Thanks to his work on comics like Kingdom Come and Marvels, alongside many impressive covers, Alex Ross has become one of the most iconic artists in the comic book industry. When you think of Ross's style, known for its realistic depiction of superheroes and use of dramatic lighting, you probably don't connect it with Jack Kirby, known for a more expressive, crackling comic book aesthetic. But Ross seems intent on highlighting his love for Kirby in Fantastic Four: Full Circle, Ross's first graphic novel as both writer and artist (with color assistance by Josh Johnson and letters by Ariana Mahar). The result is a beautiful love letter to Kirby and the Marvel Age of comics.
Fantastic Four: Full Circle's premise is simple, though it incorporates plenty of sci-fi concepts. It's a direct sequel to Fantastic Four #51, the iconic Kirby and Stan Lee tale "This Man... This Monster!" The story saw a mysterious imposter stealing The Thing's powers only to sacrifice himself and become stranded in the newly discovered Negative Zone. Full Circle begins with Ben Grimm's midnight snack being interrupted by that imposter's sudden reappearance in the Baxter Building, only he's merely a vessel for something much more dangerous. The strange phenomenon and new threat prompt a return trip to the Negative Zone. By the time the mystery is resolved, everything that began in Fantastic Four #51 comes, well, full circle.
Sending the FF into the Negative Zone gives Ross the opportunity to cut loose artistically. Fantastic Four: Full Circle looks unlike anything else from his career. The figures are a blend of Ross's realism and Kirby's expressive figures, with Reed Richards's wide, square jaw feeling like a clear tip of the hat by Ross to the King. Ross also imitates Kirby's unconventional angles in his panel framings. Rather than painting, Ross inks his lines here, which make everything feel less statically rendered and more dynamic. Coupled with the flat coloring, each page is brimming with an energy that feels as far removed from the classical leanings of Ross's previous interiors as one can imagine while still being recognizably his work.
Ross pushes himself on page after page with one artistic flex after another. There are pages where he drops the colors entirely, using black and white and grey tones to imitate the collage pages Kirby would pepper into his work. There are others where he turns the dial in the other direction, using the color palette of a blacklight poster to soak the story in the negativity of the Negative Zone.
There are two-page splashes possessing incredible scale, but Ross's most impressive pages are the two-page spreads with diagonally oriented layouts. These are complex layouts that could be confusing, but in Ross's skilled hands they flow easily from one panel to the next, and Ross has the characters break through the panel borders. Combined with the tilted layout, it creates an almost three-dimensional effect that makes it appear as if the heroes are actually bursting out of the page.
Fantastic Four: Full Circle is an absolutely mesmerizing artistic feat. Its story may be relatively simple, but it fits the spirit of the Silver Age comics that inspired it and works well as a thematic coda to one of the best-loved issues of the original Kirby and Lee Fantastic Four run. Any Fantastic Four fan is likely to find Full Circle a welcome addition to their library, and those simply looking for stunning comic book artwork will find just as much value in its pages. Ross has created a Jack Kirby tribute that does the legendary creator justice.
Published by Abrams ComicArts
On September 6, 2022
Written by Alex Ross
Art by Alex Ross
Colors by Alex Ross with Josh Johnson1comments
Letters by Ariana Mahar
Cover by Alex Ross