Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Alex Ross' Super-types

For reasons I can't quite explain, I had an image in my head for most of the last week, and couldn't for the life of me remember where it was from--a series of small sketches by Alex Ross of various Superman-type characters. I've been thinking a lot about superheroes in general, lately, and in particular about books like Kurt Busiek's Astro City that use new versions of superhero archetypes rather than the more familiar corporate brands, and maybe that's what got me thinking about those Ross sketches. But by Saturday, when the image wouldn't leave me alone, I decided to hunt it down.

I'm already rereading KBAC (that's Astro City for the acronymically-disabled), so I knew it wasn't in the back-materials of any of the hardcover or trade collections there. I worked my way through the collections of Marvels, Kingdom Come, Earth-X, et al, and while I found loads of great stuff (and decided to finally sit down and read the whole "Universe-X" series from beginning to end, so on it goes onto the To Read pile), I didn't find the sketch. Likewise in Mythology, the collection of Ross's DC-specific art. Then I started working my way through various magazines and interviews, though I was beginning to lose hope.

Finally I struck gold in issue 223 of The Comics Journal, published in May 2000. This wasn't quite the image I was remembering, but damned if it wasn't pretty close. The following ran along the bottom of a two-page spread in the middle of the Ross interview.

The only explanation given for the sketches is on the following page, where they're described as "Costumed do-gooders galore. Note the inclusion of Chris Ware's God among so-called do-gooders." Not particularly helpful in answering why Ross did these sketches in the first place, but pretty much in keeping with the general tone of the editorial comments accompanying the interview, which seem to go to some length to justify to the TCJ readership why they'd be interviewing Ross in the first place.

As I said, though, this wasn't quite the image I was thinking of. What I was remembering was sketches of the heads of Superman-types. Then I remembered one more place I hadn't thought to look, and hit paydirt. It was in the Wizard's Alex Ross Millennium Edition Special (well, I think that's what it was titled, though from the type-treatment it's pretty hard to tell), published in 1999.

Better still, this one was accompanied by a quote from Ross explaining what the image was for.

The fact that the same characters are included in both the full-body and the headshot sketches seems to indicate that the former probably served the same purpose, helping Ross work out the details of Samaritan's costume.

And, because there's something wrong with me, here are the TCJ sketches reorganized in the order that Ross probably had them in originally, if the Wizard headshots are any indication.

All I can figure is that I'd filed that information away somewhere in my hindbrain, and in the process of rereading the first few years' worth of Kurt Busiek's Astro City the last couple of weeks, I sparked an association.

So what kind of Superman-type did Ross end up designing from scratch, after revisiting the hairstyles and costumes of a host of predecessors? Take a look for yourself.

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