Pictures: Seth Kushner
“The best thing I love about making comics is that even when I complain about working for DC and Marvel, most of the things I do for them is what I’ve seen in my mind’s eye,” Alex Ross says. “I’ve been able to use their characters and make them match my own crude interpretations… and obviously much more important things that were absolute freedom in my eyes. My creative instincts and concepts have largely been honored by the deals I’ve gotten in comics, and independent publishers offer even more freedom. There’s absolute artistic fulfillment that I get from comic books. This is what I’ve wanted to do since I was four, and I don’t have regrets on the career path that I took.”
Ross is sitting in Miller’s Pub in his home city of Chicago. After getting over what a tall man Ross is, his impeccable politeness shines through, betraying his Mid-Western roots. Ross bears the distinction of being perhaps the first painter in comics to openly celebrate the superhero in his work, treating the long underwear set with the same attention as a Norman Rockwell. Because of that, Ross is unprecedented in an industry whose finer artists ignored the superhero, primarily for other genres.
“[There was] all the work Bill Sienkiewicz did, or all the work Jon Muth was doing,” Ross remembered his inspirations. “His twelve issues of Moonshadow were hitting around when I was a teenager. I was thinking I should paint comics like these guys did; it would be great!’ I didn’t have it as a firm direction so much as knowing that I just wanted to do comics. I wasn’t purely focused on being a painter early on. I was just an artist.
“When I was finishing art school, Dave McKean’s work hit me hardest of all. McKean was more relatable to me than Bill’s work was, because Bill was a little bit more avant-garde and Bill Peak exaggerated. McKean would make a thing like a thing, and a person look like the reference did. Black Orchid, in particular, made me think ‘Oh, my God, I want to make comics that look like that.’”
At nineteen, Ross landed his first comics gig, Terminator: Burning Earth for small publisher Now Comics in 1990. Now was one of the many publishers who cropped up as a result of the ‘90s boom that went burst a few years later. Burning Earth featured a female Terminator, and was a tie-in to the James Cameron movie from almost a decade earlier. For Ross, it was a case of biting off more than he could chew.
“When you think of Burning Earth, it was a year later (or within the same year) that Black Orchid was published,” Ross points out. “It was when I got my first job painting comics, then realizing ‘It’s not so easy to make your stuff look like Dave McKean.’ It was largely because of time constraints: I didn’t just have that comic job at the time.
“I had thankfully gotten a full-time job in advertising, so I was downtown with the Leo Burnett ad agency, doing storyboards. It was heaven for any illustrator to have a nine-to-five job. It’s unheard of these days, definitely. All I was doing is drawing every day. That’s like being asked to drive a horse and buggy, or something of that equivalent. Because of the nine-to-five thing, I was coming home after work every day and doing this book, which was the equivalent of twenty-two pages plus the cover a month. It didn’t sound like a lot to me at the outset, because I was nineteen and didn’t know better. I didn’t realize how that would bleed me dry, or that there was no time for all the delusions of wanting to take photo reference with models, and I didn’t have a photo file. I It would take years and years of accumulation of pictures to have something to fall back on.
“It was largely a standard comic book drawn out of the artist’s mind from his best understanding of life drawing. The painting part gave way to the materials I was using in storyboarding, like colored pencils and markers on paper, as well as switching in the second issue to working on entirely black paper to cut down on the amount of darkened rendering to render this dystopian future. Everything was all dark, so I was using colored pencil on black paper, and it was a far cry from whatever my greatest pretentions were in art school. The next three to four years of my career were to try and make up for the first thing I did.”
Like several of the smaller companies that sprouted up during the speculators’ craze of the late ‘80s through early ‘90s, Now left some of their talent high and dry, including Ross. Just like Terminator: Burning Earth was to Ross’s career, Now Comics was just a footnote to the history of comics. Terminator did serve its purpose, however, in indirectly taking Ross down a defining path for his painted artwork.
“I had spent my years in college trying to convince myself that I cared less about superheroes and more about art,” Alex admits. “I loved the comics art form (and I was not divorcing myself from that), but was trying to not be about the men in capes. It was sort of like ‘Hide your love away,’ to quote the song. I had produced a lot of artwork for class assignments that was trying to embrace different types of iconography; everything from religious iconography to knights and whatever kind of medieval influences.
“While working on the Terminator series, I did the trade paperback cover, which I claim to be inspired by the dream James Cameron had that he said gave him the entire movie’s premise, where he saw a metal skeleton emerging from flame. That’s what I painted, or color penciled on black paper, but while I was working I thought ‘I can render flame realistically, or at least more realistically than I’m used to seeing in comics.’ If you apply that to the Human Torch, it could really be something. I was inspired, like lots of old-time fans, in the original guy from when he was the lead hero of the entire company. I thought ‘If I can bring that to life, there’s a project there. Bringing him to life so he looks believable would be mind-blowing to the modern audience.’”
In its early days, Marvel Comics was known by a league of different names, but most popularly Timely Comics throughout the 1940s. Their first hero was The Human Torch, a human-like android whose body burst entirely into flame. He was reinvented in the 1960s as the brash teenage member of the Fantastic Four, but would spark Ross’ premiere comics work within a few short years.
“The real irony of my career, juxtaposed to the other comics painters that preceded me, is that (aside from some painted paperback covers from the ‘70s) they were largely not embracing the main entertainment in the art form,” Alex notes. “And I would help fulfill the most obvious commercial focus after all of the more avant-garde stuff was done first. Comics thrive through superheroes, but aside from painted covers of the Hulk, it was not where the artists were going when they did painted projects like Moonshadow or even Elektra: Assassin, who’s not really a superhero. The Daredevil graphic novel Love and War barely had him in it. It was this vacuum of the most obvious thing to focus in on, but there was also this unspoken ‘We don’t think it’s going to work’ feeling…
“There was this immense prejudice that was overwhelming both within the comics field towards realism in comics, as well as outside. Of course, now we live in a time that’s past that, and you see most all the covers published by Marvel have more realistic depictions of the characters. Times change, but back then I was one of those , probably one of millions, who thought ‘I’d like to see this more believable.’ And at least I was able to directly push through and make something happen.”
At the time, Marvel was using painted artwork on a licensed Hellraiser comic book with horror filmmaker Clive Barker. Ross didn’t see the point in spending all that energy and talent on someone else’s characters, and deemed to aim it at Marvel’s own superhero population. Wanting to go back to the roots of Marvel, Ross planned on revision Marvel Comics #1, which introduced the Human Torch and Namor the Sub-Mariner in October, 1939. The pitch manifested itself as a 1990 twelve-page retelling of the Torch’s birth, fully painted and written by Ross. He pitched it the next year to his editorial contact, Kurt Busiek, at Marvel.
“He hired me to do a story for a comic that got cancelled before printing the story I was commissioned to do could get printed,” Alex recalls. “I thought of Kurt as being my Marvel contact, but he had gone freelance right after I worked for him. With his help, though, I got my samples over to Eclipse Comics, and in ’91, I did a short story for Eclipse for a Miracleman tie-in. It’s so weird: because Eclipse was publishing stuff with Clive Barker, they showed him my samples to try to engage him in getting me on one of the Books of Blood adaptations. Clive Barker called me up out of the blue and said, ‘Hey, I’d like you to work on this Hellraiser thing over at Marvel. I’m going to pass your samples on to the Marvel editor of that book,’ and that led that editor into saying ‘Hey, these “Marvel” samples: did we publish this?’ It led to the project, and I brought Kurt in again.
“So, basically, each year had a separate development for Marvels; it’s almost as if from the ages of 20 to 24, I was working on this project one way or another. I was doing artwork for it in 1990, a bit more in 1991, and between ’91 and ’92 was when we were working on the final pitch via notes from Editor-in-Chief Tom DeFalco. I quit my job mid-’92 to go full-time into comics. Each year I had a gig in comics, of one kind or another, so I am a 21-year veteran now.”
“Again, a feat nobody cares about,” Ross adds self-deprecatingly and with a laugh. “Everyone I know has been in the business a long damn time.”
With Busiek on board as the writer of the newly christened four-issue painted series Marvels, Ross painted the everyman’s view of the superhuman population of the Marvel Universe. The books started with the advent of the Human Torch through to the second World War and all of its accompanying heroes. In photographer Phil Sheldon, Busiek and Ross created an accessible, fallible, and believable proxy hero for the audience—an everyman who struggles with the constantly threatened and ever-changing world populated by god-like beings. Sheldon is there from the beginning, and Busiek and Ross pulled events straight from the Marvel comics themselves. Sheldon’s own skepticism and love-hate relationship with the Marvels, combined with Ross’s photorealistic art, keeps Marvels balanced on the fine line between accessibility and reverence. It was, perhaps, the most sincere and least pretentious post-modernist superhero comic.
In that first issue, Ross’ figures looked like they came straight out of an Edward Hopper painting—stiff and somewhat alien in places, but even more realistic in other. There seemed something almost posed about them, a quality that gave way to a naturalistic and softer look by the second issue, where he starts to look like the Alex Ross we know today, combining real people with iconic and classic versions of superheroes.
I want to be the guy that pushes us back to what that first thought was, because often that thought was superior to what it evolved into. As I say something like this, and it even applies to John Romita (who I adore) making Peter Parker a very handsome kid: but if he’s such a good-looking young man, what’s his problem? Where does his standard self-pitying behavior that defined him apply, when he looks as pretty as the popular kids who previously rejected him?
Ross grew up reading the comics of the ‘70s and 1980s, developing an affinity for superhero artist George Perez, whose trademark is in drawing crowd scenes with dozens (sometimes over one hundred) characters. In 1985, DC Comics published their first massive crossover comic book, where practically every character in their history appeared alongside one another. Titled Crisis on Infinite Earths, it set the stage for company-wide crossovers…good and bad.
“The Crisis on Infinite Earth series is one of my favorite books,” Alex says after noting his love of Perez’s art. “If there’s any one thing or period of my life where I loved comics the most, it was when I was fifteen and that series (along with the DC Who’s Who series) came out….You’re introduced to all of these great characters, but it was also a giant pea soup that included everything in their history to that point. That was an infectious thing that made artists like me want to live up to that goal. Of course, you can’t expect them to hand you that project: you have to craft it.”
Ross began crafting his “pea soup” project while working on Marvels, an epic story that featured all of DC Comics’ biggest characters. Prompted by a friend to set his new story in a hypothetical future, Ross instantly felt freed up to pursue the story he’d wanted to.
“The desire was to put it all into an environment where I was completely in charge of it, and where I could have any of the designs go where I wanted, because I didn’t want to deal with any of the contemporary stuff. If I was doing a contemporary crossover, I would’ve had a long-haired Superman, and God knows who was whatever character at the time.”
His redesigns of classic characters for the future intentionally revealed his classic roots, and his love for the original versions of the characters, as opposed to later iterations. Growing up in the boom of books about comics’ past, and during DC Comics’ reprinting of older material from the ‘40s, Ross had always had a soft spot for the first versions.
“These things really inspired me to think ‘Wow, look at how cool the old stuff is!’” Alex says. “It was like seeing the cave painting versions of how these comics started. When I saw the first appearances of iconic characters, there’s something so raw, crude, and true to their look that it inspired me to think ‘If I’m coming to it now, can I capture something that was there at the outset that’s maybe gotten lost or overlooked in the past decades gone by?’ It’s always a fun search-and-find in terms of trying to find something that someone has brushed away. Character designs, all the time, get revised so easily.
“If I do it, and I inspire someone else, they might not know the history, but they’re taking the work that I do and seeing a version of how it began. It wipes away some of the homogeny. After a fashion, artists are just going to draw handsome people doing handsome things. They’re not going to think about the wide varieties of people and bodies and faces—they’re just drawing up prototypical character A with the plain handsome face. They’re picking up on none of the idiosyncrasies.”
Kingdom Come came out in 1996, during the period where DC Comics gave Superman long hair (he came back from the dead with a tragic hockey haircut that took a few years to go away), Batman had at one point been replaced, Green Lantern became a villain and was replaced, and Wonder Woman had donned a new costume. It was a time of apparent change at DC: some argued it was meant just to boost sales, while others saw it as the illusion of change. Even though Kingdom Come was set in the future, Ross and writer Mark Waid were determined to keep the versions of the characters as classic as possible, temporary continuity be damned.
“Even though Kingdom Come is, itself, idiosyncratically designed it’s off in its own direction that people could forgive if they didn’t like the designs because they could see that it steps outside the comfort zone of the now,” Ross notes. “It was a fight to get that done, too. I know how long it took me to get projects through, but even the alteration of Superman’s chest symbol and short hair was fighting the head editorship of Mike Carlin, who protected his stewardship of Superman, leading to the long-haired look being an absolute, not to be budged. But it was, luckily, and even some initial resistance to changing the chest logo gave way. Initially though, their Elseworlds versions of Superman, before Kingdom Come, had the same damn long hair. They didn’t want to break from that, but they’re not going to change sixty years of history in a day.”
Kingdom Come’s future is one rife with urban warfare between factions of misguided superheroes, a world where collateral damage in America is as every day as a third world country. A disillusioned pastor, Norman McKay, serves the proxy hero role as he is borne witness to the events of the book, invisible alongside his guide the Spectre. After Superman goes into a self-imposed banishment, other heroes follow, allowing the grim and gritty new breed to take over and push the world into chaos. The turning point of Kingdom Come is when Superman’s return inspires the original superheroes to follow, determined to set the current generation down a correct path. By dressing them in costumes similar to their original versions, Ross makes the commentary that the originals are always the better version, with prototypical design elements running element in everyone from Superman to the most obscure classic DC character. It’s not surprising, considering Mark Waid’s celebration of the superhero in his work.
“Where I was coming from with that project was transparent for anyone who knows those characters, making my real agenda clear for anyone to see. The Flash looks like Mercury, which is the basis for the original Flash; Superman has a red and black emblem that is reminiscent of the Fleischer cartoons, and even the gray temples in the hair make you think of the Earth-2 Superman (which is the original from the ‘30s); the Batman armored suit I designed is nothing more than a three-dimensional interpretation of the two-dimensional art style of Bob Kane. All of these extrapolations were based on the original concepts for these characters. You don’t have to pick my brain terribly much to see the pattern of why they looked as they did. If you see me slap a new coat of paint on it, in such a way that people don’t look at it as being old, then they’ll get sucked into those old details and go ‘Wow, how cool and new!’ It’s not new. I believe, if you spin it the right way, you can resurrect the old and have it be just as effective for a new audience.”
While Marvels was an unassuming post-modernist take on the superhero, Kingdom Come felt like a post-modernist commentary on post-modernist comics: the “good guys” could only really function when returned to their visual roots, and the “bad guy” superheroes were based off of the “grim and gritty” superheroes running rampant in 1990s comics. If anything, Kingdom Come is proof enough that the separation of superheroes from mankind is what turns them from superheroes to detached gods. The book was successful enough for DC to start frothing for a prequel, tentatively titled The Kingdom by Waid and Ross as writers, and with art by Gene Ha.
“From what I had heard, Mark wasn’t really into doing this prequel, and DC was pressuring him, more or less saying, ‘You’ve got to write this for us. This is a huge deal and would be a big success,’” Alex surmises. “He had many other things he was interested in doing, and I believe this was not one of them, at least not when I was involved with it. The artist I brought in on the project, Gene Ha, and I were very enthusiastic about it. We were throwing out ideas that Mark wasn’t receptive to, and I had hit a breaking point where I went ‘I’ve had it’ and walked. I made a big thing about it by tendering a resignation letter about it to Levitz and then getting a polite reply. I was hoping he would go to the editor’s office and say ‘How the hell did you lose the guy who brought us this whole thing in the first place?’ That didn’t happen.”
Ultimately, Ha left the project a year after Ross, and Waid did write The Kingdom as a 1999 mini-series. Ross would get his opportunity years later to finally introduce his own return to Kingdom Come but, in the meantime, collaborated with writer Steve Darnall on the experimental Uncle Sam comic book and launched a series of oversized painted annuals with Batman cartoon writer Paul Dini.
“I had this thought of creating faux all-ages storybooks that are a comic you could present to every person on Earth that they would have no problem reading,” Ross says. “It was not going to have the standard compression of so many panels per page and word balloons—things that people who don’t read comics don’t have a affinity for. And many readers of comics don’t understand how different that sensibility is.”
Each annual story first focused on an individual superhero—Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, or Captain Marvel—in a self-contained story printed at an oversized tabloid format, each cover bearing a large logo and portrait of the character. The stories were told in no more than two to four panels per page, with narrative captions instead of word balloons, a hybrid comic and storybook. He and Dini wrapped it up with two Justice League one-shots, one of which was a straight comic book adventure story.
“There is also the motivation where I didn’t want to do ultraviolent material that couldn’t be handed down to kids,” Ross reflects. “Overall for the line of tabloid books, the problem isn’t that I wanted to do them a certain way, but that I thought, ‘I should do it five times!’ That wasn’t necessary; I think doing it once would have been nice, and maybe doing a nice punch ‘em up one later. I was doing this format that I thought would be attention-getting, but it also would’ve been better suited to something more over-the-top. That’s one of those things where maybe I was right to do exactly what I did, but I wish I wasn’t the only one doing it. I wish that it would have gotten more people to work in that format, and maybe even doing a more popular approach than I’d done…I don’t think the numbers on that were strong enough to greenlight more, and they pretty much let it die out with me…”
One of the goals of the tabloid stories was to penetrate the mainstream book market, beyond the established direct market of comic book stores. Unfortunately, the direct market wasn’t as hip to the idea as Ross had hoped, a common occurrence when cartoonists and publishers try to break out of the usual format and try something new with the medium:
“I was also looking at the fact that those books would be appearing on bookstore stands at the exact same times as they were in comic stores. That was unique, because trade paperbacks wouldn’t (they would have to be collected from single issues that had already appeared in comic stores). Here’s a sixty- page book that is getting out there to whatever different audience we could reach, that we’re not normally reaching in comic stores. There was this big face and name on the cover, and you can’t miss it. It has to be put up on the top of the rack. The pushback from retailers was so negative on this: ‘I don’t like it because you can’t put it in a bag.’
“They sell special bags! What are you talking about?
“‘It doesn’t fit on my shelf or in my comic boxes. How do I store it?’ Are you kidding me? Seriously. I was trying to do something to reach out, but was running into this wall. I realized I’m in a whole different way of seeing this medium than the majority of the people selling it or buying it. I’ve got my own weird thing that to me is logical, but to others is a waste of time.”
Ross did something few people in the comic book field had done: he broke out into mainstream media. In 2002, he was tapped to paint the poster for the Academy Awards. Two years later, his work made it onto actual movie screens as he painted opening credit cards for Spider-Man 2, images that recaptured key scenes from the first movie a few years earlier. He calls the whole experience “a very weird thing and not organic,” and just had two months to turn them around.
“As big as working on the movie’s titles would seem to be, ask me how many jobs I got because of a movie that was seen by hundreds of millions of people,” Alex says. “Not a single job. The only offer that relates to it that came up afterwards was the third movie, when they called me up for that one, too. I thought ‘I don’t like these movies.’ I didn’t mention that, but I said I would be unavailable. They can never take away from me that I got to work on the second one, plus the third one turned out to be the one that everybody identified as being a stinker (as opposed to the previous two, which I’m in the minority opinion of not liking much).”
At the end of the day, they were just interesting side gigs that can’t compete with making comics.
“Because these things are so commercial and have so many other hands judging, no concept that is inherently mine is going to be the one they pick,” he points out. “They’re going to give me very constrictive directions, and ultimately I’m just a wrist to them. I’m going to be like any other designer working for Hollywood at that point and, frankly, the jobs that I’ve had and what I’ve seen of others working for Hollywood—you can be well paid, and if you pursue it there is a lot of advertising work, but I don’t think there’s any real individual name recognition or creativity that you have the freedom for.
“The only advantage to these outside projects is that it might be additional visibility, but (like I mentioned with Spider-Man not leading to new jobs) it often just turns out to be work that you can put on your resume. Guess what? This says I can get work outside of comics, but the truth is that I don’t want work outside of comics. I desperately want this medium to survive and continue to employ me, because I want to keep doing this until I’m done working.”
Ross went back and forth between DC and Marvel, shepherding projects like Earth X, where he worked with creative teams to bring his alternate future takes on the Marvel characters to life, providing covers and plot. After three of those series, he did the same for DC with Justice, twelve issues of his take on the iconic Justice League story, written with Jim Krueger with Ross painting over Doug Braithwaite’s pencils. Disregarding the past continuity for many of the characters, Ross took a snapshot of his favorite characters and ran with it.
“As a fan, I’ve always thought ‘Can’t we get back to the core simplicity of these things?’” Ross points out. “At the end of the day, comic book publishing is so much smaller than the overall of these characters being timeless versions of themselves. You can’t change what the timeless version is; it just is a certain thing. You may want to put your own certain stamp on it, which I have done, and you don’t have to do it to a great effect. For the most part, I want Hal Jordan to be Green Lantern and look like Gil Kane designed him. In terms of what is truly timeless, though, Barry Allen (Flash) and Hal Jordan are the improvements over the Golden Age originals, so in this and other cases the Silver Age versions define the concepts more fully.”
In Justice, the Justice League’s worst villains find out their secret identities, all while apparently boosting the human race through philanthropic means. At around the same time as Justice’s development, and unrelated, DC was planning a mini-series called Identity Crisis, where the Justice League’s worst villains figure out their secret identities. The difference between the two is in tone: Identity not only featured the murder of a superhero’s wife, but also the revelation that she had been raped earlier by the villainous Doctor Light.
"There’s a lag between when I did the last of my big books and the Justice series,” Alex says. “I was called up by Brad Meltzer to illustrate Identity Crisis and he told me what it was about, and I was horrified. Part of what I was horrified is that I don’t like the misuse of murder in comics because I always feel like it’s so cheap to kill off a character we know and love. He told me it was Paul Levitz who recommended Sue Dibny as the character to get killed and spark off this mystery (there was apparently a list of possible sacrificial lambs). I took it as a personal offense because my close friends that I’ve known for twenty-something years, Steve Darnall (author of Uncle Sam) and his wife, Meg Guttman, were my basis for Ralph (Elongated Man) and Sue Dibny. I did a piece of them once as Ralph and Sue, and Steve had a costume made up for Halloween as Elongated Man in the white outfit with the big EM on it. I’d already drawn his wife a long time back as Sue, and she was definitely Sue in Justice. Anyways, when I’d heard about it I went ‘That really stinks. I don’t want to see my friend murdered.’ I also didn’t know until the second issue came out that they’d go ‘Oh, and by the way, she also got raped in the past, too.’ I really detest the misuse of rape against anybody, but it particularly seems like a misogynist ploy. It’s very thoughtless in its use in comic books. It seems like you can’t represent that easily or well, so I wouldn’t go there.”
One of the downsides of doing a project as painstaking as Justice is in the time required to produce it, as well as the inadvertent parallels that may spring up between comics produced within that window.
“A thing that sucked about a project like Justice is that it took so long to develop it, that all the things I thought of as original ideas would be beaten to print by other books and media,” Alex admits. “For example, staging a big drama with the Justice League versus their greatest villains like on the Challenge of the SuperFriends cartoon (no one had done it since): Turns out that’s what they were doing on the Justice League cartoon show. I think it was Dwayne McDuffie who was heading that; he certainly wasn’t aware of what I was doing, and I wasn’t aware of what he was doing. It’s the zeitgeist moment happening, and it’s not even because we were the same age. There’s something about the zeitgeist of the moment that catches you and it’s great to have control of it in some ways, and you can be an avatar of sorts, but I’ve been on the bad end of it, where the moment you get your ideas out there, the exact moment you publish it is when something of completely unrelated symmetry is occurring at the same time.
“All of those elements I thought were unique, like Sinestro having his own yellow power battery (and more than one power ring) coincides with the moment Geoff [Johns] created an entire Sinestro Corps with a giant yellow battery. It’s not people stealing from one another, but the zeitgeist is a bitch,” Alex laughs.
“DC has always been, and no matter who’s in charge, has always seemed to be this area of hesitation in getting concepts off of the ground. Think about how much they fought Neal Adams forty years ago about creating their first black superhero. They gave him a hard time about John Stewart in Green Lantern/Green Arrow. That was ridiculous! Marvel had already shown that they could sell a black superhero and no one would boycott the comics. There’s always been this hesitation in that company of ‘Well, we can’t let this happen,’ and always waiting for someone else to break that ground. On occasion, they’ll break the ground that Marvel’s not working on and people will go ‘Oh, my God, look at Watchmen!’ But more often, they’ll stand back and wait. It seems to be the ethic that is passed down, over the last seventy years, through whoever’s in charge.”
Ross had been anxious to contribute to the mainstay DC books for some time, and got his chance when he came on as co-writer with Geoff Johns on JSA, a team book composed of characters from the ‘40s and their offspring. Alex designed some new members, painted covers, and did occasional interior panels in paint. After ten years, Ross was allowed the chance to revisit his Kingdom Come story, through the catapulting of the Kingdom Come Superman in the timeline of the JSA.
“It was largely disillusioning, but I don’t mean to make that sound like ‘It was the worst experience ever,’ because I’ve had some of those, too,” Alex says casually. “I felt like it could’ve just not happened and was not an important storyline when conveyed. We were being urged to wrap up our long dragged-out Kingdom Come storyline. By the time Superman shows up, it was like ‘Well, you’re on the clock now.’ It felt rushed, like there wasn’t any real respect for this project, compared to so many of the other extended storylines I saw DC do. People have been pushing me to revisit Kingdom Come for ten years, so why don’t you want this to be something that can last as long as it can?’
“These companies normally drag out so many stupid storylines, but I felt this is one that could have some weight to it. But that doesn’t matter if the person you’re ultimately answering to doesn’t like your thing. I found out when I’d been on JSA for two years that ‘The Editor-in-Chief, he hates that book.’ It had nothing to do with me, but he just doesn’t like that book.”
The brunt of the Ross/John JSA is in the threat of the present turning into the future world of Kingdom Come, as Kingdom Come anti-hero Magog is born by the cosmic god Gog. Promising change, Gog walks the world to improve it every step, causing a schism between the superteam. It’s a rampant theme through Ross’s work: the superhuman promising change to humanity—be it the Kingdom Come Superman, the villains in Justice, or even Gog—but it ultimately ending up that humanity must be the architects of their own future. As editorial was pressuring the JSA team to wrap the storyline up, Ross came up with a solution to speed it ahead by doing three one-shot comic books. He wrote and drew a Kingdom: Superman one-shot that showed the final moments of Lois Lane, which had been off-camera in Kingdom Come.
“The way it worked out was that I knew we had a lot of content to get through before we could wrap up this storyline in JSA, and I wanted to make sure that if we would have the opportunity of resurrecting this universe, I would have to resurrect the main character from Kingdom Come,” Alex elaborates. “By that I mean the character I based on my dad Norman McKay. My dad hadn’t been in a comic for some time, and if anyone should write it, it should be me.. I said ‘Let me do this as a one-shot,’ and then they created three one-shots that tied in to the series. One of them was a Magog special that led to his own series, then Geoff wrote the one called The Kingdom, which allowed me to finally take back the title I had originally contributed to the post-Kingdom Come project that I walked away from.
“In a way, there was this lingering thing about the legacy of Kingdom Come, a legacy that was mostly just in my head. I don’t know how much fans even cared. When you go to various events and signings where people say how much this story meant to them and impacted them, you’re caused to believe that it’s so damn important to a readership. What I wound up fulfilling was an obligation more to myself because, if anything, the Kingdom Come being in JSA was a way to wrap up a part of my own history and write the ending for Superman which I wanted to relate, that he has a good life after that story. I had this idea for a long time about answering the question of how Lois really dies in this world, and how he did have a final moment with her.
“Most of it is pen and ink, but where it flashes back to the world of Kingdom Come, I painted in the panels. In the story, he has this moment of ‘My life is really messed up. I left a world that was almost destroyed, and came here where everyone is young. I feel like I might be the bad seed. I might be a cause of destruction. I’m bad news and could end this new world, and bring Kingdom Come here. I’m a virus.’ He wonders about this guy he ran into who quoted scripture about the end of the world and thinks if he’s on this world, he should find him. So he looks him up and goes and finds my father. I basically had this thinly disguised excuse to have my father appear in a comic book and have a sit-down conversation with Superman, talking about life, the universe, and everything. It’s very self-indulgent, and is the only thing I’ve written by myself.”
The Superman one-shot shows a different side of Ross through his pencils and inks (a slicker version of his paints, the figures and details contained within contour lines instead of highlighted and shaded by gouache paint), and a sophistication in his writing.
After a decade, Ross was able to give the satisfying ending to his Kingdom Come world that he’d always wanted, even if there were editorial hurdles to navigate, and even if it all had a bittersweet ending.
“What’s even weirder is how [DC] continued with other Kingdom Come stuff even since I’ve been gone,” he notes when asked about DC’s use of some Kingdom designs. “They’ve given Magog his own series, which didn’t work out. I’m not surprised. He was really just a caricature of Cable, and a caricature of everything we thought was over the top for comics in the mid-‘90s, which meant Rob Liefeld. Rob actually got it, and asked me, ‘That’s supposed to be me, isn’t it?’ We thought that was funny. They’ve taken other characters, like one I came up with when I was sixteen called N-I-L-8. I threw him into Kingdom Come as one of the many—he’s a giant robot creature that a friend of mine designed. I came up with the idea at sixteen, and asked a guy ten years later to help finish it.
“It was a bummer to realize, at the end of the long run I was on, was that I came as a fan reading the JSA book, and then ended saying ‘I don’t care about the characters that much.’ I don’t think, though, I’m beholden to any set of characters I shouldn’t state any particular offense to the JSA book or its heroes, but for as much love as I have for so many characters, I don’t think I’m wired to stay consistently enamored of any group or individual fictional persons forever. What is ultimately best is to give the ideas and passion that you have to offer to the material, when you have a chance to work with it, and to move on when it’s hopefully your preference. I think you can keep your creativity alive better when you move on to new challenges and endeavors. “
Ross has only wandered out of the superhero realm a few times in his twenty-plus year career. He doesn’t dismiss going into other genres, but plans on sticking with what’s fun for him. Even through his reasoning, it’s apparent that superheroes are where his heart is; he talks just as much about his love and thoughts on specific characters and comic books as he does the business end of comics. At the end of the day, he remains an enormous superhero fan.
“I actually just turned down a job which would have been a noir story to illustrate, and I didn’t have to hear anything beyond ‘noir,’ because I realized ‘I don’t want to draw real people doing real things. I see plenty of that,’” Ross admits. “ I’ve got to throw a mask or cape in there somewhere, because otherwise it’s just a bunch of human beings. A staple of my work is to try to humanize things, but I need a touch of the fantastic to keep it interesting. When I did those oversized books for DC, part of the constriction that I put upon myself was that I wanted to have the hero plus the world, but no other fantastic trappings. Even in the case of Batman, there was no plane or car. In my mind, it’s as realistically conveyed as possible; he can’t even have a car, because then people would go ‘Oh, there he is driving off.’ Escaping city traffic’s not that easy.
“Along with the fact that, if part of your thing is that you want to convince the world that you’re this lone vigilante going out and doing stuff on your own, having million-dollar toys is a big giveaway of who you might be, or at least what social class you belong to. Of course, I eventually got away from that idea when I did Justice and said ‘He’s got the car. Here’s my design for the Batmobile.’ I was either giving up on that goal of absolute feasibility or had felt like I’d already made that statement once before. Now I wanted to draw it and put my own stamp on it.
“It’s all very open to negotiation, but in trying to represent the fantastic combined with the human, I had been holding myself back from doing more of the fantastic, because I feel like I’ve had to eat my vegetables before enjoying dessert. Now I feel like ‘You know what? I’ve eaten enough goddamn vegetables. I want all candy.’ I’ve been in more of an all-candy phase,” he laughs.
If superheroes are candy, then his work for independent comic book publisher Dynamite has been the frosting on the cake. For the past few years, Ross has taken a small army of public domain characters and masterminded new stories and redesigns, collectively branded as Project: Super Powers.
“It’s freedom,” Ross states. “It’s also an immediate answer to any issues and how the work is being conducted going through to the advertising. I’ve come to realize how much it matters in how companies are going to push these things. If you don’t push them as strongly as you could, nobody knows about your project and retailers are not going to order it. There’s been a lot of methodic thinking with the two main publishers that when you publish books, you can take any big time talent (if there’s anyone considered big enough, these days) [to sell]. Otherwise, it’s the characters, but you can’t get behind a single character like Spider-Man and get across one impacting project, because they’re selling fifteen other things with that character in it. They’re publishing a hundred titles each at the big two publishers that are all cannibalizing each other.
“When you’re an independent and are pushing a little bit here and there, and you can push that stuff more strongly because you’ve got a focused and dedicated publisher to that purpose, and you can get a lot more visibility. It doesn’t mean that you’ll get the sales of DC and Marvel, but you can get more attention. It’s not just the survivability within the marketplace, but trying to be the tree that falls in the forest that is not unheard. You want all the woodland creatures in the forest to hear the fall,” Ross laughs.
“Sometimes, like in the down market that we have currently, you may not achieve reaching all these people in terms of actual sales, but if they’ve heard of what you’re doing, that’s a sort of victory in itself. It’s all a cumulative thing.”
Ross has more of these smaller victories planned, content and happy to be doing his own thing:
“[I’m painting] covers for Voltron, a new Six Million Dollar Man series, a book I’m also co-plotting with my friend Steve Darnall writing – Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt (the old Charlton Comics character), Flash Gordon, and many more in development, all for Dynamite Entertainment,” Ross reveals. “I still work on Astro City for whenever that’s supposed to come out again. I’ve done five or six covers, and Wildstorm (now just DC West) is piling them up before putting them on the schedule. There are some big things in mind that involve my illustrating whole books. One thing I will say is that Dynamite has a project that we’re working towards, and I may at least draw and paint the start of, and an art book we’ll be doing together. Stuff like that.”
Learn more about Alex Ross at www.alexrossart.com.
Learn more about Alex Ross at www.alexrossart.com.