Friday, 11 April 2014

Essential Hulk volume 4

Essential Hulk volume 4 is made up of the Incredible Hulk #143-170. The writing is in a period of transition with the end of Roy Thomas's run, then runs by Archie Goodwin and Steve Englehart, with other issues plotted and/or scripted by Gary Friedrich, Len Wein, Gerry Conway, Steve Gerber and Chris Claremont. The art is mostly by Herb Trimpe with some contributions by Dick Ayers. Bonus material includes the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entry for the Shaper of Worlds.

Whilst the art throughout this volume continues to be strong, cementing Trimpe's reputation as one of the greatest Hulk artists, if not the greatest of all. However the writing meanders a lot, not helped by the high turnover of scripters, and the result is a somewhat turgid volume even though there are some developments. A key strand in the early issues is the Hulk's quest to be reunited with Jarella and they do briefly achieve it twice, first when she's transported to the full-size world and later when the Hulk journeys back to her world with the help of both an experimental version of Ant-Man's shrinking formula and the mysterious Shaper. This in turn helps drive a final wedge between Bruce Banner and Betty Ross, with the result she turns fully to Glenn Talbot and marries him. Betty and Talbot's wedding is a rare one in superhero comics in that it's not interrupted by villains and monsters. Instead it proceeds smoothly whilst the Hulk is on Counter-Earth, where his counterpart is married to Betty and they have a son. It's a glimpse at what might have been had Bruce made the trench and not been exposed to the gamma rays all those years ago.

Counter-Earth and Jarella's world are two of a number of locations visited by the Hulk on his travels throughout the volume. Others include the depths of the ocean, a city in the sky and Canada. The latter is depicted primarily as a wilderness in which a monstrous beast roams. Curiously it takes the strip a while to realise that sur Québec, la principale langue parlée est le français ni l'anglais. So the Mounties all speak English mais un groupe de bûcherons parlent français. Still it helps to emphasise that the Hulk is abroad.

Meanwhile back in the States there are a variety of developments surrounding Thunderbolt Ross and the military. A dedicated military base and unit is established for the purpose of tackling the Hulk. Initially named "Project: Greenskin" it is subsequently renamed "Hulkbuster". General Ross is generally a subdued rational man throughout the volume but can succumb to his own anger at times. But at other points he's realistic enough to realise the Hulk isn't always the greatest threat. Indeed at one point when both he and Bruce are captured it's Ross who realises that the only way to escape is for Banner to become the Hulk. However the plan only partially works as the Hulk hates Ross too much to stop to free him. As a consequence Ross is subsequently transported to the Soviet Union and only subsequently freed by a covert operation. However in the process Major Talbot is shot and assumed dead, though actually survives as a prisoner behind the Iron Curtain. His assumed death has a devastating impact on Betty, who believes she's gone from being a bride to a widow in the space of a mere month, and she succumbs to anger and more.

There's less material for Jim Wilson beyond a scene where his girlfriend confronts him about trying to hide the Hulk at her house and makes it clear she expects to be married to Jim, a level of commitment that he wasn't prepared for. It seems to be a way of phasing Jim out of the series but it does succumb to the cliché of depicting young women as just waiting to be married and only giving them independence in so far as they force the issue. Of the other supporting cast, Doc Samson is also phased out as loses the gamma radiation that has enhanced his body and strength. However another recurring character is introduced in the form of Colonel Armbruster, who takes over the command of Project: Greenskin during first the absence and then enforced vacation of Ross.

There are a number of new foes encountered in these pages but few have had much lasting impact. Amongst the less remembered are the Horusians, aliens who have replaced with champion conflict by giant creations on Earth and their creations include the Sphinx and a stone Colossus. Then there's Fialan, an assassin from Jarella's world sent after her to Earth by Visis, or the Inheritor, another of the High Evolutionary's creatures, this one having evolved from a cockroach. In an initially more human form is Senator Morton Clegstead, the main political backer of Project: Greenskin, who believes the Hulk's blood can cure his cancer but it instead mutates him into a gigantic blob. There's a surprising for its time (and writer) use of Soviets as enemies, although the strip does take subsequent steps to establish the main villains as rogue elements with the regular authorities only acting once their hands have been forced. The main rogue element is the Gremlin, the revenge-seeking son of the Hulk's very first foe, the Gargoyle. Out at sea the Hulk comes across Captain Omen and his gigantic submarine that is a self-contained world. The homage to Captain Nemo and the Nautilus in the Jules Verne novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is all too obvious. But there's an element of horror, both in the form of the half-man half-fish monster Aquon who has been created by Omen, but also in the fate of the second generation crew who have evolved to work at the deep pressures of the oceans' depths and who find their bodies exploding at the surface pressures. Elsewhere the Hulk fights Zzzax, a living energy being whilst a visit to Sky Island, the former home of the Bird People, leads to a clash with the Bi-Beast, a living monument left to commemorate the race now it has passed on. The final issue sees the Hulk and Betty on a strange island inhabited by giant aliens.

Amongst the foes who would have a more lasting impact is the Shaper (of Worlds), a being with the power to alter reality but without the imagination to create for itself who has instead given reality to the dreams of Nazi scientist Otto Kronsteig, giving a glimpse of a New York overrun by Nazis and where Kronsteig is eventually transformed into the Nazi ubermensch "Captain Axis". On another level is the Wendigo, the first fictional use of the beast from Algonquian legend who will go on to be a regular feature of many Marvel stories set in the Canadian wilderness. But by far the nastiest of foes is the Harpy, the mutated form of Betty Banner Talbot after she succumbs to anger at the apparent death of her husband, blaming both her father and Bruce Banner for the Major's death. She succumbs to the suggestions of Modok and is exposed to gamma radiation, transforming her into a vicious creature resembling the harpies of Greek legend. I forget just how many times the main romantic interest in a series has been transformed into a monster to fight the lead character, but here there's a real sense of hurt and pain driving the fight, and Bruce finds he has no choice but to sacrifice a chance to rid himself of the Hulk once and for all in favour of curing Betty.

There are also a few first appearances in this series by foes from elsewhere, most notably Doctor Doom who encounters the Hulk for the first time in the opening issue. Later the Hulk makes his first visit to Counter-Earth where he clashes with Kohbra, another of the High Evolutionary's creatures previously seen in the pages of Warlock. Back on Earth, he fights with Tiger Shark from the pages of Sub-Mariner. The series also sees return appearances by familiar foes such as the Leader, the Abomination, the Rhino, the Chameleon, Hydra, Visis, Modok and A.I.M.

There also a number of appearances by other heroes, including the aforementioned Ant-Man. When the Hulk is captured in New York, by a combination of Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D., Captain America and the Fantastic Four, he is soon put on trial with his lawyer none other than Matt Murdock (Daredevil), with various Avengers called as witnesses and Mr Fantastic supplying what seems to be a way to turn the Hulk back into Bruce Banner so as to give evidence but which actually empowers the Hulk enough to escape. Issues #150 & #161 continue the practice of using the series to tie up loose ends from cancelled titles. The former issue spotlights Havok and Lorna Dane from X-Men as Havok discovers the hard way he needs more training for his powers whilst the romantic triangle between the pair and Ice-Man is seemingly settled in Havok's favour. It's a brief tale that manages to tie into the ongoing storyline as the Hulk's search for Jarella draws him to Lorna as a green-haired woman. Later on issue #161 is part of the Hulk's adventures in Canada and ties in with the conclusion to the Beast's exploits from Amazing Adventures, as the latter's journey northwards concludes with an encounter with the Mimic, whose powers are getting out of control.

But whilst other adventures are being wrapped up, the Hulk's are ongoing and the pattern for them has now been largely settled as he wanders the Earth, and occasionally the rest of the universe, in search of peace and tranquillity, whilst Bruce Banner searches for a way to cure his other self. The military search for the Hulk in an attempt to restrain or destroy him whilst various villains seek to use him for their own purposes. Looking at this more and more, I think the basic core problem is the over-simplistic nature of the Hulk's personality that results in some rather stilted interaction with those around him, whilst Bruce Banner's role is often minimalised either by the short period between transformations or by the limited resources around him. Consequently the series is often weak when it's unable to get much great action out of the Hulk himself. The problem is further compounded by the changing writers with the results that the character's motivation can change at times - he's willing to help save a woman's brother from the Wendigo because he doesn't want to be blamed for things he hasn't done, yet at other times he just doesn't care what the world around him thinks so long as he's left alone. His memory is weak such that he can't always recall the details of his past encounters with various foes. Add in the very child-like dialogue and the result is a character that's hard to enjoy at times. It would be much better to give the Hulk a strong degree of intelligence and memory, allowing for much greater character interaction and development, or else to shift the focus to the Hulkbusters' pursuit of him and present events through their eyes. Alternatively a sidekick who actually goes all over the place with him would allow for development to take place in another way. But the approach here of focusing on the Hulk in such an oversimplistic depictment just hampers the character and at times makes the series tough to wade through.

So in spite of having some developments amongst the Hulk's supporting cast, this volume is a return to what has been all too typical of the series so far - a great idea squandered by inconsistency and uncertainty as to how to depict and develop it in practice. And it's surprising just how easy it is to pinpoint the problem. There have been times when this can be made to work - so far the best has come under Roy Thomas - but it requires a dedicated writer who lasts for a good while. When left to a fast turnover of writers the result is all often too formulaic adventures that expose the problems inherent in the formula. This is not one of the best Essential volumes.

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