COMIC RELIEF - ALEX ROSS' ART TAKES THE GRAPHIC NOVEL INDUSTRY TO NEW HEIGHTS

By Sam Weller. Special to the Tribune

On a cozy little tree-shrouded street in Wilmette, the light over Alex Ross' drawing table burns late. While the other residents on the block most likely have turned in for the night, Ross is just getting to work, sitting down at his big desk in front of a vast picture window, paint brush in hand, creating pictures that have prodded some in his industry to call him the Norman Rockwell of comic books.

Since entering the field in 1989, Alex Ross, 29, has administered a superpowered transfusion to the medium a gamma radiation blast of thrills, chills and amazingly photo-realistic artwork. His incredible painted comic books expose new facets of age-old characters: showing threads and folds and zippers in costumes, circles under eyes, scars, bumps and bruises. Take one look at Ross' Superman or Batman or Spiderman and one would swear these mythical pop-culture heroes really do walk our streets and soar in our skies.

"With each panel in a comic book," says Ross, "I do as much reference work as possible. I take photographs of people to use as models. For realistic backgrounds, I like to go out and shoot pictures of whatever location fits a scene in the story. I do research at the library. I do as much research as time will allow."

John Robinson, co-owner of eight suburban Graham Crackers comic book stores, the largest chain in the Midwest, says: "There are a lot of painters in the comics industry, but Alex is able to combine realistic painting without sacrificing the dy-namics of comic book storytelling. Most of the guys who try and do comic books with paint fail. It just looks like they're trying to do a portrait."
Today, because of his singular style, Ross is a bona fide cult hero to the folks who will pack the Rosemont Convention Center this weekend for the annual Wizard World: Chicago '99 comic book convention. Fans will have the opportunity to meet Ross, as well as a bevy of other big names in the comic book biz, such as Frank Miller, Erik Larsen and George Perez.

Born in Portland, Ore., Ross and his family moved to Lubbock, Texas, after his father, a United Church of Christ minister, had been transferred there. Ross' mother, a fashion illustrator and 1948 graduate of Chicago's American Academy of Art, recognized her son's abilities when he was still a wee lad. Barely out of diapers, Ross was already putting pencil to paper.

"When he was maybe 3, he watched a 30-second commercial and drew what he saw on the commercial from memory," says Ross' mother. "What it is, I figured out, is the ability to translate what you see into the dimensions of a flat piece of paper. He's always had that skill."

Lynette Ross says her son was inspired by "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company" and "almost before he could speak, he could draw."
Following in his mother's footsteps, Ross in 1989 graduated from the American Academy of Art with a degree in painting. After a stint as a storyboard artist with the Chicago-based Leo Burnett ad agency, he began working for Now Comics, a Chicago company that has since folded.

His work at Now caught the attention of the folks at Marvel comics. In 1993, Ross took the industry's breath away with his four-issue series, "Marvels," a richly painted retelling of the Marvel superheroes' origins as seen through the eyes and lens of a New York photojournalist. And while painted comic books had been done before, it was Ross' style that caused people to sit up and take notice. Every meticulous panel was a life-like mini-masterpiece.

Today, Ross' parents live just a mile away from their son, but seldom see him because of his busy work schedule. "Alex is a workaholic," laments Lynette. Ross says he works 10 to 12 hours a day, preferring late nights when editors and writers aren't ringing his phone off the hook.

On a recent blazing hot July afternoon, Ross, wearing shorts and a sweat-soaked Fantastic Four T-shirt, with rock music thumping from the compact speakers hanging on the walls of his split-level home, gave a visitor a glimpse inside his world.

His house is decked out in a half little-boy, half grown-man motif. Dozens upon dozens of toy superhero figures line glass-encased shelves. A trek down the hall from the living room where he works to his "trophy room" finds plaque after shiny plaque of industry accolades and honors. A weight-lifting bench rests underneath more comic book paraphernalia. Framed original artwork lines the walls.

His desk is cluttered with photographs of friends and family in all sorts of poses from all sorts of perspectives. This is step one of the Alex Ross style: He does thumbnail sketches and then takes pictures of models in the poses of his drawings, "for lighting and so on," he says.

With photographs to paint from, Ross breaks out his tubes of opaque watercolor paint. But he downplays his artistic approach: "You don't need to know the materials I use," he says. "All that matters is the end product."

And he's right. In the hands of someone else, the same paints and photographs just wouldn't create the same magic. Ross is confident -- even a little cocky. He may be justified, since his "end product" is pure art. In fact, at a New York auction house, several of Ross' original paintings fetched $60,000, a nice sum the young artist will donate to UNICEF.

There seems to be no stopping him. After performing his magic with the DC Universe of characters in "Kingdom Come," Ross went on to paint a Superman graphic novel, "Peace on Earth." Most recently, he released the critically hailed "Uncle Sam," which he did in collaboration with local writer and Tribune contributor Steve Darnall.

" `Uncle Sam' follows the story of an old homeless man who, through a series of encounters and what we might call `psychotic episodes,' becomes convinced that he's the spirit of America," explains Darnall.

"Alex is a good artist," Darnall says. "He doesn't cheat when it comes to layouts or anatomy. He's got a good sense of color and design. His ability to capture a likeness is uncanny. Those are skills that are evident even to people who don't read comics."

Ask Ross which comic book artists influenced him the most and he's likely to ask if you have a year or two to listen. He quickly names John Romita Sr. and Steve Ditko, two of the original artists that brought Spiderman household-name status.

"I always loved George Perez," he adds, "because he liked to draw so many different characters, like I do."

A decade ago, Frank Miller enjoyed the same cult-hero status in the industry that Ross does today. Ross, however, says that while he followed Miller's early work in "Daredevil" closely, he wasn't a big fan of Miller's deceivingly simple style.
So after exploring the mythos of both the Marvel and DC universes, does Ross, like most fans, prefer one over the other?

"Perhaps this is a political response," he says, "but you need both. Marvel is chaos and DC is order. As I grew up on both companies, my first response was how cool Spiderman and the rest of the Marvel characters were. They were flawed. With DC, you get the feeling that these are the guys, the icons of comic books. These are the heroes that are known the world over. Superman. Wonder Woman. Batman."

And then Ross pauses for a moment at his drawing board, picking up a recent painting for the forthcoming Batman graphic novel he is working on.

"I don't favor one universe over the other. I love all the characters. I just love comic books."

copyright Chicago Tribune 1999


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