Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Here comes Jim Lee!

The X-Men were the undoubted superhero success story of the seventies and eighties. Chris Claremont's deft characterisation and constantly simmering plot lines made his long run as lead X- creator a commercial and critical success, but it also helped that his comics were drawn by some of the most dynamic action artists available.

The title soared on the back of Cockrum's manic enthusiasm, Byrne's solid slickness, Smith's smooth, fluid line and Romita Jr's chunky sketchiness. They were often a slow burn, taking their time to find their feet on the X-Men, before becoming one of the great superhero artists of their age.

But some of them made an immediate impact, and changed everything with one quick issue. That's what it felt like when Uncanny X-Men #248 came out in mid-1989, and the world got a proper introduction to Jim Lee.

Make no mistake, Marc Silvestri was doing a phenomenal job on the series in the late eighties. It was an unashamedly modern style, so sexy and vibrant, and so very different from the title's previous artists.

Silvestri absolutely nailed it with some fantastic issues during the Inferno crossover, giving demonic New York a modern gloss, and produced a wonderful Brood story that grew from moody atmospherics to full blown super-carnage with deft ease.

After putting in some hard yards on generic superhero stuff like Web of Spider-Man and generic barbarian stuff like King Conan, Silvestri became the definitive artist for the Australian era of the X-Men. And his comics, with the distinctive inks of Dan Green, still look pretty beautiful, so it's not his fault everyone got excited about this new kid Lee.

As good as Silvestri was, he couldn't quite keep up with the monthly grind, especially when the Uncanny title went bi-weekly in the summer months. Fortunately, the X-Men always attracted a high calibre of fill-in artists, coming in to pinch hit for an issue or two.

Usually that meant the gooey reliability of Rick Leonardi, who often alternated with Silvestri, and sometimes that meant some stone cold brilliance from the pen of a Barry Windsor-Smith or Alan Davis.

The comic would periodically go through small eras between the major artists, where there would be a bunch of artists getting their shot at the prime time. Even Rob Liefeld got his one shot at the Uncanny title, shortly before Lee was given his slot.

Some of them did graduate to becoming the main X-artist, like Silvestri, who took almost a year to really secure the top role, and some of them drifted away, often to spin-off X-titles. No matter what, it was usually high quality work all the way

Even so, Jim Lee was something special, right from the start. He had been doing the odd piece here and there for Marvel, including a short run on Alpha Flight that was read by exactly three people in Toronto. But his work on Uncanny X-Men #248 was a revelation.

It was some of the slickest art seen on X-Men in a while. His work had that solid build of a John Byrne figure, with the jagged line of the new school. I was 14 when this issue came out, neck-deep in X-Men obsession, and Lee's art instantly looked like the future.

It was there as Storm's jaw suddenly became three-dimensional, signifying her strength and power:

and it was there when Havok and Dazzler tried to out-sex each other as they pounded the Aussie outback:

Silvestri's art was wonderful, but look at the difference between the two artist's vision of Psylocke, with this example from Silvestri, just a few issues before Lee's fill in -

- compared to Lee's version of the same idea. (Fortunately, the idea of Betsy Braddock swimming around in her underwear was something that Claremont really liked to put in his comics, making it much easier to compare the two.)

Silvestri's art had a flat stillness that could explode into jagged action, giving his work some nice contrast, but Lee's comics were just chunkier and slicker. With Green doing the inks for Lee's fill in, his art would never be as scratchy as it was here, but it had a new sheen that looked exciting and fresh. And it was dynamic, human figures bending in motion and thrusting out towards the reader - a look that is still being ripped off by sixth-generation imitations of Lee's style.

(Although I have to admit, looking at the differences between these two examples, I can never stop thinking of an old Cracked magazine article that pointed out that the entire point of the renaissance was that artists discovered how to draw a woman's breasts.)

It was no surprise when Lee was soon back on the title, coming in for a brutal little three part story that set Wolverine up against Iron Man's main enemy the Mandarin, while introducing the all-new 99% more ninja Psylocke.

By #268, which saw Wolverine team up with the Captain for some WW2 hi-jinks, Lee was obviously the top artist for the Uncanny X-Men. His timing was superb, with a young audience keen for something a bit glossier than the old Marvel style, and he surfed in on a new wave of brash young artists, only too keen to give the kids what they wanted.

Lee's year or so run on the X-Men repaid all that promise shown in his first fill-in, and the X-Men hadn't been this exciting in a long, long time. Claremont was always good at playing to his artist's strengths, and gave Lee lots of awesome shit to draw, leading inevitably to a relaunch, and one of the highest selling comics in human history.

Eventually, Marvel decided Lee was more important that Claremont, and ditched the writer, a move that was swiftly exposed as a terrible mistake when the artist pissed off to Image with the other cool kids, and the X-titles were left stranded and alone.

You can't blame Lee – he has built up an astonishingly successful career, rising to the position og co-publisher at DC Comics. His art is as slick as it ever was, and he picks and chooses his projects at will, given complete artistic freedom, because he still knows what the kids like, all these years later.

I continue to be completely unsurprised by his success, or how much people still like his comics. It was all there in an X-Men fill-in comic from more than a quarter century ago, just waiting to explode.

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