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‘Fantastic Four: Grand Design #1’ (review)

Written and Illustrated by Tom Scioli
Published by Marvel Comics

 

“Can you guess what time it is?!”

Oh yeah.

So, it deserves to be said that Fantastic Four: Grand Design is first and foremost a remarkable work of art.

Illustrator Tom Scioli is the man Marvel has tapped to render their second Grand Design effort, following the recent success of the excellent X-Men: Grand Design projects by cartoonist Ed Piskar.

Artistically, it’s a near perfect choice. Scioli is well known to be a Jack Kirby acolyte, a fact especially evident in his work on Joe Casey’s excellent Godland series. Now he’s brought the same sensibilities to an homage of arguably Kirby’s greatest comic collaboration of all time – the creation of the fabulous, celebrated, sublime, and ever lovin’ Fantastic Four with fellow Marvel legend, Stan Lee.

It’s a project that requires a certain panache, and to do the job Scioli has adopted a splendid artistic technique of heavily detailed work done in colored pencils against a background of yellowing paper. Along with the almost necessary reliance on boxy, sequential panel layouts to tell the extensive history of the fantastic foursome, the effect is both quite striking and strongly reminiscent of reading an old collection of the original comics that Kirby and Lee first put out in the early ‘60s.

It’s a remarkable achievement, and a labor of love that shines through on every panel.

Mind you, Scioli is not Jack Kirby. And he’s not Stan Lee.

There’s enough going on visually to delight most long-time FF fans – with welcome details ranging from the Thing’s classic rocky mug, to the clean lines of the Baxter Building and the Fantasti-Car, to Sue’s ever-changing mod hairdos, a veritable kaleidoscope of villains and surreal, astonishing backdrops, to the classic 1960’s FF logo itself.

On its own, this is all enough of a treat to purchase the book. Unfortunately, Scioli’s strength as a visual storyteller breaks down more than a bit in his narration. It’s a dissonance that unavoidably detracts from the potential of the project.

With the success of X-Men: Grand Design, Ed Piskor set a tone that serialized the timeline of Marvel’s merry mutants with an effective blend of visual snapshots and narrative commentary. Scioli attempts to follow suit with the same winning technique, which is wholly understandable.

But where Piskar’s words keep the reader engaged with an ongoing narrative retelling of the early X-men comic stories, Scioli’s script parses his language so strongly that much of it amounts to little more than overly simple descriptive sentences announcing that this happens, then this happens, then this, also this. Not exactly scintillating.

While the technique does leave more room in the panel for Scioli’s artwork, it comes at the expense of what most readers need to stay engaged with the storyline. This is offset some with the introduction of several first-person narrative sequences, but even this does little to create a comfortable through-line in the storytelling.

The overall effect is choppy, often disjointed, with little that bridges the remarkable events and often random elements of FF historical trivia that make little sense without the narrative context of the original source material.

That’s too bad. Because of all of Kirby and Lee’s projects, the Fantastic Four really does have the most compendious volume of, well, fantastic and colorful details. But it’s not just the bizarre and the surreal that made this book and its team so fantastic from the beginning. It was also the way in which the foursome held together as a family, through all their astonishing adventures and ongoing soap opera dysfunction, that really captured the hearts of a generation, and cemented the FF as arguably the best super hero team of all time.

That human relational element is hard enough to capture in the condensed serial format like the Grand Design projects. Sadly, Scioli’s narrative choices make this even more difficult. And no matter how you cut it, that’s a loss, in a project that deserves anything but.

Still, it is quite beautiful. That alone is worth putting down the money to add it to your collection. And there’s certainly a lot of fascinating Fantastic Four lore to absorb and chew on. To say nothing of the ever-expanding historical narrative of the Marvel Universe as a whole.

Good thing Marvel’s made all the original Lee and Kirby source material (and more besides) available to the inspired comic book fan in their truly worthwhile Marvel Unlimited app. If nothing else, Fantastic Four: Grand Design is certainly a fantastic primer for anyone curious about the stories that established the team’s earliest formative years and the stylistic sensibilities that came to define a whole new era of classic comic excellence.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

 

Next Issue: He’s there at the start, and he’s there at the finish. Next issue begins the way it should – with the greatest challenge the FF have ever faced. The ancient, implacable Devourer of Worlds.

 

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