Thursday, June 22, 2006

Review - Giant-Size Hulk #1

Giant-Size Hulk #1
By Peter David, Greg Pak, Juan Santacruz, Aaron Lopresti, and Dale Keown
Published by Marvel; $4.99 US

The last time we got a single Hulk issue this size was back in 2001 with the "Monster-sized" Incredible Hulk #33, which featured an original fill-in by Christopher Priest and some reprints from both the heyday of Len Wein and the dawn of Peter David’s first Hulk run. The reprints were cool and Priest’s story was funny and touching, but the stories didn’t really have anything to do with where the character was going or any strong connection with each other. In comparison, Giant-Size Hulk #1 gives us “Green Pieces,” a Hulk vs. Champions story that, if the solicitations are trustworthy, holds some connection to a post-Planet-Hulk event; "Banner War," a "Planet Hulk" interlude that answers the question of why the Hulk’s paler half has been absent from Sakaar; brief interviews with Greg Pak and Anthony Flamini (writer of the upcoming Planet Hulk Gladiator Guidebook); and a beautiful reprint of Incredible Hulk: The End, the first of Marvel’s "The End" books that premiered in 2002 and reunited Peter David and Dale Keown on a Hulk book for the first time since 1996’s Hulk/Pitt, and whose climax has an interesting connection with Pak’s "Banner War."

The clash between the Hulk and the Champions (perhaps the most awkwardly cast super-hero team in history, and this is coming from a hardcore Defenders fan) comes first and is set hard on the heels of the battle royal featured in 1977’s Champions #16. With the exception of David’s trademark quips, it channels the classic Hulk-fights-someone-who-thinks-he’s-a-bastard-and-feels-bad-about-it-later stories of the 70’s, and that’s a good thing. For an 18-pager, we get a respectable tussle between greenskin and the Champions, as well as a surprise guest appearance.

Maybe it’s because I’ve read so much of David’s stuff that the humor has grown stale, but a lot of the funny just doesn’t work for me. The set-ups to jokes seem a little self-conscious, but I did get a nice chuckle out of Hercules’s commentary on the screwy time-logic of the Marvel Universe.

The solicit for Giant-Size Hulk promised that "Green Pieces" would hold "a key to Post-PLANET HULK events!" What’s the key? No clue. Probably the clearest possibility has something to do with Hercules’s regret at the end of the story. Since Herc’s in the anti-registration camp of Civil War, at least a good chunk of the Illuminati members are on the opposite side, and if/when Hulk returns to Earth looking for payback he may be gunning for the Illuminati, maybe the "key" has something to do with a post-Civil-War alliance? Another possibility has to do with the aforementioned surprise guest, but there’s less of an obvious connection there.

Initially I had one minor quibble about Hercules’s lamentation. I wondered if this chipped out a bit of continuity in regards to later meetings between Hercules and Hulk, particularly in reference to Byrne’s and Milgrom’s Hulk/Bi-Coastal Avengers battles when Hercules seemed so excited at the chance of another knuckle-bruising with the Hulkster, as well as David’s Incredible Hulk - Hercules Unleashed in which the demigod was suspicious of the green goliath’s connection with the Avengers’ "deaths" and was hellbent on either recruiting or pounding on him. I thought about it though, and in the end I don’t think there’s any discrepancy there. I think it’s absolutely believable to assume that Herc’s passion for fisticuffs overpowered his memory, just as it tends to overpower what little common sense and decorum he possesses.

Over the years Hulk has given us a lot of dreamy sequences in which Banner and Hulk meet to hash things out either literally in dreams or on some kind of hypnosis-induced mental plane. Pak’s "Banner War" is a surprisingly original chapter in this ongoing conflict for one simple reason: Banner ain’t the victim this time around.

In most stories like this, we either see Banner imagining himself in physical conflict with – or simply being chased down by – the Hulk, or – as was the case in David’s first run and Jenkins’s as well – the various personalities rolling around Banner’s head are on a more level playing field. "Banner War" turns the paradigm on its head, portraying Banner as an emotional tyrant trying to belittle the Hulk into submission. Banner is at his most irrational, saying things like, "Let me take over. I’ll find the ship. I’ll fix it. We’ll go to the planet Reed wanted us to go to." Apparently, Banner forgets that there’s an army between him and the spaceship; an army even the Hulk might have a hard time plowing through. It's Banner, and not Hulk, who viciously rips at his alter-ego's insecurities in order to prove he's the dominant persona.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the story is Hulk imagining his vengeance on Earth’s heroes. There’s some great dialogue, including some digs at recent Hulk appearances in books like Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk, Sentry, and even, during a dreamed return to Jarella’s World, Pak’s own story ("Look at you living these old stories again…This is embarrassing.").

"Banner War" should prove, for anyone who’s been wondering, that Pak has the chops not only to bring the action back to Incredible Hulk, but give us some new spins on the Banner/Hulk relationship. I’m more convinced than ever that I’d like to see Pak continue after "Planet Hulk" closes its doors.

Considering Hulk, and not Banner, is on the cover of future "Planet Hulk" additions, it shouldn’t be too tough to figure out who wins the conflict. Whether it was coincidence or not, the end of "Banner War" echoes the events of the third piece in Giant-Size Hulk: a reprint of Peter David and Dale Keown’s Incredible Hulk: The End.

"The Last Titan" was originally published as a short story in the 1998 prose collection, The Ultimate Hulk. David and Keown adapted it for comics for the first of Marvel’s "The End" books, and the issue has since become notoriously difficult to find in back-issue bins or auction sites. Incredible Hulk: The End shows us a world in which Bruce Banner is literally the last human on Earth. Humanity and its heroes have been wiped out by a nuclear holocaust, leaving Banner to wander aimlessly across the Americas, with only a ravenous horde of evolved cockroaches and an alien vidbot to keep him company. Keown’s art is beautiful, and comparing it to his early work on Hulk reveals a wonderful evolution in his craft (that, unfortunately, helped to make his last work on the character, Darkness/Hulk, so disappointing).

The war between Banner and Hulk has never been more vicious, and the end result is sad, chilling, and David portrays it so perfectly that you end up asking yourself how it could ever have ended any other way. The story of how the nuclear holocaust takes place - terrorist attacks followed by US retaliation - is particularly eerie when you remember Incredible Hulk: The End was originally released not too long after 9/11. In fact the double-page spread that chronicles the event features a picture of Hulk standing atop a pile of rubble that was altered for Marvel's post-9/11 Heroes collection to show Hulk holding an American flag.

My only problem with the story is Banner’s revelation regarding the connection between himself and the mythic figure Prometheus. The Hulk-Prometheus link is indicative of David’s tireless dedication and ingenuity towards constantly re-defining a character he’d handled for over a decade, but the way it’s presented feels a bit like spoon-feeding and even a little too academic. David has never been sneaky or subtle about his metaphors, and this one is brilliant. I guess that’s the problem. It’s not just brilliant in the sense that it’s smart, but brilliant in the sense that it’s glaring. Still, despite its faults, "The Last Titan" is touching and one of the better Hulk tales of the last half-dozen years or so.

Overall, Giant-Size Hulk #1 is one of the most satisfying Hulk reads I’ve bought in a while. I feel more thoroughly Hulk-satiated with GSH than with any of the recently-released Hulk trades. At $4.99, it’s a steal. It’s honest-to-Zeus weird to feel so optimistic about the future of Hulk that I’m actually worrying about whether or not the creative team can keep up the pace and the quality. Civil War might not be keeping die-hard Spider-Man Peter Parker fans happy, but for now, Marvel’s doing right by Hulk.

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