‘Marvelocity’ exhibit celebrates the superhero Chicago artist behind the superheroes

Elmhurst Art Museum presents Alex Ross’ realistic take on Captain America, Spider-Man and other comic-book crimefighters.

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Alex Ross, Captain America, “Marvelocity” cover (left) 2018, gouache; and Storm “Marvelocity” cover, 2018, gouache. 

Alex Ross’ gouache images of Captain America (left) and Storm from 2018 are part of the “Marvelocity” exhibition at the Elmhurst Art Museum.

Courtesy of Alex Ross

The name Alex Ross might not spark immediate recognition, but almost everyone has heard of the superheroes he has built a distinguished 30-year career drawing and painting, including Black Panther, Captain America, Spider-Man, Superman, Wonder Woman and the Fantastic Four.

Few artists are more revered within the comic-book realm than Ross, a longtime Chicago-area resident who will be showcased in a touring exhibition that opens June 3 and runs through Aug. 20 at the Elmhurst Art Museum.


‘Marvelocity: The Art of Alex Ross’

When: June 3-Aug. 20

Where: Elmhurst Art Museum, 150 S. Cottage Hill Ave.

Admission: $18

Info: elmhurstartmuseum.org

The show, titled “Marvelocity: The Art of Alex Ross,” features more than 50 gouache drawings, sketches, life-sized busts and other objects related to Marvel Comics and the artist’s 2018 retrospective, coffee-table book with a similar title.

John McKinnon, the museum’s executive director, expects the summer exhibition to draw 8,000-10,000 visitors — a large number for the small suburban institution.

“We know families are off, looking for things to do, and we have a big family audience as our base,” he said.

Accompanying “Marvelocity” is “Superheroes in Wilder Park,” a public-art installation (through July 31) with creations by area artists and youth groups, and such programs as costume-figure drawing workshops and Be Your Own Superhero Day on July 16.

Alex Ross, The Amazing Spider-Man mural.

A wall-sized mural of Spider-Man is one of the Alex Ross works on view in “Marvelocity” at the Elmhurst Art Museum.

Courtesy of Alex Ross

Comic-book imagery was not traditionally presented in art museums, but all that has changed as boundaries between so-called high and low art have disappeared and famed artists like the Chicago Imagists have drawn inspiration from such work.

“Over the last several years now,” Ross said, “we’ve had an acceptance within traditional art museums to allow for popular art of the world that I’m part of to break through in that field.”

“Marvelocity” was organized in 2019 by the Bess Bower Dunn Museum in Libertyville and it has been seen at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, and Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, Virginia.

The Elmhurst presentation will be the first time Ross’ art has been showcased in a closer Chicago suburb, and he is excited.

“It would be nice to get some recognition within my own general area, that’s for sure,” Ross said.

Alex Ross.

Alex Ross.

Remsy Atassi Photo

Ross, 53, got interested in the world of comic-book heroes when he was 4, after seeing Spider-Man on an episode of “The Electric Company,” a children’s television program, and later being given comic books adapted for younger readers. “It all led from that,” he said.

The youngster, who grew up in Lubbock, Texas, began experimenting with making his own comic books, which at first were just folded-over sheets of 8½-by-11-inch paper — a cover image with some interior art. As he got older, he developed longer, more complex stories, including a graphic-novel adaptation of the 1980 Flash Gordon movie.

Ross never made a conscious decision to become a professional artist.

“It was an instinct,” he said. “That’s what I would do. That’s how I would respond to my stimuli of life. I was drawing things before I got into comics and superheroes.”

When it came time for college, Ross followed in the footsteps of his mother, Lynette, a successful commercial artist in her own right, and attended the American Academy of Art in Chicago.

After graduation, he went to work in the storyboard department of Leo Burnett, the legendary Chicago advertising agency. With the help of a friend, he broke into the comic book world in 1989 at age 19, creating the five-issue mini-series “Terminator: The Burning Earth” for NOW Comics, released a year later.

After working on a few other projects, he and writer Kurt Busiek landed a significant breakthrough with Marvel Comics in 1994.

“It really set the tone,” Ross said, “for our entire careers separately, although we’ve worked together off and on for about 30 years now. That was the big way we got in.”

Titled “Marvels,” the four-issue mini-series offered a look at Marvel Comics history through the eyes of a fictional news photographer. “You’re getting this human perspective, going into that human being’s life along the way, but seeing the backdrop of the superheroes,” Ross said.

Superheroes in Wilder Park,” a public-art installation (through July 31) with creations by area artists and youth groups, accompanies “Marvelocity” at the Elmhurt Art Museum.

“Superheroes in Wilder Park,” a public-art installation (through July 31) with creations by area artists and youth groups, accompanies “Marvelocity” at the Elmhurt Art Museum.

Robert Apolinar

What has set apart Ross’ work and gotten him noticed along the way is his sense of realism, attention to detail and unusual use of gouache, an opaque equivalent of watercolor. “I was always wondering: What can I offer that’s going to be unique in terms of comics?” he said.

For part of his career, the artist was most identified with Superman, because of “Kingdom Come,” a highly successful four-issue mini-series published in 1996 by DC Comics.

“The way he is presented in that particular story line,” Ross said, “there is a gravity and heft to him that is not what is normally brought across. And that was very satisfying for me — feeling like I had brought a certain character to life.”

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