Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Best Laid Plans

When you pick up Part One of the Future Imperfect story from 1993 by Peter David and George Perez, its cover shows a fighting-mad Hulk leaping over what appears to be a split display of present and future versions of Earth civilization. But it's not until Part Two appears on the racks, with its almost identical cover featuring the Hulk's future antagonist (and future self), the Maestro, that you get an idea how the Hulk of each cover is tipping you off as to which version of the Hulk will receive the greater emphasis in that issue. For instance, in Part One, while we were indeed introduced to the Maestro, we really saw more of the lives of those who lived in Dystopia, the repressive city he'd built from the ruins of atomic war and where he ruled with an iron fist.

As for the Hulk, Part One of the story centered on Bruce Banner from our own time, who had been brought to this future world (as the Hulk) by Dystopia's "underground" rebels to depose the Maestro. We learn of those in the rebel group through Banner, who in turn learns of the people here from "Janis," who led the team who retrieved the Hulk and who brings him to the "proof" that convinces him to lend his total support: Rick Jones, who in this time period is old and infirm, but lucid enough to relay to Banner the circumstances of this future world and its fate following war that wiped out most of the human race.

As we see by the cover of Part Two, this segment of the story will likely (and does) shift its emphasis to the Maestro, the despotic Hulk who has become even more powerful--and insane--due to his absorption of the war's radiation which now permeates this world. At the end of the story's first part, the Maestro had succeeded in locating the rebels' base of operations deep below the city, a location where other refugees had also taken shelter. Fortunately, the rebels had prepared the location well for a possible invasion, and the Maestro's arriving troops are slaughtered. But when the Maestro arrives to personally deal with the lower domain's inhabitants, the area is evacuated--and the time comes for him to come face-to-face with the Hulk, in a confrontation which Rick and Janis hope will end the Maestro's threat.

Unfortunately, since the spotlight falls on the Maestro in this issue, we can assume that this battle isn't going to be a slam-dunk for the Hulk:

...though he seems to have become familiar with the "slammed" part.

In this fight, which must take place before other events which will take up this 48-page story can move forward, the Maestro has a clear advantage--not only in terms of strength, but also because he's basically fighting himself and is already aware of the Hulk's mindset and tactics, as well as certain aspects of his physiology. But we'll see that the Maestro has more in mind for the Hulk, once the formality of the battle has been played out. For the Hulk, this fight is the first and final battle in an all-or-nothing attempt to remove the Maestro's threat--yet never once does the Maestro feel he isn't in the driver's seat here, and he sees in the Hulk an opportunity to exploit.

As for the battle, it seems a bit early to count the Hulk out just yet:

But given his advantage, the Maestro feels at liberty to resort to tactics other than strength vs. strength--and when you're a sadist, such tactics would normally put a more honorable foe at an immediate disadvantage. However, under writer Peter David, the Hulk, who now shares Bruce Banner's mind, has been developed considerably beyond the "victim" persona that once defined Banner; these days, Banner has become comfortable in the Hulk's skin, so to speak, and almost relishes the use of his power in both strength and intimidation. As a result, the Hulk is less likely to fold when presented with an ultimatum where another's life is at stake. What changes the rules in that respect is that the Maestro knows this about the Hulk--and the fact that he chooses to proceed anyway makes for a riveting moment:

Yet, since this issue will show us more of the Maestro's modus operandi than just the examples of cruelty that we saw of him in Part One, his dealings with the Hulk allow David to expand on just how formidable and cunning a foe the Maestro is. As a result, this part of the story is practically littered with examples where the Hulk arrogantly announces his intent to bring the Maestro down, only to find that the Maestro has anticipated his actions each and every time and has only given him enough rope before turning it into a noose. Or, to put it in cartoon terms, picture the Maestro as Lucy holding a football, and the Hulk as Charlie Brown running up to kick it.

You'll also find David's cat-and-mouse style of exchanges tucked within several scenes where the end result of a witty come-on doesn't turn out to be as hoped--with the wording usually taking the form of "First [this], now [this]."  As seen in each of these separate scenes which, when put together, sound like a variation on a theme:

As the battle rages, the Hulk proves he's still in the fight, and even the Maestro has a ways to go in putting him down:

Finally, though, it's the Hulk's value for the lives of others which gives the Maestro the opportunity to subdue him. When the Hulk belts the Maestro into a building, the structure crumbles with its occupants unable to escape in time. The Hulk, in trying to help, all but forgets about his foe, one who isn't distracted in the least by innocent lives put in danger.

In his work on Incredible Hulk, David had already taken steps to formally give the Hulk a healing factor, which may have served to enhance Banner's growing "attitude" as the Hulk but also unfortunately elevates the Hulk to something along the lines of a force of nature. We already were comfortable with the fact that the Hulk was virtually unstoppable--but now, David has upped the ante for future writers who might someday need less of a "super-Hulk" and don't want to spend their time constantly writing World War Hulk stories where his opponents are constantly being overwhelmed by him. At first, David in the Wolverine story only seemed to be providing an explanation for prior instances where the Hulk appeared to be "invulnerable"; while in the same breath, Wolverine's slashing attacks with adamantium claws are now shown to be ineffective from this point on.

Now we have the Maestro, who's also familiar with the Hulk's ability to heal, breaking the Hulk's neck in order to subdue him. The act arguably suits the drama of the moment, and certainly suits the ruthless character of the Maestro--but assuming that the Hulk will heal from this injury on his own, it establishes another precedent that moves the Hulk further beyond those super-beings who might seek to oppose him.

With the Hulk down and, by all appearances, critically injured if not already dead, the Underground and its collected refugees relocate to another location, as Rick and Janis consider their options--which would seem to amount to zero at this point, since presumably the whole point of bringing the Hulk here was to best the Maestro. But it looks like Rick might have put contingency plans in place as far as how that would be done, though they appear to depend on the Hulk being alive.

Back in the Maestro's palace, the Hulk is surprised to find himself waking--and also surprised at his accommodations. What follows next was a rather unexpected series of scenes for 1993 comics storytelling--occurring "off-stage," as it were, but quite clear as to what act of violation is being performed.

With the Hulk incapacitated from his injury, the Maestro now undertakes a plan of his own: bringing the Hulk into his fold, effectively neutralizing him while gaining a powerful ally. Normally, you would think that the Maestro would consider the Underground the greater threat, since it's proven that it can make use of time travel to retrieve adversaries for use against him (or perhaps using their time device against him directly). It remains to be seen how the Maestro will play his hand--or how much of a factor the Hulk remains in opposing him.

As if what he's just gone through wasn't bad enough as far as being humiliated by your enemy, there's another scene that David provides of the Hulk being taken down another notch by the Maestro. In this instance, the Hulk takes his challenge beyond that of a mere bluff, though he'll find once again that his future self cannot be outmaneuvered.

It's interesting how this situation has spiralled out of the Hulk's control since he first arrived, so secure and confident in his own power to put an end to the Maestro. Repeatedly, the Hulk has had a bucket of ice water thrown in his face in his encounters with this monster--beaten in a battle of strength, and beaten in battles of wits. He faces, after all, himself--but a "Hulk" who's had over 100 years to grow in strength, experience, and skill, to say nothing of canniness. It won't be the last instance of the Hulk finding himself stymied by the Maestro. In a normal-sized comic, that might be a little easier to digest--but in such a large-format issue, reading through so many setbacks makes the reader begin to doubt just what it is about the title character they admire.

The Maestro begins his work on the Hulk in earnest by having him accompany him to the wastelands, where he avails himself of the spoils of his rule:

The Maestro really doesn't have much to speak of to appeal to the Hulk, given that his actions have spoken more loudly than his words. Yet the Maestro has the edge of knowing the Hulk's innermost thoughts, and what he's been through in his life to date, and he uses that knowledge to make his case with Banner to a degree that no other adversary would be capable of.

The scrutiny of the Maestro's minister during that conversation perhaps caught your eye, with good reason. The minister has the ambition of eventually seizing power for himself, so it would be prudent for him to first eliminate the Hulk. But new arrivals to the palace help to foil his plans:

And the first of Rick's contingency plans is revealed, though it really amounts to no more than infiltration--or so it seems. At any rate, with the Hulk again feeling confident and chomping at the bit to lay into the Maestro, you're probably getting the feeling that the Hulk is about due for another setback. And this time, it may prove to be a fatal one.

With all hell breaking loose between Janis's group and the Maestro's guards, the Maestro pursues the missing Hulk, giving every indication that he continues to keep a tight rein on the situation:

As the Maestro closes in on the wounded Hulk, we see that the rebels' new location turns out to be underneath the palace. The Hulk is nowhere to be seen, aside from his trail of blood--but the Maestro recognizes the music leading his way, and comes across the one person he's known longer than anyone on this Earth: Rick Jones. It's not a happy reunion for either of these men, though for Rick it's destined to be a very brief one:

No, I don't know why the time was taken to relocate Rick's relics room to the rebels' new location. If you're on the run from the law and they know where your hideout is, you're probably not going to want to spend your precious escape time boxing up and lugging around a large collection of relics which have no value other than nostalgic. And no, I don't know who the heck is moving Thor's hammer. Maybe it's in an anti-grav case--but the last time I checked, a container is no more worthy to lift the hammer than a person is.

The Maestro's gruesome observation is interrupted, however, by the arrival of the Hulk, who gained valuable time to heal from Rick's confrontation of the Maestro. And this time, he's thinking ahead of his next punch:

What's that, you say? Time for another setback, with more humiliating diatribe from the Maestro on what a disappointment Banner is to him? Gosh, I think you're right! But before you put your fist through a wall, would it help to tell you that this is the last time you'll have to wade through it?

It's quite a nice touch to have Betty's ashes be those that temporarily blind the Maestro and set him up for a last round of punches from the Hulk. Unfortunately, the Maestro is able to foil even Betty, as he launches into a stinging tirade against his other self, which the Hulk appears helpless to prevent.

And yet, as the saying goes, appearances can be deceiving. The moment arrives on which everything depends--and the Hulk doesn't fail those who are counting on him. Not Janis... not the near-hopeless survivors... and not the old man who remains his closest friend.

The banishment of the Maestro was Rick's moment as much as anyone's--and when the dust settles, the Hulk is at his side, in a scene which David writes beautifully and one that ranks as one of Marvel's most memorable.

As for the Maestro, the Hulk has indicated that the time machine sent him "to face the music," a play on words which provides perfect symmetry to this story:

We've heard the Maestro admit to the fact that he would have been killed during the atomic war if he were present at any bomb's Ground Zero, so that would seem to be that. The Hulk, however, has one last duty to perform before returning to his own time:

So, Plans A, B, and C--contingency plans, or plans in succession? We've learned that the Hulk played along with some of his defeats and humiliations--was he then throwing all of his fights, charging head-first into expected traps, not taking advantage of openings, all to lure the Maestro to the time machine's location? If so, it would be quite a series of gambles, assuming all the pieces of Rick's overall plan would fall into place, one by one. Most plans with this level of intricacy, while dealing with an unpredictable loose cannon like the Maestro, probably don't come off as smoothly as a written story could arrange.  (Take it from John Steinbeck.)

I'm not aware whether or not David ever followed up on this story in the Hulk's regular title; perhaps he really didn't feel the need to, preferring to file it all away under "alternate timeline." The Hulk doesn't seem like the type to dwell on whatever future awaits him--but it bears mentioning that this story doesn't necessarily have a happy ending, given that an atomic war still looms in the near-future, and the Maestro will still come into being at that time and begin a new, horrific existence. The now-alternate timeline of the Maestro is only pertinent insofar as the Maestro himself is concerned; an atomic war isn't going to care about the Maestro's new, separate timeline, since the Maestro was simply the result of the war's radiation, and will be again no matter what timeline containing the Hulk the war occurs in. So it's reasonable to be curious as to how the Hulk would deal with that knowledge. I can't imagine that it would be easy for him to live with, as there's really no escape from that future for himself. If Rick were here, he would probably chime in and remind us all of the Hulk's talent for cheating fate.

Future Imperfect (Part Two)

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

1 comment:

Warren JB said...

"I'm not aware whether or not David ever followed up on this story in the Hulk's regular title"

A little, but it didn't amount to much. It happened as a kind of 'epilogue' to the Heroes Reborn event, when the splitting of the Hulk and Banner caused by Onslaught, helped draw the realities back together.

Cut a long story short, the Maestro had a two-pronged ressurection: his physical remains drawing gamma radiation from the Hulk (who was incapacitated nearby and leaking great gobs of the stuff. Apparently it was only the last the Maestro needed, as his remains somehow psychically called the Hulk back to the bomb crater over the years, for that purpose), and his soul following Bruce's as the latter escaped from hell. Epilogue of that issue: an extremely emaciated but very much alive Maestro staggering from the bomb crater, into the desert.

Next issue: asgardian trolls in New Mexico found his recovering but still insensible body, used his essence to power the Destroyer armour, and sent it to do it's thing on a nearby town, where Bruce Banner happened to be passing through. At the end of that fight an explosion caused an entire cliffside to fall and bury the armour, the trolls, and the Maestro's still-recovering body.

Aaaand that was it. Peter David was off the title not too long after that, with only hints of planned storylines in his final issue (none obviously involving the Maestro) and we were soon into the the runs of Bruce Jones and Greg Pak, and further. Wikipedia tells me that different versions of him have been popping up in various future timelines and realities (without much impact) but as far as I know, no-one's had a look under that New Mexico rubble.

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