Alex Ross creates heroes you believe really exist, who truly walk among us – or fly above us, anyway. For decades the artist’s painted heroes have popped off the page. They strike with awe, tickle with delight, maybe even induce a little fear. Comics have always been pop art, but the way Ross painted our lifelong super friends made you think it possible for a superhero to breathe, blink, be.
There’s a reason his works are displayed in museums, once alongside those of his inspiration Norman Rockwell. Even when rendered postage-stamp small, Ross’ photorealistic heroes are larger-than-life.
Look no further than the covers Ross painted for the prestige-format graphic novels Superman: Peace on Earth and Batman: War on Crime in the late 1990s, each of which is available in Heritage Auctions’ Sept. 8-12 Comics and Comic Art Signature Auction.
They’re intimate, wounded close-ups gracing poignant widescreen tales, written by Paul Dini, about heroes struggling in vain to fix a broken world. In his book, Superman strives to end the planet’s hunger and finds his attempt to provide “comfort for those in want, pain and fear” proves “shortsighted and disastrous.” In his story, Batman hopes to ease a young boy’s pain lest he, too, succumbs to a world filled with the very violence and corruption that made young Bruce Wayne the Batman.
Each hero, confronted time and again by tragedy and exploitation, discover there’s no easy fix; hubris renders even the earth’s mightiest super friends vulnerable. The covers, initially auctioned as charitable fundraisers, reflect the anguish of heroes accustomed to punching their way to truth and justice.
“All of these ‘tabloid’ books take on basic problems within the human condition, which the heroes have no hope of solving,” Ross says in Mythology: The DC Comics Art of Alex Ross. “The point is: What they can ultimately do is not suggest a pat solution, but a viable first step.”
Over time these covers would become some of Ross’ most identifiable and indelible images; DC made available signed lithographs in limited quantities that quickly sold out. For the original paintings to be sold in the same auction might well be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for fans of Ross and the heroes he brought to life.
“These two covers are incredible as a pair – incredible images of two of the most iconic superheroes of all time, rendered impeccably in Ross’s trademark style and both coming from what most collectors consider his most desirable period,” says Heritage Auctions Vice President Todd Hignite. “Iconic is a term likely overused in our field, but these originals absolutely qualify.”
Perhaps that’s because these images more than most speak to Ross’ fundamental belief that “these characters are about action beyond yourself,” as he once told the Dallas Observer. The son of “a liberal minister,” as Ross once put it, and a commercial artist, Ross in the 1990s became the comics industry’s go-to when it needed stories about more than the bam-and-pow to fill a few panels. He is storyteller, proselytizer, conscience, caretaker and the one man who could make immortals never seen more human than when in his hands.
“It’s what that character is capable of,” Ross said when these books were first published. “It’s what that concept is good for. The hope is that you begin to instill in other people a sense of the passion and the understanding of the values that those characters are supposed to represent. I mean, ultimately superheroes were created as not just entertainment icons, but as metaphors for virtuous thought. The entire concept of the superhero is an altruistic act, so, therefore, there’s a philosophy behind that that is generally lost on modern society. Are these comics going to be part of rekindling a little bit of that? I can only pray so, but you never know if that is going to be the case.”