Craft in Comics part 1.75


Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Hey everyone. I’m going through my notes on the panel (“Craft in Comics” with Jaime Hernandez, Jim Rugg, and myself), and honestly, they don’t capture the feelings I had about the panel, or how I feel about it a week-and-a-half later.

I guess the thing that resonated most with people is my rant about Alex Ross, and I just don’t feel like turning my recollections about this wonderful panel I was on into a bitch-fest about Ross, but … ah fuck it: It’s not just Ross, it’s this culture of photo-referencing in comics that grinds my gears. It’s true, I hate Ross’s work. He’s got great technical ability, but big deal. Why is copying the nuances of a photograph such an achievement? That’s not drawing! He’s the worst example for a young artist to have, the worst role model. No one has done more harm to the form than Ross. It’s not comics he makes. It’s fumetti. There are no real panel-to-panel transitions as there are in “pure cartooning”; he’s just putting photograph next to photograph in a way that some find pleasing. But it’s not comics.

His original sketches for his pages—which I’ve seen in person—are lively drawings that capture the energy and action of the figures. I remember thinking then, “Why doesn’t he just work those up into full drawings?” Instead, he’ll literally dress models up in a costume and take pictures of them dressed as Galactus or Batman. But that’s not Galactus, that’s some guy standing on a washer and dryer in a basement. How do I know? Cuz Ross and guys like P. Craig Russell love to publish those photos for some reason.

There was a Conan book recently that I was flipped through and I could immediately see that it was referenced, because the referencing takes over. Did John Buscema or Barry Smith let their references take over their style? No, they were original enough, wise enough, to incorporate the references, to subsume them into their overall style. P. Craig Russell most often does the same, he’s good enough to really USE the reference, but I always wonder why? Why bother? It distracts me as a reader, it ruptures the balance of his drawings, his lines, because it’s clear that the drawing is from a photo. It sends the other drawings on the page that are not referenced into high relief. Photos flatten the perspective, the shape of the body, the sense of depth. And worst of all it’s not Conan! Or Galactus. My suspension of disbelief is shattered at the moments I realize a photo is being used, and then that break is re-enforced when I see the photo that the artist was using, which they’ll often proudly display like a trophy! Do they think that should be applauded? It’s maddening!! When Kirby drew Galactus it WAS Galactus. Real. Manifest. Not some schlub in his underwear playing dress-up.

Think of Alex Toth. As far as I know he only occasionally lifted a photo straight. Like Neal Adams, he’d draw from it and then integrate it into his style so that it wasn’t so jarring. These days that concern seems archaic. The more photo-realistic the better. And on top of that, look close at the more recent vintage of photo-referenced comics. Generally each photo has the same focal length. You can really imagine the “actors” sitting there on their couches, at their kitchen tables, in the car. It’s so LAZY!! Point and shoot, ah, that panel’s done, next! “Honey, will you stand over there by the window and look off in the distance? I need to nail this Catwoman drawing.”

** More soon—also I’m not responding to comments on this one. On this subject, I have patience only to be dogmatic.

*** Photo-referencing isn’t just a problem in mainstream comics either, by the way. Those guys are just easy targets.

PREVIOUSLY: Part one and Part 1.5

NEXT: Part 2.0

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78 Responses to “Craft in Comics part 1.75”
  1. covey says:

    Curious- does anyone know of a link to side-by-side comparisons of Ross art and photo references he uses? I imagine there’s some in that “Mythology” book but I’ve never looked.

  2. T Hodler says:

    “No one has done more harm to the form than Ross.”

    Strong words!

    This is really only tangential to your argument, but to play devil’s advocate against your invocation of “pure cartooning”, I really liked this recent Kevin Huizenga post that got a lot less attention than I thought it deserved:

    But yeah, I’m not a big Alex Ross fan either.

  3. Mike M says:

    Hm. I can see your point, and it’s something I have often discussed amongst my peers.

    I admire Ross’ talent, like some of his pieces a lot, but often find his comics frozen, lifeless,and I agree that his work on one level takes out the participation of the reader in working with the drawings to create the circut, the fantasy and make it “real’ in the imagination.

    It’s similar to the argument figurative artist and non-representational artists endlessly have, at least in art school.

    You could compare in fantasy art the Boris vs Frazetta. Frazetta is better in every way that counts to me. I think it’s a multi=part question and a multi-part answer.

    But right now I feel the main reason Ross’s work appeals the most is that the readers left have the least imagination and range of taste. I am not knocking Ross here, he’s catering to an audience the same as Kirby was, but Kirby’s audience was broader and there were less places to get that type of fix. I think making comics more literal makes them more like everything else, and i still can’t get anything on the screen close to reading a Kirby comic, nor a Ditko comic, or Moebius, though the 5th Elelment was really close visually.

    I think 37 year old babymen as I call them, want the comics to be realer, more intense, that means more ‘realistic”, not cartoony. If there is even a hint of that, it blows the whole thing for them.

    I think Raymond, Foster, Willliamson, Drake, Adams, Starr to name name only a handful of artist worked successfully with photos. I agree, Ross’s drawing or layouts are 10 times better, more poetic, but superjock comic fans don’t want poetry. I am doing an article on this very subject in the new issue of DRAW! and have sort of a mini primer on my blog.

  4. T Hodler says:

    FYI. Readers are not only allowed but encouraged to argue with each other in these threads, but any personal attacks on other commenters will be deleted.

  5. Dan Nadel says:

    I am of two minds here. On the one hand, yes, Ross is really detrimental to comics as a craft and as a formal practice. Like Pixar, which I also have a lot of trouble with, he chooses strict realism over hand-made and human-imagined lines, forms, textures, and ideas. This dehumanizes the medium. That said, I sometimes get a little nervous about taking a hatchet to an artist, who, after all, is human and has feelings, and blah blah. I hate when people come after me, for example.

    And, THAT said, I think Frank’s argument is right-on. Ross and his photo-based colleagues have reduced comics to storyboards. That’s a real bummer, and I think it must affect the writing, too. I mean, if an artist isn’t capable of nuanced cartooning (and, btw, it’s not a dead art: Guy Davis, Kevin Nowlan, Cameron Stewart, Frank Quietly, and, yes, Paul Pope and Darwyn Cooke all still have a feel for human body language and emotion as a cartooned-realism) then how can a writer create such scenes in a book? And a cycle begins. I would love to hear from a mainstream pro about how Ross has affected the medium. More to the point, though, I must say I was horrified by The Ross centerfold in the recent Kirby book.

    An aside: everyone always says how much they love Kirby, and yet they piss all over his grave any chance they get. The Ross centerfold was a great example of that — like having Leroy Neiman re-paint Guernica in a Picasso book. It’s a combination of hubris, Oedipal art-murder, and just bad painting. I mean, it’s worse than the last Kirby coffee table book, which had Kevin Eastman (!) inking Kirby pencils for the cover.

    And, finally, Marc A., knock it off with the personal jabs. It’s unappealing and we delete comments that are personal in-fighting.

  6. tomN! says:

    “like having Leroy Neiman re-paint Guernica in a Picasso book.”

    ha- that made me snarf my soda.

    Alex Ross is the Norman Rockwell of comics (although not quite as talented as Rockwell). Which I guess would make his fans the old grammas of the fanboy world.

  7. Tom says:

    I totally agree with Frank’s point. Personally it turns me off and takes me out of the story when it’s drawn in an uber-photorealistic style of Ross. Great cartooning comes from being able to make the scene more dynamic than real. I will usually pass on such art unless the writer on board trumps it.

    The same flip of the coin, I also am greatly turned off by poor or facile attempts at drawing. Such as the work of Paperrad or Sophie Crumb. Which equally takes me out of enjoying what they’re trying to get across. No amount of great writing will save that work for me as a reader.

  8. Dan Nadel says:

    Off topic:

    I like Rockwell a lot. He used photo-referencing, but as a tool, not as an end in itself. His compositions are endlessly inventive and his paint handling and mark making are real, human, and always transparent. He’s not hiding anything.

    Also, Paper Rad’s drawings are precise, one-take images. I think, as an entity, they’re great draw-ers. In comics, they’re not trying to do anything more than what they’re doing: make communicative cartoon drawings. They belong to a long tradition that goes back Herriman and Opper. But, I’m obviously partial to the work and I’m not at all interested in debating the merits of that work in this forum. Let’s keep it in focused on Ross.

  9. T Hodler says:

    Dan —

    You have a problem with Pixar? While I don’t like all of their movies, I still think they’ve done some pretty amazing stuff. The Incredibles really was the Fantastic Four movie that should’ve been. (I can’t wait to see Wall-E, which sounds great.)

    I do hate the fact that their success seems to have (temporarily, I hope) nearly killed off traditional animation, but I’m not sure that they’re personally to blame for that. It’s always a safe bet to finger the suits as culprits, so that’s what I’ll go with for now.

    To keep this moderately on topic: as with Pixar, is it really fair to blame Ross for the modern photo-referencing trend, or is he just the most successful guy riding the zeitgeist?

  10. zik says:

    “And that’s what’s wrong with Bart’s generation. Now as for your generation…” Sheesh, lighten up Abe. Of course it’s “comics.” The pictures tell the story. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean you can completely strip it of its form. You forfeit the argument right out of the gate.

  11. Dan Nadel says:

    Well, Tim has a point. But Ross is, I think, the guy that jump-started the photo-reference thing in comics in the last 15 or so years. I don’t think he can be “blamed”, though, you’re right. No single artist can really be responsible for all the junk they might inspire (like the Pixies!). But he certainly brought it back to comics, but now he’s also riding the zeitgeist. And yeah, it might be my own problem, but I can’t look at Pixar movies. the textures, the forms — it all is too harsh for me to deal with. They hyper-realism isn’t something I really like in art or animation, really. It feels very harsh. But, I agree, on a lot of levels what they do is amazing. It’s just not my thing, aesthetically.

  12. Dan Nadel says:

    Zik: Well, this actually goes to Kevin H.’s argument that Tim references above. I don’t think Frank forfeits the argument at all, though. It just begs for a definition of comics. A tall order, though.

  13. Tom Spurgeon says:

    Is there any piece of writing out there that looks at the Pixar dominance in terms of the failure of the market to sustain more than one model?

  14. Lee Hester says:

    Alex might use photos at times, but he adds a great deal of his own style to each piece he does. That’s why he’s never been equaled. He is a fantastic artist, and he has legions of fans who appreciate his amazing artwork.

    I think it’s possible to love Alex Ross, Jack Kirby, and Neal Adams. I do.

  15. Peggy Burns says:

    I just saw in an old issue of “alter ego” that alex used kathy ireland as the model for mary marvel. i cant remember the other models or characters, but i remember being amused.

    officially worked in comics for too long.

  16. Kevin H says:

    Thanks for the link Tim.

    Just like with my objection to “pure cartooning” I think Frank needs to watch his words, terms, and hyperboles. He once wrote something like “it’s impossible for anyone to deny the saintly genius of Marshall Rogers” and I understand he got some bewildered emails about that…

    “No one has done more harm to the form than Ross.”

    Leave “the form” out of it…she can take care of herself! I asked “the form” just now about all this stuff, in prayerful supplication, and she was like “Alex who?”

  17. Bill Kartalopoulos says:

    I agree that Ross makes bad comics for all of the reasons articulated here. However, I’m not sure that it’s accurate to peg Ross’s photo-reference-based style as the beginning of everything that’s wrong in contemporary superhero comics. For Ross, photo-referenced, “photo-realistic” superhero comics are the great goal, but his page layouts, as I remember them, are trying to be like the Adams/Perez/whatever pages Ross grew up with. Based on what I’ve seen around in the comic book stores lately, it seems that for most contemporary superhero artists inartful photo-referencing is one tool in a bag of tricks that’s geared to its own special style of bad storytelling. It’s hard to pin these things down, and maybe I’m not the one who should be trying to do it, but it seems like at some point in the nineties superhero comics decided they needed to be more like the Matrix. I remember the hipper superhero/genre writers talking online about “wide-screen” or “decompressed” storytelling. As many comic book stores re-conceived of themselves as “pop culture stores” with a blend of multimedia merchandise, superhero comics chased after fans of effects-driven action movies and video games by emulating those storytelling modes, making panels that try to look like movie stills or video game screenshots. The superhero comics’ love affair with overdone photoshop effects is a major symptom here. In fact, chasing after that aesthetic might have led to bad photo-referencing even without Ross.

    Anyway, not sure that I have much of a point. Inartful photo-referencing as bad cartooning (or non-cartooning) is a major common denominator, but as far as storytelling goes I think most contemporary superhero artists fail on their own for reasons that aren’t necessarily derived from Ross’s failures.

  18. knut says:

    More than the rendering itself, I think that it’s the sequencing that rubs me the wrong way with photo-referenced comics. They try to mimic TV-drama style direction. As mainstream comics and television continue to cross-polenate talent it will probably only get worse.

    Like I said on the other thread, the great thing about some of the “new art comics”, particularly the genre ones, is that they capture that feeling of “anything could happen” that makes us love comics. With a comic that is trying to be “realer” (perfect babyman terminology, btw) you get the feeling that “only so much could happen”. That’s DOA for a genre comic as far as my tastes go.

  19. Brad Mackay says:

    Hey Tom! Stop sullying the fine name of Rockwell by equating him to Alex Ross. Geez Louise!

    Despite the tone of Frank’s invective, anyone who loves or has loved superhero comics at one point in their lives has to find Ross’s work hollow, right? His comics work is wrong for the simple reason that it’s painted. I mean, painted comics (esp. superhero comics) is among the worst-conceived ideas the medium has ever seen. Fumetti would probably land on that list as well.

    Yet even his covers suffer from the same problem: No one actually wants to think of Superman as an actual person. If they do, they can just rent the movie. It makes me sad to see his Superman or Batman all full of wrinkles and actual pupils. Boo! I believe he’s even rendered Mr. Mxyltypkl and Bat Mite…what’s the point in that?

    Plus, he dresses up like The Spectre for Halloween parties at his house. Cheap shot, but it’s true!

  20. Marc Arsenault says:

    Beyond keeping this focussed on just Ross or just the photo referencing, Frank brings up a few arguments against: one: loss of meaningful artist’s line – the hand of the artist, and the definition of forms in space (which I completely agree with, and yes even to the Famous Illustrator School crowd blame); two: lack of conscious use of lens length (oh, absolutely. 90 odd percent of photographers don’t even grasp this, certainly photo-referencing artists (who, it should be remembered, are giving themselves (or have been given, in some cases) the extra workload of director/photographer (which they can hardly have been given adequate consideration/compensation for… there are cameras, lights, sets, models…) are just acting in the most utilitarian way to meet the deadline… Three: effect of photo referencing on panel to panel sequencing. Having admitted to the quality of Ross’s layouts here, Frank, I don’t know how you can back this one up, but it is super interesting as a point. It would be great to actually lay out a bunch of this stuff to look at on a big table or something and really tear at it. Because despite all the many other issues with surface effects and finishes, stiffness, and the rest of it… since we are talking about comics, this is really the meat and bones of any potential critique. Does reliance on photo reference itself erode the ability to present a comics story well? My only real familiarity with Ross’s work is the old Marvels book. I would say the narrative effect of the pages was fairly strong, if a bit flat. If you really wanted to point at a great example of it falling apart and the timing and rhythm of a comic narrative turning to crap, then Tony Harris’s work on Starman and Ex Machina (which I admit to mostly enjoying a great deal) would probably serve as a far better example. Stories where the panel-to-panel narrative flow is asked to collapse at the occasional one page compression collage of whatever it is in a way that is similar to (our most beloved) P. Craig Russell in Don McGregor’s old Killraven. I have to wonder if it could be argued (or could actually be the case) that this is more the ‘fault’ of the writer.

    I strongly think that there is another position here that neither side (whomever they may be) may want to admit to. That maybe it is long past time to divorce ourselves as artists in any concern for the goings on of major corporate comic books and their represented properties, and for those concerns to more thoroughly produce their product through group effort, and to write and direct and to render them in a more controlled and directed studio manner in the way much television is produced.

  21. Tucker Stone says:

    I don’t really agree with the statement that no one has done more harm to the form than Ross, but I would posit that few have done more harm to the perception of comic book art than Ross. The way I remember it, when Ross first started dumping out that hideous Marvels series with Busiek, it wasn’t like he was getting classed in the same field that Kirby, Toth and Cole worked in, he was always referred to as the ‘painted model’ guy. He was (and for me, still is) a gimmick, nothing more. But his stuff, for whatever reason, sold, and he got a bunch of lunatic fans, and now all of a sudden you’ve got people calling him a great artist who could’ve taught Picasso how not be a loser.

    I don’t know if that adds anything to the discussion–in a lot of ways, it’s real easy for it to turn into one of those “this is bad because people with taste and intelligence say it is bad, now you must agree” kind of thing–I mean, it’s true that if you have some taste, then Ross art looks like a grown-up playing to the cheapest seats imaginable, but it’s not like that kind of snobbery is going to do anything to change people’s mind. Still–I don’t really mind joining a cult who wants to try. Kingdom Come was some retarded ass shit.

  22. Marc Arsenault says:

    If I had a header here, it would be “The Superhero curse”

    OK, to put it another way, I’d like to think we are beyond a sort of “the experience of one cartoonist is the experience of all cartoonist’s” scenario here, just like how “Comics, they aren’t just for kids anymore’ can be done away with.

    It’s an old form now. It would be very naive to think that the received perceptions available could hinge much on any one artist. The separation of genre from medium is now a given. Let us now move on.

  23. Marc Arsenault says:

    Oh yeah, and that Galactus pic is pretty freaking devastating. What could ever withstand being crushed by that?

  24. Cole Moore Odell says:

    Ross is just one guy, if he didn’t exist the current superhero industry and fanbase would have had to invent him, and despite his unfortunate prominence guys like Kevin H. can still get books published, so oh well, but:

    Beyond the tendency for Ross’s technique to annihilate the personal aspect of cartooning that most draws me to comics, is what that technique signifies. It’s been said before, but without any trace of irony or skepticism, he cranks up the fascist wet-dream underpinnings of superheroes until that’s all you can see, denying the idiosyncratic flourishes, the joy of visual invention from a Ditko or Kirby that occasionally redeem the genre. Every Ross piece asserts, “fuck George Papp, this is what Krypto the Superdog *really* looks like.” And the approach never varies, whether he’s doing his 1,000th Superman, lobotomizing Toth’s Hanna-Barabara designs or honoring the cast of Strawberry Shortcake.

    Imagine the less talented little brother of the offspring of Leni Riefenstahl and Thomas Kinkade, Master of Light designing humorless peans to the worst of your childhood nostalgia, and well, you don’t have to imagine it because odds are Alex Ross got to it already, and for Ross, the Bizarro James Kochalka, imagination is the enemy. *He even Ross-ified fucking Super Grover.* (Was that one maybe a joke? I’d really like to think so.)

    Photo reference style isn’t always evil–I couldn’t imagine another style working as well as Steve Epting/Mike Perkins/Butch Guice on the particular kind of Captain America book Ed Brubaker is doing now. But with Ross, who’s Important because he Sells, the art is invariably yoked to pretentious auto-fellatio like those DC hero tabloids, or Ross’s own d-level crap ideas that in another world would have filled the fifth and sixth best selling titles of one of those early 90s boom publishers (see: all the soul crushing Kingdom Come concepts currently stinking up the once proudly mediocre JSA.)

    So I guess what I’m saying is Tucker, talk to me about the club’s secret handshake.

    By the way, my security word was “twtgu”, which is as apt a description of Ross’s work as any I’ve seen.


  25. Marc Arsenault says:

    this version is much more cruel.

    Alex Ross is irrelevant. He is perceived as a freak by virtue of his super-realism. He is the worst realization of what has been long suspected of that hard-core of superhero worshipdom. This is the pervy super-actualization that is worthy of little more than our scorn. A million ‘Wertham was right’s have long since echoed out in the storm.

    I look forward to the days when he sinks to the explicit sexual excess that taints the later days of Wally Wood in the same way that I look forward to the first Jonas Brothers sex scandal.

  26. Cole Moore Odell says:

    I have this vision of Alex Ross talking to Neal Adams and saying “See, I perfected your vision!” at which point Neal realizes it isn’t the earth expanding, it’s his legacy shrinking.

  27. guttertalk says:

    whoa, folks are worked up over this topic. The hyperbole certainly on full display.

    As much as I love Kirby, Frank’s example of Galactus couldn’t be worse for me because my brothers and I always laughed at Galactus with the hockey sticks. And he just happens to use the English “G” on his costume? Sorry, Frank, but you’re exaggerating there about the suspension of disbelief. How about Reed’s two right hands? Did that ruin the suspension for FF #88? How is the occasional photo-ref panel in a Russell comic worse than these goofs? I don’t see it.

    You are also exaggerating what Ross is doing, which is more than “putting photograph next to photograph.” You’ve seen that he lays out pages before he brings in the photograph-referenced drawings. When I’ve seen his photos and references, they are far from the final form, which often follow the idealized proportions of the Andrew Loomis form. Realistic yet idealized characters . . . there’s more there than folks are giving credit for.

    Why do people limit comics by saying things like comics aren’t painted. It is sequential art, which should be open to a range. It’s like saying poetry should rhyme and should be iambic pentameter.

    The 90s produced enough bad art that Ross was a breath of fresh art, especially after seeing annoyingly contorted bodies from Rob Liefeld and others. For that, I give him more leeway than others like Bryan Hitch. But I don’t want a steady diet of Ross, nor of Rude, Adams, Buscema, or even Kirby. And I think there’s more to his art or Tony Harris than drawing photos.

    I agree, however, that the trend has its awful results. [Newuniversals is nearly unreadable because of the celebrity references.] As someone who tried a hand at art, I agree that focusing on being realistic is the wrong goal for aspiring artists: it should be having a voice or style that tells a story well, that conveys drama, comedy, tension.

    FWIW, I think manga is probably at the opposite end of the style spectrum that has its own poor imitators.

    I’m glad to have read this post, and it’s the sort of thinking that does us good as fans of the medium.

  28. Patrick Smith says:

    For me, looking at his work is like a bad trip. No pleasure, no fun.

    But on the plus side, I love this Village Voice cover.

  29. Covey says:

    Okay, after 29 comments I got zero links to photo references here. I’m asking as someone who WANTS to be part of the debate. WANTS to understand better the in-crowd discussion of why this is bad. So if you have links please post them. (Mind you, I actually do have some opinions on it but since I come from more of a general arts background rather than comics, I prefer to stand my ground with you folk …ground that includes, frankly, too much ignorance that I’d rather not trod.)

    That said, I want to compliment Marc Arsenault for bringing up a very, very important topic about photo referencing. Lens length. Or any number of topics related to the technical issues that amateurs armed with cameras are oblivious to. Speaking as someone who got his Associates Degree in Photography, I have no problem with amateurs with cameras but it’s an incredibly relevant topic here. As with so many graphic designers who I think are destroying the field’s progress by calling themselves photographer/illustrator/artiste SLASH designer, it may be worth clapping Ross on the back for saying “Fuck it, I’m taking this in my own hands.” At least he TOOK some pictures to try something different. At least he may be the first faltering steps for something else that will evolve within CORPORATE comic book structures. I mean, people are emulating him for a reason besides ineptitude, don’t you think? (I’m assuming anyone IS emulating him.)

    If we really want to debate the merits of ‘mainstream comics’ then we have to recognize the world they are operating within NOW. Not fifty years ago or any-nostalgic-time-ago. (The first store I bought comics from is still operating but sells snack chips and Maxim magazines now.) And we have to recognize that the companies we consider mainstream ARE corporate entities. Entities I’d quickly tear apart except that, realistically, they are the gateway to enjoying a medium that is a valid-yet-overlooked artistic medium. Condescending as I may be (I am.), I think of Marvel/DC as riffing on archetypal stories that remain accessible without requiring much effort on the part of the reader. Ross taps into that. Most successful CORPORATE artists tap into that. (Didn’t Rockwell tap into that?)

    I could give a shit about Alex Ross but I’m impressed that anyone would take elaborate, costumed photos of their own accord in order to do drawings for COMIC BOOKS. (Albeit, in my opinion, mind-numbingly adolescent comic books.) No matter what, there’s no way that saves him time and, as Marc mentions, he definitely doesn’t get properly compensated for it. If he were inept as an artist: Maybe it’s worth it to him to take photos. But that’s obviously not the case. He DOES have talent. It’s just his vision for what could be, no matter how soulless it feels. (For me I see that in people Jaime Hernandez has influenced just as quickly as whatever number of minions Ross has produced, by the way. I had a friend who kept Polaroid in business by taking reference shots for a single splash page that he hoped would look like Love & Rockets… or maybe Optic Nerve. I dunno.)

    I digress. Afterall, I don’t really “get” what Cold Heat was doing (past tense for the initial run), though I think it was in the vein of the archetypal superhero story. Ignorantly, and possibly creating enemies against my better wishes, I appreciate that it may be the equivalent of what Ross is doing on the other end of the spectrum. Am I nuts?

  30. Covey says:

    And sorry, Frank I realize you mentioned what I credit to Marc but he addressed it specifically and got me thinking about it more particularly. AND, for the record, I love what you’ve said concerning the photo reference not being the real thing. I agree completely, though feel more awkward than you do saying so.

  31. brandon says:

    Excellent post. My thing is Alex Ross’ work feels literally flat- no movement, no energy, dead on the page. To me, it reminds me of like “outsider art” or something and then and only then would it be interesting. If at some outsider art showing I read about some weird dude who does hyper-realistic paintings of superheroes, I’d be like “woah that’s cool” but as a comics artist or even an “artist”, it fails…

  32. Leif Jones says:

    Photorealism and photo referencing have their place, as long as they don’t become a crutch. Ross chooses to use photos as reference because it helps him to convey his stories the way he wants, but he doesn’t NEED to reference photos to draw. Ross is a talented artist, and his amazing success shows that what he does is what many people were looking for back when MARVELS came out. I think the thing that harms the form is all the less talented artists who are copying Ross, many of who CAN’T draw without photo reference, and it shows.

    Kirby was very good at drawing IMAGINARY things, but when it came to drawing regular folk, wearing regular clothes, driving regular cars, his interpretation of them (for lack of using photos reference) was very generic and drab. As Ross could benefit from using a little more of his own imagination in his art, Kirby could have benefited from the occasional photo of ’67 Dodge Dart.

    I agree with Mike Manley that the success of Ross is at least in part due to the dwindling visual imagination of our culture (which is ironically often refereed to as “increased visual sophistication”). When you watch a movie, all the information is there, no brainwork needed. But when you read a book, you have to invent the pictures in your head, and that is a muscle that needs to be exercised to stay in shap.

    As for animation, I’ve never been a fan of 2-D cell animation, even as a kid. Because I draw comics, people think I love animation, and the fact is that I look at it and see a poorly constructed illusion of little drawings flipping by with sound added to make me believe in movement, and I don’t. But for me, Pixar has reached a level of 3-D animation that now reminds me of the kind of animation I DID like as a kid: claymation. A photographic three-dimensional world that my little mind could jump INTO, rather than just being a spectator.

  33. Joe Willy says:

    I actually think what’s missing from Ross’ work is more the feeling of depth and solidity. Since Ross uses watercolors (I believe) his colors have a light and airy feel even as he is trying to paint Superman lifting a car. It reminds me of these badly CG animated films where the shadows never seem to go to 100% black and so the animated characters stick out because they just don’t seem as dense as everything else (just watched The Mist and this seemed to be a major problem with the creatures).

  34. Blockade Boy says:

    It’s interesting that you bring up Pixar. I’ve noticed that Pixar movies (which I generally love) have had the same effect on movie fans as Ross has had on comics fans: creating both a demand for hyper-realism and a disdain for stylization and expressionism. (I’m put in mind of critic James Bernardinelli’s review of the Chuck Jones-inspired “Ice Age”, in which he derided the visuals as “lazy.” The fanboy fetish for real-looking super-heroes goes quite a ways back, of course, past the salad days of Kevin Maguire and George Perez, even. But it does seem to have gotten worse lately. I can’t blame Ross for pandering to an underdeveloped sense of aesthetics; if there was no demand, there’d be no supply. And I salute his technique, and his talent. I just think that it’s spectacularly ill-suited to the genre of super-heroes. (I feel the same way about “gritty” writing, but that’s a whole ‘nother argument.) And the fact that Ross feels compelled to render every smile line and every ounce of stomach flab… well, that speaks to me of plain old neuroses. It’s where the habit of photo-referencing turns into a prison. Either he’s afraid that he can’t tighten up his figure work (which would impart some much-needed energy to his art) without it looking bad, or else he’s so in love with the process that he’s over-rendering his models that they they wind up looking embalmed.

    Side note: what I find so amusing about the fanboy “realism” fetish is that a lot of them demand realistically-drawn figures, but hate to see super-hero costumes depicted with any wrinkles at all. And yet, they think women can stand with their breasts and their asses pointing in the same direction. Go figure!

  35. mahendra singh says:

    Perhaps the real controversy here is contemporary publishers’ and readers’ standards in draftsmanship … ie., almost zero these days.

    Using photo ref is as old as Delacroix. He got away with it because he could draw. He also knew that real artists learn draftsmanship from the best. Why study Kirby when you can study Ingres?

    There used to be a thing in the biz called having a good eye and it’s always been a rare commodity.

    Mutter mutter rant rave, etc

  36. Boothy says:


    I’ve always disliked Ross’s work and I thought I was the only one.

    Can we blame him for Greg Land?

  37. Marc Arsenault says:

    Alex Ross explains his method in this video from 2000, showing the sketches and the reference.

  38. Randy says:

    SVA stories:
    going to school for comics, one of the mantras that you get over and over is “photo reference makes all the difference. it sets the men apart from the boys in the cartooning world”

    once an editor/teacher brought in pencil pages from an Alex Ross’s batman piece, as examples of good photo referencing. and then related an argument Ross had with DC editors about one of the panels, and whether or not batman would really have a beer belly (while slouching on the couch, watching tv.) Ross’s stance was that everyone has a belly, no matter what kind of shape you’re in, when they sit in that particular position and watch the tube, DC’s stance was that batman DOES NOT HAVE A BELLY. EVER.

  39. Marc Arsenault says:

    I think the central argument may have been lost here. Thanks to Covey for bringing up the camera control issue which made me think about it again and brought the matter into…uh… focus.

    What I now see as the problem is, on the one hand there is the cartoonist directly experiencing the world through their own eyes, taking pen to paper and creating something new. Yes, this is fed by all the things they’ve read and watched etc. On the other hand you have a technician who is making an elaborate simulacrum. He is re-creating someone else’s comics, making 3D replicas of the characters and scenes, and the camera is mediating between him and these models. Prints are then arranged and copied for form and surface effects in his finished art.

    If this technician lacked control of his camera, and was not carefully directing the reference shots, but is just pointing and shooting, then this may be worrisome, but is not invalid as a method, and is not central to the argument. (I imagine a great photo realistic comic could be made by shooting from the hip with a Holga for your reference, or by following the tenets of Dogme ’95 to make a film and then drawing that.)

    I can see why that would bother a cartoonist a great deal. I think resisting this trend towards a superimagineered monocultural regurgitoid media landscape is a healthy impulse.

    Further reading: Umberto Eco’s Travels in Hyperrreality, Kirby’s Norton of New York.

  40. knut says:

    To touch on some points from the other commentators, I’d like to add that the term “realism” as applied to Ross’ comics makes me cringe a bit. I’ve never read any of these sorts of comics that portray events in a naturalistic, or “real” way such as a Dogme 95 film or a painting by Courbet.

    Actually, it begs the question to whether this is even possible with comics. A single still image can be natural, or a captured moving image, but a sequence of still images? Wouldn’t there be more to it than arranging a series of naturalistic still images? How would you arrange them naturally? Comics doesn’t directly reflect our senses, not to mention what happens when words are thrown in the mix.

    So I’d sy that Tim’s assertion that Ross’ work is closer to “Social Realism” is more apt. But of course there is nothing “social” about it. Maybe “Retard Realism” works, ha!

    Just as a side note I’d like to see Frank tackle the Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri, Rob Liefeld style of comics. I’ve always thought that there was more to say about them than just the obvious. There must be something about those comics that has yet to reveal itself. We are just beginning to see artists like Victor Cayro reconcile their impact on my generation’s comics subconcious.

  41. C Chesney says:

    I do think blaming Ross as a major contributor to the demise of the form is going a little far. Much as I appreciate Frank taking a strong stance on his opinion of Ross’ work; I really do admire that. I would agree that his comics are more like a fumetti than examples of “pure cartooning” (not sure about that term either…what are we? comics suprematists?). Fumetti has its place in the world of comics and sequential arts. There’s a strong tradition there, whether the reader(s) appreciate the aesthetics of them or not. I find it odd that I’m coming here to defend Alex Ross, because when I really consider it, I’m not too interested. I’d much rather shit on the Liefeld crowd.
    But… Using the term “lazy” to describe his process, in my opinion, is significantly off base. Ross uses many of the techniques outlined in the Andrew Loomis books, particularly the book Creative Illustration (Ken Steacy is reprinting these books by the way). The book, despite anyone’s like or dislike of aesthetic choices, is a very decent resource for illustrators, even though it is dated. Ross has read this book several times through the years (he has noted it in many interviews), and has heeded Loomis’ many warning about the traps of using photography, and the lens distortions that can occur, focal length, etc. I don’t think he ignores that trap. I see those errors much more in the poor imitators of Ross’ work. Really, when you examine his reference material, it seems that he is using it primarily for light-on-form reference, cloth folds, and perhaps minimally for figure construction. I think his drawing ability is strong enough to recreate the scene he wants. There a tremendous difference in the figures he photographs and the figures he eventually constructs and renders. I think the process he undergoes is quite laborious and painstaking (particularly with the addition of his page layouts, which are also Loomis based). So lazy doesn’t seem to cut it as a crticism. I just wonder how he doesn’t get bored? One of the reasons Ross’ work has risen above so many of the others who also do painted comics, is his technical facility, and his steadfast drawing ability. My taste falls more towards Chester Brown or Chris Ware. These are the sort of comics I enjoy reading today. Ross is technically very good at what he does.
    I just don’t care for it.

    I have to admit though, that if he was doing this type of work when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, when I reading shit like Rom the Spaceknight, I probably would have gone ballistic for it. I think he’s pursuing his career doing the sort of work that would satisfy his own childhood aspirations. Hey–if it keeps him happy. I don’t have to read it. Juvenille may be the most accurate description of his work that I have read here so far, rather than harmful.

    Briefly on the subject of Pixar… I just saw Wall-E last night and I thought it was phenomenal. First and foremost it was a captivating story that appeals to a wide all-ages audience, and it had some excellent social commentary as well. Very realistically rendered art, with very sophisticated application of cartooning skills. I think Pixar does superb work, and is just as easily blamed for the excess of CG animated crap that is getting pumped today in vast quantity (just watch the trailers before the movie if you go to see it). The biggest difference is Pixar’s dedication to character and story, and the ability to be subtle and sophisticated, while being very bold and impressive at the same time. In my opinion.

  42. Mike M says:

    Reading back over this thread I think it’s too much to say any one artist could destroy comics, and Ross certainly hasn’t hurt the medium, no one artist can to that-ever. The medium of comics is too broad and global for that, The one real effect I have lived with and through as a professional cartoonist, earning my living early in my career working mostly for Marvel and then DC was the abrupt style change that happened when Rob Liefeld became hot.

    Personally, that effected me and most artists I know more that Alex could ever do, and then the very market as that then spun out into the whole Image phenom, boom and bust and in fact I look at the success of Ross as the pendulum swinging back, with force, as if to say the line that Rob crossed with his approach is now erased–with art so opposite in concept and execution.

    Also, not that many of the stragglers of the spec boom who loved Rob grew up and now love Alex.

    Liefeld’s success with a style and approach that to me was the drawing level of a fan did more to cause editors to seek and hire, to coach and prod people to emulate his style than anyone has ever done with Ross. I personally know and artist removed from a book for Rob to take over. But that’s the real face of commercial work, and you can say it’s Bizzaro world” to justify a better artist getting replaced by one not as good, but that’s the real world we live in. That time I worked in did more to hurt the real craft of cartooning than anything ever in the history of comics. And there were no cameras involved at all.

    One thing that those who enjoy comics as readers don’t ever have to deal with is the ever turbulent side of the business an artist does. Alex Ross hasn’t hurt anybody, hurt anyones imagination, and if anything has raised the bar or effort it takes to produce the type of comic he does. Neal Adams did the same 30 years ago.

    I worked with Al Williamson, and Al used a ton of photos in his work over his career, like the artist he worked with and apprenticed to, John Prentice, who took over Rip Kirby upon Raymond’s sudden death. The only thing you want to be concerned about artistically I got from working and learning from Al, was to make the “swipe” which is what they called using photos, work for you.

    Ross does this. He composed his pages, shot his ref, worked with the ref as he saw fit. Can you tell that the focal point of the lense was not the same as the background-maybe–but who fucking cares! Does that matter? I don’t think so. Esthetically you can do that little frankly worthless nit-pic to the result of nothing. When you are reading the comic and cuaght up in the story you won’t really notice that, and unless you are an artist, 99.9% of fans reading it could give a crap.

    Now maybe you don’t like seeing Superman with a wrinkled neck,creases and wrinkles ok, maybe you like Al Plastino. Fine, personal taste is one issue, ruining the medium is another.

    That doesn’t make or break the art or the success of Ross’s vision. I think again he makes comics that 99% of comic fans want to see because most people, the 50-75,000 comic fans in the direct market like very realistic art.

    Norman Rockwell used photos often after a certain point in his career, but he bent everything to his will, his vision, his intent. I’m not saying Ross is equal to Rockwell, nobody is that good today, what I am saying is that he’s working in the same tradition, which is one tradition within the much broader tradition of comics as medium.

    In the big picture Ales Ross might be the top guy now, or not, but the guy who draws Narruto is effecting a lot more artist today than a dozen Alex Ross’. Millions of kids all over the world and budding cartoonist are be impressed and effected by Narruto.

  43. Jim W. says:

    This is a multi-dimensional argument, but you can quickly cut to the chase by recognizing that popular tastes often do not coincide with what is judged great art. For example, many 19th century painters who were highly respected and well paid in their day are all but unknown to the general public today, while we all recognize Van Gogh and Cezzane. A hundred years from now everyone will still know who Jack Kirby was, but few will probably recognize the name Alex Ross. That’s no bang on him, by-the-way. The Norman Rockwell analogy is apt. When I saw my first Rockwell in person I could see that it was incredibly well-painted technique-wise… but still not great art. There’s also an inherent absurdity in arguing about so-called “great art” in the context of a medium generally disparaged as commercial art in the U.S.

  44. knut says:

    The calls for Frank to tone down his rhetoric in order to soften the blow to Ross’ reputation as an artist are misguided. Whether or not Ross has done “damage’ to the medium itself isn’t the point of his critique. The point is to highlight why and how the techniques that Ross employs are counter-productive to a quality comic.

    When we begin the process of bargaining down Ross’ role in all of this, and softening the rhetoric, those important points get lost. Alex Ross is a big boy, he can take a little heat from Frank Santoro.

  45. tomN! says:

    “Hey Tom! Stop sullying the fine name of Rockwell by equating him to Alex Ross. Geez Louise!”

    didn’t mean to sully Rockwell’s name. but i enjoy Ross and Rockwell on the same level. I actually like Rockwell on some level, but it was a cheap joke… i don’t hate Ross’s art, but i agree with many of the points made here… especially Bill K’s and Kevin H’s comments above.

    I enjoyed Ross’s Marvels a lot when it came out. It appealed to the Spider-man obsessed kid in me who really wanted to see real super-heroes flying through the sky above me. I think that’s what Ross and his fans want. Similarly I think that Rockwell’s appeal was to the idealistic American life that so many people wanted to believe existed.

    I feel like Frank’s argument is a bit overstated. Saying Ross has done so much harm to “the form” is a bit heavy.

    Just because the common man of the ’50s enjoyed a Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover more than a Jackson Pollock painting, has Rockwell somehow done harm to painting? Do Tom Clancy novels harm Cormac McCarthy’s books? Has Michael Bay done harm to film?

    Ross and the other artists who fit into that genre of comics-trying-to-be-real (I’d put Jae Lee at the top of that heap or worst offenders) are doing something else with “the form.” It doesn’t even register in the same category as the comics that I enjoy. The people who worship those artists are never going to appreciate artists like George Herriman or Dan Clowes or John Hankiewicz. There are some who can enjoy all these things for different reasons, but I really don’t think that Alex Ross is in direct competition or is doing any “harm” to those artists or “the form” overall. He appeals to the masses because it’s fast, recognizable and easy. Cartoonists who are more “artful” require a different kind of reading that requires more thought, knowledge of history, and time to reflect. I don’t think the two approaches do any “harm” to each other. They simply coexist in different forms.

    On a somewhat similar train of thought, I was reading this Clement Greenberg essay the other day:

  46. Chris says:

    On the other hand, if you don’t like Ross’ work, maybe you shouldn’t read it…

  47. Mike M says:

    Blogger Mike M said…

    Being “known” does not make you great. The 20th century tossed the 19th century under the bus, but this is a dog chasing it’s tale for many. The fact is that when you can sell something for millions, which Rockwell’s now fetch, those will within our lifetime be included into permanent major Museum collects and will become “Art”. Sanctioned by the elite and art critics of that time.

    The history of art is just this type of history. The common craft of one time becomes the art of another. It’s the political game of the rich.

    400 hundred years from now people won’t understand Saturday Evening Post. They will look at what we call ‘commercial art” through a different lense, one polished by the social context of it’s day.

    People will know Stan lee more than anyone else who ever had anything to do with comic books 100 years from now. geeks will know Kirby, nobody else will worry about that stuff.

  48. BradyDale says:

    Your positions strikes me as a bit too all or nothing. I generally dislike the more realistically oriented artists, but I do like Ross.

    I overwhelmingly favor the more stylized artists, but Ross is fun. I really loved him for KINGDOM COME. I think he’s a little weird in only liking old characters, but whatever.

    He’s good.

    So is stylized stuff.

    I just think he’s one unusual option. He’s not destroying comics, though. When Tom Hart can’t sell a book to save his life, then comix are done for,
    but for now I think we’re okay.

    And Ross is cool on what he’s cool on, and his stuff takes him so long he can’t do that much anyway.

  49. Brad Mackay says:

    “Just because the common man of the ’50s enjoyed a Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover more than a Jackson Pollock painting, has Rockwell somehow done harm to painting? Do Tom Clancy novels harm Cormac McCarthy’s books? Has Michael Bay done harm to film?”

    Every time Michael Bay makes a movie he harms my brain. But that’s just a tad off topic.

    Thinking about it a bit more i realise that there are some examples of painted work in comics that i have dug – bill sienkewicz being the only one that comes to mind right now. But his stuff was (is?) less photo-realistic that Alex’s stuff. I don’t think anyone can deny that the guy has talent – quite a bit of it – it’s just a shame that he’s using it to so little effect.

    And I’d say the same if Rockwell had spent his career drawing Power Girl with her arms crossed all the time….–>

  50. Brad Mackay says:

    Let’s try that again:

  51. Dan Nadel says:

    A note:

    I don’t think Frank is saying Ross is destroying comics — just that the work is, in his view, a detrimental influence. It’s easy to attack a rhetorical stance, but more interesting to look at what is it about this kind of work that (a) resonates or (b) works or doesn’t work as comics. And then also interesting to discuss the diverse formal strategies available when drawing comics.

  52. Mike M says:

    If you wanted to discuss craft pre Image/spec-boom/post boom, then this might lead to better over-all discussion of the issues of craft vs taste. Which is what this discussion is all about. There is a very big difference in the way current comics are done, processed and enjoyed before the Walled City arose and people on both sides to the table were more effected by money, and the effect big money had on taste or the taste of people left after the wall fell.

    I know for me, as a professional this is really true, and as a fan of the medium, just as true.

  53. pete. says:

    i think the ‘uncanny valley’
    theory helps describe the reasons why i have trouble maintaining my suspension of disbelief when reading a heavy photo referenced comic like ross’ stuff. if you replace robots with batman.

  54. knut says:

    The interesting thing about both the Image/Boom style as well as the Ross/Photo style is that they both evolved out of Neal Adams.

    With the Image/Boom approach the artists took rendering, particularly hatching to fetishist levels at the expense of clear storytelling and respectible anatonmy/figure drawing.

    Ross and his followers were a reaction to this, an attempt to bring the look and feel of the stories back towards a new and more humble “realism”. In this case they employed either paints or heavy shadowing.

    Both style have arrived at a considerable loss to the tradtions that preceded them. But hey, they wouldn’t be around if somebody didn’t like them.

  55. Marc Arsenault says:

    I can’t believe nobody remembered the uncanny valley for over 50 comments. It is worth running the abstract from wikipedia. Read the Full entry. That does go a long way towards explaining the apparent revulsion factor here

    “The uncanny valley is a hypothesis that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost, but not entirely, like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The “valley” in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot’s lifelikeness. It was introduced by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970, and has been linked to Ernst Jentsch’s concept of “the uncanny” identified in a 1906 essay, “On the Psychology of the Uncanny.” Jentsch’s conception is famously elaborated upon by Sigmund Freud in a 1919 essay, simply entitled “The Uncanny” (“Das Unheimliche”). A similar problem exists in realistic 3D computer animation, such as with the film The Polar Express[1] and Beowulf (2007 film).”

  56. Leif Jones says:

    A writer in The Comics Journal once stated that NOBODY liked Eightball AND Spawn. Well, back in the early ‘90s, when that was written, I was Mister Nobody. Sure, I liked Eightball more, but I still liked Spawn. I don’t just eat one kind of food either.

    I really like the work of cartoonists such as Jim Woodring, Al Columbia, Dave Cooper, Chris Ware, and Joe Matt. But I’m also a fan of Michael Golden, Art Adams, Adam Hughes, Travis Charest and Alan Davis. To me the first group mostly draw INTERNAL stories, while the second (of which Alex Ross is a part) draw mostly EXTERNAL stories. The reason photo reference is not used by the first group is because you can’t take a photo of an internal “emotional” landscape, but you can take a photo of an external “objective” one. They are two different camps in one medium, and I’m glad both exist, and I’m particularly excited when there an artist who can combine both in a single story.

    But getting back to topic, I think Ross has raised the bar in terms of draftsmanship (and shouldn’t be compared to people like Greg Land who copy photos from magazines) and is in no way lazy. The problem is that most other mainstream comics artists, working on a deadline, either don’t have the dedication, the time, or the talent to do what Ross does, so we get poorly conceived “realistic” art. One thing Ross is not is a copy of some other artist, as say Liefeld was a copy of Art Adams who was a copy of Michel Golden (not Neil Adams at all!). There may have been other “realistic” comic artist before Ross, but no one that did what he does.

    The problem for me personally is that there seems to be too much emphasis placed on draftsmanship and not nearly enough on storytelling. And by storytelling I don’t just mean panel composition (the “widescreen” one-panel-per-tier seems to work well for photorealistic art), but the emotions of the characters, and the most neglected part of mainstream comics: how the characters interact with their own dialogue balloons. We are at an all-time low-point in comic lettering, and it was never very good to begin with.

    Also for me, the more superheroes are made to seem realistic, or are put into a realistic world, the less realistic they seem. Alex Ross’ Superman to me is just a guy in spandex, but Frank Quitely’s Superman is a freakin’ god. That comes down to how the character interacts with his world and how the world compliments him.

    And as far as I know there is no uncanny valley level of “realism” in comics, except maybe the few that are made using 3D computer models. The uncanny valley is as much concerned with motion as it is with looks, and in comics there is no motion. I’m not freaked out be realistic looking manikins in a department store, but would be if they moved and tried to talk to me.

  57. Mike says:

    Alex Ross is destroying comics ! Yeah…whatever. I love Alex’s work…I really like seeing my favorite heroes in each frame as if they had been photographed. If you dont like the style you dont have to read it. I hardly think his work is destroying the quality of comics as a whole. Not everyone loves the artsy fartsy drawing….I personally have difficulty staying with a title when the art is just to artsy. Actually your whole rant comes off as slightly elitist in my opinion. Anyway….lets all just enjoy the comics and be glad that we have eyes that allow us to see and love (or hate) the artwork.

  58. Marc Arsenault says:

    I think after more than one person chimes in with “well you don’t have to read it” it’s well time for an admin to step in with some comments about stated purpose. Since they have yet to, I’ll take that liberty.

    Simply put, Comics Comics is not elitist by virtue of the fact that it is open to absolutely anyone to comment. It is not a filtered news organ of a media corporation and it is not a private board for comic professionals (who do make up the admins and most of the commentators). As the interests of these people to the content and presentation of comics goes well beyond if it is something they might enjoy reading, to cover issues of the art and craft of creating comics, the business of publishing and distribution, and the perception of it by readers and colleagues and the general public, I think a little respect is due towards the nature of this forum. This is a special thing, and I would like to see it continue.

  59. Marc Arsenault says:

    Just three more things.

    I think we all need to salute Frank Santoro for promoting a heroic ideal of the cartoonist in a model not dissimilar to Kirk Douglas in Lust For Life and the two-fisted hard drinking New York artists of the 1950s. Cartoonists could definitely deal with a little image reform in that direction.

    There has been little discussion or acknowledgement here of other uses of photo reference to the artist. Granted, sometimes it is still due to laziness, but often it is necessitated by circumstance that–lacking a proper model, mirror or convenient setting–the photo is of great use for referencing contour (posture, whatever), expression and environment (OK, backgrounds, if you like). Say you need your story to take place on a WWII submarine…

    Public perception, or more specifically, the potential damage done by first contact with this particular work to a potential comics reader or more importantly a potential cartoonist, is a point that Frank made that got far too little play in the comments. It deeply disturbs me that Randy had the experience he had at SVA. He was apparently there much later that I was, and I’m really, really sorry anyone ever encountered that sort of garbage in a dearly paid for private education. I was lucky to have Harvey Kurtzman and Joe Orlando (among many other greats) while there. I can just imagine their disgust at that sort of garbage. Kurtzman was possibly the greatest advocate of research, reference and accuracy that there has ever been in comics, but none of that ever would have translated into this weird hyperreal-but-not gloss that Ross promotes.

    In this age of manga-dominance, especially among younger readers and artists, it is unlikely that Alex Ross would be the point of first contact. I suspect it is more likely that his books may be this generation’s “Drawing Comics the Marvel Way”, probably given to an aspiring artist as a present by a well-meaning aunt.

  60. Noel says:

    You are brave plus you are right!

    Ross’ looser sketches are way better and more alive than the finished results.

    Did you add Greg Horn to your list? The guy just puts costumes on centerfold pics!

    Good luck in your battle against the Baby-men and let’s keep comics rock ‘n roll and not art rock!

  61. Mike M says:

    Ok, my 25¢ is this, Modern comics characters don’t act, they pose.

    next time you go into a shop, stand back about 3-4 feet and scan the covers and you’ll see most covers have the characters standing in a cool, pose, voguing if you will. Or a big face.

    I don’t care what style, this is almost universal. How many faces in half shadow, dark grim, etc. This is serious man, this is hard core, not you daddies Punisher. To me, Gorlon Parlov is way more interesting that the over artist on those books. But I bet the average fan would prefer it was the same type of art inside. Parlov’s characters act, the are exaggerated, I like him almost as much a Jordi Bernet on Hex. talk about having it all, acting, storytelling, great drawing and cartooning, a vibrant line.

    but the average fan would say–‘Feeh, too cartoon like.”

    This ‘realistic’ wave is the ‘default” approach now for the most part. Now dial back 20 years and look at the covers, very different, a lot more action, a lot more variety, and the cover was a tease, the characters in a battle or dieing, being defeated, often an imaginary scene that doesn’t happen in the story (often to my regret as a young reader). Go back further and in the mainstream compare the covers by the cover kinds Kane, Buscema, Cardy, Adams and Kirby, the classic run of covers by Romita Sr., Kirby’s run on the FF. Sure, easy to pick the best stuff, but the covers had more variety and told or teased the story more, they were not stock poses of people standing. These characters acted and were exaggerated. Now, so often the cover is just a pastiche of figures standing, muscles flexed, and the image relates nothing to the story inside of the book.

    Also go back that far and a wider variety of readers read comics than do now.

    John Romita Jr.s characters act, Buscema too. Adams was the first artist to do art that had the ‘cool shot”. His comics were full of these cool shots. His covers were better than his comics. look at the great run of covers on a series like House of Mystery, many laid out by Orlando ideas I think.

    Now Adams used photos, and like Williamson he shot and posed them himself, so the photos were of him or the model ‘acting”.

    There is nothing that is a cheat about using a photo, just like there is no cheat to using a model in a life class, the point is to get the info you need. now some artists might be stiff, or bad actors, or cheesey like Shatner. that is not a crime and in no way ruins the medium. Having an editorial edict to draw in a poor style made popular by a certain artist because it sells, does more to hurt the main stream medium than using a polaroid camera and a Art-o-graph.

    In no way is Ross’s work going to be a basic primer like “How to draw Comics the Marvel Way. It’s too complex and idiosyncratic a way to work, advanced way beyond the novice or hobbyist-fan.I think his work appeals to a certain type of fan, just like animae does.

  62. Anonymous says:

    I don’t know how much it has to do with Ross (I mainly avoid any superhero stuff made after ’87 ie. ‘dark age’ and all that Image garbage), but I’ve noticed the ‘widescreen’ trend in layouts – obviously to emphasise their potential as film/game franchises. They also seem to ‘cast’ well-known characters to look like movie stars. Is this Quesada’s corporate policy now? For artists to work with one eye on movies games and TV?

    The overuse of photoshop mimics cgi fx too – all those blurry clouds, explosions etc!
    I’ve read some of Ross’ stuff – I’m neutral on the art because I’m distracted by the terrible stories – didn’t Ross ‘cast’ his own dad as the Spectre’s pal or something? As the Christian concsience of the story? Pass the sick bag… and yeah, his ‘realism’ just makes Spider-man, Captain Marvel etc. look like bad 70s TV versions of them (he couldn’t put a candle to the wonderful Lynda carter though)

  63. Anonymous says:

    Oh, and I’ve noticed that Howard Chaykin is starting to get kudos from people who’s opinion I usualy respect. BUT CHAYKIN EMBODIES EVERYTHING NOW WRONG WITH MAINSTREAM COMICS. Blur your eyes slightly and the page looks like Xmas wrapping paper. Posing not acting. Joy, love, laughing, rage, hate – all ‘acted’ in a similar manner with gritted teeth. Women posing (and gritting their teeth) in thongs/undies while basically having men’s faces. Pointless ‘design’ flourishes that have nothing to do with storytelling. Ugly sex/violence (with gritted teeth) in the absence of coherence. Crypto-facist bloodlust posing as left-liberal ‘irony’. Ugly garish colouring. Childish ‘darkening’ (rendered psychos, perverts with gritted teeth etc.) of pre-silver age characters. Ugly font frenzy computer lettering/sound fx. Flat angled layouts of endless talking heads (with gritted teeth). Photoshop to cover the fact that he draws everything in the same unvarying line weight. Dull mid-shot covers of the hero face on, gritting his teeth smugly with his arms crossed/holding a gun. And of course, a desperate desire to get into the movie business! In short, the poor man’s Frank Miller – not that we even need the rich man’s one…

  64. Tom Spurgeon says:

    So what’s the bad stuff about Chaykin?

  65. Anonymous says:

    Very funny.

    I forgot to mention he found fame via ‘Star Wars’ too…

  66. T Hodler says:

    I think we should probably try to leave Chaykin out of this for now, just to keep the thread a little focused. (Sorry about that, Tom. I know you wanted to hear more.)

    And in that spirit, here’s another video of Alex Ross talking about his methods:

  67. Joe Willy says:

    Let’s not forget that a central problem with Ross’ approach is that it undermines the believability in his stories since it actually plays up how ridiculous a paunchy old man would look in a skin tight outfit which is why modern superhero movies have turned the spandex costume into suits of armor. Only when Hollywood quit trying to mimic the ridiculous skin tight costumes did people finally start “believing” the characters on the big screen. Ross actually plays up the most ridiculous aspect of the medium. But I would also add that given his work on Uncle Sam and some art of his I’ve seen, I don’t think he does it in a completely unironic way, though I admit to not knowing much about how he thinks about his work or ever having read more than a few pages of it.

  68. Anonymous says:

    From interviews I’ve read, Ross comes across like a nerd version of Captain America – he wants Americans to respect their heroes, father figures etc. without enough Englehart-esque ambivalence about what ‘heroes’ and ‘America’ may represent.

    Check out those horrible story-book pamphlets (?) he did – Peace on Earth, War on Crime,Power of Hope ad nausaem. – they read like presidential campaigns.

    Is he now DC’s ‘public face’ for non-fanboys? He seems to feature in a lot of their mainstream publicity (and his versions of the JLA etc. cover the windows of my local comic shops).

    ps. Apologies for going off-focus on Chaykin – I recently blew my comic budget trying to ‘re-assess’ him when I could have bought ‘Omac Archives’ instead…

  69. Mike M says:

    It’s amazing to me to read how people jump to conclusions about things in comics. Joe Q has no overbearing edict. I may not enjoy most of what is produced today within the mainstream business, and I am aware of certain trends, styles, and tastes, but the over riding fact is that if Jack Kirby styled art sold today, that the majority of fans liked more cartoonish work, marvel and DC would seek out artist to do more of that look.

    I know for a fact, guys like Herb Trimpe were urged to work in the “Liefeld style”, to try and sell books back in the pre-Image days. The sales on the book Quasar I drew were doing the normal slipping most comics do, so the editor thought having Jim lee and Todd MCFarland do covers would boost sales.

    It didn’t work. You can not like somebody’s work, but you can’t blame them for being popular, you can only lament peoples tastes.

    In my opinion most comic fans have bad taste in the direct market.

    On a side note in regards to using cinema style or wide screen layouts, that had been done before by guys like Steranko, and I dare say, really by Kirby, who did his big double page splashes starting back on Boys Ranch. The modern purvayer of that technique who had the most impact with that was Miller, starting on his first Dardevil Run, and Miller was also one of the main guys to make comics darker in tone. Still, his early runs of comics have a lot more humor in them and he’s certainly a cartoonist, not a realist.

    I also think the crits of Chaykin are off the mark.

  70. Trashman says:

    I agree with Frank!..Since Alex Ross,nearly every comic book by Marvel or DC looks like those horrible “movie adaptation” comics.

  71. Anonymous says:

    I agree with Trashman and Frank!
    Steranko, Kirby and Miller all had a much more dynamic sense of design, composition and movement. I can still remember how Kirby’s double-spreads seemed to almost smack me in the face (pages 2-3 of ‘2001’ # 4 are what got this Brit hooked on US comics and I’ll never forget it).

    Apart from certain business practices, Miller wasn’t the ‘first’ anything. Any number of silver/bronze age guys had a fair share of ‘dark’ – Gene Colan? Ditko? Englehart? Don Mcgregor? Joe Kubert? Denny O’Neil? His Name is Savage? Conan? Tomb of Dracula? Jonah Hex?

    Miller’s ‘dark’ was adding the tone of 70s cop shows to superheroes (and ‘Sin City’ is Chester Gould with tits)- just like Buscema’s Silver Surfer reads like ‘The Fugitive’ from space.

    Apart form those guys, the main influence on the ‘Dark Age’ sensibility were the influx of british creators of the 80s – but I reckon Ross and his ilk are trying to reclaim superheroes from all that ‘2000ad’-based drug/occult/left-wing/green/sex/sadism/mistrust of authority stuff.

    A lot of the ‘widescreen’ guys just use that panel proportion without rhyme or reason (just faces talking, opening a door etc.) apart from looking more like a ‘screen’, especially in a lot of those Vertigo/Max titles.

    I’m not too ‘up’ on current superhero stuff, but a cursory glance at the racks shows the ‘dark ‘ age has ended – silicone age? Ross (and all those 50s/60s pastiche-meisters) seem to be about making heroes a lot more wholesome and mainstream-friendly… it uses comics icons as a vehicle for commercial art. Nothing really new there, even if it is an aesthetic dead end.

  72. Anonymous says:

    Speaking of photo use – what about Drew Friedman?

    He once claimed he didn’r use photos, but I wasn’t that convinced – that doesn’t take away from his genius, however.

  73. Tom Spurgeon says:

    Awesome. THAT’s how you do a walk-on.

  74. Mike M says:

    I’m not saying Miller invented the wheel, he did not. What I am saying is his work being so popular seemed to invent it to most people. Kiry didn’t invent superheroes, but he rewrote the language so anyone after him uses his speech/his language to a great degree–most fans, hell, many artists are poor historians of the craft. Comics a an industry is pretty disjointed there. Comics has mostly been a “First to be second’ industry, quick to jump on what’s popular. If it’s Dirty Harry, sci-fi, westerns, Buffy, you name it.

    Still, I am surprised some here jump to conclusions about what a certain artist is trying to do, or that anyone in comics today has the power to doom the medium. Stink up a room, stink up a bunch of comics, sure. But I think you have to step back and look at comics as a global medium, and Superhero comics are a pretty small nitch now within the whole. A sort of “Frankenstein quilt” as Moebius called them when I interviewed him years ago, every artist sort of stitching his or her part onto the body.

    If you are not aware of Sergio Toppi, Alberto Brecchia,to name but two great non-American artists as well as Bob Peak you might think many artists in the states during the 80’s suddenly invented ways of working. Most people reading comics don’t know the history of American comics, illustration, or art in general outside a few house hold names, let alone global comics.

    Most kids reading manga don’t know who the Flieshers were, or that the artists like Tezuka were heavily influenced by those cartoons and the early Superman comics,and they in turn influenced that manga of today and like most people, are not interested in history..period. They just like what they like. I see this all of the time as a teacher.

  75. Marc Arsenault says:

    Bob Peak, Breccia, Toppi? Pretty slick trying to steer this towards Sienkiewicz, Mike M. 😉

  76. COOP says:

    Boy, there’s a germ of a good conversation here, but some of the over-the-top statements are killing it. (Comparing Ross to nazi propaganda? It’s just a painting of Batman, for cripe’s sake.)

    The truth is, Ross is a spectacularly talented illustrator, working with the classic techniques of the golden age of commercial illustration. I think where the disconnect comes in is because he uses those techniques in comics. He’s an illustrator, not a cartoonist. (Is that appropriate? There’s your argument.)

    He’s certainly capable of doing those books without photo reference; his thumbnails and sketches are beautiful, perfect in their composition, anatomy and dynamics. I think he just enjoys the process of creating those costumes and photographing his friends wearing them.

    If you don’t like his work, that’s fine. But he’s “destroying comics?” C’mon, dial back the hyperbole. Comics are just fine.

    Artistically, comics are at an all-time high point right now, with a wealth of great currently-working artists, both newcomers as well as seasoned old hands. It has never been easier to access all the great comics of the past, with great new collections of classic material being published almost weekly.

  77. COOP says:

    You’re missing my point. If you don’t like Ross, there is a wealth of other stuff to enjoy more that is in line with your aesthetics. If Ross likes to paint pinups of Batman and spend hours carefully rendering every wrinkle in his tights, that’s his idea of fun, not yours. So why get upset about it?

    Comics isn’t a mighty oceangoing ship, and Alex Ross isn’t the drunk captain steering us all towards an iceberg. Comics is more like a bunch of little boats bobbing around in the waves, each holding a cartoonist or two. Maybe a few of those boats only have one oar, a hole in the bottom and no rations,
    but the vast majority are shipshape and well-equipped for survival.

  78. Dan Nadel says:

    I think at this stage we’re going to close down the thread. It’s pretty clear that it’s turned less into a dialogue and more into people just saying either (a) the same thing or (b) not addressing the topic. Once again, the topic was photo-referencing, and its affect on storytelling in comics.
    We’re not interested in anything else, really.

    I should note that the “if you don’t like, don’t read it” stance is utter bullshit. Critical thought is necessary for a medium to grow, and everyone is entitled to write critically (and, like Frank) knowledgeably about the form.

    Frank is a great conversation starter (clearly), but once the prankers and the people clearly not reading the preceding posts waltz in this conversation loses its usefulness. We’re not interested in turning this into or in courting the cranks, which is what the last 12 hours have been. We welcome open and helpful debate about these ideas, but it needs to be focused, polite and constructive.

    This has been great, and it’s a thrill to read so many well considered takes on the issues.

    No further comments will be accepted for publication.

    Thanks for a fun read.