Celebrated artist Alex Ross has been delivering indelible images of comic book superheroes for almost three decades, redefining the way caped crusaders, masked vigilantes, and dastardly villains are portrayed in his signature Norman Rockwell-esque style.
The talented Midwesterner launched onto the scene in 1994 for the memorable "Marvels" miniseries with writer Kurt Busiek, then scored a touchdown with DC's "Kingdom Come" in 1996 paired with writer Mark Waid. His photo-realistic paint techniques and cinematic compositions were a revolution and in stark contrast to mega-muscled crimefighters depicted in the mid-'90s.
Over his blessed career, Ross has brought to life nearly every pop culture icon that ever slipped on a colorful costume, from Thor, Iron Man, and Spider-Man, to Batman, Superman, and Aquaman. Now Ross embraces Marvel's first family for the legendary clan's 60th anniversary with "Fantastic Four: Full Circle," an ambitious hardcover graphic novel just released from Abrams ComicArts.
Related: Marvel movies in chronological order
Here's the official synopsis:
It's a rainy night in Manhattan and not a creature is stirring except for ... Ben Grimm. When an intruder suddenly appears inside the Baxter Building, the Fantastic Four—Mister Fantastic (Reed Richards), the Invisible Woman (Susan Storm Richards), the Human Torch (Johnny Storm), and the Thing (Ben Grimm)—find themselves surrounded by a swarm of invading parasites. These carrion creatures composed of Negative Energy come to Earth using a human host as a delivery system. But for what purpose? And who is behind this untimely invasion?
The Fantastic Four have no choice but to journey into the Negative Zone, an alien universe composed entirely of anti-matter, risking not just their own lives but the fate of the cosmos!
"Fantastic Four: Full Circle" is the first longform project written and illustrated by Alex Ross. As a finely-crafted return to a Stan Lee–Jack Kirby tale from the swingin' '60s, its nostalgic storyline and mesmerizing psychedelic artwork are a revelation to behold.
"The Fantastic Four was sort of calling out to me and it wasn't exactly an arbitrary choice," Ross tells Space.com. "Even the inspiration of trying to do this pop art aesthetic wasn't transferrable for some independent thing where I could control it more. It needs the weight of the history applied to this book and the original creators of it, so I'm connecting to that tree and that's important.
"Plus when you're telling a story like the one that is here, I'm not building all that up from scratch, I'm building off of something that already exists. So I'm assuming your foreknowledge to a certain degree with these characters. That's something I can lean on so I can get straight to the meat of action and extended content without having to give a whole setup of character personalities and backgrounds. I kind of jump right in and figure people know the Fantastic Four."
For Ross, the Fantastic Four is the cornerstone of everything important that makes up Marvel, and for that matter, what makes up popular comics of the last sixty years.
"What Kirby and Lee were doing in that book was building out the construction of a book about introducing ideas, ways to approach characters and concepts," he explains. "They obviously brought great characters like the Inhumans, Black Panther, Silver Surfer, and Galactus to the forefront, but the worldbuilding that would occur in that book was the cornerstone of all Marvel."
It's also about the dynamics of comic book characters that were not perfect and had struggles, which was unique to this type of writing at that point in comics history.
"It was the turning around of so much of what would engage readers,'" Ross adds. "Storylines would continue. You were watching an ongoing soap opera and your adventures weren't just ending with the given issue you purchased. You could pick up on the same dynamics that would grow and evolve over time. You were with personalities that you liked to check in on and see how they're getting along and what might be new in their lives. And that would be a thing that expanded comics from what it had been in the first 25 years of its existence, into what we take for granted now. And that was all due to the Fantastic Four."
This "Fantastic Four: Full Circle" edition harkens back to a gentler era with its old-fashioned charm and good-natured sci-fi tone that resonates with the vibrancy and vibe of the treasured source material.
"I'm trying to compose the version of a comic that I want to see as a reader. It's the overall history of how the drama is built up," says Ross. "It's based upon the internal conflicts in character dynamics and what's making everyone so unhappy. Like why is Batman always so mad? Back in the day when they had to come up with ways to keep the Fantastic Four drama alive they'd have a split between Reed and Sue, and they've revisited that a number of times to establish the delicacy of a personal relationship. I'd want to react to that with everyone doing their part within the bounds of this family dynamic and the team. There's the ribbing that's always been there between the members, but I wanted to assert that it's not Sue that's trying to hold anything up. She realizes what they're there to do. She's been doing this for sixty years so if the team needs to deal with a threat, that's not an argument."
A vital point Ross orchestrates is Sue Storm Richards telling the origin of the team at the start to point out that she's part of the reason they all got transformed in space.
"She outright insulted Ben Grimm, the pilot, with the thought of challenging his manhood and calling him a coward if he wasn't up for their spaceflight. All he was doing was saying you need more testing, you need better shielding, the ship doesn't have it, and I don't trust this. She's the one that pushes him over the edge. The core struggle that's always been at the heart of the team is that what The Thing is carrying with him is the weight of that transformation. His loss of humanity is with him no matter if he tries to joke his way through life and had seemingly moved on."
Ross wanted a loving relationship between husband and wife that wasn't constantly fraught, because he's sick of reading that and it being a go-to in entertainment in general. He was yearning for more and that's what he tries to contribute here.
"Every major creator has done a turn with a "Fantastic Four" book, giving it their all," Ross notes. "These have been great contributions and wonderful runs on the book, especially in the last 10 to 15 years. I'm just one of those people trying to get in there and do a little thing myself. When they talk about Marvel as being the House of Ideas, "Fantastic Four" was the book that embodied that."
"Fantastic Four: Full Circle" is available at all bookstores and online outlets now.
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Jeff Spry is an award-winning screenwriter and veteran freelance journalist covering TV, movies, video games, books, and comics. His work has appeared at SYFY Wire, Inverse, Collider, Bleeding Cool and elsewhere. Jeff lives in beautiful Bend, Oregon amid the ponderosa pines, classic muscle cars, a crypt of collector horror comics, and two loyal English Setters.