Alex Ross Dives Deep Into Marvel's "Secret Wars"

Marvel Comics is making more than a few retro publishing moves these days, but one of the most jam-packed throwback events on the slate for 2015 is the new "Secret Wars." And as with many universe-spanning stories before, artist Alex Ross has contributed some expansive visuals to set the tone.

Launching from creative team of Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic, the story takes its name from the seminal Marvel comic event/12-issue toy advertisement created by Jim Shooter, Mike Zeck and others in 1984. While the original series saw the heroes and the villains of the Marvel U being drafted into cosmic combat with each other, the initial teaser for the new series by Ross shows variations on Marvel's heroes (plus Obnoxio the Clown!) from years worth of alternate reality titles, all clashing in space.

RELATED: Marvel Announces New "Secret Wars" By Hickman & Ribic for 2015

CBR's readers made short work of identifying over 30 characters that appear in the piece, but as for what it means for the story, Ross declined to share, saying it wouldn't be fun to know specifics at this point. "They've told you everything they need to," the painter joked. "They've told you that they're playing with some pieces they haven't played with before, and somewhere along the line I'm sure we'll get the obligatory 'And wait for this issue that will change everything!' Otherwise, they've announced that next year should be a fun one."

With characters from past projects, including Neil Gaiman's "1602" and the various "Noir" themed miniseries of a few years back, as well as returning faces from imprints like 2099 and MC2 all appearing in the image, the potential cast of the book runs very deep. "There's an infinite amount of things they've done --  especially with all the 'What If?' stories," said Ross of what could be drawn on for "Secret Wars."

"[For this piece], they provided a long list to me and then offered up, 'and anyone else you want to consider, we can discuss,'" he said of how much the art reflected his personal choices. "But once you start laying out all that was on the recommended list, it's a pretty full graphic, so I didn't go to town as much as I might with my own instincts. There were characters they weren't really wanting to use on this image -- and I know now that I'm going to be one of the cover artists on the series.

"The cover I'm working on today is for the first issue, and it's a similar design, with a lot of free-floating figures. They gave me even more room, saying, 'If you represent these two universes, go to town on the rest.' There was no editing or hesitation on that. All I can say is that there's more coming."

As for what's already there, Ross pointed to the primary battles of the big image being noteworthy -- that is, the latest versions of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America clashing with their past selves. "One of the things I found most satisfying in this was being able to do the classic Marvel characters," he said. "For the new female Thor, I get to draw the classic Thor instead of even the more modernized version. And I get to do old school '70s Iron Man, and the buccaneer boots version of Captain America. Every time I get a chance to draw a classic character without their updated look, I try to make the best case I can artistically for why they look coolest in that form.

"I figure if I chrome up the classic Iron Man costume, you see some dimension there that makes it more appealing as opposed to the movie look we've seen the past few years. That's a really cool armor, too -- both things have merit. But Captain America without wings on the side of his head has no merit. It should always be the guy with the wings, the chainmail shirt and the buccaneer boots," Ross said with a laugh.

While his own knowledge of the Marvel Universe runs deep, there were certain characters even he had to get help on before painting. "I was kind of drawn to the things that I was less familiar with," he said. "I mean, I never bought a single New Universe title -- probably out of protest when I was 15 or 16. 'No, you're not going to force me to buy however many books.'

"I can remember the Shadowline characters, but I had to look up a lot with them," Ross added of the darker superhero universe created by Epic Editor-in-Chief Archie Goodwin in the '80s. "Other than remembering that it was Denys Cowan who was involved with that stuff, I just remembered the names, like St. George. I had never seen Power Line before in my life. I remember the titles being advertised in the late '80s, but those aren't books I ever followed or knew about. Ghost Rider 2099 I had never seen. I vaguely remembered that it happened, but trying to adapt it when the original art style was so much more exaggerated than mine made a weird mix of things."

But some of the other elements of the piece were very familiar to Ross. Not only do several of his "Earth X" designs appear, he also enjoyed adding in bizarre characters from Marvel's short-lived satire "Crazy" Magazine like Obnoxio the Clown and Teen Hulk. "They're surprisingly well done, if you look back at them," he said. "They did parodies of films that 'MAD' never touched, like 'American Werewolf in London' or 'Flash Gordon' --  things that were pop culture films.

"When they give me that long list, they're trusting me to not make those elements the focus of the piece. I could make Obnoxio the Clown or Teen Hulk a really distracting thing. But if you shrink these things back into the background, or in the case of Obnoxio, do anything besides have him creeping at the end, that doesn't work. If he's all you're seeing, I've ruined this for a lot of people."

Ross did speak to the legacy of the original "Secret Wars" series, both for himself as an artist and for Marvel's line. "I did an homage to the original #1 cover, which was an incredibly striking piece by Mike Zeck. It got everybody's excitement up. When the first ads came out, I remember how striking and new that felt, artistically. And I was happy to see a gang-up of all the Marvel characters, including the non-team heroes like Hulk and Spider-Man. That's what always drove me to buy books like 'Avengers' and 'Justice League.' I wanted the most of these universes in one title because I only had so much money as a child. Things like 'Secret Wars' and 'Contest of Champions' were like an answered prayer.

"'Secret Wars' is so well remembered for all the changes it would install. They were things that would stick, like the new costume for Spider-Man, and everybody's book being upturned in some way by this year-long event. That was fresh at that time, and I respected it, even if I didn't like some of the changes that came out of it initially."

Simply as a reader, Ross hopes that the Hickman and company focus less on using the new "Secret Wars" to bring temporary changes to the Marvel U and more on the fact that such a universe-spanning story has rarely been attempted in at the company in the same way DC Comics has done with their various "Crisis" series. "When you contrast those universes and think about what one company has tried versus the other, the multiverse aspect isn't something Marvel has played with to the same degree. Obviously, you've had Rick Remender doing some of that lately with 'Uncanny Avengers,' and I know there have been other stories, going back to when I worked on 'Universe X,' and did a miniseries with all these alternate future characters called 'Heralds.' I'm sure there are other occasions, but they haven't been a frequent place Marvel has gone creatively. Making that a big tentpole series should be a lot of fun.

"I'm hoping in some ways that what they do with this is less about threatening the audience with more of the stratospheric changes that are going to come, but more about, 'Hey, isn't this fun? You've never seen these things cross over before...' I want to get to the end of one of these comic series where you find out that half the characters you thought were dead are actually alive again."

But no matter what, Ross is looking forward to covering a big event book that has Esad Ribic on interior duties. "The fact that you're getting Ribic on one of the major projects for the company, that's a very strong note of confidence for him and also a great way for Marvel to show that they recognize how big a deal his work is, artistically," the artist said. "Hopefully they give him the time to do this right. But his work is amazing on 'Thor,' and he's done some of the best-looking comics Marvel has produced in the last ten or 12 years. He's one of the best artists in the business, and everything I follow of his is exceptional.

Until some of Ribic's work or other "Secret Wars" art is unveiled, fans will have to keep guessing at what the book holds, based solely on Ross' image. "I've seen some of the artists playing with a similar motif of guys fighting as planets explode in the background. It's been very intimidating to see what they're all doing, because there's a lot of overlap," he said.

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