Saturday, March 17, 2012

Essential Hulk Vol.1 review

  Collects Incredible Hulk #1-6 and Tales to Astonish #60-91.
 Note: For my St. Patrick’s Day post, I couldn’t make up my mind whether to post a handful of horror comics stories featuring leprechauns and banshees, or whether I should post the first appearance of the Green Goblin. Meh, too obvious, so instead I decided to post a review of Essential Hulk Vol.1 that I wrote up some time ago. He’s the most famous green character in comics, after all, and yes, I’m well aware of the irony of posting about a character because of their color, when it’s a black and white volume.
 When Silver Age Marvel fans are asked to name their least favorite series and character Marvel did at the time, chances are that it’s usually the Hulk (personally, I’d name the X-Men, but don’t let the fanboys hear that). I can see why, as the Hulk’s first series was cancelled after six issues, the Hulk was then relegated to villain of the week status after that, and then became the double feature with one of Marvel’s least popular heroes. Also, until Herb Trimpe came along, he never had a stable artist. There were also so many changes to who and what the Hulk is that writers are still sorting it all out.
 But, you know what? Although there is quite a bit of a disjointed quality to these stories at times, they have a raw, primal feel at their core that is hardly ever broken once it gets going. I know that I say that about a lot of comics, but here this feeling seems quite sincere. Except for DC’s Enemy Ace, I don’t think any mainstream comic of the time had such an existential bleakness as some of these stories do. The reason for this seems to be because Stan Lee wasn’t writing about a hero here; he was writing about a monster.
 Before they turned to superhero comics, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko had spent the better part of the early Silver Age turning out what Lee would later call “Groo and Mongor” stories, featuring giant monsters with bizarre names. Many of these monsters received sequel stories and generally took up the majority of the page count of the comic they appeared in. They may not have been breaking sales records, but clearly something must have clicked with fans. The Hulk seems to have not been conceived as a super hero series at all, but simply an extended monster story, designed to see if monsters were still the “in” thing and if the sales of Fantastic Four hadn’t been a fluke. I mean, what monster fan in the early 60s could resist a comic featuring a monster based off of Frankenstein’s Monster, Jekyll & Hyde, the Wolfman (in the early stories, Banner became the Hulk at night and reverted at dawn) and the Amazing Colossal Man? (Or possibly the Beast of Yucca Flats?) These early Hulk stories try to be many things and to combine many genres, and for the first two issues at least, “superhero” isn’t one of them.
 It’s true that the first two Hulk issues feature villains such as the Gargoyle and the Toad-Men, but it’s clearly the Hulk who is the real threat here: He brutalizes the teenager Rick Jones (who is indirectly responsible for Banner becoming the Hulk) and is only stopped from killing him by the rising sun, he contemplates stealing the Toad-Men’s weaponry so that he can conquer the world himself, and corners Bruce Banner’s love interest Betty in a scene which looks suspiciously like the set up for a rape. It’s Bruce Banner who is the hero here, the Hulk is a villain who complicates things for him, and any good the creature might do is purely unintentional.

 Toad-Men and Cold-War paranoia aside, these first two issues hold up extremely well because of the claustrophobic sense of dread on display. Even in the third issue, where Banner becomes stuck as the Hulk and Rick Jones gains control over him due to a psychic link, using him to fight villains like the Ringmaster, the menace of the Hulk overshadows everything else, and because the psychic link is broken whenever Rick falls asleep, this creates an even greater sense of tension, because Rick has been sleep-deprived for days, and is going to have to sleep sooner or later…
 Damn that’s dark.
 Even afterwards, after the Hulk is restored to being Bruce Banner again, and Banner begins using a ray machine to turn himself into a more intelligent (if abrasive and thuggish) version of the Hulk to fight crime, the tension never lets up, because it’s clear that the Hulk is simply more cunning than he was before, but not necessarily a hero. His constant threats of turning on Rick or humans in general could be read either as playfulness akin to Ben Grimm or Wolverine’s, or it could be read as something more sinister. There’s even the disturbing suggestion (which a lot of later writers have gotten mileage out of, notably Peter David) that Banner enjoys being the Hulk, and that he does retain his intelligence and personality, with his constant references to “milksop Banner” when in Hulk form simply being him justifying the things he does as the Hulk by disassociating himself from them. There’s a chilling moment when Banner decides to turn into the Hulk just because he sees another man making time with Betty, the guy turns out to be a villain named Tyrannus, but Banner had no way of knowing that.
 After the Hulk’s own series was cancelled, he was later featured as a backup in Tales to Astonish. This is where the Hulk starts becoming both more in line with what most people perceive the character as (This is when Banner starts to transform into the Hulk whenever he gets angry), and when the Hulk himself starts becoming more of a sympathetic, childlike anti-hero. There are some pretty incongruous moments of humor in these stories, but the tension is still well-maintained, and the addition of two new antagonists spices things up. The first is Major Glenn Talbot, who becomes Banner’s rival for the affections of Betty, while simultaneously trying to figure out what the reasons are for Banner’s constant disappearances (he thinks Banner is a spy). The other is the Leader, another victim of Gamma radiation who has just as much brains as the Hulk has brawn, and has delusions of turning the world into a utopia. Unlike other comic book villains, the Leader seems genuinely competent and collected, and one gets the sense that he’s been planning his schemes for a long time.
 But Lee still recognizes that the main element of suspense and terror in these stories should be the Hulk himself, and although the Hulk is being portrayed as more childlike and innocent, he’s still motivated simply by survival and the desire to prove that he is the strongest, not by any altruism. This holds true even when Lee repeats the plot element of the Hulk gaining Banner’s intelligence and acting as a sort of superhero. There’s a chilling scene where a captive scientist in Russia tries to befriend the Hulk, but the Hulk brushes him off. The scientist is then killed by the red army, and the Hulk, even though he barely knew and completely ignored the man, suddenly goes berserk and acts as if he had always known and treasured the man, shouting “They kill Hulk’s friend!!!” for pages and pages. There’s also a great bit later on where the Hulk saves a city and is commended for his efforts, on the verge of being pardoned by the president, but his own temper and inability to recognize friend from foe does him in long before the villain named Boomerang manipulates him into lashing out at the crowd.
 Any series that makes it’s “hero’ this unpredictable and dangerous has to be appreciated. Some people have criticized the Hulk series for glorifying violence, saying the Hulk is simply escapism where people can watch a man attack people who piss him off with no consequences. There’s none of that here, as who on earth would want to escape into this world?
 While the Hulk’s unpredictability and Banner’s tragic plight are the main driving forces, the other members of the supporting cast are surprisingly deep for the time. Rick Jones, who could easily have been obnoxious comedy relief, comes off as a great identification figure for readers who don’t necessarily want to spend their time rattling around in Banner’s head, he’s just a teenager with little to no family ties (except for an aunt we see only once) who wanders about aimlessly, carefree, but gets caught up in a nightmare and tries to assuage his own guilt by trying to befriend the Hulk and help Banner cure himself, even though he knows jack about science and his attempts to reach out towards the Hulk each narrowly avoid ending with him being slathered across the pavement.

 Betty is your typical long-suffering, impossibly loyal love interest, but what separates her from others is that she cares more about the hero’s alter ego than his super persona, and really, who can blame her? When Banner’s secret is exposed, her disbelief that her love could be the same monster she is terrified of, then her attempts to reach out to the man beneath the monster, and finally her mixture of revulsion and hope as she realizes the futility of her efforts, is stunningly well-handled for the time.

 Glenn Talbot, the major sent to investigate Banner, in contrast to later portrayals of him as a jealous, raving lunatic, is portrayed as a heroic, self-sacrificing man whom even Banner admires. He’s just doing his job, and has every reason to suspect that Banner is more than he appears, and of course, he’s right. When he pressures Rick to learn the Hulk’s secret, he doesn’t interrogate and torture him, but acts fatherly towards him. He isn’t even shown to distrust Banner because he has a dislike of “nerds”, as he is shown to be welcoming towards another scientist. Even the evil Leader and Tyrannus have moments of pathos.
 While I wouldn’t say that these Hulk stories are immune from typical Silver Age silliness, there’s a great deal less than you’d expect, and even the worst of it is still overshadowed by the somber tone of the series. One wonders why the Hulk’s strip wasn’t published in Tales of Suspense instead, as these stories have the most direct continuity and tension of any of Marvel’s series. Art wise, this volume is a mixed bag, with pretty much every Marvel artist (one story is credited to “the entire Marvel bullpen) of the time putting in both their best and worst efforts. The most striking work is by Bill Everett, who, even at his worst, has a boldness of line and a sense of composition that even Kirby lacks.
 I give this volume a straight-up 4.5/5.
 Now if you’ll excuse me, ‘tis St. Patty’s day, and I have to go have my annual drunken film nerd argument with my friend Stu about who was the hotter chick in a movie about leprechauns: Janet Munro in Darby O’ Gill and the Little People or Jennifer Aniston (back when she had meat on her bones) in Leprechaun. Pass the Bailey’s.

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