American Gods

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

Neal Adams's Green Lantern traverses America's racial, class, and political divides, circa 1972: "I had, I must say, some little, small thing to do with moving through the '60s and discrimination in America."

Adams displays his chops throughout the series in judiciously detailed drawings of trash-strewn tenements, stunningly natural figures, masterful foreshortening, and emotional portraits that, in another epoch, would've earned him a place at the Court of the Medici. In an iconic panel, Green Arrow stands before posters of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and decries their assassinations: "Some hideous moral cancer is rotting our very souls!" Three years later, John Dean told Richard Nixon there was "a cancer . . . close to the presidency," as Tricky Dick came to personify everything Adams's characters railed against. Adams created dramatic layouts—X-Men plunged diagonally down pages, entire sequential scenes played out within the silhouette of Batman's cape—energizing stories that passed the ideals of superheroes on to a new generation. Even though these tales were "printed on toilet paper," Adams recalls, "kids fucking loved them!" He sounds like a superhero himself when he emphatically adds, "I am for justice, I am for democracy, I am for helping the other guy. I am my brother's keeper."

illustration: Alex Ross

Chip Kidd, designer of Mythology: The DC Comics Art of Alex Ross, has a deep appreciation for the period from the dawn of comics up through Adams. He compares the shortcomings of the earlier era to Maria Callas's voice, which, while not technically pretty, has "some weird, secret ingredient that makes it really special." But Mythology makes it clear that Ross's smoothly modeled paintings could not have withstood the degradations of back-in-the-day printing; his art needs fine screens, glossy stock, and dead-eye registration to work its illusional magic. If superhuman beings zooming about in tights and flowing capes are, on the face of it, absurd, the verisimilitude of Ross's portrayals stubbornly insists otherwise in the translucent shadow of Batman's cape, the Sandman serrated by streetlights shining through venetian blinds, or the Flash, in perpetual motion, an indistinct scarlet blur.

The critic Robert Hughes has noted that while America is ostensibly one of the most religious nations on earth, it has "produced very little in the way of original religious art." In 1996, Ross, a minister's son, took superheroes who'd been around for 60-odd years and (with writer Mark Waid) gave them the gravitas of religious myth. Their four-part series Kingdom Come envisions Armageddon: the original generation of superheroes squared off against their power-drunk offspring to decide humanity's fate. Ross portrays Superman as paralyzed by the enormous responsibility of being the world's greatest superpower; finally, though, he consults with the UN and goes to war (after painstakingly building a broad coalition).

Ross's new Justice League of America: reverence for eight decades of American idealism
illustration: TM & © DC Comics 2003
Some of these apocalyptic battle scenes are reproduced in Mythology—fantastic beings blasting and slashing each other amid compositions that reveal their underlying structural grace after repeated viewings. Ross's work gains power from the cumulative effect of painted panel piled upon painted panel. It isn't a cinematic experience—though he has much more feeling for these characters than any mercenary director—but an unfurling frieze of fantasy made manifest. On a smaller scale, Ross excels at capturing emotion: Captain Marvel, driven mad by the malevolent Lex Luthor, decks Superman with a thunderbolt, then flashes a grin conveying lunacy and pitiless power. After a climax of near biblical destruction, "the gods work with mankind towards a common good." In an age when America's most implacable enemies (both at home and abroad) are besotted with religion, Kingdom Come feels eerily prescient.

As with Adams's work, it is the stories Ross chooses to illustrate that make his work important. Asked if he viewed the Uncle Sam comic as an act of patriotism, Ross replies that it's "an act of humanitarianism." (He knows whereof he speaks: Ross has donated more than $350,000 from the sale of his original art to such charities as UNICEF and the Reisenbach Charter School in Harlem.)

Kidd supplies many close-ups of Ross sketches and paintings, giving an idea of why a Batman scene fetched $65,000 at Sotheby's. Virtuoso pencil sketches, the result of long life-drawing sessions, and vivid gouaches fashioned from sure brushstrokes and airbrushed hazes make one realize that even modern reproduction techniques take their toll on original art. Still, Ross can be criticized when his photo references get in the way of his imagination—compared to a pastiched, flatly lit final version of Superman before Congress, a quick, preparatory ink sketch is more organic and convincing.

Mythology closes with a bang. Co-written with Kidd, "The Trust" is an eight-page roller-coaster ride of terrific, economical storytelling and propulsive visuals. For the general reader, who knows little of Batman and Superman's long, prickly history, the concise dialogue (kept to a minimum to free up the art) provides all needed backstory. Ross launches the Man of Steel through the air like a titanium missile, Batman trailing behind on the Batrope, the silken cord making graceful arcs and taut diagonals that seamlessly knit the action together; the backgrounds hurtle by. Colors are vibrant and expositional, subtly defining aspects of each character and scene. A work of art, "The Trust" ends too soon, but it ends right, a reminder that comic books, like baseball and rock 'n' roll, are one of America's joyous gifts to the world, created for the young but with reverberations for the ages.

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