Mike Wieringo's Widescreen "Fantastic Four"

We once again stop to remember Mike Wieringo, who passed away six years ago this week. Last year, I spent some time re-reading the first hardcover collection of his "Fantastic Four" issues with Mark Waid. In his honor this year, I re-read his last batch of issues from the third hardcover edition of that series. For this column, I'll focus on "Fantastic Four" #517-#519, titled "Fourtitude." The issues are sandwiched in between a three-issue run co-written by Karl Kesel with art from the great Paco Medina, and a bigger story involving Galactus' return to earth and Waid's clever solution to the Galactus problem -- which was undone something like a week later in another Marvel comic.

C'est la guerre.

Here's the blurb for the first issue in the storyline:

The FF goes "widescreen" in a tale of epic scope and proportion as Manhattan is cut off from the rest of the world by a fleet of miles-high alien spacecraft -- and that's just the beginning! With the Avengers in disarray, New York reluctantly turns to the disenfranchised Fantastic Four, the only heroes in town, to save them -- but where to even start?

This story tied into "Avengers Disassembled," which Mark Waid notes in the hardcover gave him a great vehicle to push some stories ahead faster than initially planned. He knew his time on the series was ending, and he was rushing to use all his relevant ideas while he could. To his credit, the end result doesn't feel harried or rushed. It feels like great comics, with one crazy idea slammed up against the next. Waid's run on F4 had put the team on the outs with the general public. This storyline was created to return the team to the public's good graces. When aliens invade New York City and the Avengers aren't around to fight them, the F4 are on the scene to save the day. All of the city watches their heroics, and all is forgiven, more or less.

The trick with Waid's run on "Fantastic Four" was that he never forgot both halves of the series. He always incorporated the family dynamics in with the grand spirit of adventure they had. The threats they faced were often alien and initially inexplicable. With Reed's brains and the rest of the family's support and input, they were always able to win the day. Monsters and aliens mixed with bickering and love. Outside of a romance comic, I can't think of too many comics that dealt with the topic of love so well -- and not just the romantic kind that's too easily hacked together. The more subtle familial love is a different bond that many comics don't cover believably.

Waid explored individual relationships more deeply, also. The sibling interplay between Sue and Johnny was never more interesting than during this run, and it's something Waid dives into explicitly at the end of his run here. Johnny and Ben's bickering was funny, but was a front end to deeper personality issues that Waid looked at.

This story brought the battle home, as an alien presence literally lifts the island of Manhattan into the sky, with the intention to jettison it into the sun. While it was ridiculous for Hercules to pull Manhattan out to sea with some supersized chains, having an alien civilization drop four columns around the island and then pull it out of the ground seems relatively sane. (For starters, there's more room to move the island up rather than out.)

Waid uses the chaos and terror that would ensue in such a situation to tell a very human tale. A group of alien civilizations that had been terrorized by Galactus determine that their defenses against the big purple guy can be compromised by Sue Storm, and so come after her to save the entire galaxy. Reed Richards mollifies them with some quick thinking, switching Sue's powers with that of her brother's. They hadn't counted on Galactus showing up nearly immediately and scooping up Johnny Storm to be his new herald. That's the next story in the series, and it's worth talking about in detail, also. Maybe next week.

It's an epic-scale event. I can't recall seeing Mike Wieringo using as many large panels (right up to double-page splashes) as he did for this storyline. It's an event that warranted this approach. Galactus appearing over New York City demands a three-page set-up, with the first two being half-page close-ups of Galactus' hands destroying the alien intruders' ship. Other splashy images happen at major turning points in characters' lives, like when Reed appears to kill Sue, or when Johnny is hit with what turns out to be the Power Cosmic. A page of monster-like aliens surrounding the family warrants a splash page to show the enormity of the situation. Sue's dramatic reveal of those same aliens with her invisibility powers gives us a strong half-page set-up. These are not in any way the cheats of an artist looking to cash in on the original art. These are points crying out for emphasis in the story. They're the wow moments where a big image helps sell the massive scale of it all.

Wieringo scales back his storytelling with more "average" talking heads scenes, or ones that are at least quieter and more reserved. The more standard three-tier grid where you get two or three panels across each tier get used for those moments, which serve to sell the story with a bit of characterization used to hide the plot mechanics. These are scenes, visually, that are low key. They're in one confined space or area.

When aliens attack and things go crazy, though, the panels stretch out to that "widescreen" approach that the blurb above talks about. It's one panel per tier, and two to four panels per page. When you think about mass carnage and property damage, that's the kind of imagery that sticks in your head, isn't it? Has "Independence Day" and the ridiculously large number of movies centered on mass destruction since then conditioned us to that? "The Authority" obviously brought it to comics most prominently years before this run, but it seems like a standard now, doesn't it? I wonder what Armageddon in comics would look like today if an artist limited him- or herself to a three by two panel grid approach. Could that inflexibility and that homogeneity of page design lead to a less exciting story?

Are wide panels necessary?

I don't know, but Wieringo sure used them smartly. You can see a few techniques at work in the pages. People are flying across the panels. Objects are tilted on their side across the panel. Wide angles show the larger landscape in front of the character who appears small in the lower left corner. A large cast of characters is more easily shown across a page, if only with their upper bodies visible. These are all tricks that work well in sideways storytelling, and would likely transfer nicely to genuine sideways comics, like the old "Marvelscope" format.

The key is to use that space and that orientation. Don't center things. Don't just zoom all the way in to fill the frame. Use the wide-open space to show motion across the panel. Compose images where characters stand across the panel. Zoom out further to show a wider scope to the scene.

Let's see how Wieringo did it in these three issues. We'll start with three unconnected panels from issue #518:

See how the motion is moving left to right across each panel there? The shape of the panel helps to define the action inside of it. It's not just a container for the art, but rather a storytelling element and a part of a page's design.

Here's a case where Wieringo used the wide panel for an amazing bit of composition:

Check out the way Ben Grimm, Sue Storm, and Johnny Storm are shown in this panel. The word balloons help to carry the eye from left to right, but the art also neatly moves front to back as you go across the panel. We're seeing each character being held in check against their own powers. Ben is being physically held down. Sue is practically trapped inside her force field. Johnny is being covered in flame-retardant liquid of some sort. Three things are all happening in the same panel, and the way they're laid out adds enormous depth to the shot. It's three events happening in parallel in one panel, neatly laid out, and with added depth. For everything this one panel captures inside four black lines, it might just be my favorite panel of the book.

Here's another three-dimensional trick using the wide panel. It's a simple panel of Reed Richards sitting still and playing with some random piece of tech. But Wieringo drew his stretchy body across the page to widen the panel. He also used Reed's body as the background, Reed's head and shoulders as the mid-ground and the carry-on bag at the foreground. What could have been a simple static image instead had depth and width in a very simple way.

Other artists might have pushed it further, maybe angling Reed's body away until it seemed to disappear far back in the panel. Maybe the bag would be closer to the reader, to the point where you couldn't see all of it. Wieringo's storytelling style, though, didn't go to those extremes. It was, in some ways, fairly conservative. That's not a bad thing. You could say the same thing about others, like Jeff Smith, for example. His storytelling used the comics format to his advantage, but they still felt like you were viewing a story. You got lost in the story, and not in the art. When Wieringo was first coming up in comics, many of his peers were flashier with their art and tried to distract the readers with it. I think Wieringo's choices hold up to the test of time a whole lot better.

One more storytelling technique:

Here in issue #519, Wieringo draws a four-way conversation to look like a two-way discussion. The speaker in each panel alternates between the left and right side. If you zoomed out a bit, you'd see that the way the characters are present in the room together, these panels probably break the 180 degree rule somehow. But the effect of the overall page makes for a great example of when to break that rule. The page is neatly balanced with the "weight" of the heads even distributed on both sides of the page, and the storytelling shows us a conversation that feels like a simple back-and-forth when there are really four different people involved.

Mike Wieringo was no one-trick pony. Even with his more Disney-esque style, he proved with this storyline that he could handle big events complete with massive destruction. Not only that, he excelled at it, as some of the techniques above prove. He didn't invent a radical new storytelling methodology or anything, but he proved how capable he was of handling anything thrown at him. His run on "Fantastic Four" gave him what I think is a career-defining moment. As good as "The Flash" was or "Tellos," I can't help but think it's this series that people will think of first when they hear his name. It gave him his biggest moment, and the work holds up as strongly as ever today.

More Links: This week back in 2004 I looked at why "Tellos" #1 was such a great first issue. And in 2009, I updated and reran my original tribute to Wieringo. And this is as good a time as any to rewatch iFanboy's video tribute to Wieringo, which I was honored to be a part of.

There's been a movement afoot on Twitter in the last 24 hours to consider honoring 'Ringo on his birthday rather than on the more morbid occasion of his death. I agree that that's a good idea. Next year, we'll talk about his work closer to June 24.

(Special thanks to Aaron (@IttoUsagi) for the scanning help that made this column possible at the last minute...)


More in CBR Exclusives