Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
Don’t think I’ve forgotten about the next phase of Peter David’s run with the Jade Giant! Let’s call this the “integrated” period, shall we? And, although I haven’t typed this post yet, let’s assume there will be minor SPOILERS, okay? And remember, you can click on the images to super-size them!
The Incredible Hulk by Peter David (writer, issues #368-388, 390-401), Tom Field (writer, issue #389), Dale Keown (penciler, issues #369-77, 379, 381-88, 390-93, 395-98), Sam Kieth (penciler/inker, issue #368), Bill Jaaska (penciler, issues #378, 380), Gary Barker (penciler, issue #389), Herb Trimpe (penciler/inker, issue #393), Andrew Wildman (penciler, issue #394), Jan Duursema (artist, issues #399-401), Chris Bachalo (penciler, issue #400), Kelly [sic?] Jones (inker, issue #368), Bob McLeod (inker, issues #369-72, 374-77), Sam de la Rosa (inker, issue #373), Jeff Albrecht (inker, issues #378, 380), Mark Farmer (inker, issues #379, 381-86, 388-93, 395-98, 400), Joe Rubinstein (inker, issue #387), Charles Barnett (inker, issue #393), Chris Ivy (inker, issue #394), Brad Vancata (inker, issue #401), Joe Rosen (letterer, and Glynis Oliver (colorist).
Marvel, 34 issues (#368-401 of “volume 1″), cover dated April 1990-January 1993.
As David got more into his Hulk run, his long-term plan became clearer and clearer, reaching fruition early on in this section, with issue #377’s brilliant integration story. That issue gave us a new green Hulk, with all the strength of the earlier incarnation but the full intelligence of Bruce Banner. This Hulk never “becomes” Bruce, because this is how he looks when he’s fully integrated. But the brilliance of Peter David lies in the fact that, unlike many other writers, he doesn’t seismically shift the status quo of a series and then leave. He seismically shifts the status quo of a series and then asks, “What’s next?” He did it when Todd McFarlane left the book and he “killed” the Hulk, bringing him back as a Las Vegas enforcer. Then, when that storyline ran its course, he gives us a Hulk struggling against himself, as the gray Hulk and Banner try to keep the green Hulk locked inside their mind. That doesn’t work, so Leonard Samson psychoanalyzes Bruce and gets at the roots of his multiple personality disorder. Then, when we have an intelligent and more powerful than ever Hulk, David wonders what would happen next. And away we go again.
David previews this entire section of the story with issue #368, which is a single-issue tale featuring Mr. Hyde and art by the great Sam Kieth. Bruce Banner, having survived the murder attempt in “Countdown” (issues #364-67), jumps a train to escape the military and ends up in a box car with the Marvel villain, who recognizes him. Hyde tells him he should consider it “an honor to be able to become the Hulk … a being infinitely superior to humanity. The ultimate definition of glorious savagery.” Hyde hits a nerve, because even though the gray Hulk revels in being the Hulk, Banner resists. Hyde gets under his skin, and as we see, ten issues later, Samson manages to “create” a new Hulk, one with much of Banner’s personality but who loves being big, powerful, and green. (Although this is a standalone story, David also introduces the Pantheon in this issue, and Kieth gives Prometheus a beard, which is never seen again, interestingly enough.)
David also introduces early on another idea that will color this section of his run, and that is the futility of violence and what it does to people. This is most evident, of course, when Samson psychoanalyzes Bruce and our hero relives his father killing his mother after brutalizing her for years, but it’s also there in the entire Pantheon storyline. Even earlier, David begins toying with this idea when Freedom Force goes after the Hulk in issue #369. Crimson Commando (who always seemed to have a lot of potential as a character) muses that an old man like him should be enjoying time with his grandchildren instead of fighting all the time. When the team fights the Hulk, he realizes he’s completely outclassed and spends most of the battle on the sidelines, allowing the Blob and the Hulk to slug it out. Earlier in the issue, Bruce had met a family recovering from Hurricane Hugo, and he meets their young son, with whom he identifies, as Jack is also withdrawn (although Bruce’s leap to assuming Jack is being abused, while understandable because of what happened to him, is a bit much – young children who meet strangers are often withdrawn). Later in the issue, random violence from the fight spills over and injures Jack (and it’s nice that David makes the Hulk the instigator of the violent act that hurts Jack, heightening the irony a bit more), and Crimson Commando helps him dig Jack out of the rubble. Crimson Commando, again, wonders what kind of man he is to let this happen. Of course, David remains a clever writer, and once the Hulk makes sure Jack is safe, he knocks Crimson Commando unconscious before leaving.
This link between violence and its consequences manifests itself in many other ways during this run. The re-emergence of the green Hulk in issue #372 comes about because Betty is about to slip through Bruce’s fingers once more, and as it’s daytime, the gray Hulk can’t come out. Prometheus, who is tracking Bruce, traps him and keeps him from catching the train on which Betty is leaving, and Bruce’s anger brings out the raging Hulk once again (and also gives Keown a chance to provide one of the iconic images of the run, with Bruce’s skin flapping around an enraged monster). Once he’s out, the green Hulk won’t be contained anymore, and this prompts Samson’s integration (which I’ll get back to, I promise). Once the “Bruce” Hulk appears at the end of issue #377, the theme of violence and its consequences switches to what the Pantheon does. Once Bruce is recruited (which begins in issue #379, even though Bruce resists in that issue and ends up infiltrating the Pantheon’s headquarters by stealth), we begin to understand what the Pantheon is all about. According to their leader, Agamemnon, they work to bring about a perfect world, and occasionally this means using violence. In issues #386-87, Achilles, one of the Pantheon, goes rogue when he’s sent to bring in a child that the group’s oracle, Delphi, sees becoming a worse dictator than Hitler. David perhaps goes to the cliché well with the whole “would you kill Hitler as a child if you had the chance?” riff presented here, but it’s still a cogent point, especially when you consider that the Hulk comes down on the side of letting the child live. He makes it more interesting by having Sabra fight the Hulk even though they’re both on the same side – the Hulk can’t speak for a good part of the issues thanks to Sabra’s tranquilizing quills, so she doesn’t know he’s intelligent and trying to work with her – showing once again the consequences of mindless violence – perhaps things would have ended differently had Sabra and the Hulk worked together sooner. In issues #390-92, the Pantheon goes into Trans-Sabal and overthrows their corrupt dictator, and David does a fine job showing every side of the conflict. The ruler of Trans-Sabal is a monster, but as he puts it when the Pantheon and X-Factor (which guest-stars in these issues) confront him, “My people have a belief in their leaders that transcends your paltry notions. ‘High crimes’ implies I owe my people. I do not. They owe me, and have pledged me, their very lives. Just as an earthquake is an act of God … so are my actions taken on behalf of God. To attack me, accuse me … is to challenge God.” His people begin to bow down to him, and Ulysses of the Pantheon is about to kill him, but Bruce stops him. The people have to choose, he tells Ulysses. Of course, a few panels later, the Farnoq (that’s his title) is gunned down … by Rick Jones, who’s hiding in a mandroid suit. Rick had befriended a local who was then killed in battle, and he couldn’t allow the Farnoq to get away with it. Did he do the wrong thing? David leaves that question hanging. Ironically, one of the few times violence isn’t used to resolve a crisis, it’s during the Infinity Gauntlet crossover, when Bruce shrinks to about six inches tall and needs to help the Abomination’s wife, who has been kidnapped by her husband. Bruce convinces Emil Blonsky (the Abomination) to let Nadia go, and although he engages in a bit of slapstick violence, it’s basically just Bruce appealing to Blonsky’s still-human core and Blonsky finding that humanity within himself. David, interestingly enough, immediately contrasts this two-part story with a bloody tale of mob mentality in issue #385, when Bruce himself “solves” the problem through violence and thinks nothing of it. In some comics, this would be a case of a writer simply ignoring what he’s done before to fit the story, but when we read The Incredible Hulk as a whole, it’s clear that David is having the Hulk struggle with this idea that violence can solve a great many problems, but it might not always be the best thing to do.
As interesting as this theme is, the major theme of this section of David’s run is, of course, the integration of Bruce’s psyche. In issue #393, the 30th anniversary comic, David cleverly brings the Hulk’s history into this idea, as Dr. Samson points out that other “cures” of the Hulk’s condition simply treated the symptoms and not the cause, so the fact that other writers worked with the Hulk’s multiple personalities becomes just part of the process, and not a very efficacious part at that. It ties the long-standing tradition of the Hulk being a subsumed part of Bruce Banner’s personality in with David’s run and even makes parts of the history that had nothing to do with multiple personalities seem to fit into it. David also has Samson express doubts that his psychoanalysis worked all that well, something astute readers probably noticed when the run was first published – in one issue (#377), Leonard Samson figures out the core problem with Bruce and why his personality splintered, plus he rebuilds his personality into a whole, with the green-skinned, gigantic, and intelligent Bruce becoming dominant. Even for comic books, where no one wants to read issue after issue of psychoanalysis, it seems Samson works a miracle, and David addresses this. We’re just waiting for the powder keg to blow, again.
While issue #377 is a powerful story on its own, the subsequent issues, in which Bruce becomes more and more superheroic, are fascinating as well, mainly because of Bruce’s relationship with Betty. Obviously, these two people are extreme personalities – Bruce finds Betty in a convent, after all – and suddenly, the dynamic of their relationship changes, and neither knows how to handle it. Bruce has gone from a wallflower to an A-type personality, and Betty isn’t sure what to make of it. Bruce, for his part, thinks that Betty should just accept the new him, which is a bit of a reach for anyone (this is nicely paralleled in the Abomination story). The evolution of Betty’s character is one of the best parts of this section of the run. In issue #381, Marlo asks Betty to room with her, and the conversation they have is pointed: Marlo says, “Are you going to put your entire life on hold, waiting for him to come back?” Betty replies, “I don’t have a life outside Bruce,” and Marlo asks, “Then don’t you think it’s about time you got one?” This leads to a new friendship for Betty and a new life as well. Marlo and Betty get drunk, Betty mocks what earlier writers have done to her (they laugh about the time Betty was Harpy, with Marlo confusing her with Harpo Marx), Marlo dyes Betty’s hair green (mistakenly), then blonde, and Betty gets a job. David does a marvelous job turning her into a real character instead of one who reflects Bruce. In issue #383, Bruce tells her they’re going to live with the Pantheon in their hollowed-out mountain, but Betty doesn’t want to go. She flinches when Bruce reaches out to her, and we see how far apart they’ve grown. Later in the issue, she tells Marlo, “I want to feel needed. When Bruce was Bruce, he needed me. Desperately. I want to be someone that he can’t live without. You saw how easily he blew out of here and left me behind.” She admits that it’s selfish, but that’s the way she feels. David never makes anything easy, of course, as we learn at the end of issue #388, when Bruce tells her he’ll always be there for her, no matter what. Betty’s evolution as a character is necessary so she can deal with threats like Rick’s so-called mother, Jackie Shorr, who tries to kill Rick and succeeds in killing Marlo. The old Betty couldn’t have survived a threat like Jackie, but the new Betty can. Betty also needs to come back around to loving Bruce, the new Bruce, and she can’t do that unless she’s able to recreate herself as a new person, one who can deal with the new Bruce on his own terms rather than the way she did with the old Bruce, as someone who “needs her.” The love story between the two, which was always a bit formulaic, becomes more real under David’s stewardship. These are two people who love each other not out of any ulterior motives, but because they simply love each other. It’s one of the more impressive themes in this section of David’s work on the title.
Obviously, this is one of the more “super-heroic” times in the Hulk’s history, as he’s fully in charge of his faculties and super-strong, plus he’s been recruited by a group of do-gooders. David, of course, uses this to explore a bunch of different themes about the abuse of power, but he doesn’t get into it too much until after issue #400. With the earlier sections of David’s run, there were clearly defined ends to that story – the destruction of Middletown that coincided with McFarlane leaving the book, and the end of the Hulk’s time in Las Vegas that coincided with Jeff Purves leaving – but this section doesn’t really have a clear end, as it blends easily into the next section. One would think that issue #400, which featured the death of the Leader and the pseudo-resurrection of Marlo, would be a good place to end, but issue #401 ties up some of the loose ends from that issue and leads into Bruce’s leadership of the Pantheon. With issue #400, David makes a final statement about the two main themes running through the book at this time: the uselessness of violence and the integration of Bruce’s personalities. It’s interesting that the Leader can push all the right buttons to drive Bruce over the edge, costing Marlo a chance at a complete resurrection and leading to a new and more dangerous leader for the survivors of Middletown. Bruce doesn’t consider the consequences of his actions, and David, who hints over the course of several issues that the integration of his personalities isn’t complete, makes it more obvious in this issue. It’s a good climax, but David immediately begins to examine the aftermath of Bruce’s actions, which form the basis of the next section of the run.
As usual, David has a fantastic artistic partner on The Incredible Hulk. After the bombast of McFarlane and the grittiness of Purves, Dale Keown’s magnificent pencils turn this into more of a super-hero comic, and as usual, this fits with what David is doing to the character. Purves made Mr. Fixit an almost believable mob enforcer, but Keown makes Bruce gigantic, both less and more monstrous than he had been before. On the one hand, he’s a “person” in that Bruce’s personality is the dominant one, and in one scene, Keown puts him in eyeglasses and combs his hair back, giving Rick a reason to mock him. On the other hand, Keown makes Bruce truly huge, bursting from the book like the alpha male he’s become, intimidating everyone around him, including Betty, which, combined with David’s insightful writing, shows us how different their relationship has become. Keown has a wonderfully clean style, and although Bob McLeod does a decent job inking him, once he’s paired with Mark Farmer, the art really goes up a level. Keown was adept at some of the darker stories too, such as the Abomination story and issue #385, but he’s best when the Hulk is smashing the hell out of things. He didn’t appear rushed, either, as he managed to draw 26 of the 34 issues, and he only stopped because (presumably) he went off to Image. It’s a shame that he didn’t finish the final storyline, “Ghost of the Past,” which, despite Duursema’s solid fill-in art, lacks some of the dynamism that Keown brought to the book. It’s interesting to compare Keown’s current work with his Hulk work, because he fell into the “Image style trap” and has never gotten out of it. This run really remains the high point of his comics career, which, considering how long has passed since it ended, is somewhat unfortunate.
David leaves this section of his run behind with a lot on his plate: Bruce running the Pantheon, Marlo in a coma, a new foe, secret romance in the Pantheon, and a nagging suspicion that Bruce isn’t as healthy as he’d like everyone to believe. It provided a lot of fodder for the new stories, but, of course, that’s a different post. For now, let’s just appreciate, once again, how much he had already gotten out of the Hulk. These issues take the character to new heights, and that’s saying something, considering how good the title had already gotten with David at the helm. So of course it doesn’t appear it’s all been collected. There are two Visionaries trades (volumes 5 and 6), collecting issues #364-372 and #373-382, but nothing else. Why would Marvel want to collect one of the best stories they’ve published in the past 30 years? Yeah, it makes no sense to me! But you can get some of them in trade format!
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