Jane Austen, Art, and Women in Comics:

A Conversation with Janet K. Lee

Do I have to drink hot tea in order to talk about Jane Austen? That’s the question that kept running through my head as I made my way to Sip Café in East Nashville.  I was excited to be interviewing Janet K. Lee about her new Pride and Prejudice book on Kickstarter, but I couldn’t quit obsessing over what drink to order.  I’m mostly a coffee person, but somehow coffee didn’t seem right for chatting about Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.  As I weighed how the implications of my choice of beverage might impact the first impression I was about to make, it felt like I had inadvertently wandered into an Austen novel.

I never have this problem when I talk about Batman.

But I figured a little social angst was more than worth it in order to meet Janet Lee.  Lee, if you don’t know, is one of the best and most distinctive artists in comics.  She made her debut five years ago as the co-creator, with Jim McCann, of Return of the Dapper Men, a graphic novel that won the Eisner Award.  That’s one way to start a career.  If you’ve not seen it, the book is gorgeous—lushly illustrated with the kinds of pictures that encourage you to linger for long stretches of time.  (And Lee hints that there may be some announcements coming soon about a Dapper Man sequel.)

Since entering the comics field with a such a bang, Lee has become the industry’s pre-eminent Jane Austen specialist.  She drew two Jane Austen adaptations for Marvel Comics, and then just last week she announced the launch of a Kickstarter for a new, illustrated edition of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

In fact, I was catching Lee during a particularly busy week.  In addition to the Kickstarter, Vertigo Comics had just announced that she would be illustrating a story in an upcoming anthology called Slam, and the day before we spoke, Marvel had just released a Once Upon a Time collection featuring another one of her stories.

Clearly, if I had any hope of keeping up with her in this conversation, I was going to need the coffee.

When she arrived, she brought her portfolio to show me some of her initial illustrations for Pride and Prejudice.  Her technique is unlike anything I’ve seen.  The illustrations are constructed as layers, with small drawings in pen and ink, colored, cut out, and pasted onto a larger illustration.  It’s a textured, almost three-dimensional look with coloring that reminds one of watercolor but with clean, crisp lines.

She pushed them towards me on the table, but knowing how smudgy my fingers can be, I didn’t dare touch them.  Instead, we started talking.

CARPENTER: How did the new book—Pride and Prejudice—come about?

LEE: Well, after Return of the Dapper Men, the first projects I had were from Marvel Comics.  After I sent them the geekiest email in the world, saying, “You do Jane Austen and I love Jane Austen—she’s my favorite—can I do anything for you if you ever have an opening?” they hired me to do Emma, and then I got to do Northanger Abbey.

And then last year at San Diego Comic-Con, a publisher called “Silence in the Library” came and pitched me an idea about doing an illustrated Pride and Prejudice novel—it’s not a graphic novel, this is actually my first stab at doing still, static illustration instead of sequential—and I loved the idea.  I’ve always wanted to draw Pride and Prejudice, so that’s what we’re doing.

We came up with a list of scenes that we thought were great and I’ve been given a lot of free reign to pick my favorites and think how I want to parse them out, so I get to draw my favorite scenes as they appear in the book.

CARPENTER: How did you get interested in Jane Austen?

LEE: I would go through phases growing up with stuff I read, and somewhere in high school I got super hooked on Jane Austen in particular.  I drifted a little bit over to the Brontës, but Austen was my thing.  In fact, if you were to look at my daily diary, I tried to write like Jane Austen.  I loved her.  Loved her.  She’s been my favorite since my sophomore year in high school.

But I like a diverse list.  I like Dune—my dad’s a physicist—so I like a lot of classic sci-fi and fantasy too. I don’t know how it relates to Jane Austen, but I would just read them both together.

CARPENTER: But Pride and Prejudice is your favorite?

LEE: Yes.  As I’ve gotten older, I would probably rank Persuasion up there pretty closely to it, but there’s just something so charming and complete about the relationship between the characters in Pride and Prejudice.  I love it.  Helplessly.  It’s definitely my favorite.

CARPENTER: Where do you get your inspiration for the look of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy?  Am I seeing a little Colin Firth?

LEE: You’re not seeing Colin Firth, although you are seeing an actor.  I am so geeky that I don’t just like the pure adaptations.  I also like some of the spinoffs.  Matthew Rhys, who’s in The Americans, did a mystery called Death Comes to Pemberley [he played Darcy], and I think he’s just amazingly brooding and fun, so I’m kind of loosely basing off him.

Elizabeth is super hard, because I think everyone who’s truly in love with Pride and Prejudice almost sees themselves as Elizabeth.  So she’s the hardest one to draw.  But again, there’s another very fun BBC adaptation called Lost in Austen … and I loosely based it on the actress who plays that Elizabeth [Gemma Arterton] because I love her work and I thought that people wouldn’t immediately go, “Jennifer Ehle!”

Mr. Collins is another hard one because he needs to be so smarmy, and the actor in the Colin Firth version [David Bamber] was so perfect.  I’m sure he’s a lovely person in real life, but the way he played Mr. Collins is so spot on, so perfect that it’s hard to get away from him.

CARPENTER: Well, I think I speak for a lot of men when I say I feel like I’ve been playing second fiddle to Colin Firth for most of my married life.

LEE: I will admit that there’s a very strong possibility that this book is going to have one of the jumping-off-into-the-lake scenes for Mr. Darcy even though it’s not in the book—it would be an extra add-on.  It’s so universally loved by ladies everywhere.  [laughs]

CARPENTER: What kind of research do you have to do for something like this?

LEE: There’s a lot.  One thing I learned doing the Marvel books is that we Regency fans—we Jane Austen fans—are every bit as geeky as Spider-Man fans.  You get the costume wrong and somebody’s going to call you on it.

I have a very dear friend locally, and she has taught costume history for years, so she lets me borrow a lot of books about it, and she’s my go to person if I really have a question.  [Austen’s era] is kind of a difficult time, because this was the period where, especially for men’s fashions, all of the fashion is sort of a reaction against the French court, the over-the-top, overblown style.  They went back to sort of a Greek style, very simple silhouettes … column-like silhouettes.  You expect there to be dramatic changes in women’s fashion, but it even happened in men’s fashion.

I enjoy that sort of thing a great deal.  For someone like me, it’s a lot of fun.  I also learned pretty early on with the Marvel adaptations that I am a textile geek, so I like drawing the little patterns on the dresses and all of that.  People look at it for maybe six seconds, but I love drawing it.  It’s fun.

CARPENTER: Why do you think Austen has become such a phenomenon over the past 20 years?

LEE: She wrote a very different type of novel.  During her time period, there were a lot of very lurid novels, and it wasn’t always considered a great activity for young ladies to be reading novels, and you can see that reflected even in the Brontë sisters.  There’s a lot more wandering the Moors, a lot of houses burning, insane asylums, and things like that.

Jane didn’t do that.  Instead, she wrote what’s really, comparatively, a very modern novel—poking fun at society-at-large and looking at the family unit and a little commentary on society—but within the confines of a sort of a family story.  And I think in some ways she was before her time.  I do think that we caught up to her first, and then we started having some high-profile people who really enjoyed her, and we started having some good adaptations, and I think that really got the conversation going.

CARPENTER: My wife, who is a hardcore Austen fan, wanted me to ask you one question.  During Austen’s time, people were discouraged from being very animated with their facial expressions.  Does this become a problem when you’re illustrating them?

LEE: No, it’s useful actually.  That’s how you differentiate between Lydia and Mrs. Bennett who behave in a very low class way compared to Mr. Bennett … You can also do a lot with body language.  I also try to be mindful of some of the requirements.  It would be lovely to have Elizabeth and Darcy kiss—maybe they will at the end after the wedding—but that would never happen.  They would never hold hands.  It would never happen in the book.  In order to be true to it, I’m actually plotting the first proposal out to draw where they’re in the room alone—that’s not supposed to happen either—but there’s an entire segment of the book where Elizabeth notes that he looks very sure of himself, instead of looking proper. He says he’s desperate, he says he’s worried, but he doesn’t look like it.  So there’s things like that where you can do a lot with a little expression.

It becomes, from an art perspective, a really fascinating study, to figure out how you can do things with the way a hand is touching a cup or focus on something to convey the sort of emotion they’re supposed to be keeping inside themselves.  You can do some things by pausing at the mouth or holding a tightness or squinting the eyes.  It’s almost like a puzzle.

CARPENTER: Do you worry about being typecast?

LEE: I do.  But there was an announcement—today actually—that I’ll be doing a piece for Vertigo which is horror, so I’m excited to get to do that.  I do like doing period pieces a lot—it’s just fun to research the costumes—but I would hate to spend my entire life only doing tearoom chat stories and whatnot.

CARPENTER: Who would you say are your artistic influences?

LEE: My first influences are definitely classic children’s illustrators.  John Tenniel, Garth Williams.

I read strip comics from when I was very young and used to have collections and collections of a lot of them, but I didn’t really get into comics until I was in high school and was dating a boy who introduced me to X-Men, and from there I went straight into more artsy books like Blankets.  But even today, one of my favorite Christmas presents I get every year is a collection of the Caldecott winners or nominees for the year so that I can see the children’s illustrations.  Because they kind of go places and use materials that a lot of us in sequential art don’t do and I love that variety.  And I like to do things a little bit differently.

CARPENTER: That’s part of what I like about your stuff.  With most of the comics I read, you can trace the artists’ roots directly back to either Jack Kirby or Will Eisner, but when I look for the influences in your art, I’m left thinking … is that Arthur Rackham?

LEE: Well Rackham’s definitely one of my influences, for sure.  Or Tenniel.  Classic French poster art … I love that as well.  And in some ways, I think that’s some of the first sequential artwork that we ever had.

CARPENTER: [Indicating her Pride and Prejudice artwork on the table] What exactly am I looking at here?

LEE: The drawings are done in pen and ink, and I use a Copic marker.  I started doing it instead of watercolor because when I was working in purely wet media it would just diffuse everywhere.  And I found that with a Copic in particular, it has the advantage of refills.   So if you flush the marker with a lot of ink it gives almost a watercolor effect.

CARPENTER: [Indicating the pasted-on images] I’m going to ask a stupid question here, but does anybody else do this in comics?  This isn’t what people do, is it?

LEE: No.  See, I actually started off late.  I was a buyer at Ingram book company for 16 years and had started out buying graphic novels mostly and art books and had been promoted to be in charge of the textbook buying section—lovely people, but not the most creatively fulfilling job.

I had stopped formally taking art classes in 8th grade … I had drifted away from doing art completely.  Except for a few classes here and there, I just stopped.

So once I started doing the textbook buying, I needed an outlet, and I started doodling again … [Later] I decided I wanted to do a bigger piece and to do decoupage so I could get the figures to extend beyond the borders of the piece a little bit, and that one sold immediately.  So I started doing more art, getting picked up by galleries, and decoupage was kind of my thing.

Meanwhile, my dear friend, Jim McCann, was working with me at Ingram and eventually took off to go live in New York and started working for Marvel Comics.  He decided he wanted to write his own piece, and one year when he came home for Christmas, he saw three pieces of artwork that I had set up in galleries—they didn’t relate to each other—bought all of them, and two months later I got the opening lines of Return of the Dapper Men.  He had written the script around the three pieces of artwork.

So because we were pitching it with an unknown illustrator—I had never done any sequential art; I had never done any illustration work at all—he took a bunch of my art to San Diego Comic-Con to pitch the story, and when they bought it they said, “Let’s go ahead and do it.  Let’s do it in this style.”  And I didn’t know any better, so I did the whole book in decoupage.  So I think I am the only one doing it—maybe the only crazy one—but now I kind of like it.  I kind of think foreground-back, so I like the texture of cutting things out and building it.

CARPENTER: Switching gears, a bit, for years, the comics industry has been very male-dominated, but the demographics are now changing very rapidly.  As a former book buyer and now an artist, what changes do you see in the industry?

LEE: We’ve hit a point in the history of comics at least where men are no longer the primary buyers of ebooks.  Electronic content is much more heavily purchased by women.

CARPENTER: For comics too?

LEE: Yeah, women are the primary purchasers of electronic content, and that is probably a) because they’re a little intimidated to go into comics shops still, and b) because most of them don’t collect the way a lot of the male buyers do.  There was also another recent article about the New York Times Bestsellers for 2014 in the comics category, the graphic novel category.  I think 70%, seven of the top ten were by female creators, and most of those primarily were being sold in bookstores.

For better or worse, just like the old adage in the comic book industry is “women don’t shop there; men shop there,” the adage in the book industry is “men don’t shop in bookstores; the women buy books for them.”  I’ve always said if we could get the two sides to talk to each other we’d have magic and everyone’s sales would grow exponentially.

But that also says to me that if women are buying it, then we’re about to see a big upswing in children’s books as well because the mothers tend to be the ones who go in and buy the books for the children.  At least that’s the prevailing wisdom.

CARPENTER: You mean we’ll see more “All Ages” comics?

LEE: Well, we’ll have to get away from the “All Ages” nomenclature because that means absolutely nothing in the book industry.  We’ll have to actually think of something like “8-12 years old” or whatever.  But that’s fine.  We’ll get there.

Special thanks to Janet K. Lee for taking the time to talk to us.  For more information about Pride and Prejudice see her Kickstarter page, and for more on her various projects, see her Web page.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for RogerEbert.com and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer


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