Heroes & Villains: The Comic Book Art of Alex Ross
Exhibition at the Norman Rockwell Museum. Stockbridge, Mass, USA.
(Alex Ross, “JLA: The Original Seven”, 2000, courtesy of the artist, ™ & © DC Comics. Used with permission.)
Two hours west of Boston, deep into the New England countryside where the land is known as the ‘Berkshires’, one comes across a perfect small town, frozen, it feels, in time, a fine example of a Massachusetts settlement; paper mill on the outskirts, a main street with fine buildings and the final home of illustrator Norman Rockwell.
Rockwell, who came to prominence illustrating the covers of the Saturday Evening Post, loved to celebrate the commonplace, finding simple humour and telling a story in his illustrations, noting change and invention, the American Spirit and having a huge love of tradition and the past.
During the Second World War, he created four massive pictures illustrating the four freedoms that President Teddy Roosevelt outlined to the nation that they were fighting for: Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom to Worship God in His Own Way, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear. Rockwell put them in terms that everyone can understand under his own initiative and brought them to the government.
Initially, the Treasury Department didn’t want to know about these images. They wanted ‘modern’ artists, as they felt illustrators were of the First World War. The Evening Post of course loved them, saw them for what they were, and used them to illustrate articles, and they were hugely popular. The government, realising its error, had a serious change of heart and soon these images were on a 16 city tour and raised $133m in war bonds, the most successful war bond drive ever.
‘Meeting deadlines and coming up with ideas: scourges of the illustrators life’ said Rockwell.
The Norman Rockwell Museum is beautifully set outside Stockbridge and attracts over 200,000 visitors a year. The building, which is purpose built, is of a public building style, fitting for the environment, but on a larger scale. Inside there are a series of well-lit galleries.
(Alex Ross, “Batman: Knight Over Gotham”, 1999, courtesy of the artist, ™ & © DC Comics. Used with permission)
I had travelled here to see an Alex Ross exhibition.
When one is confronted by comic images that are purposely large, imposing, detailed and clear, they are striking, not only in their colour, but the beauty of the characters. I was immediately taken by a three-foot square picture of Supergirl and Batgirl. A somewhat classic looking Batgirl, and this was painted in gouache. Next to this was the large picture of Batman over Gotham, and it was dark but iconic in its look.
The pleasure of an exhibition like this is not just seeing the things you know well, covers, splash pages, posters, but the process, the preliminaries. In glass cases, there were pencils for Batman RIP, Dr. Fate and Spectre, Green Arrow and Black Canary, allowing one to see the artistic sequence that goes into making a cover image.
I was especially taken by a cover prelim for Batwoman #1, designed with the Batwoman logo, a deftly pencilled ‘my logo’ indicating what I wondered, and then the finished cover for Detective comics ##860, somehow bringing the work into vivid fruition.
(Alex Ross, “Norman Rockwell”, 2012, courtesy of the artist, ©Alex Ross. Used with permission.)
Ross created an illustration of Norman Rockwell, a superhero of a different sort. Instead of a cape, he holds the American flag over his shoulder, otherwise looking very normal, but the viewer knows that Rockwell was indeed a hero amongst illustrators. Ross also illustrated an image of Andy Warhol flying into the sky amongst swans, again showing an artistic colleague in a different light.
(Andy Warhol takes flight in superheroic fashion in this work by and (c) Alex Ross, via the Warhol Museum’s nice press folk)
This exhibition was previously in The Warhol, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. There is a genius in showing these three very different yet brilliant artists in this fashion who are in many ways worlds apart. Bringing them together in juxtaposition for the viewer to consider was thought provoking.
Warhol himself was a man of comics. He had used a number of comic images to create an artistic ensemble for the Bonwit Teller Department Store window in New York, including Superman, Dick Tracy and Popeye in 1961, which was one of his earliest ‘Pop Art’ displays.
Here there was a Popeye from 1961, a splash of watercolour, graphite and newspaper cutting, Pop Art and then photos for Esquire magazine by Frank Bez of Nico and Andy as Batman and Robin.
(Andy as Robin and Nico as Batman in this fantastic photograph by Frank Bez for Esquire, courtesy of the Warhol Museum’s press dept)
Comics run deep it seems, and Warhol was a fan and in the Warhol Archives there are 30′s classics such as Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and Little Orphan Annie as well as Lois Lane, Batman, Wonder Woman and Fantastic Four from the 60s.
Next was some footage of a film that Warhol was creating, an underground Batman/Dracula movie and this of course resonated with the Batman work that Ross has done, the interest in a comics character transcending artistic movements, styles, eras even.
(Alex Ross, Uncle Sam, 1997, courtesy and from the collection of the artist. © DC Comics. Used with permission.)
Warhol’s Myths series, which were later compositions of the 80s, included Superman and ‘The Witch’. Sitting this next to Ross’s The Wicked Witch of the West was smart, and then one sees another of Warhol’s Myths, ‘Uncle Sam’ from 1981, next to a Norman Rockwell Uncle Sam which was an advert for Schenley whiskey in 1947 and the 1997 Uncle Sam comic promotional piece created by Ross for San Diego Comic Con.
I loved these comparisons. I would never have thought of them. Then next to a piece that illustrates John F. Kennedy’s Legacy, of the Peace Corps by Rockwell, one sees The First Avengers, from 2010 by Ross and one can see the common goal of clarity, portraying realistic but strong people, the diversity and dynamic of regular next to the extraordinary people, but both portraying the extraordinary.
(Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), “The Peace Corps (J.F.K.’s Bold Legacy), 1966. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©Norman Rockwell Family Agency. All rights reserved.)
(Alex Ross, “First Avengers”, 2010, courtesy of the artist. AVENGERS ™ & © 2012 Marvel and Subs.)
I liked the reference photos for Superman, Batman and then of the Joker and Harley. In the case of The Joker they were self portraits, which was impressive.
The influence of other artists such as J.C. Leyendecker and Andrew Loomis were also explored, and again the ability to compare and discuss this for what it was, inspiration, was nice.
There were again nice comparisons to view, looking at the covers for the Justice 2005 series, character pencil studies from Super Friends, which had an influence, and footage of which was running, then colour marker tests on paper, preliminary covers in pencil, preliminary ink tests and gouache on paper of the villains and heroes. It gave one a very clear view of part of the technical side to taking a piece of art and mass producing it as a comic.
Pieces of art from Ross’ youth were amazing to see. Avengers from1983, crayon on paper, the X-men 1983, again crayon on paper, and then a wonderful study of all the then-existing versions of Superman, some 13 characters and Ross even made superheroes from construction paper and scotch tape. Perhaps the most delightful, a selection of Charlie Brown characters as the Justice League in crayon on paper, slightly changed names such as Clent Suped-uped-man, and an indication of his humour as he has Charlie Brown, former member of the Peanuts League, a reference to Snapper Carr, and all done at the age of 10.
Then it is back to the comic art, with a five foot wide Marvel graphic novel wrap cover from 1994. This is next to the Marvel covers from issues #1, 2 and 4 as well as a selection of pages.
(Alex Ross, “Marvels” hardcover dust jacket illustration, 1994, courtesy of the artist, ™ & © 2012 Marvel and Subs.)
(Alex Ross, Marvels #4 cover, 1994, courtesy of the artist, SPIDER-MAN ™ & © 2012 Marvel and Subs.)
Again, making me pleased with the insightfulness that the curators have brought to this exhibition was the inclusion of artwork by Lynette Ross from before she became mother of Alex, a commercial illustrator of some serious skill in the 1950s fashion magazine industry. Lynette returned to illustration when Alex was a teenager. To see this obvious family ability was lovely.
There were more comic characters, and it was clear that Ross enjoyed the humour of Shazam! The World of Captain Marvel, while a selection of homemade crayon comic books of folded paper from 1980 Plastic Man to a DC and Marvel Presents World’s Greatest Superheroes from 1984 was again indicative that the urge and desire to draw comics was always there, and that there was a vision and desire.
(Alex Ross, “Captain Marvel”, 2001, courtesy of the artist, ™ & © DC Comics.Used with permission.)
There were many more images by Ross, originals and prints in the exhibit. Then there were a selection of superhero statues and a video piece of Alex Ross, which was fantastic, as again comparisons between Ross and Rockwell could be found such as the photo reference. He spoke of his career, how he enjoyed portraying his dad in his comics, and of how he felt comics had a legitimacy given to it, given that comics seemed to be not just unappreciated but so clearly reviled.
The video is here to watch courtesy of the Norman:
It was brilliant. I hadn’t realised how much time had gone by,
The Norman Rockwell Museum will be having an inside look at working in the comics field, with The Business of Art, Careers in Comics, Saturday, February 16th from 1 to 4 p.m. with comics artist Daniel Cooney, who will discuss the narrative, artistic, and technical skills required and explore the range of opportunities available to aspiring creators – from writing, drawing and inking to lettering and publishing. Check the official site for more information.
(Photo of Alex Ross, courtesy of the artist.)
My thanks to Emily Meyer of The Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, to Jeremy Clowes of The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.
The Exhibition was curated by Jesse Kowalski for The Andy Warhol Museum and I am especially grateful to Mr Kowalski for bringing these artists together.
Video ©Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved. www.nrm.org
Alex Ross and Lynette Ross artwork and photos courtesy of Alex Ross. Used with permission.
DC Comics images ™ & ©DC Comics. Used with permission.
Marvel Comics images ™ & ©2012 Marvel and Subs.