I’m a big fan of L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz and his other fantasy stories. While many of his books are in the public domain and available for free download, sometimes I still want to feel paper between my fingers. Also the original illustrations are usually missing from the online versions. While visiting a library and browsing through Baum’s works, I was about to select a copy of Sea Fairies when someone else was reached for it as well. To my astonishment it was Janet Lee, one of my favorite comic book artists. I said if she would allow me to interview her, she could check out the book. Here is our conversation:
Whitney Grace (WG): Comic artists are often influenced by stuff they read and saw growing up, so what are some of your biggest influences?
Janet Lee (JL): I never know exactly how to answer this question, because I often feel like I’m made of a thousand influences—everything I’ve ever experienced. My first comics were collected Archie and Heathcliff strips. I remember being fascinated by the illustrations by Jessie Wilcox Smith in A Child’s Garden Of Verses, and the pen and ink illustrations in the Oz books and The Rescuers. I still collect children’s books for their illustrations.
WG: Why did you decide to become a comic book artist or how did you fall into the role?
JL: You know, I always loved drawing and illustration, but I stopped studying art in middle school. Instead, my degree is in English, and I intended to write or edit books. I spent more than a decade working as a book buyer, or managing a team of book buyers. Eventually I began making and showing artwork in local and regional galleries. That art began to get attention from publishers, and I assumed I would eventually be illustrating children’s books. That’s not what happened. My friend Jim McCann had moved from Nashville to New York and began working for Marvel. He came home for Christmas in 2009 and was very taken by three unconnected art pieces I had around my house—a small picture of a boy wearing goggles, a picture of a robot angel, and a very large Magritte-inspired piece of men in striped suites “raining” down on the rooftops of Paris. Two months later, he sent me the opening lines to Return Of The Dapper Men, and I never looked back.
WG: Your drawings go way beyond the typical comic book. Have you studied other art forms?
JL: I blame my mother. She is incredibly creative and incredibly thrifty. Growing up, we were always making crafts. Whatever the going rate was for birthday gifts, I would get about half that and would spend the cash on supplies to make something. We would decoupage coffee cans and painted wood, embroider or paint pillowcases—that type of thing. I stopped formally studying art after that 8th grade, though I have taken occasional classes in oil painting and printing for fun. Mostly, I just go for it. If I want to make something, I figure out a way. It’s the same approach I took for comics.
WG: Is pen and ink you favorite medium? Why?
JL: Pen and ink comes the most naturally. I love fiddly detail and I just can’t help myself. I like very precise lines, but I don’t have the patience to achieve that in paint. Maybe someday. I’m currently a bit obsessed with printing and am going to try woodblocks soon. I recently tried a sort of poor-man’s lithography and am completely hooked. It marries line art with printing—my two favorite things.
WG: Why do you like to fill your panels with so much gorgeous detail?
JL: It’s possible I’m overcompensating. The first time I had a colorist rather than doing it myself, I realized what a lazy inker I was. I grew up loving the art of Jessie Wilcox Smith, Garth Williams, W. W. Winslow, John R. Neil, and John Tenniel. I think illustrations should be an event.
WG: In your own words, please describe your art style.
JL: Old-fashioned. Whimsical. Hand-crafted. Heavily influenced by Art Nouveau and children’s illustrations. Hopefully fun.
WG: What was the first book you ever worked on?
JL: Return Of The Dapper Men. No pressure.
WG: After that book where did your career take you?
JL: While we were promoting Return Of The Dapper Men, I had the pleasure of meeting several Marvel editors, one of whom was in charge of their Jane Austen adaptations. Austen is my favorite author, and though I didn’t grow up drawing superheroes, I did think my style might work for Austen. So I wrote Marvel the geekiest email in the world, asking them to consider me for the Austen books if they ever had an opening. They did and offered me the job. I went on to illustrate Emma and Northanger Abbey, and was able to make illustration a full-time job.
WG: Return of the Dapper Man, published by Archaia is a fantasy. Would you please explain the plot and how you approached the project?
JL: Return Of The Dapper Men is a modern fairytale. It’s about a world of children and robots where time has stopped. There is no change, no progress. The robots live and work above ground, the children live and play below. A boy named Aiden and his friend, a robot girl named Zoe, are the only representatives from each group to interact, until 314 Dapper Men arrive from the heavens to restart time. Then Aiden and Zoe, with the help of a Dapper Man known as “41”, must embrace their destinies.
It was my first sequential project, though I have always been an avid reader of comics. We pitched it to Archaia before any of the art had been started, so they only had my gallery pieces to reference for the style. Archaia loved the idea of using decoupage for the sequential art (just as I had for the gallery art), and I was comfortable in that zone. I naturally think that that way—foreground to background. I also thought that the layers of paper in decoupage would give a depth to the page that you really can’t get with simple drawings. Happily it worked.
WG: As a Jane Austen fan which of her books is your favorite?
JL: Huge Jane Austen fan! Enormous. But I find it hard to pick a favorite book. I still have a soft spot for Lizzy Bennett in Pride And Prejudice, but when I first tried to read Emma in high school, I absolutely hated Miss Woodhouse. It took me several years (and some maturity) to learn to love her too. I love the fact that in Northanger Abbey, the narrator doesn’t even pretend to be anyone other than Austen herself. And lately, I have a deep love for the bittersweet story of love delayed and almost lost in Persuasion.
WG: How did you get attached to the Marvel Classics line?
JL: Geekiest email in the world. And begging.
WG: Other than Austen books, what classics would you like to see transformed into a graphic novel?
JL: I would love to do Frank Baum’s non-Oz books. Ultimately, they failed and the characters showed up in Oz, but those books are wonderful. I wish Baum had been able to break out and tell other tales.
WG: Any thoughts on the Austen boom a couple years ago and what spurred it?
JL: Jane Austen had an amazing knack for creating characters. The sorts of people who populate her books still walk the earth today. Who doesn’t recognize Mr. Collins and who didn’t go to school with a Miss Bingley? The settings change, but the characters and the stories are universal. We all just hope we have as keen a wit as Miss Austen to appreciate the foibles in our own lives.
WG: What is Wonderland Alphabet?
JL: Wonderland Alphabet is a little book that grew out of an art show. About the time I agreed to work on Dapper Men, I was also asked to participate in a gallery show for aspiring book illustrators. It’s now an annual event in Nashville. But being new to book illustration, I didn’t realize I couldn’t show or sell pages from Dapper Men until after they book was published. Made that discovery about three weeks before the deadline to deliver art to the gallery. In a panic, I flailed around looking for a new book idea and landed on an alphabet book with a Wonderland theme. I asked my dear friend Alethea Kontis (now a NYT bestselling author, but at that time, just a book buyer like me) to help. She researched lists of possible Wonderland alphabet words, and when I selected the ones I wanted to draw, she wrote the verses. In the meantime, I rushed to complete an illustration for each letter. I think I got through 20 before the show started. It was all just done for fun and intended to go no further than the gallery. After Dapper Men, the folks at Archaia asked if I had any other books, so I showed them Wonderland Alphabet. Our editor Stephen Christy suggested making it a board book, which we thought was genius.
WG: You worked on Lost Vegas for Image, what was that comic series about?
JL: Jim McCann and I tend to brainstorm dozens of ideas whenever we get together. Lost Vegas grew out of one of those. It’s sort of an Ocean’s Eleven-style casino heist in space. And because it’s Jim, there’s also a meta-story where our protagonists fight to save the galaxy. Naturally.
When charming, unlucky Roland is caught cheating at cards in the back-end of space, he loses his freedom as well as his money and finds himself indentured to the fabulous space casino Lost Vegas. For five years, he plots to knock over the casino and escape. His plan is in place, and with the help of a telepathic ink blot, a mad genius, a cosmic god, a space princess, and her guardian, he’s out to beat the casino and save the galaxy.
WG: Why should anyone read Lost Vegas ?
JL: So many reasons! Love alien spectacle? Gorgeous, exotic casinos, and I went crazy coming up with creatures to populate it. Like fast-talking anti-heroes? Roland makes me think of Han Solo played by Paul Newman. Want to save the world? Well, our hero grows into his destiny. Lost Vegas is pure, sci-fi spectacle. It’s like Star Wars, The 5th Element, and Ocean’s Eleven got all mashed up. And it was a blast to draw.
WG: Have you ever thought about writing your own comic?
JL: I have. I even have a plot and the first page thumbnailed out. I know the title. Now I just need time to write the script and draw.
WG: What projects are you currently working on?
JL: Currently, I’m finishing up the art for an independent horror comic called Glammer. Stay tuned to see where that lands. I also have a project that’s under review at several New York publishers that I’ve been waiting to do for two years. Can’t wait to get started on that one. Jim and I are redesigning the cover for Return Of The Dapper Men for its relaunch this fall.
WG: Do your cats ever disrupt your work?
JL: Do cats ever not disrupt work? I thought that was their purpose. And then we went and named one of ours “Starbuck”, so she’s 100% attitude.
WG: Lastly, do you have anything to declare?
JL: Everyone should search out and read Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo In Slumberland strip. Everyone.