Friday, 4 April 2014

Essential Hulk volume 3

The Hulk reviews have been especially popular so all this month I'll be looking at further volumes.

Essential Hulk volume 3 consists of the Incredible Hulk #118-142 plus Captain Marvel #20-21 and Avengers #88. The first couple of issues are written by Stan Lee who gives way to Roy Thomas who writes everything else in the volume, with Harlan Ellison plotting the Avengers crossover. All the Incredible Hulk issues are drawn by Herb Trimpe, with the Captain Marvel issues by Gil Kane and the Avengers issue by Sal Buscema.

Of all the Essential Hulk volumes reviewed so far, this one does the best job of taking what can be a highly restrictive format and finding ways to make it work. We have the basic traditional theme of Bruce Banner wandering the country and world, changing into the Hulk when stressed, and pursued by the military but there's a good diverse mix of story types, augmented by more nuanced characterisation, particularly of Thunderbolt Ross. There are also some interesting attempts to expand the Hulk's universe with some key first appearances. And there's a concerted approach as Bruce Banner makes numerous attempts to cure himself of the Hulk once and for all with mixed results.

In the process we get brief glimpses of many of the combinations of mind and body that would appear over the years. As well as the standard Bruce/savage Hulk combination we also get a period when Bruce's mind and body have been totally suppressed by the Hulk leaving just the beastly form. Then there's a brief point when the reverse happens and Bruce has seemingly conquered the Hulk for good, though it doesn't last for long. Indeed at one point it seems that Bruce willingly reverses a cure out of desperation at seemingly losing Betty Ross to a rival, though the exact moment of restoration isn't shown leaving it open to speculation Bruce gains control of the Hulk's body at times, most notably in Jarella's world. And there's even one story when Bruce and the Hulk are separated, though it soon becomes clear they can't survive independently for long. The only obvious absentee from this line-up is the Hulk's mind in Bruce's body but the reasonably fast pace of these tales means that this is only noticeable when tallying up the various incarnations.

Just as diverse are the locations in the series, with the Hulk turning up in multiple places across the world and even elsewhere in time and space. As well as many part of the United States, from the south western deserts to California to New York and Florida, we also see Atlantis, the kingdom of Namor, Subterranea, the underground realm of Tyrannus and the Mole Man, Morvania, a poverty stricken Mediterranean country run by a dictatorship (it makes a change from some in Latin America), outer space to tackle a comet and later to battle an energy creature, inner space where the Hulk enters the sub-atomic world of Jarella, the Dark Dimension, and the Western Front of the First World War. It makes for a good mixture of adventures that put the Hulk into many different situations and show just how diverse and flexible the character can be in the right hands. This creativity can also be seen elsewhere in these issues.

This rune see the introduction of a number of new foes, although many of them haven't risen to great heights of fame, including Mistress Fara, an Atlantean trying to replace Dorma in Namor's affections, the Glob, a monster created by the spillage of toxic waste in the swamps and one who predates many other swamp beasts and/or toxic origins, Mogol, an agent of Tyrannus whom the Hulk befriends before discovering he's a robot, Raoul Stoddard, a university contemporary and rival of Bruce's who now tries to seek the fame of killing the Hulk, Draxon, the dictator of Morvania, Klaatu, an energy creature in space, Xeron the Star-Slayer, an alien sent to destroy Klaatu, Cybor, the captain of Xeron's vessel, Psyklop, an insectoid scientist, Visis, a rival for Jarella's throne, Doc Samson, a psychiatrist who tries to steal the Hulk's gamma energy and also wins Betty's hand, and a new incarnation of the Valkyrie, based on feminist socialite Samantha Parrington. There are also first encounters with several foes from other series including the Absorbing Man, Hydra and Kang the Conqueror, plus return battles with the likes of the Leader, the Abomination, Tyrannus, the Sandman, the Rhino and others.

Amongst the existing supporting characters developments are somewhat mixed, with Major Glenn Talbot being much the same as ever, loyally supporting his seniors and secretly bemoaning how the prospect of curing Bruce of the Hulk will end any chance Talbot has with Betty Ross, but he never particularly acts on this. Betty gets a bit of material as at one stage she and a seemingly cured Bruce are to wed in her family home, with Bruce believing he has the Hulk under full control. However Betty winds up being effectively jilted when the intervention of the Leader and the Rhino cause the full savage Hulk to return. Later on she is subject to horror when the Sandman is seeking a cure for a crystallisation process and forces a doctor to perform a full blood transfusion with Betty which leaves her turning into glass until she is cured by the Hulk's gamma radiation. But it's the portrayal of General Thunderbolt Ross which stands out the most. There is little of the Hulk-hating caricature he can sometimes descend to and instead he's portrayed as a determined but reasonable man who seeks to deal with the threat of the Hulk with as little collateral damage as possible. He is quite civil and sincere in his dealings with Bruce, recognising the scientist is often the best hope and also has Betty's heart, and the preparations for the aborted wedding go well. Even Jim Wilson is treated reasonably, suggesting the old general is mellowing.

The aforementioned Jim Wilson is one of a couple of interesting new supporting characters introduced here. Jim is a streetwise teenager from Los Angeles living in the burned out remains of an apartment block where his parents died, and he befriends the Hulk as a fellow outsider, rapidly taking on the Rick Jones role as Rick is now busy as the alter-ego of Captain Marvel. Jim is highly resourceful, especially when it comes to sneaking through military cordons or sabotaging the Leader's mental projection equipment to turn a weapon on its user, and there's strong potential whilst his background is sufficiently different that he doesn't come across as just Rick Jones Mk 2 with black skin. Meanwhile issue #140 sees the Hulk enter a sub-atomic world where it seems he is trapped forever but he soon finds romance with the ruler of the green-skinned people Jarella. By fighting off the monsters attacking the city the Hulk is hailed as a hero and Jarella takes him as a consort. A spell to grant him the power to understand her language has the side effect of giving Bruce's mind control over the Hulk. In the space of less than an issue it seems as though Bruce has at long last found peace and tranquillity, settling in a world where he can control his monstrous form and is respected, and Jarella makes for an interesting contrast with Betty, a strong ruler in her own right. However Bruce is soon pulled back to his own sized world, and the again savage Hulk is left with memories of Jarella, little realising the sub-atomic world exists on a particle of dust on his trousers.

The Hulk is also still part of the wider Marvel universe and has many encounters with other heroes throughout his wanderings. As well as the crossover issues with Captain Marvel and the Avengers, the Hulk's own series sees him encounter Namor, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers (here consisting of the Black Panther, the Vision, Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch and the second Goliath), Iron Man on his own, and the Phantom Eagle. Issue #126 begins the practice of using the series to finish off storylines from other series that had been cancelled; a role later taken on by some of the team-up titles and other books. Here we get the finale of Doctor Strange's struggle with the Undying Ones and the Nameless One, with the introduction of the Nightcrawler for good measure. The story ends with Doctor Strange retiring (temporarily as it turns out), adding to the sense of closure. Though the partnership of the Hulk and Doctor Strange would prove highly important in the long run, not least because the pair would go on to be the core of the Defenders, at the time this storyline feels something of an intruder from another series. As we've seen with some other Essential reviews, the Incredible Hulk would prove a popular choice for resolving storylines from cancelled series. Meanwhile the epilogue to another partnership comes in the crossover with Captain Marvel as Rick's new ally battles the old one. The Avengers crossover is more spurious, merely serving as a means to project the Hulk into Jarella's world but not really justifying itself - any distraction could have caused the Hulk to shrink far more than expected and the Avengers are teleported away with no memory of their recent battle so it doesn't seem likely that the crossover was of much significance to that series either.

The crossover is, however, plotted by Harlan Ellison, one of the earliest cases I'm aware of where comics recruited a big name writer from outside the medium. This is also a very early example of creator promotion both Avengers #88 and Incredible Hulk #140 bill Ellison's involvement on the cover. However the former issue has the credit as "Story by Harlan Ellison (That means he conceived the plot!)" and "Adaptation by Roy Thomas (That means he wrote the dialogue!)". I doubt there was a strong need to educate readers about how the writing credits on comics are broken down so was this perhaps trying to reconcile a more traditional screen credit with the comic format or was this perhaps trying to paper over disputes that might have arisen if a big name writer had failed to write something appropriate for the series brief? I'm not aware of the circumstances of the story's creation but Ellison has had some other high profile disagreements over the years. Whatever the reasoning the result is another injection of ideas into the series. The main regular writer, Roy Thomas, also comes up with a lot of good ones and seems to have got a strong grasp on how to handle both Bruce and the Hulk to maximum effect. Stan Lee's final few regular issues come at the start of the volume but they're fairly mundane, featuring repeat clashes with Namor and Maximus. They're not the best note to go out on, but often long runs limp to the end. Meanwhile Herb Trimpe's art is amazing. This volume covers much of the first half of his lengthy run on the series and of the three volumes so far he's been easily the best artist on the series. He may be the definitive Hulk artist of all time - his main rivals' work is yet to come - and is certainly an obvious contender for such an accolade.

Given the combination of two strong talents for such an extended run, the result is that the Hulk is finally getting an extended classic run. It's often been asserted that the Hulk was never regularly interesting before Peter David came along and did things completely differently from how they'd been handled before (and that didn't start until issue #331) but in the case against that charge this volume is easily Exhibit A. The issues in this run don't have any obvious stinkers but instead display a strong level of dynamic imagination vividly brought to life. This is the classic way to do the Hulk properly.

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