Comic capers

Comic capers

Artist Pat Lee draws a bright picture of the future

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Pat Lee brought anime style to popular comic book characters like Superman.
Pat Lee brought anime style to popular comic book characters like Superman.
Photos: Edmond So/SCMP
Like books and newspapers, the comic book industry has struggled since the digital revolution began. What used to appear exclusively on colour-printed paper is now more easily read on mobile phone and tablet screens. The old comic book giants - such as DC and Marvel - are struggling to justify charging customers and making a profit.

The rise of social websites and apps has also drawn comic fans away from the world of superheroes. Comic outlets in America are folding at a rapid rate and the comic's glory days seem increasingly distant.

But artist Patrick Lee Chi-kin, better known as Pat Lee, believes the medium still has a future.

"I don't think that the comic book will necessarily become a dinosaur," the 37-year-old said, speaking at SCAD Hong Kong. "There will always be fans and collectors [buying paper copies]."

The Toronto-born artist fell in love with comic books - reading and creating them - at a young age. "I used to draw in the back yard with my brother, and skateboarding and drawing were what we loved," he said.

The teenage Lee went to every single comic convention held in Toronto. At 16, the thought of perhaps becoming a comic artist himself struck him.

Lee's mum promised to give him a year and a half to chase his dream. For Lee, it was finally a chance to become someone like the comic artists he had read about.

Day after day, Lee locked himself in his room to perfect his drawing skills. His mum supported his dream, helping him to get to conventions and paid for flights to New York so he could pitch his work to editors.

His efforts finally paid off when Dan Fraga, a former comic book artist and now acclaimed storyboard artist, recommended Lee to the company he worked for.

Lee began his professional career with Image Comics, where he was known as the kid who embedded Japanese anime style into American comics. Over the years, Lee created his own version of some beloved characters, from Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to Iron Man and Batman.

Things didn't always run smoothly. After freelancing for a while, he opened his own company Dreamwave Productions, but it went bust in 2005 after 10 years of operation, amid accusations of Lee's not paying his employees properly.

But some people are born to roll with the punches, and soon Lee was getting work from DC and Marvel, including a Batman mini-series of which he is particularly proud.

During one DC job, he was assigned to work with Jeph Loeb, a well known writer for film, TV and comic books. He asked Lee what kind of things he would like to see in the story, and Lee said: "I'd love for Robin to be in it. I'd love it if there were some robots in it."

Typically, writers craft a storyline, while comic artists illustrate within the boundary of the plot. But because of Lee's experience and reliability, he frequently has a say in projects he works on. Loeb ended up writing a plot based on Lee's suggestion.

As to the future, Lee admitted: "comic books are now used as more of a marketing platform to develop intellectual properties, and to advertise something like X-Men or Angry Birds." Lee himself now works on app games as well as comics.

Nonetheless, Lee urges budding illustrators not to give up on the seemingly dying art.

"It teaches you scripting. It teaches you how to be a director. It tells you how to be a storyboard artist. It teaches you how to be accurate and quick."

He said a comic artist may have to produce 22 pages and a cover shot a month, demands even experienced artists may need 13 to 14 hours a day to meet.

But tight deadlines, Lee said, are "a good way to learn how to be an artist in a professional environment."

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