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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.


(I love how the Leader’s “to-do” list includes “detonate bomb prematurely.” Check! On to the groceries!)

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?

20 Comments

I pretty much loved David’s run on Hulk—at least up through the end of Gary Frank’s run. This McFarlane stuff was what got me interested in Hulk in the first place, so despite the fact that my 35 year old mind doesn’t think much of the art now, I’m grateful that McFarlane’s art was exactly what would appeal to my fifteen year old mind back then.

Oh, snap, Peter David Hulk!!

This was my first foray into comics–it is still near and dear to me. Did these issues ever stop being ridiculously expensive?

“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”

After all the lauding of his Hulk run, I was very surprised to find that when I finally picked up some issues, I really didn’t like the art!

David did have a very strong run on this title. Good pick, Greg!

I’ve just gotten into the Hulk in the last few years, but I’ve been a big fan of both the current stuff and the older stuff in the Essentials. Haven’t read any of David’s run yet, mainly because I have a feeling I’ll want to buy it all at once, and that’s a lot of money to shell out at one time. Maybe I should just start getting the Visionaries trades one by one. Seems like good stuff.

I bought these initially (waaay back when) for the X-Factor issues, then for the Wolverine appearance (back when you could work out between which issues of the X-Men a Wolverine story happened) and stayed for the big bang afterwards. Great stuff, and to this day I liove the McFarlane art which has got a real energy to it compared with some of the stuff coming out at the time.

Bernard the Poet

April 9, 2009 at 6:23 am

I’ve got a lot of respect for Peter David – and this run in particular.

The Incredible Hulk must be a bugger to write. To steal a phrase from John Seavey, the engine driving the series is Banner searching for a cure for the monster inside, but if he ever succeeds then the series ends, so the reader knows that Banner will never succeed. What David did so well was constantly set up new situations and phases in the Hulk’s life, which gave a sense of progression. And he was smart enough to jump to a new phase in the Hulk’s life before he had exhausted all the possibilities in the previous phase.

It should also be mentioned that when David picked up the reins of the Hulk, it was in a terrible mess. John Byrne had walked off the series in mid-story, leaving Banner and the Hulk as separate entities, Al Migrom was rushed on to the project and responded by throwing even more plot into the mix, giving us dozens of guest stars and the Rick Jones Hulk. That David turned the series around so quickly is a testament to a truly skillful technician.

PAD gets credit for a lot of things on this run: making the grey Hulk a scary anti-hero; making the Bruce-Betty relationship meaningful again; making the HULK-Betty relationship meaningful again (#344 is a must read); and changing the Leader from a villain with a big head into a very disturbing master planner.

BTW, I didn’t dislike Milgrom’s run that much; I think its biggest flaw is that it was caught in a gear shift between Byrne’s hasty departure and PAD’s later assumption. Still, Milgrom did give us a fun fight between Hulk and ALL of the Avengers (#321-322), the return of the grey Hulk (Byrne set it up, but Milgrom actually did it), and the kinda-fun twist of Rick Jones having assumed the Hulk’s curse after years of guilt for inadvertently causing Banner the same. It’ll never happen, but I’d love if Marvel collected the Milgrom run to fill the gap between the Byrne and PAD visionaries.

I actually like this method of transition between writers. At the time, I wasn’t one to pay much attention to the credits box and I didn’t even notice the changes. Today, a new writer might hastily wrap up what on before (if absolutely necessary) and then jump to a completely new point without explanation. This was a case of a writer using what went before to organically bring the character to where he wanted him to be.

As I was coming back to read PAD latest Hulk run, they changed to that awful Planet Hulk crapoola. So I dropped Hulk and Marvel. Simple as that.

Andrew Collins

April 9, 2009 at 8:47 am

While I discovered comics at a young age through titles like X-Men and Batman, the two books which made me a comics FAN were Giffen/DeMatteis’ Justice League and David’s Hulk. I recently sat down and read the Hulk Visionary collections they’re putting out collecting his run and they were still tremendously fun and interesting to read. I LOVED this book all the way up through the Gary Frank issues, which are still my favorite. Sadly, the quality started to taper off some after he left and then the book got totally derailed by the whole Onslaught nonsense. It never was quite the same after that. But issues #331-425 are definitely comics everyone should own…

Later on in Davids run , we see the Hulk back in Green with all of his faculties in check. I always thought those stories were David’s attempt at a Superman run

Meh. I really prefer my Hulk green and dumb with a conscience beneath the rage. So much of Peters David run really just kind of came off as someone stuck on a book he didn’t really want to write.

But looking at David’s run overall, right up to the debut of the fusion Hulk it would have been an interesting way to just end the whole series. Have the big call back to how he was in the early issues via the grey Hulk and then cap it off with the 3 becoming one. Because really once Banner can control the Hulk there’s no story and he just kind of becomes a big green Reed Richards. But having it end with his 3 personalities melding into a whole and thus giving him access to both the brains and the brawn would have been a cool finish. He can’t change what the accident did to him but now he’s healed as a person.

The biggest disappointment for me is that you had all that great Dale Keown Hulk art but he only got to do the iconic Hulk in the few issues he appeared in before the fusion and it was perfect!

I tried out the Hulk title during the Mantlo/Buscema years, then Byrne’s aborted run. It wasn’t until I took a break from reading comics that I picked up #342 as the David/McFarlane issues were winding down. I was hooked on their take on the Hulk and stayed with the series until Gary Frank’s departure or sometime in 1994. The McFarlane, Keown, and Frank issues were the best of the lot for me.

And the ending to #345 was so convincing, I thought the series had been cancelled.

Mike Loughlin

April 9, 2009 at 5:55 pm

Keown’s art hooked me, but David’s stories kept me reading and seeking out back issues. Thankfully, Marvel released the “Ground Zero” trade, which contained issues 340-346. David’s Hulk wasn’t just my gateway to the title or Marvel, but the series that got me interested in comics in the first place.

I might be the only one, but I thought most of the David/ Adam Kubert issues were very good. While I haven’t liked Kubert on every title, he was perfect for the Hulk.

I liked the gray Hulk, but the book kind of lost me with the “Mr. Fixit” twist. It was SO different from what came before, it really threw me. The fact that the artists switched around then probably played into it, too.

I’m hit & miss on Peter David, but the man knows how to shake up a status quo.

I started picking up the Hulk during the latter part of Milgrom’s run–I had just missed a bus that ran every 30 minutes–and there was a drug store that had a couple of issues–I stuck with it for a long time–and this part of Peter David’s run is very good–a lot of fun to read and I sent many letters about this run–some even got published. I enjoyed the way the Hulk wasn’t just “Hulk Smash”–that gets old quickly. I’d like to have seen Ric Jones stay a Hulk longer–but some cool stuff was done with it.

I enjoyed the Mr Fixit storyline more–but this arc was very well done overall. (Although Rock & Redeemer were actually more annoying than anything else.)

Bernard the Poet said:
“John Byrne had walked off the series in mid-story,”

Shouldn’t that “walked” really be “flounced?”

Michael Mikulovsky

October 7, 2009 at 8:56 pm

COOL! I had a letter printed in this issue. One of my 1st letters, if not my 1st? In the 1st issue Peter David wrote & early Todd MacFarline art as well! Published while I was in the marines. I also had a few letters printed in Ironman around this same time. I remember this was right after the Terminator came out in 1984. Director James Cameron had a letter printed right next to mine. He stated if they ever did a Ironman movie he’d love to direct it! Pretty cool huh? Mike

I liked Ridgway’s almost simian Hulk in 335. But then John Ridgway is awesome in any event.

This is a terrific run, for all the reasons you site. Still and all, even though I do appreciate how PAD catered to McFarlane’s strengths, and that catering yeilded some fantastic stories, I’m on the fence about McFarlane as an artist. True, his style was distinctive and fit Hulk well (I’ve read Spawn and some of his Spider-Man and still believe this is his best comics work.) but I can’t forgive him for all the tracing he did.

Re-read Byrne’s 6 issue run on Hulk, particularly issue 316. McFarlane shamelessly traces Byrne’s Hulk time and time again. I realize that if one is going to steal, one should do so from the best, (Byrne, concluding a definitive run on Fantastic Four, was cranking out some excellent artwork) but less than a year elapsed between Byrne and McFarlane on this title. McFarlane was capable in his own right, and I realize that a monthly scedule is hard to keep especially when you’re new to the medium and you’re working on someone else’s property, but it just smacks of so much laziness as to leave a bad taste in my mouth.

It’s a good thing this run features such a good story. The Ground Zero trade paperback rocked my world.

Part of me wonders if McFarlane became popular partly because David made him look so good here.

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