Friday, 25 April 2014

Essential Hulk volume 6

Essential Hulk volume 6 consists of the Incredible Hulk #201-225 & Annual #6. Bonus material includes Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Jarella and the Constrictor. The writing on the regular series sees the end of Len Wein's run and the start of Roger Stern's plus scripting contributions by Gerry Conway and Chris Claremont and plots from Herb Trimpe and Jim Starlin. The art is mainly by Sal Buscema with individual contributions by Herb Trimpe, George Tuska, Keith Pollard and Jim Starlin. The annual is written by David Anthony Kraft and drawn by Herb Trimpe.

When going through the previous Essential Hulk volumes I had concluded that Herb Trimpe is the best Hulk artist yet, but here Sal Buscema more than gives him a run for his money and I may have to reassess the accolade after seeing the rest of the latter's run. As well as handling the ever diverse cast and settings with ease, Buscema captures the full range of the Hulk's emotions from angry brute to kindly, sympathetic child. The Hulk is a tormented soul, often just trying to find peace and tranquillity, and he can be very kind and caring to those he had befriended. It's a tricky task to depict the diverse characterisation of him but Buscema achieves it quite well. The writing is on an upswing, bringing a number of adventures that give both Bruce and the Hulk some strong character moments as well as providing excitement and action.

The greatest tragedy comes early on when the Hulk and Jarella are finally reunited, first in her world where they're set to be married. However they then get transported back to Earth and the slide now containing the atom upon which Jarella's world is located is destroyed. The couple seem set for a life of happiness on Earth, with Jarella used to the transformations between Bruce and the Hulk, and the monster in turn more responsive. But it's not to be as in a battle with the Crypto-Man Jarella dies saving a young child's life. This sends the Hulk into an even more angry rampage than usual, leading to a fight with his fellow Defenders, before Doctor Strange tries and fails to restore Jarella to life. In spite of the comfort offered by the other Defenders, the Hulk has never seemed more alone as he walks away crying.

Whether as Bruce or the Hulk, subsequent encounters with women fail to fill the gap left. Bruce tries to settle some more permanent roots by renting a flat in New York where he attracts the attention of his flirtatious landlady April Sommers who helps him find a job in construction. However April gets ever more suspicious of Bruce, with the complication of the return of the flat's previous tenant, magician Kropotkin the Great. Eventually Jim reveals that Bruce is the Hulk, but April is nearly won over by Bruce's assurances that he has the Hulk under control - until the transformation is triggered. Elsewhere the Hulk encounters a group of circus performers who have escaped the Circus of Crime, and especially befriends a sea nymph called Meriam; however she cannot survive long out of water and eventually he agrees to return her to the sea. It seems that the Hulk will never get the peace and companionship he desires.

And another couple find that the ever after isn't always so happy. Glenn Talbot has now had his mind restored but is a changed man who feels guilty about the grief he's brought to Betty and wishes to find himself. Consequently he and Betty split and go away separately. She decides the time has come to step out of the shadow of the various men in her life and to establish herself as her own woman, settling in a distant unnamed city and undergoing an extreme makeover. Meanwhile her father continues his military work, aware of how often things have gone round and round with the Hulk and other monsters, but still persisting in his mission.

The series has a rather odd time travel story in issue #204 where Bruce's attempt to cure himself of the Hulk results in his being sent back in time, seemingly taking the place of his younger self. This time he made it to a protective shield and so escaped the gamma bomb, going on to a life married to Betty - but Rick died in the blast and Bruce is haunted by both this memory and his time as the Hulk. Eventually his guilt overwhelms him to the point where he opts to go back in time and restore things to how they were. As with many time travel stories there are huge questions over just how the process works and just what memories of the past are retained. Early in the story Bruce and Jarella seem to be under the impression they will still be together in spite of removing the Hulk, but this doesn't come to pass in the resultant future. Nor is it clear whether Bruce has possessed his younger self's body, Quantum Leap style, or if he's somehow removed his younger self from the picture. And as in many a tale, the time traveller retains his memory of the original timeline when he arrives in an altered future. The whole story feels like a rushed filler, which it may well be as it's drawn by a returning Trimpe instead of the regular Buscema, and doesn't really reinforce the long term concept that Bruce will sometimes accept that getting rid of the Hulk isn't always the most important goal. Indeed at the end of the volume when it seems Bruce has been cured purely by means of a natural burn off of his body's gamma radiation, it's Doctor Samson who ultimately turns Bruce back into the Hulk to fight the leader, rather than Bruce himself succumbing to the argument for this course of action. However Samson may come to regret both this and his calling the monster stupid to provoke the right reaction as the very last panel of the volume shows, now that now the Leader is seemingly destroyed, an angry Hulk turns on Samson.

There's a good mixture of foes throughout this volume with some new creations. Although only one has had much impact in the Marvel universe, another may have had an influence elsewhere. The new foes start off with Kronak the Barbarian, a thinly disguised knock-off of Conan the Barbarian, the ruler of a sub-atomic world the Hulk passes through en route to Jarella's world. Then there's the Quintronic Man, a giant robot controlled by five different men (maybe the forerunner of the Transformers Special Teams). And there's a horrific encounter with "Billy", a human child mutated by radioactive waste into a cannibal, who lives in a cave with his brother and sister and consumes other humans. But the biggest new creation is the Constrictor, another in the long line of supervillains with a battle suit and a gimmick weapon, here the use of electrically charged adamantium cables. 

As well as the new creations, there is a horde of foes from other series, starting with Dragonus, a warlock previously seen in Werewolf by Night. The Crypto-Man had made just one previous appearance in Thor and so it seems rather unworthy that such an obscure foe should be the one to (indirectly) cause Jarella's death. A team-up with Doctor Druid brings conflict with Maha Yogi, previously the "Merlin" who fought both Thor and the X-Men in the Silver Age; this story also affords the opportunity to establish him as a phoney who impersonated the real Merlin. Maha Yogi is now accompanied by his henchman the cosmic gladiator Mongu, previously seen in Fear. Later at sea the ship Bruce is on is attacked by the pirate Captain Barracuda, first seen in the Human Torch's strip in Strange Tales. And of course there are return appearances by established foes such as Psyklop, the Absorbing Man, the Rhino and the Leader. There are also encounters with other heroes, albeit from the less well-known end of the Marvel universe. As well as the Defenders, consisting of Nighthawk, Valkyrie, the Red Guardian and Doctor Strange, and Doctor Druid already mentioned, there are appearances by both the Jack of Hearts and Stingray. Meanwhile the annual brings a one to one team-up with Doctor Strange to battle the Hive, originally seen in Fantastic Four, and their new creation Paragon, a product of the same cocoon that birthed Adam Warlock.

Although the writing shows an uptick in maintaining excitement and momentum, there's also the curse of the long running subplot that takes forever to be resolved. In issue #208 an ill and amnesiac man is found in the desert near the now-renamed Gamma Base. Over subsequent issues he fails to recover his memory but instead sneaks into a key laboratory. It's not until issue #223 that the man is revealed to be the Leader, infiltrating the base in order to launch his plan to conquer the world. Though the story itself is strong and makes for an exciting climax to the volume, the subplot drags on for far too long given just how much actual development it contains and tellingly is not actually resolved until a new writer has taken over.

The last handful of issues in this volume coincided with the launch of The Incredible Hulk television series, Marvel's first, and to date the longest lasting success with live action television. Running for five seasons and then three latter day "reunion" television movies, plus no end of reruns, The Incredible Hulk brought the character to much wider public attention for many, many years, However there were some notable changes to the origin, the character's name and the absence of his traditional supporting cast. The television series did have a slight impact on the comics by spurring the creation of She-Hulk, whose debut issue showed signs of the television influence, but in the main series there's no sign at this stage of any changes to match the screen - no change of the name to "David Banner" or any appearance by Jack McGee, although the reporter's quest simply wouldn't work in a comic book series where Bruce's survival and identity as the Hulk is publicly known. Nor is there any sign of the classic line "don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."

At this stage the main sign in the comics world of the Hulk's growing profile would come in ever more appearances on the newstand, thanks to a mixture of his second title Rampaging Hulk (although its launch predated the television series by some months) plus appearances in Defenders, Marvel Team-Up (where he occasionally displaced Spider-Man as the lead star), Marvel Two-in-One (where the Thing was luckier) and the occasional Marvel Treasury Edition, plus various reprints. He wouldn't be the first or last character to be spread all over the racks, but rather than the multiple ongoing current titles Spider-Man now had, the Hulk was diversified with past set series, team appearances, guest appearances and one-offs. Consequently the character was not being excessively used in the same way as the wallcrawler and so a single creative team controlled his direction and fate.

And one development is a slight uptick in the Hulk's intelligence level, remembering more names and forming more complete sentences in order to better interact with those he encounters. It's to the comic series's credit that it didn't mimic its television counterpart and switch to an inarticulate version of the monster, but instead developed him a little more to open up the story possibilities. It's a subtle process with no great event causing a transformation, but the result is definitely an improvement for the better. So too is the general trend of the series, as ever putting the Hulk through a wide variety of situations but also emphasising the character in both human and monstrous form. The result is one of the better Essential Hulk volumes.

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