Alex Ross made his name with his painted, nearly photorealist artwork for superhero comic books, most famously Kingdom Come and Marvels. Now he’s turning his hand to a different set of visual icons. Rolling Stone can exclusively reveal Ross’s series of illustrations of the Beatles, created with the blessing of the band’s organization Apple Corps. Ross is set to unveil the artwork in person at this week’s Comic-Con International in San Diego.
The first fruit of the project was a six-foot-wide print of the band; a painterly, CinemaScope-style re-envisioning of the distinctly cartoony, two-dimensional imagery from the Beatles’ 1968 animated movie Yellow Submarine.
“I was very much raised on that film,” Ross tells Rolling Stone, “so I know every detail of it, and I can import that into my work, as though it was a live-action film that they starred in. I was warned at the outset that they might not get approval from the [John Lennon and George Harrison] estates to release it formally — that it was a kind of test. I thought I might not get another chance at this, so I wanted to put everything plus the kitchen sink in one piece of art.”
The initial Yellow Submarine print turned out well enough, though, that Apple and Ross now have an ongoing relationship. Next up is a set of four images that Ross is working on now: portraits of the individual Beatles, each surrounded by vignettes from Yellow Submarine, and again illustrated in Ross’s modeled, hyper-realistic style rather than Heinz Edelmann’s stylized, flat designs from the actual movie. (The portrait of Ringo Starr includes a scene based on the film’s sequence in which time goes backwards and the Beatles are turned into younger versions of themselves; Ross worked from reference photos of what the four of them actually looked like as children.)
The look of the Fab Four in Ross’s Yellow Submarine images is based on his research into the real-life sources for Edelmann’s designs, which he notes were mostly inspired by the Beatles’ outfits and hairstyles at the release party for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “They took great liberties with the colors and everything, but those were the particular hairstyles,” Ross says. “I love the idea of treating the movie as if they’d been engaged to make this absurd fantasy that they actually filmed on some kind of green-screen soundstage.”
Ross will eventually go on to illustrate other phases of the Beatles’ career, but notes that he has a special fondness for their visual presentation during the Rubber Soul period of late 1965. “It’s just on the precipice before they would completely blow out to greater individuality,” he says. “But there’s something about almost every era, related to each album, that I can find inspiration from.”
And he takes obvious delight in illustrating the Beatles themselves. “The four of them were just fascinating-looking men,” Ross says. “These are incredibly unique faces. And what they introduced to the world was such an avant-garde expression, opening us up from what had been a very stifled look for men. They completely overwhelmed a generation.”