Icons: The DC Comics and Wildstorm Art of Jim Lee

Icons

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Earlier today I was thinking about iconic pencillers, the ones whose work we imagine when we conjure up the image of a comic character in our mind. Green Arrow’s got Neal Adams. Spider-Man’s probably equal parts Steve Ditko and John Romita Sr. If I had to guess, I’d say that Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman all share the same answer, and if you’re reading this review you know who I’m going to say: Jim Lee.

There’re a couple reasons why we associate certain artists with a character, I think. The obvious one is that those artists portray classic characters in a way that speaks to us, and that interpretation just sticks. The more sneaky answer is that comic companies like to market certain versions of a character–try to find a Spider-Man t-shirt with art by anyone besides Romita or Mark Bagley–and for about the past decade Jim Lee’s art has been all over every DC product imaginable. With the forthcoming DC Universe Online providing another showcase for Lee’s designs, there’s just no end in sight to his commercial reign.

It only makes sense, then, that Titan Books would decide to honor the man in their beautifully-produced hardcover Icons: The DC Comics and Wildstorm Art of Jim Lee. This book spends almost 300 pages exhibiting Lee’s artwork, often blown up to accentuate detail. The many pages of sketches, outlines and finished pieces are broken up by brief interview segments in which Lee talks with comics journalist Bill Baker about his craft. The book is divided into sections based on the characters on display, with the bulk being devoted to Batman, then Superman, then Wonder Woman and finally all the Image/Wildstorm posse that sprung from Lee’s pencil.

Make no mistake, this book is gorgeous. Titan’s designer did a bang-up job putting together a product that’s immanently readable and a lot of fun to look at. And of course the artwork inside is tremendous. Lee is no doubt one of modern comics’ most important and talented pencillers, and a lot of the art in this book proves why. In addition, the oversized format fits him well. There’s also some nice rare nuggets in here, like a sketch of the Joker Lee gave to Heath Ledger in 2007 that is, frankly, ridiculously creepy. Altogether Icons presents a good mix of published pieces, works-in-progress and rare sketches that fans of Jim Lee’s art should enjoy.

Why give it the grade I did, then? It all comes down to writing: Bill Baker’s, and the writing of Lee’s comic collaborators. It struck me about 40 pages in that Jim Lee has rarely, if ever, penciled a story that lives up to his art, and Icons makes that all too clear.

To me, Icons reads like a bulleted list of comic failures: Batman: Hush, Superman: For Tomorrow, All-Star Batman & Robin, most anything from 1990s Image/Wildstorm–these are the works Icons praises. I’m willing to let go of my complaint about Hush, I guess, since a lot of people liked it (I’ll never understand why) but almost everyone I’ve ever talked to agrees Superman: For Tomorrow is an unreadable mess and All-Star Batman & Robin is simply one of the worst comics of the decade, if not ever.

I understand that those projects are watershed moments in Jim Lee’s career but the way Icons presents them really bothers me. Bill Baker seems to be playing softball with Lee on the interview here; he either makes some generic comment about how everything was “groundbreaking” or “revolutionary” (example: he presents Image’s Deathblow as though it was some artistic achievement… really?) or kind of sort of touches on controversy, to negative effect. For instance, at one point he notes that Lee “sees no disconnect between [All Star's Batman] and other, more traditional versions of the character.” Not only is this statement clearly wrong (Grant Morrison or Paul Dini would not have had Bruce make Dick Grayson eat rat droppings, thanks) but the book later contradicts it by having Lee continuously refer to All Star B&R as “[Frank] Miller’s universe.” It’s sloppy, empty writing meant to prop up a project that doesn’t deserve it.

And, you know, I realize that Icons is not necessarily the place for a critical dissection of the content of Jim Lee’s comic stories. But then why have narrative text running through it at all? Why try to put some kind of critical spin on things when the spin is unbelievably biased and refuses to see any negatives? This criticism doesn’t stop at All Star Batman; do we really want to praise 1990s Image comics as having much value to comics culture? Because I think those books set mainstream comic storytelling back decades almost single-handedly, and I’m pretty sure a lot of other critics would agree with that.

Again, yes, I know the job of Icons is to show off Jim Lee’s art, not to argue for the worth of his collaborations with Jeph Loeb or Frank Miller or whoever. But I don’t know if anyone told Bill Baker that, because to me this book reads like a lousy puff-piece designed to overvalue the importance of something that was already perfectly valuable. We don’t need to justify Frank Miller’s terrible writing to enjoy the fact that Jim Lee drew a bad-ass Batman in All Star. The fact that Icons tries really puts me off, and comics fans who care as much about story as they do art should look elsewhere for insightful comics literature.

tags: batman, bill baker, jim lee

  • http://andrewstamm.com Andrew

    It still feels weird to me to see Jim Lee getting praise for his renderings of classic DC characters… he’ll always be linked to the X-Men in my mind!

  • http://nerdynothings.com Rebel Rikki

    That’s another good point! Lee is most known for revitalizing the look of the X-Men in the 90s, right? But then, I guess he never became co-publisher of Marvel Comics, or designed their MMORPG… a little corporate synergy goes a long way, no?

  • http://andrewstamm.com Andrew

    Mind you, I love WildCats, but that book really took off when he handed off the writing duties to other people (Alan Moore, Joe Casey) but those are still pretty iconic looking characters in my opinion. But the high-watermark of Jim Lee’s career will always be Uncanny X-Men circe issue #275. I reread those issues over and over again.

    Anyways, I can’t fucking wait for that damn MMORPG to come out so he can get back to drawing some damn comics!

    And speaking of amazing artists who you never see anymore, what the hell ever happened to Travis Charest??

  • http://nerdynothings.com Rebel Rikki

    Yeah, I agree, when I think Lee I almost always think of Uncanny #275 or X-Men #1 (that gatefold cover, y’know?).

  • http://twitter.com/spcebaby Natalie Willoughby

    Umm… Batman: Hush was NOT a comic failure. Just sayin’.

  • Anonymous

    Well, to be fair, I did say that I realize a lot of people wouldn’t classify Hush that way. But, really, I think the story is very poor. It’s a whodunnit where the culprit is introduced about a page before he confesses, and it follows the typical rogues gallery tour Loeb already did twice before. Law of diminishing returns on that one, no?

    If you’re talking monetary success, tho, you’re right on. Hush made a ton of bucks. But then so did For Tomorrow and All-Star Batman, at least at first.

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