His strong understanding of form and light, and a passion for “drawin’ good” has elevated the comic art form to new heights
Alex Ross’ break into comics was short lived. Having teamed up with writer Kurt Busiek to illustrate a story for Open Space, the series died before Alex’s piece got printed. Retreating back to his steady advertising job, he could at least console himself that he got paid this time.
Sitting on the fringes of the comic industry gave both men time to bounce ideas for a new project around and find something worthy of their talents. In 1994 they released Marvels to resounding acclaim, and Alex swiftly became one of the most sought-after comic artists around.
At the core of Marvels was the human, very un-super perspective of news photographer Phil Sheldon, as he observed the birth of superheroes, starting with the Human Torch in 1939. “Alex’s art made superheroes feel so real and believable that it seemed wrong to waste that on a straight action story,” says Kurt today. “It had to be something about seeing these guys as
ordinary people would, seeing them as if they were real.” And if you want to depict ‘real’, Alex is your man.
Although he would become known for his monumental, larger-than-life iconic covers of superheroes, Alex’s introduction to art had more to do with Phil Sheldon than Superman. Like the ever-observing photographer, Alex studied the superheroes of the art world in his mother’s library, shunning the company of other kids to spend more time learning the pencil and charcoal teachings of Andrew Loomis. Not that the books’ appeal was restricted to the nobel pursuit of great artistry. “They were also one of the few places you could see attractive women drawn without their clothes on!” reasons Alex. Along the way he grew to love Andrew’s brand of anatomically accurate drawing. “That was my genesis.”
Through these books, Alex came to think of realism as the highest point of artistic achievement. This year he’s had the chance to pay tribute to the past master that aided him in that discovery, writing the introduction to Andrew’s 1959 all but complete, yet unpublished, manuscript I’d Love to Draw! (see page 97 for our review). Working from his teacher’s original notes to fill in unfinished sections, Alex is keen to make clear that teaching has never really appealed to him. “I’d rather just make sure I have no competitors.”
Alex recalls seeing one of his favourite paintings hanging in his travelling exhibition… “I got to see this piece in person, which Andrew Loomis did for the Titan book Creative Illustration. It’s called Underwater Fantasies (1946) that I think he started as a test illustration for his art book. First it was a charcoal drawing of a nude woman sitting on a swing, then he did the final elaboration of it as this oil painting. It’s one of the most startling, etherial images of a woman. I got to see this piece in person when it was loaned by the Loomis family for my exhibit, Heroes and Villains, that was recently at the Andy Warhol museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and is now travelling the country.
“I’ve also taken such inspiration from that image that I’ve stuck it into my work before. When I was drawing the story Kingdom Come, and I depicted Atlantis, I showed a mermaid that was at least my extrapolation of Andrew’s. It’s about as close as he got to fantasy.” me. So I can’t assume that I have that golden tongue to communicate to the masses.” Better leave the art talk for itself.
Alex sees another parallel between his work and that of his favourite illustrators. “My time has arguably come and gone. I’m
Alex isn’t shy to take a chunk out of the hand that feeds him. “A lot of the intent is redesign and reinvent for a modern readership,” he says, “but there’s a beautiful eloquence in connecting with something that was designed 50, 60, 75 years ago and
I’d like to think that the little part that I got to do with these characters presents them with the weight of their years
officially a has-been in my medium,” he half-jokes of his gouache paintings and computer illiteracy. “I’m one of those cantankerous old farts who complains about how everything is different to the way that it ought to be. The marketplace is saying: ‘Everybody has to be young and pretty.’ Really?! Everybody?!” that remains undiluted. They don’t need to be over-altered for the sake of upcoming generations. If you have to always make characters younger because ‘young people won’t connect with older protagonists,’ that’s such horse shit! It’s a company credo that’s the laziest part of the way they do business. But we’re going to keep seeing that happen with the way they tell artists how to draw. I’d like to think that the little part that I got to do with these characters presents them with the weight of their years.”
The kiss of life
He’s done more than that. With successful exhibitions in the Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol museums, and his original comic art canvases regularly selling for thousands of dollars, he’s followed a long tradition of blurring the lines between commercial and fine art. Not that you’d exactly compare him to a pop artist. “There was a tongue-in-cheek aspect to adapting comic images and allying them to fine art,” says Alex of the work of Warhol and his contemporary Lichtenstein, “while, what I do, there’s no tongue in cheek. There’s no cynicism to it. I’ve tried taking the
This canvas painting, which stretches 19x38 inches, could be yours for a mere $45,000, straight from Alex’s website.