The year 1986 was a annus mirabilis for American comics. It’s the year audiences realized that comics weren’t just throwaway entertainment for kids. This was largely due to the release of three major comics: Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore vigilanteswhich deconstruct the myth of the American superhero, as well as that of Art Spiegelman. Mauswhose graphic account of the Holocaust was the first comic book to win the Pulitzer Prize.
What often gets overlooked in discussions of this pivotal year is the new crop of comic book creators whose careers began in 1986. They would go on to completely reshape the industry. One such creator is St. Louis native Jim Lee, who remains one of the biggest talents in the industry.
Lee is the world’s best-selling comic book artist, a record he set when he relaunched Marvel’s X Men franchise with a new #1 issue in September 1991. The book sold approximately 8 million copies, a world record. Championing creators’ rights, he later co-founded Image Comics, now considered the “third pillar” of the mainstream comics industry (along with DC and Marvel), before becoming the publisher of DC Comics and manager of some of its comics. the most recognizable comics. superheroes of the world, including Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.
However, apart from the children who read religiously wizard nIn a magazine in the 90s looking for biographies of their favorite creators, few St. Louisans realize that Lee hails from Gateway City. Even Sean Howe’s meticulously researched book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, portrays Lee as “an overly polite South Korean Ivy Leaguer”, without once mentioning his Midwestern roots. Although he was born in South Korea, Lee’s life as a comic book reader turned artist and the foundation of his professional career began here in St. Louis.
South Korea to Saint Louis
Jim Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea, on August 11, 1964. When he was five years old, his family moved to the United States due to the escalating conflict between North and South Korea, briefly moving to Ohio before settling permanently in the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield when Lee was nine years old.
After moving to the United States, the entire family experienced a degree of culture shock. Lee had to learn English, which he did at first by watching Sesame Street and later reading comics.
But it wasn’t easy for Lee to get his hands on his first comics.
“Comics were hard to find,” Lee said. St. Louis Magazine in 2010. “There was a place downtown that sold adult magazines, with a small area for comics. My parents took me there and it was very embarrassing. Along the rows were pictures of naked girls. My parents were mortified, but we all looked forward,” she recalled with a laugh.
Lee was enrolled at River Bend Elementary School in Chesterfield when he began constantly doodling his favorite fictional characters. When he enrolled in St. Louis Country Day School (now MICDS) in 1974, Lee identified as both a comic book lover and an outsider.
“It was in St. Louis that my love and interest in comics and all things nerdy took shape, I mean, it all happened more or less in secret,” he recalls. “I had a small group of like-minded friends and we would spend the weekends playing [Dungeons and Dragons] or poker or just hanging out in the arcade at the mall.”
As a relatively shy immigrant surrounded by what Lee describes as Country Day’s “upper-class preppy” atmosphere, Lee increasingly spent his time reading and drawing comics. “I remember spending inordinate amounts of time in my room drawing and creating my own characters,” he says. “So my years in St. Louis were super formative in every way, especially as a time of incubation and creative growth. All of which is now fun for me because everyone, especially my parents, saw my love of comics as a loss. of time”. weather.”
By fifth grade, Lee had befriended fellow student and South Korean immigrant Brandon Choi. During elementary school, the two collaborated on comics that would play a major role in the future. Even as a child, Lee began to recognize his ability as an illustrator. “I sent my first artwork to Marvel Comics when I was like 12 years old, thinking they were actually going to hire me.” Local legend has it that Lee was awarded the superlative senior “Most Likely to Found a Comic Book Company”. Though mostly accurate, Lee clarifies the classmates’ prediction of him. “Well, all the ‘most likely’ predictions were in jest in some way, so I think the actual quote was that it was ‘most likely’ to start the next zapcomix which was more subversive as a prediction.” Though Lee didn’t go the route of Robert Crumb’s iconic 1960s underground comic Erasehis classmates had no idea how correct his prediction would eventually be.
Lee did not immediately pursue comics, opting instead to follow in his father’s footsteps and study medicine. He enrolled at Princeton University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. An elective art class during his senior year reignited his passion for illustration. This was in 1986, just before Lee went through the innovator The Dark Knight Returns Y vigilantesrekindling his desire to become a professional illustrator.
After graduation, Lee returned to St. Louis and made a deal with his reluctant parents: he would take a gap year before medical school and try to break into the comics industry. He spent at least eight hours a day drawing.
In the late ’80s, St. Louis had a much smaller comedy community. “At the time, I think there were only two stores dedicated to comics in St. Louis,” says Lee. Still determined to make his dream come true, Lee soon met some local professional comic artists. “I remember one day finding out in the yellow pages that there was finally a comic book store in Kirkwood, which was the first dedicated comic book store I could remember opening in St. Louis. I would drive there as much as I could from west county, where we lived in. It was in this little shop with a hole in the wall [that] I met artists like Rick Burchett, Don Secrease and Paul Daly, all of whom were professionals already working in the comics industry.”
These initial contacts were crucial for Lee. “They ended up being very helpful and influential in every way possible, because I really didn’t know anything about the industry and there was no way to learn unless you knew someone who was already working in the business,” he explains. “In fact, my first paid professional job was doing finished inks/art over Don Secrease’s pencil breakdowns.”
Veteran artist Secrease helped Lee publish his first book, samurai santa claus. Lee was shy when he introduced himself: his biographical self-portrait only illustrates the top of his head. However, both Burchett and Secrease saw potential in the young artist and encouraged Lee to start showing his portfolio to publishers. Burchett explains: “[Lee’s] the work was very successful. His drawing skills were assured and it was easy to see that he would continue to grow. The main thing, though, was his visual storytelling, a skill he hadn’t been taught and that he learned on his own. It is the most difficult and crucial element in comic art. I suggested, quite emphatically, that he attend a big scam and show [his work] to as many publishers as possible.
Lee steeled himself and headed for New York.