Jim Lee discusses the challenges of 'Superman Unchained'
DC Comics Co-Publisher Jim Lee does not have a lot of free time. The longtime superstar artist spends his days dealing with DC's various budgets, strategies and initiatives in both the print and digital side of their business and his evenings drawing pages for "Superman Unchained" -- the newly launched monthly comic written by Scott Snyder. Compound those tasks with a recent promotional tour tied to "Unchained," Warner Bros. "Man of Steel" film and Superman's 75th anniversary which included TV interviews and the ongoing retailer road show for comic shop owners, and Lee's time is spread even thinner. But the artist seems to like it that way. "It's tough sometimes to make that very quick transition," Lee told CBR News of jumping from his creative work on "Unchained" to the promotional rodeo of recent weeks. "To me, when I'm drawing I'm just thinking about the art -- about composition and lighting. Then as soon as that's done, and we're on the road show, it's all about budgeting and editorial and big picture publishing issues. It's fun. I've always liked jumping back and forth. There's different kinds of creativity on both sides of the business. It's been part of my life now for so many years, I can't imagine anything else now." And in between those various other responsibilities, Lee carved out some time for a wide-ranging interview on "Superman Unchained" #1. Below, he tells CBR News about his visual goals for the comic both in terms of Superman's New 52 look and his storytelling style, his views on what makes for a "classic" Man of Steel story in the modern era, new additions to Metropolis like the prison called The M.A.W. and the villain Wraith and ultimately what it takes to make a story that challenges the character Superman is and should be.
CBR News: On "Superman Unchained," I feel like Scott came in with a very clear idea of what kind of story he wanted to tell, but did you have a specific set of visual ideas you wanted to work in from the start?
Jim Lee: This was the second time I've done Superman, and I didn't think it would be fair to the project if I approached it with the exact same style I used the first time. I think with the launch of the New 52, I had a mission to take that New 52 Superman and make it work. I'd done the initial costume design and I'd been drawing Superman in "Justice League," but this was really my opportunity to show what the New 52 Superman really looked and felt like.
It was an interesting transition in that when you draw Superman, you tend to go old school with the default style -- the huge lantern jaw, the receding hairline -- and draw more of a Superman in his mid '30s that people are familiar with. With the New 52, the idea was to bring down the age of the entire DC Universe down a bit. That meant really changing the proportions of Superman and some of his facial features. And that's something you need to be conscious of every time you draw him. Otherwise, you fall back to this default Superman. If you look at what I did in "For Tomorrow" compared to what I do in "Superman Unchained," he's a more slimmed down figure, and I also try to do some more naturalistic poses for him. You'll see in issue #2, you'll see the military come upon Superman, and he stands there in a very nonchalant way. That's something I never did in "For Tomorrow." It's things like that which highlight the differences between the pre-52 Superman and now. But there are also things I've changed in the storytelling. Scott [Snyder] started out as a novelist, so he has very deep, rich, multilayered storylines, and I want to do justice to that. So before we even started the project, we sat down and talked about ways to make this a different type of story. I told him I really wanted to focus on the storytelling and do a lot of multi-panel buildups to larger images. I wanted to utilize the boarders of the page more than I had in the past. I think I've always by default gone to full bleed, and there's a lot of visual tension you can create on the page by pulling back on that and using that more sparingly. There's a starker contrast between a page that has full borders around the edges and then one that has full bleed. It just feels bigger in comparison. It was things like that and also how we could better showcase his powers. We talked a lot about the powers Superman has and why he has the powers that he does. Is there a link between his ability to heat things up with his vision and then see through objects and then freeze things with his breath? His powers have always been presented as though he's got A, B and C and then J and K. Is there a reason why all these powers come together? That's something we really want to explore.
It's interesting you talking about switching up your approach to page layout and making certain spreads feel bigger, because I felt that the early two-page sequence where the "bomb" drops was one that would work well in the digital comics format. Was that something you were thinking about as you drew this story?
Not necessarily. I thought about the big poster element and how it would look on a tablet. It should be exactly the same as the other pages because it was drawn proportional to a regular comic book page. And that double-page spread was a challenge, but not because of thinking of the iPad so much as the idea that Scott wanted a first person point of view through the binoculars. If you're tracking that through a double-page spread, I didn't want to just draw repeating circles of the same size going across. That would look monotonous. But in changing the size of the binoculars, would the reader be able to track the story? Will they start going left or right or some direction you don't want them to go? I created those bar elements you see with the smoke flowing through them as a graphical element to suggest both the aftereffects of the explosion but also to subtly reinforce the experience you should be having. I think I laid that page out three or four times before I settled on that. With any repeated elements, the challenge is how you represent it in a way that's visually interesting without breaking the left-to-right flow you should have going across the page. But that was a fun spread to do, but I didn't so much think about he digital side of it. I've been thinking a lot more about the print side in ways that served both my interests in being visually exciting and also what Scott was asking for on the page, which was a filmic experience that showed shot after shot almost like it was animated. It's all about maintaining visual cohesion and clarity.
The story of Superman here begins with something we see less often in his comics: amazing feats of strength. I've watched a lot of Superman movies on TV over the last month, and the film and TV versions of the character seem to do a lot more with him in terms of capturing falling planes or changing the course of mighty rivers while the comics focus more on punching out bad guys. Considering the fact that this whole series starts with the Man of Steel smashing up and then saving a giant space station on a scale that meant inserting a two-sided poster, was it a goal for you and Scott to exploit that "saves the day" element in "Superman Unchained"?
Absolutely. I think the very simplest way to show Superman's power is to have him punch someone that's powerful. But one of the things we felt is that with a character as powerful as Superman, one of the ways you can challenge him is to put him in these "no win" situations. Short of the Donner movies, he can't change or alter time. So even though he's super fast, he still can't be in two places at the same time. The way you challenge Superman is by having things happen very, very quickly in different places and then asking, "Who does he save first? What powers must he use to save each person or stop each disaster?" That's one of the ways you make him interesting beyond the thematic and moral issues that make Superman. With a character like this who is capable of so much, the question you're always asking is "How do you make this interesting for the reader?" That's what we talked about in advance, and it's what showed up in that first scene Scott wrote. I definitely thought a lot about this in a very filmic way. You see the hero accomplish one thing, and then it's "Oh no! He's got more to do!" As soon as you think you've got it all figured out, something else happens. In fact, when I laid out that first sequence and the ship was coming down, initially I had him holding up the structure at the very bottom. You'd see him holding this ship a few feet off the ground. But then I thought, "No. Let's have it hit the ground and explode, and we'll see that he still figured out a way to save them and use his body as a shield." That's kind of pushing the reality of the situation. It's certainly asking the reader to bend the physics a bit, but it's comic books, and Superman used to do that all the time. We made a conscious decision to add back in those elements that are implausible -- almost unbelievable -- but if you draw it a certain way and tell it a certain way, it feels like it could happen.
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