The Soaring Superhero Art of Alex Ross

The acclaimed comic book artist chimes in on Spider-Man's new threads, his creative process, and the state of the comic book industry.

Alex Ross has been burning up the comic book cosmos for over two decades, redefining the way superheroes are portrayed and setting the artistic bar somewhere over the rainbow and beyond the stratosphere. In covering the comics scene it’s always a revelation to observe a superstar artist ascend to even greater heights of creative expression.

Ross entered the comics arena in 1994 with the iconic Marvels miniseries, and followed it up with DC’s Kingdom Come in 1996. His photo-realistic painterly style and dramatic, classical compositions were revolutionary at the time and operated in direct contrast to the bulging, mega-muscled crimefighters of the mid ’90s. Recently he’s been the main cover artist for Marvel’s All-New, All-Different Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man.  

Ross chatted with Den of Geek about keeping his game at such a high level, the state of convention madness, his new cover work with Marvel, and pondering the purity of the business as Hollywood comes a-courtin’. Enter the mind of the Midwestern man often cited as the “Norman Rockwell of Comics.”

DEN OF GEEK: These past few years you’ve been straddling a creative skyrocket and seem to be relishing the work. What keeps you dialed in?

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ALEX ROSS: I’m glad to know I’ve got you fooled. Seriously though, I’m always surprised by how many opportunities I get to create art based on properties I never imagined my life would intersect with. You can be a Beatles fan your whole life and never think that you’d be able to illustrate them for the world to see. So many things from TV shows I loved as a kid to my favorite obscure comics and toys have seemed to be things I get to work on. That keeps me excited.

The comic convention scene is suffering inevitable growing pains and consolidation after a monumental expansion period. Do you see this as a healthy necessity or an indication of a slip in fan interest?

Speaking as someone who almost never goes to conventions, I’m not sure if my insight is worth much. What I can tell you is that I never thought the value of reading comics or following pop culture was necessarily intertwined with needing to go to a large public gathering to keep those passions alive. It can be a wonderful experience to go, but when it had become the major force driving the industry of comics or how everybody makes a living, it seems like a bummer.

Can you describe your timetable and process for completing a new commissioned piece?

I might have finished sketching out a design for said cover while you drank that mocha, but that’s about it. Working out designs for covers I do every month usually are all done at the same time, where I keep the raw pencil rough thinking process to a day or two in my schedule for three to four covers. Once layouts are approved by whomever they’re for, I take photo reference for all of the separate compositions at once. Sometimes other models than myself pose for me, sometimes it’s statues and action figures I use, all lit clumsily in my basement.

The drawing is done by blowing up my initial tight sketch to trace over with a light table. The guidance of the photos often helps while I’m initially transposing my original drawing. I look at the pictures’ various details and select what I’d like to alter my drawing to reflect, hoping to create a more realistic, grounded image. That process takes likely half a workday of two to four hours, depending on complexity.

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The painted stage starts after I tape the art paper down to a board to keep it from warping. The process I used to do, of painting everything in black-and-white tones before adding color, has switched up to go with whatever overwhelming colors I expect to have being laid in first, and more rendering occurs in layers. All of the main painting is done in watercolor/gouache paint where the white of the paper is seen through translucent layers. The image can become more opaque depending on how well I think it’s looking, smooth or appealing, to my eyes.  

The final painted layer is often an amount of airbrush added to create glow effects, a harmonizing, unifying color, or whole backgrounds. Painting time can range anywhere from four to eight hours, with more time needed, usually because of extra figures and more elaborate backgrounds. All together the “prolific” process is within a range of one to two days of work for each cover.

You seem to be experimenting with a flourish of color palettes I haven’t often seen in your portfolio, like the cosmic, psychedelic tints on the recent Avengers #10 and Amazing Spider-Man #11. What’s your thought process behind these covers?

I was looking at images of space nebulae and reflected those colors affecting those figures. I experimented with a lot of other bizarre color effects over my series of covers for the Kirby: Genesis series and countless other things I did for Dynamite. Those space nebulae cover tricks are nothing new for me, since I’ve used the effect for 20 years now. In putting down a frisket film over the whole painting and cutting around each figure, I create a mask over everything I don’t want paint on. Then I can airbrush over the white paper with whatever color I choose, creating a nebula shape by holding down a group of tassels, like what’s on a fez, that gives me some chaotic organic swirls that the airbrush sprays around. There’s a painting I did for the Warner Bros. Studio Stores of Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes that I did almost 20 years ago where I began playing with this.

How would you sum up the state of the comic book industry and its role in serving as an eternal wellspring of material for Hollywood film and television projects? Is it a blessing or a bane?

It can be both at the same time. What I look forward to is a day where the comics have some sense of their own dignity as just works existing in this art form mainly, where every project’s self-worth is not determined by how well it is adapted into another medium. The comic book companies will not have that as their foremost concern. It has to come down to the people making the stuff where they eventually get tired of Hollywood’s view of our work outranking our own. Movie and TV adaptation can be a wonderful part of how this entertainment engages people, but it shouldn’t be considered the end goal.

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You have an interlocking 5-cover poster for Marvel’s All-New, All-Different Avengers and Avengers Annual #1 that’s being released as a poster this summer. How did that composition come about?

Marvel had three covers; they requested me to focus on three solo Avengers members, similar to ones I did for the JSA series at DC. I proposed two additional covers that could cram in the rest of the team and make one big group image people could assemble or get a print of.

You have a deep affection for the Sub-Mariner and dreams of someday seeing him on the big screen. With rumors that the rights to Namor might return to Marvel Studios always surfacing, what’s your recipe for a sensational Sub-Mariner flick?

In an ideal world, you would put Zack Snyder’s Justice League on hold and steal Jason Momoa from his Aquaman casting and use him for the character her more naturally fits physically of Namor, with his dark hair, propensity for shirtlessness, and his already arched eyebrows.

You described yourself as a “colossal pain in the ass” when it comes to drawing costumes you don’t like. You’ve spent considerable effort contributing to the surge of fresh threads for Marvel, with your new costume for Spider-Man last year and design for the new Wasp. What other Marvel characters are you dying to visually revamp?

Honestly, I don’t want to revamp anyone, except to bring everybody back to what they most classically look like. If you take note of my Spider-Man design, I’m just doing a light revision in the vein of emulating my hero, John Romita, Sr. My added gimmicks of glowing spiders and metallic finish can be and are often ignored by other artists, but the look I was hoping to impart, of John’s influence, seems to be picked up on.

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As a lifelong fan, I simply want to work with the characters I grew up with, not their replacements. New costumes and conceptual takes are things I got a chance to play with in books like “Kingdom Come” and “Earth X,” and it wasn’t my intention to see everyone changed forever. Stuff will always revert to its original state in comics, and I generally prefer to spend my time working in that space.

Besides your work on Marvel’s All-New, All-Different Avengers and Amazing Spider-Man, what other projects are you excited about in the last half of 2016 and launching into 2017?

The Universal Monsters are properties I’ve worked with recently as print illustrations and should be coming out by the Halloween season. Maybe if the skies part and peace prevails I can do a run of covers for the Fantastic Four’s return someday. No fixes needed.

A version of this story appears in Den of Geek’s San Diego Comic-Con special edition print magazine. You can read the full digital edition here: