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Year of the Artist, Day 236: Jim Lee, Part 5 – Batman #609

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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 Batman #609, which was published by DC and is cover dated January 2003. Enjoy!

When Lee came over to DC, it was only a matter of time before he drew a Batman comic and a Superman comic, and while I did not get his Superman comics, I was still enough of a fan of Jeph Loeb that I decided to get the entire 12-issue run on Batman. This is “Mature Lee,” which you could argue he achieved around X-Men #1 and didn’t change too much, but with the advent of digital effects, this is more what we’ve seen from Lee in this century, which is why I’m not showing any other of his work from the past 14 years or so. Let’s get to it!

[Edit: Several people noted that the “unwrapped” version of “Hush,” which features Lee’s uninked pencils, is a very cool book. I did look for it between then and now, but I couldn’t find it. I could have ordered it on-line, but it wouldn’t have gotten here in time to show a comparison. So I apologize, as that would have been neat. If I see it anywhere, I’ll pick it up and maybe revise this post and re-post it down the line.]

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Lee and Scott Williams are a long-time team, and what’s interesting about Williams’s inks is that I’m really not sure how much influence he has. Lee, being a fairly popular artist (he said wryly), shows up on a Google search of “uninked art” more than a lot of artists, and Lee seems to dig hatching his own pencils pretty heavily. With some artists, I see the uninked pencils and can tell that the inker added a lot of lines, or I simply haven’t seen the raw pencils and have to guess. With Lee, you can find a lot of examples of his straight pencils, and they include a lot of lines. This excessive use of line work is, of course, a stereotypical indication of Nineties Excess, when artists were going nuts with hatching, and I still find Lee’s work a bit too busy when he draws like this, even though it’s definitely not as egregious as others from his own era or those who followed in his wake. Lee’s and/or Williams’s lines tend to be shorter and lighter than most, so they don’t carve troughs into the faces of their characters, just scuff the skin a little. If you notice in Panel 2, when the punk looks back at Helena, he has a lot of cross-hatching on his face, but the lines make him look melodramatically enraged and not necessarily decrepit. Instead of using black chunks for shadowing, we get the cross-hatching along his cheek and head, which looks busier and messier but doesn’t turn him into a desiccated monster. Lee uses blacks, obviously, as we get Helena in Panel 2 leaping her motorcycle toward the punk, and Lee uses spot blacks to highlight the logo on the side of the bike and her purple cape. It’s a wonderfully dramatic moment, and it’s something that looks very neat. Alex Sinclair colored this, and we get the glowing yellow on the punk’s gun in Panel 1 and the too-large moon in Panel 2 dramatically backlighting Helena. Sinclair is using the latest tricks of the trade, obviously, and while it doesn’t have a lot of effect on how Lee’s art looks, it does make the comic a bit sleeker. Whether that’s your thing or not is, of course, up to you.

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Oh, Helena. I guess this is the Ed Benes-designed Huntress costume, with the giant hole in the middle showing off her midriff and the extremely short shorts, but given Lee’s track record of costume design, if you told me he designed this one, I wouldn’t be shocked. Lee’s women are usually sexy but not necessarily ridiculous, but he doesn’t do a terribly good job with Helena here, and Sinclair doesn’t help him. The thicker hatching at the top of her diaphragm and the darker shading in the most concave part of the her belly makes her look far more emaciated than is healthy, and it’s too bad. Lee doesn’t do a great job with the storytelling from the previous page, either – in the panel before this one, Helena clocks that dude on the cheek and levels him, yet here, she’s standing up straight, rather casually. It’s just so Lee can draw a pose, which is somewhat annoying. She grabs the stick back in Panel 2 and proceeds to kick ass, but Panel 4 is another one of those views where the perspective is a bit weird. We’re looking at it from directly above, so of course we can figure out that Helena did some kind of twirl to take out all of those dudes, but the way Lee draws her isn’t convincing. In this case, the lack of motion lines hurts a bit, and the face that she’s not using the stick as a pivot or anything to anchor herself to the ground means that we’re missing a panel where she begins to twirl. One of the great things about comics is that readers can fill in the blanks (or the gutters), but this still feels like too dramatic a transition. Ever since Lee became “Jim Lee,” he’s been about spectacle over storytelling, but usually his storytelling is at least decent. Here it lets him down a little. Even the fact that we suddenly hover over Helena for just that one panel is jarring, as looking at it from far away seems to show her jumping up off the ground, which is usually at the bottom of any given panel. Only closer inspection shows that we’re directly over her. I do like the silhouette in Panel 5, with the touch of purple, although notice that Helena’s legs fade into the garbage on the ground. No feet for you! And I know this is a weird complaint, but does anyone else not love those sound effects? “Dap”? “Fok”? “SWAG?” What the hell?

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We get a classic Jim Lee female here, as Poison Ivy meets with Hush (don’t even get me started on the villain in this comic). In Panel 1, we get the thick, curly, lustrous hair that Lee loves, although it’s a bit bouncier on Ivy than on some other characters (Helena, notice, has straight hair). Ivy is holding the briefcase in front of her so that her arms need to come together and push up her breasts, because of course they do. Ivy is looking down for some reason even though she’s presumably on the same level as Hush, but it allows Lee to draw a pretty classic Lee face, with the feline eyes he likes for females, the high and sharp cheekbones, the small nose, and the thin mouth. Of course we get a lot of hatching, along Ivy’s arms, across her mid-section, and down her legs as they disappear into the handy mist. I’ve been staring at her hands for a while now, and it appears that she’s holding the briefcase with the pinkie and index finger of her right hand and the ring finger of her left hand extended. Is that right? Why would she do that? Anyway, we see more classic Lee faces in Panels 2 and 3, especially 3, where he adds the crooked eyebrows and gives her fuller lips. Notice in Panel 4 that we get the same effect we saw in Flinch, as Lee use simple, bold lines to create folds in clothing and shadow lines on skin, which Sinclair then colors with different hues of blue. In Panel 5, Ivy is standing on her toes even though she’s not wearing high heels. Isn’t that how all women stand all the time?

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Here’s a panel of Gotham, with all the attendant busyness of Lee’s artwork. He and Williams make sure to draw windows on all the buildings and lots of balconies in the foreground, and of course we have to have a blimp floating above the city, because Gotham and blimps go together like Kate Upton and white T-shirts. What I love about this panel, though, is that Lee uses the blacks really well. The elevated tracks look a bit 19th-century, but Lee or Williams blacks them out wonderfully, while Sinclair’s browns are there without holding lines, which contrast the tracks with Gotham’s sleek lines. Above the tracks, underneath the blue narrative boxes, with get beautiful shadows on the buildings, turning them into looming giants. Lee’s Gotham looks like an industrial nightmare (it doesn’t quite look like Tim Burton’s vision, but it seems like a cross between that and Anton Furst’s mid-1990s design), and using the chunks of black on the train tracks and the buildings help create that mood a bit.

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Of course, part of what Lee does on this book is flashbacks to Bruce’s childhood, when he was best friends with Tommy Elliot. This is another thing that vexes me about Lee – he’s obviously talented enough to work in different styles, but he’s so enamored with superhero comics that he usually only does his “Jim Lee” thing, which everyone knows and loves. I’d love to see Lee work on something where he incorporates more work like that on Flinch or this kind of painted work, because these pages are really well done. I don’t know if Lee just painted it or if Sinclair did, but the washes on the art are wonderful for flashback, with Lee eschewing pencil lines to create more impressionistic figures, from the toys to the boys themselves. In the background, he uses thicker lines instead of his usual thin work, so that the Waynes’ fireplace, for instance, looks ancient and solid. Even Bruce’s facial expression in Panel 3 is different from Lee’s standard work – his smile, despite not being too wide, is warmer than a lot of Lee’s more smarmy smiles (he’s quite good at making Tommy’s smiles seem smarmy), while the fact that he’s using paint instead of pencil and ink softens Bruce’s face, making it more nostalgic. The pages in “Hush” where Lee does this are gorgeous, and for me, it’s a shame that Lee doesn’t do something on his own that incorporates all the different kinds of ways he knows to create art. Oh well.

I didn’t show too much of Lee’s more popular works because everyone knows what his stuff looks like. Lee continues to draw some comics while, in my opinion, helping Dan DiDio and Geoff Johns drive DC into the sewer, but that’s an opinion for another day! I still like his art a lot, but since he draws a lot of dour superhero books these days, I find that I’m not buying a lot of comics with his art in it. Such is life.

Tomorrow I think I’ll check out someone who’s very modern but is obviously in love with a classic artist of the past. I know I should feature the classic artist first, but I’m just that big of a rule-breaker! While you wait, feel free to scour the archives for artists you may have missed!

23 Comments

I could be wrong, but didn’t Mark Chiarello paint over Lee for the flashbacks?

Michael: I don’t know. He’s not credited in the issue, so I’m not sure.

I hate what Didio, Johns and Lee have done to DC, and I think Loeb is a terrible writer who only gets comics work because of his Hollywood connections, but Lee’s art on Hush was great. His Batman, Gotham City and the atmosphere were damn near perfect, like the best of the Batman covers from the 60s-70s.

I read this whenever it was that my local library got the trade (and didn’t like the story), but I have to admit that I never really noticed or wondered who the artist was. Jim Lee wasn’t a “name” artist to me until ASBAR rolled around (which I also didn’t like) and I gathered, huh, I guess this guy must be some kind of star.

I have no idea what you’re talking about, Greg. I hit a guy with a staff just the other day and it made a “SWAG” noise.

That Huntress costume sure was cheesecakey. I once saw an attendant cosplaying it in a comics event. It was.. distracting. :)

But here she looks anorexic, which attenuates the effect somewhat.

buttler: You have to get out more! :)

Robert: Yeah, I guess I don’t hit enough people with staffs. :(

Not if it involves reading old-school Wildstorm, I don’t! Or a lot of newer-school Wildstorm either, come to think of it. Basically anything not written by Ellis or Moore.

It is extremely interesting to look at the art from Hush, because you see the extremes and contradictions of Jim Lee’s work. On the one hand, you have excessive crosshatching and oversexed women with kinky outfits & wonky anatomy. On the other, you have those beautifully rendered flashback sequences.

To be honest, my favorite stories that Jim Lee penciled after he sold Wildstorm to DC was the Just Imagine Stan Lee book featuring Wonder Woman. Inspired by Greg’s write-ups over the previous four days, I dug out my copy. And my memory of how good it was turned out to be accurate.

In that Just Imagine special Lee drew some absolutely dynamic, inventive, striking layouts. His penciling was beautifully detailed without feeling overworked. And his redesign of the character of Wonder Woman was really stunning. I even noticed that his WW wasn’t nearly as exaggerated in her anatomy & sexuality as many of Lee’s other females. I really wish that more of his work showed the qualities on display in that book.

Just curious, Greg. Have you seen that one and, if so, any thoughts on it?

All the things that people pick on about Lee and artists like him are actually what gives their work broad appeal. anatomical inaccuracies for example is what gave superhero comics their punch and appeal for decades. Kirby’s power was rooted in his stylization and that’s why so many artists went there.

First time commenter here — I just had to chime in and express my appreciation for this series, Greg. As a fan who scoured the complete Overstreet Guide for “AA” art credits (Arthur Adams of course!) as a 13 year old in 1990, I get a kick out of your writing.

After spending most of the past twenty years as an on-again / off-again collector, mostly on the indie side of things, I’ve gotten a thrill out of seeing what the Image boys have been up to since those early days, for better or worse (as well as discovering a ton of artists I hadn’t known about).

A vote here to feature Portacio at some point. I have no idea if he’s a good candidate, as I don’t know how much he evolved, but his early X-Factor work blew my childhood mind with it’s distortion and energy. He seemed to tap a manga/anime sensibility that was much harder to come by back in those years, to my eyes.

I am of the mind that “Hush” was some of Jim Lee’s best work. He had the right amount of ultra realism and over the top dynamisim. Also, like the article said, it showcased Lee’s painted art style, which looks fantastic.

Pretty sure the cut-away design is Lee’s fault.

Ben: No, I didn’t get any of the Just Imagine books. I probably should, even though I heard the stories are terrible, because I know the artists are quite good.

tom: I don’t mind some weird anatomy, to be sure. It bugs me more when artists are trying to be “realistic” in a lot of areas, but deliberately do some things weirdly. It seems out of context more than anything.

James: I always thought it was Ed Benes. I could be wrong, though!

It might be blasphemous for some, but I don’t get into all the negative responses about Lee not being versatile enough. Nobody ever accuses Kirby about not changing his style, it is fine, no discussion, even in recent posts about Breyfogle, who hardly changed at all, this topic never came up. Lee on the other, reason must be his popularity, is always under fire for not venturing in bold directions, which see as a tad bit unfair. He experimented more than a lot of other artists have done.

Of course I also understand where Greg is coming from, it is nice to see artists streching their creative wings, but this is rarely the case, once in comfort zone, most people will never leave.

Dimo1: For me, at least, it’s not just because Lee doesn’t try new things, it’s that he doesn’t try new things and he doesn’t venture outside of superheroes. You’re right about Kirby – although Kirby’s energy is so much more vibrant than Lee’s, it mitigates some of that – but Breyfogle has done some different kinds of comics, even though, as you point out, his style hasn’t changed too much. Most artists reach a comfort level, that’s true, but many of them at least try different genres within comics. Lee doesn’t even do that, and I’d actually like that to see that more than seeing him change his style too much. That’s why I like his short story in Flinch so much!

“he usually only does his “Jim Lee” thing, which everyone knows and loves”
?
I for one, as many other people who left comments over here absolutely hate his “thing”. His art has nothing to do with hyper realism as I struggle to find one single panel in his body of work that remotely tries to have a global sense of realism. The fact is that there are many crucial points in his technique that leaves to be desired in terms of realism. As has been extensively pointed out, Jim Lee and drawing feet (or for the matter, even legs) has always been problematic. But an even bigger struggle in his attempt at depicting a realistic looking figure is his take on necks and mostly chins! While drawing profile faces, you always get those abnormally square jaws (especially for men) that make no sense while if he even attempts to draw a staring face, the chin completely disappears into the neck making for an effect of depth absence that is truly ugly. Oh, and his ears anatomy also makes zero sense, as well as close ups on eyes. I won’t even get into how clothing feels on the arms he draws…

I enjoyed his over stylized Deathblow way more than any of this “thing”, especially because he then didn’t use hatching and could hide a lot of his natural weaknesses very well. Even the vertigo style from yesterday showcases those same problems when you look at the main character’s chin and jaw, and the muscle/mass-clothing ratio also is quite terrible. Still that was indeed a better effort.

So in my humble opinion, the win problem with Lee is his doomed attempt at mixing his own natural stylization with an attempt at some kind of realism which falls flat every single time, when Marc Silvestri’s recent attempts at going for deeper stylization while mixing his natural style with Berni Whrightson’s Frankenstein illustrations actually work wonders!

The Huntress costume was designed by Lee for this story – there’s an anecdote about how Huntress received it and her new gear from an anonymous benefactor who is related to the larger story, although curiously neither Oracle or Batman ever question her on the costume and gear.

Pfft… Huntress just fapped.

@Greg, that is of course a valid argument, sadly many comic readers, especially in the US are pretty much stuck in the superhero world. Yes, Image has a certain success, but seeing sales numbers superheroes take the dominating role.
For me, being in Europe that is not such a huge issue, as we have a healty dose of all genres and I would love to get more readers into the rich world of international comics. If that were the case, I’d assume that creators would also venture into new directions. As it is currently they are probably playing it safe.

fineliner: Your comment didn’t show up until this morning, so that’s weird. Thanks for the nice words – I appreciate it. I have Portacio on my list, but we’ll see if I get to him. I think his art has changed enough to make him a good candidate.

cicerobuck: My tongue was a little bit in my cheek when I wrote that, but you can’t deny that a LOT of people love Lee’s artwork. I don’t love it anymore, but he still sells a ton of comics!

Stath: Fair enough. I wasn’t sure, but it does make sense that Lee would design a crappy outfit, unfortunately.

That awful Huntress design was definitely Jim Lee’s. In fact, I think he redesigned it as part of the whole Hush storyline.

Yes, the Hush storyline was the first place that this costume design was seen.

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