Thursday, September 21, 2023

Hulk (Didn't) Smash


By the turn of the century, you and I had seen and likely enjoyed any number of stories featuring clashes between the Thing and the Hulk--two classic characters who, despite having long since settled the question of who was the more powerful, still managed to convey the possibility of an upset with each clash or, at the very least, give us our money's worth more often than not with some new twist on the circumstances which brought them into conflict once more. But in late 2004, a four-issue limited series appeared on the racks with a story which some of us might have considered unorthodox, even for this pair.

Right away, you've likely already discerned artist Jae Lee's hand here, whose work you may remember from The Sentry from 2000 as well as 1998's The Inhumans, and who here brings his unconventional style to two men who look distinctly different from the characters who put their stamp on the comics of the '60s, '70s and '80s. In this series, Lee handles full pencils and inks (as he did on the prior works), while this time joining with writer Bruce Jones to craft a tale that frankly takes some patience to get through. That's not to say there's not something here for Hulk/Thing fans--but when you find yourself in full agreement with the Hulk who's all but demanding that the Thing get to the point, already after covering roughly half the series with little progress on that front, you'll either be more determined to see where it's all going, or reach for your back issue of Fantastic Four #112 and better days.

If nothing else, the approach that Jones and Lee take to open "Hard Knocks" is an attention grabber, considering the characters involved aren't exactly known for their congeniality. Or, to paraphrase an old joke, "Stop me if you've heard this one. Two man-monsters end up at a hole in the wall..."

Heh, the "Hard Rocks Cafe"--drawing us in with a double pun. Nicely played, Mr. Lee.

There are two other stories taking place within "Hard Knocks" which are central to its core issue, both of them having occurred in the FF's book early in the team's career--segments from "Prisoners of Doctor Doom!" from 1962, and 1963's "The Incredible Hulk," each of them now revealed as having a profound effect on the Thing's self-esteem (at least in Jones' eye--you don't find a hint of it in the original stories, in either dialog or from the Thing himself). After Ben refreshes the Hulk on the details of the first such tale, the Hulk believes he has enough information to leap to a conclusion as to Ben's motivations for seeking him out.

By now, hostilities have broken out between these men at least twice, due to venting frustration or the Hulk making clear that he is not Bruce Banner as the Thing knows to be otherwise. But after Ben corrects the Hulk on a certain point regarding their battle history and insinuates that he has, indeed, beaten his green-skinned opponent in the past, he's then obliged to move on to the second story, in which the team first met the Hulk when they were called in by General Ross to assist in acts of sabotage against the general's base--which Ross had attributed to the Hulk, but were committed by a spy named Karl Kort, aka "the Wrecker" (not to be confused with the later villain who did his wrecking with a crowbar).

As we've seen, the Hulk and the Thing were on the same page in recalling those events, and the course of their battle up to the point where the team regrouped and went after the Wrecker. But Ben now appears to offer irrefutable proof that the battle between himself and the Hulk ended differently.

And after Ben offers a second picture from the same source which shows Ben bending over his defeated opponent, the Hulk reacts with predictable outrage.

Ben continues, explaining how Kort was caught and handed over to Ross, after which the FF departed but with Ben feeling like a fifth wheel on the team. It's unclear how Jones proceeds on this tangent, considering the Thing not only pulled his weight in the team's brief battle with the Hulk but also played a crucial part in defeating the plans of the Wrecker. Jones and Lee are also of the same mind that the Hulk, after recovering from Kort's ray attack, goes looking to renew his fight with the Thing, which wasn't the case.

At any rate, Ben grows increasingly depressed when the team heads to the south sea islands for a little R&R, with Doom's biting words concerning his monstrous form and uselessness still ringing in his ears--leading us to a scene that we must assume took place fairly soon after, an altercation which was unintentional on Ben's part but triggered by the sight of the one person who would fit the bill as far as releasing his built-up rage.

His sense of self-worth restored (at least for the time being--additional episodes would instead narrow their focus on his being trapped in the form of the Thing), further discussion between these two is violently halted by an altercation with the military, which, it turns out, had been headed off by the Thing and convinced to hold their attack pending Ben giving them the "all clear" if he succeeded in getting the Hulk to stand down. As it turned out, the military jumped the gun, leading to more hostilities between the two powerhouses (though there was also the military for the Hulk to contend with). The final page of the series, however, shows our pair back at the (now mostly wrecked) cafe, sitting on counter stools and shooting the breeze.

I ended up with mixed feelings on this series, coming off as it did feeling like a whim on the part of both writer and artist rather than a well-crafted plot which either new readers or Thing and/or Hulk fans could enjoy flipping the pages through. Had Lee's work been limited to tighter panels with less space needlessly wasted (you would have to read the entire series to understand the full extent of that assertion, particularly in the segments featuring the rest of the FF contending against the Hulk), "Hard Knocks" would likely have consisted of half as many issues. All of that said, I did appreciate the last few pages which provided Ben with the realization that he was, in his words, "still human, still a man... still Ben Grimm" after sparing Banner's life--and I was intrigued at the now-canon fact that, aside from Rick Jones, Ben Grimm was the first person to realize the secret of the Hulk vis-à-vis Bruce Banner. Obviously, unless we hear otherwise, Ben decided to keep that information to himself.


Colin Jones said...

What amazing artwork! The Hulk and the Thing as portrayed here feels closer to the Frankenstein monster.

Big Murr said...

I have to balance Colin's enthusiasm with an entirely opposing vote; I think the art is complete hog slop. Unlike some travesties of art that Marvel has fobbed off on us, I grant there is skill evident here, but it's not suitable for comic storytelling.

Mark me down as one of the chaps you predict who will reach for Fantastic Four #112 to wash the taste away. The covers of this mini-series alone make me throw up a little in the back of my mouth. The Thing getting annihilated on two covers and resorting to cheap and dirty moves on the other two. Bleh.

After Fantastic Four #112, I'll definitely go read Fantastic Four #12 and #13 (2019). That was a great confrontation between the Orange and the Green!

Anonymous said...

I can’t stand art that is clearly photo-referenced without making much if any effort to make it not look like photo reference.

Using the reference is fine, just don’t trace it so it looks like the Thing has Hulk Hogan’s face.

Anonymous said...

I love your blog...when it focuses on comics before 2000. Those sickening covers remind me of one of the reasons I stopped buying new comics about fifteen years ago. I'm currently reading my collection of Marvel Two-In-One, and I'm quite content to stay in that era. Give me drama at Project Pegasus over needless gore any day.

Warren JB said...

+1 to 'can't stand the art'. In addition to everything said above, there's the random black shadows everywhere. I remember it drove me nuts in Mike Deodato's Hulk art, about the same time. Here it looks even more random, and combined with the dead weight outlines, feels like trying to ape Mike Mignola but just not getting there.

The story as described feels less 'get to the point' as 'what is the point?' Like Jones and Lee wanted their own take on the extistential crises that made Ben Grimm's name, but decades too late.

Comicsfan said...

And that vibranium ring didn't hurt Ben's odds, either, Murray! ;)

You, Warren, Colin and Anon certainly have things to say on Mr. Lee's work, but it makes perfect sense since art by definition makes an impression on different people in different ways (which, I would add, is true for the artist, as well). For instance, I thought Lee was a good fit for the Inhumans series, but I felt a style more conventional would have been better for The Sentry. Here... well, as I said, I have mixed feelings on the whole on "Hard Knocks."

And Marvel Two-In-One, did I hear? Stay tuned next week, Anon--the PPC has a story review right up your alley. :D

Brian J said...

Just curious: did you buy this series when it came out or recently? I just sold my pristine copies on e-bay not long ago after a reread.

Long time reader of your blog btw; love what you are doing, so thanks for consistently putting out great stuff to look forward to each week.

Comicsfan said...

Appreciate the good words very much, Brian, thanks. :D As for "Hard Knocks," I picked up the series when it was published in 2004.

Anonymous said...

"...'Hard Knocks' would likely have consisted of half as many issues"

A one-shot should have been the maximum, Comicsfan. I decided to check this series out online, and from what I read - having decided half way through #2 that life was too short to spend the time on all four issues - your criticisms are on point. Except that you were a bit too kind.

Its soooo slow moving... and to what end? Like, early in #1 there's a whole page of Banner staring into a cup of coffee over six wordless panels! Now, don't misunderstand, I'm all for comic creators trying out interesting story-telling ideas, and taking their time where necessary. But what function did that serve there? What was the point, that couldn't be made more concisely?

The fan service was annoying too. I didn't really understand the focus on that first encounter with Dr Doom - had that really been on the Thing's mind for fifteen* years?
I got the feeling it was just so Bruce Jones could have the Thing make that comment about what kind of genius goes through all the trouble of inventing a time machine just to send someone back a few hundred years to get a bit of rusty old pirate treasure.
So old early 60s comics can be a bit corny, so what? That kind of reference in a 21st century story that takes itself way too seriously isn't as clever as Jones appears to believe imo (I finally gave up reading when I got to the knowing remark about the Hulk's purple pants in #2).

*Fifteen years? Thats what it says in the story - I'm guessing thats some sort of Marvel sliding time scale thing...?


Anonymous said...

Oh, and count me in the unconvinced by the artwork camp.


Comicsfan said...

With Marvel's revised origins for dated characters such as the FF, Iron Man, Captain America, et al., Sean, comics readers these days probably don't make as big a deal of the passage of time as they would have from the '90s on--but fifteen years in the past would have put that earlier conflict in the late '80s, when "original" origin tales had already begun tapering off from being inserted in contemporary stories. (Though someone should correct me if that assumption is in error.) I imagine readers of this series were probably finding the "sliding" time scale in use as curious as you did, given that the story took place around the time when the FF (like the Avengers) were going through their own "Disassembled" arc. :)