Review by C.J. Bunce

Anytime I get the chance to go behind the scenes in any industry I have tried to take full advantage of the opportunity.  I once performed in a band at Disney World in Orlando and enjoyed seeing the underworld that made the Disney operation work literally underneath the city.  I later worked at the Smithsonian Institution and got to witness a similar but greater operation in the vaults not under the museum but in the upstairs floors.  From the standpoint of a musician it is fascinating to stop and take stock of all that is required to make a symphony perform a complex work and make it sound perfect.  I get a similar level of excitement when interacting with writers and artists at conventions or via email or other encounters, and in particular watching an author build a universe where nothing had existed before.  Watching any artist in action is an education, an opportunity to learn, admire, and maybe even emulate if you have the discipline and desire.  Reading great words helps you become a better writer, and viewing great art gives you a better feel for design and form in general.

When an artist reveals his or her process, it is a lot like a magician showing how a magic trick works.  The risk is that some of the knowledge could make later viewings somehow less meaningful.  But when dealing with a great creator, no matter how much you learn about process, none of it takes away from the experience, because ultimately, merely having the knowledge of the “how it’s done,” doesn’t mean you can wander off and replicate it, because skill and artistry are greater than mere process.

Following my review this weekend of The Art of Drew Struzan, I think this is a great follow-up book in a similar vein.  I received my personal copy of Alex Ross’s Rough Justice: The DC Comics Sketches of Alex Ross from Alex Ross’s business partner, Sal Abbinanti around Christmas time.  It was like an early Christmas present.  Among other things, Sal is a long-time friend of Ross, and I can never get over the fact that Sal was a model for Ross’s classic Captain Marvel, maybe Ross’s most iconic superhero re-imagined.  If you ever are fortunate enough to deal with Sal, look for a great experience.

Rough Justice is a play on words.  “Roughs” are what Ross refers to as his work that is created in order to get to a final painting.  He uses thumbnails to get down the big picture and often to lay out the design for an entire work.  He often free-hand sketches with fluid movements, with sprawled out reference images surrounding him, in order to mock-up the image he sees in his head, well before he dips his brushes in gouache.  And of course the “Justice” in the title comes from his ongoing themes underlying his great superhero subjects and the title of one of his key series for DC Comics.

Maybe artists of equal or better skill will find things to critique in Ross’s artistic process revealed in Rough Justice.  But, if so, I bet that small group of artists is so small that I’d wager there would still be more praise given than not.  Ross isn’t apologetic that his images are realistic (some folks prefer more abstract elements).  Neither does he apologize for using actual models for his development of a scene.  His process is his process, yet it is likely using any other process would get him to the same results.  The same type of photo references are used by Drew Struzan and Frank Cho so it’s almost as if the very best artists use this method for a reason–it helps to make them the best.

I’ve mentioned before that I met the late Michael Turner at a convention a few years ago and he let me flip through all his great original art pages.  When you page through Rough Justice, you get a similar experience.  I found myself actually checking my hand for pencil smears, because the reproduction of Ross’s original pencil work is so nicely reproduced.  Ross notes that he does not rely on tracing or projections in his work.  Ross is as much penciller as painter, although the public rarely gets to see anything but his finely tuned painted works, and except for some convention sketch books, this book is the ultimate collection in a single volume.

Alex Ross's original sketch design for the new Batwoman

In Rough Justice the reader learns the great role Ross has in the development of sculpts for maquettes or action figures based on his version of characters.  This explains why so many of the figures based on his work are so accurate to the painted renderings.  We also learn Ross’s role in re-designing Batgirl and Batwoman–resulting in the singular look that became the current Batwoman.  And look for a number of “What ifs”–renderings that did not make it to a final form or comic book series.

Like Struzan, unfortunately Ross has encountered the same letdowns with the industry, less collaboration and more direction by the Powers That Be to punch out a final product, and similar bumps.  Yet his work reflects none of this.  Rough Justice includes extensive images of Batman, Superman and Captain Marvel, as well as images from Kingdon Come, Justice League of America, Justice Society of America, and Ross’s many anniversary edition over-sized coffee table editions.  Rough Justice does not include a lot of text, but what is there highlights Ross’s thoughts behind his work and process.  And along with the images Ross includes all the margin notes from the original art, indicating notes to himself or others, giving the reader yet another angle into his creative process.

Rough Justice is a good companion to The Art of Drew Struzan.  It’s a good reference work, a fine chronicle of Ross’s art, and its great presentation and superb images qualifies this as a nice coffee table book.

Rough Justice: The DC Comics Sketches of Alex Ross lists for $30.00 but is available for much less at online retailers.

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