Marvel wasn’t built in a day. Decades of storytelling, as well as real world factors like corporate buyouts, have built up the patchwork that we call the Marvel Universe today. One of the most influential creations in this history was the Fantastic Four, Marvel’s first family. Given that the greater Marvel Universe was largely built on the back of the FF, the property naturally became a monster of continuity. Unraveling this continuity is no small task, so it’s appropriate that it be given the Grand Design treatment, following the lead of Ed Piskor’s X-Men. Grand Design is conceptually brilliant; it compresses the most convoluted stories into panels and helps facilitate the understanding of cumbersome lore in accessible packaging. This ambitious take on the FF is helmed by Tom Scioli, comic auteur known for his passion for Jack Kirby. Sadly, Fantastic Four: Grand Design’s greatest shortcoming is in its ambition. The comic takes on a vast expanse of comic history, but it fails to balance it properly into a compelling narrative.
The core problem with the issue is a lack of focus, specifically as it relates to the Fantastic Four themselves. Fantastic Four, especially as directed by Kirby and Lee, has always been at the forefront of the construction of the greater Marvel Universe. Because of (and integral to) its importance, it was in its pages that now-classic properties like Inhumans, Black Panther, and the Kree/Skrull conflict emerged. These eventually grew to be entire franchises in their own right and introduced further concepts to enrich the universe. These stories are important for worldbuilding and decades of storytelling to come, but they don’t feel necessary to understand the FF.
This worldbuilding takes up a full quarter of the issue and leads to a rather frustrating reading experience. The FF appear occasionally in these beginning chapters, but do not become the focus of their own narrative until well into the meat of the story. The disparate focuses of the issue seemingly work more and more against the reader, with no clear throughline to guide them in the experience. The reason X-Men thrived in the Grand Design treatment was its strong vision and purpose, relating each part of its story back to the central conceit of the mutant metaphor. This take on the Fantastic Four has no such angle, no apparent purpose to interconnect its elements and make them feel justified.
With the freedom to explore the franchise’s space however he sees fit, Scioli takes the traditional comic mold and smashes it. Unfortunately, this leaves the comic broken into bits. (25 bits per page to be exact.) This incredibly regimented panel structure further encourages the reader to view each moment as its own vignette, with little to no connective tissue to create a cohesive narrative. This staccato nature to exposition only enforces the reader’s confusion, as they are often unsure when the story will shift to a new focus. Story beats will occur, only to be immediately dropped to move on to the next. With Grand Design essentially being a history book, this kind of storytelling has its place. However, it often cuts off emotional beats in favor of setting up the next story scenario. This falls on the style of hypercompression that the book attempts but fails to truly achieve. Since it lacks the coherent throughline it requires, it ultimately leaves the reader disoriented. The issue lacks a certain flow in its storytelling that would have helped it feel more accessible; the grid confines the story and prevents this kind of flow from developing. As the issue progresses, there are moments that feel freer, leading to truly beautiful art and atmosphere, but these moments are the exception rather than the norm.
When the book frees itself from these constraints, it truly shines. Scioli has a talent for emulating the style of Silver Age art, especially that of Jack Kirby. He brings personality to his drawings, brightening mundane scenes of dialogue and exposition with his flair for fun. Scioli’s eye for the extraordinary is impressive, and the atmosphere that he builds with backgrounds and colors is wonderful. His depictions of the Fantastic Four’s powers in particular are inspired. This eye for fluidity combined with a sharp sense of humor should be the makings of a great comic, but they sadly feel suppressed rather than highlighted. Art is frequently compressed into panels with expository captions, forcing it to lose detail and personality. This is not unusual, especially for a comic that is so clearly a love letter to the old styles of the ’60s and ’70s. However, with so many panels per page, the art does not receive the focus it deserves and begins to feel secondary to the story being told, which should never be the case in the visual medium of comics. Even word-heavy Silver Age stories were a marriage of art and text, with the artist laying the foundation of the story for the writer to script. The disconnect in Fantastic Four: Grand Design between the story being told and the structure of the medium leads to a dissonance that often disrupts its narrative flow.
Grand Design is nominally about bringing old and often forgotten stories to comic fans and integrating them within the larger narrative to show the importance of the whole. The fundamental issue with Fantastic Four: Grand Design is that it doesn’t feel like this is done effectively. It doesn’t feel accessible for a new comic fan interested in the property, yet at the same time it doesn’t encourage longtime fans to view the stories in a new light, either.
So, who is it for? The book reads more like a passion project for Tom Scioli than anything else. Scioli is obviously a huge fan of the stories being told, and that affects how he presents them. Rather than forming a larger narrative, the vignettes serve to stand on their own, showcasing interesting moments in the history of the FF. Scioli uses the opportunity to relay the history of the Marvel universe, but rather than relating it to a larger story, he seems more fascinated by the history itself. This is admirable, but it’s not necessarily accessible. The issue is dense, and whether that density is intentional as a nod to Silver Age storytelling or simply an unfortunate pacing issue, it is off-putting all the same. The stories depicted in Fantastic Four: Grand Design are indeed fun. A more dedicated reader might be able to recognize the source material and tell the true style of the Grand Design treatment, but for someone largely unfamiliar with the property, the structural flaws of the book only put the reader off. Put frankly, this issue is not a good reading experience.
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