Jim Lee discusses the challenges of ‘Superman Unchained’

DC Comics Co-Publisher Jim Lee does not have a lot of free time. The longtime superstar artist spends his days dealing with DC’s various budgets, strategies and initiatives in both the print and digital side of their business and his evenings drawing pages for “Superman Unchained” — the newly launched monthly comic written by Scott Snyder. Compound those tasks with a recent promotional tour tied to “Unchained,” Warner Bros. “Man of Steel” film and Superman’s 75th anniversary which included TV interviews and the ongoing retailer road show for comic shop owners, and Lee’s time is spread even thinner. But the artist seems to like it that way. “It’s tough sometimes to make that very quick transition,” Lee told CBR News of jumping from his creative work on “Unchained” to the promotional rodeo of recent weeks. “To me, when I’m drawing I’m just thinking about the art — about composition and lighting. Then as soon as that’s done, and we’re on the road show, it’s all about budgeting and editorial and big picture publishing issues. It’s fun. I’ve always liked jumping back and forth. There’s different kinds of creativity on both sides of the business. It’s been part of my life now for so many years, I can’t imagine anything else now.” And in between those various other responsibilities, Lee carved out some time for a wide-ranging interview on “Superman Unchained” #1. Below, he tells CBR News about his visual goals for the comic both in terms of Superman’s New 52 look and his storytelling style, his views on what makes for a “classic” Man of Steel story in the modern era, new additions to Metropolis like the prison called The M.A.W. and the villain Wraith and ultimately what it takes to make a story that challenges the character Superman is and should be.

CBR News: On “Superman Unchained,” I feel like Scott came in with a very clear idea of what kind of story he wanted to tell, but did you have a specific set of visual ideas you wanted to work in from the start?

Jim Lee: This was the second time I’ve done Superman, and I didn’t think it would be fair to the project if I approached it with the exact same style I used the first time. I think with the launch of the New 52, I had a mission to take that New 52 Superman and make it work. I’d done the initial costume design and I’d been drawing Superman in “Justice League,” but this was really my opportunity to show what the New 52 Superman really looked and felt like.

It was an interesting transition in that when you draw Superman, you tend to go old school with the default style — the huge lantern jaw, the receding hairline — and draw more of a Superman in his mid ’30s that people are familiar with. With the New 52, the idea was to bring down the age of the entire DC Universe down a bit. That meant really changing the proportions of Superman and some of his facial features. And that’s something you need to be conscious of every time you draw him. Otherwise, you fall back to this default Superman. If you look at what I did in “For Tomorrow” compared to what I do in “Superman Unchained,” he’s a more slimmed down figure, and I also try to do some more naturalistic poses for him. You’ll see in issue #2, you’ll see the military come upon Superman, and he stands there in a very nonchalant way. That’s something I never did in “For Tomorrow.” It’s things like that which highlight the differences between the pre-52 Superman and now. But there are also things I’ve changed in the storytelling. Scott [Snyder] started out as a novelist, so he has very deep, rich, multilayered storylines, and I want to do justice to that. So before we even started the project, we sat down and talked about ways to make this a different type of story. I told him I really wanted to focus on the storytelling and do a lot of multi-panel buildups to larger images. I wanted to utilize the boarders of the page more than I had in the past. I think I’ve always by default gone to full bleed, and there’s a lot of visual tension you can create on the page by pulling back on that and using that more sparingly. There’s a starker contrast between a page that has full borders around the edges and then one that has full bleed. It just feels bigger in comparison. It was things like that and also how we could better showcase his powers. We talked a lot about the powers Superman has and why he has the powers that he does. Is there a link between his ability to heat things up with his vision and then see through objects and then freeze things with his breath? His powers have always been presented as though he’s got A, B and C and then J and K. Is there a reason why all these powers come together? That’s something we really want to explore.

It’s interesting you talking about switching up your approach to page layout and making certain spreads feel bigger, because I felt that the early two-page sequence where the “bomb” drops was one that would work well in the digital comics format. Was that something you were thinking about as you drew this story?

Not necessarily. I thought about the big poster element and how it would look on a tablet. It should be exactly the same as the other pages because it was drawn proportional to a regular comic book page. And that double-page spread was a challenge, but not because of thinking of the iPad so much as the idea that Scott wanted a first person point of view through the binoculars. If you’re tracking that through a double-page spread, I didn’t want to just draw repeating circles of the same size going across. That would look monotonous. But in changing the size of the binoculars, would the reader be able to track the story? Will they start going left or right or some direction you don’t want them to go? I created those bar elements you see with the smoke flowing through them as a graphical element to suggest both the aftereffects of the explosion but also to subtly reinforce the experience you should be having. I think I laid that page out three or four times before I settled on that. With any repeated elements, the challenge is how you represent it in a way that’s visually interesting without breaking the left-to-right flow you should have going across the page. But that was a fun spread to do, but I didn’t so much think about he digital side of it. I’ve been thinking a lot more about the print side in ways that served both my interests in being visually exciting and also what Scott was asking for on the page, which was a filmic experience that showed shot after shot almost like it was animated. It’s all about maintaining visual cohesion and clarity.

The story of Superman here begins with something we see less often in his comics: amazing feats of strength. I’ve watched a lot of Superman movies on TV over the last month, and the film and TV versions of the character seem to do a lot more with him in terms of capturing falling planes or changing the course of mighty rivers while the comics focus more on punching out bad guys. Considering the fact that this whole series starts with the Man of Steel smashing up and then saving a giant space station on a scale that meant inserting a two-sided poster, was it a goal for you and Scott to exploit that “saves the day” element in “Superman Unchained”?

Absolutely. I think the very simplest way to show Superman’s power is to have him punch someone that’s powerful. But one of the things we felt is that with a character as powerful as Superman, one of the ways you can challenge him is to put him in these “no win” situations. Short of the Donner movies, he can’t change or alter time. So even though he’s super fast, he still can’t be in two places at the same time. The way you challenge Superman is by having things happen very, very quickly in different places and then asking, “Who does he save first? What powers must he use to save each person or stop each disaster?” That’s one of the ways you make him interesting beyond the thematic and moral issues that make Superman.  With a character like this who is capable of so much, the question you’re always asking is “How do you make this interesting for the reader?” That’s what we talked about in advance, and it’s what showed up in that first scene Scott wrote. I definitely thought a lot about this in a very filmic way. You see the hero accomplish one thing, and then it’s “Oh no! He’s got more to do!” As soon as you think you’ve got it all figured out, something else happens. In fact, when I laid out that first sequence and the ship was coming down, initially I had him holding up the structure at the very bottom. You’d see him holding this ship a few feet off the ground. But then I thought, “No. Let’s have it hit the ground and explode, and we’ll see that he still figured out a way to save them and use his body as a shield.” That’s kind of pushing the reality of the situation. It’s certainly asking the reader to bend the physics a bit, but it’s comic books, and Superman used to do that all the time. We made a conscious decision to add back in those elements that are implausible — almost unbelievable — but if you draw it a certain way and tell it a certain way, it feels like it could happen.

Let’s talk about that big poster image. This is the latest in a long line of fold outs or extra-size images for you, which always require a lot of work. We’ve talked in the past about that challenge of balancing your Co-Publisher duties and drawing, but I see these things and get the feeling you like giving yourself extra work. Do hard print deadlines fuel a little bit of this innovation for you?

Sure. I think it’s important to not just assume that this is the standard format for a comic book and that we can’t do anything else with it, even though comics have been around for 80-some odd years. I thought this poster was going to be a pretty simple thing to do, like a horizontal gatefold cover just done vertically, but it proved to not be easy at all. [Laughs] It actually took weeks of planning with dummy books having to be created. I had to do little illustrations of how this would work so people would understand it. We triple checked to make sure it was bound in the right way and would open up the right way. You’re playing this massive game of telephone tag where you explain it to the SVP of Production who’s explaining it to the printer who’s explaining it to the linemen. Things are being created for this, and the big fear is that someone doesn’t understand what you were intending and then the book gets printed and bound in a way where the poster doesn’t work at all. It even went down to looking at the type of glue and the size of the poster. We couldn’t have a poster as large or as flush as the book because it had to be bound in there individually, and if you put it in at the wrong angle, part of the poster would be sticking out beyond the edge of the comic. When you have something like that, you’ll have damages and distortions. These are things I didn’t think about when I had the idea. [Laughs] I don’t know if we’ll ever do this again because it was such a laborious process and ended up being so expensive. But again, I think it speaks to the fact that we do want to innovate. It is important for us to keep the experience of reading print comics as dynamic as possible. The cool thing about this is — and I hate to repeat the exact same thing — but I know that this idea will trigger ideas in other people, other creators. They’ll come up with their own ways to push the medium forward. I’ve always got ideas like that in the back of my head, and I carry them with me just looking for the right project to test an idea out on. To me, the idea has to match the story or match the tone of what we’re trying to accomplish somehow. That’s a fun part of the job, and when you pull it off like this, it’d definitely rewarding.

Like you said, this book’s task in part is to really establish what the New 52 Superman is supposed to be going forward. Even though we’ve had two series with the character for two years, “Action Comics” has largely focused on the character’s past, and “Superman” has had a number of stories, mostly focused on new characters or outer space adventures. “Superman Unchained” is really the first comic setting pieces firmly in place like the Metropolis setting, the modern Lois/Jimmy/Clark dynamic and more traditional Superman stories. What was your stated focus in terms of making this a “classic” Superman comic?

I would say most of that comes from Scott. He’s got a tremendous affection for the supporting cast, and he’s great at characterization and dialogue. He’s really building scenes that show character through plot advancement. They’re scenes where you’re not just getting characterization, but whatever the characters do, the plot grows out of that. It’s a special ability of his, and it’s fun to read the scenes with the supporting cast especially. He understands how they all act as foils or counterparts to Superman and why they’re essential to Superman’s mythology and his purpose. It’s been fun to feed off that. Especially in “For Tomorrow,” even though he ends up meeting Lois in the end, it’s primarily a Superman story where he’s dealing with the priest and the government agent Orr. This is a story instead where you get to see him in his civilian guise of Clark Kent, doing his reporting stuff and interacting with Jimmy, Lois and Perry. Even the scenes between Superman and Lex to me start out a little funny. I was laughing as I was reading them in the script. I like the way Scott presents Lex’s arrogance in a way that’s not immediately threatening. You get a sense that this is an extremely brilliant person who is not at all intimidated by Superman’s presence. That’s fun to draw and is a different take than we’ve seen in the past.  To me when you talk about who these characters are in the New 52, a lot of the idea is that across 52 books there are going to be slightly different takes on all the characters. You really can’t avoid that when you’ve got different creative teams on every book. Editorially, we want the characters to speak with the same voice, but artistically, they’re still drawn differently by different creative teams. To me, it’s all about saying, “Which way is resonating most with the audience? Which way is opening up the doors of perception?” If you look at continuity in general and at the version of Batman that’s “in canon” or “on brand,” it wasn’t necessarily because some person said, “This is the way it’s got to be.” It’s because Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams did some great stories that were so different from the stories before that hit a spark with the readership. Then with what Frank Miller did on “Dark Knight Returns” and Alan Moore’s work around that time, it ushered in the “grim ‘n gritty” era. I think that’s ultimately how you lead the line itself. Through the creative work and how it resonates with the readership, that’s how these characters are ultimately defined. It’s a system that’s almost like natural selection. You’ll see slightly different versions of Lex or Lois, and as the creators keep telling their stories, different versions grow in popularity. It creates a circle of reenforcement where the best ideas rise to the top and keep pushing things forward. Part of the fun of the New 52 is that we all started with the same version of Superman, but you’re seeing slightly different versions grow through all the books. And as those takes evolve, you’ll see different creators respond and play off the different ideas presented. To me as a creator, it’s fun to play in that pool, and this is the way comics have always worked. Obviously, editors are a part of that creative process, but so are the readers. That’s the fun of a story like this. Yeah, we’re doing all the classic beats of Superman, but at the end of the day, we’re also introducing new elements to the mythology. And we’re as curious as anyone to see how the readers respond to the storylines we put out.

Let’s look at some of those new elements. One of those is “The M.A.W.” which I hear is your idea. That’s a big new piece of Metropolis real estate. Why build up that part of Superman’s city, and is this just a big door for new villains to walk through down the road?

I think it’s both. It’s fun creating new parts of the city. It’s like back in the day when I used to play “Dungeons & Dragons” with pen and paper. [Laughs] That was all about world building, and so whenever I do something like this, it brings me back to that. I didn’t just create The M.A.W. as an image. I actually did a pretty involved graphic of it that you didn’t see the detail of at all in the first issue. You just see a faraway shot of it, but I did a real color schematic of it to possibly use later on down the line. Even if not here then in other Superman books. I love adding more to the Superman mythology, and when you create something like this, you create a history for it. I know what this was like back in the 1700s, and that sense of history all gets dropped into the world. At one point, there’s even a scene with Lois where she’s holding a coffee cup, and instead of saying “Starbucks” or some other thing, it says “Rood Awakenings.” It’s named after John Rood, our SVP of Sales & Marketing, and that’s something I want to establish in the background. When I get to do another shot of Metropolis, you’ll see the logo for that chain in the city. To me, it’s all incidental material, but I think it’s super useful in creating the fictional reality we’re trying to establish. I think it’s something that’s been done a lot and done very well in Gotham but less so in Metropolis. So to the extent that we can add things that are visually unique and have a sense of history that ties into the main storyline, it makes Metropolis feel more like a place you’ve gone and visited, and it helps the overall quality of the fiction in the universe. It’s something I’m constantly thinking about and something we’ll continue to do over the course of this story.

To wrap, I have to ask about this villain whose name has been revealed as Wraith. Looking at the character on the final page, I was struck by the fact that he doesn’t have a real rightly designed uniform, but the bits we do see in his rendering seem like a rough version of the New 52 Superman armor you designed. What went into the visual creation of this character?

It’s interesting you note that. That was probably the third or fourth design on the character I did, and it started out as a more traditional design with a spandex costume kind of look. But as Scott and I talked about the character more and his origins, it seemed to make more sense to create a look for the character that felt less costume-like and more tied to the origins of the character himself. There’s a reason why there’s an emblem on his chest that glows like that and the shape it takes. It’s not super clear there, and it’s not mean to be super clear, but that chest emblem will change as almost a mood barometer for the character. If you look at him in that first issue, it looks like an American Eagle from World War II that’s holding arrows in its claws. I designed it to be an abstract version of that. That shape will change as he uses different powers in his power set. I just wanted to think about character design in a different way here. To me, Wraith’s look is more organic to who he is and less of a costume. Even his name suggests a ghostlike feel. We’ll have a lot of fun with how he looks depending on the situation we find him in or the powers he’ll be using. It’s a slightly different take on what you’d expect from a costumed character.
It’s funny you mention that because my grandfather and brother, veterans both, have that emblem tattooed on their chest.
Right! That is the classic symbol of that era. And this is something we’ll fix in the trade, but in the last scene of the first issue when you see the vault Wraith is in, the pencils had a note saying “Drop in a 48-star American Flag.” There was a space left for it, and it’s a very distinctly different flag because all the stars are aligned in an actual grid. The current 50-star flag has them offset. It’s rows of six stars and five stars, but the 48 one has six rows of eight stars. I kind of wanted that in there, and it didn’t get put in. Weirdly, there’s a video that was done of me opening up the comic book and showing the readers how the poster works, and in there we have a shot of that vault where the 48-star flag got in! [Laughs] But we’ll put that detail back in the trade, and it suggest that this character’s been around before Hawaii and Alaska were a part of the Union. The Pacific Eagle emblem is part of that era, and there will be some other visual clues about the origins of this character. And when I sat down and designed his look after Scott and I had discussed it, what I ended up doing was a lot of research to say “If I were a character from back then, what would I glom onto to identify myself?” Costumes are all about identifying which force in a conflict you’re on. That’s where banners and flags came from — so people rushing into battle knew who to follow and who was on their side. It just seemed natural that a character from that era would pick something patriotic or that spoke to the forces he was working in. But again, it’s more of an energy signature than a costume design, and that signature could change. We’ll play with that visual element as the story progresses.
Overall, where does that idea carry on into issue #2 and beyond? With this character, the appearance of General Lane and the military feel, it certainly seems like you’re occupying the same thematic territory as the “Man of Steel” movie. What was important about that kind of conflict?
The weird thing is that any similarities are coincidental. We started this way before we knew any of the particulars about the movie, especially Superman being in conflict with authority figures or the military. That’s been done before, so it’s not necessarily novel. But it is interesting timing wise. I think it just speaks to the fact that in today’s day and age, you read the news and feel like there are forces now within the government or linked to the government that are beyond our control. They’re acting as rogue agents, and General Lane’s setup doesn’t seem as far fetched today. It’s interesting when you pair that kind of power with the authority of the state. It gives them legitimacy and a credence. How does Superman react to the fact that this is a legitimate organization he’s facing? How does he do the right thing in a situation like that? Thematically, that’s what we’re exploring, and as I said, Scott works on many, many levels. You’ve got a conflict between Superman and Wraith, but there’s also an interesting relationship between him and General Lane with him being Lois’ dad. Scott’s setting the table for a huge second act, and it’s been a lot of fun doing that with him.
“Superman Unchained” #1 is on sale now from DC Comics.