It seems somehow wrong to say that I kind of like Alex Ross out loud or in public like this, as if admitting I like and appreciate a lot of his work may compromise my reputation as a cranky, cynical, hard-to-please critic who hates everything. Additionally, liking Alex Ross seems kind of un-cool, or—what's the word the kids use these days?—square.
Mostly because Ross not only promotes backwards-looking nostalgia for things that weren't very good the first time around (and he does so quite persuasively), but also because he embodies such nostalgia.
Ross is like a living, breathing avatar of the veneration of one's childhood experiences with superheroes. A lot of us imprint on the first superheroes we encountered as kids, and follow them like baby ducks from that point on. So Barry Allen is the best Flash and Hal Jordan is the best Green Lantern only because they were Ross' firsts; the satellite League is champagne and what followed was shit because the former was his first Justice League and the latter wasn't. (Not that Ross has said any of this in interviews or anything; I'm just assigning these sentiments to him, as he symbolically represents them).
I certainly understand why dissing Ross is therefore pretty commonplace among critics, fans and people with access to the Internet, but that doesn't mean I feel compelled to dis him too.
I like the fact that he likes Captain Marvel and Plastic Man, and considers them at least as important as all the other DC superheroes he considers icons and treats like saints in his work. I like the fact that he dresses up friends, relatives and whoever he can convince to wear a cape and lay on a coffee table in a flying pose to play dress-up for him (I would probably be able to bring myself to buy Greg Land comics if each issue of his work included photos of people dressed in X-Men costumes making silent movie actor-broad facial expressions). I like the fact that he knows enough about human anatomy to remember that men have genitals, and draws them under their pants. I think he's a pretty fantastic superhero costume designer (see Kingdom Come and Astro City for particularly good examples). And I even enjoyed some of his recent comics collaborations, like Avengers/Invaders and Justice (his JSoA arc, on the other hand, was pretty tedious, and I remain shocked at how boring the Ross spear-headed Project: Super Powers work has been).
But there's no denying he has his weaknesses as an artist, and the greatest of these seems to be a relative lack of imagination. He's been doing a great deal of cover work these last few years, much of it for DC super-comics, and a great deal of that work is, well, just plain boring.
If Ross' strengths are his nearly photo-realistic portrayal of characters, and the iconic aspects of them that he draws out from them by drawing them in certain poses, the power of those strengths erodes the more he paints the same subjects. This makes him a pretty rotten cover artist for an ongoing series, as he's been on Batman, Superman and Justice Society of America for a while now.
There's only so many different ways in which to paint Batman looking stately and slightly perturbed on a rooftop. Looking down at the reader, in profile, in the rain, from behind, holding a batarang, etc. I think this might have been one of his most dynamic and imaginative Batman covers,
and what's going on in it, exactly? A low-angle on Batman, here yelling instead of glowering, while some crazy lights fill the background? Considering what's actually going on inside the comic book—which, you may recall, involved Batman being shot up with drugs while his back-up personality, an alien Batman from a different world, took over his mind and made him dress in a homemade rainbow-colored costume while he took a baseball bat to his foes, while getting advice from Bat-Mite who was also half alien insect for some reason—well, it's pretty prosaic, isn't it?
I was thinking about how Ross is at once a great comic book cover artist (the painting makes books look important, and he's good at the single pin-up image that's in style these days) and what a miserable comic book cover artist he is (the images are almost always boring and infinitely less entertaining than whatever they're actually covering), when I saw the cover for the new printing of the History of the DC Universe trade, which collects a Marv Wolfman/George Perez effort from 1986. (I talked a bit about why re-publishing the book now seems a somewhat strange publishing decision in this week's 'Twas column at Blog@, if you're at all interested).
I haven't read it, as I wouldn't get interested in comics until I became a teenager almost a decade after it was published, but apparently it's a sort of definitive, here's-what's-in-and-what's-out story of the DC universe's entire fictional history during the post-Crisis years. Or, as the solicit says, it features "virtually every character in the DC Universe, this tale takes us from the dawn of creation to the end of recorded history."
Wow, that sounds like pretty exciting stuff, right? Every character ever? Every adventure ever, over the course of billions of years? What kind of cover image might Alex Ross come up with for that?
Seriously? That's the best he could think of? The history of the DC Universe can essentially be boiled down to the fact that Krypton exploded, Bruce Wayne saw his parents killed and was then dive-bombed by giant bats, Captain Marvel screamed in Egypt this one time and the trinity all have different good sides they like to be photographed from? Oh, and there was a blue space man with funny hair.
I mean murder, the destruction of a planet and creepy blue space men are pretty dramatic things, but they aren't terribly representative of billions of years worth of events involving gods, aliens, humans and superhumans; it's more like Superman's Tuesday lunch hour.
Here are the original covers for the series:
I'm not terribly excited by these covers, nor am I sure I understand why the images repeat with only some small alterations between issues as if it were an example of one of those can-you-spot-the-differences picture puzzles, but it at least gives some idea of the scope of the project. You know it involves superheroes and an evil god and cowboys and wars and Uncle Sam and gorillas.
Here's a cover to what I assume is one of the first collections, although I don't know who the artist is:
In some ways I think it is the weakest of the three, but, one advantage it has over the Ross version is that it's an active image—there's a character doing something on it—and it gives some sense of the scope. The red mess of characters might not be all that well chosen—does Vigilante really deserve such a prominent spot?—but again you see that the history involves a World War I flying ace and World War II sergeant, little blue space men and giant ghosts of god, Batman and Darkseid, Wonder Woman and hawkpeople.
I'll probably try to pick this up—despite the fact that I imagine most if not all of the information within is completely irrelevant—the next time I have an extra $13 to waste at the comic shop, but I wouldn't mind it having a less lame cover.
I wonder why DC hasn't done a new version of this series yet? I know they had Dan Jurgens draw one about the post-Infinite Crisis "New Universe" in the opening issues of 52, but 52 ended with another reboot, and then was followed by Darkseid-falling continuity hiccups/disorientations and another re-ordering of the multiverse and recration of the DC Universe in Final Crisis. When the dust has finally settled—after they've figured out where they're going with the Legion of Super-Heroes, the Multiverse and maybe this "Blackest Night" business, Paul Levitz, Dan DiDio, Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison should all sit down and figure out the definite past, present and future of the DCU, at least in the broadest of strokes and do a new series in this splash page-and-prose format.
Fans would appreciate it, it would be helpful to creators and editors, and, after hammering out what "counts" and what doesn't, it should be pretty easy to produce—just have Geoff Johns polish his notes from the meeting for the prose, and have Perez provide a bunch of new splash pages and Bam! comic book hit. I know DiDio has spoken in past interviews about not wanting to nail history down so much that it limits DC's abilities to tell stories but a) that's stupid, since it's not like there weren't a ton of great DC Comics between the years 1986 and 2005 (actually, come to think of it, aren't most of DC's very best efforts from those years?) and b) it can be down in general enough terms it doesn't limit the ability for future writers to tell good stories (For example, knowing whether Wonder Woman started her career five months after Superman started his or five years afterward, and whether she co-founded the Justice League or joined eight years later doesn't exactly take any stories off the table).
But be sure to get a better cover for that version, guys.