In his 29 years as an artist in the comic-book industry, Alex Ross has become known for painting many superpowered masterpieces.
An Eisner Award-winning artist known for a style that seemingly brings the superheroes he paints into the real world, Ross has created iconic artwork for series such as “Marvels” alongside writer Kurt Busiek in 1994 and “Kingdom Come,” a collaboration with Mark Waid in 1996.
Ross recognizes that for fans who grew up reading comics in the ’90s, his almost-cinematic artwork filled a void. There were no connected live-action superhero movie universes. At best, fans could hope for a Batman movie every few years, before Joel Schumacher made even that not a guarantee.
Back then, to take in a comic book page painted by Ross was to treat your imagination to what your favorite superheroes might look like if they were standing right next to you. Ross says that visual experience for fans was always his goal.
“I was hoping that I could connect my way of interpreting these characters, which wasn’t too much of a case of overthinking or redefining them as much as trying to clarify how you could make them seem visually applicable to reality,” Ross told The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs. “Of all the painters of my era, if none of them were as driven to that goal, I wanted to be the guy who leapfrogged ahead of them to make it my thing, so that everybody would think of me as sort of the Norman Rockwell of comics.”
Ross’s approach to art is as simple as it is meticulous. Paper, pencils and paint are his constant supplies. Ross uses live models, action figures, photographs and sculptures that he molds himself as references for his art. He once sculpted an Iron Man piece and dipped it in chrome so that he could satisfactorily apply a reflective surface to his version of the armored Avenger.
Time has come to define Ross’s art, in the amount he puts into his craft and how little of it he has to enjoy the end results. Ross admits to working every day of the week for almost the first two decades of his career. He’s only given himself weekends off over the past nine years. He stays busy now painting covers for multiple Marvel Comics series, including the current “Captain America” series written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and “The Immortal Hulk” written by Al Ewing. It’s a schedule that doesn’t leave much time to reminisce.
Ross hopes his fans will have more time than he’s had to take in some of his best works with the release of “Marvelocity,” a curated collection of his best Marvel works over his career (available for purchase Tuesday from Pantheon Books), including painted pages, covers, childhood artwork, never-before-seen art and an original 10-page Spider-Man story he wrote and painted. The book reunites Ross with Chip Kidd and Geoff Spear, who worked with him on a 2003 book, “Mythology,” a collection of his best works for DC Comics.
“We don’t really get in the weeds of what it took for me to make projects or all the nuts and bolts of behind-the-scenes comic lore,” Ross said. “It’s more like a sense of connection between the fan that I am and the fans that the audience may be.”
“Marvelocity’s” original Spider-Man tale offers the rare chance to see Ross illustrating a full story from a panel to panel. Ross says if he were to deviate from his current workload of primarily painting comic book covers it would have to make business sense. Covers pay more and take less time to produce. He can complete a cover for a typical monthly series in two to three days, sometimes less. And he always tries to stay a couple of months ahead. He’s already completed 15 covers for “The Immortal Hulk,” which published its sixth issue in September.
That’s not to say Ross wouldn’t consider brushing up on an assignment where he’d be responsible for interior art pages for a multipart series.
“That’s what formed the connection I have with [my] readership [and] with any kind of following is that I did full stories,” Ross said. “It comes down to desire or having a story that’s burning within you [that] you need to tell.”
At the beginning of 2018, Ross proposed an idea that would have had him drawing interior pages on a series for a limited time at Marvel.
“They shot me down. So I’ve been turned down from that before,” Ross said. “I’m not as all powerful as I might like to think I am. I can’t get everything approved like people think.”
One thing Ross has complete control over is how he brings his art to life, which, after almost three decades, he’s proud to say still doesn’t involve a computer, despite how prevalent digital drawing tablets have become.
“I care for the computer enhancement of illustration insofar as what I see other people do with it,” Ross said. “But I have no desire to be working on a computer. I get my hands dirty. It’s going to sound terrible, but I don’t spend my whole day looking at a screen. And I know that has corrupted basically everybody else’s job on earth. So I’m trying to keep that from being a part of my life.”
Today, Ross doesn’t have to go far outside his studio to see realistic-looking superheroes. They now dominate live-action entertainment in movies, television and streaming. Ross is happy to see a broader pop-culture embrace of comic books, and it gives him one more tool he can reference for his art.
“It shouldn’t have taken as long as it did to get to this stage we’re at where comics get this showcase on a larger venue,” Ross said. “Its caused me to be challenged by what happens in cinema because they can show me a way of doing things that really outdoes anything I was trying to put on paper. And that happens very often. . . . It makes me try harder to bring to life that visual character.”
No matter the era of superhero entertainment, Ross’s goal remains the same. Each painting, each panel, each hero, is a new chance to create the same magic.
“Often my artistic ambition is to try to convince you that the original design for a character was never broken and didn’t necessarily need refinement or redesign,” Ross said. “It was already there. You just needed to see it the right way.”