The creator ushers us through 21 of his greatest pieces, revealing his favorites, disappointments and hidden secrets behind the art
By Alex Ross
Posted May 10, 2006
SUPERMAN FOREVER #1 COVER
“I have a feeling this might be the most famous image I’m known for because of how many times this has been reused for Superman. It’s really weird. I don’t think it’s necessarily that good.
“Frank Kasy [Superman model for the piece] was the lead illustrator at an ad agency I worked for. So when I started using him as a model back in 1990 for the proposal for Marvels, it was with an eye toward getting out the door. He became my model because he was one of the few guys I knew who actually looked like a superhero.
“He had the body type, he had the face, he had the cutting jaw. But, of course, the funny thing is he was blond, so at first I only thought of him for blond characters. It took me a while to step outside of the box and realize that he had a face that would look really good for Superman. It was a magical kind of thing that all came together.”
|LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES|
Warner Bros. Studio Store litho, 1999
“It’s my single favorite painting that I’ve done. It hangs in my home. It’s about five feet tall.
“I was inspired by the cover that Mike Grell did for the oversized treasury that they had in the ’70s of Legion. It’s kinda like the whole fleet of the Legion flying out behind Superboy. So that was really the intellectual genesis of it.
“It has most of the Legion in the painting. It has all the ones that I thought were relevant in the ’70s. If you look in the visor of Wildfire [Bottom], you can actually see their ship reflected, and you also see Chemical King is reflected in his visor. You know, including Tyroc [Bottom left], that should pretty much tell you everything you need to know [about my obsession]…
“This piece was also exceptional for the fact that I designed it without having any kinda gig. Meaning that I didn’t have a deal with DC on it. It was a labor of love that eventually found a home in being a lithograph for Warner Bros.”
|TERMINATOR: BURNING EARTH #4 COVER|
“[Publisher] Now Comics was a local company. I worked with a guy who had done fill-in work on Ghostbusters, and then he was offered this gig and threw it to me. So when I was 19, I was working on my first comics.
|“Ultimately, Now Comics declared bankruptcy owing a lot of people money, myself included. I wasn’t truly hurt, but my pride was hurt by just having these guys get away with something. But a lot of people whose very livelihoods were depending upon this money were so screwed. I was able to make my statement public on the last issue of the series [#5]; it reads backwards on the cover ‘Now Comics blows’ in the code running down the side.”|
|ALAN MOORE TRIBUTE|
Wizard #130 feature opener, July 2002
“That’s one of my absolute favorite pieces. When I first got the call concerning this, I took it as an ambitious opportunity to do something that I would never get another chance to do—paint all these characters together.
“People ask, why are Darth Vader and one of the Cybermen in the painting [Top right corner]? One of Alan’s very first published works was a Cybermen story for Dr. Who Weekly, and he’s written some ‘Star Wars’ stories.
“There are two hidden gags in the center. If you look in Alan’s eyeballs, one eyeball is the pentagram symbol, which was a reflection of how in From Hell the pentagram turned out to be the entire layout of North Hampton. And the other eyeball is the planet-sized Green Lantern from [Moore’s Green Lantern #188 story]. I had lots of time to over-think the hell out of it.”
|THE NEW X-MEN|
Wizard #95 cover, July 1999
“This is clearly a 1976/1977-based version of the X-Men. I wanted to make sure that we acknowledge the fact of where the X-Men really come from. People think in many cases it was Chris Claremont and John Byrne, but it was Len Wein and Dave Cockrum. As much as we can say these other artists over time
contributed so much, nothing they did rewrote what Cockrum did. Cockrum had a phenomenal design sense.
“The exact placement of the figure of Phoenix has the most relevance because it’s resonating to the past as well as to the figures of Cyclops and Colossus and Nightcrawler. It’s pretty much 100 percent what was in the original piece, as well as Banshee too, which I was happy to think that I actually accomplished making the painting of Banshee look like the way that Dave Cockrum drew faces.”
Marvels #3, March 1994
“What I did specifically different here is that I really tried to experiment. I rented a fish-eye lens from a camera company, so that it has a forced perspective—when you put your hand closer to the camera, it looks like your body’s a mile away from where your hand is. So the Galactus stuff had much more of a forced perspective quality to the body alone. Since that time, I’ve never done that same process, just because I felt like I could kind of artificially force the perspective more.
“It was a learning experience, and I also went to a great deal of trouble redesigning the costume of Galactus. Here, when he first showed up, he had short sleeves. We don’t see the guy with short sleeves anymore. I tried to instill as much a sense of H. R. Giger’s Alien design within the subtle details of what is essentially a Kirby basic art-type costume. And I did it with the Inhumans as well, but my first visual attempt is with Galactus.”
|MARVELS TRADE PAPERBACK COVER|
“The original trade paperback cover back in ’94 was Giant-Man. You don’t use Giant-Man to sell a book. I realized that a big, impact shot of a character that you recognize sells so much better. The fact that Spider-Man happens to be a photographer makes perfect symmetry with the story.
“Spider-Man is a very difficult character to draw. Without a face, the kind of rendering I would do to bring life to a human face is not available. I’m using live reference of a real
costume so that the costume itself shows so much of the human features through it.
“You spend longer on a piece with Spider-Man than almost any other character. It takes me a long time to illustrate Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel or Spider-Man because they all have little details in their costumes. In the case of Captain Marvel, he’s got this rope on his cape and you have to go in and render all these little flower tassels. Wonder Woman has a rope on her belt, chrome on her breastplate and ultimately the stars on her shorts take forever. [Because of Spider-Man’s webbing], I’ll put the red on the painting and then go back on to spruce up the black. Basically, I’ll have to work over it twice.”
|THE MARVEL SILVER AGE|
Wizard #42 covers, February 1995
“These were the first covers commissioned from me by Wizard. I forget how it worked exactly, but I think that Wizard told me it’d be cool if they were the
classic versions of the heroes. And I said, ‘Well, would it be cool if I did them all as they looked in 1964?’ So the ironic thing of that year is that with ’64 you get Daredevil in his yellow costume because that’s when he first appeared. And you get Iceman still looking like snow for a very short time. If you look at Doc Strange’s lapels, they’re exactly what he first wore and not the later cloak that he would have. And then of even more importance is Iron Man’s forehead points. You know, he didn’t wear that armor for very long—that was the first red-and-gold suit that he would wear, before he would eventually settle into the one we recognize more handily. All these elements relate to this one specific year and the design that dominated that year.
“The villains are completely free form, from all different eras. Kingpin wouldn’t come about until the late ’60s and Dormammu went through multiple looks. So I was just picking sort of the ‘bring on the bad guys’ look of the characters that I was most familiar with.
|“I will say that when we see this new Doc Doom coming out in the [‘Fantastic Four’ movie], how cool they could’ve made the armor look if they had ripped off the 1980 ‘Flash Gordon’ movie as I did, where the character Klytus wore gold armor exactly like Doctor Doom has here. I just stole Klytus’ armor. And it’s perfect! It looks great on film. I mean, the guy looks awesome.”|
|KINGDOM COME #1 COVER|
“The idea [for Kingdom Come] was gestating while I was working on Marvels. I started working on the pitch—a long, 40-page handwritten outline—when I was working on the third issue of Marvels. I figured while I’m doing my grand opus of Marvel, I’ve got to do a grand opus about DC characters. Kingdom Come made me fall in love with superheroes, and DC’s heroes in particular, all the more. So once I was done with the series, I really only wanted to spend more time with the classic forms of these characters if that was possible. Turns out it was.
“Initially I pitched the story to James Robinson, because I figured he was a young wannabe Alan Moore. And I wanted this thing to be as much like a Watchmen-type project as possible. Mark [Waid] was the one who came most well recommended [by the DC editors] in terms of his love and knowledge of the history of DC heroes. And that’s how that marriage occurred.
“Cover one is the youth movement. There’s a sense of, how are these guys really different appearance-wise to villains? These characters are obviously
getting into much more of a dark tone. Long before he would become well known, Brian Azzarello posed as the character 666, kinda giving the proverbial finger with his giant metal arm [Center]. Plus, Jill Thompson posed for the Joker’s daughter [Center right].
“Here you’ve got the first launch issue, which is not the glory shot of all the great heroes or any recognizable heroes. I mean, how recognizable is the Spectre? It’s a guy in a cloak. So it’s ironic that issue #1 is not just a bunch of characters you don’t recognize, but furthermore, it’s green. The logo was green. The painting’s green. And what I was trying to do was fly in the face of a rule that I was told at one point that green covers don’t sell. This is one of my favorite paintings I’ve ever done. It is the only painting of all the covers of Kingdom Come that I kept for myself. It was playing against type and it worked.”
|CAPTAIN MARVEL SPLASH PAGE|
Kingdom Come #3, 1996
“This was emulating a lot of the Wally Wood stuff from that Superduperman story [in the original Mad Comics] where [a parody of] Captain Marvel faces off against Superduper-man, and the shape of his body is so muscular. He has huge calves. That was coming from Wood. So I was thinking about that kinda body shape and how kinda furious he seemed in that story. There’s a certain quality to Captain Marvel I always thought was vaguely sinister, or at least puckish in that way of his pointed eyebrows like Peter Pan. And the squint in the eyes. And the grin, like, ‘What is he smiling about?’
“I was definitely making [him larger than Superman] because the thought about Captain Marvel I’ve always had is that as much as he’s never gonna be the legend in people’s minds as Superman is, there’s always somebody who’s bigger and tougher than you are. You know, there’s a reason why Bizarro’s not in our story, because it would’ve subverted the role of what Captain Marvel needed to be. Captain Marvel is like Superman’s opposite number. It’s another version of him that is just slightly stronger.”
“The only thing I’m unhappy with is that when people look at this, they see him as really fat. In a lot of my paintings in this series, he looks kinda stumpy. I had to fight against that a lot in my own style because when you’re working off of too much photo reference, this is one of the things that can happen to you. People are generally never that tall. So I always have to increase the lower end of the body to make up for the distortion that occurs in photography.”
|BATTLE OF THE PLANETS|
Wizard #116 feature opener, May 2001
“Wizard had done an article about animation for the ’80s and had commissioned a bunch of artwork from people like Jeff Scott Campbell, who did an image of G.I. Joe, and Ed McGuinness did a piece of He-Man. I thought, ‘Man, if you guys could do another one of those about the ’70s, I could do ‘Battle of the Planets.’’’
“This is a cartoon made in the early ’70s in Japan, so long hair was in at the time. When I saw the cartoon in ’78, I was one of the few boys living in Texas who had long hair. It was such a cool thing to kinda connect with, because they were younger and hipper-looking than Spider-Man or any of the young characters being produced, certainly more hip than the Teen Titans. They were sexy and sleek. It was just like the most awesome-designed group I had seen at that point in my life. And I’d always wanted to do something with them.
“As it turned out, the same company that did the translated Japanese version in the States still owned the rights in America, and they got ahold of me and then we ultimately met up to talk a deal about publishing the comic.”
|CHRISTOPHER REEVE & TOM WELLING|
“Smallville” Season 3 DVD, 2004
“This was done under complete agreement with the Chris Reeve Foundation. So people that directly represent him were judging this; as to whether or not Chris saw it, I can’t say. The creepy thing of it is that right at the time that they were ready to promote the hell out of this [for the Season 3 DVD], Chris died. So it wound up being this very haunting thing. It really wasn’t his time to go.
“I had to make the painting up from references of previous things I had of [Christopher Reeve]. I didn’t want to have a portrait of Chris as he looked when he was 25. Chris really needed to have something that acknowledged what he was today, but not necessarily the bald Luthor look he was currently sporting. By showing the painting with this tight close-up on both their faces, you could circumvent the breathing tube and draw any attention away from the current state of Chris’ living. It was all just there in his face.
“The concept of the piece is there’s all this red in it—the drapery behind him is the red Superman cape. And so reflected in Chris’ glasses is the ‘S’ shield backwards, the actual symbol of the cape.”
Wizard #83 cover, July 1998
“One of my favorite pieces. Back in ’94 Kurt [Busiek] had created the Astro City concept, and we started talking about designs that year. By the end of that year we were selling the concept to Image. And I had already designed some of the mainstay characters: the Superman archetype, the Batman archetype, the Spider-Man archetype, the Fantastic Four archetype…
“Once we got the series put together and we decided it wasn’t gonna be a series of one-shot artists, that it was just gonna be with Brent Anderson alone, Brent began to design some of the characters that would be seen in the background. With the covers, the cover image might demand the character long before he’s drawing the issue. So I’m doing the design in collaboration with Kurt and Brent often. We’ve done a lot of back and forth on certain characters. So it becomes a real mixture of talent.”
Opening sequence image, 2004
“This was all completely down to the wire. I had about a month to do it all. By the time I was done, I completed 17 images. All my art for the movie was auctioned off by [Sony Pictures] for a breast cancer charity. This one piece in particular went for something like $25,000, something pretty high.
“For a painting like Spidey/Mary Jane here, I freeze-frame that scene in the movie and study it. It’s from the side of the body that you see them kissing, but basically it’s a shot where we actually go all the way up to where his hands are and down to her skirt, which never appeared in the film.
“But I hated the fact that they designed the costume to have that triangular eye thing and that it didn’t have the quality or the specific charm that I think is in John Romita’s design of the character, so I had told them that I’m not really cool with drawing the costume as it was. When you see me draw Spider-Man, he’s gonna look like a John Romita Spider-Man. If you look at every single shot I did of Spider-Man—look at the face, look at the eyes—you’ll see that I didn’t truthfully raise those webs. God, I am so difficult to work with I can’t even tell you, but the thing is, I hold true to what I believe in. I’m such a hardcore guy about what I get pissed off about.”
|EARTH X SKETCHBOOK COVER|
Wizard #77 insert, January 1998
“This is the first piece I did for Earth X. We did not have any deal with Marvel; only the approval that Marvel gave Wizard to allow them to publish this.
“Wizard had asked me to do redesigns of Marvel characters à la Kingdom Come set in the future just on a lark, because we thought it’d be fun for a gig, an inside story. And I blew them off. At first I was offended, like, ‘What I did for Kingdom Come is not so fleeting.’ And then I came around to think, ‘You know what, that’s a great idea, I wanna do it now.’
“There’s a mystery in Earth X about who’s responsible for how the world is all mutated now. In the storyline you find out it’s Black Bolt. In the very first painting for the sketchbook cover, on the lower grid, some spikes jet out from the bottom—that’s the mouthpiece of Black Bolt’s face mask. The hint was in the first image. So it was all figured out long, long before we finally got to tell the tale.”
Warner Bros. Studio Store litho, 2001
“Here you have all these Hanna-Barbera characters that are completely in disuse, that Cartoon Network owns, but they’re all of the certain time era from late ’60s through late ’70s in terms of design, and they’re all superhero-based, basically. I tried to have this very strict guideline of what would make the cut. In a great many ways it was an excuse to paint the other characters who were in the ‘SuperFriends’ cartoon that were not owned by DC [Samurai, Black Vulcan, Apache Chief].
“But the other thing, too, is this is the second painting I did with Warner Bros. of Space Ghost. I was desperate to resurrect a sense of Space Ghost being taken seriously as a graphic character. He was just the coolest original-design character out of cartoons of the late ’60s, ’70s era. It was just really sleek and nice.”
|JOHN ROMITA TRIBUTE|
dynamicforces.com litho, October 2004
“It took years of just getting John Romita convinced to do it. He wanted to do it, but he found it to be a Mount Everest of difficulty because of the amount of characters it was meant to be; it would be this huge piece. It’s like a 4’ piece of board that I sent to him to do this thing.
“I think John worked on it for about a week or so; it took me over a week to paint it. It’s over 70 characters, ’cause it’s everybody that he designed in Marvel, including some things that weren’t exactly Marvel but he did while he was there. There’s this weird character in it—a blonde woman with a striped costume that he designed for Paul McCartney and Linda McCartney [Top left]. When Linda McCartney was talking about doing her own solo group project, it would’ve been like a costume for the band to wear. It was really meant to be a drawing of Linda McCartney wearing a superhero costume.
“He stuck in the Macy’s Day Parade blimp of Spider-Man; he
didn’t design Ditko’s Spider-Man, but he did the actual work in
designing the blimp. At the center of the whole painting is Mary Jane Watson, because that’s the first character he got to design and create that was exclusively of the era of Romita.”
|BATMAN: BLACK AND WHITE #4 PINUP|
“I tried to research what some of the scars might’ve been in Batman’s life, which is really impossible. I figured I could probably get away with saying there’s a bunch of whip slashes, but I tried putting what looks to be like bullet holes in various points in his back and arm. But the only one that really came from any part of research is from Neal Adams’ run where, during a Ra’s Al Ghul storyline, Batman had to fend off a lion or a cheetah, and he used his arm to block the creature’s mouth, so I put teeth marks exactly in the elbow.
“Nobody had really ever acknowledged the idea that this guy would be just f---ed up all over, all the time. It’s like the skin doesn’t heal to a perfect point, so you know he would be a mess.
“I think this painting led to two other things that happened in Hollywood. One was in the ‘Daredevil’ movie; they specifically have a shot related to scars all over Ben Affleck’s body. Also, the actual movie poster for Vin Diesel’s ‘XXX’ is the mirror image of this body shot where the head’s turned to the side and the arm’s like that. ’Cause I kept looking at the poster saying, ‘God, this looks familiar to me.’ And then I suddenly realized it was exactly the same composition.”
|SUPERMAN AND BATMAN|
Wizard X cover, September 2004
“Jim [Lee] did the composition and the pencils. So I didn’t try to direct him as far as what kind of design he’d want to do for himself. I figured it was better for him to go in that direction entirely himself. When it came the way that I work my particular magic, it’s like, ‘Okay, I got this, what do I do with it?’ Trying to figure out what light, shadow thing I want to play with. Very often certain things have to get thrown out, and in the case of Jim Lee, he’s got a lot of these little finicky lines all over things. I had to decide which lines live or which lines die.
“I’m very happy with the way this thing worked out, because the figures to me seemed like they worked in a real space nicely. And it does look like a Jim Lee drawing completely. It doesn’t look like my version of either of the characters. It’s got my kind of lighting and painting on it, but not my figure drawing. And that’s what it’s meant to be. The best collaborations are meant to preserve what the penciler’s worth and not let me completely override him.”
|GEORGE W. BUSH VS. THE STATUE OF LIBERTY|
Village Voice cover, October 2004
“So what happened with the George Bush piece was that The Village Voice gave me a call just before the election, and they had the concept, which I thought was hysterical.
“I carefully researched from all my Newsweek issues pictures of George Bush. And I thought about the most subtle approach possible, because I did not actually paint fangs in his mouth; it just happened that the photograph of him had his mouth open in such a way that the lower teeth looked like they came up when they really didn’t. The real going-over-the-top thing is the yellow in the eyes. But that kinda makes it for me.
“Truthfully, what I enjoyed about something like this is that I would feel totally comfortable making politically charged paintings, statements, whatever, to communicate in the same way that I think [Norman] Rockwell did back in the last century. I like to do things that are relevant within comics, but I’d be happy to do relevant things within the real world as well. There are not many opportunities like this that ever come up.
“Maybe the White House actually knows who I am now. My name is on a list somewhere, and it’s not a good list"
OCTOBER 21, BOSTON
The New Boston Comic Con Returns Sunday, October 21, 2007, Place: Back Bay Events Center, 180 Berkeley St. (corner of Stuart St.), Boston, MA Directions: go to www.backbayeventscenter.com, 10AM-5PM, Admission: $8 (children under 10 free), Parking: $6 with validation (garage around the corner at 100 Clarendon); street parking free! Starring comic book legend Jim STERANKO. Special guest artists, give aways and more! The hottest comic event in New England with over 7,000 square feet of vendors selling comics, toys, posters, and superhero memorabilia. More Info: Go to www.bostoncomiccon.com for more information or call 508-320-1440||