Alex Ross first achieved fame by performing an unusual task with unusual artistry: painting superheroes who look real enough to touch. Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1970, Ross attended the American Academy Of Art in Chicago. Later, while working for an ad agency, he found his way into comic books, which had been a lifetime obsession. After cutting his teeth on a Terminator project, he teamed with writer Kurt Busiek for Marvels, the 1993 miniseries that made Ross' name by presenting the Marvel universe from the perspective of a humble, and often helpless, photojournalist. Ross and writer Mark Waid then visited a possible future DC Universe for the wildly popular, unrelentingly apocalyptic, and oddly hopeful Kingdom Come in 1996. The politically charged, left-leaning Uncle Sam, written by Steve Darnall, followed the next year. While overseeing the Earth X series for Marvel (with which he has since acrimoniously parted ways), and turning out countless comic-book and magazine covers, images for collectibles, and other works, Ross and writer Paul Dini have spent the last six years producing oversized graphic novels in which DC icons take on real-world problems. Superman: Peace On Earth began the series in 1998, while later installments focused on Batman, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel, leading up to the recent JLA: Liberty And Justice. Though only in his mid-30s, Ross was also recently the subject of a career retrospective of sorts–Mythology: The DC Comics Art Of Alex Ross. A thick volume designed by Ross' friend Chip Kidd, the collection details the painstaking process behind Ross' work, which sometimes requires his friends and loved ones to dress in superhero costumes in the name of art. From his home in suburban Chicago, Ross recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about why he paints superheroes, the occasionally ugly business of comics, and how Superman can help make the real world a better place.
The Onion: How did it first occur to you to paint comic-book characters as if they were taken from life?
Alex Ross: I think it's just a natural instinct. Growing up, everybody wants to see these characters realized in some greater three-dimensional form. You don't think of them as being two-dimensional, flat images with an ink outline. When you're reading the comic books as a kid, you're imagining this character as being real. Growing up anywhere within the last 50 years, you would have had that influence–from actors on television to movie actors, playing these parts in real-life cotton or spandex–and so you've gotten used to imagining them as real. I have distinct memories of going to a record store as a kid where a guy in a Spider-Man suit was signing Power records, and I remember him chastising me because I was buying the Fantastic Four one instead of his. It's a very odd to be chastised by Spider-Man at the age of 4 or 5.
O: The actor clearly had a lot invested in his character.
AR: I think he was just being a smart-ass, but when you're a little kid, you don't understand why Spider-Man is being a smart-ass to you. It's too fresh, too new of a reality.
O: Well, the realistic style in comics isn't entirely unprecedented, is it?
AR: No, no, not at all. There are lots of painted comics before mine. In a weird way, I was the main guy to come along and say, "I really want to do that," so much that I try to knock everyone off their socks with how physically real I can make these characters look, how much I invest of myself into that goal. There were the precedents of the painted graphic novels of Dave McKean and Bill Sienkiewicz, but in a way, approaches to characters like Batman and Daredevil were still restrained. They didn't want to show that brightly clad superhero character too much, for fear that it would compromise the more literary and artistic qualities of their painted graphic novels.
O: One of the most striking images I've encountered in your work was an image of Batman in a store: It's this perfectly realized convenience store with an iconic character in it.
AR: Well, it's sort of like the boldness of saying, "I'm going to put that character in broad daylight." I'm going to do everything within my power, through my interpretation of that character, to make you believe that it is legitimate, and not foolish, that it's not a man walking into a convenience store wearing a pink tutu. That somehow, up against the cold light of reality, this guy can still seem credible.
O: How comfortable are you with using the term "realism" to describe what you do?
AR: I'll use any term. You've got to get used to your characterizations in this business. I get termed as the Norman Rockwell of comics, and if I really hated Rockwell, then I'd be stuck.
O: That does come up in most pieces about you.
AR: Absolutely every single piece. I can't show any amount of contempt for that, because I'll come out looking like an ass. And I don't have contempt for it, because I do love Rockwell, but you have to get used to your characterizations. People can try and wrap their brains around this thing I do, which is so mysterious, but really isn't. I mean, when we see big-budget films made now every year, with actors put in costumes made to look like a four-color comic-book character made real, my work within this business is not any kind of strange or absurd thing. It just seems odd that I'm one of only a few people who have any interest in doing it.
O: Apart from your Spider-Man incident, what was your first comics-show-related memory?
AR: Easily The Electric Company with Spider-Man on it. That would have been the first exposure to a superhero for sure. As a little kid… I was born in the '70s, so seeing whatever was on television at that time, it would have included that or reruns of the old Adam West Batman. But ultimately, the clearest impression is Spider-Man, because I have all these comics that I was drawing at the age of 3 and 4 of whatever I was seeing on TV. I would start drawing this little stick-figure Spider-Man, and folding over sheets of 8x10 paper to create the implications of a comic book with a little cover on it.
O: Your collaborations with Paul Dini all have superheroes taking on real-life problems–or, most recently, the Justice League taking on a science-fiction version of a real-life problem. Why did you decide to do the series that way?
AR: The feeling that most comics take with their representation of the real world is such an extreme that it never feels that real. Like in the DC continuity of today, you read an average Superman book, and Lex Luthor is the president of the United States. I wanted to ground it to where the problems are much more human-based. The superhero solution isn't necessarily for solving that problem in a way that we can't, but through using their colorful representations or iconic status, we show how difficult that problem is to confront, and maybe at least the intentions of how they would handle these things. I mean, Batman can't solve the problem of crime, but maybe he can begin to understand some of the roots of where crime erupts from. So his graphic novel is about the issue of race and economics that creates a lot of the problems we have with what we understand as modern-day crime, urban crime. I didn't want to come up with science-fiction results or answers to these questions. It's more like you take the fantasy/sci-fi type character, or mythical character in the case of Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel, and you put them into a very believable part of the human condition, like war, famine, crime, and other issues we all struggle with. Anybody looking for the moral to the story could think, "Okay, I can imagine how I can use my own actions to help in this regard, in this part of our lives." At the end of the day, I was chomping at the bit, like all my fans were, to just draw characters punching each other in the face, and have Superman fight Brainiac and whoever. But I sort of had this cross that I wanted to bear, of making these things seem more legitimate. Because growing up with these characters, I loved them too much, and I wanted them to seem metaphorically justified to exist in our contemporary culture.
O: Uncle Sam is the most obvious example, but there's a political component to a lot of what you do. How important is that element?
AR: At first, it seems like it shouldn't be such an overriding consideration as I'm putting together what is ultimately supposed to be an entertainment product. But once I get my feet deep into it, I keep coming up with angles about how the story relates to a particular political disposition. It's more a social kind of politics, and not necessarily a party-politics issue. Uncle Sam is not so much about the domination of a Republican age or a Democratic age, because the publication date on that was 1997. We were in the middle of what was supposed to be the Clintonian utopia, and here Steve Darnall and I were commenting on the poor state of the American spirit at that time. Imagine if we had made that thing today. We wouldn't necessarily have to rewrite it, but we probably would have composed it with much more venom. We would have been insulting much more the issue of war and empire. All those themes are there in that book, but we were discontented under a Democratic leadership. Anyone who reads that now is going to think, "Oh, what a pinko liberal fool!"
O: How consciously do you load Superman with religious imagery? Of all the characters you draw, he seems to have a religious element that the others don't.
AR: It was more slight at first. The stuff that happened in Kingdom Come, showing him looking like the bearded, long-haired carpenter version of either Clark Kent or Christ was just a lot of fun that seemed to come together sensibly. These two things work together. I don't run around doing shots of him with arms akimbo in a cross-like formation. I think of Superman as kind of a progressive, Christ-like figure. You don't get caught up in the wheres and whyfors or the argument of "Is he the true Christ?" when we all know Superman is a fictional character. If anything can be gained from Superman's inspiration, there's nothing we really have to argue over. You can dismiss him as a cartoonish entertainment tool. Or you can take him as being an inspirational idea created by Americans, as almost an American invention. The medium of comic books and superheroes is an American invention, and he's the embodiment of the best we can be as human beings. There's something to that which goes beyond dismissing him as an icon to stick on T-shirts and product.
O: Have you ever encountered a character that's resisted your style?
AR: Actually, I think that when you have me doing cartoon characters per se, like where their drawing style is more exaggerated, then the use of me on them is less valid, because then it's a painted image of, say, Donald Duck or Bugs Bunny or the Powerpuff Girls. Imagine me painting the Powerpuff Girls. I wouldn't just make them look like little girls wearing those dresses, because what would be the point? They would look too real. And I'm not going to make this weird hybrid where it's a very realistic little girl except the eyes are gigantic. Then it just becomes grotesque. Which would be funny, but… My mixing with cartoon characters isn't too valid. Some superhero characters lean a little bit that way themselves. Losing time debating whether Spider-Man has white lenses or mirrored lenses is… Too many hours went into that personal debate.
O: How much do you feel your work is a reaction to the prevailing comics trends in the late '80s and early '90s?
AR: Well, my work was definitely a rebuttal to what the early '90s had been doing, in part. The exaggerated styles of that time period were so prevalent that they were almost destroying everything I believed, in terms of the graphic imagery of comics. Realistic figure-drawing styles were downgraded as a lesser commodity, so great graphic artists I had followed throughout my youth were suddenly kicked to the curb in favor of the more extreme styles of your Todd McFarlanes or Rob Liefelds. And so when you put the spit-and-polish finish of this painted interpretation on top of the now-decreed-as-dull realistic figure drawing, you suddenly have a competitive edge that seems to be working the kids over. It's really distressing when you think that kids don't necessarily discern good art from bad art: They look at art with more detail to it, and assume that's better because it's got more in it. Whereas something that's more broad and simplistic graphically may have a way of communicating with people simply, but it gets dismissed as being more of an adult taste. But these things go in cycles. Right now, we're in a cycle that's a lot more artistically pure in terms of how characters are drawn and what the dominant styles of the medium are.
O: Looking at your work, Bruce Timm's animated series, Alan Moore's America's Best Comics line, and, to a certain extent, Grant Morrison's run on JLA, there seem to have been efforts to return to a Silver Age approach. Even Superman's dog Krypto is back.
AR: What you have is a bunch of 40-year-olds and thirtysomethings like myself. We grew up with this stuff thinking of it a certain way, and we're rejecting what was kind of knocked around on us the last few years. Basically, what still is going on in modern continuity, especially at DC Comics, is a rejection of everything they did in the 1990s to compete with the then-hip-and-happening changes coming from the more tumultuous time of what Marvel and then Image comics did. We're sort of in a repairing stage. Those of us who are kind of these Silver Age purists who think you don't need to fix what isn't broken, we're getting our way because more of us are in control at the moment.
O: Bringing comics to a wider audience is important enough to you that you put it in your bio. How is that going?
AR: [Laughs.] That's funny. Um, you know, I have no clue. I'll be told one thing by all the people I meet at signings and whatnot. They'll say that they've either turned their girlfriends on to my work or passed on their collecting habit to their kids, and you can only hope that's part of a trend. Obviously, I've done relatively well for myself by reaching out to people, and getting a lot of attention for my work and my name. How far will that extend into the next generation? I haven't a clue. I know that I've got a certain synchronicity with the generation that I'm a part of. Guys from the age of 30 up through 50, we're kind of keeping this business going at the moment, but do we know that there is a tomorrow that's followed by likeminded consumers, or are those consumers looking for something much sexier than we could ever give them?
O: There seems to be a dearth of entry-level comics, stuff for kids just learning to read.
AR: I did want to create the books that Paul and I did together for that purpose. You can genuinely take one of those things and pass it on to a little kid. You don't have to worry about any craziness. There's not a lot of violence, there's no insulting aspects to it that would offend parents, and the language is very easy to read. It's perfect to read to kids. But in the end, the main thing that sells in comic books is the periodical that comes out once a month or bimonthly. I need to return to that myself to bolster my own fan base and regain a lot of people I've lost. The biggest failure of my career is that I became one of the harder-to-afford talents. If you're paying for one of my graphic novels, that's 10 bucks. The average, say, 48-page comic-book graphic novel is going to be five bucks. I'm already doubled in price. Even though I'm twice the size, people are still counting their pennies and considering what they can afford. A lot of the other stuff I've done in terms of products and prints and posters… It all gets relatively expensive. I need to get back to a point where I never was before, a product cheaper than five bucks.
O: Would your style allow you to do a monthly comic?
AR: I could achieve a bimonthly schedule. I've been putting together something for DC for the last year with the thought that I'll be conspiring with a realistic penciler who I will follow over as a finishing artist, doing a final component that will look like an Alex Ross painted comic book with my photorealistic style in play, but with a helping hand that will help the work go a lot easier for me. And I'll be allowed to do all the co-plotting and designing with these other series that I'm really more the art director and grandfather of than the hands-on art team. I'll be sinking my teeth in in such a way that I don't think people would be missing any part of what I would normally do for one of my graphic novels.
O: It seems like the comic-book world has a lot of infighting. How successful have you been at avoiding that?
AR: Oh, I'm bloody and bruised. It's in a terrible state right now. The current leadership of Marvel has introduced a way of marketing comics, or selling the industry, based on the way that wrestling is promoted. That kind of adversarial approach is not very natural for the comics community. For decades, the publishers would be very friendly with one another, and certainly the workforce was going back and forth all the time. Now, there's the splitting up of this person being signed exclusively to this company, and that person being signed exclusively to that company, and it's destroying a lot of the goodness that was there, out of the impetus to stir up excitement to buy more books on the fan level, when that really doesn't last. The ill will and destroyed relationships can last a lot longer.
O: You haven't done a lot of youthful superheroes. What appeals to you about older heroes?
AR: [Laughs.] Well, I did Battle Of The Planets. They're all teenagers. I've created some youthful heroes. But the stuff I'm going to be known for is when I've worked with your older Superman. I think I embraced something that our culture as a whole was rejecting, which is the notion that age is wisdom or strength. Well before I was growing up, in the '50s and '60s, your heroes mostly had a paternal quality to them. They had an older-gentleman thing that was never reviled. Never considered inappropriate for leading men. And this was going through Hollywood as well as comic books. Superman looked like a man between the ages of 35 and 40. This is commonly what we thought of as the heroic archetype of old, and that has been handed in, in favor of putting a sexier, younger face on everything for one vain reason: the buying age. If the 18-year-olds have the most money to spend on video games, then let's make all the characters 18-year-olds. I think those 18-year-olds have the ability to see beyond themselves and not be kept from buying product because they think Batman looks too old. You don't have to have everything fall into these nice patterns. My way of working with these icons was to return to them something that I think was stolen from them: their right to be as old as they are. To be men who are mature men, not guys in their 20s. Most people I know in their 30s aren't close to being mature. I'll leap into the 40s before I start thinking people begin to reach a period in their life where they can achieve self-control.