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Jim Lee talks about his journey from superhero fan to DC Comics president

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

What's your favorite onscreen portrayal of a comic book character? If you put that question to someone like Jim Lee...

JIM LEE: They're all my children. Like, you know, I want to love them all equally. But "The Dark Knight" movie by Christopher Nolan...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE DARK KNIGHT")

AARON ECKHART: (As Harvey Dent) You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

LEE: Another key moment - I remember going to see "Superman: The Movie" - what was it, '78? - as a little kid.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUPERMAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) He will call himself Clark Kent, but the world will know him as Superman.

LEE: Anything from "The Sandman" adaptation on Netflix.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SANDMAN")

TOM STURRIDGE: (As Dream) Your waking world is shaped by dreams.

SUMMERS: Jim Lee isn't the typical fan. He's influenced the world of comics for decades. In the '80s and early '90s, he was an illustrator for the hugely popular "X-Men" series with Marvel. He and his colleagues later founded the independent publishing outfit Image Comics. And since 1998, Lee has been at DC Comics, redesigning iconic characters like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. But he's more than an illustrator. He's also been a key decision-maker in the company. And, as of this month, Lee is now the president, publisher and chief creative officer of DC Comics. I spoke to him about the journey that comics have made from the page to the screen and what launched his journey into this world.

LEE: I was born in Seoul, South Korea, and I remember them - at the earliest memory, I remember watching these Max Fleischer-directed "Superman" cartoons on a black-and-white TV in Korea. And then there was another character called Hwanggeum Bakjwi, which was a Korean character, a skeleton wearing a cape. And I just loved those two characters. And then when we immigrated to the U.S. when I was 5, it was actually very reassuring and meaningful to me that "Superman" also existed in the United States. I had no idea that it was created here, right? So - but it was a cool bit of connectivity, continuity between Korea and the United States. And then I didn't speak any English. And so comics were really my entry into learning the English language because, with a comic book, you can actually tell what the story is by just looking at the pictures if the illustrator's doing their job correctly. But then they had these white, you know, dialogue balloons and yellow captions, and I was like, what are they saying? And so it was a huge influencer and motivated me to learn English very quickly.

SUMMERS: So you're in this new expanded role now where you're serving as president, publisher and chief creative officer of DC Comics. Can you unpack that a little for us? What does that look like? What are your chief goals, and what is under your purview in this new role?

LEE: Yeah. I think there's a couple different ways to look at it. From a comics reader perspective, it's basically shepherding this great mythology that was created almost 90 years ago and keeping it alive and contemporary and vibrant. You know, these are iconic characters, yes, but they've been around for decades. And the key to the success has been never to treat them as sort of creatures that are ossified in amber. We need to change with the times, and we need to bring in new voices. We need to change elements of who these characters are. We need to diversify the, quote-unquote, "portfolio" of characters that we have. Obviously, a lot of attention has been placed on DC Studios, but the publishing is the heart of it. That's where the characters are created and birthed. And so internally, it's about curating and championing the characters and what we do in publishing in this giant sort of media conglomerate.

SUMMERS: Thinking about this on a long timeline here, at the point at which you started your career, superheroes were certainly popular on the page, on the small screen, occasionally in movies. But I'm curious, back then, did you ever foresee these characters becoming the massive multimillion-dollar business, massive box office draws that they are today?

LEE: No. Absolutely not. You know, when I was growing up and certainly when I got into comics, it was a very niche hobby. It was a very small business. And I really thought, like, I was going to do something that was fairly obscure but something that I personally loved, and that would have been enough. The fact that it has transformed pop culture and become such a pillar of everything that kids and people that are into this kind of thing love is - it's just mind-boggling to me not just because people love it but also because you have so many different groups of people arguing and, you know, sort of fighting each other online. And so where fandom has developed and evolved is very different from what I also expected it to be when things were heating up.

SUMMERS: What do you mean by that - people arguing online? How has fandom changed digitally in a way that perhaps you didn't seem to expect?

LEE: When you read a comic book, there's no audio. So you're looking at the pictures. You're reading the words. You're hearing the sounds in your head. You are creating the motion in your brain. It's a very personal, intimate experience. And you walk away from that going, like, I love that character. I love that storyteller. I love this - you know, this world. Through, I think, social media, you find all these other people that love it. And then what happens is once you hit a certain number of people, it's too large for everyone to kind of love everything. And so they, basically, have splintered into different groups. It's almost like pro sports at this point.

Like, even when it was Marvel versus DC, I still felt like everyone loved comics. They embraced the storytelling. They embraced the notions of heroism and hope that the stories reflected. And now it's been elevated beyond that. It's almost independent of what the storytelling is about. And it's more about business factors or political factors, societal sort of discourse. It's become highly polarized. So you can't let it get you down at the end of the day. But, at the same time, I think it's healthy to kind of stay off social media at times and really kind of focus on the creative aspects of it because sometimes that gets lost in the never-ending sort of, you know, arguments that you see reflected in social.

SUMMERS: You know, comics have changed a lot over the years. They maybe don't sell as many copies as they used to, but it's also, in some ways, this really incredible golden age of comics in that there are just so many great comics to read and to choose from. When you think about comic books, to you, are they still the heart and the soul of the DC brand?

LEE: Oh, 100%, 100%. Yeah. I mean, yes, you need the broader, more casual audience to really hit those elevated numbers in terms of box office or viewership. But at the end of the day, if you don't have that core fan base that loves and knows the material intimately to help sort of propel and drive that that energy, it becomes very challenging. So in that sense, I think it's important that what we do in the comics is reflected accurately, faithfully in media. And that's what I wake up - you know, that's the job I wake up to every morning, and that's what I find super exciting about all this is, like, how do we keep this exciting? How do - what do we do for the next act? How do we, you know, keep pushing the stakes and making these stories really reflective of the times that we're publishing them in?

SUMMERS: That is Jim Lee, president, publisher and chief creative officer of DC Comics. Thank you so much for being here.

LEE: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me - real honored.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "SUPERMAN: MAIN THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.