Mark Brooks is making waves in superhero comics. The artist has become a favored son at Marvel Comics over the past couple of years with his work headlining many of the publisher’s largest efforts. Brooks’ covers turned out to be the only universally well-received element of the controversial Secret Empire event, and he is now giving readers a weekly fix with a wide variety of outstanding covers on the weekly Avengers story “No Surrender.” Given that high profile, it’s not surprising to learn that DC Comics has recently made overtures to Brooks. It was just announced that he would be joining the team of Detective Comics to provide covers for Batman and his family starting with issue #983 -- and likely leading to the quickly approaching #1000.
With his quickly increasing profile, superhero fans are starting to take notice of Brooks’ work in particular and make comparisons. His realistic figures and vibrant painting style have led some to see similarities with Alex Ross, one of the most popular superhero artists ever. Ross has held a unique place in the field over the past several decades, and the comparison is one worth unpacking. Looking at these two talents carefully helps reveal just as much about what makes them unique as it does what makes them so tempting to compare in the first place.
Who Is Alex Ross?
For anyone who has read more than a handful of superhero comics, this may seem like a rhetorical question. Alex Ross is the comics painter so talented that Comics Buyer’s Guide retired their “Favorite Painter” award, and his name regularly appears multiple times on “must read” lists for those new to the medium. Both his extensive cover work and interiors on series like Marvels and Kingdom Come have ensured Ross a permanent place in the canon.
What matters more for the sake of this conversation is who Ross is as a painter, not as a popular artist. His work often evokes the name of Norman Rockwell, and for good reason. Ross’ painting has an inherently iconic quality to it, much like Rockwell’s. Both men are masters of designing a singular image, which explains why Ross’ covers and splash pages alike continue to attract attention years after publication. Every element of a Ross painting is intentional and designed to communicate a single thesis. When he paints Superman, the emotion conveyed by the character’s face, frame, setting, and even the lighting itself is centered on an intangible idea linked to the character, like hope or determination.
There’s also a rustic quality similar to Rockwell’s work. Spandex is looser on his superheroes. Spider-Man’s costume wrinkles at its seams and his mask does not maintain a constant shape. It’s possible to imagine these outfits as something that could be stitched in the real world. Anatomy and texture are present throughout each layer of a painting, never allowing the godlike powers on display to completely break a connection with reality. It is not realism, but a form of semi-realism that helps readers more easily forget the fantastical nature of what they see while not dismissing it entirely.
Who Is Mark Brooks?
Brooks recent covers certainly strike a similar chord to those of Ross, but they are far from an imitation or even a descendant of Ross’ work. Brooks is only a few years younger than his peer, and his work has taken on the unique qualities and styles that can be found typically only after decades of work.
One notable element of Brooks work is that it values coherency and layout as much as the individual form. In the recent cover to Avengers #688, he framed his work like an Art Nouveau painting and flattened the core figures. Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver lack the same level of rendering found in secondary characters on the same cover or those in the rest of the series. Instead they form a centerpiece to the cover as a whole with their bodies conceived to convey a shared emotion and relationship. In his murals of characters, a similar level of attention can also be observed with sub-groups and individuals set in place to create an overall flow. This composition of unique images places every bit as much emphasis on the whole (or the team) as it does the most popular hero.
Brooks also emphasizes contrast much more heavily within his work. Dark colors create form and often silhouette individual elements of a person or setting. They also create a stark effect with light sources as they bounce off of metal or highlight a small cropping of features. This interest in dichotomies and division can be found in sharper line work both in the outlines of forms as well as individual details. It is a more brutal approach to the painting of superheroes and one that renders them in a very different way than Ross.
Some Styles Never Go Out
It’s these distinctions that make Brooks a clear successor for Ross’ role in comics though. Ross succeeded for years by providing fans with a take on their most beloved heroes that was both new and iconic. The image of Giant-Man striding overhead in Marvels still resonates after decades for a good reason. It was a combination of exceptional source material (the Marvel universe, itself) and an exceptional talent. Superhero comics rarely offer artists the chance to render minute details or truly approach any sensibility adjacent to realism. It requires both a great talent and engagement with the source material. These are two elements that Brooks brings to the table.
While his anatomies are more idealized, his love for the superhero genre is every bit as pronounced. Brooks is not a comics artist aping Ross, but a similarly talented artist with just as much love placed into his work. This is what makes his recent covers on Avengers and, soon, Detective Comics so appealing. They capture a single moment or montage better than any frame of film can, revealing multiple aspects of what makes superhero comics great and encouraging readers to linger on an individual image.
Mark Brooks may be the new Alex Ross. Not because he paints or provides popular covers, but because he can distill the dreams of superheroes from within our heads onto the pages we read. He reminds us of what is iconic and inspiring about these characters through his own unique eye, one that is closer to the world we see everyday than most in comics.