WHAM! BAM! SMACK! SPLAT! BLAM! SMASH! The Superhero art of Alex Ross
In order to depict characters realistically, Ross often utilizes many of Norman Rockwell's techniques, relying upon human models and photographs for proper perspective. Alex Ross, Mythology: Wonder Woman, 2005, courtesy of the artist, ™ © DC Comics. Used with permission.
Ross in his Chicago studio. Working primarily in watercolors, the illustrator estimates that it requires three to four days to complete a magazine page. (Photo courtesy of the artist).
Ross' work has been critiqued as a cross between the late illustrator Norman Rockwell and the contemporary, fantasy artist, George Perez. The Chicagoan's interests are wide, ranging from a sensitive pencil drawings to a book illustrating American history. (Alex Ross, Norman Rockwell, 2012, courtesy of the artist, ©Alex Ross. Used with permission.)
Ross poses the members of the Justice League of America. The idea for the composition, he said, derived from Norman Rockwell's iconic depiction of multiple races for his 1961 canvas "The Golden Rule." Alex Ross, Justice Vol. 1 paperback cover, 2006, courtesy of the artist, ™ & © DC Comics. Used with permission.
Alex Ross, Justice Vol. 1 paperback cover, 2006, courtesy of the artist, ™ & © DC Comics. Used with permission.
Batman collects his bat thoughts atop the Chrysler Building. The nocturnal image is painted upon a large canvas and its dizzying perspective can give the unsteady a sense of vertigo. (Alex Ross, Batman: Knight Over Gotham, 1999, courtesy of the artist, ™ & © DC Comics. Used with permission.)
Interested in illustration since the age of three, 18 years ago Ross broke new ground with a hard-bound book featuring vivid watercolors detailing the history of Marvel Comics Superheroes. (Alex Ross, Marvels hardcover dust jacket illustration, 1994, courtesy of the artist, ™ & © 2012 Marvel and Subs.)
With this year’s overall domestic sales projected at $434.75 million by the online Web site Comichron, you may conclude that comic books are serious business. This aspect of pop culture began at the turn of the last century and is as pureblooded American as baseball and jazz.
Working from a high peak in the hierarchy of comic book artists you’ll find Alex Ross. In 1994, the shy, balding, bespectacled Chicagoan set Superhero comics ablaze with his high voltage watercolor artwork for “Marvels,” (Marvel Comics; $19.95) rendering characters from The Human Torch to Batman with details that flirted with photographic realism.
Now through Feb. 24 at Stockbridge’s Norman Rockwell Museum, you can view comic book superhero work several atmospheres above mere illustration. Ross’ lifelike watercolor art has, in fact, been compared to Rockwell’s for his studied obsessiveness in capturing light and the intricacies of human form.
Speaking earlier this month from his Windy City studio, Ross explained that the attraction for readers of the tights-and-leotards genre is “physical empowerment.”
“(T)o be able to exert force into the world,” he said, “to change things, to affect a seemingly out-of-control world ... That’s part of the stimulation.”
The fortyish Ross, who, according to family lore, took to drawing at the age of 3, said that what he enjoys is “having a human being as somehow represented as an icon or the embodiment of a certain graphic idea. Such things are fun and engaging for me. As far as what keeps a lot of the readership alive, it’s really, in many ways, a form of addiction.”
“Give me a hero...”
That addiction was brought to earth on April 18, 1938, when the first Superman comic was released. (Last year, a first issue of Action Comics No. 1, dated for June, sold at auction for $2.1 million.) The cartoon spawn of Ohio teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, The Man of Steel became the longest-lived American hero of the last century.
“It’s partly that he captured so many things that are part of our psyche and part of our sense of ourselves,” Larry Tye said last June on NPR’s Fresh Air. Tye is the author of the definitive “Superman — The High Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero” (Random House; 432 pages $27).
From Dickens’ Oliver Twist to the actor James Dean, our popular culture is highly adoptive of orphans and Superman, like Moses, was sent away by his parents to a better life. Superman grew up in a Depression-weary country, maturing to fight profiteers and political corruption.
“He gave us an unwavering sense of right and wrong,” Tye added.
“Give me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy,” the author F. Scott Fitzgerald once said. The tragedy of Siegel and Shuster was that they sold all rights to their hero for $130. They kept their jobs for life, however, with the former providing story lines and the latter creating illustrations. Tye estimates that the Superman franchise, over the past 74 years, has grossed over $1 billion. To this day the heirs of the two creators have unsuccessfully pursued lawsuits against Time Warner, owners of the refugee from Krypton.
“I think what trumps the Siegel and Schuster tragedy by a good mile is Jack Kirby’s life and career,” Ross said. “For him, and his family, he never got the remuneration for what efforts he made in building an entire universe with his own hands.”
Kirby, who passed away in 1994, may be best-known for the creation of The Hulk, the original X-Men, The Fantastic Four and hundreds of other heroes and villains. With a career spanning five decades, he energetically drew for genres ranging from true romance comics and wartime dramas to the horror era of the late 1940s through the mid-1950s. What he fought for much of his life was to smash the legal lock entitling publishers to own the rights to characters created by their writing and illustrating teams.
“The quality of design and thought and concept that he put into all those years between the 1940s and the early 1980s is something that’s unmatched by any other creative entity,” Ross said.
In 2007, the U.S. Postal service issued stamps to honor Kirby’s many creations. Annually the Jack Kirby Awards are given to outstanding illustrators.
The comics code
By 1940, The Man of Steel was grossing $950,000 annually for DC Comics. By the end of that decade, however, readers of the dime publications became enthralled with a new form of story line.
“The horror stuff was tapping into a whole vein of interest that people had at that time period,” Ross said. “Those were extremely successful comics in the 1950s.”
While Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were in twilight, varying degrees of shock, suspense and gore were saturating the comics. The coup de grace to the horror biz, however, was administered to that wild and woolly period when one magazine cover, in no subtle way, depicted a decapitation.
This spurred a Senate subcommittee hearing where legislators such as Sen. Robert Hendrickson (R-NJ) said that “not even the Communist conspiracy could devise a more effective way to demoralize, disrupt, confuse and destroy our future citizens” than horror comic books.
Beating the Senate to any form of regulations, the industry created its own Draconian “comics code” in late 1954. The words “horror” and “terror” couldn’t be used in magazine titles and among the guidelines, women were never again to be drawn in “salacious” or “suggestive” poses.
“The self-imposed comics code was basically a way to kind of shut out and shutter those companies that were making horror books,” Ross said. “It was a combination of the precursor to DC and Marvel Comics looking for a way to smother the competition.”
Today DC and Marvel, both of which Ross has worked for, control 65 percent of the market.
An early obsession
The Alex Ross show, the brainchild of Pittsburgh’s Warhol museum director of exhibitions, Jessie Kowalski, premiered at the 18-year-old Pennsylvania institution in October of 2011.
“It was our biggest show ever,” Kowalski said during the Rockwell’s opening night. “Our attendance more than doubled. We had kids and families that we don’t get a lot of ... Sometimes on the weekends there’d be lines out the door.”
Given the prevailing cultural mania for superheroes, no one should have been surprised earlier this year when NBC newscaster Brian Williams noted that seven of the top 10 grossing movies were based on comic book characters.
If you’d never before heard of Ross, he’s as ubiquitous as Oprah. He designed the 2002 Academy Awards poster, the opening credits artwork for “Spider-Man 2” as well as several TV Guide covers and album art for such rock groups as Queen and Anthrax. Beyond that, his creative energies have depicted superheroes from the Caped Crusader and Wonder Woman to the Justice League of America for the comic book trade.
“His covers really stand out because they’re watercolor-painted,” Kowalski said during an opening night interview. “With the other guys it’s all just ink and pen and computer graphics.”
The exhibit is composed of 130 different works which Kowalski culled from Ross’ personal collection. Upon viewing the show, you realize that the artist, the son of a commercial illustrator, was imprinted with superhero images from an early age. One childhood sketch of Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” characters depicts Charlie Brown and his pals as caped and masked. When his contemporaries were playing baseball and catching frogs, Ross was creating three-dimensional superhero dolls. Now a family man, the graduate of Chicago’s American Academy of Art sells his original illustrations for sums ranging from $7,000 to $10,000 with much of it earmarked for charities.
“He’s part of the older tradition of artists who really took the craft very seriously,” Rockwell Museum curator Stephanie Plunkett. “The other thing that’s unique about him is he tends to give his superheroes an inner life. You get the feeling that there’s something beyond the physique, the exterior and the costume.”
Before the doors were unlocked on opening night, a queue of more than 150 people waited outside.
Later that evening, the line of attendees seeking an autograph and a brief chance to speak with Ross extended in length to over an hour’s wait. For those who follow the culture of superheroes, Kowalski may have well summed up how large a shadow Ross casts.
“When I first met him,” the director said, “I felt I was shaking hands with Elvis.”
“Heroes and Villains: The Comic Book Art of Alex Ross” continues at the Norman Rockwell Museum through Feb. 24. Open weekdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; weekends 10 a.m. to- 5 p.m. Admission: adults $16; college students with ID, $10; ages 6 to 18, $5.
Directions: From downtown Stockbridge signs direct you to Route 102 west. After 1.8 miles take a left at the stoplight to 183 south. The museum is a half-mile on your left.
Don Stewart is a freelance writer who lives in Plainfield. He has written for The Recorder since 1994.