Friday, September 19, 2014

Recommended Reading for 9/19: Incredible Hulks

I try to write recommended readings that are topical. I pick series that are getting new volumes, new trades, or from creators who are about to release new work. I was having a hard time picking something for this week, before I saw the new issue of Hulk on Wednesday, where Gerry Duggan is dealing with the new, supersmart Hulk (excuse me, Doc Green) going out to depower all the worlds other gamma powered monster-men and -women. I had, by sheer coincidence, just finished reading Greg Pak's run of Incredible Hulk/Incredible Hulks, and so I decided to touch on the series that redefined the Hulk's family.

Pak's run on the various Hulk titles was five years long, and I'm starting a bit into that run. I'm not going to talk about the "Planet Hulk" story or the World War Hulk crossover, but am going to start with Pak's return to the ongoing Hulk adventures when Incredible Hulk was working in tandem with Jeph Loeb's Red Hulk centric Hulk series. Just to touch on what has gone before, Hulk was blasted off Earth, became king of an alien world, knocked up his queen, there was a big explosion where she and most of his citizens died, he came back to Earth, beat the snot out of the heroes who shot him into space before being defeated, fought a new Red Hulk, and then was depowered. These are some really good stories, and are well worth tracking down, especially "Planet Hulk," starring barbarian/warlord Hulk.

In case you didn't notice, a good chunk of this run has a plural; it is Hulks. The Hulk has had a consistent supporting cast from pretty much his inception (except for a few years in the nineties/early 00s, where most of them were dead or hanging out with Captain Marvel), so as much as Hulk often screams, "All Hulk wants is to be left alone," he hasn't really ever been. But Pak takes it to the next level during his run by giving the Hulk a full on, flat out family of fellow gamma mutants, many of whom are blood related to him. The series explores how the Hulk and Bruce Banner interact with others, how he/they try to love and form these bonds, and how it can all come crumbling down.

While Pak did interesting and fun things with She-Hulk, A-Bomb (Rick Jones's gamma monster form), Korg, and Amadeus Cho (who isn't a Hulk, but a steadfast Hulk ally), and how they relate to Banner, I want to spend most of the time focusing on two relationships specifically, as they seem to be the two central ones: The Red She-Hulk and Skaar, Son of Hulk. I'll also want to talk about the relationship between Banner and Hulk, because I feel that how a writer defines that relationship is the key to their run on Hulk, and a successful or interesting relationship between these aspects makes for a good run on Hulk.

When the Hulk left the planet Sakaar at the end of "Planet Hulk," he didn't realize that the combination of his gamma powers and the Old Power of his alien queen Caiera the Oldstrong had allowed their child to survive its mother's death. On Sakaar, the child aged rapidly and was filled with rage for the father who abandoned it. Finally arriving on Earth through a portal, the child, dubbed Skaar, sought out Hulk and nearly triggered a fault line fighting him. Skaar was a reflection of the pure rage that Hulk was often gripped by, but had a native cunning forged by having to survive the ravages of an alien world. And after that one confrontation, Banner lost the ability to change into Hulk, and he took on Skaar to train him to fight Hulk when and if he ever resurfaced, or so he claimed. And this is when things got really interesting.

These early stories in the run, of Banner leading Skaar into run-ins with some of Hulk's deadliest foes, including Juggernaut, Wolverine, and Tyrannus, are a ton of fun to begin with. Skaar is basically Hulk meets Conan, a giant gamma monster with a sword, and that in itself is a brilliant concept. But Banner is clearly up to something, and his plans are to manipulate Skaar into helping him save the life of Betty Banner, Banner's wife, who has been resurrected. While this succeeds, sort of, Banner now has a well trained fighting machine for a son who wants him dead. This act of Pak's run ends with the re-emergence of the Hulk persona that was married to Skaar's mother, and the battle between the two. This ends with a reconciliation, as Skaar realizes Hulk isn't the monster he thought he was, and Hulk/Banner have an epiphany about the cycle of abuse and violence.

Pak mentions in the essay at the end of the last volume that he was inspired by Bill Mantlo's story of Banner and his abusive father, Brian Banner (which is collected along with these issues). Peter David, in what I still feel is the definitive Hulk run, spent quite some time with this relationship as well, adding some harrowing moments, revealing both the exact nature of Brian's murder of Bruce's mother, and of Bruce and Brian's final confrontation. But it's Pak who deals with the final results, of Bruce having a son of his own, and whether Bruce will just repeat the cycle. The final pages of Incredible Hulk #611, where Hulk stands above a transformed Skaar, a Skaar back in his form as a small child, and seeing himself as the same beast Brian Banner was, is a powerful sequence, and made moreso with Banner transforming back to Banner and embracing the child, showing love in a way that Brian Banner would have been incapable of. It's a transformational moment for Banner, and feels to me like the real beginning of him building his family.

The Red She-Hulk was introduced in Hulk, the Jeph Loeb series, and there her origins and identity were revealed. She is Betty Ross-Banner, wife of Bruce Banner, his greatest love. Throughout Pak's run we see most of Banner/Hulk's loves, including Caiera, Jarella, Monica Rappaccini, Kate Wayneboro, and even introduces a flirtation with a new character, Sofia di Cosimo (you know, for a mousey guy, Banner gets around), and how the complement and contrast with Hulk. But throughout the run, it's Betty who Banner keeps coming back to. Betty who was loved by both the Hulk and Banner. And it's Betty who suffered years and years of rage from Banner and Hulk, from her father, Thunderbolt Ross, and who has been unwillingly turned into a Red She-Hulk. And all those years of keeping it bottled up has released something horrible in the Red She-Hulk.

After everything Bruce does during the Fall of the Hulks/World War Hulks stories to reclaim Betty, Banner finds a Betty who doesn't want to take him back. A Betty who is happy to be in her half-insane, powerful new form, a Hulk who has minimal self control and who loves to smash as much as the Hulk. Every time the two come close to reconciling, one or the other of them breaks into a rage or leaps away. It's a tragic love story. But in the end, the two reach an understanding, an accord. While they are together at the end, their future was far from certain, and the nature of serialized storytelling doesn't lend to happily ever afters. But still, Bruce and Betty are entangled in each others lives, and maybe the Hulk gets a little bit of that happy ending, something he has earned through the trials he went through during this series.

I love what Pak does with Betty. Peter David did great things with the character, but killed her off at the very end of his run for various reasons and while there had been attempts to resurrect her earlier, it didn't work. Making Betty a Hulk gave a new dimension to their relationship, allowed her to confront the Hulk on a level she never had before. But Pak didn't lose Betty's voice when she was Betty, and gave an interesting new take on her as Red She-Hulk. "The Spy Who Smashed Me" was a story where Banner and Betty, and their alter egos, wind up working at cross purposes with each other, and we get to see them all interact in their different iterations.

The other major shift I feel that Pak brought to the Hulk as a character is that he made Bruce Banner a force to be reckoned with. While Peter David had made the merged Hulk a powerful threat, part of David's run was showing how that version of Banner/Hulk gave in to his physical prowess far more than strict Banner would have. Pak's Banner was a man of science, who came up with shield tech, teleport tech, tasers; all sorts of cool gadgets. He was also a coldly manipulative character, moving his friends around like chess pieces in his battle with the Leader and his allies, the Intelligentsia, to retrieve Betty. I liked this new aspect of Banner, and it's something writers since then, like Jason Aaron and Mark Waid, have played up: the fact that Banner might be a bigger threat to the world than Hulk is.

And now we get to the relationship between Banner and Hulk. This has been a central theme in Hulk stories from the beginning. The early stories are fairly simple, with Hulk being the childlike embodiment of Banner's rage, and Banner trying to suppress it. It was Peter David who dealt with the Hulk as Multiple Personalities, and there started a relationship that would flourish. While some writers have tried to go back to the simple model, other writers have embraced it, like Paul Jenkins deepened it, creating legions of Hulks in Banner's mind. Pak, though, seemed to create a... detente of sorts between Banner and the Hulk. During "Planet Hulk" Banner and the Hulk actually communicated in Banner's head, and after that, their relationship became a bit more cordial. And at times it felt like it blurred. This is partially because Banner was being written as a deadlier character, but partially because I think the Hulk now wanted what Banner always said he wanted, which was love and acceptance. There was also a current of thought that Banner and Hulk weren't that different, that they are really the same mind. This comes up very strongly in the final story, where both Banner and Hulk choose to sacrifice themselves to save this family they have created.

I also want to give props to Pak for using some interesting old villains in his run. Hulk doesn't exactly have a wide rogues gallery, and while Pak does use the old standbys (Leader and Abomination), he also brings back some of the others. He has the first use of Armageddon, warlord of the alien Troyjan, since Peter David left the title, and it's interesting to see Hulk fight someone who blames him for the death of his son, with Hulk now having a son of his own. Tyrannus, the immortal lord of Subterranea, is a character I only really know form one Peter David annual and an arc in Warlock & the Infinity Watch. Pak writes him brilliantly, making him this sleazy, smirking world conquering lech who makes a play for Red She-Hulk. And by introducing the world Sakaar and it's inhabitants, a legion of new supporting characters and enemies were introduced, notably Miek the Unhived, the Hulk's ally and eventual betrayer, a character who shows Hulk the extreme extent of his own rage.

The artists who worked with Pak throughout his run are a group of some of comics strongest artists, guys whose career I have followed for years. Paul Pelletier, who does a more issues than any other artist, has a history with Hulk, and his Hulk is one of comics most expressive. Ariel Olivetti has a history with Conan, so his drawings of Skaar and the giant monsters of the Mole Man are second to none. And Tom Grummet draws the heck out of the story with Hulk and Red-She-Hulk, giving them a playful and brutal physicality, depending on the moment, to perfectly suit the story.

While the Hulk isn't a character whose comic I read every month, he is a character I have a lot of affection for. The work that Greg Pak did on the series helped build up the world of the Hulk, and created a new web of characters and relationships. It was an exciting time for the character, and is well worth checking out, as the ramifications are still being felt.

The complete run of Greg Pak's Incredible Hulk/Hulks are collected over various trades: Son of Banner, Fall of the Hulks, World War Hulks, Dark Son, Chaos War, Planet Savage, and Heart of the Monster, not to mention the Planet Skaar collection and Planet Hulk and World War Hulk, Incredible Hulk: World War Hulk. These are mostly out of print, but are available at most comic shops and on-line.

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