Marvelous Talent

Appears in the July 2023 issue.

By Mike Thomas

Marvelocity celebrates a friendly neighborhood comic book artist

Captain America illustration by Alex Ross

For the last 30 years, one of America’s foremost comic book artists has plied his trade with ever-mounting success from a Chicago-area studio. Spider-Man, Captain America, Iron Man, Black Panther—at one time or another, they’ve all been meticulously rendered by the masterful hand of Alex Ross.

Alex Ross
Alex Ross

Now there’s a chance to see the veteran illustrator’s award-winning work for Marvel Comics even more up close and personal, when the Elmhurst Art Museum (150 S. Cottage Hill Ave.) hosts Marvelocity: The Art of Alex Ross. Based on Ross’s 2017 career retrospective book of the same name and running now to August 20, the exhibition features more than 50 pieces of his original work—everything from gouache paintings and sketches to life-size busts.

A variety of related programs will complement the exhibit, including comic book workshops, hands-on activities for student and family groups, a costumed figure-drawing class, and “dress up like a superhero” day. As a thematic companion, the museum also commissioned an outdoor public art installation called Superheroes in Wilder Park, on view through July 31. And, of course, there’ll be plenty of Marvel merch for sale. But Ross’s dazzling art is at the epicenter.

Spider-Man illustration by Alex Ross

“It’s one thing to see these images printed in a book; it’s another to go to a museum and see the actual originals,” says graphic designer Chip Kidd. A longtime friend of Ross’s, Kidd wrote the text for Marvelocity and is himself a publishing-industry luminary. “It’s an absolute revelation. I think that’s true across the board for comic book art in general. And this was all made by hand; Alex uses no computer effects whatsoever. It’s all gouache paint on paper. When I tell that to people who don’t know his work and I show them the books, they can barely believe it. Seeing [the work] up close is a great reminder that hand skills are not dead.”

Graphic designer Chip Kidd
Graphic designer Chip Kidd

Kidd’s deep admiration for Ross’s work has lots of high-profile company. As mega director and producer J.J. Abrams marveled (not sorry) in his introduction to the Marvelocity book, Ross “combines a remarkable, incomparable, classical artistry with the sheer fantasy of superheroes. In a style that owes as much to Normal Rockwell as it does to Jack Kirby, Ross makes the nearly impossible look easy: he brings our favorite characters to actual, familiar, relatable life.”

Asked why Ross’s superheroes stand out as unique in a veritable sea of comic book illustration, Kidd points to the tangible emotionality of Ross’s characters. They’re more than just idealized physical specimens—a quality that, for most people, is more aspirational than relatable—and their gestures and facial expressions help to humanize them. In other words, they are truly superhuman.

“What Alex does is create the illusion of three dimensions,” Kidd says, “which brings [his work] into our world as opposed to us looking at it through a window.”

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Art: Alex Ross. Photos: Remsy Atassi (Ross); Allan Amato (Kidd)