DC Publisher/CCO Jim Lee opens up on his art, cyclical nature of his career

(Image credit: DC/Getty Images/Pizza Hut)

So, Jim Lee's been pretty busy as of late, huh?

He has a habit of that, but challenge is something the Korean-American has pursued since growing up in St. Louis. Now 55 and firmly rooted in Southern California, Lee has risen in the comics industry to become one of if not arguably the most popular modern comic book artists but also one of its most powerful executives.

Now, following the surprise exit of long-time colleague (and friend) Dan DiDio, Lee is now at the head of the table seemingly as DC's Chief Creative Officer and now sole Publisher.

But that doesn't mean he doesn't have time to help his kids sell girl scout cookies. (More on that later...)

Jim Lee recently spoke with Newsarama prior to the start of last weekend's C2E2, and while he and DC declined to address questions about DiDio's exit less than a week before the conversation, he did speak about broader issues and trends for him and comics as a whole.

Newsarama: Jim, this about your career: drawing, writing, publishing, editing, all of it - or as much as we can fit in the time we have.

Let me ask first, what's on your drawing board right now?

Jim Lee: It's a top secret project. I'm juggling a couple of those, but this one is going to be revealed in the spring.

Nrama: So what can you talk about? Maybe some covers?

Lee: I'm doing a lot of anniversary covers. It's fun to take the characters, figure out the decade, and bring them to life. I'm finishing up ones for Catwoman and Green Lantern right now.

In terms of stories though, they're beyond top secret. I've got a couple open-ended deadlines on them.

Nrama: A lot of work then. Can I ask, do you have a drawing table both at home and work?

Lee: Only at home. I can draw anywhere with a flat surface, though. I have a Cintiq here, and I do some mark-up work, color proofs, etc, here. Things that need to be tweaked and changed.

Jim Lee's home art studio

Jim Lee's home art studio (Image credit: Jim Lee)

Nrama: Speaking of those covers... in addition to being Chief Creative Officer/Publisher, you've been DC's defacto flagship artist, akin to Jack Kirby at Marvel back in the glory days. Is there a weight to that you feel?

Lee: Oh, I hope not. I don't feel a particular weight to it.

There's no way for there to be any sort of comparison to Jack Kirby, but thank you for the thought. No one can match what he did, and here at DC we have many amazing artists here: Greg Capullo, Jorge Jimenez, Mitch Gerads, Nick Derrington...

The fact of me doing these occasional covers is partly to keep my skills somewhat sharp; my ultimate goal is to get back to doing long-term stories.

Nrama: We'd like to see that as well.

With all the things going on, I was amazed back in 2018 you had time to help your daughter sell Girl Scout Cookies in front of a grocery store, and were drawing for people who bought them - some without them knowing who you are, or how much this pieces might go for on the open market.

Jim Lee & family selling girl scout cookies in front of Vons Grocery Store

Jim Lee & family selling girl scout cookies in front of Vons Grocery Store (Image credit: Jim Lee)

Why is it important for you to, in some cases, not be 'too precious' with your art?

Lee: Well, I think comics is about having as much fun as possible. Obviously there's serious issues to be tackled, but at the heart of it all it's about writing stories, drawing stories, and having that nostalgic connection with my past.

Drawing sketches for young kids and their families as part of a Girl Scout drive is a fun marriage of two things.

I've trained myself to be able to draw practically anywhere, be it a hotel room, a home studio, work, or a table outside a grocery store. I never wanted to be the person who couldn't create except in the 'right' environment. It's all about being inspired - inspired by the people around you, in the case you brought up. It adds a whole other element.

I also love drawing during panels at conventions, live and in front of people. It wasn't super easy initially, but once I got the hang of it it became fun and funny.

Nrama: Could you do that sort of thing back in the '90s when you were breaking in? Maybe with a classic overhead projector?

Lee: No, not much of that. It was autograph signings and Q&A panels.

With these spotlight panels I'm doing now, and with my Twitch streams, I'm able to show people that comics are hand-crafted. People see how long it takes, and the thought process of it all. I like sharing that.

Nrama: In preparing for this interview and looking at your career, and you have a tendency to make big shifts every 10 years or so: the early '90s you took over X-Men and talks began about Image. At the end of the 90s you sold Wildstorm to DC. In 2010 you took the job of DC's Co-Publisher, and now again with what's happened recently. What time period in your life do you think has most affected you as a professional now?

Lee: I would say the changes aren't by the decade, but every five or six years a big opportunity happens and I try to take it.

I started at Marvel in 1987, then left after about six years to form Image. About five or six years into that, WildStorm became a part of DC. About six years into that I did 'Hush' for Batman, then DC Universe Online. In 2010 I became publisher with Dan DiDio, and then seven or eight years after that I became CCO. It's all cycles.

Every one of those periods had their own new, unique challenges.

But in terms of sheer enjoyment, it would be WildStorm in San Diego - working in the same office with Scott Williams, Alex Sinclair, Richard Friend, Sandra Hope, Lee Bermejo, J. Scott Campbell, Alex Garner, and more. Many talented people came through, and it was a pretty magical time - not just in the office, but also when we went on tour.

Nrama: I met you during your first WildStorm tour I believe, for 'Killer Instinct.'

Lee: Down in Florida? Yeah!

Comic sales were booming, and of all the different periods of my career that was probably more fun than others.

Overall, my top mission is about keeping oneself challenged, invested, and engaged.

Nrama: You're speaking to something I wanted to ask about, running a bullpen/pit. Whether it be Homage, WildStorm, or even the Gelatometti days (I loved that Iron Gelatomettista game you had set up there!)

Lee: Ah yeah, the fantasy game. We based that on food shows, with two artists online and fans got to pick teams, and we all posted results. It really showed the creative process, and how people take an idea, innovate, collaborate, and bring it to life.

Nrama: I know you have so many other commitments now, but do you ever get a chance to do art in the thick of it with others anymore? Last time I was at DC offices, there wasn't any room for a bullpen.

Lee: Like setting up a studio? Sometimes when Andy Kubert comes to the office, he'll set up shop. And other artists do come in for visits. But god, we haven't done that in quite a while.

The Twitch and YouTube streams mimics the feel of working in a shared office studio with other artists: drawing, shooting the breeze, talking movies, records, pop culture, all while creating content.

Jim Lee and Danielle Panabaker at Kuwait air base

Jim Lee and Danielle Panabaker at Kuwait air base (Image credit: DC)

Nrama: Let's circle back to those secret projects you mentioned, and one you name-dropped last year. Last year you hinted that you and Brad Meltzer were working on a war story for an anthology. Can you say anything about that?

Lee: It is happening, and will be out later this year.

That was the most on-time project I've ever had done, in advance, in my entire career.

It's a very personal story about a Medal of Honor recipient. Brad really crafted a tale to bridge a fictional universe with a real-life hero in a respectful way. I'm very happy with it.

Nrama: What influences you today as an artist? Let's take DC out of it for now... From photos I see Otomo on your office wall, and a Kozik sculpture... and I saw a video of you being engrossed by a live-drawing session by Kim Jung Ji.

Lee: I bought that Kozik on a whim. My office here at DC is full of random toys I've accumulated over the years.

Jim Lee in his DC office

Jim Lee in his DC office (Image credit: Hex)

At home, it's really the work of my peers that are everywhere.

For inspiration, it's about the new projects that are out and whatever environments I've been in. Traveling has some sort of cumulative impact as well.

I'm a sponge for everything, be it abstract art, modern design, photography.

Chris Arrant

Chris Arrant covered comic book news for Newsarama from 2003 to 2022 (and as editor/senior editor from 2015 to 2022) and has also written for USA Today, Life, Entertainment Weekly, Publisher's Weekly, Marvel Entertainment, TOKYOPOP, AdHouse Books, Cartoon Brew, Bleeding Cool, Comic Shop News, and CBR. He is the author of the book Modern: Masters Cliff Chiang, co-authored Art of Spider-Man Classic, and contributed to Dark Horse/Bedside Press' anthology Pros and (Comic) Cons. He has acted as a judge for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, the Harvey Awards, and the Stan Lee Awards. Chris is a member of the American Library Association's Graphic Novel & Comics Round Table. (He/him)