Monday, September 1, 2014

At World's End Waits--The Maestro!

The two-part Future Imperfect story featuring the incredible Hulk was something of a treat to find on the comics racks as we crossed the threshold into 1993. From what I recall, it received little to no fanfare in advertising, even within the pages of the Hulk comic. Yet, suddenly, there it was for sale, a virtual graphic novel split in half--each part retailing for $5.95 and each taking up close to fifty pages, spine-bound, with cardboard cover stock and printed on glossy paper. I unbagged my own copies for the first time recently--and as I carefully opened the front cover, I heard that familiar "crack" sound from the spine that tells the reader to proceed with care when turning the pages. Bound comics have a way of giving the reader the illusion that they'll be reading something exceptional, or at least above the norm.

Once you get past the novelty look and feel of the issues--the "presentation," if you will--Future Imperfect is faced with the task of living up to the promising impression you get from it at first glance. To say nothing of living up to that hard change plunked down for it--an unheard-of price tag at that point in time, even if it was fairly obvious what bells and whistles the money was going toward in terms of print quality. By comparison, the monthly Hulk title was selling for $1.25/issue; its 400th issue (published at the time of Future Imperfect's release) ran the price tag up to $2.50; and the 64-page Hulk annual from '93 was priced at $2.95--so asking readers to fork over twice that amount for another Hulk story seemed like a gamble, particularly with no advance word being put out to hype sales.

Yet the story rises to the occasion--and while it's debatable that it justifies the exorbitant purchase price for an early 1990s comic, it nevertheless provides an excellent reading experience that doesn't disappoint. That satisfaction of course is due to the credentials of its creative team--script and art by Peter David and George Perez, whose work individually should speak for itself but rises to a shout when combined in one story. Future Imperfect has a straightforward premise: the Hulk (who, during David's tenure on the book, operates with Bruce Banner's mind) is brought forward in time ninety years to deal with an older, brutal version of himself who's seized control of an apocalyptic Earth. You may find in reading this story that there are a few parts that seem redundant, where certain scenes trip over prior ones--perhaps difficult to avoid in a tale of this size. With another read-through and a little editing before going off to press, those elements would have been fairly easy to patch up. They're negligible, however, in light of the work that both David and Perez have obviously put in to make the story easy and fun to digest from cover to cover.

And speaking of digesting, you'll have your hands full with the opening double-page spread:

Welcome to the future city of Dystopia. The last refuge on Earth.

In this future society--if you can call it a society--David and Perez provide elements both vocal and visual that help us to acclimate to the stark changes that have taken place not only due to this future time, but as a result of a world devastated by nuclear warfare. For David's part, we notice the differences in English usage most of all, with many new terms replacing familiar ones (e.g., "tweak" for "understand," "scan" for "see," "flark" for... well, you can probably guess the substitution for that one. The changes are considerable, but not so intrusive as to interfere with picking up on the things we need to in order to follow the story. As for Perez, he manages to mix futuristic with primitive, ruins with science--and with his talent for detail, giving meticulous attention to costuming. Imagine Babylon in its prime, amidst crumbling infrastructure and patrolled by anti-grav police.

The story quickly focuses on a group of insurgents who seem to be part of an underground movement and are trying not to draw attention to themselves. With such characters, it's sometimes difficult to distinguish between the writing of David and Chris Claremont, both having the same penchant to have characters who are attempting to keep a low profile nevertheless wind up in the thick of trouble:

Of course, at the tip of David's pen, you'll find that even in a futuristic setting where the world has been laid to waste, cockiness has managed to survive and continue to thrive--and so the soldiers tend to enjoy their killing with snide overtures, their victims calmly arrogant when they manage to gain the upper hand. And Bruce Banner, the "studly" whom Janis and her group have retrieved through time, is now a physicist with an attitude.

It's clear that the Hulk has been briefed on the "Maestro," the despotic ruler of this world and the creator of Dystopia who's clearly put a system of enforcement in place to deal with uprisings and the like. And as news of the Hulk's presence in the city reaches the Maestro's citadel, David and Perez give this new character an impressive unveiling:

There are several things that David asks us to take for granted in this story--for instance, why this character is calling himself "the Maestro." We learn that, while the wars were occurring, the Hulk absorbed excess radiation from all the fallout that not only increased his strength but drove him insane--so we're left to assume that he chose to rename himself the Maestro on a capricious whim that perhaps seemed appropriate to him at the time. Also, old age doesn't seem to have sapped either his strength or his vitality, even though he's aged over a century. That puts him at an age of about 135, if we assume he was in his 40s when the wars began--yet, out of necessity for the story, he'll prove to be more than a match for the younger Hulk who's arrived to challenge him.

Speaking of whom, Janis has escorted Banner to the underground area where a number of people seem to exist apart from those on the surface. Again, we're not really told why they're being kept hidden--clearly, most of them are not insurgents, or even fighters, but simply people. Dystopia, we learn, was created while they were all below in these "survival tunnels"--but for the most part, we've seen that life on the surface is somewhat commonplace (if carefully patrolled), so there seems to be no reason for this type of sanctuary, particularly one where they seem to be no better off:

A strange--and surely unprovoked--threat, more likely to come from the pre-David impatient, savage Hulk than from Banner. He doesn't appear to be in any danger--and given what he's been told so far by Janis (and, as we'll learn, by Rick Jones), he has no reason to act aggressively at this point. Only when Janis demonstrates knowledge of Banner's origins as the Hulk in order to put the people more at ease with this visitor does Banner shift from threatening to insistent:

This room of memorabilia (or "trophy room," as it's often been referred to in forums, if inaccurately) is such fun to pore through visually, picking out items that you're familiar with and wondering how the characters fared in the wars. (Clearly, not well.) Some images are head-scratchers; the Surfer, for instance, had escaped Earth by the time of the wars. But aside from that, how have these items been located and recovered from thousands of miles of wasteland--and who would venture out to get them while risking radiation poisoning, just so that they could take up space in a display room? It makes for a dazzling two-page spread, but seems to have no purpose or thought behind it other than that.

Fortunately for Banner, his "proof" comes in a more animated form--and an irrefutable one, thanks to a nice touch from David that takes the Hulk back to his roots and reveals the identity of the room's occupant in an instant:

The fact that Rick is the lone "Marvel" character to survive the devastation that has wiped out the likes of Doom and others with the presumed skill to survive such a holocaust seems somehow fitting, given how the character has anchored the evolution of Marvel's super-being population with a "normal human" presence in one way or another; and it's not surprising that he would have the strength of character to shepherd these remnants of humanity to survival. What Rick hopes to accomplish by bringing the Hulk here (via his great-granddaughter, Janis) is becoming apparent: dealing with the Maestro. But beyond that, there doesn't seem to be much point to this story, once we learn the details that Rick will share with the Hulk.

In the meantime, the Maestro is in the process of interrogating one of Janis's group with an invasive memory probe that details how Rick used Dr. Doom's time machine to send her back to the past to convince Rick's younger self to petition the Hulk for assistance. And with the information he gathers, the Maestro's next act gives us an idea of why this story takes place outside of the umbrella of the Comics Code Authority:

We see very little dimension to the Maestro beyond that of a ruthless villain, and certainly little to nothing of Banner in him. As we'll soon see in this story, David will choose to concentrate on the Maestro's tactical edge (aside from his greater strength) of knowing the Hulk's abilities and thus being able to predict his actions in a fight, rather than spending time bringing to light any similarities between the two. It's perhaps the one choice that David need not elaborate on, since insanity generally needs to make no excuses for needless brutality or other deviations from a character's known patterns of behavior.

On the other hand, we'd expect at least Banner himself to be aghast at discovering the truth about the Maestro. Yet, as he learns of this world's history and the evolution of its ruler, he comes to see the Maestro only as a threat that must be removed.

Again, the circumstances of the story have David performing a balancing act, as far as the timing of its revelations--a scene where the story seems to want to have its cake and eat it, too. Indeed, Banner doesn't "have to ask" who the Maestro is--he's already learned as much through Janis. Yet David must set aside a moment of revelation for the reader, and somehow has to convey that through the Hulk's reaction--difficult to accomplish, since the Hulk is simply getting confirmation here on what he's previously been told. The cat is already out of the bag, in that respect--and as a result, Banner's flustered question, completely uncalled for at this point, is for our benefit more than his. Rick's method of answering Banner--as well as Janis's aside that Banner doesn't have to shout his question--seem geared to salvage whatever power the scene still holds.

So the way is finally paved for the confrontation between the Hulk and the Maestro (which would read rather strangely on a marquee). And the Maestro is wasting no time--burrowing down to the insurgents' sanctuary and bringing with him an armed contingent to head off any resistance. You'll note that the only similarity apparent between the Maestro and the Hulk is through the witticism of their writer:

The rebels, however, are well prepared for the soldiers, who find that this sanctuary is also a death trap:

The Maestro, though, is immune to the deadly devices that have wiped out his men, and so makes his way through and calls out his foe, which serves to conclude Part One of this story:

Given what we've seen so far, we've little reason to be psyched for a battle between these two beyond curiosity as to how it will play out. The Hulk has demonstrated that he possesses an arrogant confidence in his power and his ability to prevail against any threat--while the Maestro appears capable of stepping on the Hulk and being done with it. But it's reasonable to be intrigued enough with this situation to continue to Part Two--where the Hulk's goals will be complicated by his dealings with his other self, who's made the best of a bad situation and considers giving the Hulk the same option.

Have a look at the mark-up to Rick's relics room!

Future Imperfect (Part One)

Script: Peter David
Pencils and Inks: George Perez
Letterer: Joe Rosen


Anonymous said...

What popped into my head was the Seinfeld episode where the director of the Salvation Army Band insisted on being addressed as "Maestro".

The Prowler (not the least of what pops in my head on a daily basis).

George Chambers said...

Perez did a great job on the reliquary, didn't he? But why did he feel it necessary to skin the Beast?

Comicsfan said...

George, I'm guessing that, as with the other damaged relics in the room, someone took care of that before Rick unearthed it. Seems to be a rather gruesome collection on the whole, doesn't it?

Prowler, I've unfortunately seen only a very few episodes of Seinfeld--that's one I'll have to keep an eye out for. :)

Murray said...

That Museum of Misery made my eye twitch. Such future stories often do, when the writer sweeps all the other heroes off the game board in one swell foop. I know that it's the Hulk's comic, so we can't have other characters stealing the spotlight and getting underfoot. But still...

Anyway. After massaging away this twitch, I can't help but frown in curiosity about a couple of museum items. Thor is gone, but I don't see Mjolnir being left behind. I'm pretty darned sure Odin (the only Asgardian generally capable of lifting the hammer) might have stopped by to collect his son's weapon. And maybe slapped some mouthy green palooka of a mortal into orbit if he got in the way.

Likewise, I cannot see Agammotto leaving his amulet lying in a case, even if Dr. Strange is gone. He might not be Odin, but likewise, Maestro better hide in the bathroom while the amulet is being recovered.

A good graphic novel, if a bit dark. Just Peter David adding yet another personality into Bruce Banner's head. That guy did love to jam personalities in that head and stir.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking the same thing as Murray. Odin wouldn't have stood for this and would have eviscerated the Maestro just on general principle. mp

Comicsfan said...

The hammer was a bit of overkill, I agree--especially considering that Rick (or anyone else) couldn't have moved it to that display room to begin with. The only way that hammer could be there is if the room itself were constructed around it.

Anonymous said...

If I remember right, a later prequel story set in this reality, showed that Rick became worthy, but he was not experienced enough and got beat bad by Maestro.

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