It may be the one of the most anticipated new projects from a creative grouping since the Police reunited for their new concert tour, or Ben & Jerry created Chocolate Chop Cookie Dough...
The comic book superstar pairing of writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch lives again, this time on Marvel's Fantastic Four..
No, not Ultimate Fantastic Four ... Not a large-scale FF limited series ... The monthly Marvel Universe Fantastic Four.
The duo take over the reins of the series in early 2008 with plans to return the series to the top of the Diamond sales charts, and by the sounds of things, they don't plan on leaving for a while...
And oh yeah, and they plan on it being monthly!
We spoke with Hitch and Millar this week about why's and what’s of their latest partnership…
Okay fellas, it doesn’t take a very skilled interviewer to come up with this question, but considering your profiles, both individually and as a tandem, one can assume that you had a lot of options (perhaps limitless if you wanted to create something brand new), so why the Fantastic Four, and why now?
What's interesting is how close this came to not happening. It really was a fortunate accident for us.
The plan had always been to follow The Ultimates with an X-Men relaunch where I would write the three main X-books and we were going to have Hitchy plus two other artists on these books for a year. I plotted my stories way back in 2004 so this is something we'd been planning for ages. We were very enthused, spoke about it on the phone almost every day and just kind of took it for granted this is what we were launching in January 2008. But last year someone casually mentioned that JMS was leaving Fantastic Four and they didn't have a new creative team in place. I tried to block it out of my head, but for the rest of the call I was just nodding and pretending to be listening, thinking how great it would be to write the real Fantastic Four book. This is like getting the keys to the family car as far as the Marvel Universe is concerned. Maybe even more than Spider-Man.
I couldn't stop thinking about it and phoned Hitchy, who surprised me by being equally excited. We spoke for about three hours, building each other into a frenzy and then called Marvel. We wanted to shelf the X-Men plans and do Fantastic Four instead. Mike Marts (former X-Men editor) was very good about it, understanding we had to follow our mojo. And so we called Tom Brevoort and everything clicked into place beautifully. I started writing the book before Christmas an Hitchy started drawing shortly after he finished Ultimates 2 in the New Year. He had a few weeks to build up his drawing muscles again, but he's been working very consistently since about February, I think and pretty much bang on schedule.
The timing worked I guess. We'd planned to go over to rehoot (new technical term) the X-franchise and sort of had that in our diaries for a couple of years or so as Mark said but after the heavy lifting we'd both done on Ultimates and Mark had done on Civil War we both wanted to take the comic book equivalent of a beach holiday. I'd loved Mark's run on Ultimate FF, it seemed so full of life and a real counterpoint to the density and claustrophobia of Ultimates and I was really quite jealous that Greg Land got to draw it. The book seemed like it was in the same breathless, big scale, relentless mode of our separate runs at Authority and I really fancied something like that after Ultimates. Sort of a plate cleanser.
I remember us chatting in the summer last year and it came up in conversation that FF was maybe going to be available and we both seemed to hit on doing it and by the end of the call a tentative suggestion had become an enthusiastic urge. It really got me through the last two issues of Ultimates too as I couldn't wait to start it. That double-sized crazy last issue was the fastest I'd worked on the Ultimates in years and was maybe a sign that I'd been a bit down and burned out for a while; slogging rather than enjoying myself as I once had. A spring had returned to my artistic step! Of course once Ultimates was penciled by Christmas I still had six weeks of other non-comics stuff to clear off my desk but I can't wait to start drawing every day now; it's just the most fun stuff I've worked on in a long, long time.
Okay, so you’re both excited about the Marvel Universe Fantastic Four. But still, why the monthly series, as opposed to your own limited series of whatever length you chose, which again one has to imagine Marvel would have been amenable to?
Well, there are probably three reasons for this. One is that when you do a special project you can't really roll your sleeves up and operate on the book. You're essentially just borrowing the characters from the current writer and promising not to interfere with his plans. And there were some very fundamental things we wanted to do with the direction of the book which meant the main book or nothing. But as people who grew up with an enormous love for the book, there's something (and this will sound weird) very satisfying about flipping through your run of FF comic-books and seeing your run alongside the Byrne and Kirby issues. It feels nice to be part of the lineage.
Also, the Fantastic Four was billed as “The World's Greatest Comic Magazine”
and it's been a while since it really lived up there in the top ten. Again, there's that little fanboy part of us that wants to put the book right up there on the front-lines of the Marvel Universe. Other than a few spikes for events of promotions, it's only sold around an average 45-50K these past ten years and we wanted to just put it up there with the Avengers and Spider-Man books again. They told us the Avengers characters were dead and we shouldn't do Ultimates before we started, but we knew it would work and we feel the same charge here. When you love something it's contagious. We want this to be the book everyone is reading again.
Since you already mentioned Kirby, give us your take on the revered first 100 issues? Is this for you – as it is many creators – the Marvel Holy Grail? How does that legendary run, inform your plans (if at all)?
Yeah, I think those first 100 issues tie with the first 100 Spider-Man comics as the greatest Marvel books ever. But the middle of that run from issue #35 to around issue #60 are just unbeatable in terms of creativity. What made FF work was that you had absolutely no idea what could happen next because it was constantly breaking the rules. Combine this with the endless new characters being introduced as villains and supporting characters and you have something akin to a universe by itself, something the book has been feeding off really for close to thirty years now.
So our plan is to honor those first 100 issues not by imitating the ‘Kirby dots’ or the drawing style or recycling the characters we've seen brought back again and again. We're going to honor them by doing what Stan and Jack did and that's being as new and creative as possible. Naturally, we're going to see familiar touchstones of the FF universe, but we're only doing it when we have something new to say about them. A brand new way of doing them. For the most part though it's going to be new concepts, ideas, and a new supporting cast.
What I loved about FF as a kid is that it was constantly evolving like a real family. People got married, people broke up with their girlfriends and found new ones, friends became enemies, enemies became friends, children were born, and so on. To a boy who had seen Clark Kent gulping and wishing wishing he could tell Lois Lane how he really felt for four decades this seemed incredibly radical and I want to apply that same radicalism to our run. Things are about to move on and the characters are going to find themselves in slightly different situations. It's the only way to keep the book fresh. I want it to feel as new as the book felt in 1965.
How about those first 100 issues for you Bryan? Of course from an artist’s standpoint, Kirby’s contributions both conceptually and from an artistic standpoint are at least equal to Lee’s contributions. Mark just said something to the effect of not coming in and doing “Kirby-dots”, so if not direct visual inspiration, how does that run inspire you as the artists?
We've both said that sometimes it's better to remember the feelings the work inspired in you than it is to go back and look, slavishly follow and attempt to repeat. That's what we feel here. To take the example of "Kirby dots"; that was Jack's specific way of solving a problem, is way of delineating patterns of energy and all pre-computers. So many other avenues are open now that to specifically follow that technique, which may well have been ahead of it's time forty years ago, would date a modern comic.
It's much more important to follow the spirit and intent of the thing than it is to attempt to slavishly reproduce it. I'm not and never will be Jack Kirby or John Byrne (whose run is arguably the equal of Kirby's for fun and invention; more coherent too) but I do remember how it felt when I read that stuff and that's what I want to reproduce. Or try to anyway.
Okay, you’ve both now mentioned Byrne in addition to Lee/Kirby. So let’s just ask about any other stand-out creative eras and let you guys run with it?
I know it's fashionable to knock him right now, but I think Byrne's run actually gives Kirby's a real run for its money. I didn't read it as a kid and stumbled on it a couple of years back, but it's one of the reasons I wanted to do this book. I ate up every page. The storytelling is just beautiful and the radicalism seemed to be back. Again, you just didn't know what was happening next and it felt like the Fantastic Four (something other runs didn't always quite achieve). It was that perfect mix of the everyday and the cosmic that Stan and Jack captured so magnificently. Because the FF was always as much about them trying to find a new nanny for Franklin as fighting the Mole-Man.
The secret to all the best stories is that they're rooted in the ordinary and supped-up to the fantastic. The Baxter Building is a dream version of the house we grew up in, the Fantasti-Car is a dream version of Dad's old Ford and so on. Even Doom is that weird Uncle your Mum and Dad don't speak to anymore. It's got to be rooted in the real world to work and Byrne was very good at this too. He and the original 100 issues are the two perfect runs, but there are others I love too like the Waid/Ringo issues and the ones immediately following Stan and Jack. The very first FF I ever had was a black and white British reprint where Magneto had captured Sue and Namor's bird, keeping them in little tanks and goading the FF and Namor. Calling them poofs or something on the cover. I think this was written by Roy Thomas and drawn by John Buscema. I never remember the American numbering because I read this stuff years later as a UK reprint, but that run was really definitive for me too. Likewise the Simonson issues. I only got these last week (I was too busy reading DC Comics in the 80s), but these look great.
Conversely Mark, as Bryan mentioned you had a run on Marvel’s newest take on the FF - Ultimate Fantastic Four. What did you take away from that, and how if at all, did that play a part in getting you here?
I got great advice from Stan before I started and I've taken this onboard for the main book. He told me there was no idea too insane for Fantastic Four and that was actually very liberating. Some ideas are too crazy for the Hulk or Spidey or the X-Men, but the FF is where the crazy ideas live and breathe. You have to give them a hook a nine year old can understand, but they can be as wild as you like. This is what led to the Marvel Zombies (something that seemed so unlikely editorial actually laughed when I suggested it) and I've tried to bring that same head to this run too. I've been flying on it since I started and really having a good time. I sent Tom and Bryan the script for our ninth issue last week and I'll be working on ten on the plane home from Chicago.
Bryan, is your process different from Mark’s? Do you approach this from a purely artistic standpoint, envisioning imagery and layouts in your head?
Well yeah, that's a natural sort of language for me but it's not so much the pictures as the pacing and story beats. The rhythms and tempo before the music's written. The actual notes and tune come when you sit down and start on solving the specific storytelling problems and indulging in the creative side of composition. Mark and I both wanted to write and draw our own comics but he ended up focusing on the writing and I focused on the drawing but it lends each of us a more full point of view.
Comics are a visual storytelling medium which means they aren't radio plays and they aren't poster books. Too many writers never allow room for the visual pacing and too many artists don't apply their incredible drawing skills solely to needs of the story. If you can combine the two, it makes a good read. Mark has a strong visual sense and I have a strong story sense so although we come from different directions we are both on the same journey. No shortcuts, no easy takes; it's the best we can offer, always.
It's almost a perfect creative partnership, which is why we have so much future stuff planned together no matter what else we do separately.
Bryan, let’s stick with you for a moment… You’re fairly well responsible for introducing the term “widescreen” to the comic book industry. You kind of topped yourself in that regard with your what six? Eight page spread (?) in Ultimates 2 #13. That was more like IMAX than widescreen…
Yeah it was pretty wide but please God don't go upping the terms here; I'm not doing that every issue! It's funny but I don't go about trying to 'widescreen' everything I draw, these are terms others have used to describe or label an approach. I just draw stuff how I see it.
IMAX comics, sheesh thanks. Mind you, if there's on Marvel book that could work on that visual scale it's FF.
So not to put you on the spot, but should readers expect the signature layout/perspective style to carry over to FF?
It's certainly going to be familiar enough for those who follow my work but it's a different book so the approach changes to suit what I'm doing. A director like Spielberg can do Schindler's List, E.T., and, say, Catch Me If You Can. Three very different films but all unquestionably his; you can't approach every job the same way, it would be too formulaic but you do bring everything you have to the table every time and hope to hit your marks as fully as possible. You never aim for second best, do you?
Okay then, do you have any new tricks in your bag for the FF?
Oh, I hope so. It would be pretty darn boring if I didn't. You always hope to bring everything you have to the gig and then make it something else, find some new avenues to explore. It's one of the reasons I wanted the book; it's so different from Ultimates and I had to learn a new approach for that project, learn so much about how to draw, perspectives, real world stuff. This is broader, more fun, more grand and spacious; a little lighter perhaps. It still has everything I could want for in storytelling opportunities, design, ideas and great character acting. Breath of fresh air.
As no doubt frustrating as it likely is for you Bryan, we do have to ask about scheduling, since the FF is a series that has been monthly for Marvel’s entire history. From all indications it seems like you’ve been working on this for a while, how would you address reader’s concerns about the FF maintaining its monthly status when your’s and Mark’s run begins?
I'm drawing it quicker. I've been working on it for about five months and am four issues and nine covers in. Mark is writing issue # 10 now so he's galloping nicely. It's actually getting quicker the more into it I get but it's important to note that Ultimates is the only thing I've done that went the way it did. Authority was three weeks an issue and that's what I expected to do on Ultimates; it came as a huge surprise to me that I couldn't do it. Then again there's about three times as much on the page in Ultimates.
Truth to tell, many of the problems with that book weren't with the physical side of drawing it, more the state I got myself into worrying about it. It's different on FF. I don't feel any pressure at all, in fact it's the most liberating work I've done in years.
For better or worse, Ultimates became a magnum opus of sorts and you can't follow it with another one. I can relax. So I'm just setting out to hit the schedule and get some big, bold fun comics out and remind myself that it doesn't have to be hand-wringing, sweating, cursing, worry and poverty to make a good comic. It can actually be good fun, very rewarding and, in the great scheme of world problems, a walk in the park. I'm doing what I love doing: telling stories. It's my goal to win back the reputation I had before I did Ultimates and have a good long, unbroken run at the "World's Greatest Comic Magazine". So far so good. Much, I think, to everyone's surprise.
As you touch on, part of the Ultimates issue was your closeness to the material, that fact that you created it and wanting to go back and continue to edit the art until the public saw it. Correct? Given the FF aren’t your creations, will that play a role in how you approach the pages? Is that why it’s been so liberating?
I think my neurosis is still well intact but if I've learned anything from that whole debacle on Ultimates is that doing what you describe didn't achieve anything but make the book late and lose me an enormous amount of money. It's been like coming out of a tunnel on FF, all of that angst, fear and worry that drove me to suicidal amounts of tweaking and 'fixing' has vanished to a degree and I seem to be running free. I'm still tweaking and playing, redrawing and adding stuff to get it the best I can offer and I imagine I always will on any project but those that have seen what I've done so far don't see any drop in quality, quite the reverse so I'm confident about getting it out and it being all right.
I'm also going to stop reading the message boards too. No matter how much I labored Ultimates there was always somebody who said: "Is it just me or does Ultimates look rushed..?"
I have such huge and ambitious plans for the next couple of years at Marvel and see this as just the beginning. Get this in on or ahead of time, make it good and build on that work. You'll hopefully see what I mean as we move into next year. A lot of work to do but having established both a good and bad rep on Ultimates I have a strong need to build on the good and make the bad stuff a memory.
Fair enough, I’m sure there are readers who appreciate you again addressing it.
So Mark, switching gears a bit, would you say your plans are “traditional”? Or do they move the FF into new directions?
It's a combination of both. After a period where it hasn't been the traditional FF, Reed, Ben Johnny and Sue absolutely take center-stage in the book for our entire run. So it feels very traditional in that sense.
But we didn't want to do the same old bag of tricks and just re-heat old stories. I mean, we both agreed that if Galactus didn't destroy the Earth the last 30 times he appeared then chances are he'd be thwarted again. The first time you saw the Hulk facing off against The Thing it meant something because they were Marvel's two most powerful heroes and you wondered who was strongest. But if we did that now it would feel stale, like a faded photocopy of an age-old idea. So we want to move everything forward with new threats and new concepts that have you as worried as I felt when I was reading “The Coming of Galactus” on the bus to Scout Camp when I was ten. We want people turning the pages, unable to guess what's coming next.
That also applies to the soap opera element of the book too. A superhero like Sue living with Reed before they got married was pretty shocking back in the days when black people had to give up their seats to whites. A superhero getting pregnant was just unheard of. So we want to play around with the soap opera stuff too and hopefully give something you've never really seen before. Everyone gets beefed up in our first issue and, closer to the time, we'll give details.
So you kind of already took the wind out of the sails of our next question, which was going to be can you name your Four and say a few words about your take on each?
Obviously, it's Reed, Sue, Ben and Johnny. I understand why other characters have filled in from time to time and I've really enjoyed what Dwayne [McDuffie] did recently (perfectly complimenting what we set up in Civil War). But it really has to be Ben, Johnny, Reed, and Sue. I like H.e.r.b.i.e. the Robot as much as anyone, but the Fantastic Four are the Fantastic Four.
My take? Well, Reed is not just the most brilliant brain on the planet, but he's also the leader of the team. A natural leader emerging from such a strong set of personalities means Reed has to be incredibly charismatic. They got this a little better in the second movie than the first, but Reed should be the guy who makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end when he walks into the room to solve a problem. He's the JFK of the group, Johnny being Robert Kennedy, Sue being Jackie O and Ben being the Peter Lawford with the street-fighting connections (if you want to get overly literal).
Ben and Reed seem off best friends, but they compliment each other brilliantly. Ben is smarter and more sensitive than everyone thinks and Reed is more physical than he's often portrayed. The first time they met in college (I have the panel clearly in my head) Reed is impressed because he recognizes Ben from the football field. He isn't an egg-head. He's as brave as he's smart and this is why he's Mister Fantastic.
Johnny, as we saw quite brilliantly in the movies, is the comic relief to some extent and often the reason they get tangled up on situations. He's outwardly flash and flamboyant, but again we're talking about a guy who loves his family so much that he's always hanging around and making sure everyone is okay.
Sue is the glue that holds it all together. She's the one with the strongest links to each of them in the sense that her brother and her husband are on this team and her kids are being groomed for the family business. She's the invisible hand behind everything they do and, like most marriages, the one who cleverly makes all the decisions.
Bryan, how about your take on the characters from a design standpoint? What do you immediately think of when you think of the four main characters? A certain physical trait? Do you see an actor or actress in your head?
Always but less so now the treatment is working.
Thinking of someone familiar is a helpful physical starting point, especially when creating new characters but these guys are well established. I'd like to say that I labored over the way I ended up portraying them, honestly, it all came instantly and fully formed. I knew what I wanted to do, how to do it and what it would look like and I couldn't wait to get started. Somebody is going to have to pry this book out of my cold dead fingers. They used to have to do that with Ultimates but that was so they could publish an issue; in this case it's that I'm having such a great time I don't want it to stop. Every issue feels like I'm just at the start of something great and that enthusiasm continues to build and grow.
My wife has never known me not working on Ultimates and thinks I'm a different man; happier, easier to live with; less grumpy and much more relaxed. Her saying that makes me realize how bad I'd let things get on that book. I know we're all happy with the results and those nice hardcovers and omnibus editions will sit nicely on the shelves for years to come but it was a compulsion and not always a good or healthy one.
Okay fellas, so that all asked, any final, parting thoughts to leave readers with at this time?
It's going to be really, really good. We promise you.
It will be really really good, plenty of it, and on time...
Now that we all know what title Millar and Hitch will be going, Newsarama thought you might want another look at all the images from the series Marvel has released to us so far....