It almost seems as if Alex Ross knows Superman personally.
Ross, an illustrator whose paintings of fictional characters have been acclaimed by fans of both comic books and art museums, sees the Man of Steel as determined, confident — someone who knows the connection between great power and great responsibility.
“There’s a certain attitude in his eyes and a weight on his shoulders,” Ross said of his interpretation of America’s most famous comic book star.
Now others can see the way Ross sees Superman — and dozens of others in the cape and cowl club — at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. An exhibition titled “Heroes & Villains: The Comic Book Art of Alex Ross,” opened earlier this month and will run through Feb. 24.
More than 130 pieces are in the collection. They include paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures from Ross’ personal collection. An early crayon drawing of Spider-Man, created at age 4, is in the mix. So are examples from celebrated comic book triumphs such as the 1994 “Marvels,” which featured players from the Marvel Comics roster, and the thoughtful “Kingdom Come,” a gritty tale from 1996 that starred members of the DC comics stable.
Heroes & Villains: The Comic Book Art of Alex Ross
WHERE: Norman Rockwell Museum, 9 Route 183, Stockbridge, Mass.
WHEN: Through Feb. 24. Museum open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
HOW MUCH: $16; $14.50 for seniors; $10 for college students with I.D.; $5 for ages 6-18; free for children 5 and under.
MORE INFO: 413-298-4100, www.nrm.org
The show also gives nods to the artist’s inspirations — original artwork by Ross’ mother, Lynette Ross, an illustrator during the 1940s and ‘50s — Frank Bez, Andrew Loomis and the great Rockwell himself.
Comic books fans may be more interested in paintings of men and women who wear power rings and enchanted bracelets. Ross’ painting of DC’s Green Lantern is a study in emerald light; Wonder Woman is a portrait of bullet-bouncing beauty. Captain Marvel shows up as a jolly, muscular fellow wearing red tights and a golden lightning bolt.
The 42-year-old Ross, in a phone conversation from his Chicago art studio, likes the idea of comic book characters in an art center.
“Comic book characters have been part of the American pop culture and the world pop culture for almost a century now,” he said. “They very much speak to the kind of dreams and escapism that fuel all of our imaginations. Superheroes in particular are an embodiment of our will as human beings to want to break free of the confines of human limitation, to not just dream of power as influences but power as physical power.”
He’s especially pleased his paintings are at the Rockwell.
“That’s an honor that just can’t be overstated,” he said. “[Rockwell’s] importance as a draftsman, as a contributor to American culture, is something that just can’t be equaled by any contemporary talent. To even be considered ... for any similarity I may hold, is an apex of my own history. It’s as good as I can get.”
Some art lovers say Rockwell painted details, and put stories into the faces of his subjects. Ross does the same thing. His versions of familiar characters are dignified and realistic.
Giving these characters more humanity was not an original idea.
“Keep in mind that the origins of the field, what builds up comic books and particularly the superhero icon characters, are things that came ... from the pulp magazines of the ’30’s and ’40s,” Ross said. “Characters like The Shadow and the Green Hornet and others, they were the inspiration for all these characters that I’ve been able to work on. And their renderings were entirely realistic and painted. So the images that gave birth to the world of superheroes were entirely representational of humanity in a very direct, realistic way. If anything, I’m bringing things back to that origin.”
Able to adapt
Ross said it’s a challenge for him to live up to past renditions of the old radio and serial characters. Some of his recent works have included Dynamite Entertainment’s 2012 relaunch of The Shadow, the vigilante first heard on radio in 1930.
“I’ve noticed from the very first images I did of The Shadow, I thought that I had this mastery over his big long nose,” Ross said. “Now I’ve come to find that the first images I did, like ‘Oh, I really screwed that up.’ I needed to add a whole other inch on top of that nose. So there are things that I’ve had to absorb and learn better as I’ve moved through doing this art. Even my own ability to master what I turn out has been subject to change.”
Ross respects those earlier artists. He also respects Jack Kirby, whose work with Marvel and writer Stan Lee during the 1960s resulted in classic runs on titles such as “Fantastic Four” and “The Mighty Thor.” Kirby was known for attention to detail and the dynamic movement he drew into his subjects.
“He’s a gigantic influence,” Ross said. “He is the seminal most important influence in not just my life, but in the majority of American comics. His impact is still never fully appreciated because of the fact that this guy created almost half of the characters that we hold to date as the greatest icons of comic books. His impact graphically in directing the energy of comics to be that much more explosive and forceful, that sort of masculine energy that imbued his work, is something that we’re all living in the wake of his contribution. Nobody can really have the same impact that he did because it happened at the start.”
Ross has mostly been painting cover art for superhero projects. He has noticed other artists are using his style — colorful, realistic, painted versions of super guys and gals have been appearing in comic books and graphic novels.
“I know I will be terrifically jealous when I see somebody doing a full series like I’ve done in the past, but I haven’t seen it in these last few years,” Ross said. “But I have seen people who have shown either direct influence from me or that they’re illustrators who are just coming into the field who are realizing that the opportunities for such style of art is available. It is an opening to use this level of execution, which didn’t use to be the case.”
Ross said most of the people reading superheroes these days are between their 30s and their 50s.
“We desperately need a younger readership to continue the lifeblood of the industry, which is why you see overtures now of re-forming everything and recasting it,” he said. “I don’t think those things are necessary, but they’re ultimately just devices to try and draw attention and say, ‘Come on in, we’ve made this sort of concession to get you, the reader who is not following us now.’”
Ross fans will see the dramatic versions of the Human Torch, Spider-Man and Batman in the exhibition. They may have to wait awhile to see a Ross version of Doc Savage, the “Man of Bronze” from the pulp era.
“I guess I’ve never done any full artwork of Doc Savage yet,” Ross said. “I’m sure that opportunity will come into play at some point.”