Striving for rejection


Dear Artist,

In 1986, Jim Lee was preparing to graduate from Princeton with a psychology degree and considered going to medical school. As a kid growing up in suburban St. Louis after his parents emigrated from Seoul, South Korea, Jim learned to speak English while escaping to comic books to relieve the anxiety of feeling like an outsider. Upon his graduation from Princeton and longing to return to his love of art, Jim decided to enroll in a drawing class. When something ignited inside him, he asked his parents for a year to postpone his studies while he tried to break into the comic book industry. Jim began mailing pages of his drawings to Marvel and DC Comics.

Uncanny X-Men #275 by Jim Lee, with inks by Scott Williams and colors by Glynis Oliver and Joe Rosas, 1991

Uncanny X-Men #275
by Jim Lee, with inks by Scott Williams and colors by Glynis Oliver and Joe Rosas, 1991

Dear Mr. Lee,
Your work looks as if it were done by four different people. Your best pencils are on page 7, panel with agents (lower left corner), and close up of face. The rest of the pencils are of much weaker quality. The same can be said of your inking. Resubmit when your work is consistent and when you have learned to draw hands.
Eliot R. Brown
Submissions Editor, Marvel Comics Group

Some comic book artist friends convinced Jim that he might have better luck if he tried to show his work to editors in person. He attended a convention in New York City, where he met one of the Marvel editors, Archie Goodwin. Archie agreed to let Jim come to Marvel to pencil a mid-list, lesser-known series called Alpha Flight. Jim’s drawings slowly gained popularity with readers — especially his work on a series called Uncanny X-Men. He began co-writing, formed his own publishing company, made creator-owned titles and started his own production company. Today, Jim is the co-Publisher and CEO of DC Comics.



All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder, #9 by Jim Lee, with inks by Scott Williams and colors by Alex Sinclair, 2005

All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder, #9
by Jim Lee, with inks by Scott Williams and colors by Alex Sinclair, 2005

PS: “Sometimes I wonder if we ever really improve as artists or if the nirvana derived from completing a piece blinds us enough to love what we have created and move on to the next piece. If we could see the work as it is, with years of reflection in the here and now, how many images would end up in the trash rather than on the racks?” (Jim Lee)

Esoterica: Longing to return again to illustration in 1998, Jim sold his production company to DC Comics, where he continued to run it but also worked as an artist. Jim has drawn and written for the Marvel and DC icons Batman, Fantastic Four, The Punisher War Journal, Superman, WildC.A.T.s and Uncanny X-Men, his most personal as the outsiders looking in, re-inventing America. “People ask me, ‘What happened in your life that might have pushed you as an artist to get to where you are today?’ ” said Jim. “I always felt a little on the outside. And as such, you’re always observing things. So, I’d be kind of re-creating these things in my mind, and I think drawing it was a way to deal with that.”

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Superman-204-jim-lee“How you react to rejection is important. It is not the rejection of others that truly affects us, the problem occurs when… that rejection by others causes us to ‘reject’ ourselves.” (Chris Tyrell)





    • Really? He didn’t know Archie Goodwin, he sought him out for a review and impressed him enough to get a chance. And succeeded. It wasn’t like “Uncle Archie” was there, or even Goodwin being a friend of a friend. Artists used to move to New York so they could wait in line to see art directors and editors who bought work. This is the same. So your dismissive comment? Maybe rethink?

  1. Good article Sara. There may be some hope for me after all.! I guess when the going gets tuff the tuff get going still applies. Thank you. Jean.

  2. Absolutely – Whereas Marvel’s Eliot Brown sent him a cold rejection letter, then another Marvel editor took him on. In my early days as a writer I accumulated the proverbial drawerful of rejection letters (sometimes totally impersonal slips), but I persisted and a newspaper editor took me on. Later a leading woman’s magazine took me on as a columnist and I stayed there 17 years! Much the same now with painting which has now completely taken over my creativity and passion. I’ve had loads of negative, sometimes cruel, comments over the 26 years I’ve been painting seriously. But fortunately I have also always had buyers and collectors who love my paintings. So who is to say what’s “good” or “bad”? If a painting gives one person in the whole world joy – that’s wonderful and all I want. Of course we artists strive to improve and perhaps do in some ways. But imagine how flummoxed I was when an artist friend who’s not a fan of my work saw a painting recently and exclaimed “This is really great Jenny – your best work ever.” It was one of my first paintings!! Hey ho. The moral is that whatever people say, we need to keep the faith and keep painting – not for critics but for our own personal joy. That way we stay authentic and our paintings, past present and future, while they may or may not appeal to others, are a joyous part of our lives.

  3. I must object to the characterization of Marvel’s Eliot Brown’s rejection as ‘cold’. In any field, I think a rejection that points out the strengths and weaknesses of the work (even if only in the editor’s opinion) is extremely valuable. It gives the recipient a chance to re-evaluate his/her work with an eye to how it was received. I only take exception to rejections that state something like “doesn’t fit our needs, etc.”. Or -worse yet – NO response. Brown did not tell Lee his work was worthless; he encouraged him to continue to refine it. And perhaps Lee did just that before meeting Goodwin?

  4. When I got a negative review with suggestions , I would take some seriously and change asper the suggestion, but others ( my favorite parts I would not change. This often works in my favor with reciprocal respect. In the past, I would get depressed for days. Thinking “What does he know” That got me no where. Reciprocal respect should be recognized by both parties.

  5. I wonder how many people can identify with this: “People ask me, ‘What happened in your life that might have pushed you as an artist to get to where you are today?’ ” said Jim. “I always felt a little on the outside. And as such, you’re always observing things. “

  6. There’s a difference between being cold and being objective. Eliot Brown’s criticism points out the strengths and weaknesses in the submitted work and then goes on to encourage Lee by asking him to submit further work once he’s acted on the suggestions. What could be fairer or more helpful?
    Skip is right about the outsider nature of many of us. Art has been a way of creating an alternative world from an early age for the great majority – or so I would guess. For most (again, I’m guessing) there is a rich inscape which we can fall back on over a lifetime; with a bit of luck we can share it with others and so their lives are enriched also. To do this you need a kind of self-belief bordering on arrogance; those who don’t have it just stop.

  7. “To do this you need a kind of self-belief bordering on arrogance; those who don’t have it just stop.” Thank you so much Frank Gordon for stating this simple truth: Without a certain amount “of self-belief bordering on arrogance” creatives just stop. Give up. Walk away. Fail- because of someone’s opinion of us- or our work. And we creatives often learn early that in fact- we ARE outsiders.

    I’m extremely proud of my file full of acceptance letters. Especially the ones from all-media shows I entered my fiber-work into. Those acceptance letters allowed me to OWN that the work is good *enough* to stand against all other art forms. That it’s interesting- valued- and more than just adequate. And it gave me needed impetus to keep working- and keep believing in myself. Acceptance letters are earned recognition. Getting a trophy just for participating- isn’t.

    I’m extremely proud of my file folder full of rejection letters- for they teach different lessons. They are proof I tried. Proof success is making and sharing and exposing regardless of a certain type of outcome. They gifted me with the ability to discern what is just one person’s opinion. They taught me how to look at an exhibit (I’m not in) and see how intrinsically the juror’s bias (or theme) is reflected. And they taught me that something rejected from one exhibit might yet get into another. Learning that was a priceless gift. Still- they taught me to strive to improve the work.

    But they also allowed me to recognize when it all became political and see clearly when it became me- and not the work- that was being rejected. Yeah I know. Nobody would do that- would they???

    How to raise creative children with less self-doubt rather than more.? How to instill in children the recognition that just doing the work is of value? That study and practice deliver desired results? That working (hard) to achieve something is a fine thing? And most importantly- that rejection is an excellent growth tool/experience?

    People who are given most everything- value almost nothing…

    The self-knowledge you earn can never be taken away.

  8. I wonder what number of individuals can relate to this: “Individuals ask me, ‘What occurred in your life that may have pushed you as a craftsman to get to where you are today?’ ” said Jim. “I generally felt a little outwardly. What’s more, in that capacity, you’re continually watching things.

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I am a self taught artist, I work in oil, Acrylic and watercolour also in Pastels. Started painting In Ashcroft with Mr. Campbell. I taught my self how to paint by studying professional artists’ work through reading, TV programs, educational DVD and work shops.