Friday, 21 November 2014

Essential Rampaging Hulk volume 2

Essential Rampaging Hulk volume 2 reprints the Hulk stories from The Hulk! magazine #16 to #27. The first half is mainly written by Doug Moench with one story by Roy Thomas and another by Bruce Patterson; the latter half is a mix of Jim Shooter, Roger Stern, David Anthony Kraft, Bill Flanagan, Lora Byrne and J.M. DeMatteis. The art is mainly by Gene Colan and Ron Wilson; other stories are drawn by Mike Zeck, Herb Trimpe, Bob McLeod, John Buscema and Brent Anderson. And that means once again there's a separate labels post.

This volume has some of the most problematic reproduction of any of the later Essentials. The original magazines used a more sophisticated colouring system than the overlay method of the contemporary comics but one result is that black & white separations are now unavailable and so the material is reproduced with the original colour "burnt in" as shades of grey. This often results in a more sophisticated look compared to the regular comics of the era. Unfortunately many of the captions used a coloured background which now often appear as black text on a dark grey background and are very difficult to read without straining the eyes and/or deploying extra light. Some of the last few issues are in a better state, partially because the series reverted to black and white but also because many of the captions are white on black, but overall this volume is something of a pain to read.

The magazine series was contemporary to the later seasons of the Incredible Hulk television series and offers up a hybrid of the Hulk's screen and comic adventures. There are almost no references to the Hulk's comic supporting cast bar one retelling of the origin and instead we have a focus on Bruce Banner travelling across the United States and beyond, hunting for a cure and encountering a variety of mostly one-off characters and situations. However Banner's identity as the Hulk is public knowledge and on several occasions he is either recognised by someone who works out who he is, or else he gives his name and gets out of a tricky situation by trading upon the knowledge that he can turn into a rampaging monster.

The stories themselves are a general mix but few really stand out. A few characters pop up more than once but don't really last. The situations include a number of families with interesting internal dynamics, with the Hulk sought for a variety of purposes including treasure hunting or as the quarry in a big game safari in Africa. There's an interesting modern take on the story of Robinson Crusoe as Bruce joins a man who has opted out of society to live on a deserted island, only to see paradise end as modern day pirates chase a couple there. It also has the memorable scene of the Hulk diving into the sea to pick up the whole island and walk it to the mainland shore. Elsewhere Bruce goes to help tackle a meltdown at a nuclear power plant, with the Hulk ultimately fixing the problem. There's a convoluted tale as a politician manipulates multiple sides over a controversial dam in order to achieve a public relations triumph to propel him to the White House. Bruce tries settling down first working for a school for retarded children and then for a carnival but neither works out. There's a mess with a cult led by an old friend of Bruce's followed by a tense encounter with a paranoid family of gun obsessives then the chaos of a family of hillbillies who kidnap Bruce by accident and try to use him in convoluted dynamics relating to a daughter's suitor. There's a visit to Las Vegas where the Hulk is caught up in an organised crime feud. Nature is also a foe with one tale seeing the Hulk surviving a flooded river.

One of the few recurring characters is Dr Shiela Marks, a psychologist specialising in multiple personality syndrome (and to its credit her introduction avoids the common mistake in fictional to confuse MPS with schizophrenia). It's one of the first times that the Banner/Hulk dynamic has been expressed in psychological terms. Marks is driven by a determination to prove herself over her family's traditional expectations and professional criticism, but the first attempt to tackle the Hulk instead results in the Hulk's personality briefly controlling Banner's body and going on a rampage through New York, believing it to be a very different and far more hostile environment. She tries again in the more isolated environment of Bermuda but without direct success though she and Bruce face down the very different menace of brothers based in the underwater city of Hydropolis trying to drive humanity into living in the seas. Throughout the tales there are strong hints that she and Bruce could become an item but nothing is developed of it before a change away from having a permanent writer. Another attempt at a mental cure is made with a hypnotist that sends Bruce into a surreal fantasy but doesn't resolve the issues.

Issue #23 contains "A Very Personal Hell", the most infamous story in this run, though contrary to popular myth the scene everyone focuses upon is actually only a side incident in the story. Whilst in New York City and trying to obtain some of the latest science books with the latest research that may offer a hope of a cure, Bruce stays at a youth hostel and has a nasty encounter in the communal showers. For two very camp men try to rape him and it's clear this is not the first time they've pounced on a passing stranger. Now some of the elements of the portrayal may reflect early 1980s stereotypes that have since been forgotten (much as the story's general setting around Times Square is from an era when it had a reputation as a seedy, run-down area very different from what it is today) and so it's not easy to objectively judge what buttons this scene did and didn't press. But the two would-be rapists are classic effeminate, over the top, outrageously camp types that make their sexuality all too clear. There's nothing intrinsically wrong about a comic depicting a rape attempt as part of a generally down beat and horrific environment the lead character is enduring, and the absence of the Comics Code Authority on the magazines meant that more could be shown here than in a regular comic. And sexual assault and rape are sadly horrors that happen all too often in the real world. So the scene was probably written with the best intentions of helping to establish just what a horrible environment Bruce has found himself in. But the real problem is the lack of balance. At the time depictions of openly gay characters was almost non-existent in most media. It's true that most characters appear without anything being said about their sexual orientation and some could quite easily be gay, but that doesn't provide any balance in the slightest. Instead the only overtly gay characters depicted in not just the issue or even the series as a whole but across Marvel comics in general at the time play into stereotypes and fears about all gay men being sex obsessed and trying to rape every vaguely cute guy that comes along. It is not a defence that the attempted rape could have been a heterosexual one as there were enough portrayals of heterosexual people across the comics that such a hypothetical pair of rapists would not have been the sole representatives to appear.

It's also deeply uncomfortable that this story was written by Jim Shooter, Marvel's then Editor-in-Chief, who generally blocked depictions of gay characters in the Comics. That approach and other socially traditional restrictions have at times been defended as corporate level decisions, either due to the outlooks of the company's owners or else the nervousness of licensees who had been assured the characters used on their merchandise would not be put in situations that made the products unsellable in traditionalist areas. (And when this issue was originally published homosexual acts were still illegal in much of the United States as well as in two-thirds of the United Kingdom's legal jurisdictions.) Yes such corporate cowardice is easy to criticise when one is not personally at risk of the economic consequences but Marvel's history of pushing against the boundaries, most famously the Spider-Man drugs issues, showed that it could take a stand when there was the will to do so. And if such will wasn't forthcoming then it would have been better to depict no homosexual characters at all rather than having their total representation being a pair of predatory rapist stereotypes. It may not have been the intention to offend anyone other than rapists but the outcome was very much an offensive one.

This whole state of affairs is a pity on another level because the rest of the story is quite strong, showing a dark world of drug taking, domestic violence, depression, family break-up, disapproving relatives, child custody battles and more. Bruce very briefly finds happiness with Alice Steinfeld. However transforming to the Hulk takes Bruce away and Alice succumbs to loneliness, committing suicide. Another story in the issue, "Clothes Call", is more humorous, seeing Bruce taken in by a housewife who tries to seduce him but then her husband comes home.

Overall this is a rather inconsequential volume. There are some stories that go broader and deeper than what could be done in the Code comics of the era but this approach can backfire as happened notoriously here. And there is some delving into the very nature of what generate the Hulk years before this became a standard part of handling the character. But the run as a whole just doesn't feel especially satisfying. The decision to stand aloof from the regular comic and mirror the style of the television series is an understandable commercial move but it hasn't produced a particularly amazing set of stories that stand out for all the right reasons. This feels like an early example of over exposing a character.

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