Wednesday, July 14, 2004

The Incredible Hulk #33

(This review was originally published at Comic Book Galaxy in 2001, and is posted here for safekeeping)

By Christopher Priest, Len Wein, Peter David, Jon Bogdanove, Herb Trimpe, Sal Buscema, Joe Staton, and John Ridgway
Published By Marvel Comics

Queen Divine Justice of Black Panther fame reunites with her half-ton, green-hued dance partner and three classic stories from the Hulk's past are reprinted in this 100-page "Monster" issue, marking Tom Breevort's last issue as Editor. We also get some previews from the new art team on the title, along with some words from the series' new ongoing writer; Bruce Jones.

I think my overall attitude towards The Incredible Hulk this past year could be likened to that of a lonely Taleban soldier manning a rusty anti-aircraft gun in the heart of Kabul, who hears a whistling sound overhead and thinks, "Well...maybe it will only be a little bomb." With the exception of the two-part Abomination tale, Paul Jenkins' run on the title has given us stories which define the art of masterful build-up, and whose endings too often define the art of anti-climax. None moreso than his final story arc "Spiral Staircase" (co-written by Sean McKeever), which ended in such an "ABC Afterschool Special" way, it made me want to pump my fist up and yell, "And knowing is half the battle!" Hulkophiles were also subjected to the limited series Hulk Smash! whose only saving grace was that there were only two issues, and are currently enjoying the "dialogue is for wusses" style of Startling Stories: Banner, in which we find out all super-powered musclemen have really big chins. Only three things have kept Hulk-nuts like myself more well-behaved than our favorite character this year: a two-part story in The Avengers where we found out how to say "Hulk Smash" in Greek, the Hulk's hilarious appearances in The Defenders, and a four-word phrase which we drone in our heads like a desperate mantra: "It isn't John isn't John Byrne..."

So, I wasn't expecting much from this issue. As an avid Black Panther reader, I'm no stranger to Priest's superb writing talent (the main story of the issue is a fill-in written by Priest: "Something Borrowed, Something Green"), but Jenkins's run had already been interrupted by two fill-ins, both of which--at best--can be described as "not horrible." So, like the aforementioned Afghani soldier, upon opening the issue I hunkered down and hoped the shrapnel would hit me in a spot that had nothing to do with reproduction.

Praise Allah; the bomb never hit. If I'd been reading Black Panther as long as I have The Incredible Hulk, I might actually be mad after reading this issue. While Priest has made his name scripting the ruler of Wakanda, I think his best story of the year can be found in the pages the Earth's mightiest mortal.

The story opens with Queen Divine Justice, troubled and confused, summoning the priest Kono at Wakanda's Tranquility Temple. With a heavy heart, Queen unloads on Kono a story of humor, love, and loss of innocence.

Queen becomes aware of the Hulk's presence in Wakanda only after T'Challa's military does. While heading back to the states from a Defenders mission, the Hulk makes a pit stop in Wakanda for some water. No more tolerant of greenie than their American counterparts (and with the Black Panther absent from his kingdom), the Wakandans throw their military might at the Hulk, including a couple of those Godzilla-class Panther Prowlers. Thinking she can accomplish more with her smile than the military can with their bombs (Queen and the Hulk first met and "dated" back in Black Panther #15), Queen hurries to the scene, hoping to calm the Hulk down and maybe even make him into something of a hero.

Their first stop is Queen's kitchen, but after the Hulk "redecorates" the place because of an unfortunate choice of words, Queen decides on something a little more up the Hulk's alley.

As it turns out, a Russian sub has sunk in the Atlantic and Queen convinces the Hulk to go save it by telling him it's filled not with Russian sailors, but with puppies. En route is a hilarious scene involving Queen trapped in the Hulk's arms as he takes one of his 100-league leaps, fighting to keep both her consciousness and her lunch. I always thought folks like Rick Jones were able to take going up and down and up and down like that a little too well.

It isn't just the humor which makes this scene memorable. It's memorable because it gives us the same feeling we get in one of the following scenes where we witness the Hulk wrestle the Russian sub from the ocean floor, and it's the same feeling that has been so dreadfully absent from the pages of The Incredible Hulk since the days of Roy Thomas and Len Wein.

The title has been so choked with psychological intrigue and introspection that it's forgotten one simple fact: this guy isn't just a really, really strong guy playing a mental game of multiple-personality musical chairs: he's a force of nature. He's a nuclear tornado. The whole world is just one big ugly sandbox to him and God help you if you're one of the toy soldiers who gets caught in his wake. Don't get me wrong, there's certainly a place for Hulk stories which revolve around the psyche, but I think some writers have forgotten that what makes the Hulk's psyche so intriguing is the idea of exploring the mind of a creature who is more like an earthquake than a man. Priest remembered that.

Queen, on the other hand, gives the story a truly sweet and tangible heart. She calls the Hulk "Bruce" in the narration because, as she tells Kono, "The most basic human dignity we can afford each other is to call each other by our own name," certainly a rare sentiment in the world of the "super." And when she refers to the Hulk as her "date" and says he loves him, you believe her. Their love for each other is real. And while it certainly doesn't make them lovers, they are much more than friends. The phrase, "kindred spirits" seems too cliche' to use, but it's really the only one that fits. They're two people frighteningly alone in the world and absent of love, but still
unwilling to take the world's crap without a fight. All this makes their "break-up" at the end all the more heart-wrenching.

While I've mentioned Priest's name enough times, I should probably point out that the unique feel of this issue wouldn't be possible without the art of Jon Bogdanove. His cartoonish style lends itself both to the more humorous sides to the story, along with the tender ones. My only complaint is the Hulk's really, really thin legs. But...what the hey. I've spent so long trying to deal with the "big, big body, little head" Hulk drawings, that the "big, big body, Kate Moss legs" version is almost a relief.

As for the rest of the "Monster" issue...well, it's interesting. The issue reprints The Incredible Hulk #204, #205, and #335. Maybe I'm assuming too much, but it seems to me the intent of reprinting these particular stories is to prepare readers for what the new creative team has in store.

"Vicious Circle!" (#204) is the last in a long line of Len Wein/Herb Trimpe tales. In this particular story, a professor by the name of Kronus sends Bruce Banner back in time in order to stop himself from being caught in the gamma blast which originally transformed him into the Hulk. "Do Not Forsake Me!" (#205) gives us the epic battle between the Hulk and the Crypto-Man which resulted in the death of Jarella; the Hulk's most devoted lover, second only to Betty Banner herself.

What does this have to do with what's to come? Well, in Tom Breevort's editorial on the letters page, he writes, "Writer Len Wein recently revealed to me that he hadn't truly intended Jarella to be permanently demised, but he left the series before he could pay off on what he'd set up. Oh well." An interesting comment, considering Jarella is featured in both of these reprints. Who knows? Maybe Betty's death won't keep Hulk and Bruce lonely for long after all.

The ending of the first story, "Vicious Circle!" made me think of something Bruce Jones says in the interview on the last page of the issue. Banner finds out he can banish the Hulk from his life through Kronus' time machine, but only at a terrible cost: the life of Rick Jones. At the story's conclusion, he stomps off saying, "No, I didn't destroy the Hulk! He and I are still soul-mates for the duration, but at least THAT I can live with!" Which reflects somewhat this comment by Jones: "The Hulk seemingly detests Banner; Banner may have felt the same once, but it did him no good. He must gain at least a semblance of control over this Hyde-like side of his personality; he can't waste time detesting it."

The last story is the classic, "The Evil That Men Do!" (#335) by Peter David and John Ridgway, in which the grey Hulk comes face-to-face with a disturbing reflection of himself: a killer spirit which resides in the body of a lonely gas station attendant named Gil, and emerges to commence with his dark work once Gil has fallen asleep.

Considering Bruce Jones' past work on horror comics, this final reprint comes as no suprise. Though I should point out that Jones has stated that The Incredible Hulk will not transform into a horror comic during his tenure, but that the predominant feel of the series will be "paranoia."

All in all, The Incredible Hulk #33 is definitely worth the extra dough. Priest and Bogdanove give us a wonderful tale that should take its rightful place in the pantheon of Great Hulk stories, a few stories that have already been there for quite a while, along with a glimpse of what's in store for the green goliath after the changing of the guard.

--Mick Martin

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