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Rising Star Is an Old Fan of Comics He Now Draws : Art: San Diegan Jim Lee chucked his premed degree and is now the illustrator behind the prestigious X-Men comic book series.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Somewhere deep in Jim Lee’s psyche lies the spirit of the X-Men, a band of rogue mutants battling evil. Through his drawings, Wolverine, Cyclops, Gambit (the first Cajun super-hero) and the rest of the gang come to life on the pages of Marvel Comics.

First, however, they are born in Lee’s imagination. He must search for the elusive image, the spark that will send him into a world of super-heroes and villains. He never knows when it will happen.

Sometimes it will be when he’s in a car. Or watching a movie. Slowly, his mind will wander, and he will begin to develop a picture. He’ll see heroic characters with strange powers, futuristic technology, Professor Xavier outwitting the evil Magneto.

“I do a lot of it in bed right before I go to sleep,” Lee said. “I find that’s when I’m most relaxed and focused, and I can start to visualize it in my head.”

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A former Princeton premed student who took, to say the least, an extreme career detour after graduating, Lee’s ability to translate his visions into vivid illustrations has made him the rising star of the comic industry. He is known for his dark, realistic, meticulous drawings that seem to leap off the page.

“He is probably the most popular and well-known artist Marvel has right now,” said Alan Julian, co-owner of Amazing Comix, a local retail outlet.

Plotting and drawing Marvel’s new X-Men series is a coup for San Diego-based Lee, 27, who has been working for Marvel for only five years. Originally created by Marvel masters Stan Lee (no relation) and Jack Kirby in 1963, the X-Men is one of the industry’s best sellers.

The first issue of the new X-Men series drawn by Lee, issued in August, sold more than 8 million copies; it was the largest selling issue in history, according to Marvel Comics spokeswoman Pamela Rutt. Lee’s artwork from that first issue will be sold at Sotheby’s Auction House in New York on Dec. 18 as part of a historic auction of comic art. For Lee’s 45 frames from the first book of the new X-Men series, the auction-house estimate is $40,000-$50,000, but Lee says he has already received an outside offer of $80,000.

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In a sense, the X-Men is a homecoming for Lee.

“X-Men was the only book I seriously collected as a kid,” said Lee as he munched a hamburger at a Mira Mesa restaurant. “I loved the concept. Purely from nostalgia, this is the book I wanted to do. I don’t have a strong emotional tie to the others.”

Because of their mutations--the modern politically correct term is “genetically challenged,” Lee says--the X-Men are misunderstood outcasts of society who are constantly hounded by evil forces seeking to abuse their powers. Prejudice and the strengths of belonging are among the common themes boiling under the surface of the adventure series.

“The thing with comics is its high drama,” Lee said. “You think of characters as symbols and the message you want to create.”

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An unassuming young man who was born in Korea, Lee seems an unlikely candidate for stardom in the world of super-heroes. But a star he is. At comic book conventions throughout the country, knowledgeable youngsters and collectors besiege him for autographs.

“He’s not the typical artist who is stuck up,” said Julian of Action Comix. “He makes appearance after appearance, and he’s a great Marvel promoter.”

Lee graduated from Princeton in 1982 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology, but, by his senior year, he already knew medicine was not in his future. During his college years, he also worked on the school newspaper and served as publisher of the Princeton Tiger humor magazine, besides taking several art classes.

Encouraged by his teachers and uninterested in other forms of commercial art, he developed samples of his drawings of super-heroes and began knocking on doors. He met nothing but rejection until he handed over his samples to a Marvel editor at a comic book convention.

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He was hired and soon made his mark on such series as Alpha Flight and “The Punisher’s War Journal.”

“He’s probably one of the best pencilers that has shown up in a long time,” said Bob Harras, Lee’s editor. “He makes a page look dynamic and exciting.”

Since drawing did not require that he live in any particular place, Lee decided to live in different parts of the world--Berkeley, New York and Italy.

“There were places I wanted to live, so I just moved around,” Lee said. “I had no furniture, it was great.”

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Two years ago Lee moved to San Diego to share a Mira Mesa studio with inker Scott Williams (an inker applies India ink to pencil drawings to embellish and prepare them for printing), fellow penciler Whilce Portacio, who works on the sister book, “Uncanny X-Men,” and painter Joe Chiodo. They recently hired more staff members to help on their projects, and they’re planning to move into a new office space.

Lee said the office environment helps when he receives the occasional outside project, such as covers for Nintendo games, although his main focus is the work for Marvel. In addition, Lee discovered that he enjoys the give and take of working in an office, the opportunity to interact with others in his field.

“Human contact is one of these important things,” Lee said. “We’re able to bounce ideas off each other, there is someone there if you need help. You get a sense that what you do is a job.”

As jobs go, drawing comics is not a bad one. Lee loves the fact that comics, unlike other commercial art forms, address a specific audience. He is also accorded a great deal of freedom. Since the X-Men characters are not as clearly identified as Batman or Spiderman, he is free to make changes, to try different things.

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“You’re not limited by fiscal concerns,” in terms of creating costumes and places, Lee said. “There is a lot you can do to alter time and space.”

Lee pulls ideas out of movies, books, MTV and fashion. Characters are often based on movie stars, such as James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, Lee said. The movie “Brazil” was a major influence.

Conversely, Lee sees movies, books, MTV and fashion reflecting more of the influences of comic books.

The barriers between comics and other media are dissolving, Lee pointed out. The conversion of “Batman” into a blockbuster movie, as well as successful comic book-style movies like “Terminator,” have shown Hollywood that there is gold in comic books, particularly the dark, gritty adventure series that collectors have always loved.

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Yet, despite the increasingly big-business aspects of the industry, there is always the element of fun and whimsy in working on comic books.

“It certainly brings back adolescent memories,” Lee said. “Certainly there is no doubt the books do aim at young adults, and that keeps you kind of young.”

Hooking up with the X-Men will probably propel Lee into a new financial realm. Artists like Lee are paid a flat rate per page plus incentives based on sales of the book. The better the book sells the more they are paid.

An artist on a popular book can easily make a six-figure annual income, besides selling original work to collectors around the country. But Lee noted that “the average artist in advertising still does better than the average artist in comics.”

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Yet, for a guy who bounced around the world until three years ago and displayed pride in not owning any furniture, Lee’s life has changed. He married three years ago, and he and his wife recently bought a house in Rancho Penasquitos. A few weeks ago, he learned that his wife is pregnant.

“But I still don’t have any furniture,” he said with a laugh. “Just a TV, a couch, a dining room table and a bed. . . . and a drafting table, of course.”


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