Alex Ross has been waiting a long time to tell his Fantastic Four story. When the opportunity finally presented itself, the superstar was ready to take his shot and challenge himself like never before. The result is Fantastic Four: Full Circle, an original graphic novel that debuts September 6th. This is the debut game from Marvel Arts, the brand new publishing team behind Marvel Comics and Abrams ComicArts.
Full Circle is the first graphic novel written and illustrated by Ross, who rose to prominence in the 1990s as a co-creator of limited series such as Marvels, Kingdom Come, and the ongoing series Astro City. Check out this stylish new FF adventure in the slideshow gallery below, and read on to learn more about why Full Circle has been in the making for decades and how Ross wants to see FF integrated into the MCU.
Fantastic Four: Full Circle Gallery
The evolution of art by Alex Ross
Ross’s hand-drawn art in 1994’s Marvels and 1996’s Kingdom Come laid the groundwork for Marvel and DC superheroes in hyper-stylish realism, and his distinctive style continues to make him one of the most sought-after comic book cover artists. That’s why it was a surprise to learn that he changed his art process for his new project. Ross created the art in Full Circle using pencil, ink and flat coloring to capture the retro pop art vibe he was looking for in his original story.
“I knew I would have to change myself to really get it across in a way that maybe connects the dots a bit more for the modern reader,” Ross told IGN during an interview via Zoom. “It was important to use traditional pen and ink and use flat color. If I were just doing my typical drawing process, I don’t think I could successfully convey any of the concepts of the time. “
The artist made one concession by shaking up his creative routine. He used jet black gouache for painting, mainly to give breathing room for corrections.
“I didn’t actually use ink,” he explains. “If I really screwed up, I could use layers of water and pull out what I just put in. It’s not the same problem you have with ink, where you basically have to put white on top of it to draw on.”
20 Fantastic Four Covers
Origins of the Fantastic Four: Full Circle
In Fantastic Four: Full Circle, a parasite swarm from the Negative Zone prompts FF to return to the antimatter dimension to investigate. While there, they encounter a figure from their past. Ross’ story traces back to one of the climaxes of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s legendary novel This Man… This Monster! From Fantastic Four #51. The idea for this goes back to the mid-90s when Ross, fresh off the huge Marvels hit with Kurt Busiek, was offered the perfect opportunity.
“After I worked on Marvels for them, then editor-in-chief Tom DeFalco suggested that I take any story from the Marvel pantheon and then go back to it. We’ve been retelling the story, expanding it, and talking about new things that happened in that historical context. And he mentioned “This man… This monster!”
DeFalco even offered to pair Ross with Stan Lee for the project.
“He pushed Stan towards me, saying that you could work on this with Stan Lee. And I thought, oh, this is the Jack Kirby experience, where I do all the work, understand everything, and then Stan appears and conducts a dialogue, ”recalls Ross. “Like, yeah, I don’t know if it’s right to repeat history here, you know?
The idea hasn’t gone anywhere.
Two decades later, as Marvel was gearing up to relaunch the Fantastic Four after an extended hiatus, Ross made an attempt to lead the revival. This didn’t happen either. A partnership with another writer was also out of the question.
“It just wouldn’t fit if I was following someone else’s direction,” says Ross. “I had the thought that Jack Kirby didn’t carve this thing for himself the way he needed to when the number of plots he did pretty much drove the books at the time. I can’t do this to myself. I have to learn from his example and make sure that whatever work I do, I get due recognition.”
Unsatisfied ambition continued to torment Ross. When the Abrams Books opportunity presented itself, the years-long search could finally be completed.
“I always remembered this idea that came to my mind. And I thought that the most daring thing you could do is go back to what is usually considered one of the most famous stories that [Kirby and Lee] ever did, and make a sequel.”
This particular story is set in a time period that Ross describes as “modern”. The artist wanted to place his story between the previous FF volume and the current status of the book, where Franklin and Valeria Richards are now teenagers. Ross portrays the team as space explorers (with new costume designs) as well as superheroes, and the book gives Ross enough space to pay homage to Kirby’s seminal work on FF. The artist wanted to sync up with the bombastic art that Kirby drew in The Fantastic Four during the heyday of the 60s title, but he didn’t want to make a purely nostalgic piece.
“I was trying in some way to align with Jack Kirby’s art and the time period they created this book,” says Ross. “It’s not easy to do, especially today.”
Ross even smashed his own action figures of Reed Richards, Susan Storm, Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm, which he then photographed for reference while working on the book (you can see him drawing the photos on his YouTube channel). He averaged 10 pages per month while continuing his usual Marvel cover assignments.
The book is brimming with stunning artwork, including a two-page intro with an image of the Infinity Crossing (see above). He jokes that his take on the Fantastic Four will hopefully grab the attention of one particularly important Marvel fan. “As you said, it’s about the atmosphere, and I was hoping that this atmosphere would in some way infect the readers, and also, perhaps, one particular reader, which will be Kevin Feige,” Ross adds, breaking the comment with a laugh. “Will that change anything?” Probably no.”
Bringing the Fantastic Four to the MCU
Marvel has confirmed that the Fantastic Four movie will release in November 2024. How would Ross want the first Marvel family to be represented in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
“I, like most fans, keep saying: put them in the 60s and then you can do as much stuff as you want, so that they are the only superheroes in their time,” he says. “And then you can send them on time travel if you want to cross them, but you don’t have to. But having them at the time would have been great because of the aesthetic of things we saw in Mad Men. Can you imagine if this were brought to life in a modern [film] with the Fantastic Four?
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Ross crafted his story in such a way that filmmakers could use it as a roadmap if they wanted to.
“This is your chance to make a great new first impression. [with the new film],” he says. “We know that modern films are heavily influenced by the latest things done in comics… I wanted to suggest a way to see a group that is focused on four members: if they do an adaptation, they kind of get the main version of it in first thing that comes to mind.”
Ross’s comic book fandom has been an integral part of his career. His love of Silver and Bronze Age comic book characters influenced his work on Marvels, as well as tabloid specials he did for DC Comics with Batman: The Animated Series writer Paul Dini. He indicates that he is a fan of the Marvel films, but would like them to be more true to the source material.
“I loved what they do so much, and even what I don’t really like, their stylistic choices, I don’t hate it. I can always appreciate it for bringing their vision to it,” says Ross. “But I would love it if I looked at the characters and just said, ‘That’s who Jack Kirby drew.’ And I don’t think Jack’s work was that abstract, so I’m trying to give my own point of view here: doesn’t that look like the face that Jack painted for Reed?”
For much of the last quarter century, Ross based his performance of Reed Richards on Russell Johnson playing “The Professor” from Gilligan’s Island. For Full Circle, he found new inspiration. “Here I switched to another guy from another TV show from the 60s and thankfully he is still here and didn’t care,” he says.
Ross contacted Land of the Giants actor Gary Conway to get his blessing and base his new take on Reed. “When I first saw a photograph of him taken over the past 20 years, I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s Reed’s face. Holy cow! And it made me wonder, have I been wrong all this time? Because that’s what Jack drew. And so I gradually adapted,” says Ross. “He really embodies the character perfectly. But the fact is that there is a road map. We can say that there is a face style, there are people who look like that. That’s what the archetype was. And I’d like to see that at the casting.”
The launch of the Abrams ComicArt imprint will surely entail more standalone projects. Ross says talks are already underway with other talented comedians. “They’re reaching out to people who you really think of as unique writer-artists and giving them a platform with Marvel properties, but in a more extravagant art form,” he says.
Is he ready to write and draw another project?
“Ideas seep in,” he replies cryptically. “I’m thinking about what I could try next.”
Ross said the book was about challenging yourself creatively. But in a conversation with him, one gets the feeling that he did it for another reason. For a large number of fans, the Kirby-Lee series is the pinnacle of comics. Fantastic Four: Full Circle gives Ross an opportunity to remind people why Kirby was known as the “King of Comic Books”.
“Trying in some way to align with what Jack Kirby was doing creatively at the time when [Kirby and Lee] created this book, it’s not easy to do, especially today,” explains Ross. “Not many people really imitate his style. If we go back to the 1970s, you have people influenced by Jack Kirby comics. He seems like a far more distant memory now, but his style is rooted in this group of characters, in this particular book. [which] he created one hundred editions of content for. I wanted to convey that in some way by taking my realist style and filtering it through that influence, trying to say, “Hey, what Jack did still works in context.”
Fantastic Four: Full Circle is available to order on Amazon and other retailers.
For more on the future of the Fantastic Four MCU, check out which director has been chosen for the upcoming reboot and check out everything that was announced at the Marvel Studios SDCC panel.