5:16pm PT by Graeme McMillan
DC's Jim Lee on Touring Kuwait With the USO and CW Stars
Batman’s mission extends beyond Gotham City, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the celebrations for the character’s 80th anniversary have a similarly international focus. Nonetheless, the most recent event to mark the Dark Knight’s birthday may be a little unexpected, with DC partnering with the United Service Organizations to take DC publisher and chief creative officer Jim Lee and others to U.S. military bases in Kuwait.
The trip came about, indirectly, thanks to novelist and comic book writer Brad Meltzer, when he was involved with the planning of USO comic conventions on multiple bases last year. Lee couldn’t attend due to scheduling but recorded video messages for two shows, creating a relationship that formed the foundations of this year’s tour.
“This year just happened to be Batman’s 80th [anniversary], and there was this cool opportunity to do something big to celebrate Batman’s 80th anniversary and also bring a comic-con experience directly to the troops, with not just writers and artists, but also actors from hit TV shows and make it a big deal,” Lee tells The Hollywood Reporter.
The result was a multi-day tour of five military bases — Camp Buehring, Camp Arifjan, Ali Al Salem, Camp Patriot and Ahmad Al Jaber — with Lee joining Batman comic book writer Tom King and actors Nafessa Williams (Black Lighting), Candice Patton and Danielle Panabaker (The Flash) in meeting servicemen and women, accompanied by the Tumbler from Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and a sneak preview of the new DC/Epix series Pennyworth. During the tour, the team took part in meet-and-greets, trivia contests, signings and panel discussions, as well as art master classes from Lee and King sharing his experience as a former CIA counter-terrorism officer.
“It was amazing,” Lee says. “We got a tour of all the different facilities, all the things people were doing — the signal corps, canine units, infrastructure — we met with soldiers across the board, there were people of all customs, it was pretty comprehensive. It’s funny because, we were there for them to meet us, but I felt like they were hosting a party and pulling out all the stops to show us a good time.”
The tour lasted a week, but Lee says that the time passed quickly. “The days were packed full of seeing new things and experiencing the aspects of the military and hearing everybody’s stories. I think we all got emotional at different times, whether it was hearing people talk about their life story, or what these characters, the comic books, the TV shows, meant to them. There was a gay soldier that really connected to Nefessa Williams’ character on Black Lightning — they both got very emotional.”
In a statement, Patton added, "It was really eye opening to be in Kuwait and see how big of a reach The Flash has. It really warms my heart to know that so many service members enjoy our show and use it as a means of escape. They sacrifice so much for us and whatever joy we can bring to them is truly an honor."
Lee himself admits that the trip helped him connect with the soldiers.
“At every meal, the five of us split up and would go sit at different tables, and we were kind of wandering around looking for someone who looks like they might have read comics,” he says, laughing. ”You don’t want to intrude on people during their lunch break or their dinner break, you know? Every single meal I found some connection with the soldiers, whether they were comic book fans, or just through the course of conversation. … For me, whenever I thought of my family, I would get emotional, and I’d only been gone from them a week. Thinking about these soldiers, a lot of them were deployed anywhere between six months and a year, usually around nine months, and a lot of them had wives and kids, you know? I definitely got the sense of the sacrifice they made, the hardships they made. That was something I’d be reflecting on every day, and something I continue to reflect on.”
King, who had served in both Iraq and Afghanistan during his CIA tenure, was a “rock star” on the trip, according to Lee. “He had a unique point of view in terms of his own service, and his return to that area, and the soldiers really reacted positively to that,” Lee explains. “It’s a weird thing for him to experience — it was as if Bob Hope served in Vietnam and then returned later with the USO and performed there. This war, this conflict, has been ongoing for such a long time.”
Lee hopes that this trip will be just the first of its kind for DC talent.
“We had a security detail; the last base we were at, we were 30 miles from the Iraqi border,” he recalls. “At every base, they showed a preview of the new series Pennyworth, and in that hour break, we were thinking, 'Great, maybe we could drive to the border, pass over and come back.' (Laughs.) We just couldn’t convince them of that. Once you’re there, it just creates this curiosity. That sense of adventure has stuck with me, and I’d love to continue this elsewhere, and bring in other creators, other talent, to expand upon this.”
Certainly, there’s more to come in partnership between DC and the USO; later this year, the two will release a special Batman-themed USO2GO kit featuring comics, movies, TV shows and more to service members in remote locations around the world.
“We had some really interesting discussions. There was a lot of nuance to everything. There was nothing that ever felt repeated; we had a lot of great interactions,” says Lee, summing up the trip. “You definitely saw the happiness you brought to the servicemen and servicewomen while you were there, whether they were casual fans or die-hard fans. There were a lot of thank yous, and messages online, talking about how it really impacts morale and reconnects them to where they came from, and home.”