were going to choose?

LEE: Actually, it was a group of us internally. There was a VP of art and design who is also a terrific artist himself, mark which Iarelo, and a free-lancer artist, collie Hamner who had done a lot of great designs for DC before. And the three of us really took up the charge in redesigning the entire look of these characters. And the thing about it is that these characters have really been designed -- created over 75 years plus of history, and every time you create a character, they tend to look of that age. So you had all these visual elements that came from the late 30s, 40s, 50s, strong man performers from circus acts that had become part of the standard look of super heroes. And sometimes those didn't mesh as well with characters that looked more contemporary or were created in more recent years. So we really had an opportunity with this fresh start, with this reboot, to go through and say, if we redesigned all these characters today, what would they look like? So we got rid of some of the visual throw backs, like super man's red trunks. And the important thing was when you still look at superman for the first time, there's no misidentifying. There's no chance you're not going to know that that's Superman or mistake him for Batman, per se. It's still classically Superman, but we wanted to change the look of some of the elements we didn't feel weres iconic to the character itself.

CAVANAUGH: I know you've gotten a lot of positive feedback. What kind of negative feedback did you get?

LEE: Any time you change anything that's been around for -- it exists or stands the test of time for 75 years without people becoming super fanatical or very passionate about the characters. And we're very important fortunate in our business to have probably the most passionate fans you'll find in requesting. So comparable to diehard baseball fan, let's say. So these fans are very, very particular about their stories, and so we had a lot of initial sort of vocal -- more shock than anythinges. But once we sort of walked them through the process why we made the changes we made and started talking about the opportunities and the up-sides to making these kinds of changes, we turned a lot of people around and we turned the tide of response to a very favorable one. And comic book sales have not been higher in probably the past 20 plus years. It's been a big resurgence in sales for local comic book shops and also new digital sales.

CAVANAUGH: Jim, I wonder, can you think back and remember the first comic that you read that you remember thinking this is something that I can do? In fact, this is something I want to do?

LEE: Well, I remember really being drawn to them, no pun intends, when I moved here to the United States. My family immigrated when I was five. I didn't know any English. So obviously the visual story telling really drew me in. And I remember reading, like, Tarzan, and the barber shop back when I was 8 or 9. But I think it was definitely superman and batman stories. I didn't get an allowance. So I had to go to the library and check out these hardcover editions that collected different batman and superman stories over the different decades. So that's really how I got exposed to the DC history. And I saw how these characters change and evolve from their origins in the late 30s to the 40s and 50s and 60s, as the times of history changed, the characters changed themselves. So even a character like batman became grittier and more grounded in reality as the years went on.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I mentioned to everyone that you are copublisher of DC comics. Do you get any time to draw anymore or be involved in the comics themselves?

LEE: I am, actually. I draw Justice League with Jeff Jones. That's one of the new flagship books for the new 52. I don't sleep a lot. So I tend to draw pretty late into the evening till 3:00, 4:00 in the morning and that gives me several hours of sleep before the first calls I have with the east coast. DC is headquartered in Manhattan. I spend about a week a month in New York then I also go up to Burbank where DC entertainment is headquartered. And I catch up on my sleep on the weekends. So it's a pretty exciting job. There's a lot of cool stuff that happens on a daily basis. And drawing is a real stress reliever for me, it's a very different kind of muscle set. So when I sit down and draw, it's sort of teleported back to my childhood, and then how I important these characters and what they mean to me, so it's a real -- you charge your batteries while you're staying up late at night so that during the day you understand why these comics are so important to people

CAVANAUGH: You mentioned going up to Burbank, LA, Hollywood. A lot of people complain that there are too many movies based on comic back characters. I wonder what you think about those movies

LEE: Well, it's not our fault. We just put one out. Green Lantern was ours. And next year, batman rises. I love them. To me, nothing will take away from the charm of the original stories that I read. All these movies are adaptations or inspired by different stories that were produced by different creators over the decades.

CAVANAUGH: Certainly.

LEE: Sort of like Lord of the Rings. I love the original books, and the movies are fantastic, but they're an adaptation of the classic. If a movie goes out this and strikes out, I don't hold that against the original concept. I still remember the classic that was so charming and appealing. But you have to give the film makers the freedom to go ahead and update these characters for today's audiences. And that's the thinking we had when we went into the new 52 reboot. A lot of this mentality of we can't rest on our Laurels. If you let these characters ossify, if we don't take the steps to keep them fresh, they will get old, and they will sort of fall by the wayside of pop culture history.

CAVANAUGH: Jim Lee, what is your involvement with the online DC universe?

LEE: Right. It's a project I was involved with with Sony online entertainment, which is actually headquartereded here in San Diego. And they did a massively multiplayer online game. And it allows players to create their own super hero, super villain, and you can team up with superwoman, bat man, wonder woman, and fight villains. It's an open world where people go in and choose the name for their character, they choose their power subsets, they undertake missions, they gain levels and artifacts and items and become more powerful in the game. And it's all free to play. If you are at all superhero curious, you can go online to, and download the game on your PC or PS3.

CAVANAUGH: I was superhero curious! And I have seen this, and this is -- it looks great. How much time and effort went into creating this?

LEE: It took five years. These games are massive. Unlike most games where you have a starting point and an end point, and you really create the tunnel through which a player experiences the game of the story that you're essentially telling them, this is like I said, an open world experience. You can go so many different ways. So you're really creating multiple games on top of one another. And the paths intersect and cross here and there. But you're giving people that play superhero a different experience than character -- if they created a super villain, per se. You have all these different routes you can take. And there's a lot of replayability, probably infinite. So it takes a lot more time to develop one of these types of games.

CAVANAUGH: Was it important to you to have that free option for kids and people who want to take part in this yet they don't want to spend any money to join?

LEE: Well, it's actually -- the Internet has become synonymous for free, and a lot of people have shifted to this model. Since we've shifted to the free to play, we've seen this huge surge in the player base. So it made a huge difference to a lot of these players, especially in today's economic climate, free is as cheap as it gets. People are finding out that it's a great, great game. And typically what you find is that once people find they enjoy it, there's all these other ways to pay for additional perks or items. And people kind of get sucked into it. But again, you don't have to do that. People love having that option to choose and play as they wish.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I started out talking about the DC new 52 omnibus. What is this? Obviously a compilation. Is it a compilation of all the comics?

LEE: It's a compilation of all the 52 first issues that came out in September. All the first 52 issues. And like I was saying before, when I was a kid, I would go -- I had this memory of checking out these large hardcover books. And that was my exposure to the DC universe. And stome, this is a very similar kind of thing. These are not complete stories, not by any stretch. These are introductions to all these different types of characters. Many iconic. To a layman or new reader, a lot of them will be totally new characters. And so it's a great gift or an item to have that kind of shows you the variety and breadth and width of the DC universe.

CAVANAUGH: If your idea is hanging up somewhere in 1997, you can get reacquainted right now.

LEE: Absolutely. Certainly with superman, grant Morrison, and the artist, they decided to take I would say of all the iconic character, super athlete man was changed the most. I think a lot of people felt the character had gotten too soft. And sort of -- not a character that was dynamic and in a contemporary way.

CAVANAUGH: You were going to say manly, weren't you?

LEE: No! So they -- they make a good approach that was reinventing who the man of steel is. And a lot of people find the character more brash than what they had grownup with. And they're enjoying the new attitude.

CAVANAUGH: Now, really quickly, I'm just wondering, do you think there'll always be actual comic books or everything is going to go online?

LEE: I think there'll always be comic books, at least for a couple generations. I grew up hearing about computers and how that was going to replace paper. And I've got several vaults of paper. Comics are collectible as well as a reading experience. It's not like music where if you listen to it from CD or audio file, it's going to sound the same. Reading is it on paper is a different experience than reading it on a portable media device. The page spreads are larger in print, the colors are different on a device. It is a real difference in sort of the difference between watching a movie in a theatre versus watching it on your I-Pod touch. It's a different kind of experience. And that will always exist for paper. And what we've found is even though we want same-day digital with our comic books, the entire marketplace, and sales have risen as an event. People who are buying it still in print, but we're adding in new readers, lapsed readers are coming back and checking it out by down loading it on their portable media days the

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much.

LEE: Thank you, Maureen. I appreciate it.

CAVANAUGH: And the DC new 52 omnibus hits stores December 13th.