Why The Russos Are The Best Thing to Happen to the MCU Since Joss Whedon
It’s time to consider the “Mr. Fixit” phase of Hulk’s life!
The Incredible Hulk by Peter David (writer, issues #347-59, 361-67; Web of Spider-Man #44), Bob Harras (writer, issue #360), Jeff Purves (penciler, issues #347-59, 361-66), Dan Reed (penciler, issue #360), Dale Keown (penciler, issue #367), Alex Saviuk (penciler, Web of Spider-Man #44), Mike and Valerie Gustovich (inkers, issues #347-48), Terry Austin (inker, issues #349-50, 352-53 ), Bob Wiacek (inker, issue #351), Marie Severin (inker, issues #354, 358-67), Herb Trimpe (inker, issue #355), Jim Sanders III (inker, issues #356-57), Keith Williams (inker, Web of Spider-Man #44), Joe Rosen (letterer), Rick Parker (letterer, Web of Spider-Man #44), Petra Scotese (colorist, issues #347-53), Glynis Oliver (colorist, issues #354-67), and Gregory Wright (colorist, Web of Spider-Man #44).
Marvel, 22 issues (#347-367 of “volume 1,” plus Web of Spider-Man #44, which occurs between issues #348 and 349), cover dated September 1988-March 1990.
After “killing” the Hulk in a big explosion, Peter David had to do something with him, right? So why not move him to Las Vegas, have him become a mob enforcer called Mr. Fixit, and get him involved with another woman? And so begins the next phase of David’s run, a somewhat controversial story arc that begs the question: Are these good comics on their own, or are they good simply because they link the earliest parts of David’s work on the title to the later parts? It’s an interesting question, mainly because it feels like David is unsure of where he’s going with the book for a while. The first few issues of Mr. Fixit’s career feel like an entirely different writer has taken over the book and isn’t sure what to do now that Peter David has killed the Hulk. It’s very weird, because David had to have a plan for after blowing up the Hulk, but issues #347-52 do feel like David is treading water somewhat. We have to remember that David was a relatively new comics writer at this point, so despite the strong and extremely well-plotted work he did on the book when McFarlane was drawing it, he wasn’t perfect, and although the idea of the Hulk being a cunning legbreaker for Michael Berengetti is inspired, David seems to have some problems making it work perfectly. Although the return of Bruce Banner in issue #353 might seem to be a return to the boring old Jekyll-and-Hyde motif, David obviously has a lot to say on the subject, and Bruce’s return allows him to bring the main theme of this arc into clear focus: What happens when the Hulk wins and gets whatever he wants?
It’s an interesting theme, and David explores it twice. As we learn in issues #351-52, when the gamma bomb went off, the Hulk was transported to Jarella’s World, a microscopic world where he had journeyed before and fallen in love with a woman named Jarella (and no, the world is not named after her; the Hulk just calls it that). Jarella was killed and the Hulk left, but the inhabitants of the world have set him up as a god. He is brought to Jarella’s World by Gorsham, a wizard who wants the Hulk to overthrow the Grand Inquisitor, who is using the inhabitants’ fear of their god to become all-powerful. The Hulk, of course, does so, but he wants to stay in Jarella’s World, as being a god suits him. Gorsham, however, was just using him to get the Inquisitor out of the way, and he has no further use for the Hulk so he sends him back to the Marvel world. The brief interlude in Jarella’s World, which takes place a few issues after we’ve already seen Mr. Fixit in action, shows the Hulk in a place that will give him everything he wants. So when he ends up in Las Vegas (with Banner sublimated thanks to a spell by Gorsham), he decides that living this kind of life is a good deal. But does it fulfill him?
Ultimately, no, and that’s what makes this an interesting arc. Sure, Banner returning in issue #353 screws up the Hulk’s world, but as the arc moves on, the Hulk himself becomes aware that having it all isn’t enough. Bruce may have hastened that realization, but the Hulk comes to it himself in issue #358, when he’s fighting the Ghoul, a creation of Satannish (one of the many Marvel stand-ins for Satan). He narrates: “And part of me is feeling alive, for the first time in ages … because no matter how nice the clothes, or good the food, or fancy the women, one thing about me remains constant … I just love breaking thing. Big things. The bigger the better.” It’s an interesting statement by David, because it applies to all characters in mainstream superhero comics – they can never be satisfied, because then the book will end. The Hulk, as Mr. Fixit, gets a penthouse suite and the opportunity for inflicting violence on people (even though no one really gives him a challenge, which becomes a problem for him as the arc moves along), and all the women he wants. In issue #347, he gets set up with Marlo Chandler, a statuesque redhead who turns out to be his perfect woman, as she intimidates smaller guys (she’s over six feet tall). Marlo doesn’t have a problem with the (presumably) rough sex that you get with the Hulk, either, as David shows her in the morning, very satisfied. So Mr. Fixit has it all. What’s the problem?
The problem is, of course, that the Hulk likes “breaking things.” Early on, he fights for a reason. The Absorbing Man shows up in issue #348, but the Hulk only fights him because Creel has been hired to rough up Mr. Berengetti, and he tries very hard to keep his cover (and ultimately fails, but at least he tries). In issue #349, he fights a group of war game-playing androids because one of them injured Marlo in Web of Spider-Man #44. When Banner returns in issue #353, we get the introduction of the Glorian plot, which is interesting, as Glorian’s function is to make the Hulk “happy.” Exactly what that entails is what makes the whole Glorian story a good fit in the Hulk mythos. In issue #355, Glorian gets inside the Hulk’s head and creates a fantasy world where everything is perfect, but Bruce knows it’s a trick. The Hulk comes back to reality and confronts Glorian, who tells him, “There’s no need to fight! I want to give you everything you’ve ever wanted! No more anger. No more hatred.” In another telling quote, the Hulk replies, “No! Anger … hatred … gives me strength! Without that, I’m nothing!” A few pages later, he “kills” Glorian (who gets better, but Marlo, who witnesses the event, doesn’t know that). Despite “having it all,” when pushed, the Hulk admits that it’s not enough. If he gets the money, women, and fear of everyone in Las Vegas but loses his rage, it’s not worth it. This Hulk, despite being far more intelligent than the old green Hulk, is still, at his core, the same. He spirals out of control in issues #356 and 357, as he goes looking for bigger and badder threats to defeat, because he realizes that all he wants to do is pound on things. This leads to his confrontation with the Ghoul in issue #358.
His redemption comes in issue #359, when Satannish is ready to drag Glorian to hell. Glorian unwittingly made a deal with Satannish, and when he fails to turn the Hulk into a heroic soul, his own soul is forfeit. The Hulk ends up in the desert watching as Satannish drags Glorian away, but he stops it when Satannish tells him he’s the real prize – when the Hulk ends up in hell, it will be marvelous to see his suffering. The Hulk decides that’s not a good deal, and he eventually winds up playing craps for both his and Glorian’s soul. He and Satannish both cheat, but the Hulk wins, and David shows us how this Hulk is different from the savage incarnation – this Hulk, ultimately, uses his brains (he won his fight with Ben Grimm in issue #350 the same way), making him much closer to Banner than he’d like to admit. He doesn’t really learn anything at the end of the issue, except that maybe thinking his way out of a jam is as good as fighting his way out of it. With that realization upon him and his job in Las Vegas over (Mr. Berengetti fires him at the end of issue #358), the stage is set for David to move toward the next phase of the Hulk’s life.
The final issues of this section of the run are devoted to integrating both this run in with the first arc and setting up the direction David wants to go. Therefore, Bob Harras writes a fill-in issue in which we learn that Betty, who was pregnant when last we saw her, has miscarried (I don’t know why David didn’t write this, but considering it’s relatively important to the story as a whole, I’ve included it, even though it’s not that good), and then he ties up loose ends both with the gangsters who were trying to muscle in on Mr. Berengetti’s casino and Marlo. Issue #362, in which the Hulk fights Jack Russell, the “Werewolf by Night” (when else, pray tell, would he be a werewolf?), contrasts the Hulk’s transformation with Jack’s nicely and also seemingly ends his relationship with Marlo. She is menaced by the werewolf, and the Hulk actually thinks about letting her die “to get even for her dumping” him. When he does actually rescue her, she says it’s why she fell in love with him in the first place, but he comes clean. He knows she loves him because of who’s inside him, the decent part of him – Banner. He tells her, “Except you don’t understand. I’m all on the outside. What’s inside me … isn’t me. That’s what you loved, and Betty loved. That’s what he needs … But not me! I don’t need anything or anyone.” Marlo asks him if he really believes that, and he replies, “I have to.” This is yet another example of David getting not only what makes the Hulk tick, but what makes a lot of superhero-type characters tick. The Hulk, despite getting everything he wants in this story arc, can’t deal with it. Ultimately, if the green Hulk is the id in this personality, the gray Hulk would probably be the ego. For a time, Mr. Fixit was able to suppress the id, but by the end of the arc it was rising up again. What’s interesting about the end of this part of David’s run is that he’s clearly moving toward integration, which makes him even more dangerous. David does a nice job constrasting this emerging Hulk with other similar beings in the “Countdown” four-parter in issues #364-367.
“Countdown” is an interesting phenomenon for late-Eighties Marvel comics, in that they rarely promoted actual “mini-series-within-a-series,” instead relying on the long-running subplots that were Marvel’s stock-in-trade for years. Obviously, this was beginning to change (“Kraven’s Last Hunt” is a prime example, and it came out a few years before this), but it was still a bit of a novelty. David tied it into the longer arc, of course, but what’s interesting about “Countdown” is that you can buy only the four issues and get a nice snapshot of what was happening with the Hulk at that time. I know this because it’s what I did – I bought these four issues as they were published and only later went back and picked up the rest of David’s run, but I never felt like I was lost. Of course, reading them in context illuminates what David was doing much better, but the four issues comprise a nifty little murder mystery, in which the victim is still alive. Bruce gets poisoned in the first issue, but then he changes into the Hulk, which slows the poison down. He has to find the antidote before he either changes back into Banner, which will kill him instantly, or the poison works on the Hulk, which it will soon (the countdown shows up in panels every once in a while). So on the surface, it works nicely as a story. But David was digging deeper, as is perhaps unsurprising.
First, the Abomination shows up and forces Banner to turn back into the Hulk during the day. This is necessary because it forces the poison to slow down, but it also frees the id a bit. He’s still the intelligent Hulk (as we see in the way he defeats the Abomination), but because the Abomination was able to trigger the change, it implies that he’s reverting to “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry” form. David doesn’t do much with it in this arc, but he does lay the groundwork. As the Hulk looks for the cure, David has him square off against the Abomination, who is the dark mirror of the Hulk; the female Thing, which allows David to have the Hulk gloat over the human Ben Grimm; the Leader, who returns and once again shows how monstrous he is; and Madman, the Leader’s brother. Madman poisoned the Hulk in the first place, and when he finally fights him, we learn that he deliberately exposed himself to gamma rays to be like the Hulk. David has always been good at writing strangely sympathetic yet very disturbed villains, and Madman ranks up there – he’s pathetic and pitiable, but we still root for the Hulk to bash his brains in. In issue #367, we get a nice summing-up of a lot of what David has been doing – the Hulk needs Banner, the superego, to figure out the Leader’s angle, and he needs the id to fight Madman. He humbles himself to get the antidote, which enrages Madman, and Madman’s multiple personalities come to the surface much more obviously than the Hulk’s, but we still see the Hulk in him. And then, just when we think we’ve figure it all out, David shows how close to integrating Banner is, as he does something perfectly Hulk-like, meaning nasty. Who’s really in charge now?
With that, Bruce moves on, as does David. He’s ready to delve deeper into the Hulk’s fractured psyche, which is why this is a good spot to stop. David has shown us that the Hulk can’t enjoy the fruits of his labor, because what he really enjoys is letting the id free, and until he can balance all three aspects of his personality, he’ll never be happy. David gave him the sojourn in Las Vegas to highlight the fact that the gray Hulk simply can’t exist without the green Hulk and Banner, even if he didn’t want to admit it. When he’s confronted with that fact in issue #367, he has to figure out what’s next. Luckily, David had a plan.
As I often do, I’ve overlooked the art, mainly because I always feel awkward writing about it. David’s run on The Incredible Hulk, however, is marked by a succession of excellent artists, each bringing something different to the table, and Jeff Purves is no exception. Purves (who, as far as I can discover, has done nothing else of consequence in comics) started a bit roughly, but his Hulk was still a marked contrast to the later McFarlane stuff, in which the Hulk became more monstrous. Purves’s Hulk is a gangster, and he looks the part. He’s weaker than he’s been in a long time (“weaker” is a relative term, of course), and Purves makes him almost, but not quite, human. Marlo, for instance, is nonplussed by his size – it’s made clear that she’s a large lady, but the Hulk still isn’t a monster compared to her. Purves got better and better through the run, helped (unsurprisingly) by Terry Austin’s inks and (perhaps a bit more surprisingly) Marie Severin’s inks later in the run. Severin, who had just turned 60 when she inked Purves, does a nice job softening his sharper edges and making the Hulk even more human – just at the time when David was beginning to show how inhuman he can be, so the contrast is nicely handled. Right when it seemed Purves was truly mastering the craft, he left the book and disappeared from comics. Dale Keown’s first issue, which only hints at how good he could be, nevertheless leaves us with a brilliant first image of the Hulk, terribly weakened by the poison, looking more like Banner than ever. Keown does a fine job showing how frail the Hulk looks against Madman, making his abject debasement to his foe even more pathetic. Of course the Hulk triumphs, but David’s script and Keown’s pencils make it clear how close it was.
Ultimately, these are good comics and not just placeholders between two better known arcs. Yes, they serve as a bridge between the McFarlane era and the Keown era, two more critically acclaimed arcs, but the Mr. Fixit phase is important in its own right, as David is trying to sort out who the Hulk really is, and showing us a somewhat contented Hulk is part of that. David needs to tear it all down and show the Hulk’s reaction to that, so although he flounders for a bit early in the arc, it still stands up today. The later Purves issues can stand with anything, art-wise, and they’re also where David seems to regain his control and figure out what he wants to do. This part of the series is collected in disjointed trade paperbacks. The first two issues can be found in the Visionaries volume 2 trade, which features issues #340-348. Visionaries volumes 3-4 feature the main bulk of the arc, while volume 5 collects “Countdown” and the beginning of Dale Keown’s run. The way the arc is broken up is weird, but at least you can find them! Still, the single issues can’t be that expensive and hard to find, can they?
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