Calling All Fanboys and -Girls

Every comic-book geek worthy of the term has his or her favorite writer and artist. It's a question as important as favorite superhero or “DC or Marvel?” We may bicker, but there's little argument the best of the best (Kirby, Jimenez, Ditko, Perez, etc.) is spearheaded by master illustrator Alex Ross, whose pioneering four-issue Kingdom Come (co-written with Mark Waid) not only provides the thrill of potential superhero Armageddon, but also contains the most beautiful paintings of the tights-and-cape crowd assembled in one story.

So it's a bit of a coup that the slightly scaled-down touring version of the superlative “Heroes and Villains: The Comic Book Art of Alex Ross”—smartly put together by curator Jesse Kowalski from the Andy Warhol Museum—is on display locally at Fullerton Museum Center. On view for just the next few days, the exhibit examines Ross' history as an illustrator and the process he undertakes to create his masterworks. The artist's early works include drawings of Captain Marvel and Spider-Man (called “Spidey” and “Supper Heroes” in Ross' grade-school scrawl), self-created comic books, Peanuts' Charlie Brown wearing every superhero costume you can think of (including Wonder Woman's), and intricate cardboard Justice League characters, glued together and hand-detailed. They indicate a young man obsessed, but it also seems fortuitous that his supportive mother also had a career as an illustrator.

Her work on display are all elaborate, lifelike ads designed to sell cigarettes and soap, the realism of her imagery a neat contrast to the young Ross' fanboy art, as well as an artistic precursor to the more mature realism of his later efforts. Other influences include art-book artist Andrew Loomis; illustrator/painter J. C. Leyendecker, who painted more than 400 magazine covers and was the creator of the iconic Arrow Collar Man ads; and Leyendecker protégé Norman Rockwell. Ross' work usually holds its own, but hung next to his two forebears, his Iron Man, Thor and Hulk in profile (First Avengers, 2010) seems inconsequential compared to the understated social consciousness of Normal Rockwell's The Peace Lovers.

Ross' Kingdom Come #1 cover fares slightly better, thematically connected as it is to Rockwell's anti-Vietnam War portrait, The Right to Know, but it's in the more direct influence of a Leyendecker ad on a lithograph of the Joker and Harley Quinn (Tango With Evil, 1999) that he really scores. The intense sexuality of the latter riffs on the original picture's cool sublimation—neither the man nor the woman in the Leyendecker are looking at each other—with Harley devotedly gazing at her beloved. The Joker's hand is about her waist, fingers inching toward the color split of red and black at her crotch, but he's intent only on making eye contact with the viewer. The light hits her harlequin costume, accenting her curves and providing a sheen akin to a post-coital sweat.

The remaining work is all in the style that we've grown to admire from Ross, covering a throng of Marvel and DC comic characters, as well as commercial art he did for non-comic sources. While it seems unfair to single out favorites in a uniformly impressive show of more than 100 pieces, the orgy of exposed flesh, wings, gams, bulges, muscles, breasts and bright costumes in 1999's Legion of Superheroes lithograph is almost achingly erotic, despite the artist's care to give it a less overt, “innocent sexuality.” I was fascinated with the step-by-step visualizations of Ross' JLA Justice #1 and villain variant Legion of Doom covers, the penciled, ink, marker and gouache art, featuring images of Aquaman, Flash, Wonder Woman, Batman, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter and a congregation of Super Friends bad guys; his rich, evocative black-and-white closeups of the Spectre and Norman McCay (with Ross' minister father providing the model) from Kingdom Come; the vertigo-inducing angle of Batman: Knight Over Gotham, with Bruce Wayne perched atop a gargoyle overlooking the city, cape whipping in the breeze as if a living thing; JLA, The Original Seven (2000), its superheroes contrasted in the shadow-and-light pose of Freddie Mercury and the boys on the Queen II album cover; a panhandling, mentally ill Uncle Sam; model photographs Ross took to work off; even his work on the DVD release of the execrable camp fest Flash Gordon gives a nobility to Sam Jones' blond locks and Max von Sydow's yellowface Ming the Merciless that the film barely deserves.

By imbuing decades-old icons with humanity, soul and new life, Ross not only blurs the line between the super and the human, but he also liberates superheroes from the thick black lines, primary colors and overinflated musculature of his forebears. By glorifying the mythology of tireless justice and a moral vision for the world, his work honors those aspirations as it helps keep that dream going.

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