Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
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.]
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.
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?
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?
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.
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!
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