Being larger than life is not a natural fit for Alex Ross. Once a shy kid who took refuge in drawing superheroes, the artist has grown into a kind of hero himself to comic book fans everywhere. The opening reception for a survey of his work at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge in November drew record crowds as fans, some in costume, came to meet their idol in person. It’s a fitting tribute for an artist who’s often been called the ‘‘Norman Rockwell of comic book art.’’
‘‘Heroes & Villains: The Comic Book Art of Alex Ross,’’ up through Feb. 24, traces Ross’s career back to his childhood in Lubbock, Texas, when he drew his first comic book heroes at age 4. Included in the exhibit, his crayon on paper drawing from 1974 shows remarkable skill for a 4-year-old. ‘‘Supper (sic) Heroes!’’ reads the child’s handwriting at the top of a picture that includes Batman, Robin, Spider-Man, and Captain Marvel, characters Ross watched on television as a small child. It foreshadows the work he would go on to make, including ‘‘Kingdom Come,’’ in which multiple superheroes come together in one miniseries.
Many kids draw comic book characters but for Ross, it was sort of the family business. His mother, Lynette, was an illustrator before having a family. ‘‘I didn’t see her draw that much but it was a nice thing that I knew she had this in her past history,’’ says Ross. Work by Lynette Ross is included in the exhibit.
When he was 10, he did an adaptation of ‘‘Plastic Man,’’ a humorous comic book series. The crayon on paper book, also in the show, depicts a man with Superman hair but dressed in a bizarre leotard and no tights. He updated the book three years later and again at 32 to demonstrate how far his skills had come. ‘‘You can recognize the ego at play — ‘one day the world will know how I’ve grown!’,’’ jokes Ross.
He acknowledges that ego accounts for the circumstances around his first comic book assignment. He completed the two-year program at the American Academy of Art in Chicago (also his mother’s alma mater) by age 19. ‘‘A friend knew I was desperate to get into comics as soon as I could and I’d do whatever it took to have the bragging rights to say I entered the field when I was still a teenager,’’ says Ross. Because of the way comics were dated two months ahead, it might appear that they were published when he was 20, but he’s careful to point out the discrepancy.
Since that first assignment, Ross has gone on to draw for both comic publishing giants, Marvel and DC Comics. His first big success came in 1993 with the graphic novel ‘‘Marvels,’’ which takes a realistic look at superheroes through the eyes of an ordinary man. It’s the realistic approach he takes with his paintings that fans have responded to, so much that he won the Comic Book Buyer’s Guide Favorite Painter award so many years in a row that they retired it.
That dedication to realism was, in part, influenced by the work of Norman Rockwell. ‘‘What you get with Rockwell,’’ says Ross, ‘‘is a heightened reality and there is a certain amount of exaggeration but for the most part it’s the intensity of that realism.’’ The exhibit traces that influence by putting the artists together to show the shared pictorial sensibility. Ross created a painting of Rockwell especially for this exhibit. The elder artist stands, head bowed, pipe in mouth and holding a flag over his shoulder. ‘‘I see him as a very humble figure as much as he is a hero, the flag is draped over his shoulder like a cape. He’s the embodiment of the American ideal to a degree,’’ says Ross.
‘I have no reason to complain. I’ve gotten to do things I never would have gotten to do.’
Another embodiment of the American ideal became the subject of another miniseries — “Uncle Sam.’’ Addressing many of the problems the country faces, the political commentary of the book was a departure for Ross as a way to appeal to readers who might not normally read comic books. His bread and butter, though, still comes from pop culture. Among other things, he’s currently tackling another iconic series, ‘‘Star Wars.’’
‘‘Star Wars,’’ ‘‘Spider-Man,’’ ‘‘Batman” — for a lot of kids out there, Ross has a dream job. While sometimes the business can get old, the art remains the thing. ‘‘I have no reason to complain. I’ve gotten to do things I never would have gotten to do.’’