Monday, July 12, 2010

Making Marvel Mine: Essential Hulk Vol. 1 (Incredible Hulk #1-6, Tales to Astonish #60-91)

A funny thing happened in the early days of the 1960’s.
You see, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Marvel’s premiere writer-artist team, hadn’t been having a good few years. They were barely making ends meet ever since the comics bust in the mid 50’s, and had basically planned to call it quits from the whole comic book industry. But before they quit, they were going to do one final comic, Fantastic Four #1. The book was a surprise hit, and its creators decided to keep in the business. With superheroes back in vogue, they decided to create more superheroes, and the “Marvel Age” of comic books began. And the next hero they created, well… wasn’t considered much of a hero by most of the characters in his book.

Before he had a TV show, a cartoon series or three, and two movies (one of which was awesome, and another that everyone thought was going to be awesome until it turned out that it was absolutely horse shit), the Incredible Hulk was just a comic book character. The character was sort of a positive spin on Jekyll and Hyde- while performing an experiment, a scientist is transformed into a hideous, misunderstood monster.

Bruce Banner, a brilliant physicist and weapon designer, is one of the US Army’s top scientists. But during a experimental test run of Dr. Banner’s new gamma bomb, he realizes that a teenage boy named Rick Jones has stumbled upon the base unwittingly. Banner rushes to get him to safety, only to be caught in the blast of the exploding gamma bomb. His body absorbs the radiation, and transforms him into the Hulk.

No one other than Rick Jones knows Banner’s terrible secret, and the ever loyal teenage boy is always there to help the Hulk or Banner when either get into a jam. And they both get in plenty of jams, between his boss General “Thunderbolt” Ross always chasing after the Hulk, and villains of one kind or another always trying to capture the General’s daughter (and Banner’s love interest), Betty.

The collection of early Hulk stories in this book is, well… it’s a little odd, really. At least at first. You see, it’s really two different books stapled together, and it’s really obvious where the split is. After issue 6, no one thought the Hulk magazine was making nearly enough money, and so the book was canceled (the book’s pending cancelation may have had something to do with the brilliant but distinctly un-Kirbyesqe Steve Ditko drawing the final issue of the series, but that’s pure speculation on my part). After the cancelation, the Hulk made several guest appearances, including stopping by the Fantastic Four and becoming a founding member of the Avengers (more on that in a few months). Over time, the Marvel editors decided to bring the Hulk back in the double feature book Tales to Astonish.

And, maybe I’m being rude, but I’m really glad they had the break. The Incredible Hulk vol. 1 was a bit… lost, as a series. Don’t get me wrong, the first issue is pretty good. A solid origin story, and a mostly pretty okay continuation with a deformed Russian spy- while it’s not quite Amazing Fantasy #15 (more on that in a few months too), it’s pretty good. But the next 5 issues…. Well, let’s just say that issue 2 stars the menacing might of… the Toad Men. They’re midgets with scaly skin from outer space. It’s not exactly A-List material, if you get my meaning, and it never gets much better.

But the year and a half between Hulk #6 and TtA #60 really seems to improve the narrative, like Stan Lee and the art department just needed more time to refocus on the series and really figure out what worked and what didn’t. They quickly improve the best storyline from the original, the military investigation of the Hulk, by adding Major Talbot to the cast. Talbot is the new head of security at the military base, working not only as a foe against the Hulk by helping General Ross, but as a foe for Bruce Banner too, as a possible usurper for Betty’s affections. Not only that, but the revamped Hulk series ultimately finalized what changed Bruce Banner into the Hulk- high stress and anger. It seemed almost every issue in the original series had a different way for Bruce to turn into the monster- nightfall, another blast of gamma radiation, a trip in space through what I once again assume to be the Van Allan belts (see last review) - but now the Hulk’s transformation was triggered by anger. The symbolism of anger transforming into mindless violence couldn’t be much more obvious.

The revamped series also starts including the classic Hulk villains such as the Leader and the Abomination. Both are gamma created monsters, like the Hulk himself, though vastly different in nature. For example, the Leader’s transformation caused him to become super intelligent rather than super strong. I have to say, I really liked the first Leader storyline, it starts a little under the radar, slowly building more and more until he’s clearly the primary antagonist for the final issues of his story arc. The Abomination is wonderful as a Soviet Anti-Hulk, and I’m sure I’ll see more of him later. We also encounter the Boomerang, a villain who luckily will get a much better costume in the future. He is actually an okay character, a disgraced athlete who turns his skills into something far more lucrative, but both the outfits he wears in this book are pretty much terrible, even by superhero standards. The Watcher stops by for a bit (well, actually Hulk stops by the Watcher’s pad for a bit, but whatever). There’s also this crazy story about the Hulk time travelling to the future and dealing with a certain evil Asgardian that we’ll see more of next review (no, not Loki, but close). I was kind of skeptical about that story at first, but it’s actually pretty fun. In fact, it’s during that storyline (in issue #77 in fact) that a major change in the status quo happens… but you’ll have to read it to find out what it is.

Essential Hulk Volume 1 doesn’t have the zany-anything-can-happen energy of those early Fantastic Four stories from last time. But I have to say, it grows on you as you read it. The book gets more and more interesting the more you read, and that’s something I wasn’t sure would happen at first. There’s this wonderful cold war paranoia permeating throughout the whole book, and by primarily being set on a missile base, spies and sabotage are all over the place. Honestly, the book being so different from Fantastic Four is a good thing, and speaks to the versatility of its creators. This isn’t the sci-fi pop art crazy series. Sci-fi is still there, but this is a series about violence, paranoia, and seeing traitors everywhere.

Alternatively, it’s a book about a big green monster that smashes shit when it pisses him off. You can read it like that too. That could be fun.