The second issue of Superman Unchained arrives this week with a lot of momentum behind it — the premiere issue finished at the top of the June bestsellers list and reviewers not only gushed, they practically geysered (sampling: “off the chain,” “best in years,” “spectacular art,” “fast-paced writing and stellar art“).
The project had a lot of pedigree (Scott Snyder weaving the words, Jim Lee widening the wow), some tailwind timing (Superman’s 75th anniversary and the opening of Man of Steel) and a admirable “anything goes” spirit. (The first issue’s kooky double-sided poster pull-out might be the perfect rebuttal to slabbing puritans but is that why it cost $4.99?)
With all of that, it seems like the perfect time to check in with Lee, the affable superstar who launches DC heroes into the sky by night (with his marathon all-night art sessions) and steers the corporate ship during the day (as co-publisher of DC Entertainment). Lee lives in San Diego County so Comic-Con International will be a home game for him and it will be the only place fans can get a special edition Superman Unchained No. 1 with a black-and-white Lee image showing Clark Kent turning into Superman.
Entertainment Weekly: Go back to the first time you drew a Superman story — was that a major moment for you?
Jim Lee: The first time I drew a Superman story was For Tomorrow with Brian Azzarello, in 2004. It didn’t really hit me how important it was until I drew a scene early-on in the book that featured Superman crossing paths with a giant, intergalactic space armada. Here was Superman flying out to a distant part of the galaxy to rescue Green Lantern – that really brought it into focus. Drawing something so epic in scope, after spending time in Gotham, where things are very street-level? Here’s a character flying galaxies away to rescue his friend. To me, that’s part of the power of Superman that his world is not limited to Earth and this scene of him coming to save his ally, Green Lantern, showed that.
What’s the best thing about drawing Superman?
JL: I think it’s the fact that you get to draw all the incredible wreckage and rubble and destruction that a tiny little figure can create on a page. So much of comics are dictated by characters talking to one another – or in focused spaces where “the camera” has to stay in pretty close on what’s going on. Most heroes throw punches and tackle people or swing through a city. But Superman is only limited by your imagination. He can deal with aliens, pocket dimensions, lifting entire aircraft carriers out of the water – all that requires some level of artistic gymnastics to make that not only look cool, but possible. You have to really sell something like that and that is the fun part of drawing Superman. And the challenging part.
JL: [Laughs] You know, I’m just thankful he wasn’t doing the Achy Breaky Heart dance. I think the mullet was cool for a while. But that was before my time, so I can’t take the blame. Though, I guess it’s preferable to a mohawk.
Do kids ever ask why Superman has blue hair?
JL: His hair’s not blue, actually. This is just one of those comic book things that longtime readers understand, like sound effects. When someone comes to a comic as a newbie – they see sound effects and read them as words. To me, I experience the sound effect. It’s really just a way to highlight the hair so it doesn’t look like a singular block, which doesn’t work – trust me on that. And if you use gray or white, it just doesn’t look right. It’s really a way to add depth and density to his hair. He didn’t grab the wrong bottle of hair dye. [Laughs]
Did you model your Superman on a particular real life person?
JL: Not really, but I’m going to reveal one of my trade secrets here – I kind of use my own face as a model for my characters, male and female. Because really, when you’re drawing at two or three in the morning and you need a particular expression or pose, there’s only one person there that can help you capture that thought, and that’s yourself. The danger of modeling things off a real person is getting the exact angle that you want for any type of pose, so it’s much easier to use your own imagination, and if you get into a bind where you need real-life reference, it’s a lot easier to use yourself.
Now that some time has passed how would you describe the reaction to the Superman redesign — and you reaction to the reaction?
JL: I’ve always been pretty comfortable with the reaction. I think part of being in the business for 26 years now and having done the reboot dance more than once, whether with Marvel or DC, you get used to anticipating some of the reaction you’re going to get. Any time you change something classic or iconic, you’re going to have some part of the fan base up in arms. But your hope is that these aesthetic changes become part of great stories, and take solace and comfort in the fact that you’re not the first person to tinker with a classic look.
Look at the professionals that defined the Silver Age of comics and redid the Golden Age designs and mythology, and you realize it’s part of our job as creative professionals. It’s going to be the stories and moments that define whether these looks go over with the audiences. To me, it doesn’t always rise or fall on the look of the character, it’s about the words and pictures. And you’d hope that there’d come a time, years form now, after he goes through another design, that someone will say “Hey, I liked his New 52 look better.” That’s just the way these things go.