Revenge of The Fanboy

Alex Ross, painter of supermen and superwomen, makes it easy to believe in heroes

There exists deep within any man who once read comic books and collected them--protected them, actually, with plastic sleeves and cardboard backs and boxes that fought off the yellowing of time--the mythical being known as The Fanboy. A long time ago, The Fanboy pored over every issue of World's Finest and Brave and the Bold, argued with friends about who was the better Green Lantern (Alan Scott? Dude, Hal Jordan), and thought Power Girl's uniform (white, with a hole cut out to reveal ample cleavage) was just about the best thing ever. The Fanboy bought DC and Marvel comics, but his loyalties resided more heavily with one or the other: Superman or Spider-Man, choose sides. The Fanboy drank from Green Arrow glasses and ate from Plastic-Man plates with Flash forks and Superman spoons. The Fanboy dressed up as Batman on Halloween and formed his own Justice League of America with the other kids in the neighborhood, none of whom ever wanted to be Wonder Woman--since, ya know, there were no girls.

The Fanboy might have sold off his comics collection, gone to college, gotten a respectable job and a respectable house with a respectable wife and their respectable kids, but he never quite disappears beneath the artifice of so-called normalcy. The Fanboy forever lingers. He may hide and hold his breath, but he's just dying to get out. The Fanboy, the grown-up who can no longer tell where nostalgia ends and necessity begins, waits only for the signal: The coast is clear. Your heroes have not abandoned you.

In 1994, The Fanboy was awakened from his reverie by an astonishing comic book--though, to call it a "comic" somehow diminishes its value. Marvels was far more than just one more issue of disposable pulp fiction to be read and tossed aside; seriously, it cost six bucks an issue. Told from the point of view of a photographer named Phil Sheldon, Marvels featured the entire cavalcade of stars from the Marvel universe: the Sub-Mariner, Captain America, Thor, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and on and on. All of them appeared in familiar settings: Captain America fighting the Nazis, the FF and Silver Surfer battling Galactus, Spider-Man trying to save Gwen Stacy from the Green Goblin.

The two sides of Alex Ross: Kingdom Come's Superman and Earth X's Captain America, painted for Wizard magazine
The two sides of Alex Ross: Kingdom Come's Superman and Earth X's Captain America, painted for Wizard magazine
A scene from Batman: War on Crime
A scene from Batman: War on Crime

But these two-dimensional characters seemed somehow more real this time around: They no longer existed as flat, lifeless drawings that spoke in balloons, but as flesh-and-blood creatures who literally walked among us, inspiring both awe and fear. Their uniforms wrinkled; their eyes glistened; their skin shone. As seen through Phil Sheldon's camera lens, these heroes were--for really the first time--larger than life. They were no longer trapped on a dull page; they radiated.

Just like that, Alex Ross--who was then just a kid in his 20s drawing and painting and bringing to life his childhood heroes--reinvented the comic book, or so it appeared at the time. He and collaborator Kurt Busiek, who wrote Marvels using Ross' original concept, had created a comic book that read like a novel and looked like a movie (not even Frank Miller's masterpiece The Dark Knight Returns, featuring Batman as hoary bad-ass, accomplished such a feat). Ross also rescued the comics business, for a moment: His Marvels sold in the hundreds of thousands, despite the high price tag. The four issues sold out, and the hardback and paperback collections continue to move out of comic shops and bookstores.

Marvels made Ross a star in the comic business: No longer would he have to illustrate Terminator and Hellraiser books, which is where he got his start at the beginning of the 1990s. He could, for the most part, call his own shots. As he was finishing Marvels, he conceived a story involving Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and every other DC Comics icon past and present. Only, where Marvels was about the birth of heroes, 1996's Kingdom Come would be about the death of them. In that series, set 20 years in the future, a bearded Superman is retired to the farm, a broken Batman is buried in the Batcave, Captain Marvel has lost his marbles, and the world has been torn apart by a new generation of violent superheroes with no one to fight but themselves.

The 30-year-old Ross has, in a decade of illustrating and inventing comics, reawakened The Fanboy within. He has given those of us who had long ago lost interest in comics a reason to return to the comic shops: He managed to commingle the lowbrow with the highbrow, bestowing upon the medium a touch of class it never really had. Comics may have always been pop art, but the way Ross painted Superman made you think it possible for a superhero to breathe, blink, be. His comics should hang in a museum.

But Ross hasn't merely reinvented the heroes of his childhood; he is paying them earnest tribute. In Marvels, he didn't place the X-Men between quotation marks. In Kingdom Come, he didn't kill off Green Arrow and myriad other heroes for kicks. He treated those characters with respect; he gave them dignity. He made them recognizable, even a little human: Ross has often painted Bruce Wayne with dozens of thick scars splayed across his back. For him, superheroes aren't the stuff of fantasy and fiction. They are, when stripped of the medium's silly conventions, righteous do-gooders. To Ross, superheroes are who we should be, but rarely are.

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