Interview with Alex Ross

Alex Ross, renowned for his extraordinary painted artwork on Marvels and the covers of Kurt Busiek's Astro City, has just finished Kingdom Come (see this month's cover), a monumental new Elseworlds mini-series from DC. In a conversation with Westfield Creative Director Bennett Neuhauser, Alex talked about everything he put into completing Kingdom Come, what it was like to work with series writer Mark Waid, and what he hopes comics fans will come away with when they read it.

Westfield:Although you've worked extensively on covers and character designs for Kurt Busiek's Astro City in the interim, would you agree that Kingdom Come is your most ambitious undertaking since Marvels?

Alex Ross: [laughs] That kind of goes without saying. Astro City isn't done in the interim so much. I've been working on Kingdom Come consistently as my monthly work load, gee, I think since September of '94. This is a project that takes up to a year and a half to complete, pretty much the exact same thing as Marvels, so it was only during that time that I made the room for Kurt. And the sketches and whatnot, and a lot of that caught me off-guard, because it was another thing I had to fit into the monthly workload. But, pretty much I've been exclusively working on this project, because it is so cumbersome.

Westfield: Approximately how long does it take you to do a single panel of art?

Ross: That's really hard to judge. The best way to judge it all is to say that I do 10 pages a month, give or take [a page]. When I had to fit in Kurt's cover, that was 10 pages plus cover. I generally take everything in increments of pencils first, then a certain stage of painting in black & white, and then a last stage of painting in color. All these things go by, say, two weeks for the first step, two weeks for the second step, five days for the last step, that kind of thing.

That brings me to another question. Do you have any projects in the works that you plan to do in traditional pencils and inks only?

Ross: No, not really. I don't even see the use for that in my career, because it would reduce the unique appeal of my work. It's my market in a sense. If it is hard for people to produce this kind of work and I have an easy time of doing it, I should damn well stay doing it [laughter]. I don't see where I'm going to enjoy much having an inker going over my work at any stage in the future. For all the pencilers I know who find their careers to be nightmares because of the awful inkers that exist within our industry or just the fact that no two brains exactly match up and you're never going to be completely satisfied, because it's not entirely your hands constructing that, and then you've got a colorist on top of that, and as much as I might like to try it out as an experiment - and you might see me do that in the next couple of years - I wouldn't want to linger on that.

Westfield: Getting back to Kingdom Come, how will it differ from Marvels?

Ross: It's different in the sense that it takes that step closer to the superheroes personally and behind the scenes. The interesting thing about Marvels is the fact that they really weren't focused upon in an intimate light and you saw them from a more distant perspective, which was really more intriguing than if we had just had a big painted book about superheroes and their daily living. Now we're taking that step closer, but we're still taking it from a human observer's perspective. So, you're not necessarily stepping into the thoughts of characters, but you're getting to see the DC characters in a much closer fashion. You get to see a lot of intimate experiences.

Westfield: What should fans expect in terms of the reexamination of the classic DC characters that's involved?

Ross: One, I'm hoping they will be surprised in some cases. Everything that I'm doing is based on inspiration from the past. Like, Superman has a strong resemblance to the original, the one from 1940. Then there are other things that are like, because I've gotten a chance to age characters, I've been able to add little things that as a young fanboy I wanted to see come to life with a certain character. Like say, such and such had a kid and that kid turned out to be like this, or such and such wound up being paired up with this other character. I was able to realize all kinds of fantasy elements like that. If I didn't want the whole thing of characters aging to constrain me where I was going to end up having all these old people in costumes, I would just say either they've changed physically, which happened in many cases here, or they've completely handed off the role to younger person, maybe a son or daughter. So, you don't look at this series as a bunch of old guys. [laughter] In fact, it is only a handful of the main superheroes who do really reflect the age. The time that's passed is about 20 or so years.

Westfield: So you've really had to create and invent new characters, is that right?

Ross: Oh yeah, I've had to create hundreds of characters for this as more or less background filler, and every single classic DC character has been altered to some degree. It's all been skewed through my personal vision. In fact, probably the least altered by all of this is Wonder Woman, because, physically, we present her as immortal, that she doesn't age. I only did slight stylistic changes to, I think, her skirt, maybe a couple of other things. But then again, what Mark has done with her character is the real expansion of that, and the turnaround, so in a way he's done the greater expanding upon her than I've done upon her visually.

Westfield: How much of the overall concept of Kingdom Come was yours and how much was Mark's, and how did you interact to put your two approaches together?

Ross: I had written about 40 pages of material before I met Mark and I wrote it in the midsummer of '93 when I was still working on Marvels. At that point I was still looking for a writer and looking to get this all geared up for DC. So I had done a very exhaustive layout of a beginning, an end, and a number of interesting things happening in the middle, but not necessarily the real concrete things that were needed to make it make sense, to get from point A to Z. But after all my copious notes on this stuff, I generally didn't find that this stuff was thrown out in the final draft of what Mark's brought to it. Mark had to sit down to re-think it to say, "what is the substance of what we're trying to say here and what is really making the story go?" So he brought the depth and the personal characterization to our main cast that wasn't necessarily quite there. I had some characters who were more or less just wallpaper. Like, a good example is Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman was highly placed in my original storyline, but I really didn't do anything as interesting with her as I could, and that's why I needed that other spark to come in there. And Mark gave that to her and everybody else.

But, basically, I had a lot of the framing stuff, the general premise of the main narrator I came in with. That was, in fact, the inspiration for the whole project, because it was based upon my dad. I wanted to do a series where the human narrator was a model who was this person close to me here. And, well, he was a lot easier to get a hold of. [laughs] But, there's a lot more depth for me personally in it by doing this. It also helped that I had a lot of people just sort of waiting on standby that I was dying to use [to pose] as DC superheroes, namely the main fellow who posed for Superman. He was someone used exhaustively in Marvels, but I never felt I got a lot of play out of him till now.

Westfield: Who did he pose for in Marvels?

Ross: Oh, Giant Man, The Human Torch, Captain America, Thor, you name it.

Westfield: Describing your working relationship with Mark Waid, how is it similar to and/or different than your relationship with Kurt Busiek on Marvels?

Ross: Well, with Kurt I had come up with only a real general concept initially that I approached him with back in '91. He had to, for the sake of getting our proposal through, reorganize it in such a way where it was no longer a bunch of thinly strung together anthology stories. It really became something that Kurt had crafted, with various points that paid attention to little visual things, little story points I would like to touch upon, but it definitely took away any claim that I could have that I originated the story. So, really, Kurt deserves the brunt of the credit in Marvels for anything great that the plot had done. The most I could say is what I gave to him superficially began with the origin of the Human Torch and ended with a story based around the death of Gwen Stacey, but examining it closely it really wasn't quite there. It could have been something else, because I did have some ideas. What I came to with Mark on Kingdom Come was trying to set up myself so that I was giving a lot to the initial plot. And when I was working with Mark on each script, he didn't just sit down and knock out the entire series - well, since he's the hardest working man in comics [laughs], he had to fit it in between issues of X-Men and everything else that's being published - but, he would come back to me and we would talk extensively about a certain issue before he had written it and I would give him a lot of critique afterward, notes of things I'd think he'd missed. It really was a pretty even handed working process. He allowed me about as wide a berth for putting in ideas as I could have wanted, but in no way do I want to short-change him for how much he put into it. Because, really, when the writer sits down with it and has to think out the depth of the characterization that's going on, he's really adding the soul to it. I think the greatest thing that Mark has brought to Kingdom Come is the depth.

Westfield: What about the theme of Kingdom Come? In light of the title, as well as the storyline, which, from what we gather, casts Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and another key DC character as the four horsemen of an Elseworlds apocalypse ...

Ross: Oh, I never even thought of it that way. Jesus, that's pretty good. [laughter] I never thought about it that way at all. They're the four horsemen of the apocalypse? That's pretty cool. [laughter]

Westfield: Well, that's interesting, because we got that description from DC promotional literature, so you may want to check to them. [laughter]

Ross: Really? Hmmm, that's kind of cool. I'm just trying to think now, well, who's Death, who's Famine? 'cause I can't tell. [laughter]

Westfield: Well, anyway, the idea I wanted to get at is that you are grappling with themes that are literally Biblical in proportion. Why did you decide to put that spin on the story?

Ross: That really, again, is a major instigation of Mark. Because I had pressed for the main character, the human character to be ... well I wanted to use my father and then I thought what could he be if he's this person interacting with superheroes in the story and I pretty much had the plot in mind, or a rough idea ... and then it came to me the idea of him being just what he was, which is a minister. So I kind of impressed it upon the plot that he be this minister giving a sort of moral, judgmental ... well, no that's not it ... just maybe a more humanistic insight into events at hand, and he's lending his personal perspective to another character. That's how he gets drafted into the story, literally. But this was something that was hard for Mark to resolve, because, as my editor put it many times, the story works very well without this guy. For Mark, the burst of inspiration came when he thought, "we have this apocalypse story, we have all these things coming to a head, why doesn't it possibly relate to, say, the Book of Revelations?" So he tied in this whole aspect of the Book of Revelations. There were these visions of imagery that seemed to be related to the Book of Revelations, to certain moments within those books that were being fulfilled by visual imagery. The imagery isn't necessarily even definitely indicative of superheroes, but it's being interpreted as such, that these superheroes are fulfilling this imagery.

Westfield: So the Book of Revelations gave you a framework for interpretation of the imagery?

Ross: Well, I think the reality of it is that Mark just pulled some stuff out of there that seemed cool. [laughter] But as far as us relating the entire thing, or fulfilling the entire Book of Revelations, that's a long damn book, and so at the most we're toying with it, but I think we toy with it in a very creepy, interesting way. I think most everybody has a feeling about those books. Whether you pay much mind to them at all, it's kind of a creepy thing to have this Nostradamus[-like] vision of how a great cataclysm will come. So this was the bouncing off point for Mark where everything finally made sense. The fact that the main character was a minister and how you see much more in this series how the DC characters stand up like gods. I guess that was done in Marvels, too, where they did come across in a god-like manner, but it just seems to come all the easier with the DC characters that they have this god-like status.

Westfield: Speaking of Marvels, comparisons of Kingdom Come and Marvels are probably inevitable. How are you coping with the excitement about the release of Kingdom Come and the expectations that come with it?

Ross: [laughs] I don't see that there's anything to cope with. I think Mark might, because - I shouldn't speak for him here, but - as great as his comic work is on all of his regular comic titles, all 50 of them, he's probably looking at being more analyzed than ever before once this thing comes out, because they'll be comparing his work to Marvels and he didn't write Marvels. I'm not worried about being compared to Marvels because I did it and I've gone beyond Marvels. The artwork is just better.

There's a certain thing that Marvels did we can't do in here, in that Marvels introduced pretty much anyone to the concept of what it's like to believe a superhero coexistence with man as fact. We presented the illusion fairly well and here we kind of have to jump back into that illusion without giving you a perfect build-up for it. We do a little bit of it, but were limited in how much time we can spend on that, because certainly Marvels was pretty much devoted to that idea. It's like in every movie that relates to a superhero they have to go through a period of making you buy the fantasy and here to a certain degree we have to assume that you're ready to accept the fantasy. But, also, we're not expecting everybody to have a lot of knowledge of previous continuity. We're trying to work off of the absolute minimum of recognition that the average person could have for DC characters. And even as you see these hundreds of different characters in here, they're not the main role players where you're going to need to know, "why is Hour Man still young?" Or, "what happened to Dr. Fate?" You don't have to know these things. They'll be intriguing for the fans like myself who have known these characters, but they're not important story points.

Westfield: So a person who's a new reader or a "fringe" reader could pick up Kingdom Come and enjoy it just as much as the devoted DC fan?

Alex Ross: Well I remember one of the nicest comments I could hear from fans regarding Marvels was - and this is something I always like to shoot for - is they would say to me, "My girlfriend will never read any of my comics, because she doesn't care for any of them, but she sat down and read this." Or, they would pass it over to, say, a parent and the parent would read it and be able to understand it. That's something that should be a goal for really anyone and the fact that we hit upon that, in certain cases, in Marvels really made me hunger to have that again. That's the greatest pressure for me, thinking, like, "well, did we do it?" Because there's certain things where people might think we didn't match up, but if we didn't accomplish that, well .. that's gonna be a bummer. [laughs] But I think that this story will draw the reader in more because you're more intimate with the superheroes and there is a stronger sense of melodrama and urgency and it's a lot more fierce. The storyline's a lot more exciting. The fact is what we have over Marvels is it's not about just some guy who watches a bunch of stuff happen every fifth page. [laughter] Kingdom Come has superheroes practically on every page and you get an intimate feeling of the power of each and every one of these characters ... well, maybe not each and every one, but you get the idea. [laughs] Kingdom Come is also quite a bit different in the fact that Marvels had already happened in terms of the history we were covering. None of this stuff [in Kingdom Come] has happened and the illusion that this could be a possible future for DC is a nice thing to play off of, too. But, of course, we all know it's not gonna be. [laughter] But I mean that would be nice. DC could play into that if they wanted to. They could introduce characters into the regular continuity that appeared for the first time in this series and they could sprinkle a little bit of the aesthetics that I gave to certain characters into their comic books now. But I doubt if any of that would happen. I think, more likely, there would be one person who saw something in here that they liked or agreed with what they wanted to do anyway and they may incorporate some of it, but I don't see DC making use of this whole future, beyond the point of the series, as their future.

Westfield: You mentioned there are hundreds of characters in Kingdom Come. We understand there will be appearances by plenty of characters DC fans will recognize, but maybe haven't seen in a while. Is that true and are there any characters you put in just because you always wanted to do that character?

Ross: Oh, yeah! Oh, God yes! God yes! [laughter] Yeah! I mean, the nicest thing about this 20-years-in-the-future plot is that it opens you up to anything. If I didn't want to do a current character's costume, it was gone. And if I didn't want to do a certain character because they annoyed me, we can assume they're gone. You know, they don't necessarily have to be dead, but who's to say that all these people would do this for the rest of their lives. I also hope that people don't get the impression that all of these higher echelon characters would just remain doing this all their lives. I hope people absorb the fact that there are obvious costume changes and possibly man-power changes amongst the ranks, like the Hour Man mantle being passed down again or the fact certain characters don't look like they could be the same human being or the same physical creatures. Like, both Dr. Fate and Dr. Midnight, and the Red Tornado, all look physically transformed.

Westfield: So people should be ready for just about anything to happen.

Ross: Yeah. You'll see me stick in goofy little character bits, like, you can even look for the Wonder Twins at a certain point or Marvin from the original Super Friends show. I was throwing in anything that I might have seen as a kid. Stuff that was really archaic I was re-inventing, putting a little bit of a superficial gloss on top of it, so that it might be a little bit less recognizable to you. Just about everything would be interpreted to a certain degree and some of it would be interpreted to a funny degree. Like when we present Lobo in the story, he's a big, fat slob. [laughter]

There's stuff like that, but more often than not, the character presentations are as lovingly done as they can be. I'm a big one for respecting what an initial creator may have done. That's why Superman will reflect more of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, to me, than of the last 50 years. And with most everybody, I like to go back thematically and incorporate a lot of elements the original artist had done or creators had thought for this character.

Westfield: Having discussed some of the older characters, what about the new generation of characters, like Magog, Nightstar, Cathedral and others, that you created for Kingdom Come? How do they diverge from the traditional?

Ross: They're really more just a reflection of today. They are more present just by physically being there. Only one of those characters has an important, motivating role in the series. In a lot of those cases I was doing up designs that would reflect the change in styles and maybe, in some ways, parody some of the styles of today.

Westfield: What insights or feelings would you like fans to come away with once they've read Kingdom Come?

Ross: In some ways I hope that they come out seeing a storyline and the possibilities for storylines where there are more schloris of gray, not just black and white, because that's what life's really like. We called upon that complexity to show how things can go horribly wrong. [laughter] I also hope that people come away with a greater appreciation for the more classic characters, the characters the molds were formed from, Superman being the most important of those. The main guys we focus upon, their concepts and the work done under those characters is what's affected everything since in superheroes. Everything is somewhat of a deviation from that original template.

Westfield: Would you say you're dealing with getting back to what it means to be a hero?

Ross: Oh yeah, that's in there. There's a much better way to answer this question, which would be to say how we hope they come out of here realizing what superheroes really should be, in a sense - what they were before, and what we've lost. I would criticize modern superheroes as being little more than gangs fighting gangs. When they're removed into their own environments that are all these techno-babble, Kirby-derived playgrounds and you've got characters upon characters and not one person looks like they live in the real world, after a while it feels like another planet. Except, this is supposed to be what we're finding ourselves drawn into and it just becomes too removed from a sense of reality. I feel like that reality, if you have it side by side with the fantasy of the superheroes, makes the superheroes stronger.

Westfield: It's the contrast between real life and the life they lead, in other words, that is the source of what's interesting about them.

Ross: Yeah, because ultimately, as far as I'm concerned, once you remove them to their own environment, where it's just a land of superheroes, then it's literally become as boring as real life [laughter]. So you need to keep up the contrast between the two and Kingdom Come is somewhat pointing out things like that. I wish I could explain it better. I think Mark does a better job of it, because he's better with dem words [laughter].