April (and a little bit of May) are “Avengers month” at the m0vie blog. In anticipation of Joss Whedon’s superhero epic, we’ll have a variety of articles and reviews published looking at various aspects of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.” Today, I’m focusing on one in particular, the Incredible Hulk.
I have to confess, it’s quite difficult to find nice hardcover collections featuring The Incredible Hulk that you can recommend to non-comic-book fans. Given the character’s fairly massive impact on popular culture, you’d imagine that Marvel would produce any number of easily accessible collected editions featuring the not-so-jolly green giant. He has, after all, featured in two movies in the space of ten years, an iconic television show and a whole host of other media. Unfortunately, Fall of the Hulks is unlikely to be that collection, and is unlikely to prove accessible to new readers looking to pick up a book featuring The Incredible Hulk. While it undoubtedly has quite a few qualities to recommend it, it is certainly not for those unfamiliar with the character.
Being entirely honest, I lament the fact that Marvel hasn’t seen fit to publish Peter David’s iconic tenure on The Incredible Hulk in their oversized library, given that the author is credited as really developing the psychological complexity of the character and for directing the monster for quite a long time. Given the run includes artistic contributions from superstar artist Todd McFarlane, it seems like an even greater no-brainer for a deluxe release, and the release of The Avengers into cinemas would have been the perfect time to see it collected. Unfortunately, the recent oversized hardcovers featuring the character aren’t anywhere near as singular or as independent.
Don’t get me wrong, Greg Pak’s run on The Incredible Hulk has been widely praised. He is, after all, the writer who led the title through the other-worldly adventures of Planet Hulk and the leave-your-brain-at-reception fun of World War Hulks. This collection also features some fairly sizeable contributions from author Jeff Parker, who would also provide some well-received stories, mostly featuring the reviled character of Red Hulk (or “Rulk”, if you’re into corny nicknames).
Both writers have effectively taken over the franchise from Jeph Loeb, who spearheaded a bold new direction for the franchise, in a run that was wildly controversial and not necessarily well-received. He turned the comic book into the most brainless of action adventures, featuring a ridiculously over-powered and “x-tremely” cool anti-hero version of the lead character, who would routinely show up and defeat other insanely over-powered characters in order to prove how awesome he was. The Red Hulk character managed to punch the Watcher, and to hijack the Silver Surfer’s surf board, after beating the ever-loving crap out of Thor and the existing Hulk.
There’s no denying that Greg Pak and Jeff Parker have a much stronger grounding in the franchise than Loeb. Their characterisations are much stronger, with Pak giving us a complex Bruce Banner and Parker actually trying to humanise the Red Hulk. However, the problem is that their continuity is so very heavily tied to Loeb that there’s no clean break. While both writers try to help readers along, this just leads to forced exposition as the pair try to make sense of the nonsense from the earlier adventures, re-writing character motivations and trying to retroactively add complexity to very silly events. I can’t help but imagine that both writers might have done better had they been allowed a clean break from what came before.
That said, the problem runs deeper than the reliance on a single earlier and poorly-received run by another author. Both Pak and Parker dig their story into the broad shared continuity of the Marvel Universe, especially the long and textured history of The Incredible Hulk. Caption boxes point us to events that happened before the character even got his own book (in Tales to Astonish) and the series makes fairly massive plot points out of a suit of armour that Bruce once built, or a time traveller from the future in an obscure and very retro adventure.
As the Red Hulk relates the story of a female villain who came from a future where men and women were literally at war, planning to steal the Hulk’s DNA to make Hulk-powered superbabies, Banner remarks, “I thought I dreamed that battle.” The audience would be forgiven for assuming the same thing. Though Pak and Parker do cite their sources and try to provide back story, this slows the story down and creates the sense of a continuity lock-out. I know the basics of the Hulk’s story, and I want him to smash something. Do I really need to dig up plot points from goofy forty-year-old issues to enjoy that? It keeps happening throughout the run, with the authors citing very particular characters and very particular instances.
It’s a shame, because the writing is actually quite clever. Greg Pak builds off his Planet Hulk adventure by taking a look at the other side of the Hulk equation. Of course, separating Bruce Banner from the Hulk is a tried and tested plot point, to the extent that even Jason Aaron is doing it in his own Incredible Hulk run. Pak is remarkably candid about the whole thing, and effectively concedes that it’s just a temporary status quo. The Hulk won’t ever really go away.
“The Hulk will return,” Banner assures Reed Richards in the first issue. “You all know it. No matter what the numbers say. No matter how long it takes. somehow he’ll find a way.” It’s a very honest approach, one that acknowledges the realities of comic book publishing. However, it affords Pak the chance to work with Bruce Banner, after spending so long writing the Hulk. More than that, though, Pak gets to insert an extra layer of interest into the book, given that he’s writing Bruce Banner as a father.
Given how important Bruce’s relationship was with his father, it’s interesting to see how the scientist relates to his own son. Of course, Bruce’s son is a giant green killing machine, so things get quite complex. Pak has a great deal of fun writing Banner as the ultimate dysfunctional father, and I especially dig the double play-date with Wolverine and his son. At the core of the story, though, Pak has found a compelling psychological hook.
We live in an era where we have been taught to worry about our kids. In the wake of far too many horrible incidents reported on the news, we don’t just fear what the world might do to them, but what they might do to the world. Banner quite literally faces the possibility that his son could kill hundreds of people, and that’s a lot for a parent to process. When Wolverine warns the good doctor that he can’t control his son, Banner replies, “Better hope you’re wrong. Or the whole frickin’ world’s gonna be in big, big trouble.”
More interesting than that, though, is the idea that Pak seeds within his run about the nature of Banner himself. What if Banner isn’t the good guy? Of course, the Hulk is the product of all Banner’s bitter and festering issues let loose upon the world, so all that aggression stems from the man himself. However, Pak follows that idea to its logical conclusion: what if Bruce Banner isn’t the victim in this relationship? It’s an idea that Jason Aaron would pick up and run with, but Pak does a solid job developing it.
The Beast warns Mr. Fantastic about the new state of affairs. “I know Banner’s one of your oldest friends, Reed,” the mutant advises the scientist. “But he’s dangerous. Maybe even more dangerous than the Hulk.” Confronting both Wolverine and Wolverine’s son, Bruce himself muses, “You know, it just now occurs to me that maybe the real reason I became the Hulk… was to protect the world from Banner.” This gives the story a nice edge, as we watch Bruce take on his old enemies despite the sizeable handicap of being a mortal man. What is Bruce’s endgame? He probably wants to do what’s right, but Pak creates a palpable uncertainty about how Bruce will accomplish his goals.
Jeff Parker does some nice character work with the Red Hulk, trying to salvage the character from the mess that Jeph Loeb had created. It’s not an easy task, and I don’t envy him, but he does a decent enough job. He gives the character a sense of moral complexity, painting him as a relatively noble if pragmatic soul with all manner of inferiority issues. I especially like how Parker writes tha character as a decidedly grumpy, arrogant and impatient old man in the body of a gigantic killing machine. “Enough of the museum tour,” he remarks on listening to the history of the Cosmic Hulk. “I get it. It’s alien, it’s powerful, it doesn’t need to ever come on again.”
Parker also does some clever and solid work on the villains of the piece, the Intelligencia, led by that perennial Hulk foe, the Leader. Parker imagines the villainous group as working in the shadows throughout the history of the Marvel Universe, a rather conscious and dark mirror to Brian Michael Bendis’ Illuminati, a group of covert heroes working for the forces of good. While Parker does occasionally get a little bit too bogged down in particular moments of continuity, it gives the story a bit of texture, suggesting that this threat has been bubbling behind the scenes for quite some time.
In fairness to Parker, he also does a good job with exposition, skilfully introducing each player in a way that is accessible and is easy to follow. If only the rest of the book had approached the hefty backlog of continuity in such a deft manner, instead of giving us flashbacks to specific moments and trying to re-write character motivations going back decades. I have no problem with that sort of revisionism, it’s just very difficult to do in an engaging and accessible manner.
The art in this collection is a bit of a mixed bag, with Greg Pak’s run on The Incredible Hulk getting the best and the worst artwork of this oversized collection. Ariel Olivetti has a very distinctive style that would probably be better suited to a less conventional book, as it doesn’t really work well with action sequences and standard superhero set-ups. It’s worrying when the fill-in art is the highlight of a given issue.
In contrast, Paul Pelletier has a nice cartoonish style that fits the book perfectly, evoking John Romita Jr. at his lightest. Romita provides some very cool covers. I’ve always thought that that sort of exaggerated approach suits the more fantastic of comic book characters, and the Hulk really works best with those larger-than-life cartoon characters.
The collection is superb, boasting a healthy selection of extras including sketches, biographies and other helpful details. However, the best extra feature has to be the one-shot M.O.D.O.K.: Reign Delayed, which is a wonderfully off-kilter comedy featuring everybody’s giant-floating-head-as-a-supervillian coping with everyday life. It almost makes the collection worth a look by itself, it’s that good.
Fall of the Hulks is an interesting enough read for a Hulk fan, but it really lacks the “oomph” of a truly classic collection, too tied down in an inherited continuity, and too anchored in what came before to ever really take its own exciting ideas and run with them. I’ll still be here for World War Hulks, but I can’t recommend this stylish oversized collection to new readers or casual fans.
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