Friday, 3 January 2014

Essential Hulk volume 2

Essential Hulk volume 2 contains the Hulk strips from issues #92-101 of Tales to Astonish which was then transformed into a new Incredible Hulk series and the volume contains issues #102-117 and annual #1. Bonus material includes the back-up story from Incredible Hulk #147. Most of the issues are written by Stan Lee or Gary Friedrich bar one by Bill Everett & Roy Thomas and another by Archie Goodwin & Roy Thomas. The art is mainly by Marie Severin and Herb Trimpe, with Frank Giacoia providing breakdowns on one issue. The back-up from #147 is written by Thomas and drawn by Trimpe.

The first volume showed two attempts at the Hulk that just couldn't find a clear identity and direction for the series, with the result that it meandered aimlessly. And once again, we have a volume that founders due to the extremely limited nature of the central character and the poorly developed cast and environment around him. The Hulk is an oversimplistic monster and alter ego Bruce Banner is much underused with the result that there's not much meat to these tales, just an ongoing saga as the Hulk wanders from situation to situation whilst the military and others employ a variety of different methods in order to try and neutralise the monster. The situation is made worse by an inconsistent approach to the monster's intelligence levels with his dialogue varying from extremely childlike to rather more sophisticated and an uncertainty over how much he hates the human race, with some stories seeing him try to protect humans and others showing him far more hostile. The main development of note is the heavy use of characters from other series, although they are primarily lesser known supporting characters and villains rather than the big name stars.

The use kicks off right from the start of the volume as the first couple of issues see the Hulk encounter the Silver Surfer; the latter making his first ever appearance outside of the pages of the Fantastic Four. Then over the course of subsequent issues he crosses paths with the likes of the High Evolutionary and some of his creations like the New Men and the Knights of Wundagore, Namor the Sub-Mariner (in a crossover between the two strips in Tales to Astonish, taking up an entire issue), the Puppet Master, the Warriors Three, Odin, Loki, the Enchantress, the Executioner and other Asgardians, the Rhino, Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D., the Mandarin, Ka-Zar, Zabu and the Swamp Men, and the Sandman. The annual also gets in on the act and sees him encounter the Inhumans, getting caught up in an attempted coup by Maximus against Black Bolt with several other Inhumans seen including Gorgon and Lockjaw. Amongst the new foes are the Legion of the Living Lightning, the Space Parasite, the Missing Link, who is an intermediate stage of evolution awakened and mutated by radiation, Umbu, a robot in the Savage Land, the Galaxy Master, and the Leader's Super-Humanoid. The Hulk also gets out his stomping ground at times, with visits to New York, the Soviet Union, China, the Savage Land and the Inhumans' Great Refuge in a mountain range, as well as trips away from Earth to Wundagore II, Asgard or Berhert.

This is quite a diverse range of characters and settings but it can't conceal the basic problem that this particular incarnation of the Hulk isn't terribly interesting and it's difficult to generate excitement in such circumstances. The adventures take a step away from the continuous epic seen in the previous volume and are now more piecemeal, making them easier to pick for one-off reprints and to use the Hulk in other series but at the same time very little is developed. Few of the new foes are particularly memorable and the only significant reuses are the Leader, brought back to life with an "I took precautions and wasn't completely dead" explanation that now opens him up for future tales, and the Rhino, providing another super-strong foe with recurring potential. Otherwise we get a succession of stories that alternate between Bruce Banner/the Hulk being pursued by the army, sometimes captured, until he either escapes or else a bigger menace comes along and only the Hulk can stop it, or else some powerful being wants to make use of the Hulk for his own purposes. It is possible to base a series around the pursuit of a monster when the pursuing characters are compelling, but unfortunately that's not the case here. Rick Jones is used sparingly, eventually determining the Hulk is a menace who must be stopped, before disappearing into other series. General "Thunderbolt" Ross remains a driven cliché whilst Betty Ross continues to spend a lot of time crying for Bruce and wishing he could be cured of the Hulk curse. Major Glenn Talbot is trapped by the dilemma of the Hulk being his main obstacle for Betty's affections but he cannot bring himself to perform the obvious action to remove his rival, knowing that Betty would just hate him for it.

But aside from Betty's feelings in the matter, it's surprising that nobody is prepared to take the obvious step and execute Bruce on an occasion when he's been captured and is still in human form. Yes Bruce may be a top scientist but he's now been deemed enough of a menace that great amounts of force are devoted to stopping him. The absence of any exploration of this point may be attributable to the comic standards of the era, but from a modern perspective it's a surprising omission. However we do get to see that Bruce has done his best to take precautions, leaving notes for a device that (in a cameo) Reed Richards is able to construct and this gadget is used to transform the Hulk back to Banner, seeming permanently - and just at the wrong moment when the Hulk is all that stands in the way of the Missing Link. Fortunately the latter monster is emitting enough radiation that it restores the Hulk.

Although this volume is overall a meandering, directionless series there are some individual stories that do slightly stand out. One sees the Hulk captured on the orders of the High Evolutionary and transported away from Earth in order to fight the renegade New Men on Wundagore II - it seems the High Evolutionary just can't stop trying to create a new utopia and populate it with his creations. In the final battle the Evolutionary is mortally wounded and has no choice but to undergo an experiment in accelerated evolution, becoming an all powerful being who can instantly set all things to right before going on to become one with the cosmos. It's not as obvious as some later uses of the Evolutionary - most obviously in the original Warlock saga - but it does show a surprising willingness to take a mortal man and turn him into almost a god. The ending suggests that the Evolutionary's story has come to its natural conclusion, though it's always possible to bring back a character no matter how permanent their end seems to be. Such is the case with the Leader who is revived in the last few issues in the volume and he proves himself to be highly adaptable and devious, proving able to restrain the Hulk for ages whilst plotting anew. It all makes for a recurring conflict between gamma-enhanced brain and gamma-enhanced brawn. Although there's not exactly much competition for the role, the Leader is clearly earning his position as the Hulk's archenemy and it's one of extremely few signs of the series starting to develop the characters needed to create exciting sustained adventures.

The encounters across the wider Marvel universe also include conflict with two of the Hulk's future comrades in the Defenders. His meeting with the Sub-Mariner is complicated by the Puppet Master controlling the Hulk to force him into a fight but it shows how strongly matched the two are, making for a memorable struggle as their strips collide to celebrate Tales to Astonish's 100th issue. The meeting with the Silver Surfer is more interesting and tragic. Both are outcasts pursued by the hostility of humans yet due to the Hulk's anger and misunderstanding they initially end up fighting. Each wants to leave Earth but the Surfer is trapped and the Hulk proves unable to control the Surfer's surfboard after snatching it. But as the Hulk lies subdued there comes the possibility that the Surfer's powers could cure him once and for all by purging the gamma cells. Unfortunately another misunderstanding causes the Hulk to lash out and drive off the Surfer, denying a chance at a real cure. Whether the Surfer might still be able to cure the Hulk or not is something that only a few later writers have addressed, with one showing it was possible but the location of the action required it to be reversed to save Bruce's life, whilst on another occasion the Surfer discovered that the Hulk had been separated from Bruce and thus there was no Banner to turn him back into. Still it's a nice little encounter that shows the two outcasts have much in common and could work well together if they could overcome their suspicions and misunderstandings.

Sadly misunderstandings seem to be almost everywhere as both the Hulk and those around him frequently jump to conclusions and assume the worst, resulting in a succession of fights and denying the creature a chance to show his peaceful side. The Hulk may have a lot of anger but he also wants to live in peace and tranquillity, with friends who will understand and accept him for what he is. That's a goal many of us can identify with, along with the frustration that comes when such simple aims seem to be permanently denied, but it really isn't sufficient to sustain the series no matter how many guest appearances are thrown into the mix. This can make many Hulk adventures extremely turgid and this volume seems to be packed with more than most.

The main saving grace comes in the artwork, with Marie Severin vividly bringing the series to life but then Herb Trimpe takes it up several gears, producing some highly dynamic work that brings both the characters and the battles to life. However the writing just isn't fancy enough. In a parallel to Amazing Spider-Man, we see Stan Lee leave the series only to return after a handful of issues by other writers. The problem is that the series is drifting both with and without Lee, as though his creative energies were starting to wane after such a huge output for many years. However he'd been on many series for so long that it wasn't always easy to step into his shoes and in the case of both the Incredible Hulk and the Amazing Spider-Man it took two departures to finally find the best ongoing successor. Oddly it was Roy Thomas who would prove to be the ultimate immediate successor on Hulk when his Spider-Man tenure was the brief first attempt. But his main Hulk work is in volumes to come. The final story is a taster of things to come, showing the Hulk encountering a mirage of a town in the desert but his enhanced senses bring it to life and just for a brief moment he seems to have found both a friend and a place in life. It's a nice little tale and although I'm not sure why it was chosen for inclusion here, it shows the Thomas/Trimpe team can produce enjoyable individual stories, giving hope for the future.

In the meantime this is a rather poor overall entry in the series; an example of how the Essentials inevitably wind up collecting rather weak periods on some of the longest running titles and occasionally a series can get cut up in such a way that the overall result is just the weaker period without overlapping onto a better time either side or some one-off spectacular issues. But also it shows the fundamental problems inherent in the basic set-up of the Hulk and either some major character development or some significant changes to the status quo would be needed to overcome these problems. However until then what's left is a rather rambling dull series.

1 comment:

  1. Great review. I would just say, though, that the final story - the one with the Leader and his giant robot - is an absolute thrill ride, immensely entertaining stuff as both Banner and the Hulk have to stop the Leader's insane schemes almost non-stop. One particularly epic battle between Hulk and the robot has Hulk throw his opponent into a volcano-!