Alex Ross rocks! He is one of the most impressive artists of the modern age of comic books. And of all time. His work in watercolors is so real and yet fantastical at the same time. There are other artists who have followed his example, but to my eyes Ross is the best of them.
His approach to comic book storytelling is to make it real. It’s clear he uses models to create those beautiful pages and covers. His characters look as though they could really exist. Their costumes have creases and folds as they certainly would if actual people donned those outfits to fight crime. They aren’t essentially naked with their costumes painted on them as is the traditional approach of most comic book art.
Now, which of his many amazing covers do I focus on today? Well, today America celebrates its independence, so let’s look at the covers he produced for the two-part treasury edition series for DC Comics’ now defunct Vertigo line called U.S. (or Uncle Sam). Ross also produced the interior art and gave some plot assistance for the series written by Steve Darnall.
The first issue was infuriating to me as I read it when the series was released in 1997. The character Sam had forgotten his identity as he explored America’s dark history trying to regain a sense of who he is. I was infuriated by the focus on the terrible aspects of America’s history. I was uncomfortable being forced to face those ugly truths about America’s past and, sadly, its present. But that was the point. The reader was supposed to be uncomfortable.
With part two, Darnall and Ross explored what is good about America. The progress it had made and the hope of a greater future. The story embraced the message of Pres. Bill Clinton in his first inaugural speech when he said, “There is nothing wrong with America cannot be cured by what is right with America.” My fury dissipated. I realized the ugliness of my country needed to be confronted and fixed. America’s challenges are still there and our work is never done.
So, let’s look at those covers:
Part one shows a down and out Sam. His clothes are tattered. He looks as though he’s been beaten down. And he’s being walked over by Americans who are just ignoring his plight.
Sam is reaching out to the reader, pleading for help. There appear to be a few coins indifferently dropped by the passersby. “Oh, look at the poor old fellow, down on his luck. Here’s a couple pennies.”
That gesture might assuage some of their guilt, but will it do any more than that? The people will shrug. “I gotta get to work. I’ve done what I can. He can get a job.”
But is that what the reader will do? Sam is reaching to you, he’s looking you right in the eyes. Can you casually pass him by?
Issue number two has Sam finding his way, his purpose again. He’s ready to face the challenges that beset America, both external and internal.
Ross uses flames to show the power and passion renewed in Sam’s heart. Sam is once again looking the reader in the eye. Do we feel charged with the same passion to do all that we can? Or do we feel the accusation that we as Americans haven’t done our part? That we haven’t done enough? Can we brave the flames as Sam is doing?
Both covers have that soft watercolor look of which Alex Ross is a master. It’s subtle and lifelike. And he challenges the reader by having Sam looking unflinchingly directly at the “camera”. Sam is looking right at us. He’s challenging us.
He’s not about to blink. Will we?
Happy Fourth of July!
Feel free to comment and share.
Images used under Fair Use.
Warehouse Find is the official blog of NostalgiaZone.com, where you can find books, games, toys, cards, and a huge selection of Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Age comic books. Jim also has a podcast called Dimland Radio. He’d love it if you checked it out. It’s available on iTunes.