Thursday, September 6, 2012

Mindless Savagery

The Hulk and I parted company a long time ago, during a relaunch of the title in mid-1999 when John Byrne began scripting the series and, predictably, departed to leave the book floundering. And flounder is what the Hulk has done for a long, long time, even before writer Peter David came on board and basically reinvented the character. I'm sorry, but the Hulk in a tank top and a buff hairstyle, spouting Peter David witticisms (as did most of the Hulk's opponents), pretty much saps the Hulk of his savage and loose cannon appeal. The Incredible Hulk during David's tenure was a cleverly written and often funny comic book, with interesting characters and sometimes compelling stories--but you could have arguably plugged in any muscle-bound character in the Hulk's shoes, and noticed no difference in the writing. Bruce Banner, and the tragedy of his circumstances, was for all intents and purposes left well in the past--and in his place, a together, sandal- and shade-wearing muscle guy with a physicist intellect and unbeatable one-liners.

Arguably, there was nowhere for the Hulk to go at that point but up. By then, his past and his personalities had been extensively explored--and, really, there's only so much of Banner's hopeless life the guy could take before he'd eventually begin thinking about tying a noose around his neck. So David's long writing stint on The Incredible Hulk, which backed off the constant cloud of anguish and despair that had always hovered around the character, was a change in direction that was obviously well-received.

As little as the Hulk means to me these days, I still find myself wondering if there is any interest left to be found in this character--any "back to basics" approach that will work. While it's true that comic books are no strangers to turning back the clock, that simply couldn't be done with either Bruce Banner or the Hulk--they've both been through too much for the Hulk to be taken seriously again in his "Hulk smash!" persona. Yet interestingly enough, that characterization has always been the one the book has returned to in each new run, with one unusual exception. Let's take a quick look at the character's evolution to his own titles:

Hulk #1
May, 1962

It's still hard for me to believe that this book failed after only 6 issues. In the time when Marvel was just beginning to launch its flagship characters in their own titles, the failure of The Hulk to sell stood out like a sore thumb.  But directionless for the most part, and lacking any capability to hold a dialog with the other characters he interacted with (and, by extension, the readers), the Hulk really couldn't sustain a book of his own.

The Avengers #1
September, 1963

Clearly in the "what in the world were they thinking??" category. The Hulk becomes a founding member of the Avengers, a collection of Marvel's A-list superheroes into one team book. Quite a leap for the character, to risk a pun--certainly in terms of his personality, which became more assertive and canny. But joining a team of public heroes? It was hard enough concealing his human identity from the Army--how about team members who expect you to promptly answer a call to go into battle? The Hulk's membership lasted a grand total of two issues.

Tales To Astonish #59
September, 1964

Marvel tests the waters again with the Hulk, in a title which has solely featured Giant-Man (and before that, Ant-Man). The two characters tussle--but after saving Giant-Man from a missile fired by the army, the Hulk reverts back to Bruce Banner and goes his own way.  Right into...

Tales To Astonish #60
October, 1964

The very next issue, Marvel decides to split the title between Giant-Man and the Hulk. This also continues the behavior of Banner turning into the Hulk during times of stress, which adds much more dimension to the character. (Previously, Banner has simply stepped in front of a gamma-ray projector in order to transform.) Later, the Hulk will split the title with the Sub-Mariner.

The Incredible Hulk #102
April, 1968

Tales To Astonish continues as The Incredible Hulk, sticking with the previous title's numbering. It runs for over 30 years, and its last issue segues into a reboot of the title the following month, resetting the issue number back to 1.

Rampaging Hulk #1
August, 1998

Begun a few months before The Incredible Hulk ended--I have no idea why. It lasted just six issues--that's either a bizarre coincidence, given the original title's short run, or its purpose was as a brief mini-series to generate interest in the new Incredible Hulk title written by John Byrne. Given the tone of the issue and its letters page, though, its end comes off as unexpectedly abrupt.

Hulk #1
April, 1999

A promising beginning by scripter Byrne, who returns the Hulk to his smashing roots but stays with the title for less than a year. The tug-of-war with the Hulk and his suppressed personalities becomes more convoluted, and for the first time I drop the series--picking up issues sparingly whenever the cover happens to catch my eye. By the end of the series, the book has morphed into The Incredible Hercules, which should tell you just how much this book--and this character--was at loose ends.

Hulk #1
March, 2008

This relaunch follows the World War Hulk mini-series, and basically features the Hulk M.I.A. as a powerful doppelganger takes his place in the title. I throw up my hands at this point and say "enough." This new Hulk is now drawn as if he'd swallowed an entire truckload of steroids--on a daily basis. And scripter Jeph Loeb, cashing in on the marquee value of other Marvel heroes, has him wiping the floor with practically every major Marvel character able to give him a challenge. Under Loeb, The Hulk became a huge Marvel Team-Up book, the visuals of which were obviously meant to sell it more than Bruce Banner. (Remember that guy?)

At this point, I think it's going to take Marvel's editors sitting down and figuring out exactly what they want from the character--who they want the Hulk to be, and what direction they want him to take. Loeb's Hulk, complete with Betty Ross as a red She-Hulk--Betty Ross--has a limited shelf life, at best. Sooner or later, this mess will have to be sorted out and sifted through, if the Hulk is to rejoin the Marvel universe in any meaningful way--and I use the word "meaningful" as in meaningful to the readers. If they let the character spiral even more out of control, the Hulk's glory days may well be behind him, even as he struggles in vain with all his vaunted leg muscles to leap forward.

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