Friday, 8 August 2014

Essential Rampaging Hulk volume 1

Essential Rampaging Hulk volume 1 reprints the Hulk stories from the first fifteen issues of the Hulk's late 1970s black & white magazine series, entitled The Rampaging Hulk on the first nine issues and then The Hulk! from issue #10 onwards. A bonus is a short story from Incredible Hulk #269 which addresses the continuity of the magazines. All but one of the magazines' strip stories are written by Doug Moench; the exception is by John Warner. The art is mainly by Walter Simonson, Keith Pollard and Ron Wilson with other contributions by Jim Starlin, Herb Trimpe, Sal Buscema and Bill Sienkiewicz. Also included is a text story from issue #10 that is written by David Anthony Kraft & D[wight] Jon Zimmerman and drawn by Ernie Chan plus the Moon Knight back-up story from issue #15 that crosses over with the Hulk story, written by Moench and drawn by Sienkiewicz. The Incredible Hulk story is written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Sal Buscema.

Looking back at the period before the mid 1980s it's amazing just how restrained Marvel used to be about giving popular characters additional titles. Even when they did succumb to producing a second book it was significantly different in some way - a quarterly, a magazine or a team-up title instead of just a second ongoing solo book. The main exceptions that I can think of were Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man and A Date with Millie/Life with Millie/Modelling with Millie but otherwise everything was sufficiently different so as to not be interchangeable. It's unsurprising that the Hulk wound up getting an additional book at around the time when his TV series was gearing up to launch. Agents of SHIELD may now be challenging for the crown but up to now the Incredible Hulk is Marvel's only real success with live action television. But boldly this was a series that stood on its own, not only in a different format from the existing monthly but also taking place in a different era.

Adventures retroactively set earlier in the careers of established characters were still rare at this stage in Marvel's history. Some of the Second World War heroes had had a variety of wartime stories, most notably the Invaders, but otherwise Marvel's history was largely confined to reprints, What If?s and the occasional substantial flashback to prepare a modern story. And of course Marvel continuity has long had an ambiguous relationship with material printed before Fantastic Four #1, so even the Invaders and the wartime adventures of Captain America could be excused as replacement material. But now the Hulk was given his own retroactive series set during an obvious part of his career but using the setting in a less than obvious way.

Maybe it's because of the brevity of the original series but the Hulk's earliest adventures have attracted many latter day creators to them. Perhaps it's because the Hulk still had his secret identity and so the stories felt the most superheroey. It could be down to the various early cartoons also basing themselves on this period. Or it could just be the sense of a truly classic era, helped by brevity cutting it off at a clear point instead of fizzling out after several years. Whatever the reason creators have often returned to those days to add more tales. Unfortunately some have been more successful at reaching them than others and this is one of the less successful versions.

The first problem is that the series rapidly ditches the status quo of the Hulk circa 1963 in favour of a global epic that could frankly have been placed at almost any period in the character's history up to this point - and in fact, as I'll come to below, would be a better fit elsewhere. So there's very little of Bruce maintaining his secret around the Gamma Base or the classic dynamic with Betty and Thunderbolt Ross. Later on in the run there's an encounter with the Sub-Mariner who has just lost his people once more but again the character's history and personality is such that it doesn't take much to generate a fight with him at just about any point in his history. The last couple of issues in the sequence try to add something to the history of the Avengers by bringing the five founders together for the first time. Now it's probably true that there is no dialogue in the Avengers' history that explicitly says "And we had never come together before the battle with Loki" but this encounter still feels like a very awkward addition to the team's history, undermining the dynamics seen in the first issue because there was little reason to have discovered they could form a team on the second meeting if they hadn't done so the first time round. Also the series is nominally set in 1963, being one of the last times I'm aware of when Marvel time explicitly matched publication time. However this series doesn't feel like a nostalgia piece, if that's possible at a gap of only fourteen years (which seems a rather small gap but a lot of classic literature was set about as many years before publication) and instead it just feels like an alternate modern take on the Hulk. Indeed at times the series actually forgets it's set in the past, such as when Namor is searching Rome for the "Main Command" and gets told the war ended "thirty years ago" - approximately accurate for 1977 but not 1963. And although the main ongoing plotline about the alien Krylorians trying to invade Earth, including using shapeshifting to disguise themselves amongst us, may reflect some of the paranoid "they walk amongst us" science fiction of the original era, the execution feels much more late 1970s than early 1960s. The same is true of Bereet, a renegade female Krylorian who befriends the Hulk and Rick and helps them fight her race, complete with her many special gadgets. The character is quite well depicted as an advanced, liberated woman but again doesn't feel like someone who would have appeared in such a story in 1963, even if the author was making an effort to have a strong female role like Marvel Girl in the contemporary X-Men or Wonder Woman.

But the biggest problem is the Hulk himself. The "Savage Hulk" is the main personality written in the first nine issues, although the art varies between the classic "Savage" look and the original short haired neater look. Furthermore at this stage of the Hulk's history the transformation to and from Bruce Banner was controlled by exposure to gamma rays, albeit with some bodily resistance creeping in. But here we get a Bruce who changes into the Hulk when stressed and whose only control over the process is to deliberately work himself up into a tense state. Now only a very small handful of the original Hulk stories were reprinted in the 1970s so it's possible Doug Moench assumed he could just depict the more familiar version of the character with nobody noticing. However when reprinted the original stories were also back in print, courtesy of both the Essentials and the Omnibuses, and so the discontinuity stands out the more. The whole thing feels like a bad exercise in nostalgia. And it seems these problems were noticed at the time, leading to a shift in direction from issue #10 onwards and then a later story set out to tidy up the mess.

"Not a hoax, not a dream, not an imaginary story...so what IS it?" proclaims the volume's back cover. It turns out the first nine issues were a metafiction, a film made by Bereet for the inhabitants of Krylor, who are rather more tame and isolationist than their depiction suggests. In the space of five pages Bill Mantlo writes off the entire of the first nine issues, possibly in response to years of questions in the letter columns about how the adventures could have taken place. It's a blunt solution to the problem, though not unprecedented (Marvel had already used metafiction to write off the adventures of the original Two-Gun Kid). Maybe another writer could have produced a multi-part tale that managed to preserve the issues within continuity whilst explaining away the fundamental anachronisms but it would probably have taken too long after so many years. Instead, we get a simple five-page hand wave and that is it.

With issue #10 the magazine undergoes a transformation. The stories are now in full colour, though that doesn't make much difference here as it seems in both the 1970s and the 2000s the respective black and white pages were produced with colour "burned in" to create an greyscale effect. But the series has also shifted to the present, though there's none of the Hulk's status quo from his regular comic and these tales could in fact take place at almost any point in the history of the Savage Hulk. The series has taken its cue from the television series but doesn't want to contradict the comic. So we still have Bruce Banner with his classic look (instead of "David Banner" drawn like Bill Bixby) transforming into a talking Hulk, but rather than interacting with his usual supporting cast, fighting monsters and being pursued by the military we instead have Banner travelling the world alone, seeking both peace and a cure and getting involved with a succession of localised problems. There's the occasional discreet acknowledgement of the television series, most notably in issue #14 when Bruce uses the alias "David Bixby".

The foes are generally one-off non-powered ones of the type who could have easily stepped out of the television series. We get a mixture of unscrupulous businessmen of one kind or another, carnival thugs, terrorists, immoral scientists and fanatical military types. A scientist's experiments with gamma radiation accidentally turn him into a monster who fights the Hulk whilst the military are developing "Cybortrons" - robots mentally controlled from afar by soldiers - but that's the extent of the more fantastic. But in general this feels like an attempt to draw television viewers into the comic character without all the wider elements that would be unfamiliar to those who'd only seen the screen version.

The stories themselves don't pull their punches with some quite brutal deaths, including the casual gunning down of first a reporter infiltrating a mine and later an ill woman who tries to get help when a hijacked aeroplane crashes. Issue #11 focuses on an unfortunate boy who is being routinely beaten by his father. Elsewhere there's racism on the streets of Chicago, paranoia amongst scientists and the military and thugs attacking the isolated. Once again the magazine format shows how to tell strong stories free from the constraints of the Comics Code Authority but without getting gratuitous for the sake of it.

The artwork throughout the volume is generally good but the showcase nature of the assignments can undermine visual continuity. And occasionally there are some unfortunate results - Walt Simonson's pencils on issue #2 are inked by Alfredo Alcala but the printed result feels like a pencil and crayon effect. Perhaps they were aiming for something stylish but it just doesn't come off. But on a better note are the painted covers. They don't always reproduce so well in black and white, and I'm not persuaded the best choices of issues #1 & #9 were made for the volume's front and back covers, but they are an impressive set of mainly standalone images. A decade later several of these were used for the early issues of the Marvel UK series The Incredible Hulk Presents and they proved highly striking on the newsstands as they must have been on the original magazines a decade earlier.

As can often happen with the Essentials, this is a volume of two halves and it's more obvious than most. The first stage is a retro-based epic that totally fails to evoke nostalgia for the original era or exploit its setting and it's easily forgotten, with the retcon to hand wave it away proving surprisingly effective. After that we get a stand alone series of present day tales that could almost have come from the television series and which prove surprisingly effective. There's a real determination to offer something more than just standard Hulk stories in a different format publication, and on the second attempt the series achieves this. It's not the most essential of Essentials but it gives the old magazine series a good revisiting.

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