There have been painters in comics before Alex Ross, and there have been painters in comics after Ross. But for most people, Alex Ross is the synonymous with painted comics. And this November, Ross returns to do more interior comics work when he and writer Chris Roberson launch the classic pulp hero crossover series Masks.
Originally announced on the eve of Comic-Con International: San Diego back in July, Masks brings together pulp all-stars such as the Shadow, the Spider, the Green Hornet, Zorro and others to fight a force they couldn’t defeat on their own. Newsarama spoke with Roberson about this series when it was first announced, and now speaking with Ross we’re able to learn more about the origins of this fateful crossover and the personal attachment Ross has with these characters that made it a project he’d want to do.And while we had Ross on the phone, we couldn’t help but also delve into his upcoming book The Art of Painted Comics, which he did with Wizard alum Chris Lawrence. We talked with Ross about his own history with painted comics and his reading habits, and pick his brain about the course painted comics have taken throughout comics history.
Newsarama: Alex, we’ve seen you take on virtually every type of hero in comics, but time and time again you seem to be drawn to the pulp heroes. Can you tell us what excites you about this group of characters, especially in relation to Masks?
Alex Ross: Well, I grew up knowing the Shadow through his radio shows, and loved the painted pulp covers done for his books back in the 1930s and 1940s. In many ways, it’s a connection to my own career specialized in doing painted art for comics. The Shadow is a very mysterious and cool character I always wanted to work on.
My love for heroes of that era stems out of my love for the Shadow, and I realized a number of years back that unlike Marvel and DC where those heroes rub elbows with each other, the pulp heroes haven’t really had the opportunity to do a proper team-up. That’s the core of Masks: taking these original superheroes and letting them team up, and in some cases face off, for the first time.
Newsarama You’re not a book-a-month kind of artist, and you choose your books carefully when it comes to doing comics. After all the presumable offers you get, why was Masks the one you wanted to go with?Interior Page Ross: If you look back on all the interior comics work I’ve done, most of it has been things I created (or co-created) the core concepts for. Masks is no different, as I pitched it to Nick Barrucci at Dynamite a couple years ago when he mentioned he might be getting the license for the Shadow. He already had a great line-up with Zorro, the Lone Ranger and Green Hornet, so I saw an opportunity if he did indeed get the Shadow to have them meet. I knew that would be a big deal.
People may think of me exclusively as an artist, but I’ve created and co-created the concepts for most of the books I’ve worked on. Some less fleshed out than others, but I like to be a part of things. Marvels, for example, was something I crafted in my early 20s that I later pitched to Kurt Busiek. In my late twenties I wrote a pretty extensive outline for what would become Kingdom Come. The things I’ve given the most time to are generally the things I’ve had the largest hand in.
Nrama: But I bet you get asked all the time to come in on someone else’s project?
Ross: True. But those projects generally tend not to be something I want to invest a great deal of time in because they aren’t as interesting to me as my own ideas. For Masks, it was a loose idea I threw at Dynamite years ago. It took awhile for Nick to get all the licensors to sign off on it, but once he did he came back and asked me if I could donate my time painting the first issue to help the series off to a good start.Interior Page Nrama: For most of the projects you’ve done, you take time to hone the designs of the characters to fit your vision – even classic ones seemingly already set in stone such as in Kingdom Come. Have you been tinkering or fine-tuning the designs of the pulp heroes in Masks?
Ross: A little bit.
For example with the Shadow, I have to consider his clothing. From his original garb from the 1930s to the revisions the character got when Michael Kaluta got to him; for the past 30-40 years, Kaluta’s work has had the largest impact on the visualization of the Shadow. What I’m doing is reflecting his impact and trying to make it whole. Back in the 1930s, the Shadow was always shown wearing this big ring on his bare hands. Now when you think of masked vigilantes as people trying to keep their identities secret, it wouldn’t be practical for them to not wear gloves. But if you add gloves, it comes into conflict with how people don’t wear rings on top of gloves. There’s a lot of thinking involved to make it work.
Turning to characters like the Black Bat and Miss Fury, I’m lending a hand to visualize them in this new version of their stories while still trying to be truthful to their original incarnations.
One character I’m not basing on his original appearances is the Spider. Instead of going back to his original pulp version, I’m pulling influence more from The Spider movie serials from the 1940s.
For the Green Hornet, it’s tough to try to find the “true” version of that character because he had a different look in pulp books versus comics versus the cinematic version. For that, I relied on what John Cassaday had done with him in the previous Dynamite stories and went from there.
Nrama: So you came up with the initial concept of a crossover, and Dynamite brings in Chris Roberson to write. What are the conversations like between you and Chris so far about the story?Interior Page Ross: [laughs] Actually, there’s no communication… but let me explain.
I’ve wanted to work with Chris for some time, as I’ve been very interested in the things he was doing for DC. Dynamite had been looking for a chance to do something with him, and when they brought up the idea for Masks he turned around a pitch like a day later. He was excited, and he knows the material well.
I actually did a separate pitch but they ended up going with Roberson’s, and that’s fine because Chris has a great story and it’s been perfectly easily to accommodate anything I’ve asked to draw on the pages.
As for not talking to him directly, it’s an experiment. I wanted to see what it was like doing it this way, which is how artists traditionally work in comics – not talking to the writers. I wanted to work on something where I fill in what the book needs rather than making it my passion project.
Nrama: Now you’re just drawing the first issue of Masks with someone else coming in after that. That person hasn’t been announced yet, but can you give us a hint as to what we can expect?
Ross: I don’t know if they’re locked in yet, so I can’t say… but if the person I’m thinking of does indeed do it, it’ll be great. I’ve bought other comics by this person before, and he was chosen because he would fit in well with what I’ve done with Masks #1.
Nrama: Switching gears a bit here, while I had your ear now I also wanted to talk with you about the upcoming non-fiction book you’re a part of, The Art of Painted Comics. I spoke with the lead author Chris Lawrence about this back in July, but I wanted to get your take on the book.
How did this The Art of Painted Comics project come about?Ross: Simply put, Nick Barrucci has been asking me for years to do an art book. His reasoning was that the DC Mythology book covered by DC works and then a Dynamite book could cover everything else. I’ve never been able to convince myself that it wouldn’t still in some ways cannibalize the work Chip Kidd and I did on Mythology, so I steered Nick in a new directing of doing a history of painted comics.
I’ve known Chris Lawrence for years, from when he was on staff at Wizard. He had written a number of articles for them I remembered fondly, which if you remember what Wizard was, is kind of a statement of just how good Chris’ pieces were.
[laughs] I think with that statement I might have just indirectly insulted a ton of people, so I hope t hat doesn’t get me into trouble.
So yeah, Chris did some great work there and I was sad to see him leave. I recommended him to Nick for The Art of Painted Comics because his work was spectacular and he excelled at doing research. Once we got started on the book, he lived up to everything I hoped for. This was a very research-intensive project because there are a lot of areas to cover: from the pulp comics, to trading cards, and all the media associated with comics. And with so much material we knew we could make an exhaustive complete history of painted comics, so instead what we aimed to do was to provide a snapshot of everything there is.
Nrama: So Chris was the lead writer, in effect. How would you describe your role?
Ross: That’s a tough one. Maybe as someone to bounce ideas off of.Nrama: Editor? Co-writer? Advisor? Shepherd?
Ross: Advisor is a decent guess, and editor isn’t too unfair either. There was a lot of work spent fine-tuning the book between Chris and I. My wife even chipped in with the proof-reading. We also spent a lot of time picking the right images to feature, as well as how and where to feature them.
At the moment I speak to you now, we still don’t know what the cover is going to be. We know I’m going to be doing a painted cover, but Nick hasn’t told me what to do. It’s tough because there’s a lot of strings attached to using corporate-owned characters, so it’s still under discussion of what the face of this book will be.
Nrama: On comic shelves, we’re seeing more painted comics now than ever. What do you attribute that to, Alex?
Ross: Actually, I think the height of painted comics was about 10 or 15 years ago in terms of fully painted projects. Nowadays you still see some fully painted works but those are “odd man out” kind of projects, not the kind of prestige stuff done in the 1980s and 1990s. Currently there’s nothing like Marvel’s Epic line going on, and there’s very few painted things coming out of DC where we did Kingdom Come.
When I growing up and aiming to become a comics professional in the 80s, there was a wealth of material out there: Arkham Asylum, Batman: Night Cries, and the initial Books of Magic series. Marvel was in on it with the Epic line, and they also did the licensed Clive Barker Hellraiser comic painted. That was actually part of the inspiration for the Marvels proposal; I told them in essence that Marvel were already commissioning painted work for licensed material, so why not do it for your own characters?
There aren’t those kinds of things going on right now.
Nrama: Why do you think that is?Ross: I think it’s because the industry by-and-large has pulled away from considering comics as an art form but more a calculated business. Instead of trying to sell more expensive prestige books to smaller audiences, they want to produce cheaper products that would have a more mass market appeal. Prestige painted books were always dampened by the fact they cost near twice what a traditional comic costs for the same amount of pages.
Painted comics are few and far between. Lee Bermejo’s last two books, Joker and Batman: Noel, were digitally painted but those seem to be the last of their kind for awhile. If they do show up, they’re more the exception than the rule.
Comics, as a business, has become about companies finding a niche group of people willing to buy their characters monthly and then pushing that as hard as they can. Mainstream American comics aren’t being sold to as many people as they used to, and to make up for it the top companies are trying to instead get more of the available money from the remaining customers.
Nrama: There’s still been a rise in the number of painted covers, albeit most being done digitally.
Ross: Yes, with digital tools colorists are able to go so much further than they were used to. It’s grown a lot from simply filling in a space with a flat color impression. You’ve got colorists now doing a more painterly approach to comics that rivals, and in some cases, outpaces what’s possible with traditional painted art. The colorist for our recent Flash Gordon: Zeitgeist book, Slamet Mujiono, worked from the pencils and made a hybrid style of painted comics and traditional comics coloring.
Now I don’t think every comic could stand to be a painted comic; I think it’s still a special kind of flavor for the books.
Nrama: Part of the rise in painted comics in the past 30 years can be attributed to the higher quality printing comics receive these days as well as what’s possibly digitally, like you said. When do you think the breakthrough was there for painted comics in publishing?
Ross: It’s hard to say, because way back in the 1970s Richard Corben was doing painted comics for Warren’s Eerie and Vampirella. He was doing painted comics at a time where, frankly, the comics medium wasn’t ready to appreciate it. Then you also have the American debut of Heavy Metal in 1977.
But before that, you have to remember the painted covers Gold Key had for its various books. It may have not been DC or Marvel doing it, but it was being done.
Nrama: Imagine if you were born 20 years earlier and you were attempting to break into comics in the late 60s or early 70s. Where do you think you would’ve fit in?
Nrama: I think I still would have been able to break in, but I might have gone more along the lines of traditional comics illustration with straight line-art like John Buscema or Neal Adams. Maybe back then forced by the constraints of the time I might have arrived at a black & white style I would be comfortable with. I’ve never developed an inking style for my work I’ve been completely happy with, but forced to do it back then I might have endeavored harder to come up with a solution.
Even when I was starting out in the late 80s, doing paintings for comics was still out of the norm. Back then when I worked with a small publisher, he explained that he could scan anything I had but it had to be on flexible paper.Nrama: I imagine they used something like a drum scanner, perhaps?
Ross: I think so. So starting out all of my work had to be on flexible paper. I still paint on flexible paper out of habit, just in case. [laughs]
Nrama: Alex, these days when painters are looking to break into comics they often look at your work and your career as an example and measuring stick. When you were preparing to break into comics in the late 80s, who were the painters in comics you were looking to?
Ross: Well, for me it was Dave McKean. He really set the world on fire for me with Violent Cases and Black Orchid; it was nirvana… the apex of everything. He followed that up of course with Arkham Asylum, and then John Bolton doing the original Books of Magic miniseries was mind-blowing for me. Many of the story concepts laid out there made it into the graphics for Kingdom Come in terms of style and panel layout.
For a good amount of my early years – most of the early 90s – I was still envisioning my work through a filter of what Dave McKean had done. I never adopted Bill Sienkiewicz’s art style as my own; his work was more modern, and I’ve always been a more “meat and potatoes” kind of illustrator. I’m more into drawing things straight on, and rending it without any crazy elaboration. I’ve stuck to my guns, but I admit in doing so I’ve lost out on doing the kind of innovative techniques that Bill and other guys employ with their work.Nrama: Wrapping things up, what do you see as the real pivotal moments for painted comics as an art form?
Ross: There have been many, but just picking out one I’d say the mid-80s when Dave McKean and Bill Sienkiewicz were sharing the waters. Bill was over at Marvel doing these mind-bending covers for New Mutants and working onElektra: Assassin and Moon Knight, which for many people changed the perception of what painted comics could be. At the same time McKean and Sienkiewicz were doing there thing, Jon J. Muth did the entire twelve issue Moonshadow series for Marvel.
Those three guys really opened up the door to what painted comics could be. They showed how it could fit side-by-side with the traditional line-art of comics, using the same characters but applied through the medium of paint. I came in later and maybe sealed the deal somewhat, but those three really tipped the scales.