Alex Ross erupted onto the comic book scene in the 1990s with two monumental works, Marvels and Kingdom Come. A painter by training, Ross injected a startling syringe of photo-realism into his craft, in stark opposition to the steroidal excess of muscled metahumans bulging from most mid-‘90s monthlies. During his brilliant and storied career, he’s drawn everyone from X-Men and Avengers to the Justice League, fusing Norman Rockwell Americana with the darker truths of our Digital Age.
Today, his work is as relevant and revealing as when the ink first dried two decades ago. Engrossing, opinionated and insanely talented, Ross talked with Blastr on early stardom, his allegiance to Superman and those superb painted covers for Marvel’s 75th anniversary. Listen in ...
When most teens are goofing off, you conjured up a portfolio of game-changing art. How did you handle the fame that came with it?
ROSS: All that attention is very compartmentalized. The second you go anywhere outside the comics world or convention scene, it’s gone. No one recognizes you, and it affects no other part of your real life. It’s a great kind of celebrity. When you’re a young person and get that intense fame you feel like it fills a hole in your life, but you realize you must create a life outside that realm as well. I’ve really tapered off my convention appearances in the last 10 years.
How did the deal for your recent Marvel 75th anniversary covers for Avengers, X-Men, Fantastic Four, etc., come about?
ROSS: The gig was a concept my friend and agent proposed. I wasn’t currently engaged with Marvel on anything, and they were very receptive. So we have a whole line of these variant covers I’m going through every month. I’ve only gotten positive comments on this project. It’s been fun to draw the characters, and I have no filters. I’m doing a Guardians of the Galaxy cover, and I was drawing the modern rendition of the characters in what I thought was the contemporary versions, but they’ve changed it to what they’re doing in the movies. Star-Lord has this awful gas mask on him. I’m an old Star-Lord fan from the ‘70s, and I thought, "Why does he have to be the worst version of what he could be?"
The new Captain America movie is a megahit! Did you see it?
ROSS: I did, and liked it a lot. It was very entertaining and quite possibly the best one they’ve made. It had such a quality representation of Cap that makes you follow him and care for him. I’ve never liked the costume he’s in, but Chris Evans imbues it with so much, it’s really something to see.
What details define your coolest Captain America?
ROSS: It’s that massive body type that he’s always been, this linebacker type. The protruding white wings and no chinstrap. The costume is really just the human form. I’ve tried to graft onto his interpretation some physical details to make it more interesting, touches that wouldn’t veer off the classic version, almost to be in competition with the film’s rendition. He needs this strong jutting jawline. When you get rid of that by adding a chinstrap, you lose a part of his iconic silhouette and an essential graphic component. If they ever did a faithful version with the wings, giving it that gravitas to the top of the head, I think it would work just fine.
When DC first offered you Superman, what was your strategy to make Kal-El your own?
ROSS: I felt like tapping into something different with Superman. It dawned on me that he’d be the most intellectually satisfying character for me, and one that would connect with fans. I wanted a bit of a throwback Superman, this brawny huskiness. He seemed like a man with a weight on his shoulders and he had a permanent Eastwood squint. I wanted the guy who was here to punch robots. I could graft onto his frame this weight and the idea that he represented the best of idealism and virtue, not as this innocent figure, but as one who knew the gravity of how the world worked and the responsibility that lay in his hands. Frank Kasy, my life-model, brought out this Shuster-like Superman and also an interpretation of the Curt Swan Superman. It all came together. Frank’s humanity imbues my Superman with a greater depth and life.
How do you keep striving to stay fresh and inspire yourself?
ROSS: One way is an intellectual component. I always try to remain working on things I care about, and that it be out of passion and attachment because I grew up as a fan and they infiltrated my consciousness. Then working in influences of pop culture. Most of the things you know of me I made the pitch for, like Marvels and Kingdom Come and the oversized books. They didn’t drop in my lap. I’ve stuck with cover material I have a feel and affection for, like ROM: The Space Knight and Star Wars, everything I loved as a youth or an adult reader and that has kept the enthusiasm up.
Describe your choice of projects and artistic process.
ROSS: I’m such a colossal pain in the ass that I won’t draw characters whose costumes I don’t particularly like. I like the Captain America movies, but I don’t ever want to draw the version without the wings and with a chinstrap. In their naked form these superheroes are just the Greek and Roman statues painted with color. For my craft, I still use a highly detailed sketch from my head and my impression of a composition and marry that with what reference material I can procure. Then I adjust the face to be whatever character I need. That extensive process still invites a second-guessing of what my mind’s eye would do on its own. To keep my work conveying a lifelike realism, I compare what comes out of my head to what’s in real life. I’m a big collector of props and toys, too, from dolls to objects that have physical textures.
Fans love your cinematic perspectives and extreme compositional angles. Where did that bloom from?
ROSS: I think the angles you see in my work amplify the drama. It comes directly from Neal Adams and that’s his special contribution, those dramatic angles and points of view in comics. That’s all part of the visual vocabulary seen through the evolution of my work.
How has the biz changed today for new artists breaking in?
ROSS: I hit big and hit hard at a time when there was room to create a celebrity and talent, and now the playing field is much more level. Mine was a self-conscious rebellion against the embrace of the over-muscled renditions of superheroes in the ‘90s. Artists can always find work if the talent is there and if you can deliver it.
Twenty-five years in any one profession is an impressive feat. What do you attribute your enduring popularity and longevity to?
ROSS: Probably fan support and people who have found appreciation in my work and are still supportive buyers. They kept my name viable. Those major books like Kingdom Come have never gone out of print. My work filled a hole back then for realistic interpretations of superhero characters. What I made my total focus at that time is now being done in movies and videogames. I’m proud of those books and their older protagonists and see now there were certain magical things that they evoked.
You’ve worked in everything from comics to toys and animation. Any other territories you’d like to tackle?
ROSS: Sometimes you get tempted with things, and so many of my works get adapted. I’ve never crafted a videogame top to bottom, but that might be the best place for me. It’s interesting. Maybe the greatest appeal to me would be an original graphic novel, and I still hope to fulfill that, something entirely of my own passion but not reliant of the corporate backing it takes to provide the necessary income for two years of your life.
Kingdom Come is eerily modern in its tone even after 20 years, with a grim parallel to our post-9/11 world. Do you agree?
ROSS: I hadn’t really thought about the metaphor I was making. The darkening of the comic-book universe then really preceded the really dark era of storytelling. We didn’t know what dark was yet! Also, we weren’t trying to sell for the more brutal videogame industry. If it came out today, it would have that same parallel.
What was your mindset going in, and what was the aftermath?
ROSS: When drawing Marvels or doing Kingdom Come with Mark Waid, I had the high-minded idea that I wanted them to be amongst the ranks of things like Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Ironically, these things did rate and get put in history’s recollection of great works. What I’ve done since, nothing rates to the work I did in my mid-20s. Maybe I blew out the biggest things I wanted to say at that time. Fans ask for products like those older books and I learned that with one-shots like Superman: Peace on Earth, I wasn’t really satisfying them. What had shifted in time was that the audience had moved on. Special projects with their own timelines, buffeted by recent changes in continuity were gone. The fan base that had supported me in the '90s left. Since the 2000s started, DC and Marvel put their premiere talent on the mainstream titles like the Millar and Hitch run on The Ultimates and Bendis’ work on Daredevil.
Your 2002 DC Comics book, Mythology, was one of the first major compilations celebrating a comics artist. How did it originate?
ROSS: It’s an oddity that Mythology came together at all. The editor, Chip Kidd, had been pushing interest on doing an art book. For it to get done and published by Random House is amazing, and in those ten years since, everybody’s gotten a book, but back then it was a rarity. Why did I get a shot at it? It’s really a roll of the dice. I’m one of those creative people who has received more acknowledgement and honoring in my time than others whose work preceded mine by many years. Artists like Neal Adams or Jack Kirby. Believe me, I’ve gotten more than enough coronation and appreciation in my career than I could hope for.
You’re notorious for your aversion to the Internet, Facebook and Twitter. Why the dislike?
ROSS: I’m repelled by the Internet and all social media. It only tends to make people more critical. I’ve very much avoided those worlds and been called a Luddite for most of my career. I feel like they strip us apart more than they unite! The best thing I can hope to contribute is what I can communicate through art. Most of the stuff created through the DC and Marvel characters have told what I think subliminally for the things I feel most passionate for.
Do you spend time with other artists in the business?
ROSS: I’m not much a part of the scene where creators see each other. I met the people that meant the most to me, and was fortunate to get my picture taken with Jack Kirby. I saw Alan Moore once and he explained to me that for the first time in years he went into a local comic-book store and bought Kingdom Come with his own money. For me, that was big-time! He was the ultimate person I was ever looking to impress. I always wanted to have my work reflect his, and in most ways I was living in his shadow.
You’ve been called the “Norman Rockwell of Comics.” Does that title bother you or are you proud of the connection?
ROSS: I’ll take that epitaph! I’m more than flattered and would be happy to have that inscribed on my tombstone. Especially with as much respect as I have for the man.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever heard or offered?
ROSS: Advice never meant anything to me. What I would issue to aspiring artists is more of a challenge. When you’re showing up with your project, have something to say. In the first twenty years of my career, I pushed forward everything I tried to say and I don’t see enough of that now. The current realities of corporate mentality restrict the circulation of new and original thoughts and ideas. These days almost no one has the complete platform to totally run their own course. We need a strong writer/artist to emerge today and not let corporate entities dictate from on high. That’s just not how creativity works. People who can do both, like Charles Shultz and Jack Kirby. That’s the genesis of this craft.
Who are your favorite caped characters to draw?
ROSS: Superman is number one. I have that connection to him. He has this aspect of being like my personal avatar and I barely used it to the degree I could have. I’d say Top Five would be Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and Flash. Those were the ones I’ve had the most association with and enjoy drawing.
What morality or message do you feel superheroes films today can best convey?
ROSS: I’d like to see the heroes heal the world and worry about who owes what later. That question is always out there of whether they are a burden or a blessing. And the world does need a huge amount of healing. There’s a disturbing level of destruction porn in movies I see where it starts to feel like a blur. Like in The Avengers and Transformers. Why are we this joyful to see buildings fall down?
When you sit back and see the billions being made from superhero movies, how do you see your influence resonating?
ROSS: It may already be as far-reaching as it’s going to be. My comics were brought into movies as grounding material starting when Sony’s Spider-Man was made. Will any influence I’ve had take hold? I don’t know, but those things do get passed along. I was told by one of the screenwriters for the Batman vs Superman movie that I was a main influence in their interpretation of the film, but I really don’t see what my versions could have in common with it. The first posters for Man of Steel were taken from illustrations I did for Kingdom Come. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises lifted my one and only line where Batman says “So that’s what that feels like,” after Catwoman vanishes behind him. Those ideas have already been picked over and plundered.
Your wish for the new Batman vs. Superman movie in production?
ROSS: I have no hope for what they’ll do with that, and that’s not just me jumping on the negative bandwagon.
What about Kingdom Come adapted to the bigscreen?
ROSS: Kingdom Come can never happen before we get into photo-realism in movies using CGI where it’s not reliant on an A-list actor to portray them. The most likely occurrence is that its substance and plot lines will be strip-mined and make their way into other future projects both live-action and animation.
When you see movies, can you separate the artist from the fan?
ROSS: I can enjoy it and still not love the aesthetic design. I loved the Christian Bale Batman movies, but never like the character’s costume once. It’s just another rubber costume and after four rubber suits it was time to try something different. The one from the Arkham video games is much more in keeping than what we get in the movies.
You’ve got the keys to the Marvel or DC kingdoms to make any superhero film you want. Which one is it?
ROSS: Namor! That’s kind of where Marvel is headed after they get Doctor Strange up to speed. Namor is such a primary character, it’s going to take some special thought and attention. You’ve got to get someone that looks like an elf. Like Jamie Campbell Bower, the guy who played Arthur in the Starz Camelot series. Since he’s so young he’d still be right for the part when they finally get around to it in five years. All I care about as a fan is to see them translate from what worked on the page for decades. One of the best onscreen interpretations was The Rocketeer. It was the most pure, wearing the costume straight out of the book.
What new projects are you most excited about next?
ROSS: Well, I’m doing a series of Justice Inc. covers for Dynamite with Doc Savage and The Shadow with The Avenger for the first time. Never in nearly 80 years have all three been featured together as one unit.
If you snagged a time machine, what advice would the future older Alex go back to give the idealistic teenage Alex?
ROSS: To relax, it gets better.