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Rough Justice
posted May 17, 2010


Creators: Alex Ross, Chip Kidd
Publishing Information: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, hardcover, 224 pages, March 2010, $30
Ordering Numbers: 0375714901 (ISBN10) 9780375714900 (ISBN13)

I don't know what to think about Alex Ross. I mean beyond the fact that he's an obviously talented and highly compensated artist, he has a proven track record, and that people from a variety of places within comics tend to think well of him. Certainly Rough Justice wasn't the book to go to for answers. It's an art book featuring Ross' pencils, sometimes placed against the work that came after. Dan Nadel recently spoke of his trouble in understanding Jack Kirby's work through the iconic characters he sometimes created and frequently drew. He prefers the King's non-superhero art as a way to orient himself to artistic qualities that just don't come out in pictures of Thor or Orion. Ross' adherence to iconic comic book characters dwarfs Kirby's; I'm not sure if I focused solely on Ross's work with non-iconic characters I'd be looking at very many images at all. Moreover, Ross has an expansive list of what he sees as iconic. When I think of the Captain Marvel TV show I think of the odd set-up of boy, man and van. When Ross thinks of Shazam, he seems to remember contrasting hairstyles and the chiseled features of Jackson Bostwick, which he turns around, employs and flatters.

imageMy misstep with Ross could be that I'm constantly looking for some sort of animating principle. Chip Kidd's introduction suggests that Ross' work is about power, and that's fair enough, but I can't tell beyond that how the artist feels about the direction of the expressiveness in his work. I lack the skill to suss a lot of nuance on the matter out of the art itself. One problem is that the narratives his art tends to illustrate seem banal to me, or at best more clever than insightful. In one of the not-accepted character proposals in the book, Ross suggests a creator's excitement over the idea of healing the crippled Batgirl in a Ra's al Ghul Lazarus Pit, and how this would make the resulting character darker and more driven. The problem is these aren't startling inspirations; they're elements of the kind of facile pitch based on existing concepts that would likely reveal itself in any five-minute-long editorial meeting about the character. There's something very parental about a lot of his superheroes: the fact that they're sometimes adorned with the accoutrement one expects of royalty or rich people (I saw one Ross picture of Wonder Woman and Superman recently that made me think of my parents dressed up for a charity event); the softer, rounder bodies of a generation past; the suggestion of age that seems slightly out of whack with preferred editorial directive; the fact that you always seem to be looking up at them. But I'm not sure where to go after that, and that's not exactly A-list insight. One of the reasons I expect that Ross is such an emblematic image maker for the current DC Comics regime is that there's little editorial self-criticism inherent in their main cast of characters. Most of the recent DC mega-series can be boiled down to rambling missives about how awesome their characters are. Ross certainly brings that kind of unquestioned majesty to a lot of his pictures.

Seeing the work in penciled form lets me see the animation behind the imagery, and appreciate Ross's fundamentals, but I'm not sure the experience for most fans isn't the same as it would be for a book of his paintings: let the cool pictures overwhelm you, drink in the tweaks in accepted character direction suggested by design, laugh at some of the oddities like Grant Morrison as Brainiac. I thought the most valuable sections were on Ross' approach to book design, which I think is slightly left of mainstream and not at all as accepted a thing as his image making. There is also a foray into the Bruce Timm style, which is intriguing for the different set of stylistic tools involved, although I can't help but think that Ross uses them to much the same end as his more standard, painted work. I liked the book, it certainly set me thinking about the artist, and Chip Kidd's ongoing endorsement will have me think about him some more. I'm just not there yet, and this book clearly wasn't the express bus to enlightenment.