Few artists can make superheroes look as iconic as Alex Ross does. The most famous characters from both Marvel and DC were created decades ago, but Ross’ style of photo-realistic painted comics makes them look timeless. Mythology, his coffee table book of DC superhero imagery, was released in 2003 and has been a staple of bookstores ever since. Ross’ art makes Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and their teammates look like iconic godlike figures, both in Mythology and in classic Ross-illustrated comics like Kingdom Come.
This year, Ross and his co-author Chip Kidd are reuniting for a new book, Marvelocity, which aims to take a similar approach to Marvel’s pantheon of superheroes. In addition to collecting covers, sketches, and designs of Marvel characters done by Ross over the years, Marvelocity will also feature at least 30 pages of new art from Ross — including a 10-page, wholly original story featuring Spider-Man’s battle against the villainous Sinister Six. EW recently caught up with Ross to discuss Marvelocity, what differentiates Marvel from DC, and why cover star Captain America still looks good in his original costume. Check out that discussion below, along with the cover for Marvelocity. Marvelocity, which includes an introduction by J.J. Abrams, is on sale Oct. 2 from Pantheon Books.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How does Marvelocity compare to Mythology? Why did you decide to do it now?
ALEX ROSS: It’s the Marvel version of that. The simplest way, and the most honest way to describe it. It’s not just a reunion of Chip and I tackling similar material, but it’s made as a bit of a parallel. As fans of all comics know, you generally have these two major companies to pull from. This is the stuff I did a great amount of work with, in the same amount as what I did with DC. I’m not sure how much I’ve done with each company as a comparison, but when you see it in the same presentation, you’ll see it’s a lot.
In many ways it took the inspiration to hit, where it felt like the right time. Certainly it’s been talked about over the 15 years since Mythology came out, to do a Marvel version. Chip himself is not first and foremost a Marvel fan in the same way he grew up with DC, so having him feel it and desire it was a big part of the evolution of the project. He’s done so many coffee table books based around DC characters, particularly Batman, that he’s got a particular passion there, whereas I’ve always been intellectually divided between both publishers as far as what draws me to them.
What differentiates Marvel characters from DC characters, in terms of their look and aura?
There’s certainly an argument to make for similarity of iconic status, but what’s always separated the two for me is Marvel’s material has always had a kinetic quality to it, particularly based on the design aesthetics of Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. DC characters are not defined by a singular artistic voice influencing all the rest, but that’s what happened with Jack Kirby’s leadership of the entire Marvel brand. Everything is affected by what he led the charge of. That 10 years where he created the majority of those characters in the ’60s, that’s what every artist and writer has built their process upon, including the movies today. There’s a kinetic energy and a chaotic energy that embodies Marvel’s stuff.
DC is the foremost component of where the DNA of what makes a superhero came from. They did the very first superhero in Superman, and the first great embodiment of the dark superhero in Batman, and of course the first female superhero in Wonder Woman. All those key things are lined up by them, and they go in a nice descending ladder of importance with their Justice League. With Marvel it’s clear that Spider-Man is not the same kind of hero as Superman; Cap has similarities but he has differences as well and has been used in very interesting ways that stop him from being a clone of any DC counterpart. The Marvel characters are all over the place in terms of what makes them unique, and there’s a hip energy that’s been instilled in them since their creation. Every other superhero company follows the mold of having their heroes follow those archetypes that DC embodies, but Marvel broke away.
One of the things Chip Kidd wanted me to do differently than the aesthetic for Mythology was about the stiff face-forward look for the Mythology covers. He wanted Marvelocity to be a little more off-kilter and show a kinetic sense of force with the way the Marvel characters are connecting with the viewer. There isn’t the same rigidity of positioning, so that’s what should hopefully come through in the images I did of Marvel characters. There’s a lot in here that’s completely new, that no one’s ever seen before.
Last year was the 100th anniversary of Kirby’s birth, so I spoke with a lot of artists and creators about his legacy. How do you look back on Kirby’s artistic legacy? How do you wrestle with it in your own work?
It’s constant, and it’s growing. I was inspired by Jack even when I was a kid; I can find drawings I did when I was 6 or 7 that were clearly based on things he drew in the comics of my childhood. Since then I’ve only become more of a Kirby fan, collector, and enthusiast, so he’s now making even more of an impact on me than he did as a child. I speak not just for myself but also other men in the industry who are obsessed with him. Everything we do becomes a way of trying to connect with his spirit and intellectual curiosity. It inspires me in all the stuff I do. Working in American comics, there’s no escaping the legacy that is Jack.
If Ditko and Kirby are the foundational Marvel aesthetics, what differentiates the Ditko influence from the Kirby influence?
There’s a variation of design aesthetic you get from Ditko that applies to all the characters he created that still are with us today. Like take the Charlton characters, who are now owned by DC and have been redesigned. Blue Beetle has been redesigned, but the design they’re using still looks like it was out of the brain of Ditko. His legacy is a formidable one. It’s almost like he and his approach is always the asterisk in the corner of trying to pin down the Marvel Universe as being the development of Kirby and Lee. You have to always remember, you can’t skip over Ditko’s legacy. It’s not just Spider-Man and all those characters, it’s also Doctor Strange — as legend has it, he basically brought the Doctor Strange concept in finished and just started doing stories for Stan. There’s a lot of unique creativity. The very design of Spider-Man is something Kirby may have contributed to, but he never quite got how to draw it himself. Like when he would draw the webs, it would be like, have you even seen the character? Do you not know how to position the webs on the body? I have to imagine if you’re the main artist who created everything else design-wise that the company did, and there’s this one thing you didn’t quite design yourself, and it becomes the most formidable and popular character in the enitre company, that must have been a weird dynamic for Jack’s work with Marvel.
What particular Marvel characters do you love drawing?
The actual cover is Captain America, and that was a choice for us not just of the correlation between Captain America and [Mythology cover star] Superman, but it’s just a particular favorite. I loved Spider-Man as a kid and I just finished three years’ worth of Spider-Man covers, but I’m starting a brand-new cover run with Captain America and I love every chance to illustrate classic Cap, because we haven’t really gotten that in the movies. We’ve gotten a heavily redesigned and updated and militarized version in the movies. I really love the aesthetics of how his design was from the earliest days.
I believe you can make the wings look serious, coming off the mask. I don’t think he’s wearing a helmet, I think he’s wearing some material like leather headgear (there was a lot of leather headgear for World War I pilots back then), it looks like a flexible material that he’s wearing on his head, that exaggerates the strength of that jawline and the enormity of that neck. To me that’s what’s gotta come across with Captain America and Superman, how massive the neck is. They impress you with having that football player body aesthetic when you see that in person, and I want to try and bring that to life in my art. I keep trying to ram that home every time I get the chance to illustrate him, and now I get that chance regularly with Ta-Nehisi Coates on the new Captain America series. After several years of monkeying around with his design in comics, I get to come back just at the time when he’s reversed to his classic appearance.
What interests me so much about this upcoming Captain America run is you’ll be embodying the classic look of character on your covers, while Ta-Nehisi Coates may be playing with Cap’s symbolic meaning in the story itself.
The thing to remember is it’s not just someone like Coates coming in who can ground Captain America in a sense of relevance. That’s actually been the history of the character. You go back to the ‘70s, they were doing stuff about him fighting against an America under repression. They actually did a story where the ultimate villain was revealed as Richard Nixon. And in the ’60s, the attitude of Cap was not just the man-out-of-time thing, but that he was experiencing PTSD before it even had a name. If you think about the way he was characterized, as a man still stuck in wartime even though he didn’t live there anymore and only remembering the death of his partner, that was key to defining him when Kirby brought him back in the ‘60s. When you go back now, you see that’s exactly what it is. The character couldn’t sleep well, he had nightmares about the war. That was a very advanced take in the way the character’s been used. Cap is very much a concept about relevance and the times we live in. Even in 1941, when he first appeared as that flag-clad hero, he’s punching Hitler even before we joined the Allies. He was pushing the way to our being involved in the needs of the time and the serious call to action. Coates is joining in a legacy that should be a good fit for him.