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Heroes & Villans: The Comic Book Art of Alex Ross

November 10, 2012 - February 24, 2013


Over the last two decades, caped crusaders have literally been flying off the pages and covers of comic books and graphic novels, due in large part to the work of one very talented illustrator: Alex Ross. Known for his unique, photorealistic renderings of such beloved superheroes as Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man, Ross helped revitalize the comic book industry, capturing a new generation of readers, and bridging the gap between comic and fine art. (right: Photo of Alex Ross, courtesy of the artist.)

This fall, Norman Rockwell Museum will present a comprehensive look at the career of the artist who has been called "the Norman Rockwell of the comics world." Heroes & Villains: The Comic Book Art of Alex Ross will be on view at the Museum from November 10, 2012 through February 24, 2013.

Heroes & Villains is the first museum exhibition celebrating the art of Alex Ross. Organized by The Andy Warhol Museum, one of the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, the exhibition features more than 130 works, including paintings, drawings, photographs, and sculptures from Ross' personal collection. Spanning the artist's life and career, the exhibition features rarely-seen works-from his early crayon drawing of Spider-Man, created at the age of four, to his groundbreaking work for such books as Marvels, Justice, and Kingdom Come. Heroes & Villains reveals Ross' personal and artistic goal to redefine comic books for a new generation. The exhibition also pays homage to the artist's inspirations, including original work by his mother Lynette Ross (who was also a successful illustrator), Frank Bez, Andrew Loomis, and Norman Rockwell. Also featured in the exhibition are works by Andy Warhol, a huge comic book fan, including his Myths series, which mirrors many of the subjects depicted in Ross' work.

"Norman Rockwell Museum is thrilled to be able to present the work of Alex Ross," says Museum Director/CEO Laurie Norton Moffatt. "Just as millions of readers in the 20th century were introduced to the world of art courtesy of Norman Rockwell, that tradition continues today thanks to Ross' beautifully painted illustrations, which combine photographic realism and imaginative storytelling."

"Norman Rockwell has been one of the greatest influences on my art, and it is an enormous honor to be featured in the museum dedicated to his work," notes Alex Ross. "I have always looked upon Rockwell's style as the peak of what one could hope to achieve artistically. The artist's realistic execution and eye for composition are things I aspire to, knowing that he performed a quality of work that isn't easily achieved. It is a major career achievement for me to have my work in company with his."


About Alex Ross

Born in Portland, Oregon in 1970 and raised in Lubbock, Texas, Alex Ross grew up in a world of colorful, painted images. Ross's mother Lynette was a successful illustrator in the 1940s and 1950s, the same time that Norman Rockwell was becoming a household name.

At just three years of age, Ross was drawing TV commercials from memory. The following year, he began drawing images of his favorite superheroes -- Superman, Captain Marvel, and Plastic Man. By the time he was 13, he was drawing and scripting comic books. At the age of 17, Ross went on to study painting at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, where he was influenced by Salvador Dali's hyperrealism, as well as by such classic American illustrators as Norman Rockwell and J.C. Leyendecker.

Ross began his professional career as a storybook artist for an advertising agency. At the age of 19 Ross received his first comic assignment from Marvel Comics -- a comic titled Terminator: The Burning Earth. Five years later, Ross created the illustrations and cover art for Marvels, a full feature comic book, co-written by Kurt Busiek. Ross's photorealistic gouache technique showcases superheroes and villains such as Spider-Man, the Human Torch, Captain America and Galactus. His sophomore project, Kingdom Come, is a comic in which an alternate DC Universe is filled with aging superhero forces including Superman, Wonder Woman and the Green Lantern, who come out of retirement to fight modern super humans.

Ross won the Comic Buyer's Guide Award for Favorite Painter seven times in a row, resulting in the retirement of the category.

To learn more, visit the artist's website: http://www.alexrossart.com


Wall panels from the exhibition


Considered one of the greatest artists in the field of comic books, Alex Ross has revitalized classic superheroes as powerful works of art. Just as Andy Warhol elevated soup can labels into multi-million dollar artworks, Ross has transformed the comic book. By building on the foundation of great artists who came before him, like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Romita, Neal Adams, George Perez, and others, Ross's emotional, painterly works have revolutionized the comic book industry and transcended the newsstand origins of his profession.

At three years of age, Alex Ross began drawing TV commercials from memory, and by the age of 13, was scripting and drawing his own original comic books. Ten years later, he painted a visual history of Marvel Comics' central characters in the groundbreaking Marvels (1994). Ross's impact on the comic book industry has been so great that his successful series Kingdom Come (1996) marks the close of the "Dark Age" of comic books, in which pessimism, violence, and gritty stories ruled, into the birth of the "Modern Age" of optimism and strong superheroes.

Alex Ross also draws inspiration from a diverse sampling of popular culture -- early 20th century illustrators Andrew Loomis and J.C. Leyendecker, the rock band Queen, Super Friends cartoons, the Flash Gordon film (1980), and Norman Rockwell. The artist's first museum exhibition, Heroes and Villains was organized by Jesse Kowalski, Director of Exhibitions at The Andy Warhol Museum. We are honored to celebrate the artistry of this exceptional visual storyteller, whose contributions reflect the evolution of Norman Rockwell's beloved profession.



Making his first appearance in Action Comics #1 (June 1938), Superman was an immediate hit with the American public. Superman was so popular that he became the first superhero to receive his own comic book with the publication of Superman #1 in June 1939.

Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster -- two shy, unpopular Jewish teens from Cleveland who shared an affection for science-fiction pulp magazines. Through the mid-1930s, they were unsuccessful in selling their Superman story to publishers. Finally in 1938, after some revisions and a bit of luck, DC Comics agreed to publish the exploits of Superman in their new comic book, Action Comics.

An amalgam of Clark Gable, Flash Gordon, Friedrich Nietzsche's Ubermensch, and Harold Lloyd, among others, the world's first superhero was born Kal-El on the planet Krypton. Realizing that Krypton would soon die of "old age," Kal-El's father, Jor-El, sends his only child to Earth in a rocket ship. Kal-El's crashing rocket is spotted by a passing motorist, who turns the baby over to an orphanage. Reaching maturity, Clark Kent, as he was named, could jump over 20-story buildings, run faster than a train, and lift tremendous weights. The source of his power was his highly advanced Kryptonian physiology. Because of this unique gift, he chose to become Superman and "devote his existence to those in need."

Superman's back-story was eventually altered to include Ma and Pa Kent in Kansas finding and adopting the alien baby, and an adjustment of his strengths to include the ability to fly, increased super powers, and near invulnerability. Also, the source of his power was later explained to be a result of Earth's yellow sun on his alien DNA.

Since he burst onto the scene in 1938, Superman has appeared in a daily comic strip, a radio series, theatrical cartoons, film serials, several feature films and live-action television series, and scores of animated television series. In 73 years, he has married, died, returned to life and fought Al Capone, Nazis, and Communists -- all while wearing tights.

"I was trying to relate the image of great power through a modest sensibility. That's what Superman should always be. So how do you do that? By keeping the feet together and pointed outward. By keeping the hands in fists but relatively relaxed and at his sides, his chin straight forward. The key is that the cape does all his talking for him -- it creates a flamboyant sense of movement so he doesn't have to."



Drawing inspiration from popular pulp magazine detective stories of the 1930s, Batman debuted in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939). In Detective Comics #33 (November 1939), co-creators artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger explained Batman's background: while leaving a Gotham City movie theater one night, millionaire Thomas Wayne, his wife, and son were held up at gunpoint. Mr. Wayne fought the thief and was shot and killed, along with his wife. A witness to their brutal murders, young Bruce swore to avenge their deaths. To fulfill this purpose, over the next several years Bruce Wayne trained to become a "master scientist" and conditioned his body "to perform amazing athletic feats." While ruminating on a disguise he could wear to terrorize criminals, a bat flew through an open window in his study "and thus is born this weird figure of the dark . . . this avenger of evil. The Batman."

Though lacking any superpowers, the Batman character achieved immediate success, permanently becoming the feature in the Detective Comics title while also gaining his own Batman title in Spring 1940. Batman was one of the few superhero characters to be successful during the downturn in superhero comics of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Following the introduction of the restrictive Comics Code in 1954, superhero comic books regained popularity, albeit with watered-down stories that omitted any serious violence or frights. Accordingly, goofy plots prevailed for the next several years as Batman fought menaces from other worlds and other times, such as "The Phantom of the Library" and "The Jigsaw Creature from Space." He was disguised as "The Armored Batman" and "Rip Van Batman" while fighting alongside new characters like Ace the Bat-Hound and Mogo the Bat-Ape. Batwoman and Batgirl also became fixtures during this period to combat the perception of Batman and Robin as gay lovers.



The preposterous pinnacle of Bat banality was reached with the 1966 Batman television series starring Adam West. The instantly popular series was a hit with children and adults alike, so much so that ABC aired two episodes every week for two years. Audiences quickly tired of the tongue-in-cheek nature of the series, however, and Batman's ratings began plummeting during its second season.

As the number of Batman viewers declined, so did sales of the comic book. Beginning in 1969, with the creative team of artist Neal Adams and writer Dennis O'Neil, DC Comics took Batman back to its roots. Reflecting the turbulent times in America, the stories became darker and more somber. Just as in Batman's debut in 1939, in which he unapologetically killed a criminal by throwing him into a vat of acid, the Batman of the 1970s also resorted to violence to subdue criminals. The work of Adams and O'Neil set the tone of Batman for the next few decades, as evidenced by artist Frank Miller's beaten-down Caped Crusader in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns from 1986, the crippling of Batgirl and murder of the second Robin in 1988, Batman's near murder by foe Bane in 1993, and Christopher Nolan's gritty The Dark Knight film in 2008.



At a time when the most popular superheroes were an alien from Krypton, a millionaire detective, and a fiery android, Fawcett Comics introduced Captain Marvel-an ordinary boy named Billy Batson, who could turn himself into a superhero by uttering the word "Shazam." Modeling Captain Marvel on popular actor Fred MacMurray, artist C.C. Beck debuted his character in Whiz Comics #2 (February 1940).

Twelve-year-old newspaper boy Billy Batson is led through a subway tunnel by a mysterious stranger who takes Billy to the wizard Shazam. The wizard grants Billy magical powers by uttering the word "Shazam," after which a lightning bolt appears and Billy Batson is transformed into Captain Marvel. ("Shazam" is derived from "the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury.") Pronouncing the word "Shazam" a second time changes Captain Marvel back into Billy Batson.

For a period in the mid-1940s, Captain Marvel was more popular than Superman. This drew the ire of executives at DC Comics, who already believed that Captain Marvel's powers and likeness were too similar to Superman. Following a series of lawsuits between DC Comics and Fawcett Comics, Captain Marvel ceased publication in late 1953 as part of a settlement deal between the two companies. Using the name "Shazam!," DC Comics revived Captain Marvel in the 1970s through comic books and a live action TV show.

A lifelong fan of Captain Marvel, Alex Ross made the superhero a major player in his Kingdom Come comic book series in 1996 and the lead character in the oversized graphic novel Shazam! Power of Hope in 2000.

"The difference between Captain Marvel and Superman is that Marvel has that wonderful sense of humor," he said. "Superman is so serious. But also, because his alter ego is young Billy Batson, Captain Marvel literally has the soul of a child. I try to give him a very mysterious but personalized look (heavy eyebrows, squinty eyes, Bela Lugosi hairdo) so he's not just a handsome everyman, but very specifically somebody."



Orphaned as a boy and living a life of crime, Patrick "Eel" O'Brian was covered in acid during a botched robbery. Disoriented and in pain, O'Brian wandered into a monastery where a monk cared for him. While recovering, the acid combined with O'Brian's DNA to give him the physical characteristics of rubber, which allowed him to change his shape, stretch his body, bounce, and become nearly invulnerable. Because of his dramatic physical transformation and the monk's kindness, O'Brian vowed to reform his evil ways and fight on the side of justice as Plastic Man.

Created by New Castle, PA native Jack Cole, Plastic Man debuted in Police Comics #1 (August 1941). Plastic Man was a humorous alternative to the more serious comic book superheroes of the time. Known for capturing bad guys with a heavy dose of slapstick, his roster of less-than-deadly villains includes Brickface, Rubberface, Acid Tongue, and Putty Neck. Plastic Man starred in his own cartoon television series in 1979, creating a new generation of fans -- including Alex Ross.

Ross created a crayon-colored folded-over Plastic Man comic book at age 10. Three years later, Ross updated the comic book in his evolving style. At age 32, Ross would paint his final adaptation of this same general content featuring Plastic Man's origin for print in the JLA: Secret Origins tabloid book. "Plastic Man was the first to combine humor and the superhero genres, and I think he's the best," said Alex Ross. "The liquid nature of his body is his defense against taking any of it too seriously. That his eyes are always hidden only adds to that quality."



One of the most popular superheroes of all time, Spider-Man was created by Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko for the August 1962 issue of Amazing Fantasy #15. Spider-Man was a new brand of superhero for a new generation. Alter ego Peter Parker was a shy teenager with everyday problems, but with superhuman abilities. Spider-Man was an immediate hit with teenagers who could easily relate to this superhero -- much more so than to an invincible Kryptonian.

While on a high school field trip, student Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider. The bite gives Parker the ability to walk up walls and jump to great heights. It also gives him super strength and "spider-sense," which alerts him to imminent danger. Science whiz Peter Parker invents a device that shoots webs, allowing him to swing from buildings and ensnare criminals. Parker is in love with schoolmate Mary Jane Watson (based on 1960s sex symbol Ann-Margret) but must keep his identity secret, lest she become harmed. Spider-Man's main enemies include Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, and the Lizard.



Superman is not the only Kryptonian among us -- Supergirl also survived the explosion of the planet Krypton. Born Kara Zor-El, her family lived on Krypton in a domed city, which protected them from the cataclysm. Facing new dangers in the aftermath, Kara's father sent her to join her cousin, Kal-El (Superman), on Earth, where she developed powers similar to those that Superman possessed. A creation of writer Otto Binder and artist Al Plastino, Supergirl debuted in Action Comics #252 in May 1959.

Batgirl is Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Gotham City's Police Commissioner Jim Gordon. The Silver Age Batgirl represented here debuted in Detective Comics #359 (January 1967) and was famously played by Yvonne Craig on the Batman television series in 1967. This version of Batgirl is wearing a costume designed for the cartoon Batman: The Animated Series (1992).



A relatively late arrival to the superhero genre, Wonder Woman was introduced in All Star Comics #8 (December/January 1941) by psychologist William Moulton Marston. The most popular female superhero of all time, Wonder Woman was an Amazon warrior princess named Diana who traveled to the United States to help fight the Nazis during World War II. Possessing superhuman strength and speed, Wonder Woman carries a magic truth-telling lasso. Wonder Woman was the first female member of the Justice Society of America.

"[Wonder Woman's] origin is dated to the 1940s, so unless I'm depicting her in that era, it doesn't work. That's much less a problem with Superman and Batman because their costumes don't rely on any specific period," notes Alex Ross. "What I identify Wonder Woman with (as does most of the public, if they think about it at all) is, frankly, Lynda Carter [the star of the Wonder Woman TV show of the 1970s]. She made the greatest single impression on the character in the 20th-century -- ironically more than any of the artists who drew her. In fact Lynda Carter was so perfect, it was hard to come up with a good variation that wasn't exactly her, but I had to. Luckily, the live models I use leave their mark and guide me visually."



During the downturn in the popularity of superhero comic books following World War II, the number of superhero books published was drastically reduced, leaving many characters discarded and forgotten. However, during the resurgence of superheroes in the Silver Age of the late 1950s, new versions of many characters were brought to life -- for example, early Superman couldn't fly, but the modern Superman could; the 1960s Justice League replaced the 1940s Justice Society, although each had a different version of Superman (though both Supermans technically still existed).

By creating a crisis in which numerous Earths were physically made into one in Crisis on Infinite Earths, writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez were able to reboot the DC universe and start from scratch. Continuity problems were solved by eliminating characters or relocating conflicting versions of characters to our Earth. For example, Earth-2 Lois Lane and Earth-2 Superman disappeared, the Justice Society from Earth-2 relocated to our Earth to work alongside the Justice League, and key superheroes were killed off.

"I was 15 when the original was published, and it was the culmination of everything I enjoyed about DC Comics -- they [writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez] were giving DC's history the most dramatic send-off ever. The story is the very heart of an insider's longing for knowledge about all of them. It was totally a dream project for me -- over five-hundred characters, it took over a month to do, working every day -- by far the one piece I've ever spent the most time on."



Gouache is a mixture of pigments and the binding agent Gum Arabic, a sap from the Acacia Tree. It is an adaptable material that can be made thin to paint like watercolors. Gouache can also be flat or opaque and can be used in airbrushing. Each pigment in gouache has its own personality in terms of how much water can be added, how quickly it becomes transparent, and how easily it is influenced by other colors when mixing. Purely saturated colors are easily achieved, which allows for rich color and surface quality. It is very difficult to achieve a similar surface texture with acrylics and other paints.



Loneliness helped to shape the creative life of Alex Ross. Having few friends as a child, Ross turned to television and comics books to fill his time. Television shows like Super Friends and the Electric Company, which featured a live-action Spider-Man, introduced Ross to the world of comic books and superheroes. Inspired and talented, the young artist began crafting his own art and stories.

Starting at four years old, Ross began drawing images of his favorite superheroes -- Superman, Captain Marvel, and Plastic Man -- characters he would revisit numerous times in the next 37 years, rejuvenating them with his own style. Ross spent much of his childhood drawing and scripting original comic books. In his teenage years, Ross's art projects would carry him through to more elaborate "graphic novel" approaches as well as designing original characters. The works on display show a uniquely gifted young mind bursting with creative energy as he tests and explores, foreshadowing the marvelous achievements which lay ahead of him.



The animated television series Challenge of the Super Friends aired on Saturday mornings for only three months in late 1978, but the series left an indelible impression on 8-year-old Alex Ross. The second half-hour of the hour-long television show, All-New Super Friends/Challenge of the Super Friends, Challenge of the Super Friends, featured heroes and villains from the Silver Age of DC Comics battling each other.

Celebrated as of the most accurate depictions of comic book superheroes in an animated series, Challenge of the Super Friends featured the villains Lex Luthor, Toyman, Bizarro, Brainiac, Sinestro, Solomon Grundy, Black Manta, Cheetah, Giganta, the Scarecrow, the Riddler, Captain Cold, and Gorilla Grodd working together as the Legion of Doom. The heroic Justice League of America comprised Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin, Aquaman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Black Vulcan, Apache Chief, and Samurai.

The 16 episode Challenge of the Super Friends has influenced Alex Ross's work throughout his career, and was the direct inspiration for the artist's12-issue Justice comic book series, which debuted in 2005. In addition to painting the books, Ross co-plotted the story with frequent collaborator Jim Krueger. Justice, named after the Justice League of America, featured an epic battle between the heroes and villains from Challenge of the Super Friends, in addition to heroes such as Martian Manhunter, Black Canary, Plastic Man, Red Tornado, Captain Marvel, and the Metal Men, and villains such as Black Adam, Clayface, Metallo, Doctor Sivana, and the Joker.

"[Justice] is a love letter to a fictional universe, attempting to do justice to its inspiration," said the artist.



Alex Ross's breakthrough work with Marvel Comics in 1994 propelled him into comic book superstardom at age 24. Although a majority of Ross's artworks depict superheroes under the DC Comics imprint, Ross often creates paintings that express his adoration of the Marvel superhero canon.

In an attempt to cash in on the newfound popularity of comic books following the arrival of Superman in June 1938, Marvel Comics began in October 1939 as Timely Comics with the publication of Marvel Comics #1. Marvel Comics introduced the superheroes Human Torch and Namor the Sub-Mariner, and Captain America followed in 1941. Ten years later, Timely Comics changed its name to Atlas Comics, which evolved into Marvel Comics in June 1961. It was not until November 1961 that Marvel finally struck gold with the release of The Fantastic Four #1, their version of DC's Justice League of America, released 18 months earlier. In the 1960s and 1970s, under the supervision of editor-in-chief Stan Lee, Marvel Comics' sales soared, and continues to excel in the comic book market, regularly outselling its rivals.

Most famous for Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk, and the X-Men, Marvel Comics creates characters that tend to be more down-to-earth than DC superheroes. They also experience inner turmoil and deal with real personal issues like alcoholism and troubled relationships. Additionally, Marvel characters are based in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, while their DC counterparts live in fictional places like Metropolis, Gotham City, and Fawcett City.



DC Comics' superhero characters form the foundation of Alex Ross's oeuvre. In the 15 years since Ross created the groundbreaking comic book series Kingdom Come (1996) for DC Comics, Ross and DC have been inextricably linked.

DC Comics began in 1934 as National Allied Publications. In the mid-1930s, National's output consisted mainly of detective and adventure magazines in the vein of The Shadow or Buck Rogers. However, through the determination of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the recently renamed DC Comics agreed to publish the pair's Superman story in their new publication, Action Comics, and the superhero was born.

Following the success of Superman, DC went on to create some of the most popular superheroes of all time -- Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Green Lantern, and Flash. In addition, many of the most famous comic book villains originated at DC -- the Joker, Lex Luthor, the Riddler, Brainiac, and Sinestro. Superheroes under the DC Comics banner tend to be more heroic and mythical than other publishers' superheroes. As epitomized in the Superman character, DC's personalities often originate from another world and are nearly invulnerable. They are strong superheroes who possess good moral character. In opposition to Marvel's heroes with deep internal struggles and personal strife, DC's superheroes are attractive, successful, and have little self-doubt. Superman is a respected ace reporter at the Daily Planet, but Marvel's Spider-Man is a mere part-time newspaper photographer struggling to make ends meet. DC is an acronym for one of their most popular periodicals -- Detective Comics -- in which their second most famous superhero, Batman, debuted in 1939.



From his breakthrough success with Marvels in 1994 through his current work in comic books like Kirby: Genesis and Flash Gordon: Zeitgeist, Alex Ross has classic appeal. While fine-tuning his craft at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, Ross studied the instructional books of fellow alumnus Andrew Loomis, whose figural drawing techniques are evident in Ross's paintings of superheroes.

Alex Ross was also strongly influenced by the works of Norman Rockwell. Rockwell's impact was so great that his lighting and compositional designs inspired cover art for Ross's comic book series Kingdom Come and Justice. Just as Ross integrated design elements present in Rockwell's work, Rockwell learned similar techniques from his friend and mentor, illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, a pioneer of the advertising age in the 1920s and 1930s whose art also appeared more than three hundred covers of The Saturday Evening Post.

While Norman Rockwell reflected American values in the 1940s and 1950s, Andy Warhol was a mirror of American consumerism, celebrity, and popular culture from the 1960s through the 1980s. By turning American-made products such as Heinz ketchup, Campbell's soup, and even Superman into artworks, Warhol forced the art world to question its basic tenets. In the way that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster transformed mild-mannered Clark Kent into Superman, Warhol elevated his Factory bon vivants into a similar superlative named Superstars. By studying and fine-tuning the techniques of 20th-century popular American artists, Alex Ross transformed 70-year-old symbols of America's strength and optimism into fresh, realistic portrayals of hope for a new generation.



Sincere thanks to exhibition curator Jesse Kowalski of The Andy Warhol Museum, and to Alex Ross and his manager, Sal Abbinanti, who made Heroes and Villains possible. Appreciation also goes to Jennifer Loomis and Erica Loomis Frazier, Kylee Denning of the Haggin Museum, Thomas King from DC Comics, and Oswaldo Garcia from Warner Bros.

Text © and courtesy of the Andy Warhol Museum and Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved.

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