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Interviews Editor, Andrew Irvin, welcomed a true master of the craft of comic book art, Alex Ross, into the Yeti Cave surrounding the recent release of his Marvel Villains Poster Book. The title includes over thirty of his most iconic renditions of villains across the publisher's portfolio, and the interview dives into slightly deeper waters with one of the most accomplished minds in the medium.


COMIC BOOK YETI: Alex, it is an enormous honor and pleasure to have you join us in the Yeti Cave today. Thank you for making time in your schedule to discuss some of the details of your illustrious career. Jumping into the topic that brings us together today, you’ve just released a collection of your work in the Marvel Comics Super Villains Poster Book. You’ve been depicting various renditions of the cast of characters from numerous titles over the past decades - what conversations led to the selections for this large format poster book, and how did the selection of characters take place for this publication? 

AR: This book is a follow-up to the Marvel Comics Poster Book that focused on heroes only. It was a mural in the Marvel offices in New York that led to all of these characters. Marvel had requested that I create a single piece of art that covered a wall in their lobby, and I proposed making a life-size lineup of their lead characters, which I designed to be composed of individual figure paintings that would all fit together.  That way, the poses would have other uses, like a poster book.  The large format poster book was the first full view shown of each character painting, and I wrote commentary about the heroes to define my approach to them individually.


The villains lineup was a kind of sequel project where I picked premier characters to focus on, just like I had for the heroes.  Thankfully, no one asserted any expected heroes or villains, and they let me make my own choices.  


CBY: Compositing individual works certainly seems a sensible choice for versatility in reprinting the images, and it's nice to be able to see each design you've rendered, now fully unobstructed. You’ve stated in previous interview material your choice of gouache over watercolor for its opacity properties, and the way it lays on the 500 series Strathmore Bristol 4-ply paper you use it upon. Have your specific material preferences shifted over the years? What tools and supplies are indispensable for turning in work to your satisfaction, and while we’re discussing the release of your poster collection, do you have firm conditions or requirements around the reproduction of your work and how it is presented in printed form?  

AR: I have mostly maintained my paint and paper preferences over the last thirty years.  I could learn a bit more of other materials like I have done more recently with ink pens in some design work, and I know I need to give acrylic paints another shot to see how well I might adapt to them.


The main tools I need are Winsor & Newton Series 7 brushes (size 4 or 5 are best for fine detail) for their control of water-based paint, and I prefer Holbein gouache for its creamy tones.  I do still use a number of other watercolor and gouache brands mixing together. There is a modest stage of acrylic airbrush paint after I’ve painted as much as I can by hand, usually applied to create glowing effects or smoothing out backgrounds.


When I work with printing giclées and lithographs, I can see proofs to judge and comment on quality.  With publishing, you can have proofs made like I’ve gotten to have through Abrams with our poster book.  Comics printing, though, does not offer those options, and most covers I do are affected greatly by the quality and density of the paper stock they are on.  I have no control over this unless I’ve negotiated for a comic book I pitched to be using a certain kind of cover stock.


CBY: It's good to know you were able to have a hand in the quality of medium in which this title was delivered. Having mentioned you often play background music or the television on during the process of creating your work, which you referred to as “watching paint dry,”(I thought was hilarious). It is probably as understated a way of framing the process of making art I can think of - adding a passive perspective to a creative act. In pursuit of finding a conducive aesthetic environment in which to create, do you have certain shows or albums in heavy rotation year after year, functioning in a mantra or ritual-like practice, or do your tastes go through seasonal (or more frequent) changes? What keeps your creative batteries charged most effectively? 

AR: I’m absorbing entertainment like most other people with new shows, movies, or music taking my attention while I work.  I will mainly keep the TV off during daylight hours and use whatever music of my collection new or old (and, yes, I do buy new music) to play.  The live TV I watch is a lot like listening to radio, since I don’t need to steadily be looking at the screen, and I keep my focus mostly on my work.  It is only really visually dynamic movies that I feel I need to watch with no work distractions, whereas most things connect through sound and general visual context.  All of this is combined often with being on the phone with friends while I work, keeping my batteries charged, and often distracts from just how long everything might be taking.


CBY: Yes, given the detail and complexity of paintings, multitasking through the marathons must be necessary. Turning to the foundations upon which you build your skill, having seen some of your mother’s fashion illustrations, it’s clear where your creative aptitude originated. I was reflecting upon your iconic depictions of Superman, with a sterner, more mature cast to his face than the approach of Superman artists like Dan Jurgens or Curt Swan (as though he’s about to give a fatherly lecture about swiping the good single malt from the bar in his den). Having also read your father was a United Church of Christ Minister, I imagine as a kid, it wasn’t an uncommon sight having him speaking from an elevated position at the pulpit - would you be able to share the ways in which your father might have separately influenced your art, shaping your ideas around masculinity, public persona, and other cultural anchor points that appear in your work? 

AR: Well, in a very literal sense, my dad was an inspiration for me to put him into my art as a character, basing the minister Norman McCay in “Kingdom Come” on him.  I didn’t necessarily see a direct correlation between his work as a minister and my comic book pursuits, but I did view the world through a lot of his lens, as you might expect.  His use of belief was to interpret it into practical applications in how we could have it guide our actions and perspective of life.  My father was a student of philosophy before focusing on seminary pursuits, and he had more humanist leanings.  Ahead of the modern era, going back into the 1950s when he started out as a minister, he was a social progressive.  I may not have communicated that aspect well with how I put him into my comics since I didn’t write the work, although I co-plotted it, but that was an intent of mine to show how a very unique character perspective could come from a person in his field.


Ultimately, I think we have a shared cause for using our platforms to connect with people. As to his affecting my ideas of masculinity, I believe that manifests in how I perceive reliability as a virtue, although I don’t know how I’d separate that from my mom’s similar example to me.


CBY: I think your work certainly connects with the imagination of the viewer, and the depth of your rendering is arresting beyond what reality can often offer. On the note of childlike wonder and imagery drawn from points of nostalgia, you’ve re-imagined many of the most iconic characters of 20th Century pop culture. Are there any characters you’ve been keen to work on, but have not yet had the opportunity to depict in an official capacity? Having created some of the most iconic and memorable imagery of dozens of comic characters, are there any collaborative opportunities still on your wish list after decades in the industry?

AR: Honestly, there isn’t a big thing I haven’t touched on from the properties or public figures I wished to draw.  Most often I just want to reiterate my passion for certain concepts like the Fantastic Four, where I can hope to make a strong impression for how they can be seen.


CBY: Hearkening back to your work on Kingdom Come, it was the title where you introduced the largest number of characters to the D.C. pantheon. You’ve specialized in re-imagining heroes from prior ages, but I’m curious as to your process of designing a character from scratch - what iconic elements do you prioritize in costume design or physicality when you’re not working from a point of reference that requires you evoke a sense of shared memory within pop culture and you’re able to tread into new visual territory?

AR: Truth be told, with Kingdom Come, the new characters who appeared were a mixture of childhood concepts I recycled and parodies of modern superheroes.  I even got friends to design certain characters I felt less suited to create, particularly when their suits involved heavy weaponry, which wasn’t my forte.


I mainly have a love for simple body forms and almost nude costuming, amplifying the human embodiment of an abstract idea.  My design influences come from the Golden, Silver, and Bronze Ages of comics, and I’m not sure how well I could tap into the then-modern era. If I did know of a cool graphic in Japanese model kit design, I would adapt it pretty exactly into the work, knowing full well that someone may identify what I was taking it from.


Today, I find I work up a character's look with a gut impression guiding me, and most of the time I arrive at my best innovations with my first sketches.

CBY: On the topic of treading into other visual territory, I greatly enjoyed your cover for Marvel’s The Rise of Ultraman. However, it made me think of the paucity of material I’ve seen of you covering other Japanese properties. Given you’ve set a precedent for capturing characteristically Western conceptions of strength, masculinity, etc., I’m curious - would you have an interest in bringing your signature highly rendered, heightened realism to classics of the manga industry? Given your attention to evoking nostalgia for core, original designs, what sort of approach might you take if given the task of capturing non-western heroes, such as Guts from Berserk, Goku from the Dragonball series, or Kaneda and Tetsuo from Akira? How might differences in design and visual cues imbuing heroism into characters from a different cultural context translate through your style?

AR: Honestly, I don’t have a feel for most of the properties you mentioned beyond Ultraman.  I figure that a version of Kaneda and Tetsuo would just look like two real life models I could draw, and I don’t know if it’s needed.


When I did several paintings of Gatchaman, I was trying to not rework the original ‘70s anime models into full realism but to match the specific exaggerations in their style.  A fully realistic version by me may have lost something that I connected to so much.


CBY: Those Gatchaman pieces are incredibly vivid, and I think it’s safe to say you’ve reached a level of technical proficiency many artists aspire to achieve. As a novice who takes great inspiration from your work (having picked up gouache and watercolor last year, seeing your examples of what is possible with the medium), are there challenges or limits you still work to surpass in your own paintings? Given the complexity you’ve captured in many of your ensemble pieces and cover work (which are on full display in your Marvel Comics Super Villains Poster Book), what work, if any, may seem daunting, or possibly wearisome, before you begin? 

AR: I still feel like the work I create falls short of my goal to hit a kind of magic realism where I don’t feel my hand in the art.  Sometimes the very nature of applying wet paint to paper is a collision of my intentions losing to however the paint strokes will blend or not.  I know that there is a likelihood of my being dissatisfied with any one of my pieces, but it’s usually to a certain limit.  If I really hate the work, I’ll keep going and try and make it acceptable to some base standard I have.  Since I never sit with the individual artworks for too long, I can try and do better on the next piece and just keep moving instead of dwelling on what didn’t work as well as I would have liked it to.

CBY: Well, it's good to know there's always the next piece to improve upon, and seeing your continued effort to reach an imagined ideal gives all of us reason to try to keep pace! Alex, it is a distinct honor and pleasure to learn more about the process behind your work. You’ve certainly set the standard for painting in comics, year after year, so please let us know where our readers can find your work and social media in the appropriate links below:

AR: is my main website, and there is a social media presence for me, but I myself am not on it, as it is my reps. It isn’t me the person but simply my work being shared, sold, and promoted.  I literally don’t know those links.

(Ed. - @thealexrossart for the curious!)


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