The Man Behind the Mask

January 23, 2014

DC Comics’ Korean American Co-Publisher Jim Lee is

“The most celebrated comic book artist of his generation.”

Jim Lee stands in front of a wall at his Burbank studio. (Park Sang-hyuk)

Jim Lee stands in front of a wall of DC Comics superheroes at his Burbank offices. (Park Sang-hyuk)

By Lee Kyutae

Long before Psy got the world dancing to “Gangnam Style,” there was a man from Korea with a tremendous following and worldwide recognition to boot – to such a great extent that he set a world record in his industry, which still stands today.

Perhaps not enough Koreans know about him, but you could say Hallyu (the Korean Wave) started with him long before they came up with that word.

Everyone knows about his work. Presumably, there isn’t an earthling who doesn’t know about Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, just to name a few of the superheroes that call his offices home.

During a recent interview with The Korea Times at his Burbank studio and offices, the man in question, who co-leads the entertainment company housing one of the world’s most recognized stable of comic book superheroes, graciously answered a litany of tough questions about his work, his upbringing, the future of his industry, and yes, about Psy, too.

“I think Psy is more like a phenomenon,” he said as he smiled, and he is absolutely right. While Psy is still busy trying to prove that he is nothing like Los Del Rio (Does “Macarena” ring a bell?), this man has withstood the test of time to become nothing less than a legend in his own industry.

Besides, if you can make Superman and Wonder Woman kiss (in case you didn’t know, it happened recently), you must be a legend.

He is Jim Lee, a world-renowned comic book artist, writer, editor, and currently, the co-publisher of DC Entertainment (DCE) alongside Dan DiDio. The Los Angeles Times called him “the most celebrated comic book artist of his generation.”

Jim Lee oversees 76-90 titles per month at DC Comics as a co-publisher, including Batman. (Courtesy of DC Comics)

Jim Lee has been co-publisher of DC Comics for four years.
(Courtesy of DC Comics)

▲Who is Jim Lee? 

His Korean name is Lee Yong-chul (이용철), and he was born in 1964 in Seoul. He immigrated with his family to the United States when he was five-years-old, and grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. Understandably, he speaks little Korean.

His talent must have been evident, as his classmates predicted in his senior yearbook that he would form his own comic book company.

Still, Lee was resigned to following his father’s footsteps in medicine – attending Princeton University as a psychology major, with every intention of going on to medical school.

But, taking an ‘easy class’ during his senior year rekindled his interest in art and changed everything.

He first broke into the comic book industry in 1987 as an artist for Marvel Comics, the other giant in this industry alongside DC and the home of Spider Man, Iron Man, X-Men, Hulk, and so on.

Lee started to gain popularity with The Uncanny X-Men, and X-Men No. 1, the 1991 spin-off series premiere that Lee penciled and co-wrote with Chris Claremont, remains the best-selling comic book of all time, with over 8.1 million copies sold according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

In 1992, he started his own production company, WildStorm Productions, and co-founded Image Comics, an independent comics company that quickly grew to become the third-largest North American publisher. Two of his creations, WildC.A.T.S and GEN 13, saw life beyond comics as a CBS Saturday morning cartoon and as a DTV animated movie distributed by Disney, respectively. In 1998, DC Comics purchased WildStorm Productions and Lee left Image Comics to join the DC Entertainment creative team.

He then found more success with the “Batman: Hush” and “Superman: For Tomorrow” story lines, and in February of 2010, Lee was named co-publisher of DC Comics.

In September 2011, DC Comics, in a daring move, instituted a program called “The New 52,” in which its 52 new series started over with No. 1 issues. Lee and writer Geoff Johns, DC Comics’ chief creative officer, masterminded the reboot, which was initiated with a new Justice League series.

He currently lives in San Diego with his family and commutes to Los Angeles three times a week.

Jim Lee oversees 76-90 titles per month at DC Comics as a co-publisher. (Courtesy of DC Comics)

Jim Lee oversees 76-90 titles per month at DC Comics as co-publisher and is currently working on a nine-issue run for “Superman Unchained.” (Park Sang-hyuk)

Princeton Man

How do you go from an elite Princeton student studying to be a doctor, just like his father, to a comic book artist?

His parents were against the idea, of course, but as Lee puts it, “If you need permission, it’s not going to happen.”

Lee remembers a heated discussion and walking out of the family house, but he says, “To his credit, my father followed me out to stop me, and basically gave in.”

His parents were worried because it was hard for them to imagine him getting paid a lot for drawing superheroes. However, Lee says they’ve been very supportive from the moment he got a call from Marvel for a $1,760-per-month job, and they are ever so proud now. When they go out to dine in a restaurant, his parents are always eager to tell their waiter or waitress that their son is the man behind Superman, and even though his mother can practically walk over to his house to see him anytime, she attends comic book conventions and stands in lines for hours on end to experience her son’s popularity herself.

Did his Princeton education help with his career in the comic books industry? To summarize what Lee said: while you study for studying’s sake and many people end up doing something different than what they majored in college anyway, perhaps without knowing it at the time, his elite education set a good foundation for analytic thinking and other skills you need in the business world.

▲Q&A

Q: How did you get started in drawing?

A: I’ve always liked drawing. I always drew. I think my parents got me an [art] tutor when I was four-years-old. My parents were also good at drawing.

 

Q: Do you think it was tougher for you to succeed in the comic book industry because you are Korean?

A: No, actually that was one of the things that attracted me to the comic book business. By the time I joined in 1987, this business had already evolved to a point where not all the artists lived in New York City. With the advent of fax machine and FEDEX, artists lived all over the world, and they didn’t care whether you went to Ivy League school, or what you looked like, or how old you were. All they cared about was the drawing you could create, and that side appealed to me.

But then, one of the things I liked the most about comic books was that I could do it by myself. (Laughs)

 

JimLee-44

Known for his incredibly detailed and dynamic artistic style, Lee is one of the most revered and respected artists in American comics. (Park Sang-hyuk)

Q: What do you exactly as a co-publisher?

A: I have to oversee 76, sometimes 90 titles per month. Good thing we have a lot of passionate workers. We have 150 employees in New York, and 90 in Los Angeles, and I’d say two-thirds of them work all night. I also get very little sleep, as I like to work at night. I would go home, have dinner, and spend a little time with my family, and start drawing at around 10 p.m. and often go on until 2-4 a.m.

 

Q: Are you the coolest father to your children, because of what you do?

A: Actually, my daughters seem to be more into K-pop and (Japanese) manga. I think every generation has different things they are excited about, and because of them I got to know EXO, and their song “Growl”, and Teen Top.

 

Q: What do you remember about Korea?

A: Jajangmyun. Jajangmyun delivered in a metal box, and I remember watching (the TV cartoon) Hwang-geum bakji. (sings the first line of the title song)

 

Q: What do you think about Korean comic book artists?

A: Frank Cho, Jae Lee, Greg Pak, Mike Choi… I think if you gather up five comic book artists from every country, I think the Korean (American) team would be pretty hard to beat.

 

Q: How do you see the future of superheroes?

A: More and more characters are becoming common knowledge. Thor and Iron Man were not popular characters, but they are now. It’s almost like a door to a secret society has opened. It won’t be just about Superman and Batman anymore, and we’ve still only introduced a handful of them.

 

 

10 Comments

  1. Minhee

    January 23, 2014 at 9:26 AM

    Great article and photos!

  2. Lucy

    January 23, 2014 at 1:46 PM

    I didn’t know he is Korean American. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Alison

    January 23, 2014 at 5:08 PM

    What an inspiring and entertaining read– thanks!

  4. DAvid

    January 24, 2014 at 8:41 AM

    What interested me to comics and art was also the fact
    Thay don’t care what you look like or where you come from
    I’m glad lee put that up front here and shut down the thought stream
    That was presented in the q and a

  5. Andre'

    January 24, 2014 at 10:43 PM

    Cannot imagine a world without comic books, truly a testament to this profound, boundless and beautiful thing we all share. Imagination. :)
    Mr. Lee you’re the best. Thank you.

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