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Year of the Artist, Day 232: Jim Lee, Part 1 – Alpha Flight #53

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Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Jim Lee, and the issue is Alpha Flight #53, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated December 1987. Enjoy!

Alpha Flight #53 is, as far as I can determine, the second comic that Jim Lee ever penciled, but I don’t have Alpha Flight #51 (perhaps it’s hard to find because it’s Lee’s first work?), so we’ll have to be satisfied with this. As usual, it’s odd seeing someone whose work is so distinctive doing stuff from early in their careers, when that style hadn’t fully evolved. Let’s dive right in and see what I mean!

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Wolverine guest-stars in this issue, because of course he does, and here he helps Madison Jeffries shake off a temporary bout of madness. It’s interesting to see how much Lee aligned with what was a pretty standard Marvel house style of the mid- to late-1980s, before he became their house style in the 1990s. Lee is perfectly fine with the storytelling here – Jeffries falls out of his box robot (no, I don’t know what the deal is with that, but I’m sure you know more than I do about it!) into Logan’s arms, and he’s acting a bit out of it, so Logan douses him with water to snap him out of it, and then prompts Jeffries to tell him what happened. Lee’s style is a bit stiff, but not too much – he’s better at movement than a lot of artists at this early stage of their careers. His points of view work well – Panel 3 shows a perspective from above Logan, and Lee makes sure to show the bathtub so that we realize he’s slicing water pipes in Panel 4. The movement in the bottom row, where Logan takes his cool-ass bomber jacket off (Geoff Johns read this comic when he was young and thought Hal Jordan would sure look neat in one of those!) and drapes it around Jeffries, is well done. Whilce Portacio inked this, and I don’t know if he and Lee knew each other before this, but I guess they hit it off because they co-founded Image five years later. Portacio hadn’t been around very long, but he was a solid inker (including doing some of Arthur Adams’s pencils in Longshot), so I imagine he helped out a bit. The ruff on Logan’s jacket looks inked in, and while Lee probably wanted to spot blacks on Jeffries’s face in Panel 6, it might have been Portacio, too, and it’s a good effect. As usual, I don’t know how much influence the inker has on the raw pencils, but Lee and Portacio seem to make a good team.

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Lee was already a pretty dynamic artist, as we see here. Bedlam the Brain Blast (COMICS!) is a solid bad guy, and Lee gives him nice presence on the page. Jeffries’s attack is done well, as Bedlam turns, deflects the missiles Box fires at him, blasts his brain (it’s part of his name, duh!), and tries to force him down in Panel 4. The layout is a bit off-kilter, as the flow in Panels 2 and 3 is interrupted and we make a jump to Panel 4, but it’s still a good utilitarian sequence. I’m sure someone knows how artists got that “negative” effect that we see in Panel 5, with Jeffries’s human head inside the robot. It’s a neat trick. I assume Lee penciled it and then perhaps used a photocopier to overlay it onto the main page? Beats me. It’s still pretty cool. There’s some nice inking on the page, too. Portacio uses thick brush strokes to create a more metallic sheen to Bedlam’s armor, while he uses that nervous spotting to create a halo of smoke around Box as he approaches. As we saw above, it’s a good match to Lee.

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I don’t have much to say about this except that it’s a 40-panel grid. If you showed the present Jim Lee, with his inordinate love of double-page spreads, this page today, he might have a stroke. Save his life and don’t show him this page!

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As we’ve seen, Lee isn’t doing anything too shocking here, just giving us pages that are laid out well and drawn competently. He manages to cram all the characters in Panel 1, and while the perspective is a bit odd, we get a good sense of what’s going on. Bedlam has caused four super-powered characters to fight Alpha Flight, even though neither of them wants to fight. The problem with this panel is basically one of Lee trying to show everyone so that we can see them clearly, which leads to some wonkiness. The characters on the ground are okay, although Janus (the blue-and-white dude) seems to have moved from a position far too close to Breakdown, who’s in the green. On the right side, Manikin (man, the less said about him, the better) seems angled a bit too much toward us if he were really standing on the ground. Heather and Freakout, the two flying ones, are where the page looks a bit bizarre. It’s as if we’re seeing Heather and Freakout from a position of standing on the ground, as she flies upward from the ground and he jumps off of it to grab her. But they’re both already in the air and above the rest of the group, so is she on her back? Lee wants to get everyone into the frame, so I get it, but it’s one of those panels that the more you look at it, the weirder it is. Bill Mantlo (who wrote this) and Lee didn’t want you to linger, I guess!

Also notable about this page is the amount of blood coming out of Freakout. I know 1987 was long past the more squeamish age of comics, but Marvel and DC, for the most part, still tried to pretend their comics were for children and often didn’t allow so much blood. But look at that! Sasquatch is totally gutting Freakout, and Bob Sharen gets to color it a brilliant red. He was probably astonished they’d let that go!

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Even Lee’s women weren’t anywhere near Lee-ish at this point, as we can see Sasquatch in his/her female form. (A quick look at Wikipedia gave me a headache. This is still Walter Langkowski, right? And his spirit is inhabiting the body of Snowbird? And he calls himself Wanda? Man, comics are awesome.) She’s perfectly fine, but other than a small blob of a nose, which certainly isn’t unique to Lee, there’s not much that shows the way Lee would eventually draw women. He does a nice job with “her” facial expression in Panel 4, as she’s willing to let Freakout beat her if that’s what he wants, but man, that whole scene is charged with weird sexual energy, isn’t it? “Wanda” is not wearing a lot of clothing (although it’s perfectly reasonable, it’s still not a lot), and then she lies on the ground, which Portacio inks fairly uniformly and Sharen colors brown to give it the appearance of a rug, not a rocky surface. I wonder if that pose is taken from a magazine or photograph, because it certainly looks very strange and seductive. Freakout stands behind “Wanda,” and while we’re supposed to interpret it as him about to bring his fists down, it could certainly appear like he’s raising his fists in triumph. Then she gives him that come-hither look and tells him it’s his move. In Panel 6, Bedlam tells him to be “my man,” which fits within the context of the comic but is still rife with darker meaning, while Wanda twists around, her butt to Freakout, with almost an expectant look in her eyes. The fact that Freakout is wearing a hockey mask, which puts us in mind of slasher movies and their sexual text and subtext, is just the final touch. It’s a very odd sequence.

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Here’s another pretty good sequence, as Heather uses her mind to activate her armor, which Bedlam can’t control (he can control their bodies, but not the armor!). Lee lays the page out well, as Bedlam becomes increasingly scared that Heather will take him out. Like we saw above, we even get some Kirby Krackle when Heather unleashes her energy against Bedlam in the final panel. What I found interesting about this page is that while in some places (especially with Purple Girl … yes, one of the Alphans is called Purple Girl), Lee appears to be channeling McFarlane, that last drawing of Heather blowing the shit out of Bedlam looks straight lifted from an issue of Elementals that Willingham drew. Obviously, Jeanette and Heather are both red-heads with flame-y type powers, but it’s still uncanny how much that looks like Willingham. I don’t know how much Lee knew about Elementals at this point, so it might just be a coincidence, but even if it’s not, we’ve seen before that young artists tend to copy the way others draw until they become better at their craft, and Lee certainly got better. I just thought this was an unusual influence, if it was indeed that.

Despite the somewhat bland style Lee had at this time, he still got the job done, and he drew Alpha Flight for a while before moving on, which is where we’ll pick him up tomorrow. Will his style be more “Jim Lee”? Well, you can probably guess which title I’m going to feature, so you can probably grab your old issues and check them out before I even get there! Or you could dig through the archives, which might be more fruitful!

30 Comments

Thinking about it for a second…..Someone show Lee that page.

IIRC Portacio had been inking Alpha Flight for about a year by this point and doing a decent job. Lee’s issues are decent enough, better than some of the art in the immediate post Byrne period of the book.

It’s a really brilliant debut. I would’ve liked to see him draw more like stuff that before turning into, you know, Jim Lee…It is not so spectacular, but he puts a bit more effort in the storytelling than in big splash pages.And he knew how to draw a cool Wolverine (that gets you a job in Marvel for sure!)…

His Solo Avengers pages were also relatively bland. It’s interesting to see how many steps Lee actually took to become the artist he is now… mainly because you tend not to think of a whole lot. If you wanted to do an entire Jim Lee week, though, I wouldn’t complain.

I hope it’s War Journal next. It’s largely a showcase for Greg Wright, but I feel like it was the tipping point, with Lee’s aesthetics before his full ’90s excess with page layouts.

Philip: Yeah, I saw that Portacio had been inking the book before Lee got there. I don’t own those issues, though.

Jaime: Well, I’m glad he developed a style, but I agree that his storytelling occasionally falls short of his spectacle. It’s too bad.

Duff: Of course it’s War Journal! :)

The real question is whether Carl Potts did uncredited layouts for the Lee issues of Alpha Flight. I can’t recognize any of this work you posted as Lee or Portacio. I also can’t see Lee wasting a panel just to show Wolverine taking off his jacket!

My question is this: at this point in time, how many readers believed that Jim Lee was related to Stan? I’m betting it was the same number that thought Jo Duffy was a guy.8)

some stupid japanese name

August 20, 2014 at 4:27 pm

His Mockingbird backup was in Solo Avengers 1, which was cover dated December 1987.
I think it looks much more “Lee” than this.

Jeff: Yeah, probably quite a few. And you mean Jo Duffy isn’t a man?!?!? :)

some stupid japanese name: Huh, that’s interesting. I couldn’t find that issue, so I’ll take your word for it. That’s kind of strange. It makes me want to hunt it down!

Greg:

The effect with the Blue Jeffrey’s face superimposed over the Box helmet is called a color hold. Back in the days this issue would have come out, the inker would ink the image on a sheet of vellum (a heavyweight tracing paper); so in this case, Jeffrey’s human head would be on the vellum.

Negatives would be shot of the black and white artwork, with the Jeffrey’s head shot separately. This would allow them to just print in a color ink (in this case, blue), rather than the black linework on the rest of the page.

I think Steranko may have done these effects, so they go back quite a ways. Michael Golden and Pat Broderick used them a lot in the Micronauts comics, but those are the only 2 guys I can think of who used the effect regularly.

Much like Liefeld, he was better at the start of his career.

I really like Jim Lee, though I think his work following Batman and Robin The Boy Wonder has deteriorated somewhat. The raw energy he put on display in the Punisher and X-Men days blew my teenage mind away at the time. I actually own a lot of Jim Lee material in various Omnibus and Absolute formats in fact…and I can’t say that about other Image founders (who I also followed ravenously at the time).

A suggestion…if you decide to showcase Batman: Hush and own the “unwrapped” B&W version featuring only Jim Lee’s pencils without Scott Williams inks (or are able to google search some pages) consider putting them side by side with the originally released artwork. I bought the unwrapped version and, while I really loved the raw pencils, I also gained a new appreciation for all the work Scott Williams put s into their projects together.

tom fitzpatrick

August 20, 2014 at 6:56 pm

Can’t wait to see if you show Lee’s work on Deathblow, in which he embraces his inner FM.

Also, at some point an inker name of Scott Williams bonded with Lee and did many, many issues on many, many titles for many, many years, even to this day. I wondered if they’re Siamese twins (or at the so very least, conjoined at the hip).

Just wondering, Mr. Burgas, do you plan on showcasing the remaining Image Founders? You’ve only got a little more than 4 months left.

DW: Wow, that’s very cool. Thanks!

Papercut Fun: I don’t own the version with just Lee’s pencils. I have looked at some of his work on the Internet, and I’m going to talk a little bit about that. Maybe I’ll see if I can grab the “unwrapped” version before it goes live.

tom: You’ll have to wait and see, won’t you? And I show Williams inking Lee twice in the next four days, so there you have it!

I definitely plan on doing Silvestri and probably Portacio (I have to check to see how much early work by him I have). I’ve mentioned that I don’t have anything by Larsen before Doom Patrol, so maybe not, and I don’t think I own anything that Jim Valentino has drawn. I don’t know why, but I don’t think I do. So we’ll see about those two.

This is Mantlo’s script or Hudnall already?

Prediction: up next is Uncanny X-men #256-257?

Kabe: It’s Mantlo.

DocSpin: Nope. Punisher War Journal!

As much as I dig these superhero-swamped guys, it would be nice to see some focus on artists who drifted in and out of pure capes. How about Bryan Talbot? Eddie Campbell? Paul Chadwick? Will Eisner? Dave Sim? Alex Toth? Honestly, focusing a run on Jim Lee, and then on Silvestri seems like more of the same (dieharders will rebuke me for not differentiating between them, but c’mon be real here).

I pointed out before I’d love to see Steve Rude here – you mentioned his style hasn’t developed much because he started out a genius. That’s true – but he has explored various angles before – some of his mid-Nexus stuff showed a lot of experimentation, almost channeling Will Eisner-spiritesque stuff. And as readers, we could learn a lot from your spot-on analysis of what is going on in the page.

I too hope for a side by side comparison with Jim Lee’s raw pencils versus his inked product on Hush. The “Unwrapped” book is actually really cool.

Ha.. Jim Lee.. i like his work in AF… (just after a few stories by June Brigman wich arent the best she did) from Portaccio, to DeZuniga to Milgrom inking him in over 1 year., we can see leaps in his changing style, maturing style.

Then War Journal with Carl Potts writing and doing Breakdowns…Another leap in style.. but a giant one

and then … Uncanny X-Men

I love Jim Lee’s work. It is fashionable for quite a lot of people to be overly negative about him, then again people in general are generally more critical than in the past, at least their voices are heard by many. ( Just check the article about the Manara Spider Woman cover:) )

Some commentors mentioned it already and I would like to chime in on the importance of Scott Williams. He plays an essential role in what we perceive as the Jim Lee trademark style. I believe you cannot separate them.

So alpha flight, punisher, something x-men and batman for sure. The last spot probably goes to his image work or we get two different x-men. I will guess uncanny 268 and wildcats 1. I hope it’s not 248. That’s not a good example of Jim Lee x-men. Get something further in to really show him off.

Mannequin, bedlam and purple girl, man that group had some lame characters.

Greg, the earlier Portacio Alpha Flight issues, indeed the entire Mantlo Alpha Flight run are an interesting bunch and worth picking up It might be damming with faint praise but it’s the best the title ever was post Byrne.

tom fitzpatrick

August 21, 2014 at 3:17 am

As an afterthought, I was thinking: “Bedlam – the Brain Blast!” ? Nobody writes like that anymore. ;-)

I think Eva Green’s character in Dark Shadows said something to that effect in regards to what Johnny Depp’s character, Barnabas uttered in insulting oath in the said film.

Sigh, I’m so looking forward to seeing Eva Green in Sin City. She is so sinfully sexy. :-)

I hope that before you get to his Uncanny run you spotlight his back up story in Classic X-Men. That story was great and had some of Lee’s best work.

Someone posted a large scan of the splash page to Solo Avengers #1 by Jim Lee, with inks by the legendary Al Williamson…

http://marvel1980s.tumblr.com/post/84931311315/1987-mockingbird-by-tom-defalco-and-jim-lee-from

Guy: With superheroes being the dominant genre in comics, it’s hard to avoid them, but I’ve tried to mix it up a little this year. I’m definitely featuring some of those artists you mention, and I like Rude’s work so much that even though he doesn’t change too much, I might show him anyway! And don’t worry – I’m not following Lee up with Silvestri right away, so there will be people in between he and Lee!

Anonymous: You’re on the right track with a few of those, but I doubt if anyone will guess the one day!

Philip: Interesting. I know I can find them, so I might have to check them out.

Ben: Man, that’s a nice page. Williamson makes everything better!

Thought it looked great – I got Jim to sign this book in gold ink.

I didn’t know he did #51.

Oh weird, I probably had this comic, because I did follow Alpha Flight well into this era. even though my first awareness of Jim Lee was “Heroes Reborn.” Then I forgot all about him again until he was suddenly all over the place with All-Star Batman and Robin and his clumsy New 52 redesigns.

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