Lately, Alex Ross has spent more time painting the superheroes he’s been associated with for the better part of his career than he had been for a few years. 2013 saw the monthly return of “Astro City” — the creator-owned series he’s worked on with writer Kurt Busiek and artist Brent Anderson for the better part of 20 years. And this year, Ross dug into one of his favorite piece of comics culture by painting the covers for Kevin Smith, Ralph Garman and Ty Templeton’s “Batman ’66 Meets The Green Hornet,” a co-published venture from DC Comics and Dynamite Entertainment.
In the first installment of a special two-part interview with CBR, Ross discusses the trickier aspects of pulling off the likenesses (and not-so-likenesses) of the “Batman ’66” world, recreating the tone and feel of the offbeat superhero crossover without mocking it and bringing back “Astro City’s” original trinity of heroes in style.
CBR News: Alex, with your Batman/Green Hornet covers you’ve really tapped into the look of the original shows, but is this the first time you’ve done pieces with these actors because of the rights issues —
Alex Ross: Well, there still is a rights issue because they have no rights cleared up specifically for Van Williams and Bruce Lee, actually. In fact, I wonder if they have the rights for the two episodes with the Green Hornet for the upcoming “Batman” DVD, which is supposed to be coming out this year. There still is no official release of the original “Green Hornet” series, and you’d hope that one might begat the other — that if the one did well enough, they’d finally put together the money to clear the rights with those estates. Van Williams is still with us, thankfully, so he could still benefit from this if any of it came together.
Everything about the challenge to doing these covers was, “Okay, go to town with Adam West and Burt Ward’s faces, but don’t do that great of a job making them look like Van Williams and Bruce Lee.” [Laughs] I’ve done everything I can to try and block out their faces a bit, and it’s a very weird thing to be told, “Don’t do it that well.” It’s consistent throughout that I’ve done some far away shots of them and the like.
On the first cover, you really embraced the pop art aspect of the “Batman” show with some pretty accurate recreations of the sound effects from the series. Were you pausing VHS copies of the show or Googling stills up to match that effect correctly?
Given that I have absolutely no computer ability, I don’t Google anything. [Laughs] What I did was take “Batman: The Movie,” which is the only thing so far that’s been released on BluRay — I freeze framed it on my television and then, I kid you not, photographed that for the physical photos I could sit with for many hours to draw from. And in particular, if the photo worked — I should say that I don’t trace anything when I’m drawing, generally, but in the case of sound effects like this, if the photo was traceable, I’d use the lightbox with it because, who’s going to care? It’s not the same thing as taking ownership of a likeness off a photo. There are a certain group of haters out there for every artist who want to look at what you do and somehow prove that it’s a scam — that what you’ve achieved is somehow a lie. With work like mine, that’s always trying to be more photographic, you hear people going, “He copies photos!! That’s just how it’s done! [Laughs]
Well, you do nail the likenesses for West and Ward quite well, and the cover to Issue #2 with the train scene, I feel like you made an image that was as exciting as I remember the “Batman” show being when I was seven. But it was probably never that exciting, really. [Ross Laughs] Was that part of the goal with this assignment? To make images that felt like what the show would have been if it had the budgets of today’s comic movies?
Well, to a degree, sure. The key thing with all six of the covers I did was that no part of it was meant to make the characters look foolish because of the awkwardness of those costumes that were made back in ’66. You didn’t think they were silly back then, but reflectively, over they years, we’ve begun to look at them that way. “Oh, that’s awkward. The position of the bat emblem on Adam’s chest or the way they all fit the actors.” I wanted to make sure that the way I framed them, and the poses I put their bodies in, connected with an impressiveness that we all felt when we were children seeing this for the first time.
Did you make a checklist for yourself on elements from the show that you wanted to use? Say, the Bat-Copter, or the big set piece of the Batcave that features of cover #3?
Yeah. There were things I just wasn’t going to be able to touch on — Batgirl’s not going to be in the series, for example. I’ll give away the big surprise that the Joker will show up in this series. The solicitation going out in a couple of weeks will show the cover I painted with him on it, so we’re breaking huge news here, I know. [Laughs] But I was able to get my ya yas by drawing at least that one formidable villain from the show.
When it came to the cars, I’ve got a cover for the fifth issue coming up that has the Batmobile and the Black Beauty side-by-side, scraping one another with huge sparks flying off. They’re almost in a race. That’s an element of the show where you couldn’t not acknowledge it. That’s the same with the set piece on the cover to #3, where you’ve seen the vignette showing the Batcave in the background. That was a real compression of things, to try and get that in, plus the new villain, plus the fight between Kato and Robin. I just desperately wanted to get in one painting of the atomic stockpile in the Batcave.
How did you work to create that new General Gum villain, considering those considerations about likeness?
That was in the concept that Kevin and Ralph had for it. They knew they wanted to revisit the villain from the original two-episode stint. And, like with a lot of the background and supporting villains characters from the TV show, DC doesn’t have the likeness rights for all those actors. The guy who played Harry Mudd in “Star Trek” is someone whose rights they don’t have, so how do you get around that? You make the character evolve. It was a clever idea, and I sketched out a version that, in my mind, was pulling from those awful rubber masks they had the kids wear in Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” movie. You know, those melty little faces with the pink eyes and the mouth hole. I was thinking of that on his head, which is a very weird thing to think of. That would be horrifying if it was on television in the 1960s. [Laughs]
And because his name was Gum and he’s now General Gum, it made sense that he’d be pink. The costume that he wore was always a bright magenta pink, so I made the suit on him bright pinkish. But then, after I’d painted him three covers in a row, Ralph and Kevin had the thought to have him colored on the interiors as wearing white. [Laughs] That’s just how close I was on the creative team. I did all my covers way in advance.
Shifting gears to the other side of your current DC output, you’re hard at work with Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson on “Astro City” again, and I get the feeling that one of the things that’s been a theme in this volume is a renewed focus on that book’s trinity of the Samaritan, Winged Victory and the Confessor. Did you all talk about playing up those core characters because of the long gap between series?
It lined up with my feelings about what we should do without my knowing that it was also what Kurt wanted to do, which was that we should re-impress these major icons of our history on people. These are our biggest three heroes, in that kind of DC archetype way. He had this story worked out that had those three overlapping. Thankfully, he responded to my idea that we address this relationship between Samaritan and Winged Victory that began 20 years ago. If we’ve gone a long time without investigating the lives of these heroes, let’s show that they’ve been a couple. That wasn’t just some weird flirtation that got stuck in some love triangle that comics always seem to lean on. Let’s have progression in the Astro City world. These characters are capable of age and growth because we don’t have the demand put on us like other companies do. And in the case of the Confessor character, that’s the sidekick who’s grown older and taken over for his now — passed away? I don’t know what you call it when the undead die. [Laughs] But for his former vampire predecessor. He’s doing more or less the same thing, without the vampiric power.
It’s been great to remind people of these succinct designs we’ve had for these archetypal characters. And immediately after we did that, I started saying to Kurt that we should revisit some of the other ones, like our Spider-Man analogue Jack In The Box. So now, with Issue #13, there’s a storyline that he’s featured strongly in that I got to do a cover for right away. All these single issue stories and continuing storylines have all demanded new characters to be added into the framework, as well. There’s now an additional villain or new archetype that we’ll add to fit the needs of the story. That always pops up as it always has. It’s fun to figure out something unique that very well could have existed in the prime of all these comic book characters.
What’s it like to finally have your head back in the space where “Astro City” is an ongoing concern again, creatively, after so much time off? That seems like it would be — I’m not sure if weird is the right word.
Yeah, it’s weird. Absolutely. And sometimes I go, “This again?” But then I wrap my head around it all and get really excited about it. We’ve been on-again, off-again so many times over the years, depending upon Kurt’s health or just the drive of where the story wanted to go. But after all this time, it’s still one of those things that I can claim a certain level of independent creation for. Obviously, most people know my work as related to corporate ownership. This is the one big thing that I have a hand in and a stake in. That’s great.
Ross returns to CBR later this week for a in-depth discussion of his covers for Marvel Comics’ 75th Anniversary.