Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee book review

Celebrating the work of artist and publisher Jim Lee, the handsome Icons charts his work on such comics as Batman and Wonder Woman. Here’s James’ review…

In an era where the most overused term in popular culture is iconic, Jim Lee’s artwork for DC Comics is possibly one of the few examples that is worthy of that word. Therefore, it’s fitting that Titan Books’ newest coffee table volume devoted to Lee’s output for that oldest of American comic book publishers takes that as its title.

While the book does contain some accompanying text and cursory background information regarding Lee’s life and career path – up to and including his recent appointment as co-publisher of DC Comics – fundamentally, this is a volume that is concerned with the work of Jim Lee the artist as opposed to Jim Lee the publishing executive.

Which is something of a shame, as a book focusing on that side of Lee’s career would be equally interesting itself. After all, this is the man who in the mid-1990s helped bring Alan Moore back into the mainstream comics fold when he invited the Northampton legend to write Lee’s own monthly Wild.C.A.T.S title. While important and influential work, this initial pairing of Moore and Lee ultimately led to the birth of Moore’s second great body of American mainstream work – the America’s Best Comics line – that Lee published via Wildstorm at the start of the 21st century.

When one adds Lee’s publication of Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s The Authority, Ellis and John Cassaday’s Planetary, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Sleeper, and Brian K Vaughan and Tony Harris’ Ex Machina titles to his work with Moore, we can see that Lee has some considerable claim to being among the most influential creator/publishers to emerge in mainstream US comics since the 1960s.

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Neatly split into different sections, covering his work on Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the wider DC Universe, his own (now defunct) Wildstorm line, and a more general section of curios, Icons gives us an overview of some of Lee’s most memorable works for DC, which begin with his return to the ‘monthly’ pencilling fray in 2002 with the Batman arc, Hush.

Hush was a brilliant re-invention and return to form for Lee, and saw him being talked about as a serious – and perhaps more importantly, relevant – artist once more. The great success of Hush lay in the fact that it was clearly solely designed by writer Jeph Loeb to be a showcase for Lee’s artwork.

A 12-issue pick and mix of Batman’s greatest hits that would allow Lee to draw all aspects of the Dark Knight’s visually rich universe, it was a smash-hit, and saw Lee evolve over the course of the story and take his place – alongside Neal Adams, Dick Sprang, Jerry Robinson, Marshall Rogers and Frank Miller – as one of the great Batman artists.

However, as the book shows us, the roots of Lee’s evolution weren’t solely confined to his work on Hush. As far back as the early-to mid-90s, Lee was evolving – thanks to the influence of material like Frank Miller’s Sin City and Mike Mignola’s Hellboy – towards a far looser and more animated style than he was known for at the time. His work on his own Deathblow character is fundamental in this evolution, although it would take a fusion of that style with his own traditional ‘slick’ look to really make his mark on the DCU.

This iconic style has been further developed post-Hush on – ironically enough – Lee and Frank Miller’s iconoclastic All Star Batman And Robin, The Boy Wonder. While it’s certainly a less reverent version of Batman than the one seen in Hush, the work with Miller is – for my money – stronger than his work with Loeb.

There’s a real solidity and classicism to the pages in ASB&R that acts as a nice counterpoint to the slightly more dangerous and unhinged world that Miller has created. In many ways this collaboration with Miller takes Lee’s work on Batman full circle and – although the final six issues are still to see print – no doubt will be something of an end of an era for his career when that run is finally completed.

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Less acclaimed, but ripe for re-evaluation, is Lee’s tenure on the Superman title. Following on the heels of Hush, For Tomorrow was another 12-issue arc – this time written by acclaimed 100 Bullets scribe Brian Azzarello – which found the Man of Steel in more introspective form than usual as he struggled with the dual mystery/dilemma of the vanishing of over a million people, including his wife and anchor to humanity, Lois Lane. 

Despite the downbeat nature of the story, Lee’s version of Superman is possibly the most iconic of all the DC characters he’s drawn. Stripped of much of the domesticity of what has come to typify Superman since the early 1990s, Lee’s Superman is a sci-fi god who wrestles with mountains come to life, unstoppable killing machines, arch enemies from other dimensions and strides like a deity among the hallowed halls of the Justice League Watchtower, his own Fortress of Solitude and the quiet sanctuary of Father Leone’s church.

For Tomorrow also features a rather fantastic use of Wonder Woman in a brilliant knock down, drag out fight between the Man of Steel and Princess Diana of Themyscira. This Superman/Wonder Woman dynamic is also something he develops in Wonder Woman’s appearance alongside the Justice League in All Star Batman & Robin.

A slightly more retro take on the Amazonian warrior, it’s a powerful interpretation that reminds us that Lee’s great strength when working on these characters seems to lie in stripping them back to their purest visual form and then bringing that to life in a powerful, sophisticated and hugely immersive way.

It was former DC Publisher Paul Levitz who described Lee’s art as “casting a full illusion”, and that insight is never more relevant than when Lee is at work on DC’s holy trinity of characters.

But with strengths also comes weaknesses and – certainly in this writer’s opinion – that for Lee is in the area of costume design. Seemingly included to prove this point, a number of Lee’s unused character redesigns for Batman and Robin, the infamous Kyle Rayner/Green Lantern ‘bondage’ outfit from the early noughties, as well as some of the designs for his own Wildstorm characters are all present here. To a man these designs are generally either too busy or – in the case of pre-existing characters – are too self-consciously modern to be effective or lasting costume redesigns.

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However, if the character designs leave something to be desired, then the other little curios that are peppered through this book seek to remind us that Lee has much more in his locker than just the dynamic action pose.

If anything, the real surprise gem in this volume is the brief section devoted to Lee’s work for DC’s legendary Vertigo line. Mainly restricted to covers, pin-ups and short strip material, this section shows Lee experimenting with different styles and techniques to generally superb effect. It’s a shame that he’s never been able to work on a full-length book in the style of his magnificent 100 Bullets pin-up or the looser and more interesting strip work he employed on both Vertigo’s Flinch and Weird War Tales.

Clearly there’s a real sympathy and engagement with this somewhat meatier material, and it ends up showing a lot more range and sophistication to Lee’s work than his detractors – who pigeonhole him as being ‘just a superhero guy’ – would otherwise acknowledge.

In fact, if one comes away with anything from this volume it’s that – to some extent – Lee is wasted working within the straightjacket of superhero comics and the endless drawing of corporate logos, variant covers and promotional tie-ins. No doubt his ascension to the throne as DC Publisher is good news both for the company and Lee’s career as an exec, but what the knock-on effect will be for Jim Lee the artist is anyone’s guess.

One sincerely hopes he manages to maintain a relatively healthy strip output during his time at the top of the DC tree, as the world of mainstream comic books is a much better place with him in it than it is without.

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Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.

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4 out of 5