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Revenge of The Fanboy

Alex Ross, painter of supermen and superwomen, makes it easy to believe in heroes

There exists deep within any man who once read comic books and collected them -- protected them, actually, with plastic sleeves and cardboard backs and boxes that fought off the yellowing of time -- the mythical being known as The Fanboy. A long time ago, The Fanboy pored over every issue of World's Finest and Brave and the Bold, argued with friends about who was the better Green Lantern (Alan Scott? Dude, Hal Jordan), and thought Power Girl's uniform (white, with a hole cut out to reveal ample cleavage) was just about the best thing ever. The Fanboy bought DC and Marvel comics, but his loyalties resided more heavily with one or the other: Superman or Spider-Man, choose sides. The Fanboy drank from Green Arrow glasses and ate from Plastic-Man plates with Flash forks and Superman spoons. The Fanboy dressed up as Batman on Halloween and formed his own Justice League of America with the other kids in the neighborhood, none of whom ever wanted to be Wonder Woman -- since, ya know, there were no girls.

The Fanboy might have sold off his comics collection, gone to college, gotten a respectable job and a respectable house with a respectable wife and their respectable kids, but he never quite disappears beneath the artifice of so-called normalcy. The Fanboy forever lingers. He may hide and hold his breath, but he's just dying to get out. The Fanboy, the grown-up who can no longer tell where nostalgia ends and necessity begins, waits only for the signal: The coast is clear. Your heroes have not abandoned you.

In 1994, The Fanboy was awakened from his reverie by an astonishing comic book -- though, to call it a "comic" somehow diminishes its value. Marvels was far more than just one more issue of disposable pulp fiction to be read and tossed aside; seriously, it cost six bucks an issue. Told from the point of view of a photographer named Phil Sheldon, Marvels featured the entire cavalcade of stars from the Marvel universe: the Sub-Mariner, Captain America, Thor, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and on and on. All of them appeared in familiar settings: Captain America fighting the Nazis, the FF and Silver Surfer battling Galactus, Spider-Man trying to save Gwen Stacy from the Green Goblin.

The two sides of Alex Ross: Kingdom Come's Superman and
EarthX's Captain America, painted for Wizard magazine.
The two sides of Alex Ross: Kingdom Come's Superman and EarthX's Captain America, painted for Wizard magazine.
Batman one is: A scene from Batman: War on Crime
Batman one is: A scene from Batman: War on Crime

But these two-dimensional characters seemed somehow more real this time around: They no longer existed as flat, lifeless drawings that spoke in balloons, but as flesh-and-blood creatures who literally walked among us, inspiring both awe and fear. Their uniforms wrinkled; their eyes glistened; their skin shone. As seen through Phil Sheldon's camera lens, these heroes were -- for really the first time -- larger than life. They were no longer trapped on a dull page; they radiated.

Just like that, Alex Ross--who was then just a kid in his 20s drawing and painting and bringing to life his childhood heroes--reinvented the comic book, or so it appeared at the time. He and collaborator Kurt Busiek, who wrote Marvels using Ross' original concept, had created a comic book that read like a novel and looked like a movie (not even Frank Miller's masterpiece The Dark Knight Returns, featuring Batman as hoary bad-ass, accomplished such a feat). Ross also rescued the comics business, for a moment: His Marvels sold in the hundreds of thousands, despite the high price tag. The four issues sold out, and the hardback and paperback collections continue to move out of comic shops and bookstores.

Marvels made Ross a star in the comic business: No longer would he have to illustrate Terminator and Hellraiser books, which is where he got his start at the beginning of the 1990s. He could, for the most part, call his own shots. As he was finishing Marvels, he conceived a story involving Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and every other DC Comics icon past and present. Only, where Marvels was about the birth of heroes, 1996's Kingdom Come would be about the death of them. In that series, set 20 years in the future, a bearded Superman is retired to the farm, a broken Batman is buried in the Batcave, Captain Marvel has lost his marbles, and the world has been torn apart by a new generation of violent superheroes with no one to fight but themselves.

The 30-year-old Ross has, in a decade of illustrating and inventing comics, reawakened The Fanboy within. He has given those of us who had long ago lost interest in comics a reason to return to the comic shops: He managed to commingle the lowbrow with the highbrow, bestowing upon the medium a touch of class it never really had. Comics may have always been pop art, but the way Ross painted Superman made you think it possible for a superhero to breathe, blink, be. His comics should hang in a museum.

But Ross hasn't merely reinvented the heroes of his childhood; he is paying them earnest tribute. In Marvels, he didn't place the X-Men between quotation marks. In Kingdom Come, he didn't kill off the Hawkman girlfriend for kicks. He treated those characters with respect; he gave them dignity. He made them recognizable, even a little human: Ross has often painted Bruce Wayne with dozens of thick scars splayed across his back. For him, superheroes aren't the stuff of fantasy and fiction. They are, when stripped of the medium's silly conventions, righteous do-gooders. To Ross, superheroes are who we should be, but rarely are.

"The way any of that could ever work is where it's visible your heart is true to the material," Ross says. "It works when you're not coming to it with a sense of irony or with a smirk on your face toward the material: 'Hey, ya know, I'm just knocking out this comic because they're paying me to do it.' I could have taken the first offer that came my way after Marvels. Marvel's offer to keep me back there was, 'Why don't you work with Stan Lee on something? You know, you guys could take one of those old stories and, you know, you could redo it. You like all that old shit, don't you? That's obviously why you did Marvels -- because you're a big, old fucking fanboy or something.' They had such an incredibly limited vision for what was possible. But a lot of what's made me successful to a strong degree in this business is that it's obvious I'm a fiend for this stuff. I've been willing to say, look, this stuff is pure to me. It's important to me. Superman or any of these icons have intrinsic value other than the fact they're nostalgic for me. I think that they have a use to the world -- period. They're not just stupid and shouldn't be ignored in the fashion that they normally are."

Ross is the closest thing the world of comics has to a superstar: You can't open a copy of The Comics Journal or Wizard or any other comics magazine without finding one or a dozen of his paintings. His art sells for thousands on the Internet (at both his Web site, www.alexrossart.com, and on eBay) and in Warner Bros. Studio Stores found in a mall near you. Indeed, he has become his own franchise, hawking everything from Superman sketches to Justice League plates; in September, he will even open up shop on QVC. If the comics industry is indeed staggering toward its deathbed, losing its younger readers to the Internet and video games and its older readers to everything else, Alex Ross has at least provided it with a little mouth-to-mouth.

But, perhaps more important, Ross has become the industry's conscience -- though he would just as soon insist he's nothing more than an arrogant, stubborn prick. He takes personally the treatment of these heroes of his childhood, which was spent traveling the country with his father, whom Alex describes as "a liberal minister," and mother, also a professional artist. (Ross was born in Portland, but spent many years in Lubbock and DeSoto, Texas, before finally settling in Chicago.) He's offended by Marvel Comics founder Stan Lee's new project, in which he will reinterpret DC's best-known heroes; he is galled by Frank Miller's decision to create a sequel to The Dark Knight Returns. To Ross, both projects smack of nothing more than cynicism, the lure of easy lucre.

"This is not the future, guys," he says. "This is a step backward. If I'm on the top of my game, and I've got as much money as I need at the moment, and I can just choose to do whatever the fuck I want, I'm not going to do anything that's not in my heart's passion. And I'm hoping to keep that the same for the majority of my career."

Ross has indeed resisted the temptation to churn out sequels to Marvels and Kingdom Come--even though DC did publish a dreadful title called The Kingdom without him, which actually featured characters who had been killed off in Kingdom Come. Ross was unhappy about having his vision distorted, but he couldn't help but smirk at the irony: Kingdom Come was intended as a critique not only of heroes, but also of the comic-book marketplace itself. When he began working on the project in 1994 and '95, Ross had become incensed at how publishers were glutting the marketplace with characters, hoping that one of them would stick long enough to pull the industry out of the pit in which it had buried itself. He saw a Superman stripped of his red-yellow-and-blue tights, a Batman with a broken back, a Green Lantern with an orange bowl cut, and was fed up. He wanted to do a comic book that cleaned up such a mess, only to find himself drowned in it.

"You can see how dumb I was, right?" Ross says, sort of chuckling. "It was the kind of thing where it was a really antagonistic situation in that sort of creative room between editor, artist, and myself being odd man out as cover artist. They're looking at me like, 'Well, what do you have to contribute?' Well, I fucking created the concept in the first place, you assholes! So, realizing I wasn't so much an essential component to the mix, I took myself out of the situation, and they didn't so much as blink. There was no phone call desperately trying to get me back into it. I did get a letter from the vice president of DC saying, 'Sorry it didn't work out.'"

Kingdom Come also was turned into a novel...

"Oh, dear God," Ross groans. "Why don't you take out a pin and poke me in the ass right now?"

Not one to miss taking a swipe at greed, Ross' follow-up to Kingdom Come was the ultimate downer: Uncle Sam. The two-book series for DC's Vertigo offshoot told the story of a homeless man, who indeed looks like the title character, suffering for our country's sins. Bouncing through time, Sam finds himself in a mental asylum, in the middle of battlefields, speaking to Abraham Lincoln, and, finally, face to face with a grand, glib version of himself who speaks in George Bush platitudes. Ross' vision of America as "a big advertisement for a product that doesn't exist" sold poorly (around 20,000 copies). He could have expected no less.

Early last year, Ross debuted his own follow-up to Kingdom Come--using Marvel, not DC, characters. Titled Earth X, the series also was set 20 years in the future, where everyone on earth is a superhuman, the result of a mysterious plague that has rendered all of humanity, in essence, mutant X-Men. Spider-Man has become a fat slob, Daredevil is invincible, and Captain America is a scarred relic out to save the earth from itself. This July, Ross and his collaborators will present Universe X, in which humans, when presented with a "cure," reject it, deciding they no longer wish to be mortal. Ross will then follow that up with his third "big book" for DC, this one starring Captain Marvel: Shazam! Power of Hope.

Ross insists he loses money doing these oversize books for DC, that he can make far more doing a single cover illustration for a comics mag such as Wizard -- a couple thousand bucks a pop, and he's finishing two this very afternoon. And most of the proceeds from the sales of Superman: Peace on Earth and Batman: War on Crime, in addition to original pieces of Ross' art, go to various charities, including the Make-A-Wish Foundation and UNICEF.

Ross likes to say it's his small way of acting like a superhero, of doing some good when he could easily do nothing. "These characters are about action beyond yourself," he says. Ross then chuckles, realizing he could easily be confused with a man who takes himself -- and his comic books -- quite seriously.

"Hey, I'm as big of a prick as anybody else. It's what that character is capable of. It's what that concept is good for. The hope is that you begin to instill in other people a sense of the passion and the understanding of the values that those characters are supposed to represent. I mean, ultimately superheroes were created as not just entertainment icons, but as metaphors for virtuous thought. The entire concept of the superhero is an altruistic act, so, therefore, there's a philosophy behind that that is generally lost on modern society. Are these comics going to be part of rekindling a little bit of that? I can only pray so, but you never know if that is going to be the case."

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