The Fanboy might have sold off his comics collection, gone to college, gotten a respectable job and a respectable house with a respectable wife and their respectable kids, but he never quite disappears beneath the artifice of so-called normalcy. The Fanboy forever lingers. He may hide and hold his breath, but he's just dying to get out. The Fanboy, the grown-up who can no longer tell where nostalgia ends and necessity begins, waits only for the signal: The coast is clear. Your heroes have not abandoned you.
In 1994, The Fanboy was awakened from his reverie by an astonishing comic book--though, to call it a "comic" somehow diminishes its value. Marvels was far more than just one more issue of disposable pulp fiction to be read and tossed aside; seriously, it cost six bucks an issue. Told from the point of view of a photographer named Phil Sheldon, Marvels featured the entire cavalcade of stars from the Marvel universe: the Sub-Mariner, Captain America, Thor, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and on and on. All of them appeared in familiar settings: Captain America fighting the Nazis, the FF and Silver Surfer battling Galactus, Spider-Man trying to save Gwen Stacy from the Green Goblin.
But these two-dimensional characters seemed somehow more real this time around: They no longer existed as flat, lifeless drawings that spoke in balloons, but as flesh-and-blood creatures who literally walked among us, inspiring both awe and fear. Their uniforms wrinkled; their eyes glistened; their skin shone. As seen through Phil Sheldon's camera lens, these heroes were--for really the first time--larger than life. They were no longer trapped on a dull page; they radiated.
Just like that, Alex Ross--who was then just a kid in his 20s drawing and painting and bringing to life his childhood heroes--reinvented the comic book, or so it appeared at the time. He and collaborator Kurt Busiek, who wrote Marvels using Ross' original concept, had created a comic book that read like a novel and looked like a movie (not even Frank Miller's masterpiece The Dark Knight Returns, featuring Batman as hoary bad-ass, accomplished such a feat). Ross also rescued the comics business, for a moment: His Marvels sold in the hundreds of thousands, despite the high price tag. The four issues sold out, and the hardback and paperback collections continue to move out of comic shops and bookstores.
Marvels made Ross a star in the comic business: No longer would he have to illustrate Terminator and Hellraiser books, which is where he got his start at the beginning of the 1990s. He could, for the most part, call his own shots. As he was finishing Marvels, he conceived a story involving Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and every other DC Comics icon past and present. Only, where Marvels was about the birth of heroes, 1996's Kingdom Come would be about the death of them. In that series, set 20 years in the future, a bearded Superman is retired to the farm, a broken Batman is buried in the Batcave, Captain Marvel has lost his marbles, and the world has been torn apart by a new generation of violent superheroes with no one to fight but themselves.
The 30-year-old Ross has, in a decade of illustrating and inventing comics, reawakened The Fanboy within. He has given those of us who had long ago lost interest in comics a reason to return to the comic shops: He managed to commingle the lowbrow with the highbrow, bestowing upon the medium a touch of class it never really had. Comics may have always been pop art, but the way Ross painted Superman made you think it possible for a superhero to breathe, blink, be. His comics should hang in a museum.
But Ross hasn't merely reinvented the heroes of his childhood; he is paying them earnest tribute. In Marvels, he didn't place the X-Men between quotation marks. In Kingdom Come, he didn't kill off Green Arrow and myriad other heroes for kicks. He treated those characters with respect; he gave them dignity. He made them recognizable, even a little human: Ross has often painted Bruce Wayne with dozens of thick scars splayed across his back. For him, superheroes aren't the stuff of fantasy and fiction. They are, when stripped of the medium's silly conventions, righteous do-gooders. To Ross, superheroes are who we should be, but rarely are.
"The way any of that could ever work is where it's visible your heart is true to the material," Ross says. "It works when you're not coming to it with a sense of irony or with a smirk on your face toward the material: 'Hey, ya know, I'm just knocking out this comic because they're paying me to do it.' I could have taken the first offer that came my way after Marvels. Marvel's offer to keep me back there was, 'Why don't you work with Stan Lee on something? You know, you guys could take one of those old stories and, you know, you could redo it. You like all that old shit, don't you? That's obviously why you did Marvels--because you're a big, old fucking fanboy or something.' They had such an incredibly limited vision for what was possible. But a lot of what's made me successful to a strong degree in this business is that it's obvious I'm a fiend for this stuff. I've been willing to say, look, this stuff is pure to me. It's important to me. Superman or any of these icons have intrinsic value other than the fact they're nostalgic for me. I think that they have a use to the world--period. They're not just stupid and shouldn't be ignored in the fashion that they normally are."