To the converted, the guest list at this weekend’s Canadian National Comic Book Expo is stupendous. The star attraction: the famously ovular Patrick Stewart — though the Star Trek skipper only slightly outshines the comics brethren sidling in his corona, like Asiophile David Mack and Marvel Ed-in-Chief Joe Quesada.
Among these glimmering bulbs, however, will be one whose life resembles the fantasies that earn them their keep.
He is 28, from Richmond Hill, as unlikely a setting as Krypton for a superstory — but his is no Siegel & Shuster concoction.
His name is Pat Lee, and he is president, art director and penciller of Dreamwave Productions, a publishing company he owns and runs with his older brother, Roger. They draw comics of their favourite cartoon shows, and make a bundle at it.
This particular dream took root where countless visions grow — the backyard — with Pat and Roger as kids, scribbling comics and pining for glory. Pat, the artist of the pair, followed high school with an internship illustrating in California. But cruel fate twisted his hopes; his retired parents needed support, and his brother couldn’t do it alone. Pat returned home burning with a new goal. His own comic book? Bigger: his own comic book company.
The brothers took the name Dreamwave; an apt moniker, considering. With Roger balancing the chequebooks and Pat the pencils, they plunged fangs first into their debut comic-book series, a neo-noir detective thriller called Darkminds. It tickled the hackles of Image Comics, Todd MacFarlane’s old concern, which published the title in ’99. On the strength of Pat’s nimble storyboards and lush illustration — heralding the anime style that would soon sweep North American cartooning — Darkminds ignited, selling 40,000 copies of its first issue and whipping Dreamwave into orbit.
Two years later, Pat was approached by Wizard magazine, the standard-bearer of mainstream American comics, to lay some illustrations for its ’80s nostalgia edition. The subject: the Transformers, a cartoon and toy series that, next to Hulk Hogan and Activision, dominated young boys’ imaginations in that neon decade. Pat’s drawings shimmered, and gave Dreamwave an idea. It would revive the franchise for the 21st century by drawing Transformers comics of its own. The brothers pitched Hasbro, the brand’s parent, and promptly swiped the exclusive license from the gaping maws of nearly a dozen major competitors. Dreamwave’s first release, Transformers: Generation One, sold almost a quarter of a million copies its first month on the racks, in April 2002.
This September marks the 20th anniversary of the Transformers, which began airing in the US in 1984. With their crotchety transforming noises — a favourite DJ sample — the Transformers were a phenomenon, pioneers of what today is the commonplace collusion of cartoons and toys. Like sci-fi Rubik’s cubes, each character/figurine was a fierce robot that folded into some random object: a fighter jet, say, or, improbably, a portable stereo (complete with transforming cassette). From ’84 to ’88, the Transformers turned their young, TV audience into devout consumers, clamouring to be the first kid on their block to own the red and blue semi-trailer Optimus Prime or, if the block was especially solvent, the two-foot-tall Fortress Maximus.
The ground is still fertile, a generation later, and the Lees have tilled it with skill, sowing far more than simple nostalgia. They’ve updated the rusting source material, taking great care to make their artwork painterly and modern. Their Transformers comics apply some of the most sophisticated digital design tools on the market, and the work achieves a breathtaking theatricality.
Its series a hit, Dreamwave has grown as mighty as the Transformers themselves. It is now the fifth-largest comic publisher in North America, with a staff of more than 50 and an array of titles, from manga-style pocketbooks and trade paperbacks to more than a dozen comic serials, including the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which Dreamwave hopes will mine Gen Y as Transformers has X. Several comics have even been optioned by major film studios.
The company is branching into new realms, collaborating on an ad campaign for Doc Martens boots and the production design on a Janet Jackson video. Pat Lee is indeed riding a wave. And his dream is alive and well.