Image Courtesy of Alex Ross, Mythology: Superman, 2005. Collection of the Artist. SUPERMAN, ®, ™, and © DC Comics.

Guest Post by T. Johnson

Heroes and Villains, an exhibit featuring the art of comic book great Alex Ross, is currently at Pittsburgh’s Warhol Museum.  It includes over 130 works, including paintings, drawings, small sculptures, and even childhood material.  I recently visited the Warhol to check it out and was awed by the skill and incredible range of Ross’s work.

I’ve been impressed by his painted comics since reading the graphic novel series The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes some years before, especially enjoying the JLA: Secret Origins story. This show has a lot more Justice League stuff, plus a generous helping of Marvel characters and miscellaneous drawings.

Fans of Ross know that he depicts his hero subjects in a hyper-realistic yet idealized fashion.  You can tell right away that this is the work of someone who has always loved comics.  Like many artists (and fans), he became interested at a young age, and one of his first drawings of Spider-Man (done at age 4) can be seen at the exhibit.

By age eight, he was drawing his own books, and he eventually studied formally at the American Academy of Art in Chicago. Ross was initially noted for Marvels (1994), a re-telling (by Kurt Busiek) of the origins of Marvel Comics characters  as witnessed by news photographer/Everyman Phil Sheldon.  A group of sketches  and actual covers for Marvels is in the show, including  a poignant painting of the X-Man Angel protectively holding a child in his arms while anti-mutant protestors rage below him.

It was the artist`s life-long love of the Justice League which inspired  DC series Kingdom Come (1996) and Greatest Super-Heroes (1998-2003). The show is heavy on DC characters: detailed portraits of nearly every JLA member are the first works one notices. There`s even a section on 1970`s Hanna-Barbera  TV show Super-Friends, an early influence on the young Ross.  Super-Friends episodes play on a small screen near sketches for Kingdom Come.

Ross emphasizes the positive qualities of comic book heroes. His universe is one of moral absolutes, with little room for ambiguity. Yet the triumph of good over evil he portrays feels fresh and optimistic rather than cliched. In fact, I got a sense of this optimism just by observing the delighted reactions of viewers. Whether devoted older fans or very young children, everyone was excited and chatting about the art.

The exhibit also has a small selection of works by Ross’s other influences, 1940`s illustrators Norman Rockwell and J.C. Leyendecker.  And there is art by his mother, former fashion artist Lynnette Ross. Appropriately enough, this includes a charming pencil drawing of a model dressed in a “Bat-lady” outfit with wings and a cowl!

It`s hard to not be enthused about this detailed and well-curated retrospective, and the added bonus is that Heroes and Villains is done with such respect for comic book art. This is truly an unusual show which is well worth the trip for any fan.

T. Johnson is a blogger, au pair, and part-time tutor who has been obsessed with science fiction and comics since roughly first grade. One of her life`s big revelations was discovering Wonder Woman comics-another milestone was  starting to read the works of Heinlein and Aldous Huxley. She has always been convinced  that girls can be as truly nerdy as any fanboy.