For lots of people, the first and most obvious artist Alex Ross gets compared with is Norman Rockwell, but I think at this point a more fitting analogue might be director Robert Zemeckis, auteur of films like Forrest Gump and Castaway: beloved by consumers and many critics, yet also one who inspires a zealous hatred that few of his peers can compare to. Though wildly popular among mainstream comics audiences for his naturalistic, photo-referenced take on superherodom, he is widely pilloried in critical circles for what many see as stiff linework, dull compositional instincts and a borderline vulgar air of sentimentality.
I understand these complaints in theory, but when looking at his comics—in Marvels, in Kingdom Come, even on the modern day variant covers he has largely relegated himself to—I find my sense of wonder irrepressible, just as much intact as when I first discovered him as a teenager (which is not something I can say for many other comics I enjoyed at that age, I assure you). I’d like to explain why I enjoy his work, why I think others may not, and try to hopefully find a bridge of understanding between the two camps.
The first thing to comprehend is why Alex Ross is so popular with readers, which is simple enough to explain: “realism” is easy to appreciate on a technical level and thus funnels itself easily to appreciation on an aesthetic level. Those of us who’ve been reading comics for a long time sometimes forget that even greats like Herge, Osamu Tezuka and Jack Kirby can be an acquired taste for those not familiar with the visual grammar of the form; Ross’ art provides no such barrier to entry: his work is “pretty” in a very conventional sense. We understand intuitively that his vibrant colors, lush shadows and meticulous grasp of anatomy takes a lot of time and effort to realize on the page, and as these are the things we associate with many of history’s great artists, the immediate association between Ross and canonized classical painting tradition is apparent to many.
On the flip side, the common argument against this appeal is similarly simple: classical painting is an entirely different discipline from comics illustration, and as such is frequently if not uniformly incompatible with the form. Painting each panel as a distinct portrait is not conducive for conveying a consistent sense of time and motion, elements which are required for most narrative comics to function visually. Taking the magical universe of the superhero and attempting to aesthetically shoehorn it into reality can often make it look ridiculous as well: the elegance of Carmine Infantino’s Batman or the kineticism of Paul Pope’s vision of the character rather gets lost in translation when the model used for painting looks less like a dark avenger of the night and more like a retired cop after two weeks’ vacation in Key Largo.
Again, I respect the theory behind these complaints, but I’m still not sure it’s wise to label Ross’s style as mere realism. Certainly Rockwell is the most obvious influence on his art, but he also cites John Romita, George Perez and Neal Adams as inspirations—comic artists who worked in a relatively realistic style when compared to contemporaries like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, but whose art also offered the sense of speed and force of linework necessary for a visually satisfying superhero comic. I believe these two attributes—speed and force—are equally apparent in Ross’s work. Consider the battle between Namor and the Human Torch in Marvels, or between Superman and Shazam in Kingdom Come: colors pop and blur, panels shake, structures crumble fearsomely. Visually it is composed with relative realism, but the tone of the art, its purpose and mood, is strictly within a superheroic tradition. The nature of these universes require the use of imagery you’d simply never see hanging in a gallery, and to my mind this helps Ross’s art avoid stodginess and stiffness: its naturalist bent combined with “childish” subject matter gives Ross’s comics a sense of artistic play, and provides a melding of form and content rarely if ever seen in either fine art or comics.
This effect, if perhaps not the exact style, reminds me most of the original Dan Dare comics illustrated by Frank Hampson, a series which is criminally underrated and undervalued in the United States. By using formal realism to implement his cartoonish designs, Hampson created a memorable gallery of machines, monsters and landscapes which stimulated the imagination like few comics before or since. Utterly alien yet strangely warm and comfortable, Dan Dare is arguably a perfect meeting of the silly, the theatrical and the psychedelic; while the stories themselves tend to be formulaic sci-fi adventures, the vistas and beasts visited within them are jaw-dropping, at once dynamic and dramatic thanks to a painterly vision enacted from a simple, misleadingly goofy visual blueprint.
Alex Ross dutifully carries this tradition into the modern age. A mixture of realism and absurdity is nowhere more appropriate than a superhero story. Something like Ross’s vision of a superhero gulag full to bursting with multicolored heroes and villains alike is so convincing not strictly due to the realistic style, but because in the context of superheroes nothing ever exactly feels unrealistic. This is a genre where despotic talking gorillas vie for world supremacy and supreme galactic evil is defeated by having a song sung at them; reality is such an intangible concept in these works that a naturalistic perspective often only adds to the strangeness or surreality therein. Thus, Ross’s style infuses these worlds with gravity and immediacy, offering a fullness of comprehension that other artists frequently lack.
Maybe this is ultimately the legacy that Alex Ross will leave us with: that more is simply sometimes more, and that superhero art can only be bolstered by a multitude of disciplines, never degraded by them. To me, there are few worlds more compelling than those painted by Ross—wild, vibrant and wondrous, yet warm and familiar all at once.
Christopher M. Jones is a comic book writer, pop culture essayist, and recovering addict and alcoholic living in Austin, TX. He currently writes for Loser City as well as Comics Bulletin and has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators for his minicomic Written in the Bones (illustrated by Carey Pietsch). Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.