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DC Comics' boss knows the challenges ahead — and the problem superhero films can pose

Jim Lee says the key to success has never been to treat characters as "creatures that are ossified in amber."
Timothy A. Clary
AFP via Getty Images
Jim Lee says the key to success has never been to treat characters as "creatures that are ossified in amber."

Let's start with the obvious point: Superhero movies transformed the film industry over the last 15 years.

Now for a not-so-easy question: How does the man in charge of some of the most beloved comic book characters chart the years ahead?

Who is he? Jim Lee, 58, is the new president of DC Comics, adding the title alongside his existing duties as publisher and chief creative officer.

  • Born in Seoul, South Korea, Lee and his family immigrated to the U.S. when he was 5.
  • In the 1980s and early '90s, he was an illustrator for the hugely popular X-Men series with Marvel. He and his colleagues later founded the independent publishing outfit Image Comics.
  • Since 1998, Lee has been at DC Comics, redesigning iconic characters like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, while also being a key decision-maker in the company.
  • Jim Lee attends the Wonder Woman statue unveiling at The Warner Bros. Studio Tour Hollywood in March.
    Tommaso Boddi / Getty Images for Warner Bros. St
    Getty Images for Warner Bros. St
    Jim Lee attends the Wonder Woman statue unveiling at The Warner Bros. Studio Tour Hollywood in March.

    What's the big deal? Even if you aren't into comic books, you can't have missed the enormous impact superhero films have had on pop culture.

  • Lee worked on X-Men Vol. 2, #1, released in 1991. It's often cited as the best-selling comic book of all time, with more than 8 million copies sold.
  • But since 2008's Iron Man, it's superhero movies that make companies like DC and Marvel the big bucks. Many, like The Avengers and The Dark Knight, have grossed more than $1 billion.
  • Yet recent superhero movies have been more critically divisive and less profitable at the box office than their predecessors, prompting questions about superhero fatigue kicking in.
  • NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour host Glen Weldon says the offerings are now so vast and spread across multiple platforms that studios can no longer expect audiences to know the backstory going in, which means movies will be under more pressure to stand on their own — not simply ride the wave of the superhero genre.
  • Lee told NPR that one of his central goals is "shepherding this great mythology that was created almost 90 years ago and keeping it alive and contemporary and vibrant."

  • Want to hear from more creators? Listen to the Consider This episode with The Wire creator David Simon, talking about AI, television and the writers' strike.

    What is Lee saying? Speaking to NPR's Juana Summers, Lee opened up about superhero films and the evolution of beloved characters.

    On whether he thought comics would translate to blockbuster films:

    No. Absolutely not. You know, when I was growing up — and certainly when I got into comics — it was a very niche hobby. It was a very small business.

    The fact that it has transformed pop culture and become such a pillar of everything that kids and people that are into this kind of thing love is just mind-boggling to me.

    On the problems this can pose:

    Once you hit a certain number of people, it's too large for everyone to kind of love everything. And so they, basically, have splintered into different groups. It's almost like pro sports at this point.

    Like, even when it was Marvel versus DC, I still felt like everyone loved comics. They embraced the storytelling. They embraced the notions of heroism and hope that the stories reflected. And now it's been elevated beyond that. It's almost independent of what the storytelling is about. And it's more about business factors or political factors, societal sort of discourse. It's become highly polarized.

    On staying relevant:

    The key to the success has been never to treat them as sort of creatures that are ossified in amber. We need to change with the times, and we need to bring in new voices. We need to change elements of who these characters are. We need to diversify the quote-unquote "portfolio" of characters that we have.

    A Batman costume from the 1995 <em>Batman Forever</em> film worn by Val Kilmer.
    Jack Taylor / Getty Images
    Getty Images
    A Batman costume from the 1995 Batman Forever film worn by Val Kilmer.

    So, what now?

  • Lee says that in his new role he will continue to prioritize telling great stories with comics, because they're the engine that powers the rest of the DC brand.
  • "Yes, you need the broader, more casual audience to really hit those elevated numbers in terms of box office or viewership. But at the end of the day, if you don't have that core fan base that loves and knows the material intimately to help sort of propel and drive that energy, it becomes very challenging," he said.
  • Learn more:

  • 'Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3' sends off its heroes with a mawkish mixtape
  • 'Love and Rockets' celebrates 40 years of edgy, Latinx, alternative comics
  • A decade on, the 'This is fine' creator wants to put the famous dog to rest
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
    Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.

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