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The Fantastic Four and the Spirit of Adventure
Recent graphic novel "Full Circle" showcases the essence of the FF.
The Fantastic Four haven’t made the best impression on mainstream audiences outside of comic books. Hollywood has botched the job every time. The 2005 and 2007 movies were blandly mediocre. The 2015 do-over deserves some credit for aiming higher, but the final product missed the mark even further.
Maybe the fourth time will be the charm. But if we’re counting the never-released 1994 movie, then I suppose it wasn’t.
They’d likely have better luck with animated movies, because animation is what’s needed to capture their colorful sci-fi adventures and distinctive abilities. However, comic books are their original home, and comic books are where the FF have already proven themselves many times over.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original run on the comic features plenty of freewheeling, imaginative plots that never forget the humanity of the characters. Granted, those 1960s comics are dated in many ways, but they were cutting-edge at the time. Other notable runs include those by John Byrne during the 1980s, Carlos Pacheco during the early 2000s, and Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo shortly thereafter.
There have been other great Fantastic Four comics over the decades, and last year saw a worthy addition with an original graphic novel, Fantastic Four: Full Circle.
This was a somewhat unusual project, in that Marvel collaborated with Abrams ComicArts. The real draw, of course, is the writer/artist: Alex Ross.
Comic book readers don’t need me to explain who Alex Ross is, but for everyone else, he’s best known for producing extraordinarily detailed painted artwork for comic books. He is, bar none, the greatest painter of superheroes the world has ever seen. Check out Marvels and Kingdom Come, which are among his most prominent books. He’s also painted various other graphic novels and numerous comic book covers, including the covers of the current Fantastic Four ongoing series.
Ross did not paint Full Circle, however, other than a foldout interior flap. Instead, he drew and colored in the more conventional comic book style. It can’t match the level of his painted work—that would be an unrealistic expectation—but it’s still exceptional artwork that brings the story to life. The lively illustrations earn the oversized pages.
Though not normally a writer, Ross does a fine job with the script, presenting these classic characters fully in character. The goal is not to produce some groundbreaking story or launch the FF in a bold new direction. This is an evergreen story that features the characters in their most recognizable forms and with their established personalities, unencumbered by any current continuity or ongoing plotlines. It’s just the Fantastic Four being the Fantastic Four and looking great along the way.
Full Circle serves as a sequel to Fantastic Four #51 (which I ranked as Marvel’s greatest story of 1966-70). That issue didn’t need any follow-up, but this story does it no harm and doesn’t assume everyone has read it. It brings us back to the Negative Zone and explores new territory within.
The story is fairly slim and straightforward, but it showcases why the Fantastic Four is such a fun concept. They’re not just superheroes. They’re a family of explorers. They dive headfirst into the unknown just to see what’s there. Virtually anything is possible in a Fantastic Four story.
Their powers are almost unnecessary, but they add visual flair in a uniquely comic book way. Plus, they imbue the stories with an elemental quality—they represent earth, air, fire, and water, but only one character is squarely on the nose about it.
The Fantastic Four don’t operate like the Avengers. This is no team-up among people who are initially strangers. Reed and Sue are husband and wife. Sue and Johnny are sister and brother. And Reed and Ben are two old best friends from college. Though they’ve had several substitute members over the years, they generally don’t have a revolving door. Only Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben are the Fantastic Four.
And readers are just as likely to think of them as Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben as they are Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch, and the Thing. No secret identities necessary; they just are who they are.
The dynamic between the quartet anchors any good Fantastic Four story, even if the hijinks could get a bit over a top, especially in the early days (the pranks between Johnny and Ben do get old fast). Here, each character demonstrates their core qualities—Reed’s curiosity, Sue’s protectiveness, Johnny’s lightheartedness, and Ben’s grumpiness and angst.
Full Circle writes a love letter to the Fantastic Four. It’s too soon to say whether it will qualify as an all-time classic, but it shows why plenty of Fantastic Four stories are considered classics and why the series could get away with billing itself as “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” for so long.
Any movie producer hoping to take the FF for another spin should read this book.
What About the Current Series?
I’ve been so focused on reading or rereading the classics lately that I’m very much behind on recent comic books. But after reading Full Circle, I got curious about the current Fantastic Four series, so I read the first eight issues on Marvel Unlimited.
This is a solid book so far. Written by Ryan North and drawn by Iban Coello or Ivan Fiorella (depending on the issue), the series starts off with the team split up for mysterious reasons. We get an issue of Ben and his wife Alicia, an issue of Reed and Sue, and an issue of Johnny before the inevitable reunion.
It’s an unconventional, low-key start. We’ve seen the Fantastic Four save the world and universe so many times by now that it’s refreshing to kick off with a few issues of smaller-scale stories. But though smaller in scale, they remain very much Fantastic Four stories, playing around with sci-fi and superhero concepts and having fun doing it: a time loop in a small town, Doombots following an unorthodox directive, and an ordinary crook who’s realized that the Human Torch is unwilling to burn him.
What I especially appreciate is the structure. Each of the first seven issues provides a complete story. The main plot reaches a satisfying resolution, and then an intriguing cliffhanger pulls us into the next issue, all while an overarching storyline chugs along. Issue #8 is the first one where the main plot is to be continued (and of course it’s the last issue currently available on Marvel Unlimited as of this writing).
My only quibbles are that sometimes the book gets a little too silly, and the characters occasionally sound a bit younger than they should. But those are minor and subjective complaints. North captures exactly the right spirit for a Fantastic Four comic, and that’s what matters most.
It’s fun and imaginative without ever losing sight of the characters, and each issue feels complete. That’s a winner.
Speaking of intrepid explorers, here’s a good book about real-life ones:
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