This is the second in a series of comic book reviews that will look at the direction of Marvel’s “Avengers” franchise over the past five or so years, as they’ve been attempting to position the property at the heart of their fictional universe. With The Avengers planned for a cinematic release in 2012, I thought I’d bring myself up to speed by taking a look at Marvel’s tangled web of continuity. We’re taking a bit of a detour this week, but it’ll feed into Marvel’s event-driven central narrative fairly shortly. Get an overview of what I’m trying to take a look at here.
Finally. Hulk knows who to smash.
– Hulk, less than ten pages into the event
Planet Hulk is perhaps a prime example of the type of event-driven storytelling that has become increasingly common at Marvel in recent years. It isn’t really an event of itself, but there’s a strong smell of editorial mandate behind the plot. The key objective – and one conceded by the powers that be – was to isolate the Hulk character from the greater Marvel Universe during the Civil War event (which he would arguably have considerably complicated) and position him for the follow-up event World War Hulk. As such, exiling the Hulk to a foreign planet and watching him play out his own version of Gladiator isn’t exactly the most fluid storytelling direction. However, it’s to the credit of author Greg Pak that the story works as well as it does.
The strength of the storyline is that it’s admittedly straightforward. It’s not a taut psychological examination of the not-so-jolly green giant, nor is it a particular novel tale – it’s the rags-to-riches fantasy narrative we’ve all heard countless times; in fact the story consciously echoes Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. However, Pak never really pretends that he is offering anything more unique.
Instead, Pak offers us a tale which feels like a refined fantasy story. He crafts us a narration that sounds like an oral history – we’re regaled with terms like “worldbreaker” and “skaarson”, which sounds like concepts recycled and refined through generations of stories traded over the campfire, a tradition that we see played out yet again as the fighters and others they encounter on their adventures share their stories in a style that calls to mind a folk tale (indeed, the art shift that we see when offered background tales for various supporting characters helps create the impression of stories-within-stories).
It’s almost as though Pak knows that he is writing what is essentially a fill-in, with his schedule dictated by the greater events within Marvel’s shared fictional universe. He never attempts to fool the audience into believing that we’re being offered a new status quo – we don’t buy for a second that the Hulk is part of what might be termed “cosmic Marvel”, as we accept he’ll inevitably return to Earth and to the status quo, but Pak doesn’t insult us by trying too hard to convince us.
It’s clear that Pak knows the Hulk. He doesn’t attempt to compete with the richer character portrayals or even Peter David’s iconic tenure writing the character. “I… just… felt like fighting,” the green goliath explains at one point, as he attempts to avoid being labelled as a folk hero or a rebel. “Wake me up when it’s time to fight.” This is a version of the character who is embittered, worn out and sulking. He’s basically a muscle-bound, overgrown teenager. “I don’t have any people,” he sulks at one point, reflecting his manic depressive view of the world (of course, at this point, his own ‘people’ had tricked him into a spaceship and sent him into the void – so his position might be justified). “First they call us monsters,” he warns his new compatriots, reflecting on his own experience, “Then they come calling for help.”
There’s a sense that Pak is playing it safe – he stays with the familiar side of the character, rather than attempting a bold reinvention or anything like that. He repeatedly insists (in a manner recognisable to anybody familiar with the character) that all he wants is “to be left alone.” Indeed, Pak hits on all the key notes of a Hulk saga, having the character repeat the mantra that “the madder I get, the stronger I get.”
At points episodic, sections of the story recalls the television show that perhaps endeared the character to an entire generation, as the Hulk wanders around from place to place, righting wrongs with his merry band and encountering the true “monsters”. It’s a nice little homage and one which helps give the impression that Greg Pak knows his Hulk lore and is paying his respects to it in its entirety. I honestly don’t think any writer can claim to have a deep affection for the character without acknowledging the show, kitsch as it might be.
What’s most fascinating about the tale is how Pak effectively exorcises Bruce Banner from the equation. Banner appears twice in the entire series – at one point returning to briefly haunt the Hulk’s nightmares (“I found you,” Banner boasts, “Like I always will”), in an inversion of their typical relationship where the Hulk haunted Banner; and in a brief appearance towards the end (“the Hulk let me out,” he pleads, suggesting that Banner is now an exiled part of the Hulk’s psyche).
The beauty of Pak’s scenario is that it allows him to offer a story where the Hulk is unequivocably a hero, which is a rarity for a character who (as the story concedes) is fueled by hatred. Sure, his anger can help him defeat villain, but at a great cost (in property and personal terms).Despite his protestations to the contrary, the Hulk is very much a folk hero, and he seems almost at peace with the idea. In his nightmares, it’s a fickle reality, subject to change. “So you think you’re one of us now?” an imaginary version of Iron Man mockingly asks. “A hero?” Reed Richards clarifies, sarcastically, towering over the Hulk. Despite his battered and cynical exterior, the Hulk is ultimately a child looking for validation.
Of course, the story overlaps with cosmic Marvel (which, some would suggest due to its somewhat looser and more casual nature – the events (like War of Kings or Annihilation) are relatively low-key, but the argument is that they are higher quality). Pak uses the opportunity to have a bit of fun with Marvel’s galactic history – drawing in references to the Brood (traditionally associated with the X-Men or Ms. Marvel) or Kronan (who has his history in Thor provided here via flashback) or even the Silver Surfer (who is dismissed as “such a whiner” by the other characters here). By the way, the story refers to a “Shadow Pact” – am I the only one who read it as a reference to Russell T. Davies’ relaunched Doctor Who? It’s probably just me.
The concepts come quick and fast. Some of them are great, and there’s enough provided that not all of the high fantasy concepts have to hit a bullseye. Again, my pop culture radar went off when I witnessed “the spikes”, deployed here like some sort of biological weapon. It reminded me of cordyceps unilateralis, a fungus that I half-remembered from the old documentary Planet Earth – a parasitic fungus which turns its host into a zombie before puncturing the skin to spread the spores. “They don’t look so tough,” the Hulk remarks, but they terrify the hell out of me.
Pak offers twist after twist after twist. Very little of the plot seems foreshadowed, and it seems to be a story almost by the numbers – you can tell when you’re due a big twist by the number of pages to the end of the chapter. Being honest, the swords and sandals epic isn’t necessarily my cup of tea. I know that a lot of fans prefer this sort of straight-forward Hulk story, but I do prefer a hint of complexity – I’m more interested in Banner than in Hulk, to be frank. In fairness, Pak tells the story well, but he can’t hide the fact that it’s really not an exceptionally deep one.
Still, I can appreciate the skill Pak shows in telling his story. There’s a disarming sense of humour underpinning the story, for example. During the Hulk’s revenge fantasy, we witness Nick Fury declaring, “It wasn’t me either! It was a life model decoy, honest!” punctuated with an “Ow!” as the Hulk… you guessed it, smashes. Sure, the story has been told dozens of times before and there’s limited room for innovation by the author, but Pak does what he can with the set up.
Planet Hulk is a swords and sandals tale. The artistic design choices seem intended to only encourage the association with Gladiator and other classic Roman epics, which isn’t a bad thing – the collection wears its heart on its sleeve. It isn’t the most original Hulk story ever told, nor the most typical. It’s an attempt to filter the character through a fantasy narrative that wouldn’t normally suit him, but (on reflection) actually fits him quite well – it seems almost perfectly tailored to his rather simplistic motivations and characteristics.
It’s not a perfect tale, and I readily admit that I wasn’t entirely won over (the narrative is arguably too simple and streamlined, too straightforward and trite – but those are perhaps the very reasons the story should appeal to so many people), but it’s still well-told. I’ll be interested to see how Pak handles the character’s return to the centre of the Marvel Universe in World War Hulk.
This collection coincides with Marvel’s Civil War. Next week, we’ll be heading directly into crossover season as we take a look at architect Brian Michael Bendis’ first major crossover event House of M, which marks something as a transition point between The Avengers and The X-Men as Marvel’s premiere superhero franchise. But more on that then. The following week, I’ll be back with a review of Mark Millar’s Civil War and finally after that World War Hulk before returning to the stretch of New Avengers which leads through the war and into the second big event that Bendis has planned out – Secret Invasion. All of these articles are written from the perspective of a (relative) layman who has never really attempted to follow comic book continuity before. Stay tuned, true believers.