Sixty-one years ago today, Marvel Comics started their morning as yet another publisher fighting for space on the newsstand. By day's end, their reputation as a mediocre company would never be the same. In modernity, Marvel is one of the world's most dominant entertainment brands. Similar to the superheroes they publish, Marvel's upward trajectory as a publisher has an equally compelling origin story. So what exactly was the one giant leap that brought comics and pop culture into the Marvel age?
On August 8th, 1961, Marvel—then known as Timely Comics- released the first issue of the Fantastic Four. The titanic 104—issue run by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee that followed paved the way for not only Marvel but the entire comic industry. Since their inception, the Fantastic Four has been a wildly experimental and boundary-pushing property that boasts stories from the minds of the comic book industry's greatest creators. With his new graphic novel, Fantastic Four: Full Circle, comic legend Alex Ross inscribes his name in the pantheon of FF creators while simultaneously reviving the 1960s.
Replete with copious homages to the inaugural Jack "the King" Kirby and Stan "the Man" Lee run, Fantastic Four: Full Circle is an apt title for the graphic novel, as it encapsulates the creative impetus that presumably inspired the project. In Full Circle, Alex Ross endeavors to take Marvel's first family back to its roots. Despite their comparative stature within the industry, Alex Ross and Jack Kirby couldn't be more artistically divergent. Kirby's energetic pencils emphasize the dynamic spectacle of the superhero genre. In contrast, Ross's arresting realism provides a weighty gravitas that practically renders fictional characters into corporeal form. Fantastic Four: Full Circle exists as a dazzling nexus point where Ross can skillfully reconcile the stylistic differences between himself and the King.
In the first two pages of Fantastic Four: Full Circle, Ross deftly uses a quick synopsis of the quartet's space-faring origin to lull readers into the familiarity of his traditional style, only to jettison it for the remainder of the graphic novel. In the subsequent pages, seasoned fans of Ross will notice the artist's use of inked figures, departing from his standard approach to gradation and painting. The inks harken back to the halcyon days of Marvel's Silver age while allowing Ross to embrace an eccentric color palette that reflects the era's spirit. Throughout his career, Ross has drawn several comparisons to Norman Rockwell, but the psychedelic colors of Fantastic Four: Full Circle evoke an undeniable association with Andy Warhol and pop art. The entire book is awash in prismatic yellows, greens, and pinks that frequently replace the character's flesh tones and typical color schemes. Some of Ross's choices in Full Circle speak to his unwavering confidence as an illustrator. The book might go on to become the boldest work within Ross's immense catalog on a strictly visual front.
The narrative of Fantastic Four: Full Circle, written by Ross, follows the eponymous super team as they venture into the treacherous, parallel dimension known as the Negative Zone. Outside of offering an exciting backdrop for our heroes to showcase their abilities, setting the graphic novel in the Negative Zone provides Ross an opportunity to ramp up the book's atmosphere and character designs. Ross's trademark realism turns the Negative Zone from a cartoonish sci-fi realm into a nightmarish dimension that, paired with the book's psychedelic palette, feels like a vivid flashback of a bad acid trip. Never before has the Negative Zone, and its beastly inhabitants, felt as menacing as they do in Full Circle. And while lifelong fans of the Fantastic Four can probably already guess which threats are lurking in the Negative Zone, Ross ingeniously integrates a classic character that will assuredly surprise even the oldest FF diehard.
A vital component of Fantastic Four: Full Circle that one could potentially overlook is the masterfully arranged panel layouts that convey motion and momentum through their placement. Before the Fantastic Four enter the unruly, celestial wilderness of the Negative Zone, Ross wisely juxtaposes the pop art hues with symmetrical panels reminiscent of the grids that dominated Silver age comics. However, once the characters cross the barrier into the Negative Zone, the panels become as chaotic as the realm they inhabit, while the background becomes black and white. In addition to his panel layouts, some of Full Circle's splash and double-page spreads are awe-inspiring. From the gorgeously vibrant recap of the FF's origin to sprawling scenes of cosmic horror in the Negative Zone, Ross constructs some of the finest panels in Fantastic Four history in the pages of Full Circle.
Throughout his career, Alex Ross's name has become synonymous with reinvention. Books like Kingdom Come and Astro City helped Ross and a generation of creators lead the charge into a new era of comics. However, Ross's iconic paintings and pin-ups have led many fans' to view his interpretations of classic characters as the definitive take. It's in the space between both evaluations that a masterpiece like Fantastic Four: Full Circle resides. Older fans that have watched the Marvel universe race to the stars since Fantastic Four #1, as well as newer fans only privy to the Marvel cinematic universe, will swoon over the jaw-dropping quality of Ross's tribute to the FF. There's no better book to celebrate the Fantastic Four's 61st anniversary. Nuff said.