Fantastic Four - Full Circle
Marvel has been doing graphic novels with its characters since 1982. In forty years there has never, not once, been a Fantastic Four graphic novel. Collected editions, yes, but not an original-material book.
Alex Ross has fixed that gross injustice. And here is the story.
The Baxter Building has a strange nighttime intruder: a corpse wrapped up in black alien gunk! Ben Grimm, the Thing, recognizes the body. It is none other than the Changeling! Not the metamorph character from The X-Men and not Beast Boy from DC Comics, this is the embittered scientist from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four #51, the man who envied Reed Richards and tried to destroy him by stealing the physical form of the Thing! What’s more, out of the corpse’s mouth pours an endless stream of vile, parasitic creatures that attack the FF until Reed calls out a security command “Z-Z-1-2-3” to annihilate the creatures. Do you know the significance of this command? Read on to the end of the review!
To learn who is trying to get them, Earth’s greatest heroes must go to the source of the energies that Reed scans from the bodies of the creatures—through Sub-Space to the Negative Zone! In through the Distortion Area they go, and into the antimatter universe itself, sneaking past Annihilus, who is having a snack of the same creatures that attacked the FF in their home. (ECCH!) No sooner are they clear of “He Who Annihilates” than they are set upon by more of those creatures and confronted with the one who sent them. It’s the return of a surprise villain—Janus the Nega Man from Fantastic Four #107-109! Janus has lured the FF into the Negative Zone so that he and his swarm of creatures can use them as they used the Changeling’s body, as host bodies from which they can invade Earth. The scheme fails because Sue stops up the FF’s throats with force fields (the Thing finds that as unpleasant as it was necessary); then Annihilus shows up, murderous as ever (and well-fed on little Negative Zone beasties) and ready to attack. The FF make a quick getaway and Reed then reminds the negative-energy form that thinks it is Janus that the real Janus perished in the explosive area of the Zone. The Janus apparition goes berserk and hurls our fearless foursome across negative space right to that very spot, where they all face annihilation in the atmosphere of…the Anti-Earth!
Reed quickly figures out the nature of this Negative Zone counterpart of our planet. He reveals that it is somehow—don’t ask me how, I’m still trying to figure it out myself—a positive planet in the antimatter universe, and that its inhabitants created the explosive area around it to protect it from antimatter falling onto its surface. Meanwhile, Reed thinks that they can use Sue and Johnny’s powers and the protection of the FF’s special matter/antimatter-reaction-nullifying uniforms to enter the Anti-Earth’s atmosphere and travel safely to the surface. The Thing, who got the bad end of Reed’s explorations back in FF #1, protests vehemently until Sue talks him down. (Remember it was Sue who talked him into piloting Reed’s spaceship in that origin story. At critical times she can have an influence with him that even Reed doesn’t.) Then, it’s a descent in a force field propelled by the Human Torch’s flames into the atmosphere of the planet.
The civilization of the Anti-Earth is ready for them when the FF drops down over one of their cities. Johnny is quickly caught in an energy field, and Sue gets a force field over the armed welcoming committee. A quartet of super-types then appears, led by an armored figure who turns out to be…the Changeling, very much alive! Somehow, perhaps because of the Thing’s-body-replicating technology he was using, he wasn’t so much annihilated in the explosive area as he was duplicated, and the Janus entity used the duplicate as his lure to bring in our heroes. When he crashed on the Anti-Earth, the inhabitants created a containment suit in which he has lived among them since then.
In a further explanation, the Changeling reveals that the people with whom he lives are descendants of Iroquois who interbred with visiting aliens and learned to use their technology to create the antimatter-annihilating shield over the planet. We’re going to talk about this in the review. His years on the Anti-Earth have given the Changeling time to reflect on his former life and his destructive envy of Reed, which he now regrets. And Reed actually does him a favor, using a portion of his uniform to create a new protective suit for the man who now tells them his real name—Ricardo Jones. Using a body covering created by the man he once hated, Jones can now live without his armor for the first time in years.
Jones returns the favor by bestowing upon the Fantastic Four a Cosmic Control Rod based on the same technology in the weapon that gives Annihilus both his power and his immortality. (The technology of the extinct people of Tyanna from Fantastic Four #140.) Cutting the rod into four segments, the FF are able to transport themselves back home to the Baxter Building, ending their wild adventure.
Once they’re home, Reed speculates on the true nature of the Negative Zone, which he now thinks is somehow entangled with the human mind in a way that makes it a dark reflection of our normal reality. Reed thinks the Negative Zone is the way it is because that is the way the FF imagine it to be, and that to survive there, Ricardo had to “bond with others who came to embody a positive energy to survive in a psychopathic ally ‘negative’ environment.” The Thing brushes off his old friend’s speculations, and for once I’m with Bashful Ben. This whole yarn just reinforces something I’ve thought for years: the Negative Zone is just plain screwy!
What is not screwy is Alex Ross’s obvious and conspicuous love of the Fantastic Four and the work of Jack Kirby. It shows in so many ways. It’s there in the recreations of scenes from Fantastic Four #51 and FF Annual #6. You can see it in the panel with the Negative Zone monitor with the weird creature floating there, which harks back to FF #56. It’s in Johnny’s T-shirt in the first panel of the following page. And when the FF are in their hangar room, look at that one vehicle in the foreground; it’s the same magnetic flying ship that the Black Panther gave them as a gift in FF #52. Those “half-alien Iroquois” beings on the Anti-Earth are also dead ringers for the beings that Jack drew in the aforementioned FF Annual, and the panel of Reed shaking hands with one of them is right out of that story. Also, the trip through the Distortion Area and “the crossroads of infinity,” as Reed calls it, takes us back to Kirby’s collages in FF #51. There are lots of little classic FF Easter eggs in the art. Visually, this whole thing is Alex Ross’s love letter to the classic Fantastic Four.
In the foreground of the panel in the hangar deck, note that the FF still have the magnetic flying craft that the Black Panther gave them in the opening scene of FF #52.
Ross’s art, in and of itself, is as luxuriously beautiful as ever. He’s changed his style for this book, drawing most of it instead of painting it, and using color schemes that would be right at home on a black light poster. It’s not something we’d want to see on a regular basis in the monthly Fantastic Four book, but it’s fun to look at in this graphic novel. The style of it makes the whole thing that much more special. There are too many breathtaking things to mention: the page of the FF donning their special uniforms and charging into action, the double-page spread of Annihilus having lunch, the two pages of the FF entering the Anti-Earth’s atmosphere and dropping down over the city. Ross has spared no effort in making everything look awesome, page after page. Full Circle is the art job of the comic-book year and will be remembered as an amazing achievement.
The story is a bit perplexing. I don’t think it’s really in continuity; it contradicts or is contradicted in places by things in the regular FF series. Janus the Nega Man did return in the FF stories of Carlos Pacheco and Jeph Loeb. When our heroes leave on their mission, they call Agatha Harkness to look after the kids instead of leaving them with Alicia. (They haven’t used Agatha to help with Franklin and Valeria in years, and with Ben and Alicia now married it’s Alicia who regularly takes over in the FF’s absence.) In the scene at the end when Sue goes to see the kids, Franklin’s hair is still sandy blond instead of the black to which he changed it in the regular book.
And then there’s the concept of the Anti-Earth, which is as unstable as unstable molecules, being stated differently in different stories, here and in the main Fantastic Four series. Stan and Jack in FF #51 established it as an area where matter and antimatter collide around Earth—presumably our Earth, though it’s never been seen to affect our world. John Byrne in FF #256 backs up this idea, having Reed construct a direct jump point from the explosive area to the Baxter Building (which drove the unstable molecules in our heroes’ uniforms crazy and made them change colors!) But in 1968’s FF Annual #6, Reed calls the planet in question an antimatter world where they could never go without destroying themselves and the planet. He even presciently imagines the beings who might live there as looking just like the Iroquois/alien hybrids of this story. In Ross’s plot, Reed contradicts his earlier idea (luckily for the FF.) Not only is it a positive-matter planet in an antimatter universe, but it’s a different Earth that’s had a radically different history.
It just reinforces what I’ve long thought about the Negative Zone, where you can breathe and not freeze to death in space and there’s a weird sort of gravity outside of the gravitational influence of planets and stars. Scientifically, the place is enough to drive you nuts!
However, none of that detracts from the sheer beauty of Alex Ross’s story. The best way to deal with it is just to enjoy it for the truly beautiful work of comic book art that it is, and to appreciate that it finally puts right an injustice of forty years. In all the time that there have been graphic novels about Marvel characters, there has never been one about the characters who founded and mapped out the Marvel Universe, without whom most of the others would even exist. There needed to be a Fantastic Four graphic novel. Now there is one and it is visually a masterpiece. May there be others yet to come.
“Z-Z-1-2-3,” the name of that program code that Reed used to destroy the attacking creatures in the Baxter Building, was Jack Kirby’s original name for the character that evolved into HERBIE the Robot, which Jack and Stan Lee created for the 1978 animated Fantastic Four series. The DePatie-Freleng animation house could get the rights to the FF, but not the Human Torch, who had been licensed out to Universal Studios, so Stan and Jack had to swap out Johnny for a new character. Marvel’s licensing its characters to different companies was the reason why at first they couldn’t produce a Fantastic Four movie of their own because the film rights were in the hands of 20th Century Fox until Disney got the FF back by buying out Fox. (And that in turn is why “the Marvel Cinematic Universe” contains Fantastic Four ideas but is built on Iron Man and the Avengers.) That’s what happens when creations become products, properties, and franchises.
It took forty years to happen, but there is at last a graphic novel based on “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” And more, it is a breathtaking work of one of the greatest artists working in comics. Alex Ross channels the style of Jack Kirby as he did in the Marvels Miniseries, while working in a style unlike any other comic book project, and it is the visual treat of 2022.
Fantastic Four – Full Circle: Accentuate the Negative
- Writing - 9/109/10
- Storyline - 7/107/10
- Art - 10/1010/10
- Color - 10/1010/10
- Cover Art - 10/1010/10