DEVOTION - The True Power of Alex Ross' Art
Like many of you, I vividly remember the first time that I really noticed Alex Ross' art. It was one of those bitter snowy winter days as I was standing on a crowded bus observing a twenty-something female passenger soaking in a copy of the just released "Marvels" #3. First, I'd never seen a female read a comic on any means of public transportation; second, I'd never seen a painted comic where the art was so immediately engaging and finely stylized. Prior to this epiphany, I was in that occasional phase we all entered in the early nineties: I had kicked the comic book reading habit for barely two months for various reasons (girls, school, and what not). Like anyone who saw "Marvels," I returned. I came back looking for all the issues of "Marvels" and was blown away by Ross's vision of the Marvel Universe. I repeatedly kicked myself for that momentary lapse as I witnessed those Marvel characters coming to life. It was literally a reawakening for me. Because of him, I would never doubt the power of this art form again.
While it is often said that pictures speak louder than words, "Mythology," the beautiful art book by Chip Kidd and Geoff Spear about the artist, certainly proved that cliché a moot point. Proving that Ross is no mere overnight sensation or phenomenon to be taken for granted, this book traced the artist's attachment to super-heroes back to a time when his medium was crayons and his canvas was construction paper. By the time Ross was 12, he already had a good sense of composition and storytelling ability better than most twice his age. Also evident are the influence of comic book idols who the young artist emulated: Neal Adams, George Perez, Joe Staton, among others… and the better question becomes, "Who hasn't influenced Alex Ross?" The painter has studied his chosen field by seeming to absorb something from any comic that crossed his path, something we see for ourselves as we absorb work after work.
"My greatest inspiration," Ross once explained to me, "for wanting to see painted work in comics is probably from looking at a lot of pulp cover reprints from the 1930s, because my brother had a collection of covers reprinted. I just thought, 'Man, wouldn't it be cool to see comics this finished!' That's just a simple idea. It was no more complicated than that. It's just taking it to that further mile."
While working at a major Chicago ad agency, he moonlighted by illustrating comics like "Terminator: Burning Earth" and a small handful of other assignments for Now Comics in the early 1990s. When he finally got his break, he blew us away with his romanticized vision of the Marvel Universe in "Marvels." Later, "Kingdom Come" caused shockwaves throughout the industry and fandom for its sheer power and epic storytelling. Afterwards, "Uncle Sam" served as a deep look into the spirit of our nation; it would also show us that this man wasn't just limited to drawing super-heroes. With "Earth X" and its sequels, Ross continued to develop as a master storyteller, as he explored the inner workings of Marvel's characters. His quintuple DC treasury series of books were ambitious projects intended to reawaken a sense of heroic awe to a jaded public. The two years spent painting "Justice" proved that he had the chops to help deliver the defining Justice League story in this new millennium.
In all of Ross's work, the artist always seems to capture every hero and villain in their prime, their personae and attitudes exactly as we remember from our favorite stories. He gives these characters a level of prestige the likes they've never seen. It's always humbling to see how he so perfectly captures the charm and appeal these characters have had upon popular culture in his renderings. What seems so daunting to us seems to come almost naturally to him (with many, many hours of dedication, of course). About his technique, he modestly said, "I do full pencils and a kind of watercolor wash technique on top of that. I paint in black and white tones first for the entire piece and then I'll go in with color as a final touch-up. I use some airbrush color in it." If only it were as easy as it sounded.
Few are the individuals that I've encountered in comics that are as passionate about this art form as he is. He got into comics to create comic books; never did he see this field as a rest stop to Hollywood or making video games. Since day one, he's shown a level of respect and awareness for this medium and its creators. He's always done his part to honor those that have inspired him. With all his accomplishments, he certainly hasn't let his success get the best of him or his humility. As Ross has explained to me, "I hate it when people tell me, 'They're going to say 'yes' to whatever you want, Alex.' In regards to when I'm requesting a certain thing that they normally wouldn't let an artist demand. I think everything would be a lot better if artists were able to control a lot more of their work. And the only reason I get any kind of dereference is because, 'Oh, I'm Alex Ross.' I hate that. I would rather be dealing with a scenario where everybody's treated cool."
With the Herculean workload of "Justice" behind him, Ross has taken assignments for providing covers for "Superman," "Batman," "JSA," and "Captain America," amongst others. In an editorial era where covers are usually muddy, rushed, and poorly conceived, it seems that Ross wants to bring back the sheer magic and bold appeal that a comic book cover should have. Although the stories are what bring back the readers, it is usually the cover that intrigues them by luring them in at the beginning. Covers need to be the window to the title and its story, not relegated to leftover inventory art from the editor's drawer. So far, the covers that Ross has done for "Batman" and "Superman" have served to remind us that there's still magic left in how DC's big two can be rendered. It's especially exciting to see the top artist in the field follow the tradition that Neal Adams, Joe Kubert and Nick Cardy set in the seventies when they provided covers for DC that weren't just breathtaking, but provided a true tempo of excitement for the story within the pages of book.
So what does he want for his readers to get out of his work? Ross earnestly answered, "Hopefully, the same sense of wonder I had in believing the images I'm creating. When I'm losing myself in the icons that I'm representing, whether it be Uncle Sam or a super-hero, the reader has to believe that thing is real, that this thing is everything that it's alleged to be. That you put out of your mind the fantasy aspects, [because] it's just that real! That sense of wonder that a child would have but that you suddenly have strike you almost at an adult level, like, 'Wow!' That's actually not nonsense."
There are those naysayers who tell us what Ross does isn't comics - that the use of paints and models can never be comic book art. Yet they might be right as what he does might well be beyond comic books. His style is more sensational and attractive than most modern day comics and truer to comics's pulp roots. Like Norman Rockwell, who excelled at paintings depicting average American life which the average man could fully appreciate, Ross reigns supreme in our industry at illustrating super-heroes who are accessible to everyone! Within his art are examples of the hard work and extremes the artist goes to in the hopes of striving for perfection in his images. So try telling me again that he's not a comic book artist and I'll show you a man who bleeds comics.
[This article is based on the articles, observations and interviews that I've done about Alex Ross since our first conversation on December 17, 1997.]