The Michelangelo of Superheroes
In his 20-plus-year career as a comic book artist, Alex Ross has become one of the elite painters within the realm of superheroes and supervillains. His realistic portrayals of iconic saviors like Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man have dazzled fans, and his gouache paintings lend great depth and humanity to the otherworldly figures he brings to thrilling life.
Some of Ross’s most famous contributions to the medium include the 1994 mini-series Marvels for Marvel Comics, where, along with Kurt Busiek, he captured the world of superheroes from an everyday point of view. He worked on the iconic Astro City series, also by Busiek, and produced a plethora of cover art projects for both DC and Marvel Comics. He even created concept art for Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man films.
Most recently, Ross lent his talents to Marvel’s Secret Wars event. In this series, the Marvel Multiverse as we know it has been dismantled and put back together by none other than Doctor Doom. It is up to Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), Miles Morales (Spider-Man), and the remaining heroes to team up and save the planet.
The Daily Beast caught up with Ross to talk about his spectacular career as a painter/comic book artist, the future of the Marvel Comic Book Universe, and his myriad upcoming projects.
Unlike most comic book artists, your style has a very high-end art feel to it. How did you manage to break into the comic book industry?
Really, where I come in is at the tail end of the painted comics experiment of guys trying to do it between the ’70s and the ’80s—people like Richard Corben, Jon Muth, and so many others. No one had really gotten through to the mainstream. And even when the mainstream publishers did do a series, they still kept it outside of the genre that they mainly published. It was more experimental. It was stories that were less the traditional fare, like Moonshadow. You have these things that were on the periphery. Even Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Black Orchid series just barely shows you a glimpse of elements of the DC Universe—like Batman or Swamp Thing—that are colorful. Somebody like me had the basic illustration background, your middle-of-the-road American illustration, and the hunger as a fan to want to see the basics be represented. I’m reading these superhero characters anyway, why can’t they be the subjects of these paintings? Then, of course, the initial graphic novels based around Batman started to open those doors and I wanted to be one of the guys to push open those doors.
Comics today seem to be overtaken by dark, noirish themes, as opposed to the more colorful comics of the ’80s and ’90s.
These days virtually all the books being published take those tones. Too many, frankly. We’ve actually moved away from the bright color fun that comic books used to be. Now it’s all post-Watchmen. Everybody’s trying to make their stuff seem as serious as something like that. It was thought that after Watchmen came out in the ’80s we entered this dark comic spirit. Well, if you compare what’s being going on in the last 15 years of publishing versus the ’90s, we didn’t even know about dark back then.
It could also be a byproduct of people reading all those dark, post-apocalyptic stories. Do you think this trend is what led Marvel to reset their entire comic book universe with Secret Wars?
I don’t know how much of that “resetting their universe” is true. I’m on the other side of working on stuff post-reset and as far as I can tell, it looks exactly as it was just before the Secret Wars event. They are not doing a “New 52,” I can tell you that.
From the cover work you are doing with Marvel, in the current Secret Wars event and the upcoming All-New Avengers, Squadron Supreme and the Amazing Spider-Man series, what can you tell us about what has or hasn’t changed in the new Marvel Universe?
What I know is what I’ve been limited to doing, which is the cover illustration. This is still the Peter Parker who is picking up after he had the year or two that Doctor Octopus had stolen his body—that story is still canon. Nothing has rebooted about him. As far as I understand, the biggest change is that now you have Miles Morales in the regular Marvel Universe. Look at the Avengers lineup: Falcon is still Captain America, we still have a female Thor. Everything is still where our storylines last led up to. I’m not aware of any other major thing. I’m just a fan doing his part.
And what was the process like then to come up with the covers for each of the new issues? Did you get to be in the writers’ room and pick a particular scene or character that you wanted to showcase on the cover?
Not at this stage of my career. I’ve had that before in various projects over the years—starting 20 years ago when I was doing covers for Astro City. I’ve had experience being so heavily involved with shaping the story that go under the covers I do, and it’s much of what I did at the beginning of my career. Now, with the stuff I do with Marvel, I’m largely getting directions handed over to me. “OK, this is what we think would make a great cover” and aside from a few things that are stand-alone shots of characters, I’m taking their directions. These are not necessarily my versions of these things. If I’m going to be doing The Avengers as I know them, they’re going to have the look and feel of the characters as they were designed in the ’60s, or something that regards that continuity from 40 to 60 years ago. I’m far less a contributing part of all of this, which in a way is a break because I’ve had so much to do with the other things I’ve worked on throughout my career. It’s a relief [Laughs]. I’m trying to learn to not care.
What was the process like when you worked with the video game industry?
In a few cases, they did not put me through the mill. In others they did. When I was working on the Watchdogs posters, they wanted to see a bunch of different options, multiple views, and pick their favorites. With something I was far less familiar with like that job, I did do all the alternative sketches. In the case of Call of Duty, which had a ton of elements requested within the piece, they wanted a color rough. And even within the color rough they made me do revision after revision after revision. When I do revisions I’m not working in watercolor; each time I take a Xerox of my pencil sketch and go over it with color markers to achieve the basic color hue that will be in the final painting. Sometimes it’s very easy and other times it’s extremely difficult. But I don’t do that in most jobs. That’s what makes comics jobs my most enjoyable kind of work because they don’t expect those things or demand them. In comics there is generally the sense of, “We just have to get this out here and get going.” I will find out after the fact with the comic books I’ve done covers for whether there is something wrong with the way my cover jibes with the interior.
Can you name a situation when that's happened?
In the case of Secret Wars #4, nobody told me they were making Doctor Doom wear white throughout the whole story. So, the cover I did with Doom at the center of it, I had to petition them to get my friend that does my scanning and swap it out with a white cloak to get rid of the green. They were like, “You sure you want to do that?” “Well, I would have gotten it right if you had told me in the first place! Let’s get it right.” [Laughs] And we got it done. I’d rather the stuff be correct than be weirdly egocentric to my own interests or tastes. There is no reason for the cover to not match the content of the comic book. Another example of this is Secret Wars #3, with the two Reeds on the cover. I did him with the contemporary costume with the square “4” on his chest. I was not told that the character would have a beard in the storyline. I had been reading the New Avengers book where he did have a beard, but I did not assume that that would remain the case throughout the new series. So, when I see the final comic books and he’s got a beard, part of me is just like, “Ugh, whatever. They don’t care, I guess I shouldn’t either.” I could have put a beard on him if it was important to link it up.
Speaking of contemporary versions of heroes, can you talk about the upcoming Amazing Spider-Man that you will be doing covers for? His costume is now slightly different and more high-tech.
To beg the forgiveness of the fans, who are often not happy with changes, this is the best I could conceive to do with the costume design that was a little change to what I want to see about it. I wanted to adhere to my idealized depiction of what John Romita Sr.’s artwork was with his character design. This whole look of the metallic shiny finish was actually taken from what the second Amazing Spider-Man movie costume looked like: a metallic-finished spandex. I thought it looked spectacular. I hoped I could paint something that had that kind of aesthetic to it, which is very hard to paint. The whole idea that Peter Parker now has some money and this corporation to run will be reflected in his new look. If you just do the tiny add-ons with the eyes that light up and the glow behind the spider symbol on his chest, that’s about as weak a tweak as I could imagine. Mostly what I feel was the dramatic work was the lines on the body—they have the straight-line effect, no longer the old school curved lines. It is now closer to what the costume of The Shocker is. Weirdly enough, that is, to me, a graphic representation of what I used to see happening in Romita’s art style. And you can even say I took it from the first Amazing Spider-Man movie costume, which was graphically very aggressive. They did these lines that had no curves to them. And mostly, I wanted the face to look like classic old Spider-Man.
So you got to have full control on this costume design for the upcoming Amazing Spider-Man?
Yes, and ultimately if the editors didn’t care for what I came up with, I don’t think I would’ve been on the job. I didn’t want to work on something that would have taken too much of an aggressive take in removing him from his roots. It wouldn’t have been a satisfying gig to me then. Whereas with the covers for the new lineup of The Avengers, almost nobody is recognizable to what you classically think of them, so I accept it in a way of, “Oh well, I like all these designs. It’s not technically The Avengers to me but I can enjoy myself working on this.”
Do you think that ability to let loose frees you more creatively? For example, in Secret Wars you are juggling so many different pieces on the page.
Well, since there was a lot of directive in the Secret Wars covers and each was built on what I was told by the editor, there was a lot of room to expand upon. In the case of issue #8 with Mister Fantastic and Doctor Doom, they requested just a big bang exploding outwards from the silhouette of a human figure, and within that put the battle between Reed and Doom. That’s all that was requested. The part that I expanded upon was, instead of just the explosion thing with stars and galaxies exploding and whatnot, how cool would it be to show fragments and moments from Marvel history that established what is happening now. For me, that was a way of expressing that the history of Marvel still stands. It was important for me to draw the Caucasian Nick Fury with the Howling Commandos because that was a part of history that should not be rewritten. It was cool. Why say that that is no longer there? To me, the fact that those little moments are in there meant that my collection as a longtime fan isn’t declared unimportant.
With the high level of detail in the covers, did you draw all of them by hand first and then add them into the computer?
I don’t know how to use a computer. I’ve never typed a single sentence or sent a single email by myself. Generally, I try to keep all my efforts to working on paper. Everything is gouache and watercolor. Then, I pack up the paintings to get scanned and send them to a fellow that does that for me. I used to send them to the publishers, and these days they don’t even have people there that know what to do if you send original artwork.
You’ve also done some concept art for the previous Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, right? Can you tell us about your experience on the project(s)?
[Laughs] That was not really petitioned from me. Basically, before they were making the movies, I was—like any other fan—hoping that it was going to look as much like the comic book version as possible. For me, that meant it should look like John Romita drew it. In the case of the movie, in its development stage, there had been so many wild extrapolations of costume. Think of the X-Men movie, where no one is really wearing the traditional superhero costume. You figure with Spider-Man, it has to be closer but still reinvent things. So, this artist I knew called David Williams had done a color sketch of it that I saw in his office and it bowled me over. It was this wild graphic design with Spider-Man in red and black, with black lenses for his typically white eyepieces—curved bug-eye lenses that held the same shape. I thought it was astounding in its graphic simplicity. It connected with the bug theme, and it was a good graphical stand-in for the classic eyepieces. So, with his agreement, I said I would try to represent this design to the moviemakers if I ever got an audience with them.
And you did?
Weirdly enough, they reached out to me—not about Spider-Man, but for the original Fantastic Four movie, which was years away from being done at that time. So, I never wound up doing any designs for the Fantastic Four, but I immediately petitioned them to consider this graphic design for Spider-Man. I sent the designs and got zero reply. Beyond the initial conversation with the producers, I never got a follow-up. Nobody said a word. So, the movie got made, they took a design that was certainly not mine or my friends. The one they went with in the film was actually taken from the Marvel Card series painted by the Hildebrandt Brothers, which was the first time ever that an artist had drawn the webs on the suit as if they were raised, as far as I’m aware, and that was what influenced the look of the film. With the other design approach that David Williams had done, all I did was re-illustrate new shots of that figure and put our names on it. We learned well after the film had come out that they actually ran a prototype costume of Williams’s design that was made in fabric to test out how it looked. They translated it into red and blue instead of red and black, but they obviously decided not to go with it and that was that.
That’s a crazy story. Well, would you ever be open to doing concept art for any of the upcoming Marvel films?
I don’t know if they would ever perceive me as having anything to really offer. The level of detail that comes from Ryan Meinerding—who has done work for all the Avengers movies, Iron Man and whatnot—Adi Granov and Phil Sanders and what they do digitally is stuff that my work can’t compete with in terms of complexity and graphic detail. I’m not sure if I would have what they are looking for. I have more of a bold and simple palette. So much of what gives life to my interpretation of these characters has to do with casting, and who the person is versus the costume. At this point, I just want to see a character wear a simple outfit—a shirt or even bare skin. These rubber costumes with armor are impressive but there’s a sense of graphic fatigue that comes from getting the same thing film after film, interpretation after interpretation. I’m not sure I would fit with the kind of aesthetic that seems to run the most dominant in that world.
As a fan, which of the superheroes that have been represented in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are you the most satisfied by?
Well, I love Chris Evans so much in his portrayal of Steve Rogers. I don’t love any of the costumes they put him in, but I can still enjoy the movies he’s made. I also would be one of the people who said that if they didn’t get Benedict Cumberbatch to play Doctor Strange in the upcoming movie they would have lost everything. That would have been the biggest screw-up on Marvel’s part if they didn’t nail him down.