Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
The Incredible Hulk by Peter David (writer), Adam Kubert (penciler, issues # -1, 454-456, 458-460, 462-464, 466-467), Joe Kubert (penciler, issues #456, 464), David Brewer (penciler, issues #457, 461, 465), Mark Farmer (inker, issues # -1, 454-456, 458-460, 462-464, 466), Cam Smith (inker, issues #457), Andrew Pepoy (inker, issues #457, 461, 465), Bud LaRosa (inker, issues #459, 463), Dan Green (inker, issue #463), Jesse Delperdang (inker, issue #463), Lovern Kindzierski (colorist, issues #454, 457, 460), Digital Chameleon (colorists/separations, issues #454-465), Dan Brown (colorist, issue # -1), Igor Kordey (colorist, issue #461), Matthew Paine (colorist, issue #463, 465), Steve Buccellato (colorist, issue #466-467), and John E. Workman, Jr. (letterer).
Marvel, 15 issues (#-1, 454-467 of “volume 1″; the -1 issue comes after #454), cover dated June 1997-August 1998.
A few SPOILERS below, but nothing you probably don’t already know, even if you’ve never read these. And remember that you can click on the images to giganticize them.
After Gary Frank left The Incredible Hulk, Peter David seemed to flounder a bit, not helped by Marvel’s general editorial direction in the mid-1990s. For 30 issues after Frank left, the title wandered around aimlessly, as whenever David seemed to fix an idea in his mind, something would come along to upset it. Liam Sharpe obviously could not keep up a monthly schedule, as his art began to look rushed almost immediately, and when he left the book, David abandoned the “monster in the swamps” theme he was going with. The “Ghosts of the Future” story arc, probably the best story during these years, wasn’t helped by truly atrocious Angel Medina art, which is a shame as Medina’s art on Dreadstar, another collaboration with David, was wonderful. Then the book ran headlong into the Onslaught mess, which became the Heroes Reborn mess, and presumably it was selling well enough that Marvel didn’t cancel it along with the other comics that got the axe, but how can you recreate the Marvel Universe without the Hulk? So Bruce Banner was sucked away into Franklin Richards’ “pocket universe,” became the Hulk there, and then we had a bunch of different Hulks running around … I really don’t want to waste this much brainpower or typing on what a clusterfuck mid-1990s Marvel was, so let’s just say it was a clusterfuck. Mike Deodato’s artwork wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great. And then Adam Kubert came on board with issue #454.
Kubert seemed to rejuvenate David, and even though he needed help with the schedule (the most issues he drew consecutively were the first four, and he needed help from his dad on one), one wonders if he and David could have had a nice long run like the other four great Hulk artists to work with the writer. Marvel put the kibosh on that, of course, dictating a direction for the title that David didn’t like, and issue #467 was his final one (until his return years later for a short stint) after, unless my math is wrong, 137 issues (he skipped two issues but wrote the -1 issue and the Hulk/Hercules special). His final story arc on the title was therefore truncated, as just when he seemed to starting to gear up for yet another new direction in Banner’s life (at the end of issue #465, Bruce gets a job with the government as an “agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” an idea too awesome for Marvel to deal with, apparently), it’s snatched away. Betty dies, the Hulk goes nuts, and David leaves. The title did not long survive his absence.
Reading these issues in hindsight, the specter of David’s departure seems to haunt them, even though David presumably didn’t know until very close to the end that he was no longer going to be writing the book. But even the -1 issue (for those who don’t know, Marvel did a line-wide “negative one” issue in the spring of 1997, the idea being that these stories would take place before each title was officially launched by Marvel; of all the -1 issues that I read, David’s one was the best) seems to wrap things up that David had been flirting with for years, as we finally learn that Bruce was directly responsible for his father’s death (he punches his dad, who falls into a tombstone, cracking his skull open). David gets Bruce back in issue #460, but before he can really get started again, his stint ended. In issues #454-459, David still seems to be waffling a bit (with the exception of the -1 issue), and only the first and last issue of those are noteworthy: In issue #454, the Hulk ends up in the Savage Land and fights Ka-Zar and Wolverine, while in issue #459, he battles the Abomination. Both issues are better because Kubert kills on both of them – the first is his breathtaking debut on the title, and he revels in the action scenes (this also features the Hulk making fun of Wolverine’s bone claws, speaking for the entire Marvel audience). Kubert dazzles in the -1 issue as well, taking a simple four-grid page (which he often uses during the run) and turning it into a tour-de-force, a hallucinatory turn through Bruce’s psyche that breaks panel borders and then switches to thinner panels to increase the pressure on the Hulk and Bruce. His Stan Lee is like Puck, teasing and taunting Bruce/Hulk until the revelation comes. Issue #459 begins with a horrific vision of the Abomination in a double-page “landscape shot,” and when we get to the pages where the Hulk is pinned under an airplane (on which he had been traveling in the previous issue and which he helped land after Mr. Hyde tried to crash it), Kubert slowly turns the page from landscape to portrait as he shows how the Hulk is slowly going mad, mostly from the effects of what he learned in the -1 issue and from the fact that he’s still separated from Banner. As the Hulk walks, dazed, through New York, Kubert gives us a stunning full-page picture of a truck smashing into him. Mercy, the alien who grants suicidal people their wish, still can’t figure out why the Hulk never gives up. She puts him into conflict with the Abomination, and Kubert is magnificent with the fight scene. This issue features the famous beating on the Abomination, as David writes: “For two solid minutes, his own body the only source of light, the Hulk pounds on the Abomination. And if two minutes seems a short while … Count it out. A second … at … a … time.” It’s this kind of writing on the Hulk that makes David’s run so devastating, because he understands the horror of the Hulk even as he made him many different things, including a pseudo-family man. The Hulk should be terrifying, and David makes him such without devolving into “Hulk smash!” clichés.
David regains his footing with issue #460, in which Bruce returns. It’s a magnificent issue, as David and Kubert both shine. The actual “reunion” of the Hulk and Banner takes place in a different comic (the “Heroes Reborn” mini-series, presumably, although I haven’t read that), but David summarizes it fairly quickly and then gets on with the story, which takes place on two levels of reality – the world of the Marvel Universe, where the Hulk slowly recovers from the trauma of the reunion, and in Bruce’s mind, where he’s tormented by past and future demons like his father, the Leader, and the Maestro. David splits the comic into two levels – the upper level on the page is the Hulk at ground zero of the gamma bomb explosion, trying to recover his health, while the lower level on the page is Bruce navigating “hell,” which is where his father tells him he is. David takes him through this psychological journey until Bruce is able to reject his father and reach out to the “light,” symbolized by Betty. It’s not the deepest Freudian examination of Bruce’s psyche, but it does allow David to set up the new direction he had in mind. Kubert, meanwhile, is amazing, both in the way he draws the Hulk, but also in the way he shows us Bruce’s mind. The little artistic touches are wonderful – the Maestro appearing on the side of the carton of milk with the proclamation “I can see you,” the Hulk in Brian Banner’s eggs, the Leader chopping up a rabbit (blocking it with his body, of course, because this is a mainstream Marvel book). Issue #460 sets up a new status quo for the book, and it would have been nice to see what David would have done with it.
But, of course, we’ll never know what he planned to do. Thunderbolt Ross, back from the dead, wants to make peace with the Hulk. President Clinton is convinced to look the other way with regard to what Ross is planning with the Hulk, thanks to the Hulk’s “saving” his daughter in issue #463 (which he doesn’t really do, as Armageddon’s robots just happen to be hanging around Stanford, so naturally everyone thinks they’re attacking Chelsea), and we get a coda to the “Troyjan War” story arc in issues #413-416. By issue #465, the Hulk has his job offer and he’s made amends with Betty. But by then, David knew he was off the book, so at the end of issue #465, he gives Betty radiation poisoning. This allows he and Kubert to end with two more amazing issues: in issue #466, Betty dies while Ross and Bruce argue about whose fault it is (David does a nice job showing us that they’re not being jerks, they’re just overcome with grief), and in the parallel story, Marlo reads Betty’s new autobiography. Kubert is fine when drawing the story of Betty’s death, but when he draws the “autobiography” – Marlo reads the scenes from Betty’s life and Kubert draws them as if she’s imaging them – he changes his style, softening the pencils to make it more ethereal and contrasting the triumph of Betty’s life – she’s gone through so much and come out alive – with the starkness of what’s happening to her in the present. It’s a great technique and shows how talented Kubert can be. Then, of course, we get issue #467, which takes place in the future and features “Peter” interviewing an old and bitter Rick Jones (we never see “Peter,” so it could be Peter Parker – he writes for the Bugle – or, of course, Peter David himself). Rick tells the story of what happened after Betty died, and it’s a tragic tale of a man who tries to kill himself but can’t, because the Hulk won’t let him (David revisits this in The End book he wrote years later). It’s a harrowing story, because David makes Bruce something we’ve never seen – truly insane. Sure, he’s been a bit crazy over the years, what with all the different personalities, but in this issue, it seems like he’s completely sane … except when he talks. In previous incarnations, he could manage his personalities for any number of reasons – there’s always another fight, he had a Pantheon to lead – but he always had an anchor, and that was Betty. In this issue, Bruce – not the Hulk – becomes truly frightening. He can change into the Hulk with no shift in demeanor at all, and the Hulk has finally learned why being human is important, but it’s too late. Kubert pulls out all the stops, too. The issue is a visual feast, from Rick’s living room and all his memorabilia around him, to the way the issue is laid out – the left-hand column on each page is blank except for text and Rick’s cigarette smoke winding its way through the book, and the visuals stretch over the staples to form double-page spreads on each page. Kubert gives us Bruce, surrounded by all his enemies and allies (as we see on the cover, although inside it’s Bruce, not the Hulk), and when the Hulk looks at Rick for the last time, it’s a beautiful and tragic moment. Betty’s funeral is stunning, with Thor creating a small ray of sunshine in the rain, and Bruce’s last meeting with Rick is terrifying. David, of course, ends with a metafictional reference to his time as writer, which he’s earned. If it’s not a completely satisfying ending to his time on the run, it’s still a stirring way to bring it to an end.
Of course, David is the kind of writer who seems he would stay on a comic until it’s pried from his cold, dead fingers. Marvel wanted to go “in a different direction,” and David didn’t want to go that route. I don’t know what the sales figures were like pre-David and then during his run, but it seems like he took a moribund title and completely revitalized it, so maybe Marvel should have continued to let him do what he was doing. Considering they cancelled the book not long after David left the book and it only regained some of the buzz he brought to the book when Bruce Jones took over (and his early issues were quite good and very “un-Hulk-like,” meaning they were vaguely reminiscent of what David did on the book) and then when Greg Pak took him off-planet, for crying out loud, maybe David knew what he was doing. But that’s neither here nor there. David left a difficult legacy for future Hulk writers. It’s not so much that he killed Betty (the preview of the following issue shows that she’d be back), it’s that he did so much with the character that, despite building on what had come before, was fresh and new, that there was little left to do. Since David left, writers have either gone “back-to-basics” (with middling results), aped David (Bruce Jones tried this), or been forced to remove him completely from the Marvel Universe. None of them have been completely successful. Over a decade on, writers are still having trouble dealing with the Hulk and his place at Marvel.
David didn’t quite go out the way he wanted to, and this brief run isn’t quite as good as issues #331-426. There’s still a lot of editorial interference evident, perhaps not as much as the Onslaught period, but it’s still there. That makes these issues less important Comics You Should Own than the earlier David work on the title, but still ones that are worthy of your time. While David’s overall direction at the end of his run is a bit meandering, some of the individual issues are extremely powerful. Kubert has a great deal to do with this, as I would argue he’s never been better than these few issues. His work prior to this was a bit raw and too “Image,” while his work following this has become more slick and has lost some of the crazed stylistic touches he uses in full effect on this book. Perhaps David brought out the best of him. Mark Farmer certainly has something to do with it. But this comic is one of the few times that a Kubert son holds his own with the Kubert father (as we can see when Joe steps in to assist on this title), and much like the story, one wonders what David’s new story would have looked like drawn by Adam Kubert at the top of his game. Alas, we have only these 12 issues to tease us.
These issues have not been collected in trade paperback; Marvel is releasing David’s run as part of their “Visionaries” collection, so perhaps these are slated to be collected at some point. The nice thing about these issues is you really don’t need to pick up the 30 issues that come before them, even though David wrote those. You can pick up the story easily enough, and David refers mainly to arcs he wrote prior to issue #426, when the title’s quality went sideways. So you can just skip the ones in the middle. Of course, you already own issues #331-426, because I have already written about those and you rushed out and bought them, right? And you can always consult the archives for more suggestions. I am going to fix the dead links; please be patient!
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