Comic Book Day: Lurking in the Shadows with Alex Ross
By Dan Casey on April 18, 2012
The Shadow is, perhaps, the archetypal superhero, a mold from which all other costumed crusaders were wrought. Before there was Batman, before there was Superman, before there was Alec Baldwin in that campy mess of a 1994 film, there was the Shadow. Created as a mysterious narrator for Street and Smith Publications radio progam Detective Story Hour, the Shadow made his debut on July 31, 1930. He quickly became a pop culture icon and found new life in radio dramas, pulp comics and a series of films.
Now, after years of lurking in his namesake, Dynamite Entertainment is bringing the mysterious crimefighter back to comics with an all-new series written by Garth Ennis and featuring art by Aaron Campbell. To make its first issue an even more momentous occasion, painter extraordinaire Alex Ross provided his considerable talents to its cover, then sat down with us to talk about his process, his artistic style and why he’s so smitten with the Golden Age. That’s not all – our pals over at Nerdist News are giving away a perfectly pulpy The Shadow prize pack, so be sure to click through.
Nerdist: Your work has been praised for its ultra-realistic style. You manage to evoke the uncanny nature of seeing a costumed crimefighter while retaining their larger-than-life grandeur. What drew you to interpreting superheroes in this manner?
Alex Ross: Seeing superheroes realistically is what fans have always wanted and something that I desired growing up. My first interaction with superheroes was with live-action actors in costume. From the guy dressed as Spider-Man on The Electric Company to the live-action version of Captain Marvel on the Shazam! show, it was always in my mind that these things be interpreted as real as possible.
N: What drew you to painting as a medium? Was it always your plan to use your talent for comic books?
AR: It became clear when I was in high school that painted comics were a thing unto themselves; that should I get a chance to do comics, I’d want to stand out on what I perceived was the cutting edge of the art form, elaborating as realistically and fully as possible. I just simply saw painted comics as giving people more.
N: Recently, you’ve been primarily doing covers for Dynamite. Can you speak to the process of creating a cover from concept to completion? How long does it take?
AR: Usually I have a gut impulse of what kind of graphic I’d like to create using the given character. For most properties, I have some kind of personal identification with them and gut feeling of what I’d like to see done. Like with recent covers I did for the Voltron series, you know going in that the giant robot is made up of five individual robots that are shaped like lions. It’s a simple enough goal to pursue illustrating that separation and presentation of the individual forms, so right away there I have a concept for a given cover. A good part of the time, of course, I’m drive by the demands of the story and what things need to be represented of the plot. The initial sketch can take as little as an hour or significantly longer, depending on how quick I can find the right idea. Once the sketch is approved, I copy the initial sketch larger to then trace off to my art board, where I’m then incorporating some bit of photo reference. Usually I want to look at something three-dimensional for the shadows or other physical details it might guide me to consider. Anything from studying life to toy objects as reference is used. That process takes usually half of to a whole working day, and then the painting is quick based upon the complexity of how much detail is in the drawing.
N: You’ll be tackling a comics legend with The Shadow. Were you a longtime fan of the property? How do you approach rendering a classic character like this?
AR: I’ve been wanting to see the Shadow back in comics for some time now, and I thought it might be special in my career to finally be painting the first costumed hero who inspired most everybody who exists today. There is obviously a history of painted illustration with the pulp covers of The Shadow, and I thought that it might be a nice fit for my own history. The key thing I wanted to preserve and bring back into focus was the original look to the Shadow as designed by the artist George Rosen. As luck would have it, I have a perfect physical model for the character, and I’ve done additional research to match my depiction up with the original as best I can. The Shadow’s look is such a striking one that I see no need for updating him but simply returning him to the forefront of illustration.
N: Between projects like the classic Marvels, The Shadow, and Project Superpowers, you seem to be continually drawn to these Golden Age heroes. What is it about them that intrigues you and excites you artistically?
AR: I’m always impressed by the idea of what came first. The genesis of a concept often seems more intriguing than its umpteenth variation. Looking back at the original concepts of pulp characters and superheroes is a little bit like doing an archaeological dig. There’s often something so pure in those original characters, particularly because they’re largely devoid of the cynicism of our modern tastes.
N: As a painter, you’re something of a niche within the field of comic book artists. Who are some of your other favorite painters and comic book artists working today?
AR: Adi Granov, for one, is one the most fantastic artists advancing the form of painted comics. Daniel Acuna and Paolo Rivera are two of my absolute favorite artists. There are a lot of extremely talented people working in the field currently.
N: When you do original character designs like those from Astro City, they manage to feel fresh while making us feel like we’ve been reading about them for years even though we’ve just met them. What do you feel makes an original character design work? Do you think the aesthetic of your work helps contribute to that feeling of familiarity?
AR: First, thank you for such a nice compliment. At best I think that the designs I’ve done with Kurt Busiek are very much steeped in comic book and fantasy graphic history. Parts of characters’ looks go back to the earliest inspirations for superhero costumes, like Flash Gordon, which influenced nearly all of the first superheroes in comics.
N: With projects like Kirby: Genesis, you’ve stepped away from principal artistic duties to handle things like layouts and even plotting out the story with longtime collaborator Kurt Busiek. How do you like wearing those different hats? Will we be seeing anything entirely written by Alex Ross in the future?
AR: That’s what I’m shooting for. My greatest dream would be to completely devote myself to one narrative that I write and draw.
N: Apart from The Shadow, are there any other projects coming up this year about which you’re excited that you can share with us?
AR: I can’t say too much yet, but I will be working with what I consider to be some of the most popular properties in the world – properties I’ve never worked with before.
N: One last question: you must be buried in comics – what titles are you currently reading and enjoying?
AR: I’m a lot like most people, where I keep track of the goings-on in the various Avengers books. Much like when I was a kid, I like to read the central books from the companies that feature the most and the biggest characters together so I feel like I have a sense of the big picture in their worlds.
That’s not all, folks! Check out some exclusive concept art Alex did for The Shadow:
The Shadow #1 is on sale today at retailers nationwide from Dynamite Entertainment. For more information, visit their website. To win an autographed copy and more, be sure to click through to our contest page.