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Year of the Artist, Day 108: Jae Lee, Part 5 – Batman/Superman #3

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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 Batman/Superman #3, which was published by DC and is cover dated October 2013. Enjoy!

Lee has become even more idiosyncratic in his recent DC work, beginning with his Before Watchmen stuff (which I don’t own) and continuing with Batman/Superman, this issue of which I bought because it has both Lee art and Yildiray Cinar art, so I could use it twice! Score!

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This is the first page of the issue (well, without the bottom panel, which includes the credits, so I didn’t use it), and it’s very much an example of how Lee draws these days. We get the diamond cut-out intruding on the panel, focusing our eyes downward at Kaiyo (the orange-skinned creature is called Kaiyo), with Superman looking a bit dazed in it. Kaiyo was apparently possessing Lois Lane, who lies on the ground to the left, and she rises out of Lois’s body and springs toward Wonder Woman, who recoils defensively. Lee has taken all the tricks he’s used in the past and refined them, as we’ll see throughout this post. He’s dispensed with a great deal of hatching, although he hasn’t eschewed it completely. On the right side, the flying horse is delicately inked, with bold blacks that are nevertheless not as harsh as we’ve seen in the past. This might be a function of colorist June Chung (who is credited along with Matt Yackey), who tends to color Lee’s art these days. [Edit: As "Darkstream" pointed out in an earlier post, Lee is married to Chung, so this makes sense.] Lee has made his figures even more lithe, as we can see with the three women in this panel (but as we’ll also see with the men). He’s also become a bit more abstract. Lois (who’s dangerously skinny – get that young lady a Twinkie!) is drawn with a lot of basic black, as is Kaiyo, and Wonder Woman is all thin rectangles. Lee still uses that nice brush for the inks, which gives Lois’s jacket some beautiful folds and Wonder Woman’s armor and tunic beautiful texture, and Chung’s soft coloring helps with that, as well. Lee draws Wonder Woman’s hair terrifically, too – the tendrils snaking from it give her an exotic, strange look, which is contrasted in the book with Superman’s cornfed rural bumpkinness. Lee substitutes swirling gas and electrical charges for motion lines, which helps create the illusion of motion that is lacking in his more recent comics. It works here, but we’ll see in other examples that his new style still doesn’t fit well with action.

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We’ve come a bit full circle with Lee, as his silhouetted Wonder Woman in Panel 1 is reminiscent of his silhouetted Captain America from Namor 20 years earlier. As Lee started getting more judicious with his blacks, he never stopped using them, and with his style becoming so unique, he takes advantage of all sorts of tricks from his trade, including using silhouettes. Kaiyo herself is mostly black in Panel 1, and Lee uses the blacks to create a stark tableau, with the thin golden lasso providing the link between the hero and the “villain” (it’s not clear if Kaiyo is actually a villain just from this issue). Lee uses shadows even on the buildings – the face on the cornice is heavily shadowed, and Lee cleverly alludes to Diana’s Greek roots by giving the face a Greek-style helmet. The building in the background is also abstract, as Lee simply uses brushes on it to hint at its height. In Panel 2, he creates a hazy vision of Darkseid, and he again uses heavy blacks to make the face craggy and evil. Despite using more hatching, the lines are so thick they become spot blacks, which has become Lee’s favorite way to work. Kaiyo is more delicately hatched, but even then Lee uses very few lines. In Panel 3, we see both Supermans (one from the present, one from the future). Again, there’s no hatching on their faces, but Lee still uses spot blacks to shade their features. You can see the nice brushwork in the inks, and Lee has some fun with the Clarks’ hair. Lee has moved to a point where his art looks incredibly fragile, and this panel is a good example of that.

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Batman shows up with his “three hundred million dollar plane” (seriously, I know Batman is rich, but DC should maybe think about how rich he is, because the dude throws money away like it’s old underwear) and shoots Superman. Don’t worry, it’s for a good reason! Lee, as he’s done in the past, uses only black to portray Batman’s nifty plane (with the small bat-symbol, in case you really want to know who’s blasting you out of the sky), so that it stands out starkly against Chung’s background coloring and so it looks more menacing. Details aren’t menacing, people! He uses the smoke from the missiles in the same way he used the weird smoke on the first page – both to link the plane to the bigger scene and to mimic motion lines, and it works pretty well. I guess those are Kryptonite missiles – I haven’t read the entire arc, but they do talk about Batman possessing Kryptonite thanks to that whole “Only he can take down Superman!” gambit. Lee draws Future Supes in a contorted position, as he’s just been blasted by missiles, but it’s a very static image, as Lee’s art has become more static. He’s posed well, but it doesn’t feel like the missiles have altered his course in any way. This is why it’s interesting that Lee continues to do superhero comics – as beautiful as his art is, he just doesn’t feel like a good fit for them anymore. Anyway, the inking is once again wonderful – the thick folds of Future Supes’s cape make it seem almost velvety, and the brushstrokes on the horse’s wings are exquisite. Lee puts Present Supes and Wonder Woman into silhouette, both creating a balance to the Bat-plane and keeping the focus on Future Supes. The composition of the page is well done, but it feels a bit inert.

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This is the big fight in the issue, and it shows the problem with Lee’s current art style quite well. Once again, he does really nice work with stark, crisp blacks – Batman looks almost inhuman as he leaps around, and the use of black in Panel 5, turning Clark almost monstrous, is really nice. But the fight doesn’t flow particularly well, and it’s because Lee is posing the characters without having them interact. The art has become so ornate that the relationships between the characters when they’re in motion has become skewed. In Panel 1, Batman has fallen out of his plane (when Wonder Woman cut it in half) and Superman lands next to him. Lee uses the chunks of snow throughout this page to show motion, but like we saw yesterday and the day before, the fineness of the pencil art works against him, as the chunks look suspended in the air, not moving through it. In Panel 2, Batman throws the Kryptonite … capsule, I guess? at Supes, but the two characters don’t appear to have any relation to each other, and even then this is a better panel than what follows. In Panel 3, Clark dispenses the gas by clapping his hands and creating a wind. Lee actually uses motion lines, which helps us “read” the panel. Bruce has thrown his rope and is soaring above Clark, but again, there’s no sense of motion in the panel. Panel 4 is a bit better – the small chunks of ice are just good enough so that the larger chunk is clearly falling, but in Panel 5, Clark’s (invisible) heat vision does all the work, so he’s just standing still, and the big chunk doesn’t look as if it’s being sliced in half by anything. In Panel 6, both men look more posed, although Future Supes’s heat vision (why is Present Supes’s heat vision invisible?) helps create a bit of motion in the scene. Part of the problem is Lee’s delicate work, which is so controlled that it doesn’t feel like anything is out of place, which is the chaos of a superhero fight isn’t always a good thing. Lee’s layouts don’t help, either. The way panels flow across a page can help a fight flow across the page, as you can tell whenever you read a superhero comic. Lee lays out this page in the most boring way possible – a six-panel grid – and therefore, the panel-to-panel storytelling feels stilted and rigid. Each panel has nice renderings of the two heroes, but overall, it doesn’t work well as a fight.

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The first panel is, I guess, a vision of what will happen when Darkseid shows up. It’s a tremendous image. Lee draws Darkseid with just enough details so we see how rock-like he is, and once again we get the thick folds in Superman’s cape, which creates a luxurious texture to the fabric. The rest of the panel is in silhouette, which is actually clever of Lee – it makes us wonder if the figures at the bottom – Superman and Present and Future Batman – are impaled on those spikes or just standing in between them. Chung, who has been coloring the backgrounds with pale blue for the entire book, shifts to dark orange/red, implying the blood that will be spilled when Darkseid arrives. In Panel 2, we get more silhouettes, but Lee adds some Kirby Krackle to imply the opening of a Boom Tube (well, that and the “BOOOM” we see on the right side of the panel). Again, we see judicious hatching on the margins, which creates a sensation of the light being too bright, obscuring our vision. It’s a neat device.

Lee’s art is, I would argue, more beautiful now than it’s ever been, but that doesn’t mean it works as well for some projects. If we look back at his career, early on he was better at action and therefore a better superhero artist, while his work these days is much more ethereal and moody, which doesn’t always work for big-time superhero comics. Yet he keeps working on them, which is somewhat odd. Either way, Lee’s art has changed quite a bit over the years, and I’m curious to see if it’s going to keep changing. I guess we’ll have to wait to find out!

Tomorrow … well, I haven’t made up my mind yet. I think I’m going to check out a rather chameleonic artist who’s been doing both solid mainstream stuff and really weird indie stuff for almost 40 years. He’s someone commenters have asked for, even though I had already decided to feature him. So come back tomorrow and see if I do go with him, or someone completely different! Of course, you can always take a gander at the archives, too!

15 Comments

Like I said in part 3: beautiful stuff but sooooooo flimsy on the backgrounds. Clouds, haze, cloud filter, haze haze haze. Not a ton of depth in any of these panels. What he draws is beautiful, but man I wish he would draw more backgrounds.

Dave: Yeah, when you made that comment, I figured I’d just let it go until we got here, because I knew it would come up. I agree with you, though – some of this I can forgive, as it’s taking place in the sky or near the sky, but I think Lee’s art would improve greatly if it didn’t seem to exist in some diaphanous “otherworld.” Jamie McKelvie has Mike Norton to do backgrounds for him occasionally – I wonder if someone Lee trusts would be willing to do that for him, because it would give his art some grounding, which it seems to need these days.

I used to love Lee’s artwork. Then I realized that, as he progressed, his work became predictable and flat—demonstrated in what’s posted above. The angle is consistently level, the backgrounds absent, and the figures invariably profiled or facing the viewer. Dull, dull, dull.

I don’t think I can disagree more with you on Lee’s panel work. If anything, I think a lot of modern artists completely overdo it on trying to create the effect of motion and action, presumably because they don’t trust their images to stand on their own without adding “instructions” for the reader. I don’t see these panels as an example of Lee’s weakness in creating action sequences so much as a deliberate attempt at showing movement and fluidity without having to use obvious cues. Lee uses the bare minimum to still create a very obvious sense of flow to the action scenes. To me, Lee is showing a confidence not only in his own work, but confidence in the reader as well, in not hitting you over the head with motion lines and Michael Bay-type cinematic thunderstorms. As for the lack of backgrounds, again I think this may be somewhat deliberate to the storyline. I don’t remember for sure, but wasn’t this scene set in kind of a limbo or out of the way place where all these time travelled characters met?

Oddly enough, I think you went way too easy on Lee’s early work like the Namor issue, which I find pretty atrocious, and way too hard on his modern work, which I think is exquisite. I hope he sticks with doing superheroes because I think he is one of the more interesting artists doing them.

By the way, as a suggestion for future artists to profile, how about Michael Golden? Although he hasn’t done a lot of recent work, his evolution from his early stuff to later is pretty drastic. And of course, he’s a personal favorite of mine.

turk: Well, I still think his work is beautiful, but we’ll have to agree to disagree. I think there’s a happy medium between the people like Lee and people who go nuts with motion lines and such. I’m less annoyed by the figure work than by the boring layouts. Lee can do better, I know, and it’s frustrating to me that he doesn’t do more with layout out the page better.

I don’t know what’s going on with the backgrounds, because I don’t buy the book. I flipped through Lee’s work on Before Watchmen, and it seemed like he did it there, too. But I could be wrong.

I don’t think Lee’s work on Namor is atrocious, obviously. His technical skill now is obviously miles better than it was back then, but I do think he’s sacrificed some dynamism. I think his work on Namor, while extremely “1990s,” is far better than many of his peers at the time. If I had featured some of his other early work (some of which I own, some of which I don’t but could find), I would have been harsher because it’s not that great, but I think his work on Namor was pretty good, despite its flaws. His work now has different flaws, even though it’s very beautiful. But that’s just the way I feel.

I don’t have a lot of Golden’s artwork, even though I really like it. I’ll have to see what I have and if I need to track some down before the end of the year.

I have to find his gritty Namor issues I have in my collection.

Here’s one from ozy with an inexplicably hazy background:
http://media.comicbookmovie.com/images/users/uploads/10300/4003.jpg

I googled “jae lee pages” and really there aren’t many panels with complete backgrounds or even partial backgrounds. I mean, is bums me out, because I love the way he draws what he actually draws.

Hey, Greg, thanks for the mention. :)

As I said before, Jae Lee is one of my top favorite artists, and one that I’ve followed since the beginning of his career. I can understand some of the criticisms people have against his work, and can even agree to some point, but for the most part, I’ve loved every stage of his evolution. Despite its flaws and the sometimes obscurity in his work that hinders his storytelling, I find myself captivated by it. I know some people are all about having detailed backgrounds, but it’s a lot of the shadowplay with his signature silhouettes contrasted against negative space that helps make his art interesting and unique to me. I can’t really explain it, but I love the look of it, especially more so now because of June Chung’s colors. I really can’t wait to see where Jae Lee goes next with his art, because he’s certainly an artist who has changed his style so much so often and has never disappointed me or offended my eye as a fan.

I can only guess that anyone who is not a fan of Jae Lee’s early work, like on Namor, must not be much of a fan of Simon Bisley’s stuff then?

Darkstream, I actually like Bisley. But I think he’s a lot more whimsical than Lee was in his early work, so I definitely see a lot of difference in their styles. I would group Bisley in with Kelly Jones and Sam Keith more than Lee. But I just hate that whole ’90s cross hatching and mega-posing thing going on in Namor. It’s probably not as bad as a lot of other artists, but it’s still pretty terrible looking to me.

Greg, I suppose I can understand some of the criticism of his action scenes, but isn’t that because you’re expecting him to conform to what you’re used to? I think he puts a lot of thought into his layouts using other objects and effects than taking the lazy way out with motion lines. And yeah, he is very technically beautiful, which you can’t say about most mainstream artists in comics.

turk: I guess it’s possible that he doesn’t conform to what I’m used to, but a lot of artists surprise me with the way they depict action, so I don’t think it’s completely that. It’s partly the layouts, but as I noted, for some reason the characters don’t seem to interact well with each other as much as they used to. But that’s just my opinion! :)

i’m gonna go ahead and agree with greg here…check out the second-to-last page posted in the article above (the one that’s mostly light green). there’s very little sense of sequence between the panels–especially the first two:

panel 1: superman landing on his feet, batman landing on his back–they look fairly close to each other.
panel 2: now batman is up on his feet, farther away, and throwing a thing at superman. not a huge sense of action-consequence here. just clumsy storytelling.

when there is a sense of sequence, like in panels 3-4-5 (i mean, i guess panels 3-4 show sequence but it’s in a pretty clumsy manner IMO) lee chooses a very boring camera angle–one that minimizes the drama of the scene. it’s not a very dynamic storytelling decision. sometimes, when other artists decide for a more mundane, from-the-side camera angle like this, it’s because they’re opting for some sort of clever layout (i’m thinking maybe of quitely’s action sequences in his batman and robin run). lee doesn’t do that here, though. to me, in order to dynamically portray action, an artist needs to either opt for dynamic camera angles or do something clever with the layout. not EVERYTHING needs to be DYNAMIC!!! but, damn, this is an action scene in a superhero comic–WITH TWO SUPERHEROES IN IT.

to be honest, between the ho-hum-ness of the layout, the lack of dynamism in the storytelling choices, and the utter lack of backgrounds (i don’t care if it’s in a weird limbo dreamland, fucking draw something!), i am sorta surprised that this made it through editorial. i know i’m a broken record about this, but it’s definitely because, what lee draws, he draws well. i just strongly disagree with some of his decision making along the way.

In part 2, I said I didn’t like Jae Lee as the “realist” post-image. But now, looking at these samples- for the first time, I see he has shifted to more stylization again. Which is a good choice!

This stuff is much more graphic and interesting then the photo-realism of before- at least in regards to the figures. Although, the action in the sequence does strike me as a little boring. But, It’s a six panel grid of batman vs superman in medium shots… on a glacier. Maybe the writer dictated the shots look like this?

I think he did a good job of using cross-hatch to indicate snow being kicked up, etc., but maybe the lines are bold enough to really standout, it took me a while to notice them. Same with the feathering on the figures i think- too subtle. The smaller lines lend more “realism” but it makes for less interesting art; or maybe I’m wrong and the blending effect I see has something to do with the quality/size of the photo’s here- idk?

Hatching and cross-hatching are classic pen and ink techniques that have withstood the test of time. A lot of super-hero comics over the last decade or so- from what I’ve noticed, have eschewed them in favor of rendering and modeling with digital coloring (which is a big mistake I think). These samples, however, do not rely on the color to render the objects as much, so it favors more blacks and stronger, thicker lines- and he did put lots of black on the figures which makes them stand out! It’s hard to have lots of blacks when the scene is on a glacier, but that’s what he had to work with and so I think, overall, he did a pretty good job.

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