Comics You Should Own – The Incredible Hulk #331-346
The first of what will be many posts about Peter David’s run!
The Incredible Hulk by Peter David (writer), Todd McFarlane (penciler, issues #331-334, 336-345; inker, issues #340-343; layouts, issue #346), John Ridgway (artist, issue #335), Erik Larsen (penciler, issue #346), Kim DeMulder (inker, issue #331), Fred Fredericks (inker, issue #332), Pablo Marcos (inker, issue #333), Jim Sanders III (inker, issues #334, 336-339, 345-346), Bob Wiacek (inker, issue #344), Chris Ivy (ink assist, issue #345), Rick Parker (letterer, issues #331, 333-343), John Workman (letterer, issue #332), Joe Rosen (letterer, issue #344-346), and Petra Scotese (colorist).
Marvel, 16 issues (#331-346 of “volume 1″), cover dated May 1987-August 1988.
It’s twenty years old, but there still may be SPOILERS lurking below! I can guarantee that I’m going to give away what happens in issues #345-46, as they lay the foundation for a lot of David’s run!
Issue #331 of The Incredible Hulk might seem like an arbitrary place to begin these Comics You Should Own. It is not, interestingly enough, Peter David’s first issue on the title (he wrote issue #328). It’s also not Todd McFarlane’s first issue. McFarlane pencilled issue #330, the final Al Milgrom-scripted issue. Issue #331, in fact, follows issue #330 by mere minutes. In the tradition of Marvel back in those days, the creative team wasn’t as important as the general plot, and David dutifully follows General Ross’s death in issue #330 by easing us into his grand scheme. He wraps up Ross’s death, continues with the Hulkbuster subplot, doesn’t alter the fact that Rick Jones is now the Hulk (he does this extremely quickly, but not in the first issue!), and makes the transition smooth. So why do I choose to start here? Issue #330 might work a bit better, as Milgrom ushers General Ross off the stage (he, of course, returned) and McFarlane debuts. It’s not a terribly good issue, however, and the only lasting impact it has is Ross’s death, which David deals with quickly before moving on. Issue #331 shows that David had grand plans for the book, as we see a fairly diabolical-looking person on page 4 named “Sterns.” David also begins his important sub-plot in this issue: What is the Hulk, and who is in charge of Banner’s mind? Bruce turns back into the gray Hulk in this issue, and we learn that the gray Hulk manipulated Banner into it. So for those reasons, issue #331 is a good place to start.
David, of course, wrote The Incredible Hulk for over a decade, and while not all of those are Comics You Should Own, the quality of the book for such an extended time is remarkable. The nice thing about David’s run is that he built on what came before (Middletown’s residents become very important later, for instance), but at the same time, each section of the run has a clear beginning and end point (usually when the artist changed). So McFarlane’s work on the book can be seen as a discrete whole, as can the runs of the artists that followed (only late in David’s run does this break down). David seemed to alter his writing style slightly for each artist to suit their strengths, and that’s evident with McFarlane. Even this early in his career, McFarlane was good at action, and David wrote that in spades. McFarlane’s characterization and anatomy isn’t great – his faces are too round, his hair styles are ridiculous, some of his poses are silly, and even this early he drew too many lines – but he has a manic energy, can draw some great grotesqueries, and his style is different enough from what you usually saw in mainstream comics that it’s not surprising he became a big star. McFarlane draws an odd Hulk, too. On the one hand, he does a nice job making him intimidating. For most of the run, he’s drawing the intelligent gray Hulk, and he gives him a nice thuggishness that fits in with the way David is writing him and also sets the stage for the next phase of the Hulk’s life. His Hulk isn’t a monster, he’s a punk. An extra-large and very tough punk, but a punk nonetheless. McFarlane also makes the Hulk downright scary in some issues, having him come out of shadows with hands ready to bash someone, eyes bright with menace. On the other hand, his over-rendering, especially when he inks himself, makes the Hulk look like an old man in some panels. Earlier inkers smoothed out and (possibly) erased some of his more egregious rendering, but the few issues he inked as well as drew show a marked increase in line work, and it’s strange to see. When Wiacek inks him in issue #344, the change back is obvious, although it’s also clear that by this time, McFarlane had become a big enough name that he could exert some influence over the inkers (unless it was the Marvel editors), and the extra lines remain. It’s really fascinating watching the evolution of McFarlane’s style over the course of the year-and-a-half he was on the book, because it really is the case of someone seemingly learning on the job. Of course, if you hate McFarlane’s art, you’re thinking he’s not learning at all, just becoming worse and worse, but it’s still fascinating. It also appears to be a case of someone becoming too big for their britches, to the point where no one could edit his work (I’m speculating, of course, but bear with me). When he left The Incredible Hulk, he went off to Amazing Spider-Man and then out on his own. As he became more popular, people wanted to see the “McFarlane style,” and it appears, as the art on this comic evolved, the inkers were less and less likely to mess with that. I don’t know how accurate that reading is, but it seems to happen to popular creators (not only in comics), where their egos don’t allow them to see that they might not be putting together their best work. But by that time, they’re so powerful editors don’t dare question them.
All right, enough editorializing! What about David’s writing? Well, on page 7 of issue #332, he sums up the next decade of The Incredible Hulk: Leonard Samson says, “It’s as if the Hulk’s evil and rage are contagious. The Hulk is the personification of everything that we deny we have inside ourselves. Struggling with him means confronting the dark side in all of us. Some people become overwhelmed as Thunderbolt Ross did. A typical blustering general until the Hulk entered his life and eventually turned him into something as monstrous as the Hulk himself.” David takes the Jeckyll-and-Hyde theme that has always been present in stories about the Hulk and goes nuts with it. However, he doesn’t delve too much into the psychological aspects of the character as much as he does in later stories (as much as you can delve in a mainstream “superhero” comic book). Instead, he sets up the idea of the Hulk as monster and exactly how monstrous he really is compared to those around him. In most of the stories, the Hulk fights a “monster” and David, through his main character, points out that “normal” people can be as horrible as he’s supposed to be. This is, of course, far from an original idea, even for the Hulk comic, but David does a nice job with it, not simply contrasting the Hulk with, say, the Leader (the main bad guy throughout this portion of the run), but with other “deformed” creatures like him as well as regular humans. In succession, he fights Rick Jones (as the green Hulk); an abusive husband who happens to be a town’s sheriff; a gamma-radiated man called Half-Life who dies during the day and comes to life at night; a creature who springs from the subconscious of a drunken slacker; X-Factor; S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Hulkbusters; a beautiful alien called Mercy who “grants” death to those she thinks desire it; more S.H.I.E.L.D. agents; some guy named Wolverine; Man-Bull; Half-Life again; the Leader’s mandroids; Rock and Redeemer (the ex-Hulkbusters turned horrific monsters by the Leader); and finally, the Leader himself. In each case, David manages to make it not only an exciting fight, as befits a Mighty Marvel Magazine, but also gets into the subtext of the Hulk’s existence; namely, that he is far less horrible than many of the people who want to kill him. The gray Hulk, of course, wants to be left alone, but he’s given a purpose by Clay Quartermain and Rick Jones, who need his help to destroy the stockpile of gamma bombs that the government has created. This is the overarching story, as the Leader steals a gamma bomb so he can run an experiment that will recreate what happened to the Hulk, and he helps Quartermain and Rick because he doesn’t want more like him running around. Just this story shows the contrast between the monster that the Hulk appears to be and the monsters that “normal” humans are – the government has been stockpiling gamma bombs for years, despite the potential “Hulkifying” effects it has. They hate and fear the Hulk and try to kill him, but they have no problem creating more. David never makes this point explicitly, but he does a nice job implying it throughout the latter half of the run.
This idea of “normal” humans being as or more monstrous than the Hulk himself comes to a fore with the Leader’s grand scheme to explode a gamma bomb in a town just to see what happens to the inhabitants. As is David’s wont, this story arc doesn’t fill six issues of decompressed storytelling – even these days, David doesn’t do that, and this was long before that became trendy – as it only begins to take shape in issue #343, when the Leader turns two Hulkbusters, Craig Saunders and Samuel John LaRoquette, into Redeemer and Rock, two weirdly-powered creations. In issue #344, Rock and Redeemer steal the gamma bombs, and in issue #345, the Leader sets them off. Granted, the last issue is 38 pages of story, but it’s still a quick arc. David does a good job with his grand theme, however. Saunders and LaRoquette begin as regular folk, but their experience as Hulkbusters change them. LaRoquette blames Leonard Samson and the Hulk for the death of the woman he loves, even though it was no one’s fault. When the Leader gives them the power to get their revenge, they take it almost gleefully, even though they are hopelessly naïve in thinking the Leader will return their true humanity when their job is done. They willingly give up that humanity to gain the Hulk’s power, showing how like the monster they’ve become. The Leader, too, is willing to kill hundreds of people simply to conduct an experiment. Issue #345 is a breathtaking issue, because we’re not completely sure if David will go through with it. When the bomb explodes, McFarlane gives us a wonderful two-page spread of the explosion, contained within a force field so that it stays within the town’s limits. (It’s ironic, given that McFarlane lives in Arizona, that he places Middletown, which is also in Arizona, in the middle of verdant farmland. I haven’t been all over the state, but I very much doubt that landscape exists anywhere here.) The brilliant Leader proves to be much more of a monster than the Hulk, perhaps not surprisingly.
David, interestingly enough, doesn’t let Bruce Banner off the hook either. Bruce is not the Hulk at the beginning of the run, but he quickly becomes the gray one, and he does it to himself. David points out that this is because the gray Hulk influenced him, but with what we learn later, it’s clear that Banner has a hand in it. Bruce’s relationship with Betty becomes more and more strained throughout this story arc, even though the Leader abducts Betty and she’s absent for a good deal of it. Early on, Betty’s ex-husband, Ramon, reappears, and although Betty never cheats on Bruce, she makes it clear that she likes the attention Ramon gives to her. After she escapes the Leader (who, to be fair, allowed her to), David writes a wonderful issue, #344, in which Betty finally has it out with the Hulk. At this point, she’s pregnant, but she doesn’t feel like she can tell Bruce. Bruce is the rational part of the Banner Mind, and therefore, as Betty points out, he locks up all his emotions, even those of love. He married her because he felt obligated to do so, and if she tells him that she’s pregnant, he’ll feel obligated to help her raise the child. She needs to talk to the emotional part of the Banner Mind, and for that she needs to talk to the Hulk. Interestingly enough, she tells the Hulk that she’s pregnant, mainly to shame him, but the fact remains that she can tell him, but she can’t tell Bruce. She knows that even though the Hulk is rage personified, he’s also Bruce’s wild side, the side that expresses passion. She doesn’t quite get through to the Hulk, but David has set the stage for Bruce and the Hulk becoming more like each other.
And then the Hulk dies. Right? I mean, he’s standing next to a gamma bomb when it goes off, and he’s nowhere to be found in issue #346. He must be dead? Well, of course he’s not, but David does a good job ending this particular arc but still making sure there are plenty of threads to continue. The Leader has a plan for the gamma-radiated survivors of Middletown, and of course, there’s Betty’s pregnancy to remember. David is very good at keeping things simmering for years, and it’s obvious he has a lot more planned after this issue. However, this arc works on its own. What we get in this arc is a lot of excitement, of course, but we also see the foundation for what would soon become a fascinating psychological drama. Banner isn’t quite as fractured in this story as he would later become, but it’s interesting to see how David is setting the stage. The juxtaposition of “monsters” – whether those inside society or those ostracized by society – is also fun to read, if somewhat obvious. As a single story arc, this is more shallow than later David arcs on The Incredible Hulk, but it’s still an exciting tale, and in the context of the longer run, it’s a good beginning.
This run has been collected in at least two different trade paperbacks (issues #331-339 in one, #340-346 in the other; these have been rebranded as “Visionaries” trades, it appears). They still seem to be in print, too, although why Marvel would let them go out of print makes no sense to me (of course, they allowed some of the Simonson Thor trades to go out of print, so what the hell do I know?). The trades might be nice to check out, because I’m sure the pages are cleaned up nicely. And I know you’re dying to check out the Comics You Should Own archives! Aren’t you?