Jack Kirby Collector Edited by John Morrow Jack Kirby Collector celebrates the life and career of the "King" of comics through interviews with Kirby and his contemporaries, feature articles, and rare & unseen Kirby artwork. Now in tabloid format, the magazine showcases Kirby's art at even larger size.

Alex Ross Interview

Interviewed by George Khoury

From Jack Kirby Collector #27

Who can forget the first time they saw an illustration by Alex Ross? He is quite possibly the most popular artist to arrive on the comics scene since the Neal Adams experience of the late Sixties. He blew us away with his romanticized vision of the Marvel Universe in Marvels. Kingdom Come caused shockwaves throughout the industry and fandom for its sheer power and epic storytelling. And with Earth X, Ross continues to develop as a storyteller, exploring the inner workings of Marvel's characters, especially many of the ones created by Jack Kirby. Our thanks to Alex for taking time out of his busy schedule to conduct this telephone interview in late 1999, and to Gary Land for supplying much of the Ross art that accompanies it here.

Alex's unused pencil rough for a proposed recreation of the cover to Captain America #1.
Pencil art © Alex Ross. Captain American and Bucky ™ and © Marvel Characters, Inc.

THE JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR: How has Jack Kirby been an influence on you?

ALEX ROSS: For me, he's more of a direct influence upon artists who have influenced me. I'm one of those guys who grew up reading comics by guys who were influenced by Kirby. Even though I did see Kirby—I don't know; as early as when I was five when he was doing the Sandman comic for DC. I love that comic to this day; it's one of my favorite things that was forgotten about him. But guys like George Pérez, who he influenced heavily—just about everybody drawing comics post-1960s had a huge amount of Kirby in them, whether they like it or not. Even Neal Adams probably owes a great deal to Kirby because of the energy the man put into the entire nature of the art form.

TJKC: In your opinion, where does Jack Kirby fit into the history of comics?

ALEX: Well, I've said this before in interviews: I feel like Jack is, more or less, the Picasso of comics. He took the form from an infancy stage—you know, the basic illustrations—to all different levels till eventually creating his own form of art out of the language of comics. Also, his expression was indigenous to comics; the energy that he gave comics was unlike anything else, anywhere else.

TJKC: What were your first Kirby books? Was it mostly his '70s work?

ALEX: I had a handful of them, and very early on I was familiar with the stuff he was doing for Marvel in the Seventies. I was also equally familiar with reprints, the origin stories of this or that Marvel character (because Marvel was doing a lot of paperbacks at that time) and so I was seeing some of the earliest adventures he had drawn of the FF, Avengers, or whatever. At an early age I was seeing the stuff that really made him famous—really made him what he was to the comics industry.

TJKC: Were you naturally drawn to his stuff, or was it too rough for your taste?

ALEX: In a weird way I did have a natural draw to it to some degree. In that time period I was personally influenced by what John Romita or Neal Adams brought to art. Those guys were actually a bigger, more direct inspiration on what I thought was the ultimate comics style, but then Kirby had this unbelievable charm for me. I know it doesn't sound right to just put it in terms of charm, but that's really what it wound up being. I really loved what his stuff looked like.

TJKC: Do you ever wonder what drove him to do comics for over fifty years, in all different genres?

ALEX: It seems to me that he was always exploring different stuff. In the Forties, he bounced around with a lot of different titles other than Captain America. Then going into romance, going into the humor stuff that he did, going into all the stuff that occupied his time in the Fifties—I mean, the guy tried to do so many different things. He always kept trying to expand his horizons. The reason that he had such a long history of super-heroes is that he always found new concepts and new creative room to expand upon them.

TJKC: It appears that a person like Kirby only comes every hundred years. How desperately does this industry need a new Kirby to inject some life into it?

ALEX: I don't know if it's so much based upon just the talent of a talented individual, you know? Kirby wasn't the reason why comics sold in the first place; that can't be credited to him. Kirby has more to do with the greatest work, the most inspiring work, that happened within comics. He doesn't deserve the credit of being necessarily the juggernaut of why comics ever sold, period. In fact, the comics that Kirby is most associated with weren't often the best-selling comics of their time.

I don't need to argue what Kirby's worth was. In essence Kirby's greatest accomplishment was the degree to which one man could inspire so many others—that his works last for so long. There's simply no better creative force within American comics. Having said that, let me clarify this is American comics, not worldwide comics—because there are plenty of comics around the world, outside the fact that comics were invented in America. Their styles are not affected at all by whatever Kirby did, and in fact they have a better, more stable industry than we have. Japan is not really reeling because of what Jack Kirby did. But as far as America goes, he's tops. He's the thing.

TJKC: With the Kirby recreations that you've done, you've had a chance to study his art a little closer than others. Where is the power inside his art?

ALEX: The layout. The energy that is in every single stroke the guy put in. You could sit there and take it apart and compare it to other illustrators and say, "Well, it's not as realistic as this or as over-rendered as this." But it's all based upon the energy of the layout, the energy of the line—which is simple enough on its own. By looking at the Kirby Collector, you can really see just how much more power there was in his pencils than any inker, generally, was able to capture.

TJKC: What was the process behind the Captain America artwork you did for the cover of TJKC #19?

ALEX: I basically just xeroxed it right out of my Steranko's History of Comics so I already had a copy of the thing. What I did was I took the xerox of that, blew it up to the size I wanted the piece to be, and then had that transferred to a board. I would than basically redraw every single line over his, down the board. I was basically redrawing the thing; before that, all I did was a rough sketch of the same piece to sort of loosely break down the shadow areas that I was going to create that Kirby did not have already, and I was taking the same light sources that he already created: The explosions, the gun blast, and taking all of that and using that as where the lights were coming from. So you can sort of figure those figures lit by those particular points. It creates certain shadows here and there that Kirby might not have been considering fully, and the thing is that it didn't really change too drastically what he already had there, it just sort of augmented it.

TJKC: Were you given a choice as to what piece you would paint? What attracted you to that drawing?

ALEX: That was my choice; John [Morrow] was talking about a [different] piece that he thought I might be interested in, which he eventually did run as a recent cover—I think the Red Skull was in it.

TJKC: The one Dan Adkins inked [TJKC #25]?

ALEX: Yeah. I just thought, "You know what? If I'm only gonna get to do one piece like this in my entire life...", I wanted it to be something that... I know I love it. I know I wanted to paint it. I just kept thinking, "I'd rather paint that Steranko piece." That's when I started talking about it. Had anybody actually even inked the thing? Because nobody even inked it at that point. It was totally up in the air for somebody to come in and do what I did.

TJKC: In that issue, Dave Stevens inked the same piece.

ALEX: Right. That turns out to be this really weird twist of fate, where Stevens [inked it] without any knowledge of what I was doing. It was kind of screwy that they even printed it in the same issue. But John told Stevens what the plans were, and Stevens didn't mind that we would sort of be basically running against each other. If I were Stevens I wouldn't have wanted that to be the case. I would have said either put me in the issue before or after or whatever. I didn't think it would be a good thing to have two artists so directly compared like that; I don't think it benefits anybody because all people are going to do is just sit there and go, "Huh? I see that he did this and he didn't do this."

TJKC: Yeah, it sort of becomes like that book on comic book inking where there's the same panel inked by twelve different guys.

ALEX: Right. I don't want to beat out anybody else, and I don't want to be directly compared to anybody else. I think it creates a level of animosity no matter what you do, so I almost prefer to stay away from that kind of thing; but again, Dave knew exactly what they had planned for it.

TJKC: What's the origin of the Mister Miracle and New Gods sketches [shown here]?

ALEX: Well, I threw a bunch of different covers at Overstreet to do recreations of.

TJKC: So they all had Kirby for the main theme?

ALEX: No, not all of the them. That was the year I did Avengers #4 and a recreation of the Superboy cover—that was a Curt Swan recreation. But the two pieces kind of parallel well enough, so I did wind up doing one Kirby recreation and another that wasn't. They could have picked covers like the Mister Miracle #1 or the New Gods #1.

Alex's pencil rough for his version of the cover to Mister Miracle #1.
Pencil art © Alex Ross. Mr. Miracle ™ and © DC Comics, Inc.

TJKC: Are these some of your favorite covers?

ALEX: I just think that they are covers that stand out; we all know them instinctively. I like to do that: To take covers that we all know very well, that have sort of a presence in the history of comics, and do them again, just so you can see what the take might be. A lot of times I'm thinking about how I'd be capturing what the artist himself was thinking of. When I recreated the Captain America #1 piece, I altered the way that Cap's jumping out at you. It's the kind of force, the intent of that—it may not translate as much to modern audiences the way that it might with a little bit more of the polish that comes with painting. With the figures, I overstress a lot of the drama in the placement of people's bodies and the placement of Cap in the scene. I would never claim that I was actually improving upon what Kirby did. It's just sort of like I'm hyping the tension. I did recreations of X-Men #1, Fantastic Four #1, and in each case I follow generally the same principle. You find that if you compare all of those pieces a lot of the same aesthetics are being tried. Where I take an actual lower angle on the shot, maybe I close in a little. These are also not necessarily Kirby's greatest compositions, but probably the most classic covers we remember of things that he did covers for. Let's say for example, the covers of Action Comics #1 and Superman #1 are not the best pieces that Joe Shuster ever did of Superman; he actually got to be a very good artist beyond that point, but still that's what is known the most. Avengers #1 has a cover we all know pretty well, but it's a sh*tty cover. You've got Loki barely on the side. It's not a dramatic shot for your first issue cover of a brand new group of super-heroes.

TJKC: I loved your Fantastic Four #1 recreation in which you slanted the angle, making a more dramatic cover.

ALEX: I'm giving you a little bit of a sense of vertigo. I'm thrusting you. The arm of the monster seems to be raised more and it thrust the camera through more. It's stuff that I feel when I think about the cover as I remember it. It's the kind of energy that Kirby's stuff infused in me, but maybe the placement of it is a little bit more Neal Adams or something.

TJKC: What would have a completed New Gods #1 by you looked like? Would it have had that collage-type thing behind Orion?

ALEX: I was probably going to create it with a real brilliant sunflare behind him and have a lot of glow coming off that—a lot of rim lighting of the figure and then some underlighting to underscore exactly how clearly we see Orion. Maybe it would increase a sense of mood and drama or even darkness about the character. All those things would have been possible with that.

TJKC: One of your most interesting Kirby interpretations is your vision of Orion in Kingdom Come. How did you arrive at this conclusion?

ALEX: Well, I never officially knew anything about what Kirby intended for the future of the New Gods storyline. I just really felt like the kind of things he was laying down about "like father, like son" could be played out in this sort of pastiche with the Godfather film where you see Michael Corleone essentially become his father by the end of the movie. Everything about his personal character seems to be driven to make sure that didn't happen to him, but that's exactly what happens to him. In some ways it's slightly different, but it's a feeling that ultimately there's been a failure of fulfillment—that the person just became their father.

TJKC: Which are genuinely your favorite Kirby moments, and why do these stand out?

ALEX: Generally, I love the Kirby sense of design. It's probably a whole thing unto itself; Kirby took it to a whole new alien level, like some of the more freaky stuff he started to do in New Gods and Eternals. My favorite designs are probably the designs he did of the Celestials; really freaked-out stuff that was just completely incomparable to anybody else—completely his own thing.

TJKC: Is there a particular Kirby character that you really love?

ALEX: That's a pretty heavy question, because there are so many. In a weird way, my first exposure to Kirby as an artist and as a designer was the 1970s Sandman series he drew, which was very short-lived, but I really loved that character design. I love that character. I always thought it was a shame that nobody ever really did anything cool with it after he left. Nobody embraced it with the same respect that they give the New Gods, so it just kind of got dumped on by a lot of different people, including Neil Gaiman.

But as far as any specific guys, I love Captain America, Reed Richards, The Thing, all those guys equally. Jim Krueger and I have a special affinity for Machine Man that we had talked about for years before realizing how we would make use of him as our lead protagonist [in Earth X], and then just how much more that turned out to make sense over time. It was weird how it worked out to such benefit. It's my belief that we tapped into a lot of the things that Kirby had, where he just started these characters initially—like, you know, Machine Man was HAL 9000 from 2001, taken to the point of being a hero instead of a villain.

TJKC: He was the robot with a soul.

ALEX: Right. That's what the movie did with him, and then of course it was something that Kirby gravitated towards by doing the 2001 adaptation and then working on the series—and then Machine Man was born out of that as a response. I believe—I don't think I have to ask Kirby this to find out—that he was really taking the HAL 9000 concept to the point of, "Why does a robot have to turn out to be a villain?"; when in fact the robot turns out to be a sort of Adam of the human creator, who more or less has abandoned this creature to fend for itself. In fact, this Machine Man turns out to be the best of what a man can be. That actually was the simple moral tale that Kirby wanted to relate. I think that we were able to readdress a lot of that same sense that Kirby had with it, and take it to a level that was right within the same framework. We brought it right back to the root of 2001 by using the Monolith again, which he used in the initial phase of the character. It brings it full circle with other aspects of the world Kirby created with the Watcher on the moon, that relationship with Earth, the history of The Eternals as far as them coming from the Celestials, and how it all relates with Marvel history.

TJKC: Do you ever find it scary that many people who work in the medium today don't know who Jack Kirby was, and what he meant to this industry?

ALEX: I don't think that 'scary' is the term I would use. It's more 'unfortunate,' but to a certain degree it doesn't matter because the truth of the matter is that no matter who they're being influenced by out there, those people are being influenced by Kirby—and whether or not they realize it or want to admit it, Kirby influenced the entire field. The field was never the same after the work he did within it. So I could be a huge follower of guys that are all post-Kirby, but that's the thing: They're all post-Kirby.

TJKC: Do you think there might have been times that Kirby questioned why he continued to work in this mostly thankless industry?

ALEX: I don't believe that's the case. If you want to say thankless in terms of money—that he might have gotten screwed out of rights or—!

TJKC: But you know there are times this industry is pretty harsh on its creators.

ALEX: The business side of it, the business sucks. Just about everybody that's been through it has been scarred by it unless they worked out a really good deal up-front. You're gonna have your Kevin Eastmans, but you're going to have more guys like Bill Finger who co-created Batman, but his name isn't on it—just like Jack Kirby's name isn't on Fantastic Four whenever you see it appear, and it probably will never appear on there.

TJKC: Just the fact that New Gods wasn't finished the way it should have been was a big enough crime.

ALEX: That was unfortunate, but again, when you're going to work with DC and Marvel, they're "the man." They can pull the rug from under you at any time. I don't like it but I have to put up with it. I can make my own decision about when I'm not willing to put up with that anymore. I always feel, myself, that I'm walking on a tightrope that's eventually going to be pulled out from under me. And everything that I've invested myself, emotionally and businesswise, is going to be wrecked by some thoughtless action on the part of a major publisher I work with.

TJKC: How does a renaissance man like yourself do Earth X and go into the future of these characters—and at the same time do you believe that you've succeeded in keeping the Lee and Kirby essence alive?

ALEX: If we haven't proven that to everybody who's actually reading the series, I don't know what series they've been reading; because everything we've been doing in the entire first double-sized issue of the series was all about the history that related to the stuff that Jack created. There's always going to be a debate about "who did what?" in Fantastic Four writing, right?

TJKC: Yes.

ALEX: Or Thor or any of that stuff. But all the stuff Jack did when he came back to Marvel in the Seventies, we know he wrote it all because it said so. That's the stuff we actually went with the most: Everything that's related to Machine Man and the Eternals, which means the history of the Celestials. The Celestials wind up being the most important thing about the Earth X series as far as what they did to mankind—why the world is what it is. The visual changes that might seem extreme or immediately unorthodox to the fan's reception of those characters is really born of the history of the characters.

Captain America is Jack Kirby's first main character, with Joe Simon. In a lot of ways he's a very tragic hero, because he's the soldier for whom the war never ends. For him to be revived from the Forties into the Sixties, and still be fighting what seems to be an infinite battle with various forces of evil—this is a guy who's cursed by the fact that he is the ultimate soldier who serves no other purpose in life than to be that. He's never ever been allowed another side to his life. He hasn't developed a lot of really notable personal relationships of the normal kind.

TJKC: Yeah, it's not like he can take a day off or something.

ALEX: Right, he really has always been that leader. It's what he was designed to be. It's what he was created to be as a man. So we have that, as far as it wearing on him in his future. The scars that are personal to him are now visual; the fact that he was a man essentially wearing a flag instead of something that's a designed costume. That's a reflection that he's somewhat decayed; that's a reflection, more or less, of the nature of the country today, really—not even so much the country of the future, but just what the truth is.

So again, in defense of the whole thing as it relates to the history of super-heroes, we spend four pages in the beginning of each book going through why you should give a sh*t about any of these characters. For those who are uninitiated and for those who already are, we're giving you a different perspective in a way to look at the historical events leading up to these characters' lives and importance. So I don't argue that everything about Earth X is an appreciation and a celebration of the history of even the present of Marvel Comics, but specifically of what came from the original twenty years of Marvel Comics publishing. Look at every single thing I did; there's somewhere you can bounce it back to the history of those characters, and some things that are having some fun at the expense of things, like making a fat Spider-Man. In a lot of ways I'm making fun of the comics fan with that; here's a guy who is sort of like the fan-favorite super-hero, and at a certain point he just becomes a regular guy. He's beat himself up for letting himself go; when you work it into the actual story, it makes so much sense with the personal character and history of Peter Parker. Anybody looking at what I did with Kingdom Come or Earth X can compare it back to where the idea came from. What I'm going back to is the root. In a lot of ways, the best way to see something for what it is, is to reexamine it from a fresh perspective, and a lot of it has to do with changing what appears to be in the immediate visual.

TJKC: Your stories bring back a lot of that classic grandeur that's quite reminiscent of the glory days of Kirby. Is this an element that you find lacking in today's comics?

ALEX: I find that everybody is trying to do their best for the most part. So much of it is regurgitation of what they've already read and I've already read. The best you can try and do is take a few steps backwards and reassess for yourself the whole thing as much as you can. If that's influenced by Kirby, or if I'm following through on something he was doing, that's cool.

For more great Ross art, be sure to pick up our Twentyseventh Issue!

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