Superheroes are getting a lot of attention lately.
Between The recent Avengers: Age of Ultron in the theaters, Daredevil on Netflix, The Arrow, Flash and Supergirl on Network TV, the upcoming Ant-Man film as well as anticipation for next summer’s Superman and Batman films Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, entertainment media is lousy with costumed heroes and longtime comic book fans have been reacting to this embarrassment of riches with a gamut of emotion from elation to outrage.
As for the source material, the comic books themselves, they are still being pumped out to the racks and shelves every month, even more of them than ever. They are still being written by great writers and drawn by skilled artists and there are many of both.
One artist and writer who stands out above the rest is himself one of the biggest fans of the medium you are ever likely to find. Alex Ross is a massive talent and he has created work that has helped to catapult the comic book medium from the realms of four color diversion into the stratosphere of high art.
Nelson Alexander “Alex” Ross is known primarily for his painted interiors, covers, and design work.
At age 17, Ross began studying painting at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, where his mother, herself a talented commercial artist had studied in the 1940’s and ’50’s.
During his studies, Ross discovered the work of artists like J. C. Leyendecker and Salvador Dalí, whose “hyper-realistic quality”, Ross saw, was not that far removed from that of comics. It was during this time that he formed the idea to paint his own comic books.
He first became known with the 1994 miniseries Marvels, on which he collaborated with writer Kurt Busiek for Marvel Comics. He has since done a variety of projects for both Marvel and DC Comics, such as the 1996 miniseries Kingdom Come, which Ross co-wrote. Since then he has done covers and character designs for Busiek’s series Astro City, and various projects for Dynamite Entertainment. His feature film work includes concept and narrative art for Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, and DVD packaging art for the M. Night Shyamalan film, Unbreakable. He has done covers for TV Guide, promotional artwork for the Academy Awards, posters and packaging design for video games, and his renditions of superheroes have been merchandised as action figures.
Ross’ style has been compared to that of Norman-Rockwell and he has been praised for his realistic, human depictions of classic comic book characters. Ross uses a variation of the “Old Master” techniques, adapted for gauche. He paints what amounts to an underpainting with a black wash establishing the forms and the value. He then lays color washes overtop. The color washes act like a glaze does to an oil painting except that it picks up some of the black wash, which helps to blend it with the subject, giving it his signature “Hyper-realistic” look.
Because of the time it takes Ross to produce his art, he primarily serves as a plotter and/or cover artist. Comics Buyer’s Guide Senior Editor Maggie Thompson, commenting on that publication’s retirement of the Favorite Painter award from their CBG Fan Awards due to Ross’ domination of that category, stated in 2010, “Ross may simply be the field’s Favorite Painter, period. That’s despite the fact that many outstanding painters are at work in today’s comic books.”
Ross’s talent with the brush is evident, but also evident is the absolute love he has for the subject matter. His depiction of comic book icons, though hyper realistic, never strays far from the character’s primary image. Unlike Hollywood, where artists tend to regularly “re-imagine” the comic book imagery, Ross stays true to the character’s costume design and facial characteristics. Ross has a way of capturing the essence of a character, bringing it to like in a way that when one looks at one of them, his Superman, for instance, the viewer immediately recognizes that what he is seeing is the iconic essence of who the character is. Ross captures the look and the spirit of every character he portrays.
And he does it so beautifully. I could effuse for hours about his masterful technique, but what I really wanted this blog post to do was to serve as an excuse to post some wonderful examples of Alex Ross’s work. And if this little snippet of Ross’s work has whetted your appetite for more you can see much more of his work at his website: alexrossart.com. Or if you really want to appreciate his work I recommend you pick up the book MYTHOLOGY: THE DC COMICS ART OF ALEX ROSS from Pantheon Books. It is an overwhelmingly beautiful volume.