In 1994, Marvels arrived on the superhero landscape like a lightning bolt. The four-issue limited comics series, penned by Kurt Busiek and drawn by Alex Ross, captured an unseen side of the Marvel superhero universe. The work detailed the daily life of citizens in the 1960s and 1970s living in a world overrun by superheroes. But it was Ross’ meticulously painted panels that would truly capture the comics world’s imagination, winning the artist one of the series’ three Eisner Awards.

This month, Ross returns to the Marvel comics universe with Fantastic Four: Full Circle, a long-awaited passion project centered around The Fantastic Four–Reed Richards, aka Mr. Fantastic; Sue Storm, The Invisible Girl; Johnny Storm, The Human Torch, and Ben Grimm, The Thing–one of the comics world’s most imaginative superhero teams. The new work is Ross’ first solo effort writing and drawing a full superhero graphic novel. The book is inspired by “This Man… This Monster,” a story originally published in 1966 by the legendary Marvel team of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, co-creators of the Fantastic Four.

Following the success of Marvels, the next year Ross teamed with writer Mark Waid and struck gold yet again with Kingdom Come, an epic superhero tale centered around an aging Justice League forced to reunite to confront a reckless new generation of DC superheroes that are as violent and murderous as the super villains they are pledged to fight.

Both of these series helped establish Ross as the preeminent creator of dramatically painted superhero cover art. In the years since, Ross has maintained an outsized influential presence, creating some of comics’ most striking covers, as well as working on such acclaimed series as Uncle Sam (with writer Steve Darnall), an allegorical personification of the conflict between American ideals and its historic failures. More recently, his brush work has extended beyond comics, including paintings of The Beatles and Ubisoft’s Assassins Creed and Watch Dogs games.

More than half-a-century after its introduction in “This Man… This Monster,” Ross’ Fantastic Four: Full Circle revives the first appearance of the Negative Zone, the anti-matter-based parallel universe discovered by Reed Richards in pursuit of a weapon to battle intergalactic foes. Ross’s new work is a labor of love and an homage to the dazzling art and visual storytelling genius of Jack Kirby. The book will be published by Abrams ComicArts under its MarvelArts imprint, a new line of original graphic novels based on Marvel’s iconic characters.

The book finds Ross reaching outside his comfort zone--switching from painted work to inking--while also celebrating one of the 1960s most psychedelic stories and one the era’s most beloved superhero teams.

Publishers Weekly: Have you been productive during the pandemic?

Alex Ross: I found that the work slowdown during the pandemic allowed me to finally just play around with project designs and art roughs that I wouldn’t otherwise have made. I actually made finished paintings that had no expected home to go to, as I didn’t base all of my efforts upon whether they would lead to a paid gig. This playtime is actually where I thought I might exorcise my Fantastic Four aspirations out of me. My real intent then was to put the visual ideas down and finally just move on.

Why was it important for you to be the artist as well as the writer for this work?

For one main reason: Jack Kirby. Jack plotted his comics and did not work from full scripts for the majority of his career, but he wasn’t able to get that autonomy of single-creator status on the Fantastic Four because he did develop it with Stan Lee and it became identified with Stan’s style of voice. He yearned to take the reins of everything, and it didn’t happen on that book, despite the fact that the creative contribution he gave to it was so extensive and unfortunately underappreciated. It’s his work history and example that drove me to make sure that the work I do here and all storytelling I personally draw in the future benefits from his experience. I will still collaborate with others, but my fully drawn works need to be just me so there is no confusion as to whom to attribute the effort.

I re-read Fantastic Four #51, the issue where “This Man... This Monster” first appeared, to prepare for Full Circle. Kirby’s “Crossroads of Infinity” collage work (which combined drawings with photos) really jumps off the page. Was that a foundational image in this book’s development?

All of the Kirby collage art influenced my work here where I tried my own hand at creating images in that spirit. Aside from some panels that recall exact moments and details from Jack’s prior Negative Zone depictions, I created a spread that followed his general approach, but as a painted image. Since I have many Life and Look magazines from the ‘60s, like Jack collected for reference, I picked out photo details I could draw and paint from without having to actually cut them out to paste up. The intent was to craft something that connected to what Kirby could have seen and used as a resource.

The influence of Jack Kirby on this book is inescapable. Is the line between homage and original work a difficult one to navigate?

Ultimately, I am trying to drag out Kirby’s shadow to envelop everyone with it, just short of doing a direct imitation of his drawing style. I’ve imagined that the way I’ve tried to cast faces and forms that match his contours with my own sense of rendering those shapes will show his influence in a way that could hopefully inspire others to see how Jack’s work doesn’t need reinvention but a subconscious reabsorption. I’m not worried about losing myself in the mix.

The depiction of the Negative Zone, in particular, presents an opportunity to create vivid, indeed almost psychedelic, imagery in the pages and panels. Did the imagery develop in-tandem with the plot?

My blacklight poster pretensions were a driving ambition in search of a plot to hang them upon. The new villain introduced in Full Circle is a lot of how that color approach crystallized for an image I wanted to make, and the Negative Zone worked as a fitting place to put it.

The colors are striking–and a departure from your painted work. Was the process a dramatically different one?

I normally paint everything, so I don’t usually work with a colorist. Since I would be working with one [Josh Johnson] here, and I still wanted to maintain as much control as possible, I did complete marker guides over copies of each page. The color guides done for this book are devoid of modern shading techniques. I wanted the work to somehow hold up as if we didn’t have the whole digital paintbox to use but were limited to the technology of the timeless four-color comic processes. Another specific inspiration for period coloring was the DC Comics work of Jack Adler, who, even with the limited options in printing, still created unique lighting effects and charismatic color choices that elevated the early ‘70s work of Neal Adams and others. I studied Adler’s printed comics for what they could guide me to do differently than I ever have before.

As we alluded to at the beginning, this was a book that took many years to come together. Do you anticipate undertaking a comic story in this way again? Are there other stories you’ve been waiting to tell?

I always intend to create more content for stories but often stymie myself with planning epics that are overwhelmingly long. I can’t seem to plan projects with a shorter page count, so I never get started, but this time I found the urge to tell this more compact tale, a reasonable fit to my ambitions. It does open a door to thinking about more like this in the future.