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Year of the Artist, Day 106: Jae Lee, Part 3 – Captain America #16

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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 Captain America #16, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated October 2003. Enjoy!

Lee had a weird 7-issue arc on Captain America in the series before the Brubaker relaunch – he drew the final two issues of a 5-issue story, then drew this arc. This is his final issue, and it’s interesting because it’s a good transitional story. Lee’s line is still quite jagged, but he’s becoming smoother, and combined with José Villarrubia’s colors, this issue marks a shift toward his current work.

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Here’s the splash page that begins the issue, and it’s a good balance of “old Lee” and “new Lee.” Lee is still using thin, harsh lines, and of course he’s never lost his love of spot blacks. He uses blacks to shroud the bad guy’s face and body, while using blacks a bit less on Cap so that his costume’s colors still come through but his mood is evident. In front of him, Hana lies dead, and Lee shrouds her head completely in black. The thinness of Lee’s lines can make his work softer, as well – the bad guy’s face is delicately lined, which we don’t see too well in this panel, but which we see in other places in the issue. Lee still uses hatching effectively, as the lightly lined knife the crouching minion holds appears to be old and blunt simply because Lee adds a few touches of black to it. Two things stand out on the page. The background, of course, is Photoshopped in, and it looks out of place. The technology has gotten better with regard to this, but a decade ago, it wasn’t as easy to blend in backgrounds, and the jarring nature of the sunset clashes with Lee’s art. Notice, too, the ground on which the scene takes place. Despite Lee still using a lot of blacks, the precision of the inking, combined with Villarrubia’s shading, makes the ground look soft – presumably it’s sand. The judicious use of blacks and the way his colorists color the books has made Lee the artist he is today, and we get a hint of it here.

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We can see a bit more of Lee’s development here. Once again, we see the background, with the clouds Photoshopped in, but that’s just the way it is. Lee is still using chunks of black, and in some places, the blacks are a bit ragged – around Sharon’s eyes in Panel 2 as she asks Steve if he loved Hana, on Steve’s chin and neck in Panel 3, when he answers her – but note how generally smooth their faces are. Lee has backed way off on hatching faces, and it makes the few lines he does use a bit more noticeable. His black blocks have, for the most part, replaced the myriad hatching lines, and it makes his work look more and more ethereal, especially when he has a colorist like Villarrubia adding a bit of sheen to the characters’ faces. I don’t love the airbrushed look too much, but it’s interesting that Villarrubia does it in only certain places, as the light is striking their faces. The fact that he figures out when their faces would shine just a bit mitigates it slightly. Still, we see Lee becoming more “simplistic,” which will slowly lead him to where he is today.

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Cap fights Baron Blood, and while I don’t want to show too much of it, I thought this was interesting. One thing that Lee has sacrificed as he’s gotten more esoteric is that his action scenes have gotten weaker. In Panel 1, we can see that his figures have gotten a bit stiffer – Blood and Cap don’t look like they’re fighting as much as they look posed in those positions. Even the rocks look suspended in the air rather than moving through it. Lee has taken John Cassaday’s redesigned Captain America armor and largely ignored the chain mail, hinting at it with small links of mail on the borders of his arms but not drawing in each individual link. This shows that Cap is wearing armor but it doesn’t overwhelm the panel. Lee is using “sleeker” blacks on Blood, showing that his muscles are lither than Cap’s and that he is a bit slinkier than his opponent. Lee still uses hatching in the right spots, as we see in Panel 3. Blood is more inhuman than Cap, so Lee adds short lines on his nose and around his mouth, and he even goes further and makes his mask a bit more ragged than Cap’s. He draws Blood’s nose wider and more bat-like, and the entire effect is to squash Blood’s face into something less than human, while the black on the left side of his face extends back across the rest of his mask, almost obscuring him completely. The use of the blacks, along with the pinched expression, makes Blood look more pathetic than usual, as he says that Cap will have to kill him. It’s a nice expression by Lee – we don’t exactly feel sorry for Blood, but we do understand his pain and haplessness.

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Cap, it turns out, is being mind-controlled, and here he realizes it and comes out of it. This is the third consecutive comic I’ve featured by Lee that has Namor in it, and I considered using his work from Fantastic Four 1234, which guest-stars … you guessed it. Anyway, once again Lee goes almost overboard with the black – the first panel is almost completely obscured, in a case of perhaps a bit too much black being used. Namor, no longer savage, has a more sensible haircut, but in the decade since he worked on that comic, Lee has changed, so instead of drawing Namor with a lot of anger lines, we get the cool, manscaped specimen that makes Sue Storm weak in the knees. Lee again uses big black chunks and very fine, light hatches, and he uses even less on Cap in Panel 2 as he wakes up. Once again we see the jagged border of Cap’s uniform implying chain mail, and in Panel 3, we see the fine lines on the Interrogator’s face and hand as Cap staggers against him and begins tearing at the wires creating the illusion that he had been living. Cap is in Lemuria, which is underwater, but he’s in a cave with air, so note the background, which has some random black shadows and an eerie blue that I assume is the work of Villarrubia. Lee’s stiffer work and Villarrubia’s colors make this entire arc very dreamlike, which will become more and more a hallmark of Lee’s work.

Lee continued to work for Marvel for a while as his style continued to change, and tomorrow, I want to look at a big shift in his style in probably the most high-profile work (well, outside of the comics world) that he’s ever done. Check it out tomorrow, and check out the archives today! [Edit: I should point out that I wrote this post before Brian put up his long post about the odd retcon that shows up in this part of Captain America. I chuckled when that showed up, because I knew I’d be showing some more of Lee’s art from that run. It was very weird, to say the least.]

12 Comments

What a talent. Anyone know how to pronounce his first name, though. I always wondered. :)

I’ve always pronounced it as “Jay” but I cannot confirm it’s correct. Another great column, Greg!

This is probably the only work by Jae (yes, it is pronounced “Jay”) Lee that I’ve never read. The fact that he came on at the end of one arc with questionable writing and continued into another probably has something to do with it. I also felt like Jae wasn’t quite right in style for a Captain America comic — much too dark, especially at that point in his career where he was aiming for more realism with his figures at the cost of losing his early dynamic flair, and as a result, as Greg mentioned, characters appear a bit stiff and posed. Still, regardless of his shortcomings here and how much the storytelling may have suffered, Jae Lee’s work is beautifully striking to my eye. There are times when I have to stare a little harder to distinguish what it is I’m looking at, but there’s always something about it that makes me keep looking.

BTW, Greg, Thanks for these columns — Great stuff! I love your analytical breakdown of the art. Keep it up!

One thing that I noticed in yesterday’s post and today’s is that some of those panels look like tracings of photos rather than drawings using photos as reference. Which makes it look posed and gives the characters an Uncanny Valley feel.

Andrei: Thanks!

Darkstream: As Brian noted, this was a very strange comic. The story was weird, and at this point, Lee didn’t seem like a good fit. The art is beautiful, but for Captain America, it’s kind of odd.

Thanks for the nice words!

KAM: It’s possible, I guess. I don’t like to speculate on things like that unless I know the artist is doing that, and I don’t know that Lee was doing that. It would account for some of the posing, I suppose.

I agree with Kam as far as the Steve & Sharon scene goes. Especially the panel of Sharon eating a cracker.

Bill Williamson

April 16, 2014 at 6:30 pm

There’s definitely some photo referencing going on here, although it’s not quite Greg Land/ Mike Deodato levels of obvious.

whatever jae lee draws is inevitably BEAUTIFUL. it’s what he doesn’t draw that drives me nuts…seems like, esp. lately, 99% of his panels have a background of either cloud filter or a cloudy photo. like, batman-superman exist in a hazy cloudy world. it’s a huge drag.

As I previously wrote when this run of Captain America was recently spotlighted in The Abandoned An’ Forsaked, the artwork by Jae Lee was absolutely gorgeous. Which made it all the more unforgivable that the writing was so atrocious. In fact, shortly after this was published, I actually met colorist Jose Villarubia at a comic convention. I mentioned to him how much I had enjoyed the work he and Jae Lee had done on Captain America, and that outright said it was a real pity that the stories they worked on weren’t better. And he pretty much agreed with me about that.

dave: Yeah, we’ll get to Batman/Superman!

Ben: That’s pretty funny. I’m Facebook friends with Villarrubia – I should point him to that link and this one.

“we get the cool, manscaped specimen that makes Sue Storm weak in the knees” hahaha best quote of the article.

I never thought of Lee as a “pretty girl” artist”, but I really like the way he drew Sharon’s face in that sample page. It is simple due to the lack of lines, but beautiful.

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