The Superfriends Get a New Paint Job

Columbus Alive | August 4, 2005
Here’s the deal: You can be a huge nerd, you can even get paid money and earn critical accolades for reliving your favorite childhood cartoons, but only if you can paint in such a lush, photoreaslitic style that viewers of your work might actually think they’re looking at photographs.

That seems to be the Faustian bargain Alex Ross made at some point in his career. His thoughtful understanding of symbols and heroes, bold sense of design and unparalleled skills with a brush has given us exceptionally literate superhero epics (Marvels, Kingdom Come), storybook-like character studies of heroes (his treasury-sized collaborations with writer Paul Dini) and one great, cape-free graphic novel (Uncle Sam, with Steve Darnell).

Ross has also created entire universes of superheroes, most notably with collaborator Kurt Busiek for his Astro City series, and painted about a million covers, sometimes of the cheesiest heroes imaginable, like Space Ghost.

And while Ross’ name is not especially well known outside of comics, his work is. Those paintings at the beginning of Spider-Man 2 recapping the previous film? Those were his.

This week Ross is back with perhaps his geekiest work of all time (yes, even geekier than Space Ghost): the first issue of a 12-part, bi-monthly series entitled Justice (DC), which will feature the Justice League of America’s superheroes doing battle with the Legion of Doom. If that set-up sounds familiar, it should—it’s basically the 1970s Hanna Barbera cartoon Superfriends, but painted.

And what a difference painting can make. The first issue begins with a prologue in which a nuclear war destroys the earth, with the heroes powerless to save the day. It’s just a dream, but one that haunts their villains, so Lex Luthor decides to band them together to take on their enemies, with this issue being devoted to an Aquaman versus Black Manta fight.

Not only does everything seem much more serious when it’s painted (even the sight of a man riding a giant seahorse), but Ross’ interpretation of the characters and their place in their world (and ours) is impressively well thought-out, perhaps the result of long hours spent ruminating while painting.

Ross provides the covers and paints over pencils by his longtime collaborator Doug Braithwaite. The story is his and Jim Krueger’s, with Krueger doing the scripting.

Saying Superfriends never looked so good is a perverse understatement. Honestly, all superheroes have rarely looked this good—so good that it hardly matters if this turns out to be just a Hero A vs. Villain B comic book. But knowing Ross, there’s probably something a little deeper up his sleeve.

“DC’s Greatest Imaginary Stories”

For the exact opposite of Ross’ measured, realistic take on DC’s superheroes, check out this collection of classic Silver Age comics featuring some of the craziest stories to ever feature Batman, Superman, Superman’s mermaid girlfriend Lori Lemaris, reporter girlfriend Lois Lane, Supergirl and the Flash, all published between 1946 and 1967.

While comics in those years, created mostly for an audience of children, were crazy, these stories are extra insane—they’re the ones that were billed as “Imaginary Stories.” That is, the ones with Supergirl flying around with her pet horse Comet the Superhorse or Superman shooting rainbows out of his fingertips were supposedly “real” stories, while the ones billed as “imaginary” would somehow mess with the characters so much that DC felt the need to tell readers that these stories should not be taken seriously.

The credits are a veritable who’s who of comics history, featuring scripts by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel, Batman writer Bill Finger and Otto Binder, and art by Batman creator Bob Kane, the incomparable Dick Sprang (who’s expressionistic take on Batman still holds up remarkably well) and Curt Swan, the guy who defined Superman’s appearance.

A specially created retro cover by chameleonic stylist Brian Bolland shows the heroes all chilling over cake at a picnic, while, in Silver Age tradition, they completely ignore an imperiled Jimmy Olsen, who is being terrorized by a giant robot a few feet away.

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