Between the Panels: Artist Soo Lee on Loving Elseworlds, Not Being a One-Trick Pony, and Getting a Compliment from Klaus Janson

“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.

Following an early revelation that anyone - independently of a major publisher - can make comics, Soo Lee has carved out an impressive resume of work across the industry. Her list of her credits thus far features Image, Valiant, Black Mask, BOOM! Studios, and others — but she’s not close to being done growing and evolving as a talent.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Comic book artist and Illustrator

Your home base: NYC!

Social Media
Instagram: @sooleedraws
Twitter: @soodlee

Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: What’s the attraction for you to making comics over other artforms?

Soo Lee: The biggest draw for me is how fun it is. I get to create my own world or bring worlds to life, as I envision it. Feels a little powerful, right?

I think comics is such an interesting medium because it’s not quite storyboarding and they aren’t just illustrations. There are storytelling rules and rhythms that are unique to comics, and I love how challenging it is. Every panel to a page is a story within itself. There’s really nothing else like it.
KS: Fanbase Press launched the #StoriesMatter initiative this year to highlight the impact that stories can have on their audience.  Looking back, what types of stories really had an impact on you as a younger reader? 

SL: I’ve read so many different comics and manga since I was young, so it’s really hard to say. I think I just absorbed as much as I could as a hobby and I don’t think it really kindled my interest until I was in high school.

I used to read a lot of web comics that were floating around online in the early 2000s, and I think [those] fascinated me the most. That all these amateur creators were writing and drawing their own stories and posting them for fun, made me realize, oh, anyone can do this. And I mean that in the best way. I thought you had to work for big companies to be called a comic artist. Not true at all!

KS: Does anything in particular come to mind?

SL: I was and am a really big fan of the DC Elseworlds series. I absolutely loved that it was basically alternate universe fan fiction. Just like the web comics I read in the past, they had so much energy and seemed like there was more freedom to tell whatever story they wanted with our lovable heroes. So, the end result was a little wackier and very different.
KS: What’s the first “real” art project you remember? I’m looking for something that felt like a serious project for you at the time — whatever age that was.

SL: This is really funny because this question jogged a memory I forgot about. I don’t even remember how old I was, but I entered a painting contest when I was young, and I was one of the winners in my age group. It was printed in the Korea Times NY, and my mom had a clipping of it. Not sure if I still have it, but I’m pretty sure I just phoned it in and painted a single tree on a hill. Very artsy, right?

But if we’re talking professional, I got to work on the Flight anthology from Image Comics. I was a big fan, and it was one of my goals to be in that book. I was pretty thrilled when I got to draw a story for it.

KS: While many talented people dream of pursuing visual arts as a career, not so many specifically choose comics. When did that idea take shape for you?

SL: It's interesting for me to think about, because I went to an art specialized high school and I actually had cartooning classes there. So, we specifically drew comics and it was I think the catalyst for me pursuing comics. I mean, I read a lot of comic books, but I think being in that environment made me think this completely feels like the right thing to do. If that makes sense? As I get older, I don't want to just be a one-trick pony, so I would like to dip my toes into other art fields, try as many things as I can, but I don't ever want to give comics up. I love telling stories too much.

KS: Later, during your time as a student at SVA, you had a pretty well-known instructor.
SL: I had Klaus [Janson’s] cartooning class. He hated my work; he thought I was the worst, and I really was! The first compliment I ever received from him was about inking, so I thought hey, maybe there’s a future for me after all! He was extremely tough — like comics boot camp — but I learned so much from him. He has some of the smartest takes on storytelling, and I still have him in the back of my head when I draw. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even remember me because it was a long time ago, but I consider him a mentor in a sense, and I feel so lucky I took his class. I’ll never forget him! 
KS: Going off of that, imagine yourself as an art teacher now and one of your students is the college version of you. What’s a piece of advice or guidance you would give her about her work?
SL: I honestly would be just as tough, but it would be all for the sake of pushing them to challenge themselves. I would also tell them not to look down or judge other styles just because they didn’t like it. Maybe that’s just something most people learn as they get older anyway? And, most importantly, to not over think it and be fearless about your projects and getting to know your peers. I think I had a lot of hesitation in that regard and wish I could have pushed myself more to get out of my comfort zone earlier.

KS: When you look at your own work anywhere over time on the spectrum, can you see the influence of any other artists — from comics or not?
SL: It’s embarrassing but when I was younger, I was heavily influenced by a lot of other artists. I copied a lot of Yoshitaka Amano, tried to emulate Moebius, and even Akira Toriyama for the longest time. I don’t think I am as much now, but I’ve heard otherwise. Maybe I’m in denial! I honestly think I’m not finished developing “my style,” because there’s a lot of experimenting I want to do.
KS: What was the first comic released with your work in it?
SL: I drew a children’s genre comic series that was made to be a bilingual reading guide called Dim Sum Warriors. It was right out of college, and it was a very interesting experience.

KS: Do you remember the first time you held a copy?

SL: I was pretty excited when I finally got to hold one of the books, and it was a very surreal feeling. I actually made something!
KS: Tell us a little about your workspace or studio setup these days.
SL: I live in a very tiny apartment in New York, so I have my little side of the studio where my art desk and computer are crammed. It’s where a lot of storage is placed, so it’s not a very luxurious space at all. It’s also not the neatest space either; it’s what I would describe it as organized chaos. It’s not the neatest, but I know where everything is. I also have a weird thing where I work in the dark, except for the lamp on my drawing board.

KS: Now that you’ve been in the business for a while, what’s something you understand about making comics that maybe you didn’t when looking in from the outside as a fan?
SL: I didn’t know all the nuances of the business side of comics! I also naively [didn’t] realize how much self-promotion I’d have to do. Social media is like a second job!

KS: Hypothetical time: For one day, you can stand "over the shoulder" of any artist from the history of comics, watch them work, ask questions, etc. Who’s your pick?
SL: This is possibly the hardest question ever; I bet I'm going to change my mind after I answer it. There are just too many to choose from that I admire! I honestly am such a massive fan, so I would love to see Frank Quitely at work. I think he's a master at storytelling and would love to get an insight to his process. It would even be cool to just see how he starts his day drawing and how he tackles a script.

KS: How about some of your favorite art tools and techniques to play with, even if you don’t get to use them often?
SL: I love playing with gouache paints. I like to paint on occasion and mostly for fun, but I’d like to work on illustration projects with them.
KS: Setting aside pro obligations, commissions, etc… if you were set free to make a piece of art just for the joy of creating, what kind of thing might you come up with?
SL: I’d like to make thematic illustration pieces for my imaginary gallery, if I could. Some cool fashion pieces and pin-ups. I’d like to make my own comic, as well, in between that! 
KS: Can you share a passion of yours totally unrelated to comics or art? Something you study, collect, practice, whatever…
SL: I have a bunch of silly hobbies, but I guess the two most interesting ones would be that I used to practice Muay Thai. I’m a big fan of all-things paranormal and medical sciences.  I was going to apply for mortuary school before I got accepted to art school; I wanted to be a mortician or something in forensics.
KS: What’s a comic or graphic novel (new or older) by someone else that you look at with admiration?
SL: I remember being very moved by the books Laika by Nick Abadzis, Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell, and Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli. These stories have such a different pace than mainstream comics, where you can take your time on a feeling and a panel and they’re so human and relatable. A lot of slice-of-life genre mangas do this, too, and they’re absolutely beautiful. I want to be able to tell stories like that.
KS: Finally, tell us a little about what you’re working on now and what we should be on the lookout for coming up.
SL: There are a few things that are in the works and I can’t share publicly, as it goes in the industry! But just keep an eye out for some cool drawings and news. I really want to start working on some personal passion projects. Now that I’ve said it out loud, I have to stick to it!

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