Life (and drawing) lessons from comic book artist Jim Lee at Phoenix Fan Fusion 2023 | Phoenix New Times

Life (and drawing) lessons from comic book artist Jim Lee at Phoenix Fan Fusion 2023

The famed artist and president of DC Comics discussed his creative process at the pop-culture event.
Jim Lee talks to fans during his panel at Phoenix Fan Fusion on Saturday, June 3.
Jim Lee talks to fans during his panel at Phoenix Fan Fusion on Saturday, June 3. Benjamin Leatherman
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It’s hard to explain the experience of watching Jim Lee draw in person.

The iconic artist — he’s drawn everything from Batman and Robin to the X-Men — has spent some five years drawing live on Twitch. (When he’s not busy with his day job — president of DC Comics.) But to be there as he tossed together sketches of Joker, Wonder Woman and Hawkeye was something else entirely — a singular look at what helped forge and define him as this undeniable comics legend.

Line work

Like any great piece, Lee’s work started with the roughest of sketches. They’re a sort of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it skeleton, something that formed right out of the ether. It’s an experience not unlike Lee’s own immersion into comics.

"I was born in Seoul, South Korea," Lee said. "I watched Max Fleischer cartoons and loved the stories. We moved to America, which was very scary, but you all had Superman here, too. It was an escape from the daily pressures of being an immigrant, and everyone looking and speaking very differently."

Details and such

From that basic skeleton, Lee quickly develops the more significant outline and "shape" of the piece. Whether it's the tell-tale chin of The Joker, or the transcendent beauty of Wonder Woman, it's a honing of the awkward and unknowable into something altogether compelling.

"My parents tried to throw away my comics many times," Lee said. "They'd say, 'I did you a favor and threw them out.’ So not all my comics are mint condition, but I still have them."

Lee drove the point home even further as he told a story of his father's car accident one cold and snowy night, adding, "'Justice League' #118 was used to mark the left tire."

Getting good

Even when there's more shading done, and the piece begins to really come alive, the work's not entirely finished. It's at that point that Lee has to begin to fine-tune — add more lines, or erase bits and pieces. It's about looking at the whole picture and seeing what it truly needs.

"I remember my first mailing — it was 90 packages and all rejections," Lee said. "They’re harsh but they’re pretty funny, too. They said, 'You can’t draw hands or expressions or human anatomy.' That’s it. I saved them and posted them online."

But that hardship only tempered Lee's work, and he says he committed to the famed 10,000-hour rule of mastering a new subject.

"By the time I got to 10,000 hours, I was on 'X-Men,'" said Lee.

So much more

After that stage, there's really not much else to do with what Lee calls his "quick sketches." But he keeps doing them — on Twitch, while he's waiting on something else in his daily life — because that's what's kept him developing as an artist.

"I draw Hawkman a lot. And hands," Lee said. "I draw Bruce Wayne and then draw the cowl on him. In case there's a danger it won’t look like him structurally."

But there's more to his efforts, too.

"What are other artists doing and how are they doing what’s new and different," Lee said about watching and studying others. Similarly, he added you should "never decide on a final style. There's always more to grow toward." Ultimately, it's not about achieving a certain look but something that all great art must do.

"People say, 'I drew this over three days and it’s my masterpiece,'" Lee said. "If I don’t know what you’ve drawn, how can I connect to it?"

The future

Once a sketch is done at last, Lee usually just moves on to the next thing. That drive forward, and a commitment to the pure craft of drawing, has its place. It seems to inform not only his days as a working artist, but his efforts in leading comics into the future.

"I was there during Napster — I don’t fear AI art," Lee said. "You could draw a comic book in a weekend with AI. It'd be interesting to talk to two artists — one who’s new and one who has been around forever — and give them the same script and see what they do with it."

Lee also mentioned, whether seriously or not, that you "could create the Jim Lee AI Engine ... making art for years or decades after I'm gone."

A note of appreciation

It's not all about AI, though. He's still got ample drive and passion — he mentioned dream projects with Tom King and Gail Simone. And there's always more work with ongoing DC events and other projects, too.

At the end of the day, though, Lee's always going to be an artist, and the rub has been to just figure it all out with each and every new line.

"I see more mistakes than anything," Lee said. "But there’s points in my artistic career that I don’t draw like that anymore. You have to sit down and write it. Sit down and draw it."
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