Alex Ross' love of comics Golden Age is well documented. From his earliest superhero work for Marvel Comics exploring the roots of the company's publishing empire to his ongoing series of superhero reinventions for Dynamite Entertainment, the painter's work has been built upon his colorful reinterpretation's of the past. But in the months ahead, Ross will debut two new projects through those very same projects that he hopes will bring a modern edge to some of heroic fiction's longest-living concepts along with his celebration of their past.
In August, Dynamite unleashes the first issue of "The Last Phantom" – a reimagining of Lee Falk's classic newspaper superhero with Ross' concepts brought to life by writer Scott Beatty and artist Eduardo Ferigato. And following right along in September, Marvel unveils the painter's latest project focusing on its Golden Age greats with "The Invaders" – a miniseries he'll co-write with Christos Gage for artist Caio Reiss. CBR News spoke with Ross about both features and how they'll pull their concepts into the modern day and gained an exclusive first look at the interiors for both comics in the process.
"I have this bizarre love for things I was never around to read in the first place," laughed Ross, saying that at least in the case of the Invaders he read the Roy Thomas/Frank Robbins work of the 1970s. Although despite his love of all that material, the artist never originally expected to make his current run of Marvel Comics into a modern trilogy after "Avengers/Invaders" and "The Torch." "This wasn't an overall plan, but it does fit very nicely into the lineages I have done for Marvel...It's something going back to when Jim and I had crafted our original work for Marvel in the 'Earth X' series, there was an original thought that erupted early on about how we could branch that out to a three-part work, and that was always an inkling in this as well. It's just something that was of mutual interest because it goes back to my very beginnings with Marvel Comics – retelling the origins of the Marvel Universe from day one when the Human Torch was created, and forming the very first heroes of Marvel.
"The biggest thing that was added in the middle of this all was 'The Torch' series. We'd done this thing to put an emphasis back on the original Invaders, but in this current context you've got a portion of them that were dead. Since Bucky had been revived, Jim had said, 'I'd love to bring Toro back.' We made that part of 'Avengers/Invaders' and with the exact plot-device I'd thrown at Ed Brubaker for Bucky Barnes long after he'd brought back Buck, which was that someone used the Cosmic Cube to bring them back. Accomplishing that with Toro, it needed to be done as well with the Human Torch, who had been lying dead since that last 'New Invaders' series by Chuck Austen. So the final achievement of these three projects is that they reunite or redefine these characters for a generation of readers going forward. They're able to finally be utilized and put into play with the rest of the Marvel U."
Ross called this latest story in the cycle "a tribute and a reengagement of Marvel's origins," where vital amongst his plans was the ability to let the characters truly live in the modern Marvel Universe as well as in the mind of his co-writer. "I wanted to make sure Christos wasn't feeling trapped by a laundry list of things I wanted. I got to do so much of what I've wanted to do with these projects that the key thing here was 'I want these five guys. I want Steve Rogers to be able to wear the outfit for at least part of the story, so you have essentially two Captain Americas and a full, costumed reunion of the real Invaders.' That gave Christos the ability to imagine something that regards the past that would be appropriate for them to somehow be reengaged for...there's something they either left undone, or in this case, it's their darkest secret revealed from World War II – an action that was taken that they ultimately had shame over that was buried for decades that now has boiled over that they have to face again."
That foreboding tease is something the artist worked into his cover for "Invaders" #1, however the particulars receded as the painting came together. "I'd planned for the design to feature a strong, tilted swastika in the sky, and as I applied that shape in there, I made it larger and larger until it almost got completely indecipherable, which was partially the intent. "Ross explained. "As it is, it's the specter of the swastika coming back to haunt them and reunite them. One aspect of the cover that's intended is that the design with the five heads up front and the four group members behind them is meant to distract your eye from the fact that it's the new Captain America above. You should immediately think about which version of Captain America that is."
One surprising element to the representation of the classic Captain America on the cover was the "great minds think alike" situation Ross found himself with regards to Marko Djurdjevic's new costume for Steve Rogers. "I had done a layout to that cover well before Marko had finished his design, and I knew what their direction was for Steve Rogers, and I did a rough approximation of the outfit that's nearly identical to what's there. I had the star on the shoulder and the chainmail weave effect, and the maskless, gloveless version you see is a lot like what I expected the design would turn out like...what Marko wound up doing was I'm sure taking no influence from what I do, but it was intellectually very much the same. It seems like there was a direction it had to go in given where they were taking the character."
At the other end of the redesign spectrum stands Ross' unique reinvention of the appearance of King Feature Syndicate's classic "Ghost Who Walks" for "The Last Phantom." The stained look of the hero recently licensed by Dynamite came from a practical consideration, both in terms of the story and Dynamite's plans for the character. "Why would anybody be wearing garments that were heavy and restrictive in the African jungle?" laughed Ross. "That's where the whole bodypaint thinking came into mind. If you take your Tarzan archetypal figure and have him go take a big wine bath with crushed berries or dripping blood – any way that you could smear this person all over with this red-violet color – that causes him to have a striking presence. Obviously, the color purple doesn't equal justice or violence or something subconscious, but this dripping effect has an impactful feeling. He's basically like Sissy Spacek coming out of that scene in 'Carrie' where she's dumped with pig's blood."
>"I'm a big fan of the Billy Zane movie, and here's the ironic thing – I hate superhero movies where all that's presented is the origin, and audiences are supposed to identify just with that. The Phantom movie didn't do that, but ironically what Scott and I are creating is essentially that origin story, but really wrapping your head around the mind of a person who's being led up to this. It's something he needs. To grab a larger audience, they need the journey of this man's heroic development laid out for you a bit more, rather than taking the character as 'the Batman living in Africa.' I don't know if it's a completely original thing with a character like this, to show the 'reluctant hero' story, but I do think it's very appropriate to apply that to the Phantom because I'd not seen that done with him. The Phantom's needs at this point are to really win over an audience that it hasn't received."
A note of interest for Phantom fans the world over is that the new multi-hued look for the character was not inspired by the character's proclivity for being portrayed in different colors than the traditional purple seen here in the U.S. "I'm only learning now about those other colors. I just did a cover a week ago where the Phantom wears red, because I was trying to recreate what's called for in the script where he briefly wears a red scuba suit in the story, and I thought, 'Hey that's cool! I can connect this up with that thing I just learned about which was from [Scott Beatty] telling me that he's known in [Italy] as being red.' But I'm completely new to some of these international variations on the look, though I did know that he was consistently popular in Australia for the last 70 years or so and that he's one of their more popular characters. That's the craziest thing I've ever heard."
Ross also said that he's relying on Beatty for more than mere fashion tips as a core focus of "The Last Phantom" will be letting the writer connect the painter's broader ideas up with modern storytelling features and backdrops. "For the things that needed to come together intellectually for the outline and the final follow through, I've been hands off, because the work Scott has done has been without need of any kind of amendment. All of my ideas have been represented, and then all of that stuff he comes up with to take it to that next level are great. There's only a handful of things that were really necessary to me – the character's look and the things that led to the look within the context of the story. As far as the adversaries he would face, I just made a push to say, 'Let's make it relate to the world that is.' It may not be as timely to specific hardships occurring now in Africa, but I wanted to see around the corners of that. I wanted it to be insightful in relation to a part of the world that does need a protector in the fashion of the Phantom. If anywhere in the world where a hero is needed, it's Africa."
"The Last Phantom" #1 ships this August from Dynamite Entertainment. "Invaders" #1 follows in September from Marvel Comics.