Last week, I finally sat down and read through half a year's worth of Hulk, and I'll be honest: It wasn't really something I'd been looking forward to. Most of my doubts came from the fact that rather than Bruce Banner, this was a book that would be focusing on the Red Hulk, a character that I could not possibly have cared less about. That probably puts me in the minority as far as super-hero fans go -- Hulk had a huge launch on the strength of creators Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness -- but there was just nothing there in concept or execution that grabbed me.
But on the other hand, this is a book by Jeff Parker and Gabriel Hardman. These are guys who have done nothing but make great comics, and since taking over Hulk at #25, they've not only kept that record going, they've created what is hands down one of the best comics Marvel's putting out.
Parker and Hardman were the team behind the late, lamented Atlas, and Hardman's art is darn near perfect for a Hulk story -- especially one that opens with a giant monster punching his way through an army of techno-zombies -- and Parker's one of my favorite writers working in comics who can hook readers in an instant with strong character work and wild ideas like a team using Man-Thing for transportation in the pages of Thunderbolts.
As much as I might not care for a lot of his writing, I totally get what Loeb was trying to do when this Hulk series launched, and I'll even agree that in a lot of ways, it's the story that had to happen. At the time, Greg Pak and John Romita Jr. had just concluded the World War Hulk storyline, in which the Hulk had returned to Earth believing that the Marvel Universe's most prominent heroes had engineered not just his exile to another planet, but the death of the woman he loved, which made him slightly upset. It's a great story, that probably ranks as the best Marvel "Event" in 20 years with incredible action and tension.
But it's also deadly serious, and it simultaneously made the Hulk more popular than he had been in years, while also ending with Bruce Banner unable to turn into his angry, green alter ego -- for a little while, at least.
So say what you want about Loeb, but when he was faced with the problem of how to top a story where the Hulk beat the living crap out of everyone in the Marvel Universe, he came up with a pretty great solution: You do the exact same thing, but with a new character -- Red Hulk -- that goes so insanely over the top that it becomes a gigantic comedy.
So that's exactly what he and a group of top-shelf artists like McGuinness, Frank Cho and Art Adams did, putting Red Hulk -- who unlike his green predecessor was actively a total jerk -- into a series of absolutely gigantic, almost completely nonsensical fights. And unlike the stiff, maudlin scripts that he turned in for the similarly nonsensical (and beautifully drawn) Superman/Batman, he did it in a way made it like a Marvel Universe version of his greatest work, the 1985 movie Commando, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as John Matrix.
I'm not kidding: Commando rules.
Unfortunately, given that Loeb's Hulk was somewhere between an outright MAD Magazine parody and your kid brother's fanfic about a guy who was just like Goku only even more awesome, the comic was a joke that a lot of people seemed to take way too seriously -- especially since it came complete with a "mystery" about the Red Hulk's identity that was impossible to solve. For those of you who aren't aware, the Red Hulk is who everybody thought it was going to be way back at the beginning: "Thunderbolt" Ross, the Hulk's slightly less angry version of J. Jonah Jameson.
It's a pretty natural fit and makes plenty of sense, but here's a panel from Hulk #6, where Ross talks to the Red Hulk in front of other people.
Admittedly, in a universe with Life Model Decoys, shape-shifting Skrulls and an overwhelming preponderance of telepathic hallucinogens, you could easily argue that this is just par for the course, but let's be real here: It's a cheat, and if you have a "mystery" that's central to the plot that doesn't play fair with the audience -- something Loeb's been known to do more than once -- you're just creating a book that's frustrating to read.
Also, there's only so many arguments you can hear in a comic book shop over whether one fictional character could grab onto another fictional character's hammer and jump into space before you have to sit down and really examine what you're doing with your life.
But the point is, Hulk was big. Not just because of the huge fights, but also because the cast had expanded into a full-on franchise: Two Hulks, two Sons-of-Hulk, three She-Hulks, and a dude who looks a lot like a Hulk but is blue and wears cargo shorts. That's a lot of characters, and when it all came to a head with the "Fall of the Hulks" and "World War Hulks" storylines -- which basically involved Dumb Strong Good Guys vs. Evil Smart Guys -- and Loeb left the book, Parker and Hardman were left with a similar question to what he faced: Where do you go from there, and how do you top it?
Parker's solution is as elegant in its simplicity as Loeb's was, and again, it's the one that's necessary for this character: You do the same thing, only in reverse and with higher stakes.
First, the "higher stakes" part. Loeb (and really, Greg Pak too) had told stories of super-heroes fighting super-heroes for the sake of fighting super-heroes. Parker, on the other hand, ratcheted up the danger by creating a plot that sees the entire world on the verge of apocalyptic destruction -- even more so than usual for the Marvel Universe, which is no mean feat:
This idea alone -- hundreds of doomsday scenarios all unfolding one right after the other -- is enough to keep a super-hero book going for years without ever getting old. It immediately opens itself to being able to go anywhere and do anything, especially in the Marvel universe, and that's something Parker and Hardman take advantage of. In the first four issues, the Red Hulk goes across America, into Space, down to Atlantis and finally ends up on Monster Island as part of a grand tour of the Marvel Universe.
The idea of an unlimited number of potential apocalypses also underlines the tension between the characters by setting up a new way for Bruce Banner and the Red Hulk to interact with each other. With so much going on in addition to the day-to-day threats of the Marvel Universe, the Red Hulk is recruited by Steve Rogers -- the former Captain America, one of the few super-heroes that a military man like Ross would respect -- to be the brawn of the operation.
Meanwhile, it's Bruce Banner who acts as the coordinator for Red Hulk, since he can't Hulk up and do the job himself because he's busy using his smarts to figure out the next installment of MODOK and the Leader's seemingly endless stream of Armageddons. It's a classic dynamic -- two guys who hate each other forced to unite for the common good -- but separating it out into Bruce Banner directing the Hulk rather than becoming him is a really interesting spin, particularly since these are two guys who absolutely hate each other.
Added to this is the idea that the Red Hulk still can't head off all these threats by himself, which essentially turns the first story arc into modern day version of Marvel Two-In-One. The difference, though is that Parker's flipped things around with the reversal mentioned above by sticking to the idea that everyone he could possibly team up with absolutely hates the Red Hulk.
In Loeb's run, it became apparent that the Red Hulk's entire deal was that he was going to go around punking out and occasionally decapitating the Marvel super-heroes:
Don't worry, Namor got better.
But rather than just discarding this aspect of the Red Hulk's character, Parker has embraced it, playing it up so that virtually every hero he counters comes to the completely logical conclusion that he's back for a second round, which in turn leads to sudden, violent revenge:
In the hands of lesser creators, this kind of interaction would come off as just as fanfic-ish as the original fights, but with Parker and Hardman, it's more like the punchline to Jeph Loeb's setup. Instead of reading like a big game of "no MY favorite guy is better!", it feels like the perfectly logical consequences of earlier actions and an actual progression for the character. It's not just a matter of "you hit me, I hit you, now we team up." The characters' actions -- and the Red Hulk's reactions to what they do -- are an interesting take on how to provide redemption for a character so thoroughly steeped in cartoon hyperviolence.
Again, it's something that needed to be addressed for this character to continue working in the context of a larger universe, and it works in an incredibly entertaining way that takes those old Team-Up/Two-In-One rules and goes way over the top with them.
The best bit, though, is that since teaming up with Bruce Banner has left the Red Hulk without the arch-enemy that the Hulk supplied, Parker has given him a new one.
This happened way back in Hulk #4:
Now again, I'm not the world's biggest Jeph Loeb fan, but I'm not so sour that I won't admit that seeing the Watcher -- whose major role in comics is showing up so that he can stand around and talk about how super-important everything is -- having his speech interrupted with a punch in the face is pretty hilarious, paricularly with a big "OW!" thrown in for good measure.
But once again, Parker is recontextualizing this stuff into the larger Marvel Universe, and in the larger Marvel Universe, the Watcher is also a dude with phenomenal and nearly limitless cosmic power who has broken his rule about not interfering something like eighteen times. And as it turns out, he is way into revenge.
That's right: the Red Hulk's arch-enemy is The Watcher. And that is hilarious. And that's without even getting to the issue that involves the single greatest Woodgod appearance in 30 years -- not that there's any actual competition for that title.
It would be enough if Parker and Hardman were doing the solid, action-packed storytelling that I've come to expect from both of them, and their run on Hulk is certainly that, plus back-up stories that eventually blend with the main arc to give you extra bang for your buck. But they've also taken everything they were given -- a book that was already built to go as far over the top as it possibly could -- and taken it even one step further while making it all work. And that makes for a phenomenal comic.
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