In late March or early April, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presents its coveted Academy Awards for outstanding
achievements in film. And before they do that each year, they commission some wonderful, acclaimed artist to craft a poster to ballyhoo and
commemorate the ceremony.
Today — 1/9/2002 — this year's poster is being unveiled in a 10 AM press conference and I've decided to put on my
reporter's hat (which goes so well with my clown shoes) and attend. Why? Well, this is the Comics Buyer's Guide and this year's
"Oscar poster" was done by Alex Ross, the prolific and widely-acclaimed illustrator of graphic novels such as Marvels, Uncle Sam, Kingdom Come
and those new, large-format ones he's done with my pal, Paul Dini — the ones I can't seem to find a place to store.
But I will. Alex's work is very, very good. (So is Paul's) I was skeptical at first, seeing all those wonderful
line-drawn characters depicted in fully-rendered paintings, some of them subtly changed to resemble movie stars or, more often, Alex's friends and
models. Took me about halfway through Marvels to recover from stylistic whiplash and truly enjoy what Mr. Ross had to offer.
One of the things I like is this: A lot of so-called "hot artists" seem to be moving away from drawing characters with anatomy
that relates in any way to my species. Many seem disinterested in giving their people faces that convey human emotions or, in some cases, faces
Yet in Alex Ross, we have maybe the "hottest" of them all, leading the way back to depicting people...actual people. Even when
they fly or come from Mars or Asgard, there's a reality about them and I don't mean just in the shading or modelling. It's there in the faces
and the postures. And it makes those moments when he moves his people into unrealistic settings or proportions all the more exciting.
Today's occasion sounds like a wonderful honor for an artist who's doing what few have been able to do in the last decade or so: To
bring something new to comics, something entirely his own. So I get up earlier than I ever like, dress vaguely like a member of the working
press and arrive a comfy ten minutes early at Hollywood & Highland.
Hollywood & Highland is a humongous entertainment/shopping complex located at, no surprise, the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard
and Highland Avenue. It is adjacent to Mann's Chinese Theatre and it is new — so new, in fact, that a third of its tenant retailers have
yet to take occupancy. Angelenos are still growing accustomed to the awesome edifice, for which there is only one possible explanation...
A meeting of some City Planning Commission convenes and one member enters in a red-faced panic. "We have to act and act
fast! I just got here from the Valley!"
"What happened?" someone asks him.
"Didn't you hear me?" the first man yells. "I just got here from the Valley! That's the problem. I — brace
yourself for this, men — got through the intersection of Hollywood and Highland!"
"Impossible," exclaim the other members of the commission.
"We have it all configured," one of them insists. "It's the only route to the Hollywood Bowl...and onto the Hollywood Freeway in
that area. A person heading from Hollywood to Burbank or Studio City can't help but go through Hollywood and Highland and get trapped. I
have an uncle who entered the Cahuenga Pass in 1996 and hasn't been seen since."
"I got through," the first man reminds them.
"Didn't they have a couple lanes blocked for construction like they usually do?"
"Of course...but I somehow got through, anyway."
A pall descends on the room. "That's very disturbing," someone mutters.
"We've got to do something," someone else shouts. "Put up another one of those gallerias. They're always good for snarling
"It's not enough! We've got to stop this and stop it now. The next thing you know, people will be able to get through
Wilshire and Sepulveda. I say, we have someone build a big mall at Hollywood and Highland and a luxury hotel."
"And a big theater," someone adds. "One of those two-thousand-seaters. We'll have traffic backed up to Ensenada,
Everyone laughs with sinister glee and then one of them yells, "Wait! I've got it! Make the theater hold three
thousand seats and — get this — we'll hold the Academy Awards there every year, starting in 2002!"
The room erupts in cheers and applause and, yes, I know I'm getting carried away with this.
But it's the only possible explanation.
My invite for the poster unveiling says to park on Level 3 and then proceed to the elevator where someone will escort me to the fifth
level. Why I can't just push the "up" button myself is one of those questions I've learned not ask in life. So on Level 3, I meet my
guide, a young gent who inquires, "Did you bring a microwave?"
I start to tell him that my microwave is back home on the counter, next to my George Foreman grill. Then it dawns on me that he
means microwave truck...as in, a van equipped with video equipment that can beam its signal via microwave relay. Turns out, there are several
here. Why this event, important though it may be, might require instantaneous satellite transmission is another of those questions...
"No," I tell him displaying my notebook and pen, "I'm trying out a new invention called paper." Another attendee joins us for the
ride up — a gent from CNN who's trying, without much success, to repair the flash on a microphone. (A "flash" is that clamp-on doo-hickey
that displays the logo for the station or show.) It occurs to me that Osama bin Laden is reportedly monitoring CNN to see what this nation is
up to. I imagine him sitting in the rubble of a half-bombed cave, watching the press conference. He's pointing at the set and saying,
"That's the guy who did Kingdom Come!"
On the fifth floor, an outdoorsy event has been arranged with a view of the Hollywood Hills as backdrop. There's a podium flanked
by two huge Oscar statues and easels covered with black tarps, beneath which the poster presumably lurks. Facing this are about sixty chairs in
which almost no one will sit, though a few photographers will stand on them to get a Spider-Man's-eye view of Alex. About a hundred reporters
and camerapersons mill about, saying howdy and swapping gossip, obviously well-accustomed to seeing one another on the circuit.
A woman who is in charge of press relations welcomes me, checks my name off a list and points out the refreshments. I take three
steps and another woman welcomes me, checks my name off a list and points out the refreshments. The second one says, "Most of these cameras
have to cover the American Music Awards tonight. So we'll start right on time, unless CNN isn't here."
"I think CNN rode up with me in the elevator," I tell her, and I get the feeling I have made this woman's day.
"That's a relief," she says. "Help yourself to the refreshments."
I scope out a table of much-too-fancy croissants and muffins — the kind you're afraid to touch for fear someone will slap your
hand and shout, "Those are for company!" Next to the spread, a cameraguy is quaffing orange juice and telling a story in a voice that would
make Chris Matthews tell him to shush.
"— so I realize someone has been stealing my flashes, and not just mine. CNN lost a couple of theirs, Access Hollywood lost
a few, Fox, E! Channel...someone is stealing them right off our microphones. We all agree to watch each others' equipment and you know what we
"It's this press agent, Arnie. He's stealing flashes. What he wants to do is, if he has a press conference and all those
people don't turn out for it, he'll stick our flashes on a bunch of microphones and stick them on the podium. That way, the client will think
CNN and Fox and Access Hollywood are all there..."
I check the podium and see microphones allegedly from all three of those, plus KABC/Channel 7, Entertainment Tonight, Entertainment
News Service, Extra, TV Guide Channel and Televisa. Either Alex is getting great coverage or Arnie's been busy.
Five minutes to ten, Johnny Grant arrives. Johnny Grant is an enormously-famous person in Los Angeles, although no one seems to
have the slightest idea what he does.
Well, that's not true: I do. Johnny Grant is a TV producer and host who, for years, supervised the annual Hollywood Christmas
Parade and other local events. He holds the title of — this is the actual language — "the Ceremonial Mayor of Hollywood and
Chairman of the Walk of Fame Selection Committee." This means that when they dedicate those stars in the sidewalk, he presides over the
festivities. He is very good at what he does, which is to show up at anything that happens anywhere in Hollywood and shake hands.
The ladies and gentlemen of the press all grin when they see Johnny is here. Wouldn't be an event without Johnny.
We wait. A man keeps walking up to the podium and saying, "Check, testing, check" into the microphones. One of the press
relations ladies, God love her, passes out parking validations. Someone asks, "Is there a press kit?" and she explains that, yes there is, but
it has a picture of the poster in it, so they can't let anyone see it until after the official unveiling.
"We get the president's speeches in advance," the reporter mutters, prompting another reporter to ask him, "When the hell did you ever
cover the president?"
"I don't mean me," the first one says. "I mean my network."
Someone standing behind me tells a joke so awful that half the footprints down at Mann's get up and walk away. Then, only moments
after ten, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Executive Director, Bruce Davis, steps up to the mike.
"I don't just watch movies," he says. "Sometimes, I read graphic novels." He explains that he happened across Alex's work
and it just blew him away. He got the artist's number, called and hit him with the concept: Oscar as the "conquering super-hero, coming back to
his origins." It has, after all, been years since the ceremony actually took place in Hollywood.
"The poster, as you'll see, has our hero perched high atop the First National Building." He gestures to an adjoining, semi-famous
building next door and adds, "Johnny Grant just told me they filmed some of the Superman movies there."
(Far be it from me to disagree with the Ceremonial Mayor of Hollywood and Chairman of the Walk of Fame Selection Committee but I don't
think that's true.)
Then he introduces Alex, who steps to the mike and delivers a few remarks perfectly crafted for the occasion: "This is a special
honor for someone in my field. I've handled a number of iconic characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman...it's not a great stretch
with Oscar, given that he's essentially a half-naked gold man with a sword — not too different from what I'm normally working with."
All the reporters laugh and a man near me, hoisting the largest-model Betacam on his shoulder, whispers to no one in particular,
"That's our sound bite."
Alex mentions that this is the first time he's actually seen the First National Building, portions of which are included in the
painting, and he jokes about getting its relationship to the Hollywood sign wrong. He adds, "But I had a great model. They loaned me a
real Oscar for a week. For the period of about a week when I had it, I not only put it to use as a reference item, I also got a chance to
photograph family and friends as if they were accepting an Oscar."
More laughs. Maybe another sound bite.
Then, there being nothing left to say, he unveils the painting. There are a few oohs and a couple of ahhs. There's even a
smattering of applause from those whose mitts are not filled with microphones and cameras. And it is a good painting — though I can't
help thinking that engaging Alex Ross to paint a guy with no face is like having Sandy Koufax play Right Field. He can do it, and do it
well...but it doesn't show off what he does best.
The formalities end, press kits are distributed and two lines quickly form. Half the reporters queue up with their cameraguys to
tape brief one-on-one interviews with Alex. Some will also drift over and get a short quote from Bruce Davis, and a few even want a couple
words from Johnny Grant. The other line is at a table where, after he finishes the one-on-ones, Alex will be signing free posters.
Once he gets to the signing part, it's like I'm at a comic convention. Someone, in fact, even asks Alex as he sits there, writing
his name on poster after poster, if he feels like he's at a con. "Naw," he says. "At a con, they make me sit there for six hours or so
doing this." (Another difference: Most of the reporters aren't reticent to ask for two or three — one for the guys back at the office,
one for a nephew who's a huge fan, etc. They all get them.)
Alex spots me and says hi. I ask him why Oscar looks like Paul Dini.
"He does not," is the reply. "He doesn't have donut crumbs all over his chin."
There's no time to say much more because someone wants a quote about the challenge of depicting Oscar versus that of depicting
Superman. Alex gives him a good one and I think: There are a lot of fine artists in the world who couldn't do this part of the job...handling
the promotional part of what is, after all, a piece of promotional art for a promotional campaign. Alex is good at that, too.
Near me, a reporter says, "Well, this guy won't be doing comic books much longer" — meaning, I suppose, that Alex (who just did
some TV Guide covers depicting the Smallville TV show) will soon be inundated with offers for movie posters, advertising and other
Perhaps he already is. Whether, in light of that, he'll continue in comics is something I certainly don't know, and I wonder if
he does, either. If he doesn't, maybe it'll be because the industry doesn't deserve to keep him.