Interview: Women of BOOM! – Janet K. Lee

Janet Lee_2That’s eight weeks and eight “Women of BOOM!” features, spotlighting the many kick-ass women that work at BOOM!, Archaia and KaBOOM! We’re focusing on everyone, editors, designers, writers, artists, you name it! We’re making sure to include the hard-working folks whose contributions are often overlooked in the process.

BOOM! (and KaBOOM! and Archaia) has given us unprecedented access and the chance to ask questions to their staff, and creative teams, to find out why the publisher is so successful in hiring women and their experiences in the comic industry as women.

Up this week is Janet K. Lee, an artist, cover artist, inker, colorist (and all around cool person) who has worked on Return of the Dapper Men, Wonderland Alphabet and Feeding Ground among others publishing by the company.

Graphic Policy: How did you get involved in the comic book industry? 

Janet K. Lee: I worked for several years as a graphic novel buyer for one of the US’s largest book industry wholesalers and met a number of people in the comics industry, including Jim McCann. Eventually I was promoted away from buying graphic novels, and found I had a creative hole in my life.  I started showing my artwork in galleries around the US. Jim McCann saw some of that art, was inspired to write a book called Return of the Dapper Men based on my art, and asked me to illustrate.  At SDCC ’09, Jim pitched the project to Stephen Christy, and voila! I was in!

Sometimes I feel like the “Lana Turner” of comics, but in truth I spent years networking behind the scenes.  That old adage “It takes ten years to become an overnight success” is just about right.

GP: Did you read comics growing up? Do you read them now?  

JKL: I did and I do!

I got into comics when I was five or so.  My best friend’s neighbor was a novelty salesman (you know: wax lips, pencils, cheap plastic yo-yo’s, and all that) who kept us supplied with bound collections of classic strip comics.  I started out reading Heathcliff, Denis the Menace (which I still blame for my poor performance as a babysitter), Garfield, Peanuts, Family Circus, and Bloomsbury. Eventually, I had a boyfriend who introduced me to The X-Men, and then I discovered anime and manga and eventually the amazing indie scene with books like Blankets and BOP and From Hell.

My preference still leans toward graphic novels and limited series over ongoing—I just prefer a story with a clear arc end and didn’t even go through the normal “soap” period for teenage girls. But there are exceptions: Mind the Gap, Chew, Unwritten, Invincible, Saga, Mouse Guard.  My favorite Christmas gift was a fabulous book called The Nao of Brown—stunning watercolors!

GP: How did you come to work with BOOM!/Archaia?     

JKL: Jim McCann and I considered publishers very carefully before pitching Return of the Dapper Men.  Archaia always produces such beautiful books, and we knew we wanted to do something really different with Dapper, so they just made sense.

GP: How would you describe your job for people?   

JKL: My job is to make the story come to life. If I were working on a novel, I would be writing all the narrative prose. If I were working on a movie, I would be casting, location scout, set design, costuming, and acting coach. If I were a musician, I would be the vocalist singing the writer’s hit tune. My job is to take the actions, dialog, and rough (or sometimes detailed) descriptions of the writer and express them visually.  We are a team of collaborators, and if we do our jobs correctly, together we create something more wonderful than any of us could have made alone.

GP: For people who want to pursue a career in what you do, what advice would you give them? 

JKL: Make the best art that you can possibly make. It is your calling card to the industry, so treat every project as if it were your first and last.

Be polite and kind to absolutely everyone you encounter—this is a small, small industry and every single person in it is important. Always thank people who took time to review your work; even if they hated it, they took the time to read. Network, meet, follow-up.

Know when to take advice and when to ignore it.

And MOST IMPORTANTLY: MAKE COMICS! Just do it! Learn by making mistakes. Learn by trying new things. Some of it will work and some won’t but nothing happens until you make the art.

GP: Did you have a mentor to help you break into the industry? Do you mentor anyone yourself?      

JKL: I’ve had incredible help and encouragement along the way. Jim McCann took a raw gallery artist (who thought she knew everything about making comics, and really knew almost nothing) and taught her the ropes. Jonathan Hickman pulled me aside and helped me understand business pitfalls. My editors at Boom!/Archaia, Marvel, and Image have always challenged me to try something new.

I try to pay it back where I can. I pick projects based on how I feel about the story and the way the script is written (probably a holdover from my buying days), so I find myself often working with new recruits. I love talking with people about their art and about the industry. We all succeed or fail together.

GP: Do you think women have a more difficult time breaking in and making it in the comic industry, if so why? And if yes, how do you think that can be overcome?   

JKL: I think most of the time when we ask this question, we are limiting the industry at large to just Marvel and DC- just superhero comics- and yes, there are issues there with diversity among the mainstream comics creators. But we do ourselves a HUGE disservice by defining comics by a single, limited genre, and if we open the discussion to include ALL of comics, ALL around the world, we get an entirely different picture. Female comic creators are EVERYWHERE, and we’re amazing. This week the NYT Bestseller list for Graphic Novels (top 10) includes Fairest, Saga, Drama, Persepolis (which has been there for YEARS), and Primates.  Women helped to make (or solely made) all of those.

Here’s the thing: for a long time, the direct market for comics was almost entirely focused on superheroes, and superheroes were written for men and boys. They were fantasies about heroism and empowerment and taking control in a bad, bad world—things that people in the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, even 70’s and 80’s, didn’t realize women wanted too. So the heroes are men (mostly), and the stories center around men (mostly), and the shops where the stories are sold cater to men (mostly), and the children who grew up drawing superheroes and writing stories about superheroes and dreaming about superheroes were male (mostly). And so now (most) of creators who draw and write in a “house style” are male. And the cannon is (mostly) based on stories for men.

That’s why independent comics are so important.  I may not have grown up drawing Superman and writing stories about Spider-Man, but I did grow up making my own comics, my own way. My art is geared toward a different type of story, and these are stories that need to be told in different ways, and be published in different formats, and maybe be sold into different markets.  Right now, right this minute, we are reinvigorating genres of comics that have languished for years. We are letting the world know that comics are a storytelling medium rather than a single genre.  This is the best time to be a woman in comics.

GP: We notice that when it comes to women in the comic industry, BOOM!/Archaia has a lot of diversity present. Why do you think have they succeeded when so many other publishers struggle with this?

JKL: BOOM!/Archaia have a simple formula, I think: they publish interesting, high quality books, and they make sure people hear about them.  They prove my point: female creators are everywhere making comics, and if you open yourself to diverse types of stories, you will find the statistics are much more equal than a single genre of fiction might lead you to believe. Women make comics.Women read comics.

GP: We’ve heard horror stories concerning women in the industry, have you ever seen or been discriminated/harassed and if so, how did you handle it?

JKL: I don’t have any stories to share. Maybe I’m just lucky, I don’t know.

GP: What advice do you have for women looking to break into the comic book industry? 

JKL: Define your goals. Be true to yourself. Value yourself. Make the art you want to make—the path may take a longer, but will be more rewarding in the end. Read, read, read, read. Learn everything you can about the BUSINESS of making comics. And get out there and meet people!

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