Year of the Artist, Day 104: Jae Lee, Part 1 – Namor the Sub-Mariner #26
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Jae Lee, and the issue is Namor the Sub-Mariner #26, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated May 1992. Enjoy!
Somewhere, I imagine there’s video or audio of a bunch of artists hanging out at Jim Lee’s house in the early 1990s. They would include Jae Lee, Joe Quesada, and Whilce Portacio, and probably Marc Silvestri. Silvestri and Portacio preceded Lee in the industry, but Lee, by this time, had had the most spectacular success, so I like to imagine them all sitting around picking Lee’s brain about how they could draw more like he did. Jae Lee took that instruction and ran with it. I don’t own his work on Marvel Comics Presents, but I do own Uncanny X-Men Annual #16, which shipped a week after this issue but I wonder if it was drawn before it, because it very much looks like Lee was aping Jim Lee, Portacio, and Silvestri. Even in this issue, under Bob Wiacek’s old-school inks, Lee is still drawing very much like those other dudes. It would take a while for him to develop his own style, but that’s what these posts are all about! Let’s see where he began to see where he went!
One thing that seemed to set Lee and Quesada apart from the other dudes early in their career was their reliance on blacks. This was the beginning of the X-TREEEEEEEEMMMMMMM! AGE, so of course people started using blacks a lot to show how very very serious their comics were, but Lee (and Joey Q., but I’m not talking about him right now) seemed to take it to … wait for it … the extreme. There’s not really any reason Captain America’s costume and face should be black on this page, so it becomes an affectation. It’s certainly striking, which is something you can say about these kind of early 1990s artists, even if you can say other, less flattering things about them, too. Cap looms over a weeping Namorita, who is balled up and incredibly vulnerable – the contrast between the powerful man and the sappy female is stark – and gives us an odd, discordant tone, as Cap is there to assist Namorita, not intimidate her. Lee does some interesting work in Panels 2 and 3, when Cap gives Namorita a sideways glance as John Byrne makes him say something that no one who understands Cap would ever make him say (come on, Byrne, really?), and Namorita looks back with just a touch of steel in her eyes, signified by Lee’s cartoonishly raised eyebrow and the smudge of hatching lines leading us from the brow down her nose. Because this is so very extreme, Namorita is crying uncontrollably even though she’s trying to run a meeting, and while Lee does a nifty job with it, it seems somewhat inappropriate (although maybe she just heard the national anthem, in which case I guess we can forgive her).
Once again, we get a lot of black in this sequence, and it’s used a bit better here than in the previous example. It actually creates a mood of looming darkness and allows the red and blue of the man’s clothing to stand out a bit, as well as highlighting his eyes and teeth when the chainsaw explodes, driving him backward (someone spiked the tree, in case you’re wondering). Even the surroundings are swathed in shadow, making the very setting sinister as the saw digs in. The use of horizontal hatching lines on the dude’s jeans in Panels 1 and 3 is a standard visual cliché of this time (it’s never gone away completely, but it was a lot more prevalent in the 1990s), and because artists used it so much, it seems to fit everything together, from the the way Lee or Wiacek inks the background in Panel 1 to the way one of them inks the saw’s blade in Panel 2. The final panel is pretty cool. The wood chips, you’ll notice, are simply parallel line segments, and because we see the same inking maneuver on the shattered saw and the dude’s shirt, everything flows very well toward his head, which then radiates outward in that halo, drawing our attention to the head as the guy dies. Lee/Wiacek uses thin strands of black line to indicate blood spraying from his head, and Glynis Oliver colors only a small part of his hair, so Lee’s placement of his anguished eyes and mouth are crucial, as is the way his head bends. This is a stereotypical panel of the time period, but it’s still effective.
The loggers blame the crazy-haired shirtless man in the woods for the death, because why wouldn’t they, and Lee shows them chasing him down. There’s something that Lee does a lot on this page … I can’t quite put my finger on it. Anyway, we see here some storytelling from Lee, which is always nice. The finger points the reader right to the crouching man, who conveniently poses dramatically on a small outcropping of rock. Then the loggers run toward him as Lee revolves the angle of view, and everyone crashes from the back left to the front right. For some reason, the foremost logger appears to be shoeless, and I’m not sure what that’s all about (maybe he’s wearing these, because they’re AWESOME). We see part of the problem with Lee’s choice of color scheme (hey, that’s it!) – he needs to give the legs a border to differentiate them from the background. I doubt if Nigel Tufnel would say this could be none more black, but it’s close. In Panel 3, the logger with the bandanna (it’s 1992, people!) tackles the obviously hirsute individual, whom we can tell is shirtless because his torso is black, and once again Lee has to rely on small cues, which is why we get the bared teeth on the tacklee. As in the previous panel, we need a border around the tackler’s head so it doesn’t disappear into the void, and someone – Lee or Wiacek or Oliver – uses a few extra lines to outline the head, adding to the tension of the scene. In Panel 3, Oliver switches colors in the background from orange to ragey red, and Lee actually draws in some anger lines on the dude’s forehead, because the thin eyes and wide open mouth aren’t enough. Inking this issue must have sucked.
One problem a lot of artists have early in their careers, especially ones from this time period, is an obsession with hatching. There’s a time and a place for lines, but the jokes about “so many lines!!!!” that we can make about art in the 1990s come from somewhere, after all. I wonder if it’s a thought process that “more = better,” when obviously in art the opposite is often true. Lee figured this out down the line (pun intended), but as we can see from this page, at this point in his career, he was still trying too hard (remember, Lee was 19/20 when he drew this, so we can forgive his enthusiasm, I think). First of all, of course, we get the top panel, in which the doctor – yes, the guy who looks like Abraham Lincoln – is standing at the right of the panel with his manly chest and dramatic pose as he picks up the phone. Remember what I said about these artists taking everything so very very seriously? That’s a serious pose, people! Then we get some of Lee’s actual faces, and we see that his and/or Wiacek’s use of hatching is part of the reason why everything looks so very very serious – these dudes are tense! Lee uses insane eyebrows that appear to shift in size – in Panel 2, they look fairly thin on the doctor, but they grow bushier in Panel 3 – and even more insane hatching to curl hair, throw odd shadows, tighten neck muscles, and create stylish mustaches, all for a rather intense tone to the artwork. Notice how the sheriff looks like he’s grimacing in Panel 3 even though he’s not – it’s solely due to his wide and thin mustache. His skin in Panel 4 stretches eerily on the right side of his face, as Lee/Wiacek uses many more wrinkles than are necessary. The pinched glabella is a staple of this kind of art – lots of short hatching lines from the forehead down between the eyes, occasionally with arched eyebrows, shows that these dudes mean business (it’s almost always dudes). Oliver, interestingly enough, colors them pale yellow in Panel 3, perhaps as a contrast to Namor’s manliness? Beats me.
The sheriff’s daughter (she’s awfully modest, isn’t she?) comes on to Namor, because who could resist that slab of hunkiness? In Panel 1, Lee again leads us well from the girl (who never gets named in this issue, oddly enough) to Namor brooding in the window, with his terrific mane pulled back into an utterly useless ponytail (ponytails in 1990s comics often did this – they showed how cool the dudes were, but you couldn’t very well tie down that awesome hair, could you?). Then we get Panel 2, where she comes up behind him. Lee goes a bit abstract with her, which is actually kind of neat – her hair covers her eyes, and Lee doesn’t go overboard with the hatching, so her hair is basically a big block of yellow contrasted with the relatively line-free block of green that is her shirt (Lee couldn’t resist putting some folds in; the sleeves are puffy, so we need some folds in it). Then, of course, we get the solid black of her dress, with the few jagged edges down by her feet making it clear she’s rocking high leather boots. She stands in stark contrast to Namor – he’s taller than she is, of course (women in comics are very, VERY rarely taller than men), and Lee has a lot of fun with his muscles and his crazy hair. Notice how they stand – Namor is ramrod straight, while the girl is somehow standing without leaning forward but with her superb booty sticking out. Anyway, once again we get the horizontal lines on Namor – the white folds in his black T-shirt, the folds in his ultra-tight jeans, and the Miami Vice belt he’s wearing align with the girl’s waist nicely. Even this far away, we can see that Lee makes Namor broody – his eyes and mouth are thin and clenched, which matches his fist. When the girl tries to seduce Namor, we get some close-ups – his ragged beard and high, arched brow make him look wilder, and she (rather hilariously, I think) tries to seduce him by looking like she wants to braid his manly hair. Lee shows some chops in Panel 4, as Namor looks a bit askance at her – even though he has amnesia, he knows that you NEVER TRUST THE WOMAN!!!!
The woman’s seduction is cut short when a guy operating a truly alien-looking logging machine attacks the sheriff’s station, injuring her dad. Namor, perhaps not surprisingly, gets REALLY MAD!!!!! It’s a Nineties comic, after all – RAGE IS GOOD BECAUSE IT SHOWS WE’RE SERIOUS!!!!! Look at that face in Panel 1. Sheriff’s Daughter hides her face under that great mane, and Lee’s hard line moves us from her hands up to Namor’s “NO!” (remember when Marvel used to have colored lettering?), and then the line of her head leads us right to enraged Namor. His crazy hair flies around his face, while all the hatching on said face focus us completely on his nose as the middle of the face – the brows, the mouth, the lines on his cheeks, and the lines on the glabella all draw us toward his nose. Lee does this, I think, because he wants us to start at the very smallest corner of that layout, so when he expands, it feels like a release of all that tension. The layout is strange – it’s obviously meant to be a negative space sun with streaks of light creating the panel borders, but I’m not sure why. However, from Panel 1, which is all potential energy, we get the kinetic energy of Namor leaping out the window and running toward the sheriff’s office. That landing is impressive – once again, the hatching is insane, and notice that Lee remembers that Namor still has the most ineffective ponytail in the history of Marvel comics (which is saying something, all things considered). Notice, though, that Lee shows he has skills, as Namor’s figure is the way we’d expect it to be when he lands after a long fall, with the splayed fingers breaking his momentum and one leg out for bracing while the other is tucked underneath him. Many people have made fun of Lee’s contemporaries for their awful poses, but you can’t really level that criticism against Lee in this instance (in others, maybe). In Panels 4/5, we see again the horizontal inking lines, this time across a too-large red sun, which makes the weird alien-like logging machine look even more otherworldly. In this case, the use of black makes more sense, as Namor and the machine are far enough away that details would just obscure the scene and the sun is low enough in the sky that shadows make some sense. Lee’s use of perspective in Panels 4 and 5 is nice, as it leads us easily back from the foreground to the office in the deep background.
I’ve been having some fun with Lee in this post, but I think you can see how talented he was this early, even though he indulged in some of the excesses of the time period. His work was certainly dynamic, which is a good aspect to have, as one can always learn the other stuff! Tomorrow, I think I’ll check out the first work by him where it was clear he was becoming a superb artist, more than just a standard superhero guy. For now, you’ll just have to console yourself for 24 hours by taking a look at the archives!