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.”
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.
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.
Though artistically and financially devastated by the good Dr. Wertham’s ’50s moral crusade, comic books were experiencing a renaissance by the early ’60s. Schumer, an illustrator, lecturer, and comics historian, points out that a handful of artists (including a stronger-than-ever Kirby) turned this bastard medium’s limitations into strengths through strong figure drawing (a skill long atrophying in American fine art), innovative compositions, and sophisticated graphics. Schumer captures the era with a tenfold enlargement of a tiny Carmine Infantino panel of the Flash sprinting out of a ranch house, a perfectly proportioned figure in a landscape; Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man slaloming between skyscrapers, his body torqued into beautiful arabesques; and Joe Kubert’s Sgt. Rock, carved out of deft brushstrokes that convey war-weariness and the burden of keeping his men alive. (This month sees the release of Kubert’s Sgt. Rock: Between Hell & A Hard Place, a half-century after he first brought the character to life. Kubert has illustrated Brian Azzarello’s compelling story with spare, scabrous depictions of the nihilism of war.)
With dense, informative layouts Schumer shows how these artists helped define the decade. He relates Tom Wolfe’s description of LSD proselytizer Ken Kesey sitting “for hours on end reading comic books, absorbed in the plunging purple Steve Ditko shadows of Dr. Strange.” Kubert evokes the My Lai massacre by having Sgt. Rock confront a soldier who has just murdered unarmed German civilians. By contrasting the noble, duty-bound Rock against the heavily armed soldier’s arrogant pose, the artist succinctly portrays the gulf between America’s motives in World War II and in Vietnam. Kirby thrusts the Fantastic Four into the “Negative Zone,” a universe of coarse black-and-white half-tone collages, where the colorful atomic mutants drift amid asteroids searching for a planet-size intelligence named Ego. “I began to throw my mind out in all different directions,” Kirby says in the book. In 1966 he upped the ante with Galactus, whom he called a “true god.… Everybody talks about God, but what does he look like?… I drew him large and awesome.” The humanist spark that drove all of Kirby’s work is echoed in Galactus’s own dialogue: “I perceive the glint of glory within the race of man!… It shall one day lift you beyond the stars or bury you within the ruins of your wars!” Kirby needed such vast themes to keep pace with the art he was splashing across the colorful two-page spreads opening many of his stories: Layered scenes of destruction, creation, and war, they verge on incoherence but are as controlled and improbably gorgeous as Jackson Pollock’s allover murals.
It’s not known if Kirby was a fan of abstract expressionism, but any art form can be judged by who steals from it. If Roy Lichtenstein simply scaled-up and tweaked the compositions of Irv Novick’s original panels, Robert Rauschenberg dug deeper and found the vernacular beauty of crummy printing processes: What were his polka-dot bedsheet grounds but homages to the crude benday dots of the Sunday strips he collaged on top? Warhol painted Superman, but it’s his grim Marilyn icons and car crashes, with their flailing colors barely constrained by screen-printed black outlines, that owe their shocking beauty to the raw coloring and printing pioneered by the comics. According to writer Mark Evanier, Kirby claimed Lichtenstein once came around looking for a job. He didn’t get it, because “Jack seemed to think the guy’s work wasn’t very good, either then or when he started selling paintings for large sums.”
Schumer closes Silver Age with the artist who pushed furthest beyond the limits: Neal Adams. Best known for rescuing Batman from the camp hell of ABC’s popular TV series by returning the Dark Knight to his somber, vigilante roots, Adams is, simply put, one of the greatest draftsmen this country has ever produced. “Neal Adams changed everything,” says Alex Ross in Mythology. “He defined what realistic, dynamic storytelling in comics would be for all time.”
Not that Adams will own up to it. During a recent interview a deep, broad accent comes down the phone line as he recounts the tale of some Frenchmen visiting his studio: “Ahhh yez, America does zree forms of art — your musical comedy, jazz, and comic books.” Adams laughs, and says he replied: “It’s something you take into the bathroom, and if you take a nice long shit, you can finish a whole comic book.”
If not false, his modesty is at least disingenuous; minutes later he speaks of putting his “heart and soul” into Green Lantern comics for $45 a page when he could have been making hundreds doing advertising layouts. In 1970, Adams and writer Denny O’Neil sent Green Lantern (a test pilot made nigh-on invincible through an alien power source) and a hippie Robin Hood named Green Arrow on a journey to discover America. Green Arrow teaches his straitlaced friend that the law is not always on the side of justice, as they bring down a cruel slumlord in one issue and defeat an army of goons protecting a greedy mine owner in the next.
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.”
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).
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.