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Alex Ross on 'The Art of Painted Comics'

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Alex Ross is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable artists to ever work in comic books, even though most of his work in the field happened over a relatively brief 10-year span. Part of it is Ross’ striking visual style (a photorealistic painting unlike most other comic illustrations), part of it is his work on popular superhero comic stories like the DC dystopian epic Kingdom Come, but it’s also because of the way his art has so often been collected in gorgeous coffee-table volumes. Even if you don’t recognize Ross’ name, you’ve probably seen his glistening Superman staring at you from the top of a table at Barnes & Noble.

After a few of these volumes came out in the early 2000s, Ross decided that the next such coffee-table collection should go beyond him to make a history of painted comics. Now, after a 13-year development process, The Art of Painted Comics is available in bookstores and comic stores everywhere, full of gorgeous artwork and scholarly history of the art form from author Chris Lawrence. Ross spoke to EW about how the book came to be, why it took so long, and his place in the tradition. Check that out below, along with some exclusive preview pages from the book.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is your first time editing a book. How did you end up doing it and what was the experience like for you?

ALEX ROSS: I’m more of an editorial contributor by default. We never had a full editor during the production time, the 13 years we’ve been working on this thing. It was something I suggested doing to the publisher after he approached me about doing another book on me. I said, “You know, that’s kind of been done already. What about this subject matter? Because there’s a whole world of painted comics that existed before I had my career in this business.” So it was born out of that conversation.

Why did it take 13 years to finish this book?

No good reason. In some ways there was never the fullest resources put to gathering all the various artworks that needed to be scanned and featured in the book. That took a long time for it to be prioritized. The writer, Chris Lawrence, did his job right away and submitted his manuscript very early on. So we had a good long time to assemble materials, and he had a lot more time to edit and add additional content as the years bore on. If anybody’s the true editor of it, I would say it was Chris.

How much did you know about the history of painted comics going in to this project?

I was a big follower of it but wanted the research to be done, where you could put it all in one area. There’s so much unique perspective to give here. What makes it more unique is the fact that it is a bizarre digression of American illustration that goes from the heritage of Norman Rockwell and J.C. Leyendecker and what they got to do for magazine illustration, that would ultimately give way to one of the only remaining art forms in print, comic books. That transfer has happened, going way far back.

Why are comics the only print medium for painting left?

The entire substance of comic books is to create images with an artist’s interpretation. That’s the whole way you bring these fantastic things to life. So that’s one of the only places that could continue use of original art, in whatever form: Pen and ink, cartooning, or painting. The fact that painting could find a home in the world of comics is a unique thing. Because it is still rare, and largely a corner of the medium, not a broad part of it. In my time working in the business in the 90s, it was still growing in acceptance. It hadn’t convinced everybody that you wanted to see these things more rendered in this fashion, even though it had already had happened for decades. A lot of that was independent comics, like the things Richard Corben did for Heavy Metal, or fantasy fare. But then there were painted covers going back to the 1960s, before I was born, where you had Dell Comics or Gold Key making wonderful painted comics of their many characters, some of which were superhero properties.

So there’s a lot that’s happened, but you just have this entrenched sensibility that comics were meant for a more cartoonish bent of illustration. That was one of those things that had to be loosened up.

Speaking of your involvement in the field, were you ever surprised when people treated your work in Kingdom Come or Marvels as unique, despite this long history of painted comics?

Yeah that is actually a big reason I was pushing for the book to get made. Now, it’d be great if it came out 13 years ago, because the point would’ve been made a lot closer to the time that people kept talking to me as if I had invented that version of the art form. I think, if anything, what I might’ve encapsulated to some degree was an embrace of the most commercial properties being interpreted through painted illustration. Because these gentlemen that preceded me were much more involved in breaking new ground and being elaborate illustrators who pushed the medium of comic books in a direction that wasn’t centered around corporate-owned superhero properties. I came in as a fan saying, “Hey I really love those painted covers I grew up with featuring Superman or the Hulk or things Marvel did in the ’70s, and I’d like to see whole books like that.” When I know you can paint whole books, but you’re choosing not to do those characters, that seemed counterintuitive to my sensibility.

Again, it did not began with what I did, it maybe just got more shoved down everybody’s throats when I was a part of it. So then I got credit for more than what was my due, and that’s hopefully where a book like this comes in.

What do you hope readers and comic fans take out of this book?

That there’s a ton of stuff that’s worth checking out. There’s a lot of people currently working who are making painted illustration happen, whether covers or interiors. One of those names would be a very talented guy named Daniel Lacuna. He does regular comics for Marvel. This stuff is digitally painted, but it’s the same tradition. It doesn’t matter how it got painted, watercolors or whatever, it just matters what the final effect is, which is a greater form of rendering the subject and delineating an experience for the readers. I think that’s the value of painted comics. If it’s done well enough, it makes that experience more vivid.

How have you seen the tradition of illustrated comics change even in your time working on it?

Well one of the things that happened in the last 20 years is a movement away from the special projects that gave birth to a career like mine, where you had more oddball limited series that didn’t just exist to push the characters on you, but in fact to offer a uniquely different experience, whether graphically or narratively. A lot of that has evaporated because the companies could certainly feel like that was taking the attention of their talent pool, who would rather do that than work on stories that keep you trapped in continuity. We need to get you so locked in as a consumer of these characters that you’re not just buying this thing here, you’ve got to know what happens next, so you’ve got to get the next comic that ties in to this. We’re always telling you a moving narrative, as opposed to standalone projects of the kind I got to create, with series that were never meant to have sequels, that were art objects unto themselves.

Any other hopes you have from this book?

I would love it if someone was like, “You know what, they didn’t cover this, they didn’t get this right.” I would love to see more books on the subject, because I know there’s so much more art to show.

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