Justice League artist Jim Lee | Interview

Justice League artist Jim Lee | Interview The co-publisher of DC Comics weighs in on digital comics and the bold "New 52" initiative.

“Worlds will live. Worlds will die. And the DC Universe will never be the same.” That was the tag line of the legendary (in comic-book circles) Crisis on Infinite Earths, which 25 years ago shook up the shared fictional universe of DC Comics, the oldest company in the industry and home to Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. One year after celebrating its 75th anniversary, DC is about to reboot its universe again with 52 new monthly series, each beginning with a No. 1 issue.

As we explained in our article this week, the company hopes to make its new comics more accessible to a wider audience by distributing digital versions of its entire line, in addition to the physical “pamplets” found in brick-and-mortar shops. Throughout the month of September, DC rolls out its “New 52”—starting, actually, on the last day of August. Justice League No. 1 arrives Wednesday 31, when the company’s flagship super-team gets its new origin tale by the dream team of writer Geoff Johns and artist Jim Lee. (Although it will take several months to truly determine whether DC’s gamble will pay off big time or crash and burn, the L.A. Times’ Hero Complex reported earlier this week that preorders for Justice League have soared.)

In his role as DC’s co-publisher, Lee’s been crafting these bold moves from behind the scenes for months. A few days ago, we chatted with him by phone about the company’s ambitious strategy for the future.

Time Out Chicago: How long ago did you decide to release all your titles digitally?

Jim Lee: It was probably late last year. The whole idea of the relaunch started from a creative meeting talking about changes to the DC Universe. Out of that discussion came the notion of renumbering across the line, which lead to question: How do we get these stories out to as many people as possible? We felt that having the comics available on your portable media devices—on your iPads, on your phones—would encourage and allow the people who don’t have access to a local comic shop to go to our website and check out the comics.

We want to have diversity in the kind of content we have, so the New 52 is not all about Superman and Batman and things that typically sell well. We want to increase the overall diversity of DC’s line, including war books and supernatural books. Some of this stuff we expect to do better, actually, in the digital channel, as it appeals more to mass market readers than the die-hard superhero crowd.

TOC: DC is supposedly advertising the New 52 in various media. Will there really be TV commercials?

Lee: We built a 30-second spot and a two-minute spot that promotes the New 52. You’ll be seeing them in movie theaters and on TV. We wanted to maximize the bang for our buck and roll them out as close to the publication dates as possible.


TOC: Are you concerned that digital customers who are used to spending 99 cents for a song might balk at spending $2.99 for a digital comic?

Lee: We have a tiered pricing strategy. Four weeks after the release of the book, on the digital side the price drops down a dollar, to $1.99. There’s a lot of debate over what the correct price point is, and that’s obviously something we’ll have to refine.

The bulk of our business is on the print side. We’re not looking to convert print readers, one for one, into digital readers. We really look at the digital channel as “the new newsstand.” It has the ability to get comics in front of new readers, new consumers—people who’ve never read comics before. Obviously they’re going to be price-sensitive. We’re going to see how it goes in September, then further refine it going forward.

TOC: How long of a run are you and Geoff Johns anticipating on Justice League?

 Lee: You know, we want to do a long, healthy run. I hate to peg a number. We both enjoy the collaboration, and as long as we can keep that enthusiasm going, I don’t have a fixed exit issue in mind.

TOC: The initial story begins in the past, before the heroes have met, correct? Will it then take a leap forward?

Lee: The first arc definitely is set five years prior. It shows the formation of the League; why the world needs the world’s greatest superheroes; and the origin of the word ‘superhero’ in the DC Universe. But yes, our plan is to eventually have it coexist in the same time period as the other books.

TOC: People are going to be looking for some big double-splash pages in your Justice League art, Jim—that “widescreen” aesthetic. But the iPad and other tablets are fixed vertical screens. How will that translate?

 Lee: That’s an interesting point. I’ve been trying to make this argument that digital comics and print comics are both art, but there are subtle differences. As an artist, as I design and lay out a page, the less-important things, things I want you to spend less time looking at, I draw them very small, maybe even silhouette them. The more-important pivotal scenes, I draw them larger, maybe even a double-page spread.

What happens if you’re reading this comic, say, on your on iPhone—the authoring software is set up to break it down panel by panel. It counter-intuitively takes small, unimportant panels and blows them up to fill the screen, so you can see all the detail that’s not in there; and it takes important scenes and shrinks them down, so it has the same visual impact as the panel just before it, which was meant to be less important on a normally-designed page.

I can definitely see a future where there’s a bifurcation: You have content that’s optimized for your iPhone or Android-based phone, and then optimized for your iPad or a print comic-book. Those are some of the challenges and opportunities going forward.

TOC: Do you have any plans to take advantage of tablet technology and make the comics interactive?

Lee: We’ve definitely discussed it and done some preliminary work on that. It’s on everyone’s radar, not just ours. The thing is: When you go that route, you’re creating a whole new product. What do consumers want? Do they want that interactivity? Sometimes when you add that, it draws people out of their immersion into the story; it becomes more of a game.

That said, five years from now, are comics going to be the same they way you see them on ComiXology or other apps now? Absolutely not. Obviously it’s going to morph and change going forward.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)