Movies have tried to bring superheroes into the real world, but illustrator Alex Ross can claim to do it better with his dynamic watercolors.

Ross’ work will be shown at the Norman Rockwell Muse um, opening Saturday, Nov. 10, through Feb., 2013.

Best-known for block-buster comics, like “Marvels” and “King dom Come” that took characters like Superman and Spider-Man into realms of hy per-realism, Ross includes Rock well as one of his influences, which is unusual for a comic book artist, but Ross’ work isn’t like typical comic book art.

Centering on the form of superheroes, Ross strives to render the fantasy characters in realistic terms, whether with fully-painted comic book interiors or covers. Ross says that his innovation wasn’t the use of gouache watercolor paints to illustrate comics — that had been done before. The difference he made was the choice of subject matter.

“I just applied it, in frankly the most commercial way possible,” he said. “Many painters had preceded me, who all did more original and experimental works that got away from the main commodity of comic books, which is trading on superheroes. I was whole-heartedly embracing putting these figures in the light and rendering them as fully and as realistically as anything I could imagine being rendered, with the attempt to try and make it all as a believable thing.”

He traces the turning point to his time in art school — he attended the American Academy of Art in Chicago — when he first worked with live models.

“Working with live models was an eye opener for me,” Ross said. “The feeling that I was looking closely at reality and immediately putting it down, that showed a dramatic impact upon what my work could do and how it could grow.”

“Everything I was doing beforehand, I did with the thought toward comics, which is that you draw everything out of your imagination, that you don’t look at reference or people or anything, other than your interpretation of these things. If you study life as most fine artists always have, and then use a direct reference, that would be life that you were directly absorbing and reinterpreting.”

Ross was determined to not practice “a reductive art style” that would rely on “a caricature of life, or simple contour outlines based upon inking of forms” in his comic book work. His realization that he could not only achieve and satisfy his artistic goals for the level of detail and rendering that he demanded, propelled him forward with his vision.

The challenge was to take characters entrenched in a well-accepted unreality and usher them into a new dimension, while still maintaining the qualities that make them desirable and interesting in the first place. Ross would center in on the artistic interpretation most associated with the character and work with that design for his own.

“I have a love for the version of Robin that was around for decades before I was born,” said Ross. “This is a character that wears, arguably, the most unlikely costume of all. I want to win over the audience and convince you, just even for a split-second, that you could believe that character was legitimate and real, wearing that classic outfit.”

“It might take a certain amount of shadow, a certain amount of lighting control, just even the posing of the figure, but I’m going to make that attempt to try and sell you on something that I know doesn’t necessarily hold up as well to modern tastes.”

Women superheroes often have their challenges. It’s no secret that a good number of them were designed for pure titillation, rather than any reality of what a powerful woman fighting crime might look like. As Ross examines how any character should appear, he takes into account the character’s history, psychology and the philosophical concepts of how that character’s power and place in the world should be reflected by outward appearance and costume.

“One of my greater innovations would just be that Wonder Woman seemed to have a little bit more heft, in terms of some muscle tone, that wasn’t clearly just the model body type that maybe she had been drawn as before, but also that I gave her flats,” Ross said. “To me, that was enough of a little additional tweak to her look. You would realize that, of course, Wonder Woman should not have high heels. For one thing this is a tall, tall woman, she is imposing, and there is no need for her to add this unnecessary heel that, frankly, makes running or walking very hard.”

“Her costume seemed to be maybe more a thing of armor, that the eagle that she’s emblazoned with is something made of a strong metal, not that she’s necessarily covered so carefully because she obviously is mostly running around in a bathing suit, but that her imposing shape coming forward makes you not think about that as exposed, but in a way you’re seeing a character of strength and that strength is completely exposed, much like The Hulk runs around half naked.”

Ross must juggle these absurdities with a layer of reality, as well the understanding that these characters do not live in our world. Their home is a fictional one with different social and psychological reactions to the strange and fantastic circumstances reflected in fashion choices.

“If you’re going to have varied characters running around in a single universe, occupying a given city, the absurdities of design or the graphics that they are wearing become blended when you think that there are a whole lot of those people around,” said Ross.

“You yourself might think, ‘Hey, I’m an athletic guy, I think I can go out and fight crime,’ and then you compose an outfit and you start doing it, and don’t necessarily stand out. People could look at you and think, ‘I don’t know what powers that guy has, because I know this guy over here, who dresses like a fool, has a lot of powers,’ so maybe the more brightly-colored outfit indicates the level of power the person has. You have a fashion world that we don’t live in that they do.”

Ross takes equal care when depicting the environments his characters inhabit — in his hands, Spider-Man’s Manhat tan is the same one any of us have been in. Seeing such a recognizable fictional character navigating a space that we now share with him is part of the power of the drama, bringing fiction into our own world and melding the two through Ross’s lens.

“It was important to me that the world that as represented had as much reality to it as possible,” he said, “especially because the mainstream com ics style had been to frankly research as little as possible and to draw things so interpretive of life that you almost had no sense of the real world entering and intersecting with these fantastic people.”

“I realized in creating a more grounded drama, if you see city streets and see automobiles, or whatever it is, especially if it’s a period piece, that truly ground you in that place and that time, that will make everything seem that much more elevated.

Ross’ conceptual prowess extends beyond his artwork, though that does remain the anchor. An equal amount of detail and effort goes into his concepts for plot, situation and character, and creates opportunities for collaboration with strong writers.

“I was envisioning crafting whole dramas when I was young and however they would be written, whether it was by me or somebody else,” Ross said. “The projects that everyone knows me for, the ones that I didn’t write, were ones that I conceived, and then brought to the companies.”

“All those things were a great way to use the resources of another person who’s actually trained as a writer where, of course, I never have been, but over time, you read need enough comics, you start to think that you can do that job too, and maybe to a meager degree I can be passable for one or two projects here or there. But for the most part, I’m still contributing ideas to get projects off the ground and then the net’s cast out to find the right talent to execute that concept.”

In the next month, Ross will return to illustrating the full interior of a comic book for the first time in years with the debut issue of Masks, from Dynamite Entertainment, featuring classic pulp characters like The Shadow, the Green Hornet, Zorro and the Spider. He won’t continue with the series after that, but it’s largely his concept, a work that Ross has teamed with writer Chris Roberson to bring to life. Painting a full comic on regular basis is a huge stress, and the level of commitment required can be debilitating and affect other projects negatively.

The bulk of Ross’ work will continue as it has, specializing in covers and pulling from the same tradition as the pulp novels that Masks pulls its heroes from. It’s all part of the vision he had so long ago, still being realized fresh again and again.

“It’s like anything, if you were fighting to salvage something from your childhood that you believed in so strongly then, that you want others to share in that same belief. You don’t want it to be dismissed, and putting all that effort that I can and using my strength and hopefully helping to make all of that more relatable or sellable, or whatever goals I can achieve with that.”


Originally published on November 20, 2012 in the North Adams Transcript.

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