Interview with Janet Lee – 9/21/12

After a successful career in publishing and a craft artist, Janet K. Lee was pulled into comics by her good friend, author Jim McCann. After being inspired by one of Janet’s homemade Christmas ornaments, Jim worked with her to create the amazing world of Anorev in Return of the Dapper Men in 2010.

The first creator-owned comic for both of them, Dapper Men earned Jim and Janet an Eisner award and the opportunity to pursue comics illustration as a full-time career. After incredible runs on Jane Austen’s Emma and Northanger Abbey for Marvel and her own Wonderland Alphabet for Archaia, Janet is currently working on the sequel Time of the Dapper men and some other top secret projects as we catch up with her. – Tim Miner: 6/21/12

DBP: When did you fall in love with comics? What *is* it about comics you find so engaging?

JKL: Most of my earliest memories involve images and illustrations: watching “Felix the Cat” on TV when I was two, the pictures from my favorite books when I was three.  I picked up my first comic book when I was maybe five.  My best friend lived next door to a man who sold novelty goods– vampire teeth, wax lips, that sort of thing.  He would let us pick out toys and presents; I choose comics like Archie, Heathcliffe, Dennis the Menace.  I loved the collections of strip comics, and would read them over and over until they fell apart.  Eventually I found Craig Thompson’s “Blankets”, and that was that.  I’d never seen a story like that, so beautifully told and illustrated, that spoke so directly to me.

DBP: What creators (comics or otherwise) inspired you as you developed your style? How about now that you’re “in comics”?

JKL: You know, I never thought about this before I started doing comics.  I only remember consciously aping a style twice growing up: one was my schoolmate (and artistic competitor) Alanna Thornthwaite.  She had this amazingly distinctive way of drawing I sort of…took…in third grade.

When I got a little older, I spent hours perfecting the “anime eye”.  And that’s it. Or is it?

As I spent countless hours drawing every day, I guarantee I was influenced by all the artwork around me: Garth Williams, Mervyn Peake, John Tenniel, Jerome Snyder, Wende Devlin, Arnold Lobel, Maurice Sendak, Jessie Wilcox Smith, Shel Silverstein. Outside of elementary school, I had very little formal art training, but I continued to be inspired by illustrations and art: Magritte, David Wiesner, Chris Van Allsburg, John Muth, Vermeer, Caravaggio, Mo Willems, Toulouse-Lautrec, Mucha.  Now that I’m working in comics, if anything, I have even more influences.  One of the perks of the job is to get to meet incredible artists and learn about their work. I think everything we see and do is expressed in our work.  I am constantly inspired, humbled, moved, changed. Art is everything.

DBP: You’ve said that you developed your own panel structure style because you “didn’t know any other way to do it.” How has your unconventional path to comics been an advantage?

JKL: Putting your work out, and letting the world interact with it, for better or worse, is scary. It can be crippling.

Me? I got thrown into the deep end and had to learn the swim. Fast. Was it perfect? No. Are there things I would do differently now that I have more experience? Yes. But one HUGE advantage was the fact that I didn’t have time to think. I didn’t have time to be scared.  And that’s, really, an enormous gift.

Return of the Dapper Men taught me that if you put your heart and soul into a project, magic can happen.  Especially if you listen to good advice and have a great letterer. Letterers, good letterers, make the rest of the team look good too.

DBP: When you sit down to draw, what thoughts are going through your head? What do you say to yourself?

JKL: It’s really easy to get overwhelmed when you have multiple projects at once and tight deadlines. So I make myself focus on just the work in front of me; just the work I’m doing that day.

Then once I get into it, I think about all sorts of things.  I’ll play music that helps me get into a particular scene.  I’ll set up my art board in front of the TV and listen to trashy television– because I don’t want anything on that I actually want to watch. Then I’ll just draw.

DBP: You didn’t start out on a trajectory to be a comics creator … how have you used your experience selling your art at markets and art fairs and your career in publishing to find your way in comics?

JKL: I think the time spent at art fairs mainly comes out when I’m setting up my table at conventions.  I get obsessed with the “merchandising”– and it’s never, ever good enough.  If I had my way, may table would be set up like a little store– attractive and fun to browse.

Airline weight limits simply won’t allow me to bring everything I’d need to make that happen.  Publishing… publishing is a different story.  Sometimes its actually a hinderance. The bookstore market and the comics market are similar in many ways, and completely different in others, and a person can get in real trouble if they don’t recognize those differences.

On the other hand, because of my time in publishing, I understand exactly how books travel through the system. I’ve got a good idea of how much things cost and how long they should take to do.  I feel like that’s very helpful knowledge for any creator, and I’m sometimes surprised when someone doesn’t.

DBP: What’s the worst advice you’ve ever gotten about having a career in comics?

JKL: I’m not sure how to answer this question.  I seem to have snuck into a career in illustration, specifically comics, before anyone thought to give me bad advice.  I have, however, received extraordinarily good advice, and I credit that to hanging out with some pretty wonderful people. You know when your mom used to tell you that the quality of your friends can chart the course of your life?  It’s true.

DBP: How has your interaction with other creators at conventions and other projects shaped your work?

JKL: Have you ever walked through Artists’ Alley at a convention? Of course you have!  I LOVE wandering and seeing what people are making. It’s always inspiring, as well as being a great way to meet your next creative partner. So many projects start with creators talking at a convention.

DBP: Being married to (author) Mike Lee, what do you get from being in a “creative family”?

We often joke that it would have been nice if ONE of us had married an accountant. Believe me, two flaky creative people under one roof can mean things get forgotten.  It also means that when I’m under deadline, Mike completely understands the pressure.  He helps me and I help him.  Mike’s also my best friend, and we actually enjoy spending every day together.

Too sappy? Everyone say, “Awwwwww!”

DBP: Nah. We like sappy. :)If I want to see more of your work, where do I go? In addition to Time of the Dapper Men, what’s next for you? More Alice?

Return of the Dapper Men, Wonderland Alphabet, and Jane Austen’s Emma are all available through any retail outlet, book or comics.  If they don’t have it, they can order it or you can find it online.

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey hasn’t been collected as a trade yet– that’s happening in November– so look for those five issues in comic shops only.

In addition to that, I tend to post new work first on my Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/janet.lee.39545.

If you want to buy stuff, I have an Etsy store here: http://www.etsy.com/shop/JKLee.

I do have a website, www.j-k-lee.com, but it’s under construction.  Don’t judge me!

DBP: Okay. But, we’re timing you on that Web site. Give me one creator you love that the world needs to know more about, like, now?

Christina Strain– OK, yeah, we all know her as a fabulous colorist, but what I love right now is her writing.  If you haven’t checked out her web comic Fox Sister, do it!  Do it now!  You can thank me next time you see me.

DBP: Will do, JKL! Thanks. See you at HeroesCon!

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