Artist brings depth to comics with photo-realistic renderings of superheroes

Blue-period Picasso could have had a nice run with Batman. Hopper would have killed on Superman. And ballerinas, while not without merit, don't fight crime. Had he lived long enough and been less of a snob, Degas could have done a killer Flash.

Just look at Ross.

For those who haven't been in a comic gallery — ah, shop — in the past decade, that's Alex Ross. The classically trained painter's photo-realistic watercolors have given such a tangible heft to superheroes, given these characters such character, that he's become the medium's most awe-inspiring visual talent. He makes other comic artists' renderings look like cave drawings.

Ross soars into Seattle to promote writer/designer Chip Kidd's magnificent coffee-table book of his work, "Mythology" (Pantheon, $35), at 7 p.m. tomorrow at the University Book Store. Fans should also be clutching his gorgeous new tabloid-sized Justice League of America graphic novel, "Liberty and Justice" (DC, $9.95).

A Green Lantern power ring might generate a big enough shoehorn to wedge you through those fans. A week before his 34th birthday, the Portland-born Ross yaks enthusiastically about hero worship and geek love from the Chicago-area home he shares with his wife — whom he met at a Superman celebration in Metropolis, Ill. — with occasional pauses to stop his barking yellow Lab from eating delivery men.

"It winds up where some of us get that kind of rock-star treatment where, during the time you're in that room, you're Paul McCartney — with pretty much exclusively male fans. I should say Paul McCartney today, not necessarily Paul McCartney of 40 years ago," he notes. "It's not a bad kind of fame. It's like, if you have to be famous in anything, comic-book fame is the best, because the minute you walk out of that area, nobody knows who the hell you are."

Not so fast, though.

Ross' ascendance is like two sides of Harvey Dent's scarred coin. First, that an artist of his caliber would not only work in the once-derided comics field and be tickled to be there. Second, that Ross' Rockwellian scenarios have forced nongeeks to take more notice of comics' artistic validity — and occasional profundity. Put another way: During the "Marvel Age" of the '60s, that company's honcho, Stan Lee, wrote about once being snubbed at cocktail parties when he mentioned his occupation but suddenly finding people interested. Ross signals another leap in that pop-culture integration.

"That's a very typical story, in part because of [comics'] being so disregarded in the mainstream public," Ross says. As a fan, he says, "I endured it through my whole life, and nowadays there's a sense of, frankly, people appreciating the fact that if you do something for a living that doesn't completely bore the piss out of you — and the majority of people in our country are being treated, especially in our current economy, as if they just have to be lucky to have a job."

Midlife heroes

Heroes as Ross paints them also seem tailor-made for adult readers bummed at the awareness that they're now older than the figures they grew up admiring. His Superman is beefy, muscular but not muscle-bound, a little older than the American ideal currently skews (if Ashton Kutcher really was considered to play him), and stern like a father. He looks substantial enough to bump into, and like you'd fall back on your can if you did.

Ross pictures Batman around 40. Mean and unstoppable-looking, with a cape and cowl whose expressive billows are an extension of his anger. His Wonder Woman is a steely goddess of palpable strength, lovely but unrelated to the busty pin-up queen who has lassoed young hormones.

These fundamentally preposterous characters have never looked as real, right down to the wrinkling and bunching of their costumes. How does Ross bring them to life?

"I paint the images so that they are lit with full light and shadow and color in such a way as to replicate reality and not a comic-book kind of hard outline put to the body," he says. "I'm making little movies of these fictional characters 'brought to life' without having to wait for decades for Hollywood to get around to doing it first."

Ross uses models for the paintings. Who are they?

"Just people I know," he says. From way back. With a diploma from the American Academy of Art in his utility belt, Ross had been working at an advertising agency around 1989 with other artists.

"I was producing storyboards at a regular clip for my day job, and then we would take each other out of each other's offices to do some quick posing for a Polaroid camera and get an exact shot, and pretty much draft that shot into place, ... to have this somewhat photo-realistic touch to it."

He still uses some of the same guys. "Mythology" shows his best known, Frank Kasy, posing for Superman across a table like George Reeves flying.

"He's not necessarily a guy that looks just like that, but he's a muscular guy of handsome features, that when extrapolated further I can enhance the look of, whether I'm changing him from being a blond man to having dark hair like Superman, or giving him the height, the presence of the character. ... I'm not working with people who have the abdominal muscles already in place. I don't think I have a single model who has abdominal muscles."

(In fact, in his intro to "Mythology," "Sixth Sense" director M. Night Shyamalan notes that it's Supie's gut while sitting which drives home the realism.)

The Ross technique

Here's how Ross' heroes are born:

• He draws tight "thumbnails" to figure the comic's layout, the characters' relations to one another, etc.

• Then come the photos "of either live models, myself if I'm the only person available immediately, or toys."

• Ross incorporates the photos to draw a larger version of the thumbnail layout.

• He paints it all in a black-and-white stage with gouache, an opaque water-based paint. With full tonality and detail, it's like a finished-product black-and-white photo.

• Then comes the color.

The end result looks terrifically painstaking, especially to comic readers who grew up inured to feeling gypped by interiors that were rarely as good as the covers.

His first gig was a "Terminator" spinoff for a now-defunct company. Then Ross put himself on the map with "Marvels," a series of lavish reworkings of Lee's classic tales. But his depiction of middle-age DC icons in the future civil war of "Kingdom Come" became an instant classic. (The "Earth X" title he currently co-plots does something similar for the Marvel universe.)

By aging and weathering the Man of Steel in "Kingdom Come," Ross accomplished a stupendous feat: He made the familiar, bland, cheesy granddaddy of comic heroes interesting again. Arguably a harder task than fellow artist/writer Frank Miller had rejuvenating Batman and Daredevil in the mid-'80s. Seems like an odd, idealistic choice in a period when Miller showed that darker is better.

"I made a connection with Superman in greatest part because there was a sense of homogeny to his looks in the comics for a long time," Ross says. "And I had been exposed to the earliest version of Superman when I was a kid, seeing some of the reprints and thinking, 'Man, he looked really cool back in the '40s!' He looked pissed-off all the time with this squint in his eyes, and he always had this shadow underneath his nose, and it was kind of a darker quality ... than what he would be reduced down to over time to the 1970s.

"And I think I came to it in the sense that, 'Wait a minute, Superman could be perceived as really cool if you just go back to what he was designed to be.' "

If Ross envisions the cape-and-tights crowd as mythic, three-dimensional heroes, he sees Superman with an extra layer.

"To my mind, he's sort of a failed Jesus in a way. He's a guy that can't save us all. He's not here to spread his message of saving our souls. He wants to save our physical presence if he can, but that's a taller order, given the fact of either fighting human nature or the fact that we ourselves need to learn to pick ourselves up and fight for ourselves. The greatest point of Superman in the long run is that he's here to inspire us."

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or

Artist appearance

Alex Ross will be at University Book Store, 7 p.m. tomorrow, 4326 University Way N.E., 206-634-3400.