Friday, 6 February 2015

Essential Hulk volume 7

Essential Hulk volume 7 contains Incredible Hulk #226 to #248, Annuals #7 to #9 and the crossover Captain America #230. Bonus material consists of a page containing two extracts from the letter column, one an advert for Annual #7 and the other a piece explaining the convoluted writing situation on the crossover that led to the regular Incredible Hulk writer scripting the Captain America issue but not the Incredible Hulk issue. Most of the writing, is by Roger Stern with some issues co-written with variously John Byrne, Peter Gillis, David Michelinie and Steven Grant. The last four issues begin Bill Mantlo's run. Elliot Maggin and Steven Grant each write single issues whilst Doug Moench writes the last annual. The Captain America issue is plotted by Roger McKenzie and scripted by Stern. Most of the regular art plus one annual and the Captain America issue are all by Sal Buscema. Other issues are drawn by John Byrne, Jim Mooney and Carmine Infantino whilst the last annual is by Steve Ditko. And with so many names the creator labels are inevitably in a separate post.

To date this is the most recent Essential volume to be released and, unless the line resumes in the future, it will stand as the very last. So how appropriate is it to hold this accolade? Well it's from the early years of Jim Shooter's editor-in-chiefship, which is arguably the most significant period in Marvel's history between the Silver Age and the twenty-first century. And the volume reprints material from one of the longest running titles featuring one of Marvel's most recognisable characters. Indeed it covers a run that came out at the same time as approximately half the television series, with most of the issue covers unashamedly proclaiming they star "Marvel's TV Sensation!" Until about 2000 this was Marvel's only really sustained success with live action and so a volume featuring either the Hulk at the height of Bill Bixby & Lou Ferrigno's fame or Wolverine at the height of Hugh Jackman's is an appropriate way to acknowledge Marvel's modern day screen successes. When combined with being from the start of the Shooter era and starring one of the major Marvel characters, this Hulk volume thus feels the natural choice. Of course it's hard to tell if any of this went into the decision making process when selecting this volume but the result is on the surface a highly appropriate volume to go out on. But do the contents meet up to this as well?

There's a sense of progress and development in this volume, seen most obviously around Gamma Base as a succession of developments take the main cast forwards. Thunderbolt Ross succumbs to a nervous breakdown early on and is taken away by Doc Samson who tries to cure the general's condition in a peaceful rural log cabin, but even there they can't escape the news of the Hulk. Meanwhile Betty Ross and Glenn Talbot get divorced, with each taking it in a very different way. Betty feels emboldened and liberated whilst Glenn succumbs to anger, blaming the Hulk for all that has gone wrong in his life. Gamma Base needs a new commanding officer and the natural choice is the now promoted Colonel Talbot. Now there is a very real and personal hatred guiding the military response and no longer do they seek to cure the Hulk but instead to kill him. This eventually leads to Talbot attempting to trap the Hulk forever in Jarella's world by destroying the shrinking device used to reach it but afterwards he is confronted by Betty, Rick and Captain Marvel and forced to face up to what he has become. Elsewhere the Hulk's newest recurring friend is Fred Sloan, a hippie who determines to write a book to tell the world the truth about the Hulk. He is aided by Trish Starr, a supporting cast member brought over from the pages of Defenders who now helps Fred in the research for the book.

The main storyline of the early part of the volume, including the crossover with Captain America, involves the machinations of the criminal business imaginatively entitled the Corporation, first seen in the Jack of Hearts strip in the Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. Its agents include the new Moonstone, the psychiatrist Dr Karla Sofen who has come from being a moll for Dr Faustus and has now obtained the gemstone from the original Moonstone, granting her powers. Her identity is rumbled early on but otherwise she makes for a strong powerful foe with recurring potential. There aren't too many female villains who've lasted the distance but she could have what it takes. Other agents include US Senator Eugene Stivak who moonlights as "Kligger", the Corporation's controller for the East Coast of the United States, and his West Coast counterpart Curtis Jackson. The Corporation have captured both Jim Wilson and his uncle Sam, aka the Falcon, bringing both the Hulk and Captain America together for a showdown that feels like a natural crossover stemming from both titles rather than one book's storyline forcing itself upon another. The story also features Marvel Man who subsequently hears children dismissing his codename as silly and he changes it to Quasar. The Corporation subsequently try to handle the Hulk by tricking him into a protracted battle with Machine Man in what appears to be a wrap up of storylines from the latter's title after its first cancellation (albeit only for less than a year).

The other big storyline of Stern's run sees the Hulk captured by Goldbug, an old foe of Power Man's, and taken to El Dorado, the legendary mysterious city of gold in the Andes. Here a ruling trio known as "They" try to use the Hulk's power to conquer the world before one of them is revealed as an old enemy seeking to restore his youth. All in all this storyline is rather weak for the number of issues it involves and not the best ending to Stern's run on the title. However he does set up a number of threads that flow into the next run on the series.

The oddest moments in the run come from fill-in issues. There's one where the Hulk is captured by an alien scientist searching for a way to save his starving people and he finds it in the form of the soil under the Hulk's fingernails! Another sees the Hulk battling the Living Colossus in Hollywood where its controller, Aloysius Vault has fallen so far he is now working giving out leaflets in the street.

The last four issues see Bill Mantlo arrive as writer and there's a sense of the title embarking upon something big. In the space available the Hulk has a confrontation with both Talbot and a guest starring Captain Marvel as ol' Greenskin seeks to recover Jarella's body and take it home to her planet for final burial. There he discovers how the world has changed beyond recognition simply because on his previous departure the force of his growth created earthquakes and knocked the planet out of its orbit. In the one part of the world that is still lush and fertile the Hulk tries to bury Jarella but has to face off against the Gardener. These issues all help to tie up some loose ends that have been floating about and give some closure in preparation for what is to come. It's a good sign for the future.

The annuals are a mixed set but none really stands out as an especially memorable piece. #7 is a team-up with the Angel and Iceman, coming not long after the end of the Champions though that series isn't referenced and instead the story is more of a follow-up to events in X-Men as they join the Hulk in battling with the super Sentinel Master Mold, now driven by the mind of Steven Lang. It's an interesting interlude in the lives of Iceman and the Angel, and a possible glimpse at what an actual buddy book teaming up just the two of them might have looked like, but it's really more their story than the Hulk's. It might have worked if the Hulk had had his own on going team-up title (and when better to try that than during the success of his television series?), but as a regular annual it feels like it's been taken over by the guest stars. Annual #8 is better, offering a traditional tale of the Hulk and Bruce finding friendship and peace in a wilderness only for the moment to be rudely interrupted. Here the serpent in the paradise comes in the form of Sasquatch of Alpha Flight. Another scientist whose work with gamma radiation has left him with the ability to change into a large beast, Sasquatch has retained his human personality and approaches the whole situation as though it were a scientific investigation. Unfortunately the Hulk has turned back into Bruce who can only struggle as a giant orange monster tries to bring out the giant green monster, destroying the moment of tranquillity. This time the annual works for the star because the story is driven by him, with the guest star merely a bonus. Annual #9 foregoes guest stars amongst it's cast and instead tells a rather confusing and mundane tale of a group of international criminals engaging in what appears to be a giant game of chess against the Hulk, attacking him at a succession of locations that correspond to chess pieces. The whole thing is so weak and dull that it could easily be consigned to the grand pile of non-essential annuals and forgotten about. However there's a name in the credits that stands out.

Steve Ditko had returned to working for Marvel the previous year, but it was a rather muted return with little trumpeting and Ditko refused to return to his best known creations, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Instead he worked on mainly obscure and/or licensed titles. This annual and an issue of the regular series just missed by this volume are the big exceptions and also one of the very few times Ditko did return to one of the strips he had worked on back in the 1960s. And frankly the art here suggests one of two things. Either Ditko was just doing it for the money and giving the art rather less than his all, or else he was using the Hulk as a proxy to demonstrate why it wasn't such a good idea to have him return to his most famous work. There's just no real excitement to his art here, nor does it feel particularly retro as though it was the mid Sixties once more and Ditko had picked up where he had left off. Instead the art is functional, depicts the contemporary look of the Hulk and would be perfectly satisfactory for an annual drawn by a guest artist who hadn't had a run on the character before. But for a return of one of the giants of Marvel it just doesn't meet expectations. Maybe that was the entire point and Ditko had accepted the assignment to demonstrate the folly of believing that all it takes to produce greatness is to get a big name from the past back on a title and expect the years to fall away. From what is known of Ditko's strongly held beliefs I doubt he would engage in actively sabotaging his work to prove a point. But he may well have been all too aware of his limitations in living up to his own legend and accepted the opportunity to prove the reality of the situation without compromising his position on not going back to his co-creations.

This volume isn't the most spectacular Essential ever but it does hold up reasonably well, showing some good solid storytelling and offering signs of something great to come at the end. The Hulk is not the easiest character to write for and often the series can get stuck in a rut but here there's a sense of direction and purpose that actually develops all the characters going forward. As a general representative of the Essential series this volume contains a lot of the standards such as overlapping two distinct runs on a title as well as including key crossover issues and rather disposable annuals. It's a reasonable representative of the series as a whole and not a bad one to end this particular series of reprints with.

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