Alex Ross comes full circle

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In 1994, wonders came to the superhero landscape like a flash. The four-issue comic book limited series, written by Kurt Busiek and drawn by Alex Ross, captured an unseen side of the Marvel superhero universe. The book details the daily life of citizens of the 1960s and 1970s living in a world invaded by superheroes. But it’s Ross’ meticulously painted panels that will truly capture the imagination of the comic book world, earning the artist one of three Eisner Awards for the series.

This month, Ross returns to the Marvel comics universe with The Fantastic Four: Full Circle, a long-awaited passion project centered on The Fantastic Four – Reed Richards, aka Mr. Fantastic; Sue Storm, The Invisible Girl; Johnny Storm, The Human Torch and Ben Grimm, The Thing, one of the most imaginative superhero teams in the world of comics. The new work is Ross’ first solo effort to write and draw a full superhero graphic novel. The book is inspired by “This Man…This Monster,” a story originally published in 1966 by the legendary Marvel team of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, co-creators of the Fantastic Four.

Following the success of wondersthe following year, Ross teamed up with writer Mark Waid and once again struck gold with Kingdom Come, an epic superhero tale centered around an aging Justice League forced to reunite to take on a reckless new generation of DC superheroes who are as violent and deadly as the super-villains they are sworn to fight.

These two series helped establish Ross as the preeminent creator of dramatically painted superhero covers. In the years that followed, Ross maintained an outsized influential presence, creating some of comics’ most striking covers, as well as working on acclaimed series such as Uncle Sam (with writer Steve Darnall), an allegorical personification of the conflict between American ideals and its historical failures. More recently, his brushwork has expanded beyond comics, including paintings by The Beatles and Ubisoft. Assassin’s Creed and Watch dogs Games.

More than half a century after his introduction in “This Man…This Monster”, Ross’ The Fantastic Four: full circle revives the first appearance of the Negative Zone, the anti-matter-based parallel universe discovered by Reed Richards in pursuit of a weapon to battle intergalactic enemies. Ross’ new work is a labor of love and a tribute to the dazzling artistry and visual storytelling genius of Jack Kirby. The book will be published by Abrams ComicArts under its MarvelArts imprint, a new line of original graphic novels based on iconic Marvel characters.

The book finds Ross stepping out of his comfort zone — going from painted work to inking — while celebrating one of the most psychedelic stories of the 1960s and one of America’s most beloved superhero teams. era.

Weekly editors: Have you been productive during the pandemic?

Alex Ross: I’ve found that the slowdown in work during the pandemic has allowed me to finally play around with project designs and sketch art that I otherwise wouldn’t have done. In fact, I’ve done finished paintings that didn’t have an intended home because I didn’t base all my efforts on whether they would lead to a paid gig. This recreation is actually where I thought I might exorcise my Fantastic Four aspirations. My real intention then was to lay down the visual ideas and finally move on.

Why was it important for you to be both the artist and the author of this work?

For one main reason: Jack Kirby. Jack plotted his comics and didn’t work from full scripts for most of his career, but he couldn’t get that autonomy of sole creator status on the The Fantastic Four because he developed it with Stan Lee and identified with Stan’s voice style. He aspired to take the reins of everything, and that didn’t happen on this book, despite the fact that the creative contribution he made to it was so important and sadly underappreciated. It was his professional history and example that drove me to ensure that the work I do here, and any stories I personally draw in the future, benefit from his experience. I will always collaborate with others, but my fully drawn works should be just me so there is no confusion as to who to attribute the effort.

I read again Fantastic Four #51, the issue where “The Man…This Monster” first appeared, prepare oneself to Full circle. Kirby’s “Crossroads of Infinity” collage work (which combined drawings with photos) really stands out. Was this a fundamental image in the development of this book?

All of Kirby’s collage art has influenced my work here where I’ve tried to create images with that in mind. Aside from a few panels that recall exact moments and details from earlier depictions of Jack’s Negative Zone, I created a series that followed his general approach, but as a painted picture. Since I have many Life and See magazines from the 60s, like Jack collected for reference, I chose details from photos that I could draw and paint without having to cut them out for pasting. The intention was to create something that related to what Kirby might have seen and used as a resource.

Jack Kirby’s influence on this book is unmistakable. Is the border between the homage and the original work difficult to cross?

Ultimately, I try to bring out Kirby’s shadow to wrap everyone in it, right before doing a direct imitation of his drawing style. I imagined that the way I tried to create faces and shapes that match its outlines with my own sense of rendering those shapes will show its influence in a way that could hopefully inspire others to see how Jack’s work doesn’t need to be reinvented but a subconscious reabsorption. I’m not afraid of getting lost in the mix.

The representation of the negative zone, in particular, offers the opportunity to create vivid, almost psychedelic images in the pages and panels. Did the imagery develop in tandem with the plot?

My black light poster claims were a driving ambition looking for a plot to hang them. The new villain introduced in full circle is a big part of how this approach to color crystallized for an image I wanted to do, and the negative area worked as a suitable place to put it.

The colors are striking and stand out from your painted work. Was the process radically different?

I normally paint everything, so I don’t usually work with a colorist. Since I would be working with a [Josh Johnson] here, and still wanted to keep as much control as possible, I made full marker guides on copies of each page. The color guides made for this book lack modern shading techniques. I wanted the work to kind of hold together as if we didn’t have the whole box of digital paint to use, but were limited to the technology of timeless four-color cartoon processes. Another specific inspiration for period coloring was the DC Comics work of Jack Adler, who, even with limited printing options, still created unique lighting effects and charismatic color choices that enhanced early work. 70s by Neal Adams and others. I studied Adler’s print comics to find out what they might guide me to do differently than I’ve ever done before.

As we mentioned at the beginning, this was a book that took many years to come together. Do you plan to undertake a comic story in this way again? Are there any other stories you’ve been waiting to tell?

I always intend to create more content for the stories, but I often run into planning extremely long epics. I can’t plan projects with shorter page counts, so I never get started, but this time I found the urge to tell this more compact story, a reasonable fit for my ambitions. This opens the door to further such reflections in the future.

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