So far the final book in Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s superhero “colour” series (although there was a planned Captain America: White and a rumoured Iron Man: Gold which never got off the ground), Hulk: Grey is perhaps the most fascinating of the three novels. Loeb would go on to writing the on-going Hulk series (to near universal damnation, it should be conceded), suggesting perhaps a closer tie between the author and the character here than in Daredevil: Yellow or Spider-Man: Blue. As opposed to those two novels which covered a relatively large portion of the central character’s life, the flashbacks which provide the core of this particular tale cover a single night – the first night. Perhaps befitting the nature of the Hulk, the narration isn’t provided in monologue here, as it was in the other two titles, instead offering a dialogue between Bruce Banner and Doctor Leonard Sampson, his psycho-therapist. It’s a lovely little story that perhaps isn’t as strong as Daredevil: Yellow, but is still a fascinating read.
As with the other two titles in the trilogy, there’s a strong pang for the past here. The book is dripping with a sort of fifties atomic nostalgia, with everything from the cover font, to the presentation of Rick Jones as a fifties greaser (think a low-rent Fonzie), with the notion of the all-powerful and unquestionable “big bad army” standing in as “the man” suggesting a counter-culture on the cusp of bursting on to the scene in the sixties.
The Hulk has had pride of place in popular consciousness since nearly his inception. Of course, that belies the fact that very few of the well-known stories featuring the character are any good. The original comic book stories written by Lee certainly weren’t “special” in the way that we would use the term to refer to his initial runs of Spider-Man or The Fantastic Four. Author Peter David would take the character interesting places in a beloved run during the eighties, but it sadly isn’t one that has been allowed to reach the popular imagination (Marvel have yet to do it any justice in reprinting it or elevating it in the same way they have other important runs).
The television show we all so fondly recall, The Incredible Hulk, isn’t half-as-good as re remember it (in much the same way as Wonder Woman at around the same time), though most of us smile when we think of it, possibly whistling “that really sad walking away music”. In the past decade alone, there have been two blockbusters: Ang Lee’s Hulk and Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk. Neither is a classic of the superhero genre (though I am fonder of Leterrier’s effort than most). At the risk of seeming mean to the character, I would suggest that he’s far more popular than he really should be.
I think it’s the concept. Stan “The Man” Lee was amazing with concepts. He could fire out five or six compelling superhero ideas before breakfast. Imagine a hero with the same everyday problems as you or I – that’s Spider-Man. Imagine a family with all the typical dysfunction of a typical family, but give them superpowers – that’s The Fantastic Four. Imagine an arms dealer who is nearly killed by his own weapons, and this prompts him to make the world a better place by building himself into one of his weapons – that’s Iron Man. In many cases, with no offense to Lee, he was much better with these concepts than the characters or plots themselves (and that’s not to undersell his huge influence on the way that comic books are written today). The Hulk as, similarly, something special.
He was a man – a nerd or a dweeb like so many of the comic book readers or the kids who grew up reading him - with a monster inside him that he couldn’t control. This unassuming guy you wouldn’t look twice at was really a giant goliath who could tear down buildings if he so wished. You get the idea. More than that, the character, emerging in a market place populated with spandex and being published in a universe populated with superheroes, wasn’t quite a superhero. In a way, despite the simplicity of the premise – harking back to The Curious Case of Doctor Jekyl and Mister Hyde - he was more complex than that. Loeb acknowledges this, with Banner conceding, “I could never be seen as a hero”. Even my dad, who never read comic books, has a fondness for the character, though he can’t tell why beyond the intriguing premise.
The simplicity of the character arguably suits the book. The chapters are labelled in a pre-school style (“A is for Apple”, for example) and the narrative is relatively straightforward (how Banner spent his first night with the beast inside of him). This means that the book doesn’t feel cramped. Loeb can allow Sale the occasional splash pages and give himself wonderful character moments (the quiet scene with the Hulk and a bunny – his “friend” – is wonderfully emotional and benefits from the space given to it).
At the same time, Loeb hints at the inherent complexity of the situation. “Start with your parents,” Doc Sampson suggests when the pair try to get to the root of the problem. Alluding to Peter David’s exploration of the psychology of Banner, he hints more specifically: “Your father.” Of course, as with the other books in this collection, Loeb isn’t really interested in dwelling on more modern incarnations, and has Banner respond that, “We’ve sort of done that to death, haven’t we?” He acknowledges some of the depth that will follow, but Loeb is much more interested in exploring the straightforward opening chapter of the character’s life, without layouring it with the complications that would come later.
Somewhat ironically, the book’s troubles occur when Loeb attempts to introduce his own particular brand of pseudo-complexity into the narrative. Much like Daredevil: Yellow, the story takes its title from an early appearance of the lead character. Stan Lee apparently originally wanted the character grey (and hence, he appeared as such in his early appearances), but it was a difficult colour to print, so they changed him to his more iconic green. In case you were wondering, that’s why the Hulk presented in Mark Millar’s The Ultimatesis grey. Anyway, here Loeb tries to use the shades of grey as a metaphor to explore the ambiguity of the Hulk and his archnemesis, General Ross.
The problem is that – while one can concede that the Hulk is ambiguous – there is no such ambiguity surrounding General Ross. Notwithstanding his presentation in other stories, here he’s shown as a man willing to medicate his wife and daughter to keep them in line. (“I’ve given you something to help you sleep,” he explains at one stage, explaining that it belonged to her mother, “She’d take it when she got… over-excited. I’m sure I could get it refilled here on the base. No one would need to know…”) Ross is shown slapping around a minor to get him to talk and is willing to martyr himself to paint the Hulk as a villain. As Bruce replies when Sampson suggests that Ross was “borderline psychotic”, “Calling him ‘borderline’, Leonard, is an insult to all the other psychotics out there”.
That said, the story is packed with rich imagery and some nice touches. There’s a scene in a cave during a downfall which calls to mind a similar scene in Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk (and, indeed, Leterrier cites this comic as a heavy influence on the movie). It would be easy to dismiss the atmosphere as the work of Sale, but Loeb writes a wonderful little story here. He brings in Iron Man for what amounts to an extended cameo, but it mostly works. It’s a nice quiet little tale, which ironically suits the big lumbering giant quite well.
Sale’s artword here is, as ever, great. For some reason, however, his work here is pencilled, rather than watercoloured. Looking at the art, I suspect the reason is to evoke the rich comic book art of the late fifties or early sixties – Tales of Suspense and other such guilty pleasures, populated with creatures quite like the Hulk. Particularly striking is his take on Tony Stark in his gold Iron Man armour (enough to justify the character’s presence in the story alone), which explicitly calls to mind any number of classic old-school drawing styles. This was only drawn and coloured a few years ago, but Sale’s style lends it an almost classic appearance. Unlike his watercolours on Daredevil: Yellow and Spider-Man: Blue which were intended to hint at nostalgia for an undefined past, here it appears that Loeb and Sale have chosen to honour the character by setting the comic distinctly in “the atomic age”.
Don’t let Loeb’s mishandling of the Hulk franchise throw you off, Hulk: Grey is a read well worth your time – particularly if you are interested at all in the history of the less-than-jolly green (and, here, grey) giant. In fact, the whole trilogy makes for an interesting read, recalling the long gone days of innocence in the comic book medium.
This is part of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s unofficial “colours” trilogy involving nostalgia for the early days in the careers of Marvel superheroes. If you’d like to check out the other books in the collect, they’re listed here: