This Comic, This Legend— a look at Tom Scioli’s Fantastic Four: Grand Design

Is there any Fantastic Four artist or writer who ever said “screw Kirby and Lee”? Who said that, sure, they created Marvel's First Family but thought that they screwed it up and would just take those characters and go off and do their own thing? The closest is maybe Warren Ellis and John Cassiday’s The Four from Planetary (reviewed here), a recontextualizing of the FF as the villains of their story. And even Ellis and Cassiday don’t stray too far from the original work. The Four are just coming at the story and myths of the Fantastic Four from a different angle. But there’s nothing that really strays too far from the work done in those 101 original issues. Maybe that’s just how iconic the Fantastic Four are. Their pull and strength are firmly rooted in that 1962 New York mentality that birthed them. So what does that mean for anyone who’s ever tried to tell their own Fantastic Four story?

We see the template for almost every Marvel character in the Fantastic Four. Cyclops is 40% Reed Richards, 20 percent Sue Richards, and 15% evenly of Ben and Johnny. Wolverine is 35% the Thing, 35% Human Torch, 20% Sue, 10% Reed. You can even throw in Doctor Doom and Galactus into those equations to some degree or another to get every character in the Marvel Universe. In other words, the Fantastic Four are Marvel. They’re the building blocks for everything from the comics to cartoons and movies. Other characters may be more iconic in people’s minds now but these characters are the DNA of everything that’s come since Fantastic Four #1.

Tom Scioli, by stripping it so much of those first 101 issues that Kirby and Lee created, shows just the genetic makeup of these characters and stories in Fantastic Four: Grand Design. Just from his artistic style, it makes perfect sense that Scioli would tackle the FF but he pretty much makes every other “Grand Design” project redundant because he doesn’t just dive into the characters but into the fabric of the Marvel Universe.

If Ed Piskor in his X-Men: Grand Design was trying to create a grand unified myth out of (mostly) Chris Claremont’s epic run on Uncanny X-Men, Tom Scioli is doing something very different in his take on the Grand Design concept. Fantastic Four: Grand Design takes Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s legendary work, processes it through almost 60 years of comics and continuity and then spits it all out again. It’s pure Lee and Kirby but it is also pure Scioli. He is recontextualizing it in relation to itself. These stories have existed for decades and have been retold by some great and not-so-great creators as they’ve tried to bring these 1960-era stories into the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. For all of the Doctor Doom and Galactus stories out there, everything tracks back to those first 100 issues by Lee and Kirby.

So instead of trying to tell his own Mole Man or Inhumans story, Scioli retells the original stories, paying homage to Lee and Kirby in that way all of his books come back to Kirby. Why reinvent the wheel because the wheel already is there and it works. Scioli crams almost 10 years of comics into one slim book by adjusting the scope of the storytelling. Jamming 25 panels into every page, the art barely gives you any opportunity to stop and linger. It’s snappy and it moves quickly, narrowing you for us into the moment, the panel, and the snapshot of narrative before getting pulled into the next snapshot. It’s almost like watching a film one frame at a time.

This is not just a Fantastic Four story; it’s THE Fantastic Four story. Playing the role of both Kirby and Lee, Scioli conveys the fun, adventure, drama and scope of the stories without having the room of 10 issues, let alone 101 issues (plus annuals) to give these stories room to breathe. He also has to act as editor over Kirby and Lee, finding the moments that are most elemental to every FF story. He only has the room to show the moments that define Galactus, Alicia Masters, Wyatt Wingfoot, and even Diablo. These are the moments that define the heart of the comics that he’s drawing inspiration from.

Scioli is performing a restoration on this grand myth. The Lee/Kirby run on the book only lasted about 9 years and so that there have been almost 50 years of stories told since their last collaboration with these characters. In that time, everyone has tried to do their Fantastic Four story, their version of Lee and Kirby. A lot of baggage has built up over these characters and this story over the years. For as much as they did, it feels like thousands of stories have been told trying to retell their work. Scrubbing off the decades of grime and wear-and-tear that this series has accumulated, Scioli is digging up the primal myths of everything Marvel. That Kirby crackle is being recreated without cleaning it up. Scioli recognizes the age of the work, as evidenced through his own visual devotion to Kirby as well as the old newsprint fading veneer that the art is given. The yellowing pages and faded colors show the facade of age. This is a modern comic but not a modern story. It’s important to remember this as Scioli acknowledges the age of the myth. It belongs to the obscurity of endless long boxes filled with hundreds of comics like this.

But even Scioli can’t help but try to “finish” Stan and Jack’s story. He throws in plenty of his own loves, including turning Black Panther into the leader of a Voltron-like cadre of fighters and their panther-themed mech. That’s something straight out of GI Joe Versus The Transformers or his Go-Bots. As much as he loves the story of comics, he loves the stories found in toys. The Fantastic Four gives him the best of both worlds. The final pages of the books jump from Kirby and Lee to some John Byrne FF work as well as Jim Shooter and Mike Zack’s original Secret Wars before Scioli gives his own final ending to the legend of the Fantastic Four that, fittingly enough, ties into the early days of the team. If he’s trying to pay homage to Kirby and Lee, Scioli’s fingerprints are all over this series as he curates the pieces of history that he wants here. In that way, Scioli is as guilty as everyone else not named Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the wearing down of the original stories.

The “Grand Design” banner is backward-looking, trying to imagine a grand narrative to stories that were created month in and month out to meet deadlines. Lee and Kirby didn’t have a grand design to their FF stories any more than Chris Claremont and his many artistic cohorts had a grand design to the X-Men but it’s nice to imagine that they did. To pretend otherwise is a bit of a hollow practice because it’s imagining a story engine structure that doesn’t exist in the source material. The joke is that there was never a grand design to these stories. It was just two guys asking “what’s next?” Scioli (and Ed Piskor before him in X-Men: Grand Design) are just retelling these stories and trying to find connective tissue to a continuity that existed in spite of not having that tissue.

That’s not to say that these exercises aren’t fun. Of course, Scioli was going to do a Fantastic Four story someday so why shouldn’t it be playing with the original text as he did. And who wouldn’t get excited about a Jim Rugg Spider-Man: Grand Design, a Michel Fiffe Daredevil: Grand Design or (one I’d be most excited about) a Josh Bayer Incredible Hulk: Grand Design that encompassed everything from the first story to the Bill Mantlo stories? A large part of the draw of these stories is seeing these cartoonists work with these characters. It’s got to be fun to do these kinds of stories if you love the characters and creators that you’re recreating.

Fantastic Four: Grand Design may not be the only Fantastic Four comic that you would want to read but it’s the only one that you need to read to understand the draw of these characters, this comic universe and the thrill of the Marvel approach to superheroes. Tom Scioli, in trying to tell a story about a family who gains incredible powers and go on amazing adventures around the world and universe, boils down the story of these characters in a way that makes you sit back and take notice of stories that you’ve maybe taken for granted for a long time. It’s a reminder about how these characters set the tone for everything that followed in comics and now in modern popular culture.

Fantastic Four: Grand Design
Draw and Written by Tom Scioli
Published by Marvel Comics