Alex Ross talks Fantastic Four: Full Circle, the team's '60s roots, and the legacy of Jack Kirby
Few comic artists are as instantly recognizable as Alex Ross. For decades now, Ross' photo-like paintings of superheroes have defined the zenith of "realism" for cape comics. But even after years of producing classic books like Kingdom Come and Marvels, Ross is still pushing his art to new levels. Fantastic Four: Full Circle, out this month, is the first comic he's written as well as drawn. It's also the first in a new Marvel Arts line, a collaboration between Marvel Comics and Abrams Comic Arts.
"The nice thing about the writing style is that it wasn't really a labor," Ross tells EW over the phone. "I worked the story out by drawing it first with little thumbnail sketches and mostly figuring out what panel shapes were, what was happening in them, how the story was paced, all those things. Then various lines of dialogue would pop up in the telling. Most of it came naturally. It's the kind of thing where like, if somebody says this line, well, there's no way Johnny Storm isn't going to reply to that like this."
EW can exclusively premiere the first few pages of Fantastic Four: Full Circle, which begin with the team's lovable bruiser Ben Grimm, a.k.a. the Thing, getting up for a midnight snack. Ross said it was easy to find Ben's voice — but with fellow team member Sue Storm, a.k.a Invisible Woman, he purposefully wanted to characterize her differently than she was in the original comics.
Full Circle even comes with a foldout cover reiterating the team's classic origin story — but told from Sue's perspective, and therefore centering her in the narrative.
"Unlike certain iterations of the team over time, I didn't want to play with any idea that there was such family disharmony that we're watching a marriage in dissolution," Ross says. "Whenever you're seeing Sue Storm, she's not the one being dragged into anything. She's been on this team for a long time. I wanted to present that she has a strong marriage with her husband, that they are respectful to each other."
There's been a lot of buzz about the Fantastic Four lately. Marvel is about to launch a new comic series about the team, for which Ross has already created some amazing covers. And then there's the upcoming MCU movie, whose highly anticipated casting has yet to be unveiled. The most likely setup for the movie would be incorporating the Fantastic Four into the existing Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Ross believes that the team's enduring appeal has to do with their '60s roots. That's the aesthetic he went for with Full Circle, and he thinks a movie should too — even if he feels these sciencey adventurers might be better suited for a serialized TV show than one or two films.
"I wanted to really do a deep dive into the vibe of the '60s without technically having transplanted the team in time," Ross says. "I was able to pull that off mainly because I never take you down to the streets of Manhattan during my story. Now, can you do that and get a '60s vibe, even in contemporary America? I think everything is possible. You can make a movie today that feels like it's got the spirit of an older movie. It's perfectly feasible with the technology, and I think a lot of us would like to see them put the team in the decade they come from."
Ross continues: "There's such a unique mood to the '60s, and it's clear in everything from the kind of guy that Johnny Storm is, representing the youth culture of the time, to the kind of lead figure that Reed Richards is. He was this certain type of male lead that had been running since the '30s and would largely begin to disappear throughout the '70s. There are aesthetic touches like the details of their home and their cars. Those things changed drastically in the following decades."
Despite Ross' iconic work and legendary reputation, he still feels frustrated by the comics industry. Even when painting mind-blowing covers for the recent Immortal Hulk series by writer Al Ewing and artist Joe Bennett, Ross says he was confused by how often the things he was told to paint for covers didn't match what Bennett was drawing in the interiors. But his least favorite cover experience in recent memory is when he had to draw the Red Hulk on a cover of Ta-Nehisi Coates' Captain America comic.
"I'm not a fan, unfortunately," Ross says of the Red Hulk. "Not so much the design, I just don't think he should've turned out to be a character connected to Bruce Banner. It turns out that 'Oh hey, everybody that Bruce Banner knew eventually got transformed by gamma rays.' I thought that was silly and I wish they hadn't done it. But I did wind up having to do a cover with the Red Hulk on the Captain America run with Ta-Nehisi Coates. I petitioned against it, I wrote him an email saying, 'I wish we wouldn't have to do this terrible character.' He was specifically the General Ross version of the character at that moment too! I just thought, 'Come on, man, don't do this to me.' But there really wasn't anything I ever got to do on that book that was ever my choice, unfortunately. Over the last few years, I've gotten to do covers for everything from Iron Man to the Fantastic Four, but I've never had that creative control unless it's a project that I pitched myself."
These creative frustrations make Ross feel even closer to his hero Jack Kirby, who co-created many Marvel superheroes alongside Stan Lee and whose imaginative art style was particularly foundational to the Fantastic Four. After getting sick of Lee taking the credit for so much of their collaboration, Kirby embarked as a solo writer and artist on his own projects, like DC's New Gods and Marvel's Eternals. With Fantastic Four: Full Circle, Ross has now done the same, telling the story he wants to tell.
"Everything that was driving me was all about trying to connect with what I thought Jack Kirby left as a legacy," Ross says. "Part of that legacy was him saying, 'Do it all yourself, don't have anybody else that your credits can be confused with.' That is key, and it's an uncomfortable part of his legacy because it can get confusing with what did he do versus what did Stan Lee do? There are a lot of people who don't want to take anything away from what they've always credited to Stan. But Stan didn't write full scripts. Jack plotted the books almost entirely, and he knew that he could even write the dialogue if he got the chance. Given that I needed to create an original graphic novel, that's the lesson put before me: 'You've got to do all this yourself.' I needed to sit down, do the work, and really just make it all of one voice. So far, it's worked out!"
Fantastic Four: Full Circle will be available Sept. 6.
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