Walter Mosley is a comic book geek. From the time he discovered The Fantastic Four, the groundbreaking 1961 super-hero comic book created for Marvel Comics by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, Mosley has been fascinated by Kirby and Lee's art and storytelling, and how their historic collaboration not only stoked his own young imagination, but transformed the American super-hero comic book.
Now, more than four decades later, Mosley has teamed up with Marvel Comics to produce Maximum Fantastic Four, an oversized (8"×11 7/8") $50 hardcover re-creation of the first issue of TheFantastic Four that reprints that seminal issue with a powerful graphic twist. In the new book, due in November, each of Kirby's dynamic panels is enlarged and designed for an entire page—or several pages—turning the original 32-page pulp comic into a 224-page visual deconstruction of Kirby and Lee's pioneering creation. It is at once a tribute to the art of Jack Kirby, a visual analysis of his style and a work of art itself.
Mosley approached Marvel Entertainment chairman Avi Arad with the idea for the project. Arad called Mosley a nerd—but gave him the go-ahead.
"This is the first time Marvel has created a book of this magnitude," says Mosley's Marvel editor, Ruwan Jayatilleke. "Walter put the whole project in motion. My job was to preserve his vision, expand the breadth of this title's appeal and keep the project financially viable."
Jayatilleke credits Jeff Youngquist, Marvel's senior editor of special projects, with having answers for "every mind-numbing production snafu." Comics writer and historian Mark Evanier, a former Jack Kirby assistant, was recruited to contribute an essay on the business climate and personalities at Marvel in 1961. And Paul Sahre, a book designer—he did the cover of Rick Moody's new novel The Diviners—and admitted comic book nut ("I've been waiting to work on a project like this since I was five"), was brought in to work with Mosley.
"This whole project is an effort to replicate the wonder of reading comics as a kid," says Sahre. Mosley, he explained, wanted to give Kirby's panels space, as if they were paintings. But, ultimately, Sahre says, the project was "like a jigsaw puzzle—we were trying to tell the story while the format was being drastically pulled apart."
Sahre imposed a design system on each page that allows the panels and narrative to be easily read, despite the panels' constant leaps in scale. He paid close attention to Kirby's page breakdowns—the number of panels on a page—"a long skinny panel might look weird taken out of context," he says. "We tried to make moving between each panel a natural progression."
Even placement of Mosley's essay—it appears several pages after the comic starts, at one of three natural breaks in the narrative—is designed to enhance the experience. Sahre insisted that Evanier's essay section include photographs of Kirby, Lee and the Marvel support crew, because "the essay is also about the other creative people at Marvel."
Mosley's notion of "maximization," Sahre says, was always kept in mind. "The type at the start of his essay is huge," says Sahre. "The book's title page goes across six pages, and the gatefolds were just another way to make the impact of everything bigger." Indeed, the book's jacket unfolds into a 36-inch poster with photo-reproductions of every page in Mosley's own tattered copy of the original Fantastic Four #1.
"Walter wanted Kirby's art to be treated with respect," says Sahre. "He thinks the Fantastic Four should be considered art. He didn't have to convince me."