Interview with comics artist Lee Weeks
Matthew J. Costello
St. Xavier University, Chicago, Illinois, United States
[0.1] Keywords—Comics art; Comic book; Superhero
Costello, Matthew J. 2013. "Interview with Comics Artist Lee Weeks." In "Appropriating, Interpreting, and Transforming Comic Books," edited by Matthew J. Costello, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 13. doi:10.3983/twc.2013.0456.
[1.1] Lee Weeks (http://www.facebook.com/pencilsmudge.leeweeks,http://www.comicartfans.com/GalleryDetail.asp?GCat=43675) has been a professional comic book artist for almost three decades. He has worked on some of the most prestigious superhero titles from major comic book publishers DC Comics and Marvel, including Hawkman, Batman, and Green Arrow, and Daredevil, The Hulk, Captain America and Spider-Man. He is the subject of a volume in TwoMorrows Publishing Modern Masters series by Tom Field and Eric Nolen-Weathington. This interview was conducted via e-mail in May 2012 and has been rearranged and edited for clarity.
2. Starting out
[2.1] Q: What do you remember about reading comics as a kid? What interested you in the comics medium?
[2.2] A: A couple things. One, there was a tremendous variety of comic books available back then—seemingly much more so than today; we had westerns, mystery comics, war comics, even romance and lots of humor/fun stuff like Richie Rich and Sad Sack. My family had a camp on a lake with a large wraparound, screened-in porch, and my little brother and I would dive into boxes and have them spread all over (we hadn't yet been introduced to backing boards and Mylar bags). It was a great way to disappear into a variety of imaginary worlds—some scary, some funny, others heroic. In fact, I remember learning a lot of great morals through the comics. Many of my friends say the same thing. They were often great morality tales. A couple years back I had the privilege of working with Stan Lee, and I asked him if something I'd heard for years was actually true—that is, that he, a Jewish man, read the New Testament of the Bible for story ideas. He copped to it.
[2.3] The second thing I remember is that it began as a hand-me-down hobby. Along with my little brother, I had three older ones—one in particular whom I idolized. If he liked something, I liked the same thing. And he liked comics…a lot.
[2.4] Of course, there was a third thing: the art—the strong lines that brought these stories to life. I tried to emulate those drawings from a very early age. Unfortunately for Mom, that emulation on more than one occasion took place on a wall in our house. I wanted to draw comic books from very early on.
[2.5] Q: Which writers and artists were you drawn to as a fan?
[2.6] A: Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were probably the two I became aware of the earliest. But there was another who grabbed me at a time when my hobby graduated from the hand-me-down form to something I took ownership of (I was around 9 or 10, I think). This was John Buscema—a phenomenal blend of cartoonist and illustrator who could render the most real figures performing any heroic act, yet the reality never was at the expense of the cartoon. To this day, his work amazes me.
[2.7] I had a Neal Adams period as an 11- or 12-year-old. His realism went beyond Buscema's. Each of these guys I tried to emulate at one time or another. There was Jim Steranko at some point (a Hulk cover of his in particular stands out as something I copied); John's brother, Sal Buscema; and I remember being introduced through some reprints of golden age comics to an artist named Mac Raboy, whose graceful figures and unique lighting really grabbed me.
[2.8] Q: Did you participate in fandom, such as hanging out at comic shops, writing letters to editors, attending conventions, or writing or drawing fan fiction?
[2.9] A: In my first incarnation as a fan, I did not. I had about a 4-year break, during junior high and the first half of high school, where I had almost nothing to do with the hobby. Then, in my junior year, a friend invited me to go with him to Duck Soup, a comic shop that had opened on our main street in Hallowell, Maine. I went with not a great deal of enthusiasm, but I brought home Fantastic Four #193 and read it that night—and became completely hooked (or rehooked). The issue had a cliffhanger, and I couldn't wait for the break between football two-a-days so I could run down and see if the store had #194.
[2.10] Thankfully, they did!
[2.11] From there, I befriended some guys from around central Maine who were really into collecting. Over the next couple years, and through a myriad of crazy circumstances, my heart returned to its first big dream of drawing comics for a living. There was a Maine Comics Club that met every month or so. And a couple of these friends and I planned and executed a handful of trips to Boston, which seemed so far away that first time. The trips were for the purpose of attending comic book conventions—the first a smallish one called Sunday Funnies (because it was held on Sunday). The next couple we went to were pretty big deals because some of the professional guys who actually worked on the books were guests at the shows. I'd had no idea this world even existed, and I probably never would have if not for those friends, whom I'm still close with today, 30-plus years later.
[2.12] I can't really say enough about that experience. It was vital in my development. In fact, much of that development consisted of quietly sitting back looking at the pictures of some incredible comics work while these guys talked…and talked…and talked…comics. I learned many things I'd never learned in my first run at the hobby—about characters and plotlines and why certain artists were favored over others.
[2.13] I can't believe it all took place in about a 3- to 4-year period. Then as swiftly as Duck Soup had blown into town, it was gone. I'm grateful and blessed it just happened to be there in that small window of time.
[2.14] Q: You were studying at the Kubert School of Art in the mid-1980s, the era of Frank Miller's Daredevil and Dark Knight, Allen Moore's Swamp Thing, Watchmen, and Miracleman, Todd McFarland's Spider-Man andSpawn. John Byrne was doing Fantastic Four and She-Hulk. Were you a fan of any specific artists or writers from this period who influenced your work?
[2.15] A: What I remember during the period of the early to mid-1980s are things like seeing Gene Colan's work being reproduced from pencils in The Ragamuffins and again in Nathaniel Dusk; certainly Miller's work was a huge influence, from Daredevil, to Ronin, back to Daredevil with Mazzuchelli, then on to Batman. I still think Batman: Year One—Miller and Mazzuchelli again—is one of the closest things to a perfect comic book in mainstream comics. It's simply exquisite.
[2.16] I first became aware of Moebius (Jean Giraud) about this time, too (who just recently passed away). He made me realize that movement can happen in different ways in comics than what I had been familiar with. The movement in his style was less direct and forceful; there was a floating subtlety to it at times, something more common in a lot of European comics.
[2.17] Of course, there was Will Eisner—loved the Spirit reprints—especially a particular story called "Gerhard Shnobble: The Man Who Could Fly," which I later found out was his favorite story. I followed his work some and read his book on sequential art, and I tried to understand the thinking behind storytelling because of him.
[2.18] James Robinson is a writer I discovered and liked early in my career.
3. Going pro
[3.1] Q: Which books did you want to work on? I remember you as a Marvel guy. Did that experience affect the way you approached things likeTarzan and Hawkman?
[3.2] A: Well, the first 4 years of my pro career were not what I expected. The first two shorts were fun as all get out—done for one of those independent companies. When I'd worked for them about a year, I headed into Marvel and was hired immediately. (I'd actually been hired before the indie, but stuff happened…another story.)
[3.3] Those first 3 years at Marvel were tough (as was that other year). It wasn't until I sat down one night in early 1990 on my sofa shortly after moving here to Pennsylvania that—for the first time since I'd been a pro—I asked myself, "Who do you want to draw?" Up until then, I'd just taken whatever was offered, and often it just wasn't a good match. I wasn't taking charge, and I knew I needed to or I'd have to leave the business.
[3.4] The answer to that question was, Daredevil. And about three weeks or so later, I was in NYC at the Marvel offices and did something I hadn't done—I asked to be considered for a Daredevil story if they ever were in a jam. Funny thing—they were in a jam!
[3.5] I loved that character and still have a fondness for him today. I drew him for about 2 years and then moved on—it was time for a change. When opportunities to draw things like Tarzan came along, I pounced on them. I love variety and I love a good story. When we were able to get Walt Simonson on board for Tarzan, I knew it would be lots of fun.
[3.6] Q: What drew you to Daredevil that you wanted to work on him above all others? What did you want to do with the character—where did you want to take him?
[3.7] A: The Born Again story line (issues 227–233) was a big reason for that. The inward struggle—the great losses, yet his ultimately realizing he'd lost nothing—those things resonated with me in what was going on in my life at the time. Though my theology has taken a more biblical path since then, those dynamics still are powerful to me—this idea that life is an inside job. The apostle Paul writes in the New Testament of the inner man, and although Frank Miller didn't take it to a Pauline degree, I still appreciate the hint at it. And Daredevil's costume is simply a perfect costume—simple, sleek, great opportunities for creative use of blacks.
[3.8] As for what I wanted to do with the character, I wasn't really concerning myself with that. I felt a sense of duty to uphold a great artistic tradition that had been established on that book—Wood, Romita, Colan, Miller, Mazzuchelli, and Romita Jr.—that was pressure, but a welcome pressure. I also believed in my job being to first and foremost serve the story—something emphasized by the greats that I had come to respect, both in and out of the Kubert School.
4. Fans and conventions
[4.1] Q: Fan interaction used to be primarily through letters columns, but with the rise of conventions and the Internet, fans can voice their opinions more easily. (The message boards at fan sites can be brutal.) Fans can also follow and access their favorite artists and writers, and the conventions have developed a huge market for original artwork. How has this affected the industry, and in particular you?
[4.2] A: That's a very interesting question for me, because I actually disappeared from the convention scene and from most of anything to do with the business (apart from the actual work, that is) for several years before slowly making my way back to cons in the middle of the last decade. And I've only in the last year or so become involved with the modern interaction with fandom that happens throughout the Internet. My stepping away was intentional, because as with so much of any entertainment field, I felt things were becoming increasingly dark—in tone and in spirit, and graphically. I had become a committed follower of Jesus Christ, and I simply was uncomfortable with much of what was going on with these characters that used to be so wholesome and heroic. There was too much blurring of the lines. A very little of that goes a long way for me.
[4.3] But I'm finding the way of navigating through those waters. I'm more involved in the creating—doing a little writing—and yes, I've even participated in the original art end of things, having sold more work these past 2 or 3 years than probably at any other time. I'm amazed at the level of interest with the avid collectors. Even though it's worldwide (both the comics collecting and the art collecting), still it's a small community of people.
[4.4] Q: How do you deal with your fans? Do you enjoy fan interaction? How do you see your relations with fans compared to the way you as a fan interacted with professionals?
[4.5] A: The fans are my connection to the comics business these days. I rarely speak with my editors—rarer still are my visits to the office. About 3 months ago, I broke down and started a Facebook page, mostly to announce convention appearances and such. I have begun doing more cons the last few years, and I have even had little chat sessions with some fans who've contacted me through the page. For this season of my life, anyway, I am enjoying the conventions about as much as anything I do. I think at the end of 2012, I'll have done six or seven. It might not sound like a lot, but for me, it is. I believe either of those numbers will be the most I've ever done in a year. As I think we discussed earlier, my first interaction was at a con in Boston—and it seems that this kind of pro/fan contact is pretty much the same as it was (once there).
[4.6] One thing that's super important to me—the most important to me—is remembering that whatever interaction I have with whomever, I am an ambassador for Christ (as the apostle Paul wrote). I stopped doing shows altogether when I came to faith in Yeshua/Jesus about 11 years ago, because of a dark tone that continues to grow darker at the shows and in the industry. But about 4 years later, I felt led in my heart to go back, interact, and share as opportunities arise. I know sharing the Gospel at a comics convention in between sketches of Wolverine and Spidey must sound a bit odd, but I've had some pretty profound conversations with total strangers, some of whom have since become my friends, or at least regular correspondents.
[4.7] The last show I was at, I hung out with two guys in the business, one of them an indie guy who was previously a stand-up comic. He's one of the funniest people I've ever met, even when he's not trying to be. I laughed until I hurt—something I hadn't done in a lonnng time. I asked why he left the comedy, and he told me there was no community—a lot of backbiting, stealing of jokes, and paranoia over having jokes stolen. He compared it to his comics experience: generosity, community, kindness, and creative people all wanting to see each other do well (with exceptions, of course). And I think he's right.
[4.8] One last thought on the con experience: the hours and years of sitting alone can take a toll on the psyche. I've often wondered—being the social person I think I am—why I chose this profession to begin with. The reality is, I like both; I love working in solitude with my thoughts, my music, and God…and I love being with people, learning about them, sharing a few card tricks (okay, more than a few), and talking about big things…life, eternity, God.
5. The comics industry
[5.1] Q: You have nearly 30 years as a professional under your belt, having worked on some of the premiere properties for both major publishers and for minor ones. How has the industry changed since you've been involved? Have fan tastes changed? How does this affect your work?
[5.2] A: The delivery and production of the material have changed a lot. Much of the actual production is done via computer. There are some artists who are actually drawing digitally now, but I'm not quite ready to go there yet. I like the tactile experience of paper, pen, and ink.
[5.3] When you and I were growing up, the analog version of comic book colors gave the colorists a palette of exactly 81 colors (and black) to work with. With the advent of computers and Photoshop/Illustrator, the digital guys have literally millions of colors to choose from.
[5.4] The sales numbers are nowhere near where they were 30 years ago per book, but because there are so many more titles being produced, I don't think the overall number of units sold industrywide is much different—or at least the difference isn't as great as the sale of individual titles makes it appear.
[5.5] But for me, the greatest change is the actual material—what I alluded to before—tone, spirit, etc. And it's a reflection of the culture at large, really. In many ways, comics have lost a sense of a strong moral compass because we (the culture) have lost that same sense. It's harder to tell who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. We see in Washington moral convictions of convenience rather than sticking to convictions even when it hurts your guy—your party—your whatever. Same with some of the heroes—they bend and break a little bit too soon for my tastes in many cases…but thankfully not in all cases.
[5.6] Right now, for whatever reason, I feel more a sense of responsibility to bring a little light into what has been dark. I think there are other creators who feel the same way. In a strange way, I feel as excited about doing this work as I have felt in a very long time.
[5.7] Q: There seems to be a backlash against this movement in comics—writers like Kurt Busiek and James Robinson offer a more classical vision of the superhero, and artists seem to be moving toward a less graphic portrayal of action and violence. Given the industry needs (and the new presence of Disney in the market), has this loss of moral compass begun to change?
[5.8] A: My sense is no—but that's mostly from things I hear. To be frank, I don't get to the comic shops that often, myself. I read very little of the newer material, so I rely on what I hear from friends and colleagues for the latest goings-on in the actual books.
6. Comics and movies
[6.1] Q: Has the increased popular awareness of the medium, at least in the form of graphic novels, made any difference?
[6.2] A: The comics themselves seem to have (to a significant) degree become R&D for movies and games. The comics don't generate the colossal dollars the movies do, but they are a great way to develop properties without shelling out loads of developmental cash. I'm not sure of the difference to me personally, except that more of the culture at large is aware of the material.
[6.3] Q: How do you see the characters being transformed in their translation to big (and game) screen?
[6.4] A: For the most part I'm amazed how faithfully the characters have been translated to the big screen. I just saw Avengers with my wife and our two college-age daughters. We all loved it (though I did think it was a tad slow in the first half in parts). And beyond the care and execution of the individual movies, I believe what's most impressive has been to see the execution and coordinating of all the Avengers-related movies leading up to this one. It's mind-boggling, really.
[6.5] I'm continually impressed over and over again with the fabulous casting choices, going back to the first X-Men movie (can't believe that was a dozen years ago!). I've even enjoyed some of the tweaks and changes that have made their way into the movies; the way Captain America's classic costume is worked into his movie is one of my favorite examples. I've thought for years his costume would be the hardest to pull off on screen in a way that could be taken seriously. The Cap movie did just that.
[6.6] A very clever moment in the Avengers movie is how the fan is brought into the plot…even to the point of being the catalyst for the team finally getting together. Phil Coulson was us, so in a sense—even though the book didn't have fans until it existed—they found a way to make a fan ("the fan") be the reason for their being…very M. C. Escher–esque.
[6.7] For years the proportion of adults to kids has continued to move toward the adult—though I think the movies may be creating a little push back. Also, I have found a lot of the art collectors are guys who read my books as kids. One of the most wonderful e-mails I ever got was from a young man in Australia who hadn't had a very good relationship with his dad. One day, at 15, while digging through the attic, he found his dad's comic collection. Well, Dad was a fan of my work, and this young man and his father ended up finding common ground and bonding over their shared enthusiasm for it.
[6.8] Where have all the heroes gone, though? I want to see that come back…or better, I want to find a way through the thicket into an even better version of what it was…but going forward.
7. Looking ahead
[7.1] Q: Mark Waid, longtime comic book writer, whose Thrillbent.com (http://thrillbent.com) digital comics site premiered May 1, 2012, has stated that print comic books are on their deathbed and that digital production and delivery are the future. While you haven't moved to digital drawing, what impact do you see the presence of digital delivery having on the industry or the art?
[7.2] A: I have listened to friends for the last several years make the same proclamation about print's demise, but I'm not sold on it for a couple reasons. We still like to hold books. The digital world is still so new—I wonder if we know how fragile it might be. There's also a lot of the world that is still unplugged.
[7.3] But certainly digital delivery has had impact in just getting the material into more hands more easily. Since the advent of the direct market in the late 1970s, growth of the readership base has been a more difficult task. The direct distribution system isn't designed to grow more readers as much as to most efficiently pluck fruit from the existing trees.
[7.4] Q: What are you working on now, and what can we expect in the future?
[7.5] A: What I'm working on is a Daredevil project that I conceived and wrote myself (still am writing, actually). It's a fluid process; even though I've known the basic story for a few years, things move around in the execution of the story.
[7.6] The narrative spine is Matt Murdock waking in a hospital bed suffering from the effects of a concussion and temporary amnesia during what is the biggest blizzard to ever hit NYC. He realizes he is the only hope for a girl in need of a heart transplant. The medic helicopter delivering her new heart went down somewhere in the blinding storm. With nothing moving—no traffic, subways, or people—Matt sets out to cross the city, retrieve the organ carrier, and make it back before the heart becomes unusable, while his powers are being limited/compromised by both the storm and his concussion.
[7.7] The Jack London–esque journey becomes the outward working of an inward journey that helps him to refresh his mission and identity. It will be three issues and should come out by the beginning of 2013. [Daredevil: Dark Nights is an eight issue series beginning in June 2013.]
[7.8] After this project, things are up in the air. I'd like very much to do some Messianic/Christian comics. It's been in my heart to do something in this area for several years, but I want it to be the right thing. Wherever God leads, that's where I'd like to find myself.
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