Janet K. Lee is the now-award-winning artist of Return of the Dapper Men (with writer Jim McCann) and the comic book adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma from Marvel. Hot off he heels of her Return of the Dapper Men Eisner win for Best Original Graphic Novel, I sat down with Lee at San Diego Comic-Con 2011 to talk about her win, Jane Austen and her secret origins.
Nick Boisson: Return of the Dapper Men was your first comic book. You started after doing art for many years.
Janet K. Lee: Yeah, that’s exactly right.
Boisson: So, how did this happen for you?
Lee: Well, I was doing gallery shows in Nashville, Tennessee. Jim McCann is from Nashville and comes home every year for Christmas to visit his family. I had opened a couple shows at different galleries and Jim found a few pieces that he really liked. One was a six-foot tall, Magritte-inspired painting of the rooftops of Paris with men in green bowler hats raining down from the sky. Another was a little ornament with a steampunk boy with goggles. Another was a robot girl with wings. And he liked all of them, he bought all of them and went home. And about two months later, in my inbox, I got an email from him that basically had the opening pitch for Return of the Dapper Men and a note that said “Want to do a graphic novel?” Of course, I said “Yes” … immediately! Jim and I started towards conceptualizing it and then he took the concept to Archaia at the show floor at San Diego about two years ago and they took it on the spot. Which was amazing! We hadn’t done any artwork for it. We just had a bunch of pieces I’d done before. Jim hadn’t written a script yet. And we got to do it!
Boisson: It’s wonderful that Archaia essentially bought it off of an idea.
Lee: [laughs] Yeah, it’s pretty much a Cinderella story all the way around.
Boisson: So, is that how you met Jim McCann or did you know him prior?
Lee: Oh, no. Jim and I were friends for 15 years before this. I believe we met at a sushi restaurant for a dinner that a mutual friend of ours had put together. I remember that we liked him so much that we wanted him to date one of our friends. [laughs] But luckily we didn’t because they would have been totally wrong for each other. But we stayed friends with Jim. We kept Jim because Jim is awesome! [laughs]
Boisson: Return of the Dapper Men won an Eisner.
Lee: It was a nail-biter! We were nominated for several categories, which was a huge honor. Really, the prize came when we were nominated at all. And we ended up winning Best Original Graphic Album, the last award of the night. And it was just completely amazing. We tied with Daniel Clowes! How is that going to happen?! It was just completely, completely amazing!
Boisson: And now, you are working with Marvel Comics on Emma. How did you come into that?
Lee: I actually just finished up Jane Austen’s Emma for Marvel. The collected edition comes out in October. And that was my first monthly! There were a lot of firsts this past year. I am the biggest Jane Austen geek in the entire world, so I feel incredibly fortunate. I sent the geekiest email in the world to the editors at Marvel and said that I love Jane Austen and that if you ever have any openings or if any of your fabulous people drops out, I would like to be considered for the job. And they did and they gave it to me. And, not only did they let me draw it, but they also let me ink and color it myself. It was an amazingly incredible experience.
Boisson: I remembered a while back when everyone was surprised to hear that Marvel was doing books based on Jane Austen’s work.
Lee: Yeah! But they’ve already done Pride and Prejudice, and it was beautiful. Sense and Sensibility, which is also beautiful. And they have another one coming up after Emma.
Boisson: Who is your favorite Jane Austen heroine?
Lee: I think everybody wishes they were a little more like Elizabeth Bennett. I love Emma Woodhouse for her growth.
Boisson: You have a very distinctive style. What are some of your artistic influences?
Lee: I am completely self-trained. I never studied at all. In the eighth grade, I got angry at my teacher because she gave someone else a prize and I didn’t get one. In college, I dropped out and decided to be an English major. I ended up buying a lot of art and becoming an art lover rather than anybody who is classically trained. I adore turn-of-the-century poster art, I love the surrealists and I love children’s book illustrations. The classic children’s books are a huge influence. Everything from Oz to Alice in Wonderland to Maurice Sendak, I love, love children’s book illustrations. And I love comic book illustration. Craig Thompson’sBlankets rocked my world when I first saw it! I love Black Flag, I love The Unwritten, I love Zombies vs. Robots and I love, love, love, love Locke & Key. I keep finding new things all the time.
Boisson: Is there any work that specifically inspired your work onReturn of the Dapper Men?
Lee: I think there is definitely an art nouveau style to it. Jim and I both love that. I adore Windsor McCa
y and I think a little bit of that seeped into there, too. And I hope I captured a little bit of the classic children’s books that I love.
Boisson: You mentioned that you are a big fan of Joe Hill’s Locke & Key. Are there any other monthly books that you are reading or a graphic novel that you cannot get out of your head?
Lee: Right now, my pull list includes The Unwritten, Ozma of Oz and Marvel Zombies Christmas Carol. I’m picking up Chew in trades and loving it.Duncan the Wonder Dog, Market Day and Smile were a few recent favorites. And this recent foray at Comic-Con was to Fanfare/Ponent Mon. Can’t wait to grab A Zoo in Winter and I love, love, love My Mommy!
Boisson: What does the future hold for Janet Lee?
Lee: Well, right now, I am working on the sequel to Return of the Dapper Men called Time of the Dapper Men. I have also been talking to a few publishers about doing some children’s books, which is something that I’d love to do. Nothing completely firm yet beyond Time of the Dapper Men, which, in and of itself, is another big project. It should be coming out — we’re hoping — next year, between C2E2 and San Diego Comic-Con. We want to have it out early next year and, now that we have the whole Eisner-thing, it’s got to be great! [laughs]
If you have not yet read Ms. Lee’s Return of the Dapper Men, read more about it here and if you would like to continue marveling in the world of Janet Lee, follow her on Twitter at @Janet_K_Lee, go to her website or pick up some of her artwork.
Nick Boisson grew up on television, Woody Allen, video games, Hardy Boys mysteries and DC comic books, with the occasional Spider-Man issue thrown in for good measure. He currently roams the rainy streets of Miami, Florida, looking for a nice tie, a woman that gets him, and the windbreaker he lost when he was eight. He sometimes writes things down on Twitter as @nitroslick.