Abrams ComicArts did what Marvel comics was apparently hesitant to do — put out a comic featuring the Fantastic Four, starring Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), Sue Richards (The Invisible Woman), Johnny Storm (The Human Torch), and Ben Grimm (The Ever-lovin’ Blue eyed Thing).
I’ve missed them.
Oh, Marvel puts out a monthly Fantastic Four comic, and it has for years, allllll the way back since the days when it used to be known as The World’s Greatest Comic.
And it was, back then.
For the first 100 plus issues, Stan Lee provided the dialog and personalities for the foursome, and Jack Kirby provided the pulse pounding, powerful, pencilled artwork, aided by a few inkers, most predominantly, Joe Sinnott. This was during the majority of the 1960’s starting in 1961, and ushered in the Marvel Age of Comics. It literally changed the way comics and their characters appeared to the outside world in which we lived.
Until the FF showed up, comic book superheroes were rather two dimensional, with interchangeable personalities. Reed Richards was a passionate man who would go to any lengths for scientific discovery, the most brilliant mind on the planet. Sue Storm was a brave and devoted girl friend, teammate and later wife of Reed, who eventually became the most powerful member of the team and the one to keep the rest in line. Johnny Storm was the teenage hothead who was always blazing for a fight. Ben Grimm was the powerful, rock covered monster who used wise cracks to cover his pain.
For the second 100 issues, Stan Lee’s writing style was utilized by his replacements to maintain the consistency of the characters, but they weren’t Stan. And though there were different artists taking on the visuals, and some were truly magnificent, they weren’t Kirby. As the comic reached well past the 200th issue, John Byrne took over the writing and art, giving us an FF with some of the original flavor. He turned Reed into a less passionate, colder egg head, but he did advance Sue’s character, giving her her much needed due respect, taking her out of the 1960’s mindset towards women.
As the decades passed, many creative teams came and went, putting their stamp on the team, to varying degrees of quality and success. Come the turn of the century, things continued to change. These days, Reed and Sue have two kids, an entire secondary foundation with more kids, Ben finally married his long time love Alicia Masters, and they adopted two kids, and Johnny’s been married a couple times already. Yes, it’s now the Fantastic Four Hundred.
All the members of the FF have “died” at least once, been replaced, or both. That’ll happen over 60 plus years.
Which now brings us to the present, and Alex Ross’ Full Circle.
Alex Ross is a devoted and opinionated comics fan boy who paints comics beautifully, and realistically, truly bringing superheroes to life. Think “Superheroes meet Norman Rockwell”. He’s been doing so for 30 years, beginning with “Marvels”, a four issue masterwork with writer Kurt Busiek about the major past events in the history of the Marvel universe. If you haven’t got it in some form, do yourself a favor — go find it and buy it. While you’re at it, go find and buy Kingdom Come, another masterwork with writer Mark Waid about the apocalyptic future events in the DC comics universe.
He’s also done hundreds and hundreds of covers for many comics in his painted style.
In Full Circle, Ross has taken a different visual approach, this time just inking the pencils, instead of painting them. Ross is working with a colorist, Josh Johnson, to create a very potent, vibrant color scheme here. The whole production hints that it might be cool to view it with a black light (having done it, although I can’t say the effect is full on fluorescent, it adds to the creepiness of the experience, just in time for Hallowe’en.) There are however some flashback panels where it does appear Ross has painted them to give a different feel.
Ross has always been severely dependent on extensive photo reference for his art in order to accurately present likenesses, lighting, etc. Back in the early 1990’s and the above mentioned “Marvels”, he was the first artist to visually suggest Professor Charles Xavier looked remarkably like Patrick Stewart. Back then, Ross also suggested that Reed resembled actor Russell Johnson, who portrayed the Professor on Gilligan’s Island. Recently, he shifted to another visual reference when drawing Mr. Fantastic, this time going with actor Gary Conway, from the cast of Land of the Giants, another show from the ’60’s. Conway has the distinction of not only looking like Reed, but looks a bit like a Jack Kirby character — another plus.
The visual depiction of the Thing is also a treat. For many years now, Ross has based the character’s look off a life sized Thing bust sculpted by Lou Cella. Of the myriad number of artists who’ve drawn the Thing over the past 60 years, the Cella model ranks only behind Kirby in giving us an accurate representation of Ben that hi-lights his personality, so to see Ross utilize it for so long, in so many ways, is always a treat. Hopefully Kevin Fiege and his people in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been taking note. When the FF finally show up in the MCU, if they don’t base Ben on Kirby, it had better be Cella.
Ross’ usual realistic rendition on the characters takes a step back in favor of a more graphic approach, but what remains the same is his usual superior composition, the other half of what makes his art special. Even realistically painting superheroes can end up being boring if you don’t present them in a powerful way, and Ross always does compose exciting and interesting angles and panel layouts for the scenes.
Full Circle is the result of the influences of two creators on a third.
Talking about the book, Ross is quick to give numerous nods to Jack Kirby, and Ross pays homage to the King, presenting various tech, vehicles, and the visual experience of Kirby’s version of the Negative Zone. Ross’ photo referenced style doesn’t permit him to indulge in Kirby’s exaggerated anatomy to drive the visual with power, but Ross’ striking composition helps to bridge the gap.
Perhaps because writing is not his usual vocation, Ross doesn’t talk about that aspect as much, but here, he successfully channels Stan Lee to an extent, being *possibly* the first person in fifty some years to get all four character’s personalities right. Either as Stan wrote them, or in Sue’s case, the best version of her. Giving Stan due credit for his influence here is crucial. Without Stan applying those distinctive personalities way back when, as great as Jack’s art and storytelling was, without Stan’s daring and delightful dialog, there might not have been a Marvel Age of Comics.
Without spoiling things, Full Circle revisits and pays off a couple old Lee/Kirby stories, one of which is a mighty classic. A few other notable Negative Zone stories are referenced as well. It really is an ode to the best era of the FF, and Lee and Kirby.
*** I think if I had one real criticism of Full Circle, it’s the lack of a real payoff, a big Kirby visual climax where the bad guy gets his. On the positive side, one can look to some things that outshine all the other FF material that Marvel’s been putting out for decades.
In addition to the lovely art, solid action, and accurately written characters, I liked the fact that it’s just the four of them. No Franklin and Valeria, no Future Foundation. No Alicia, no adopted kids, alien kids, moloid kids, Dragon man, and whoever Johnny’s married to this week. Currently in the comics, the FF has so much baggage they drag around, the original premise has become buried beneath a ton of extra family.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not suggesting retconning Frank and Val out of existence (even though Val was bizarrely retconned IN), but just because Reed and Sue have a family, it doesn’t mean they have to feature them as part of the team all the time.
In Full Circle, we do see the kids in one panel, sure, but basically, the story is about the four main characters going on an adventure and exploring a mystery. It was just a joy to see the FF get out of the house and go to work, without dragging an army with them. Just the four of them. Somehow, that’s become a lost art.
Another big element of this story is explaining and revisiting things. Again, without spoilers, we revisit a classic story, and there’s a very nice resolution, heartwarming even. We revisit another, far less classic story, which falls a bit short. Frankly, now that I think of it, we could have used a little bit of Clobberin’ Time.
Conversely, I can truly say that for the first time, I had a better grip on some of the physics of the Negative Zone thanks to Ross, who even had some nifty ideas regarding new outfits and ways to navigate the Zone.
So, Full Circle. I’d give it an 8 out of 10. Not sure why Marvel had to partner with someone else to get this put out, but I wouldn’t mind seeing more.
And someone, please let me know when they start putting out the black light posters of some of these pages.
Because the Thing IS.