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"The way any of that could ever work is where it's visible your heart is true to the material," Ross says. "It works when you're not coming to it with a sense of irony or with a smirk on your face toward the material: 'Hey, ya know, I'm just knocking out this comic because they're paying me to do it.' I could have taken the first offer that came my way after Marvels. Marvel's offer to keep me back there was, 'Why don't you work with Stan Lee on something? You know, you guys could take one of those old stories and, you know, you could redo it. You like all that old shit, don't you? That's obviously why you did Marvels--because you're a big, old fucking fanboy or something.' They had such an incredibly limited vision for what was possible. But a lot of what's made me successful to a strong degree in this business is that it's obvious I'm a fiend for this stuff. I've been willing to say, look, this stuff is pure to me. It's important to me. Superman or any of these icons have intrinsic value other than the fact they're nostalgic for me. I think that they have a use to the world--period. They're not just stupid and shouldn't be ignored in the fashion that they normally are."
Ross is the closest thing the world of comics has to a superstar: You can't open a copy of The Comics Journal or Wizard or any other comics magazine without finding one or a dozen of his paintings. His art sells for thousands on the Internet (at both his Web site, www.alexrossart.com, and on eBay) and in Warner Bros. Studio Stores in a mall near you. Indeed, he has become his own franchise, hawking everything from Superman sketches to Justice League plates; in September, he will even open up shop on QVC. If the comics industry is indeed staggering toward its deathbed, losing its younger readers to the Internet and video games and its older readers to everything else, Alex Ross has at least provided it with a little mouth-to-mouth.
But, perhaps more important, Ross has become the industry's conscience--though he would just as soon insist he's nothing more than an arrogant, stubborn prick. He takes personally the treatment of these heroes of his childhood, which was spent traveling the country with his father, whom Alex describes as "a liberal minister" (his denomination was United Church of Christ), and mother, also a professional artist. (Ross was born in Portland, but spent many years in Lubbock and DeSoto, Texas, before finally settling in Chicago.) He's offended by Marvel Comics founder Stan Lee's new project, in which he will reinterpret DC's best-known heroes; he is galled by Frank Miller's decision to create a sequel to The Dark Knight Returns. To Ross, both projects smack of nothing more than cynicism, the lure of easy lucre.
"This is not the future, guys," he says. "This is a step backward. If I'm on the top of my game, and I've got as much money as I need at the moment, and I can just choose to do whatever the fuck I want, I'm not going to do anything that's not in my heart's passion. And I'm hoping to keep that the same for the majority of my career."
Ross has indeed resisted the temptation to churn out sequels to Marvels and Kingdom Come--even though DC did publish a dreadful title called The Kingdom without him, which actually featured characters who had been killed off in Kingdom Come. Ross was unhappy about having his vision distorted, but he couldn't help but smirk at the irony: Kingdom Come was intended as a critique not only of heroes, but also of the comic-book marketplace itself. When he began working on the project in 1994 and '95, Ross had become incensed at how publishers were glutting the marketplace with characters, hoping that one of them would stick long enough to pull the industry out of the pit in which it had buried itself. He saw a Superman stripped of his red-yellow-and-blue tights, a Batman with a broken back, a Green Lantern with an orange bowl cut, and was fed up. He wanted to do a comic book that cleaned up such a mess, only to find himself drowned in it.
"You can see how dumb I was, right?" Ross says, sort of chuckling. "It was the kind of thing where it was a really antagonistic situation in that sort of creative room between editor, artist, and myself being odd man out as cover artist. They're looking at me like, 'Well, what do you have to contribute?' Well, I fucking created the concept in the first place, you assholes! So, realizing I wasn't so much an essential component to the mix, I took myself out of the situation, and they didn't so much as blink. There was no phone call desperately trying to get me back into it. I did get a letter from the vice president of DC saying, 'Sorry it didn't work out.'"
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