- 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
"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
"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