Jim Lee’s used to creating universes, at least the ones in all the two-dimensional comic books he’s created in his 20-year career, but none of it has been quite on the scale of DC Universe Online, and the artist is loving every moment of it.
“I heard that DC was toying around with doing an MMO [Massive Multiplayer Online game] based on the DC Universe and I said, ‘Look, I have to be involved in this,’” he recalls. “This was too good to be true; a fusion of two dreams.”
For the past three years, Lee has been acting as Executive Creative Director for DCUO, a job that requires Lee to oversee all aspects of the game’s visuals, from the appearance and costumes of the heroes and villains, to the look and layout of classic DCU settings like Metropolis and Gotham City and all the landmarks there in.
“I knew something about video games and how they’re put together, but nothing I’ve worked on has been this level of commitment,” explains Lee. “It requires a lot of concept art, you know. Coming up with a map of Metropolis was a huge ordeal because no one’s had to come up with this stuff before.”
For Lee, it also meant coming up with ways of drawing things that aren’t typically part of his artistic style. “It was difficult at first because my tendency is to draw people with very long legs, very exaggerated kind of posture and that doesn’t look good on screen,” he explains. “I was really refining my style and just figuring out what was important and what it is about this constructed human figure that tells a fan that Jim Lee drew it. And honestly, I didn’t have those answers myself.”
It also meant that Lee had to learn how to draw in a different way because things that might look weird on the page would have to be done in a certain style because it was the only way it would look right in the 3-D world of DCUO. “We spent a lot of time creating iconic silhouettes and body types where you could pick a figure and adjust their weight and height,” Lee adds.
Working on the game has also allowed Lee the opportunity to draw a lot of major and minor characters from across the DC Universe, characters that Lee says he’d probably never get a chance to draw otherwise. “I did a concept piece for Doomsday [because] the original one didn’t quite of the intensity that that character required, and that was interesting because I had never drawn that character before.”
In these instances, Lee’s method was simple. Like if he didn’t know what the Batman villain Scarecrow looked like, for instance, “I just basically Googled Scarecrow, looked at it, figured out what was important to make it look like The Scarecrow – like the mask – and then I put it away and quickly drew it,” Lee explains. “I think it helps by letting you identify it as more yours.”
“But for Jim Lee, the goal wasn’t just to nail that “superhero experience” for the fans, he wants everyone to enjoy DCUO no matter their degree of fandom.”
With a certain degree of freedom in terms of the look of the characters, Lee says that there were things designed specifically for the game, tweaks to certain costumes to make them more contemporary and unique. “They kind of demanded it,” says Lee of game publisher Sony. “They didn’t want everybody in the same kind of spandex or look the same way.” Then there were certain characters like Flash villain The Trickster who got a top down redesign that DC gave the thumbs up for. “It feels like cheating a little because you just have to draw the character,” and not have to worry about story, confesses Lee.
But the main component of DCUO is the chance for players to create their own hero or villain and interact with seminal characters like Batman, Green Lantern and the rest of the Justice League. “The trick was to make sure they looked cool,” Lee says of the potential character creations, “but at the same time [they had to] look like they could stand next to Superman and Wonder Woman and still be part of the DC Universe,”
But what elements do you need to make a hero or villain. Lee says that suggestions from Sony were “too video game-like,” as in there was too much detail there. “When you draw or design a character in comics, you have to draw it one every page so you want it to be simple and iconic looking,” explains Lee. This meant simple materials (no chainmail) and keeping the colour pattern to two or three.
But it’s not just a look and a power you’re getting, adds Lee, you also get an identity and an origin, which makes you an even more integrated part of the DCU. Lee infused a lot of his own concepts into these new characters being unsure when he might ever get a chance to use them in his comic work and not wanting to waste a good idea. “I was designing an epic and creating new heroes and villains for the DC Universe,” he says.
DC Universe Online is still quite a ways from being completed, but Lee says that it was made clear to him to finish the game right and to make sure that he and his team were not shipping something that was “broken,” in his words. The team behind DCUO are also still sorting through what will and will not end up in the final version, but Lee promises that fans will be pleased with the end result once they see it. “There are things that haven’t been announced yet that will, I think, satisfy that part of the superhero experience.”
But for Jim Lee, the goal wasn’t just to nail that “superhero experience” for the fans, he wants everyone to enjoy DCUO no matter their degree of fandom. “I’m going to be able to touch more people with the work I’ve do on this game than through all the stories I have drawn,” he says. “If you do your job the game will exist for many, many years and have all these new people checking this out rather than just the hardcore comic book fans.”