Alter Ego home page Edited by Roy Thomas Alter Ego, the greatest 'zine of the '60s, is all-new, focusing on Golden and Silver Age comics and creators with articles, interviews and unseen art. Each issue includes an FCA (Fawcett Collectors of America) section, Mr. Monster & more!

"Let Their Past Be Their Past!"

Alex Ross Conducts a Walking Tour of His Early-'90s Marvel Family Project-Revealing Awesome, Previously-unglimpsed Work!

by Roy Thomas

From Alter Ego Vol. 3 #3

The Marvel Family- Cap, Mary, and Jr.- as visualized in 1991 by Alex Ross. [All art accompanying this article is ©1999 Alex Ross; Marvel Family ©1999 DC Comics Inc.]

Alex Ross is, of course, one of the true phenomena on the contemporary comics scene-perhaps the one artist who has successfully married the super-hero and the art of painted storytelling (as opposed to merely covers).

I personally, for instance, am far from convinced that paintings and comics of any kind are generally a good marriage; the two often seem to me as if they are merely staying together "for the sake of the kids." But when Alex Ross does it, it works.

Thus, when FCA editor P.C. Hamerlinck and I were discussing possibilities for the first Captain Marvel-related cover on an issue of Alter Ego, Vol. 3, and Paul said he thought Alex Ross (whom I have never met, so far as I know) might have some Cap color art, my ears perked up.

Paul told me Ross had been working on a Shazam! project in the early 1990s, while Jerry Ordway was preparing his own then-future (and recently cancelled) DC series starring the Big Red Cheese. Paul had been given permission to utilize one such painting as the cover of FCA #59, and one or two of Alex's preliminary line-drawings had been printed in a Midwestern comic shop's catalog-but that was about it.

Soon I was speaking by phone with Alex Ross, who was gracious, friendly, and encouraging. He even sent me unpublished artwork of the Fawcett heroes which he had done at that time.

Alex also agreed to talk with me about his abortive project. Unfortunately, I was unable to utilize my tape recorder that day, so I had to resort to taking notes. Still, I hope I caught enough of what he had to say to prove of interest to readers of A/E and FCA.

Thus, without further ado, A/E presents the Shazam! art of Alex Ross, with commentary by Alex as quoted and paraphrased by Yours Truly:

Circa 1991-1992, while waiting for approval by Marvel of the Marvels series he and Kurt Busiek had proposed, Alex took a look at DC's heroes, to see which ones he might especially like to draw and paint.

He almost immediately thought, he says, of the Marvel Family, which at that time hadn't been around in a regular series for several years.

He knew, naturally, that fellow artist Jerry Ordway had begun work on his Shazam! graphic novel. In fact, pieces of art from it had been shown at comics conventions for some time. But the graphic novel still seemed far from completion, so Alex began work on his own version of the mighty Marvels of comics' Golden Age.

Alex's idea, which had no connection whatever with Ordway's, was for a limited series- a reintroduction and revamping of old stories and themes-"enriching the original stories," as he phrased it to me on the phone on October 6, 1999. He didn't particularly want it to be "a '90s book."

When it came to people to use as models for his version of the Marvel Family:

Having read in the 1970s tabloid-size reprint of Whiz Comics #2 about how Captain Marvel himself might have been based on young Fred MacMurray (who already by 1939 had co-starred in films with Carole Lombard, Bing Crosby, and other top talent), Alex used that affable-appearing actor as the model for his Cap.

(Though it's long since been known that the infamous movie dream sequence of Fred MacMurray flying came out well after Whiz #2 went on sale in autumn of '39, he might still have been utilized by original artist C.C. Beck as the basis of Cap's face. But was he?)

For Mary Marvel's "look" he chose supermodel Kathy Ireland, who had what Alex saw as "a classic Captain Marvel type face, with upturned nose and strong jaw, and thick, dramatically-arched eyebrows" as if she could well be related to his version of the World's Mightiest Mortal.

He felt that Michael Gray, who had played Billy Batson on the Shazam! TV show in the '70s, had always looked to him like Freddy Freeman, so he used him as the basis for his Captain Marvel Jr.

Musing that perhaps the Marvels should be re-designed for a new audience, after the failure of their 1970s revival series, Alex "played around with their costumes." He thus veered off in several "different directions" while designing their colorful garb.

For instance, he felt Mary's skirt dated her, so he gave his version a "tunic one-piece," which he felt was a "more timeless" approach.

He believed Mary Marvel would work well in this "sexier, older, updated version."

Since both hero Bulletman and villain Captain Nazi were parts of the origin of Captain Marvel Jr. in Master Comics #21 (Dec. 1941), Alex wanted to find a way include them in his vision, as well.

In fact, as can be seen from these two prelims of a re-working of that famous Master cover, it's one of those he'd like to paint in his own style.

He did a modest redesign of Bulletman, influenced somewhat by the G.I. Joe-related "Bulletman, the Human Bullet" doll which appeared in the 1970s-and which was advertised in Marvel and DC comics. That Bulletman had had silver arms as well as a silver headpiece. Alex liked Bulletman's jodhpurs and high boots, so he kept those.

Captain Nazi, to Alex, "looks like Marvelman, the character who was published in America as Miracleman." Alex had just finished reading some Miracleman comics and wanted to do a send-up of it.

He wanted to show that Captain Marvel was "completely different from what Miracleman would do in a situation written by Alan Moore"-that Cap had "strength of character." He confesses that concept was meant as "a sort of slam" at Miracleman.

In fact, early in the Kingdom Come graphic novel he did later with writer Mark Waid, Ross put Superman in the same sort of situation that Miracleman had once gotten into-"but," he says, "Captain Marvel would never have ripped Kid Miracleman's head from his shoulders" as Miracleman did there. That was more Captain Nazi's style!

(Note that here Captain Marvel Jr. has a black lightning bolt on his chest. Alex figures this was "just an experiment"; he doesn't specifically remember the black bolt.)

Alex feels that, if an artist like Neal Adams had been hired to draw one of the various "re-starts" of the Shazam! book, either in the early 1970s or afterward (such as the Shazam! A New Beginning four-issue series This Writer did in 1986), it "would have worked," and "been better than trying to capture the old feeling."

Captain Marvel fans, of course, have been arguing this point ever since the 1970s, with many aficionados of the original C.C. Beck version condemning the ones done in later years by Rich Buckler, Alan Weiss, John Byrne, Tom Mandrake, and even Don Newton. Such fans have taken a similar tack toward the stories, whenever they get less "whimsical" and more "mainstream" than the classic Otto Binder approach of the 1940s.

Although Jerry Ordway's graphic novel and follow-up series were long a-borning, Alex says he eventually realized that, under DC's policy, Jerry's work would have "priority," and his own series, if done, would have had to fall in line with what was done there. Alex understood the policy and appreciated Jerry's work, but preferred to let his own project lapse.

Today, however, with Ordway's acclaimed Shazam! series a thing of the (recent) past after nearly fifty issues, Alex has revived talks with DC about doing his own take on the Marvel Family, in one format or another.

But until (and unless) that becomes a reality, we have these exquisite pieces of artwork to ponder


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