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E308: Massively's chat with DCUO's Jim Lee

Michael Zenke

Reading back through a list of comic book artist Jim Lee's work is like a "best of" list from DC comics history. Arguably best known for his art in the series Batman: Hush, Lee's credits include the X-Men, Punisher, Superman, and several titles from the comic label Wildstorm. The Authority, the cult classic dark superhero series, bore his penmanship in several places. He was at E3 last week with the folks from Sony Online Entertainment, because Jim is also the executive creative director on the DC Universe Online project.

We had the chance to sit down with Mr. Lee for a short interview, to get a feel for what his role on the project is. We chat with him about his work on the project, find out about his love for talking apes, and delve into his past as an MMO gamer. It's great to hear such a noted artist talking about his love for the massive genre - read on to find out about Mr. Lee's past as a guild officer in the world of Norrath and much, much more.

Many thanks for your time, sir. How has your experience been working on the game so far?

It's been amazing. And long. I come from the world of comics, where you're doing a story in a month and then you have the satisfaction of seeing it come out. We've been working on this for three years now, and I've been on the project for almost four or five years. There were a couple of false starts before it ended up at SOE. I'm very anxious to have the game come out.

It's weird working in a black hole. I'm really looking forward to leaving the show here, going online and seeing what the fan reaction online is to what we've shown today. It's been great, though. The team at Sony has been incredibly cooperative, and have struck up a real rapport creatively. It's not just us defining the concept art and then saying "build this stuff", we've sent them stuff and they've said "This is good, but I think we can make it better." So we send it back and go "show me what you've got." We've done that back and forth on a lot of models and a lot of characters. Even Superman, we've gone back and forth on him three or four times, honestly. Each time we go back and make these passes, redesign the character, I think we've gotten a better final result. They're committed to having the characters look as awesome as possible.

It's not just about "hey this character is done", stamp it, approve it, move on. We're continually going back over stuff that's already been approved for months or a year. We go "Hey, this guy no longer fits into the rest of our universe, he doesn't look cool enough." We can go back and fix that. It's been a great experience on that front.

You mentioned the comparison to working on comics - what about this process has been better for you than working on comics?

Better than comics? You know what, the characters move! It's amazing! We have sound, which is awesome. These are things I'm not used to and that I never thought about, it's interesting. Just as an example, even just the way I construct my figures has had to change. You can make them look good in 2D - you can do anything in 2D, you can cheat, you can break anatomy. But if you create some of those figures in 3D, and then pose them, their triceps clip through their bodies as they run. We have to work around these 3D limitations in that respect.

There are just a lot of things you don't think about when you're drawing comics books that you have to think about because we're exploring the 3D space instead of the 2D space. With Batman, right, sometimes I draw him with an incredibly long cape, and sometimes I'll draw it short because it looks cooler. In the game we're limited to one length because ... you have to.

You make sacrifices.

Exactly. But we have sound, we have movement, it's awesome, I love it.

Are there any characters in particular that you enjoyed working on for this game that you hadn't previously had a chance to work with?

Yeah, it's funny because I drew a lot of the Batman rogue's gallery, I drew his allies, I did a fair amount of the Superman ones. There are definitely a lot of characters where you're concepting it out for the first time and you go, "You know, I don't really have something to draw on." No source of inspiration. Ambush Bug, right? I dunno what Ambush Bug should look like. Luckily there is a team of us on this project - there's me and about four or five different artists at Wildstorm. It's not just me being a dictator and sort of saying "you do this, you do this", we sit around and say, "I'll do a creative take on this character." I approve everything and give direction while they're doing it, but I trust the guys that work with me and I think we produce a lot of cool stuff that would be difficult to do if only one person designed everything

You get a sameness, there. We have a lot of factional groups, actually, like Thanagarians and Manhunters ... we try to have different people do their take on them first, and then see how it all blends. It's competitive and cooperative at the same time. It's really interesting.

Are there any particular groups that you've enjoyed getting into the game?

Talking gorillas. I love talking gorillas, man. If they can talk and move it's even better. That's a big one. When you read a comic, talking gorilla okay whatever, but if you can actually hear a gorilla talk it's really good. There's a lot of really interesting stuff out there. DC is a very whimsical universe, there's a lot to draw from. Giant pennies and everyone has giant T-Rexes in their Fortresses of Solitude ... making that stuff, building it up, and having it look cool is a lot of fun.

Are there any superpowers you're looking forward to playing with in the game?

I haven't experience all the powers because they're slowly being introduced one by one. For me, I prefer the characters that don't have any powers. I think those will be the most challenging to put in there and have them be competitive with a guy who is invulnerable to bullets. I love exploring - with a lot of these games I like running around and seeing what I can see and how well I can survive without getting killed.

I've seen some of the super-speed stuff, and being able to run up the sides of buildings is awesome. As a comic book fan you look at that and it's cool, but to actually do it in the game really brings it to life in ways that print can't.

Are there any games you're playing right now in particular?

Right now I'm into Viva Pinata with my kids, but I'm liking it a lot too. [laughs] It's strangely addictive. I recently booted up Age of Conan to give that a try. I play EQ2, and Call of Duty 4 is probably my favorite single-player console game.

Do you plan on having a presence in the game the way that Curt Schilling does in EverQuest 2?

Oh yes. I'll be an NPC somewhere in the game, you can hunt me down.

Are you going to have a sort of public player character persona?

I might have one for player events, but I'll definitely be playing with a private character too. I don't have a problem with people knowing who I am in-game. In fact when I first started playing MMOs, that's how I met my first group of in-game friends. They were comic book fans, and I created a character that had a name similar to a character I'd made in a comic. I was running around in-game and someone stopped me and said "Hey, are you named after this comic book character?"

I said "Yeah, I actually created that character." They were fans, and they were a bunch of college students. They really took me under their wing and taught me the ropes. I got a lot of free loot out of that. [laughs] I don't really look at it as a negative, right? It's not like they're going to come to your house.

What game was that in?

That was Ultima Online. I started in UO, then I went to EverQuest, and that was the game I probably played the longest and most hard-core. I'm a more casual MMO player now, just because I've got so much to do. In many ways EverQuest was the first game of that type and there wasn't all that stuff online already that explained all the quests. It really felt like this complete sense of adventure. You didn't know what was over hte horizon. You'd drown while you were on the boat ... just crazy stupid stuff. Games now are much more perfected and fun, but it's a different kind of fun for me.

It's safer. When EverQuest first began with those XP penalties every time you died, corpse runs, it was a very different game. I loved Lower Guk. Just crazy dungeon spaces, just had a lot of fun with that game.

Is there anything about the MMO genre you're enjoying that's different than what it's like working on a single-player game?

Yeah, single-player games to me are a lot of fun but I definitely feel like I'm playing a game. That said, Call of Duty 4 is really close to perfect. There were some scenes there in the middle east where I really felt like I wanted to duck and hide. I would say MMOs, because you're dealing with other people, you do get that sense of verisimilitude that you're actually in this fantasy environment. You form these online friendships, you become an officer in a guild, it is a lot of fun. It's what kept me coming back to EverQuest every day vs. just getting loot. I get to hang out with my buddies every day and every day we're going to do something a little different.

I think that's what makes them kind of wonderfully addictive.

Too true. Thanks for the opportunity to speak with you.

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