STOCKBRIDGE -- Many people in the United States are just as familiar with the iconic, everyday characters painted by Norman Rockwell in the twentieth century as they are with the superheroes and villains that have inundated popular culture since the 1930s.
Bringing together the work and visions of two of the country’s most inventive illustrators, "Heroes and Villains," on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge through Feb. 24, features the comic art of Alex Ross alongside works of other well-known illustrators and selections from the museum’s permanent collection.
Widely considered one of the most influential comic artists working today, Ross helped redefine the superhero genre in the 1990s, with his realistic watercolor renderings of classic comic book characters and his turning away from gratuitous violence and predictable storylines, toward a more subtle and human take on the implications of having superpowers.
Rockwell’s illustrations have always been an inspiration for Ross, who began creating comics as a kid and later studied illustration at the American Academy of Art in Chicago (the same school his mother attended). Several of his paintings borrow compositionally from such Rockwell favorites as "The Golden Rule" and "The Peace Corps (J. F. K. ‘s Bold Legacy).
"I can’t even put my finger upon a single situation by which I first encountered his work because I think it was always around," Ross said. "I was always aware of his work as more or less permeating pop culture. And the first books I would collect on his work I wouldn’t get until I was in college, but I know that it was just for me already this apex of physical accomplishment that I would hope to learn from and try and achieve in my lifetime."
"Heroes and Villains" opened at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 2011, where it was the first museum showing of Ross’s work. (Warhol himself started out as an illustrator and was an avid reader of comic books.) The Stockbridge exhibit, which is curated by the Warhol Museum, includes pieces by illustrators Andrew Loomis, J. C. Leyendecker, Lynette Ross (Alex Ross’s mother), and by Warhol, and includes events through Feb. 23, where kids can learn about comics and create their own stories and characters.
Almost 500 people attended the show’s opening in November, said Jeremy Clowe, Manager of Media Services at the Norman Rockwell Museum.
"It was something of a record," he continued. "I haven’t seen that many people here for a show like that, and there are people that came out from across the country from California and Florida so [Ross] has his fans. And he was here, so it was a rare chance to meet him," said Clowe.
After graduating from college, Ross worked at an advertising agency, where he was discovered by Kurt Busiek, editor of Marvel Comics, who was interested in collaborating on a new kind of story one told from the perspective of a photojournalist looking back on his career covering the escapades of superheroes and villains. Ross’s realistic style was the perfect vehicle for bringing the story to life.
The resulting book "Marvels" was a hit, and Ross’s next project, "Kingdom Come," was largely a conscious effort on his part to help move the superhero genre toward a more refined type of storytelling with more realistic art. For many, "Kingdom Come" marks the beginning of a new era in comics.
"I was trying to be evocative of the time period I was in, of there being an overabundance of superheroes in publishing and much of it was [the stories] sort of choking each other out," Ross said. "And now through movies and videogame adaptations you have a stronger perception; there’s more painted covers [and] things that were done photo-realistically. So back then, with Kingdom Come, that was meant to sort of push the medium in that direction."
Like Rockwell, who aspired to bring out the best in people through his work, Ross believes that comics offer infinite possibilities for exploring and understanding human nature, even when those possibilities are often unrealized by others in the field.
"A lot of times, when you just have your entertainment value derived from the either redefinition of characters to the squabbling between different fictional characters, you don’t really communicate much of any new kind of thought," Ross said. "You aren’t challenged to try and bring that character to a head with the real world and show the world for being what it is maybe picking a group, a representation of something real in the world to put in there against these fictional characters, showing what we’d like to do were we to have the power to do it."
In a sense, the social relevance of Ross’s work is a return to the roots for characters like Superman, "who was first used to really break through a lot of the ignorance of society and deal with things like angry mobs or inequalities," Ross said. "One of the first things he did in his first appearance was to stop a man from beating his wife. So there was almost an aspect of social commentary to the character."
In fact, Ross said, Superman was originally created for Look magazine, not for a comic book, and another of his first deeds was to end World War II, before America had even intervened. "So the direction for the character by the creators was to say he would do his part to direct where society or where life would go. He would do everything in his ability to help affect the betterment of the world."
Also, said Clowe, "what Alex Ross is consciously doing ... is that he will try to bring the characters back to the way they were originally presented visually. In the 1930s, for example, Superman’s "eyes are very squinty like he was a little darker-looking, and so that’s actually what [Ross] does with his presentation. He’s come under some criticism from some superhero fans about presenting some of these heroes [as] almost too realistic, where there might be an image of Superman and he looks like he maybe has a little more weight on him, and I think some people, they want them all to be strong and sturdy, 20-something, but I think it’s much more interesting the way he’s presented them. They seem like real people," Clowe said.
Perhaps the strongest connection between Ross and Rockwell is that each creates and recreates cultural icons that transcend any particular moment in time. But while Rockwell endows his everyday subjects with immortal qualities like justice and courage, Ross lends a degree of vulnerability and humanness to his characters. In each case, the goal is to help us connect with the common experience of being human which includes our heroic and not-so-heroic deeds.
One thing a visitor to the Norman Rockwell Museum might notice is that Rockwell’s paintings are conspicuously lacking in villains. In a small handful of paintings, the darkness is alluded to as in "The Apothecary" and "Murder in Mississippi" but never fully showcased as it normally is in comics.
"Maybe as I grew up and found the world wasn’t the perfectly pleasant place I had thought it to be," wrote Rockwell, "I unconsciously decided that, even if it wasn’t an ideal world, it should be and painted only the ideal aspects of it. If there was sadness in this created world of mine, it was a pleasant sadness. If there were problems, they were humorous problems."
He also wanted his work to be enjoyed and understood by everyone, and "(to be completely honest), the fact that this type of picture pays well has something to do with it, too," he wrote.
For whatever reasons, he believed for most of his career that reflecting people’s darkness was of no great benefit. But for Ross, it’s a different story. Villains are an integral part of the comic genre, with their strange features reflecting the many false faces we wear ourselves, or the parts of ourselves we want to remain hidden.
Heroes and villains alike are vehicles by which we can encounter and better understand ourselves.
The purpose of illustration in comics or on the covers of The Saturday Evening Post is largely to serve the masses. And that is partly why even the most successful illustrators have remained on the edges of the art world neither completely accepted nor altogether shunned by the critics of fine art. What helps elevate Ross, Rockwell and other illustrators above the stigma of their medium is their preference for allowing the value of their art to be determined not by the critics or by trends, but by themselves and by the many, many people who consume and enjoy their work.
"I believe strongly that a painting should communicate something to large numbers of people," wrote Rockwell. "So, according to some critics, my work is old-fashioned, trite, banal. This criticism worries me now and then, especially when a picture I’m trying to finish is going badly, but I’ve learned that I can’t change. I’m not a modern artist and never will be."
Similarly, Ross believes in the strength of numbers, even while having charted his own unique course in the medium. "There is a uniqueness and importance of art that is absorbed by the masses," he said. "And the masses can tell you what is worthwhile, and what is not sometimes."
The work of Ross and the work of Rockwell speak not only to our individual aspirations, but to the common experience of being part of something larger than ourselves.
"It’s a real honor and a treat to be able to think my work is there with his," Ross said, "and a major accomplishment of my lifetime."
"Heroes and Villains: The Comic Book Art of Alex Ross" is on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge through Feb.24. For more info: www.nrm.org.