American Gods

Legendary Comic-Book Artists Alex Ross and Neal Adams Declare Their Patriot Acts

Alex Ross, one of America's preeminent comic-book artists, recounts the genesis of his 1997 Uncle Sam comic. "[Writer] Steve Darnall and I both felt that our culture was at a crossroads of its own selfishness," he says from his studio near Chicago. "The American spirit was at a very low ebb," he adds, pointing to the profligate Clinton economic boom as "a blinding factor."

Asked to do a cover painting for this issue of the Voice—a riff on the finger-flipping patriot deemed too provocative for the hardcover edition of Uncle Sam—the chronically overscheduled Ross hesitates, then chuckles. "If you'd asked for anything else, I'd have had to say no. But I've wanted to get that one out there for a long time."

"Uncle Sam represents the government," Ross says, "and our current government is giving us the finger. But you can turn that around and see the true spirit of the nation giving it back to a government that is telling its citizens, 'We know what's best—don't question us.' That finger is definitely a fuck-you back at this government."

illustration: Alex Ross

He elaborates: "Everyone's asking why are we in Iraq? We were sold a bill of goods. This is a show of strength to scare the rest of the world—go after the obvious bad guy. It's like Batman going after the Penguin because he can't find the real villain, the Joker. Batman would never do that just for show—that kind of thing only works for lone justice anyway, not with countries. [The administration] is feeding its ego by trying to send that kind of cowboy justice out into the world. You can't take vigilante philosophy onto that kind of scale."

Uncle Sam sends the top-hatted patriot on a journey of wrenching revelation. Ross chillingly animates a lawn jockey, paints an unflinching, ghastly portrayal of a lynching, and uses the painfully clashing colors of azure sky against bloody corpses to highlight the cruelty of the Indian Removal Bill of 1832. Enraged at what has been wrought in his name, Sam grows to Brobdingnagian proportions and challenges his cynical contemporary doppelgänger to a fight, using federal buildings in Washington as a boxing ring—a wild invention that allows this synthesis of man and culture to regain his original ideals. Uncle Sam is a warning about the hubris of empire; if our society must now be seen through the scrim of 9-11, a citizen could do worse than give it a serious read.

Ross painted the cover the next day, then left his home near Chicago to start a book tour promoting Mythology: The DC Comics Art of Alex Ross (written and designed by Chip Kidd, just out in stores from Pantheon; see below for local events). In addition to taking the down-on-his-luck, red-white-and-blue icon on a chutes 'n' ladders ride through American history, Ross is most renowned for his hyper-realistic renderings of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, and many more. Just as he scrupulously followed James Montgomery Flagg's original 1917 design for Uncle Sam, Ross's respect for the history, the "essential purity," of the original comic-book superheroes borders on reverence.

The world's greatest superpower, staggered and confused: Kingdom Come
TM & © DC Comics 2003
To fully appreciate Ross's achievement, it's necessary to look at the artists who came before him. Although their figures were often stiff or rubbery, the best of the early practitioners showed an intuitive grasp of the limitations of a medium that went through an elaborate, collaborative process before hitting the streets in wire-wrapped bundles. Even the most skilled draftsmen had to hand lithe pencil drawings over to an inker, who, while making the lines solid enough for reproduction, hopefully didn't flatten the life out of them. Next came the colorist, who used a limited palette to fill in the outlines. Even if these artists meshed well to create dynamic, colorful pages, the whole shebang was then shipped off to the printers—inevitably a gang of thieves driven by economies of scale to shove anything legible out the door, color match and registration be damned.

Comic books began as the scheme of an unemployed Bronx salesman wanting to keep huge, capital-intensive newspaper presses from sitting idle during the darkest days of the Great Depression. Ever since Superman burst upon the world in 1938, espousing faith in democracy, the triumph of justice over evil, and the nobility of sacrifice for the common good, the comics have proved a keen expression of America's garish, idealistic—and contradictory—soul. If the Man of Steel was a role model for millions of young fans, offering them refuge from an ever more threatening world, some grown-ups considered the cheap magazines a menace. In 1954 their most vociferous critic, a New York City psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham, wrote that comic books were "not poetic, not literary, have no relation to any art, and have as little to do with the American people as alcohol, heroin, or marihuana, although many people take them, too." (Is this a great country or what?)

One of the originators of the art form, Jack Kirby, was born on the Lower East Side in 1917. Co-creator of Captain America, he depicted the flag-clad superhero busting one on Hitler's chin almost a year before the U.S. entered World War II. The young artist believed "comics were a common form of art and strictly American. . . . America was the home of the common man, and show me the common man that can't do a comic." Alas, both Mythology and another new book, Arlen Schumer's The Silver Age of Comic Book Art (Collector's Press), contradict this appealing sentiment by proving just how uncommon great comic-book artists actually are.

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