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The acclaimed illustrator finds a new creative role in the revamped Justice Society of America

By Kiel Phegley

Posted December 4, 2006  10:45 AM

When the new Justice Society of America ongoing hits shelves Wednesday, readers can expect the series to dish up all the earmarks of DC’s classic generation-spanning team. Beyond the basic makeup of DC’s Golden Age survivors Alan Scott, Jay Garrick and Ted Grant (aka Green Lantern, Flash and Wildcat) accompanied by a litany of heroes either inspired by or descended from some of the original JSA members, the series will be scripted by longtime JSA helmer and old-school continuity hound Geoff Johns and drawn by classic superhero vet Dale Eaglesham (52, HERO).

However, one of the book’s biggest influences is a creator who may be hiding in plain sight from some: Alex Ross. While the acclaimed painter of covers and comics ranging from the classic Kingdom Come to the recent hit Justice is providing stunning fronts to the new Justice Society series, Ross is also tapping his fanboy encyclopedia of a brain to serve as a creative consultant on the book—providing everything from costume designs to story advice to help ensure the book revels in its old-school flavor.

Wizard Universe rang up Ross on the eve of Justice Society of America’s launch in order to get his take on the series and several of the characters he’ll be covering both in words and paints.

WIZARD: You’re working as a creative consultant to the new Justice Society series as well as being the cover artist. How does your role here differ from things like this you’ve done in the past on books like Astro City and the Earth X books?

ROSS: Well, right now it’s beginning slowly because the story as Geoff has established it for the first few issues of the new series is mostly a story that I’ve given some creative feedback on, but eventually it’s turning into a storyline that I’ll make a more notable contribution to with plot. I believe I’m going to be getting co-plotting credit when we get to issue #8 or #9. That is when the turn takes its place.

I guess I shouldn’t say much about where the story is going there. I’ve seen how Geoff does interviews, and he’s very coy about things, whereas I just usually tell people. [Laughs]

Up to this point you’ve been doing mostly covers, but you have a longstanding relationship with some of these characters while others are new to you. That must make it fun to polish up some designs you’ve done while working on some new stuff.

ROSS: To some degree I’ve illustrated every major DC character and Marvel character, and particularly I’ve gotten a chance to interpret a lot of the classic DC characters for obviously Kingdom Come. And I’ve done a lot of classic illustrations of the rosters of these groups. So it’s not just fun to be able to work with well-established, good versions of classic characters like the new Mr. Terrific or Doctor Midnight or all of those characters, but to get a chance to help push that in that next-generation look and style with some of the recasting we’re doing—actually for the third or fourth time I’m getting my chance to put my stamp on the original costume of the Atom. Damage is the son of the original Atom and is now wearing a costume very much based on his father’s original look, and these are the fun things I get to put my stamp on in a way. Not so much my stamp as much as I get a chance to try and bring things around full circle.
Let’s talk about some of the other characters, specifically the JSA’s holy trinity of Green Lantern, Flash and Wildcat. Through all the iterations of the team, they’ve been the constant. Do you feel like you have to do anything to update their looks?

ROSS: The whole point of them is not to update them, certainly. [Laughs] What I always have done the few times I’ve illustrated them is to try and pay as close of a mind to what their original costumes were. Even though they’re older men now, I try and go back to the first look of the clothing as it was drawn in the first covers they appeared on, either Flash Comics #1 from 1940 or All-American Comics, when Green Lantern showed up. I’m following every detail, not just culling from what illustrators have done over the last several years. I want to make sure that I’m true to those origins. Even when I’m drawing something like Wildcat, I’m always thinking exactly how it works. Is he wearing a costume? Is it meant to look like a panther? So I’m actually drawing a panther skin on a guy. Those are my little ways of trying to interpret things, and also to try and make them look like old dudes. Not necessarily that they look as old as they’d have to be, because that would be something you’d actually not want.

They’d all have walkers.

ROSS: [Laughs] Yeah. You really wouldn’t want to see that. These guys would be close to 100 if they really lived through all that. Well, they’d be my father’s age, come to think of it. [Laughs] My father’s not quite in the ground yet, so it’s a little bit better than fossilized, but still.

You already mentioned Damage taking the role from the Atom, but guys like Sandman, Hourman and Doctor Midnight are all really close interpretations to the originals as well. That must be different, because you have to differentiate from the originals just slightly.

ROSS: Oh yeah! There’s so many good new concepts that were added in this new period. Bringing in someone like Jakeem Thunder, who is obviously not Johnny Thunder, but where I’ve been allowed the indulgence working with Geoff is bringing in even more of the influence of my designs from Kingdom Come into the JSA. Like my version of Johnny Thunder, which Geoff completely approved of, and it was fun sticking more of that bald-headed, lightning-eyed version of that character into his interpretation as well.

Speaking of Kingdom Come, Geoff is using Starman as we’ve seen him in Kingdom Come. What was your reaction when that idea came up to pull the character more into continuity?

ROSS: Well, I’m a lot more involved than that. In fact, the entire reason he’s there is because I asked him to do it. [Laughs] When he first asked me to do the covers for JSA a couple of years ago, that was the first boon I asked of him. I said, “I don’t think DC’s had a real spectacular costume design use of that name in however long.” Certainly they retired the James Robinson Starman. And I don’t even necessarily like the original red and green one. So I thought about my version, which is clearly Mike Grell’s Starboy from the Legion of Superheroes. So I asked him if he could stick in that version of the character so we could do a time-hopping or universe-hopping thing, as the case may be, and put this character into the group. That was the first way I started to input a lot of my desires into what would be happening with the book itself.

One thing I noticed about the roster, especially considering how you’re looking at Wildcat, is that when you do a drawing of a character, you’re putting actual clothes on them instead of just drawing muscles with color on them. But with the character of Commander Steel, we get to see you do that “armor as skin” kind of superhero.

ROSS: Occasionally I’ve done that with certain characters and their interpretations depending on what excuses you can make about the material they’re wearing. When you’re able to cross so much into science fiction, you can say that a chrome body like Silver Surfer’s, or in Kingdom Come the character of the Ray, and now this with Steel, it’s not anything too different than what I’ve had to do before. It’s just different than what people think when they think of me. But I’ve done it in just about every project I’ve worked on. There’s a kind of perfect, ab-defining costume, but I reserve it for only those characters I think the superscience would allow for it.

Let me ask about some of the women on the team. One of the great things about the Justice Society is the range of characters, and we get some fun ones with the new Liberty Belle and Cyclone, who’s related to the original Red Tornado.

ROSS: It’s all pretty much close to the characters. Bringing in the new Liberty Belle, which is an already existing character of the daughter of the original. She’s wearing the original costume, so that’s not much of a stretch. I think the biggest addition was Cyclone. She’s Ma Hunkel’s granddaughter or grandniece. It’s an easy association because it’s clearly a character with the powers of the Red Tornado, but it’s the namesake of the Cyclone kids who were the companions of the original Red Tornado. That’s what Geoff named her for.

And you don’t have to draw the bucket on her head.

ROSS: Well, that’s sad because the bucket is really cool. [Laughs] As a kid, I always remember seeing that crazy-looking character and thinking, “Who the heck is this? This is awesome!” There’s something very cool and primal about a character who has this overwrought costume that’s handmade and so pure in its essence. I loved it, absolutely loved it. We need a character that looks like that in the Justice Society now. [Laughs] I’ll talk to Geoff about the remodeling of costumes.

The last character I’m noticing on the cover of Justice Society of America #1 is Obsidian because you get a table of all these other characters you get to do in full, and all you get to draw for him is his floating eyes. Will you ever draw the full Obsidian?

ROSS: I have no idea. I don’t know that that would be the case. Obsidian being put into the JSA is a lot like—and I’m speaking for Geoff here, which he may not agree with—but it’s him grabbing a character that’s just going to get molested further in other writer’s hands. So he’s grabbing him and putting him in the group so he at least can be shepherding this character that belongs in this association. Maybe he’ll make sure that no other writers get any “fun, creative” ideas with him.

Wrapping up, what’s been the most fun for you in working on these characters and their stories? What are you most excited about?

ROSS: Well, the thing that’s always been really good about the JSA book that brought me to it as a fan and really got me involved is the thoughtful use of generations within the DC Universe. We’ve often seen, over the last 10 years especially, how dramatic changes in characters and character archetypes and one generation replacing another haven’t worked out in a lot of the mainstream DC characters. But the JSA have been one of the most successful movements towards that end of showing good, solid writing and good, solid thought applied to these really key archetypes of the DC Universe who can successfully find an integration between older and younger generations. And JSA over the last 30 years has always been a book about that—ever since they created Power Girl and the adult Robin and all that different stuff.

Geoff is holding the torch for one of the best corners of the DC Universe in terms of whether or not this is a universe that gets any older. You know, whereas you can read your average Superman and Batman book, and they’re generally having to stay the same. These men have to remain in their mid-30s. Geoff can show the transference of time and growth.

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