by Alec Berry and Chad Nevett
Heads up: Chad and I started writing this back in August, and we never completed it. It was to mark the next installment of our conversation series Direct Message, but due to delays, a hiatus and a dislike for what was written (mainly, on my part), we decided to never finish it. We're planning to get back to DM soon, though, so we've chosen to just release what we did complete of our Kingdom Come/Marvels discussion. Be warned, I'm not exactly thrilled with what's written here. Chad's well-spoken, but I relied too much on anger and less on logic to make my argument of Alex Ross's incompetence. I mean what I wrote here, but it's bad criticism.
Anyway, read it for whatever value there may be and stay tuned. Chad and I will soon write about The Manhattan Projects by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra right here on this blog.
Alec Berry: At
this point, Alex Ross cannot be considered anything more than another
guy with an obsession to chase, and even though most art rides high on
the energies of obsession, Ross’s own seem to rather contradict the
subjects he chooses to illustrate. Through his particular style and
attitude, Ross feeds on the thought of legitimization more than any
other comics creator I can name, and it’s his quest to somehow excuse
and justify his profession to that multitude of outside, teeming masses
that puts him over the top, way above any example of an autobiographical
graphic novel you can present. Because even then, those OGNs still tend
to stray from the lockjaw poses.
all know his particular visual style: the wrinkles in the spandex, the
paint, the rendered figures, and yes, the statue-esque, wannabee-iconic
stances he forces upon any human-like figure he lays a pencil to. Those
images, without really any of our consent, still drift about our
recollections, reminding us of those years when we all tried just a tad
too hard to stand up and shout, “hey, comic books aren’t for kids
anymore!”, even when Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns apparently
already placed the medium in the running, swaying popular opinion just
somewhat. Ross still wanted to walk those few extra steps, though, just
to make sure he completely clean cut the head off that corpse of a
horse. Little did we know he’d also penetrate a certain hole. A
corpse-y, dead, horse hole.
No two books exemplify this more than Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Ross and Kingdom Come by
Mark Waid and Ross. Whether or not he’d like the works compared,
slammed together like siamese twins, you can’t entirely separate them.
Sure, you can try. To a degree, each work stands independent due to its
own designed narrative, but to see the greater picture - Ross’s ultimate
debate - the books must share the same room, because thematically, Marvels and Kingdom Come work
together to deliver Ross’s thesis: that the past, or traditional
practices, trump all modern concerns. At least, that is, with super
heroes, yet where else could a debate of regression versus progression
fit so right at home?
this thesis, paired with Ross’s photo realism obsession, that
ultimately creates this overall contradiction. How can you celebrate
tradition when your presentation is so much about dissing it? But
goddamn it, he tries. He fucking tries, creating this grand Ross-ian
attitude that I can only sum up as: a self-absorbed, pretentious for no
reason, fan. And through his trial to prove his profession worthy of
those moms and grandpas out there who are so “interested” in what he has
to do, Ross undermines what makes a comic book function, just so those
panels might hang on a wall somewhere.
not exactly sure whether I’m getting it across to you or not, but I
really do not like Alex Ross, yet apparently that might be the minority
opinion? I can’t exactly speak for the accepted understanding present at
the moment, but it’s always been made clear that initially, even up
until such books as Justice or the Justice Society of America arc, Thy Kingdom Come, Alex Ross was a commodity and public favorite. I never really got it.
Well, I mean, I get it, but …
The first time I ever read Kingdom Come it
was handed to me by a high school creative writing teacher. My teacher.
Between the fits and spots of random discourse, he made a point to sum
up his enjoyment of the book in one statement, “Ross placed so much
weight on the stuff I already loved.” A fine statement. Most likely a
heartfelt one, but it’s a statement that seems to speak for the general
“legitimized” everybody’s childhood by presenting it in an “artful”
fashion - or what is most easily perceived to be art by the
ill-informed: paint. Paint, canvas … those represent art for most people
just because of its long standing connection to the principle as well
as the fact most great artists, or the famous ones, worked within that
particular medium. Ross, no matter his skill, picked up on that and
managed to easily establish his importance.
the aesthetic lies a suffering set of gears, though. The components
become expendable rather than essential, and this becomes ironic as you
realize the Image-style Ross was so desperate to escape really just
defined the work he did. He’s the other half of the Rob Liefeld coin:
same issue with mechanics, yet different in terms of spirit . Where
Liefeld embodies self-awareness, Ross lives and breaths the self-pride,
selling his art for big money and proclaiming his touch on the super
hero to be everlasting.
Too bad Marvels isn’t
anything more than Galactus taken seriously - seriously, seriously, not
“these Kirby comics offer more than the monthly adventure.” - and Kingdom Come wasn’t the next Watchmen he wanted it to be.
just love that Magog is Ross’s “fuck you” to Liefeld because he doesn’t
even earn it whatsoever and just comes off like a complete fucking
beside personal attacks, we could criticize the actual books, and Chad,
that’s where I think you should pick up. As you can see, I’m caught up
Chad Nevett: Jesus, dude... I was not expecting that. What do you need me for again?
guess I’ll just launch into my history with Alex Ross, particularly
these two comics. I think I came across Ross first in Wizard with that issue where where he did two
three-page covers. One of the Silver Age heroes of the Marvel Universe,
one of the villains. Or maybe it was in Marvel Age
where that little Human Torch Marvels prequel first
ran? I don’t know. I liked what I saw, because painted superhero comics
were cool, I guess. His art looked good, especially outside of the
constraints of serialised sequential storytelling. He made heroes and
villains alike look both ‘real’ and more than human. Say what you will,
but that’s a tough trick to pull off.
read Kingdom Come when it was coming out, because my
dad bought it (and later gave me the trade paperback for my birthday
one year). That appealed to me in a different way that probably
intended. I love alternate realities/futures stories. Seeing the heroes I
know in some weird future where they’re older and wear different
costumes, and there are all these new kids? Awesome. You know, in that
superficial spectacle sort of way. I can just flip through that book
still and linger over the way those characters look, how their costumes
are different. I love that stuff.
I liked Kingdom Come. Even then, I didn’t agree with
it entirely. After all, I am a child of the time period that Waid and
Ross are tearing down. There’s an irony in tearing down the age that
tore down the heroes, I guess, but it didn’t sit well with me entirely. I
focused more on the ‘alternate future’ angle and tried to ignore the
didn’t read Marvels until later, taking it out from
the library, and was somewhat unimpressed. It’s a fun book in that ‘spot
the reference’ sort of way and a trip through the Marvel Universe from
the perspective of a regular guy is interesting. I was flipping through
it in preparation for this conversation (I’m still undecided if I’ll
reread both works since I’ve read them many, many times already) and
kept drifting towards the moments where you see how ugly the Marvel
Universe is. I love the way that the third issue ends, Phil just tearing
into people because they can’t appreciate the fact that the world was
idea of ‘legitimising’ comics never actually occurred to me with
regards to Ross. It’s not something I ever think about, honestly. It’s
the one obsession that the comics industry has that I don’t share. I’ve
always said that that’s probably because comics were always ‘there’ for
me. They weren’t any different than TV or movies or books. They were in
the house, same as the rest. I did school projects about them and it was
never suggested that that was wrong somehow. I never thought about
it... But, I think you’re onto something there and it’s something I
never considered about Ross.
flipping through both books, what’s hard to miss is how bitter they
seem. How they seem to be about how great comics were and how great
these heroes are... all while showing us again and again how terrible an
effect they all have on the world merely by existing. If anything,
Marvels and Kingdom Come seem like
comics that hate superheroes and want to show us again and again how
terrible they are. That doesn’t sound like Busiek and Waid, though. Yet,
those threads are there...
favourite Alex Ross story: I was once banned from Millarworld for a day
or two by saying that he ‘sucks Silver Age cock.’ Somewhat embarrassing
now that I’m ten years older, but not a sentiment that’s wrong in any
way that I can see.
AB: Yeah. Shawn Starr based an entire post on what he claims is your “eternal question.” I still laugh about that, because while crude, you’re not wrong.
While my claim comes from some of what I see in terms of fan reaction, Marvels and Kingdom Come do
provide more concrete evidence, supporting my theory that Ross worked
to make super hero comics more acceptable on a greater cultural stage.
I should clarify because while Busiek and Waid certainly have their own
attachments to the projects, Ross dominates these works. For one, it’s a
visual medium, and a style like his submits these stories into a
strangle hold of epic proportions, and beyond that, Ross was involved in
the production much more than your typical comics artist. Kingdom Come especially, with its forty page treatment written by Ross and the fact that Mark Waid was brought in to flesh out the story. It’s a Ross project. Marvels features
more of a collaboration, but Busiek even notes the story featured the
events it did all because Ross wanted to draw them.
you can’t undermine the thematic link both works share as well as the
fact the only way to establish said link is by a common creative
Plus, both Marvels and Kingdom Come share
in the same conversation. You mention these comics present a hateful
attitude toward the genre, but I wouldn’t say it’s the whole genre Ross
dislikes. I think it’s just the silliness, or at least, the Image-era
super hero. Both books were published in the Image aftermath, and
especially when you consider the younger characters in Kingdom Come who fight to fight, it’s hard to ignore. Ross wanted his heroes to mean something more than flashy bombast.
I must say, is a noble goal, and while I enjoy bombast to a large
degree, I can respect the guy’s concern for or desire to read a story
with a little more going on. I just find it odd Ross had to regress the
super hero in order to push the type forward, you know what I mean? His
visual style as well as the goals of both Marvels and Kingdom Come scream
for this progression toward seeing super hero comics more like
literature than pulp magazines, yet his characterizations and his
classic portrayals are nostalgic, through and through, and they argue
for the original concepts by keeping things neat rather than taking the
messy leap like Miller does with The Dark Knight Strikes Again. I
feel he completely subverts, unintentionally, everything he works
toward by, as you say, “sucking Silver Age cock,” and it would be why I
left both of these works cold.
To discuss them a little more specifically, Marvels would be the worst of the two. Where Kingdom Come offers more room to interpret, Marvels completely
puts it down your throat that what you may have grown up reading as a
kid wasn’t entirely trash. And while Busiek and Ross are correct, it
wasn’t - those early Marvel comic books are significant for more than
historical points - the book sets its argument up in a fashion of
connecting great social issues to Marvel continuity. And, again, while
it’s not wrong or off, I just find the approach, overall, to be a little
too self-righteous. Phil Sheldon becomes that hardcore Marvel fan who
all along poked you with an “I told you so,” and by the end he’s so
sucked into it all he can’t even offer a comment without being biased.
As you said up top, there is a sense of wonder to Marvels because
at first it is certainly interesting to look at and see these iconic
super hero moments rendered in such fine detail, but past the catch I’m
not sure what it all offers. I do enjoy the concept of super heroes from
man’s perspective because it can be interesting, and I even think
Busiek wins me over for moments - like the ending of issue three
mentioned by you or even the series overall ending with Danny Ketch
showing up. The idea just loses its merit when its made into an actual
story and there’s a plot surrounding it. Also, Marvels stunts
itself by finding ways to leap from Marvel event to Marvel event. The
book becomes a slave to continuity in order to complete its mission and
many of the plot mechanics fall transparent because that mission is made
so clear even before you begin reading.
The idea that Ross is fighting against ‘silliness’ makes me want to
know how you define ‘silliness’ since so many of the comics that Ross
seems to celebrate are pretty fucking silly. And that’s not a bad thing
as far as I’m concerned, just that it’s a pretty wide open term. After
all, when people think of the Silver Age these days, ‘silly’ is a word
that pops up fairly quickly.
get what Ross is railing against, but I’m not always sure what he’s
fighting for. You say it’s that the comics he grew up
on aren’t just some disposable trash for kids and that sounds right. I
just don’t see that. Partly because the vision of those characters and
stories that Ross presents is so unlike what they were. If that is the vision of those comics that he
has and that vision is disconnected from what they were, then what is he
that respect, I agree, Marvels is the worst of the
two. It presents a vision of the Marvel Universe that doesn’t actually
seem like the Marvel Universe. It’s an alternate reality of that old Marvel Saga comic that tried to connect everything up
filtered through his painted, earnest style and that sucks out the fun
and pop energy of those comics, boils them down to straight high tension
live or death situations. Ross’s comics aren’t fun. They aren’t silly,
as you put it... and those comics were, to a degree. I look at issue
three and the arrival of Galactus and it plays out like a superhero Cloverfield where, by grounding these events in
‘real’ humans, something is lost. There isn’t wonder, there’s just
terror. Living in the Marvel Universe New York would be so goddamn
frightening that, in Marvels, it’s hard to believe
that anyone would continue living there. It’s just disaster after
disaster after disaster for the entire run of that series.
remember an issue of Wizard where they tried to
answer a variety of comics questions and had quotes from creators. One
was something like “Was Gwen Stacey killed by a broken neck or by the
fall?” and I remember Ross being quoted about the ‘snap’ being pretty
definitive that it was a broken neck that killed Gwen (I believe they
showed his recreation of that moment from Marvels).
Even then, my instant reaction was “What, dead people can’t have their
necks broken? She could have been dead already! A sound effect proves
nothing!” And if that doesn’t illustrate the difference between he and
I, I don’t know what will...
or “silliness” just stand as my cheap ways of saying bombastic,
exuberant or animated. Ross’s style and voice go against those
adjectives: Adjectives that certainly belong to super hero comics. In
much a way, his work is a disagreeing response to those qualities, even
when he’s also riffing so much on those books to make the comics he
does. But that’s kind of my point: Alex Ross is a walking contradiction,
and it’s all visually summarized by all the stern figures wearing
colorful outfits he paints. It’s not even clear whether or not he’s
really celebrating super hero books of that period. He appears more
interested in rewriting those early comics instead of honoring them. If
anything, he’s championing himself. That’s the tone of Ross’s work: a
strong helping of self-righteous flattery.
CN: So? I don’t know how, but you just flipped a switch
and, suddenly, I’m defending Ross. So what if it’s self-righteous
flattery? Is that so bad? Hell, many of my favourite writers seem unable
to escape that concept in one way or another. There’s something I like
about the idea of someone taking what is and reworking it to fit their
worldview. Now, that I find Ross’s work off-putting much of the time
negates that idea when it comes to him to some degree, but my point
still stands. If we were talking about Morrison or Ellis or *insert your
favourite writer here* doing the same thing, would the tone be one of
praise or condemnation?
course, part of the problem with Ross is that that’s not what he says
he’s doing. He claims to be ‘honouring’ the comics and creators that
came before him and that’s clearly not how either of us view his work.
Maybe that’s the problem. I tend not to get too swept up in the
intention of the author, because it doesn’t matter one bit to my
experience. Or, it shouldn’t, but usually winds up having some effect.
With Ross, it’s hard to separate the intent from the work and not notice
the large disconnect between the two. After all, do you read Marvels and Kingdom Come and feel
like something is being honoured? I sure don’t...
You be the judge.