Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mick Reborn #2: You Can't Go Hulk Again

This was my first comic book, and really it had to be. I bought it at Arthur's Pipe & Gift Shop on New Scotland Avenue, right across from St. Peter's Hospital. There's a pizza place there now. At least there was last time I cared to notice.

I think at the time I recognized some of the characters on the cover. I'm sure I recognized the Hulk from his live-action show and his Saturday morning cartoon. I probably vaguely knew who some of the others were. Captain America. Iron Man. Maybe the Fantastic Four. The Vision looked exotic and almost scary to me, which seems pretty silly now.

What follows is no pop psychology, no retrospective reinterpretation. I was very conscious of why I bought the comic. The cover made it appear to be a story in which the Hulk faced down the rest of the world's superheroes. Later it turned out that wasn't really the case, but that didn't matter. I was a lonely and angry kid. I felt like the other kids at school would like me if they just tried to get to know me, and I dreamed of the day that would happen. In the meantime, every day on the playground felt exactly like the cover of The Incredible Hulk #278. The thing that never occurred to me until I saw the comic was that maybe on that playground I was the hero, and all those bastards who made fun of me, they were the assholes. After all, it was obvious to me from the cover that the FF, the Avengers, and the rest of them, they were the bad guys in the comic. How could they not be? They were facing off against the Hulk, and it's his comic. Duh!

When I eventually stopped blogging about comics, the story of the Hulk's exile to another world by the Earth's heroes - Planet Hulk - was, maybe, three-quarters of the way done. Everyone knew World War Hulk, the story of the Hulk's return to Earth, was coming. During a time when I was hardly reading any other comics, World War Hulk was one of the few trades I made sure to pick up as soon as it was out.

In spite of the fact that it really wasn't published very long ago, it's one of the most worn trades in my collection. Strangely enough, while I have reread it numerous times, usually I only flip through one specific scene: the standoff between Hulk and the Avengers.

Apologies if I'm misremembering, but I think it was Dave Campbell of Dave's Long Box who immortalized the phrase, "FUCK YEAH! Moments?" To me, World War Hulk was nothing but one FYM after another. Just a trailer of money shots.

For me, World War Hulk had nothing to do with Reed Richards and Iron Man and the rest exiling the Hulk into space. It had nothing to do with the death of his wife, the destruction of his alien world, a poorly timed IRS audit or any other inconveniences. World War Hulk came hot on the heels of Civil War, which was about as close as Marvel has ever come to attempting a complex, mature concept in a company-wide event. The Hulk rocked into the Earth like a mad, stripped-down Superman to punish the world for getting so goddamned high-minded. Dressed like a gladiator, like the ancient mythic heroes to whom Superman owed so much inspiration, the return of the Hulk was an apocalypse brought about by the world's Proto-Superhero - the World's Forgotten Boy - reminding his descendants of nothing more or less important than the simple fact he's the strongest one there is. No debates. No recruiting. No plans.

Punching and property damage.

More than that, World War Hulk was the realization of the promise the cover of my first comic made but never delivered; the Hulk declaring war on the entire mutie-loving world and pounding its heroes to tar. It was a conflict I'd waited decades for, and not to settle any stupid "Hulk vs." debates. I wanted to see my favorite green goliath smash the other heroes of Marvel because they deserved it. For denying him, for misunderstanding him, for hunting him and for hounding him, I waited decades for the day when I would see a triumphant Hulk clutching enough bloody capes to fill the last few minutes of 300.

It is possible that, sometimes, I over-identify.

Regardless, it seemed natural upon my decision to return to reading and writing about comics that Hulk would be my go-to guy. After all, as I wrote last week, I feel a little unsure of my footing here. It's been a while. Attaching a lifeline to the character who served as the comic book icon of my childhood seemed a good idea. Not that I would only write about the Hulk, but that he would be my doorway to the rest of the funnybook world. I don't know what's different about comics since last I was writing about them, and I need something familiar to anchor myself. Something familiar. Something dependable. Something-

Christ-on-a-space-shuttle, who the fuck is that?

The Loeb/McGuinness Hulk disappointed me as much as any comic ever could. McGuinness draws the Hulk like a Cartoon Network parody. Loeb's stories, in every way I could imagine, don't make sense. I'm constantly convinced I skipped something. Hulk will be free and at large at the end of one issue, and imprisoned at the beginning of the next, meaning the character who has been hounded by the military since his birth is now willingly submitting to imprisonment? Including going BACK to prison after he's already freed himself? I can't decide whether or not his Hulk is more or less unreadable than his Superman/Batman. His Hulk lacks the Supes-Said/Bats-Said narration that rendered Superman/Batman immediately annoying, but it has its own host of boring, vapid gimmicks. One issue features, once again, the Hulk switching back and forth between his green, savage self and the gray-skinned legbreaker "Mr. Fixit." Then, later...WendiHulk. As in a Hulk-ified Wendigo, or a Wendigotten Hulk, whichever you like better. And his time at DC has apparently left him with the notion that every comic needs enough superhero guest appearances to fill a clown car. Yes, I understand the dollars-and-cents logic of "guest appearances increase sales," but that really only tends to work with guest appearances by popular characters, right? I fail to see how Moon Knight and Brother Voodoo are going to increase Hulk sales, especially when they really add nothing to the story. Someone will say "Hey! We need some magic crap done!" and poof! Brother Voodoo shows up, does some magic crap, and leaves. It all takes place in the space of a couple pages. Wow. That's chemistry.

Some years ago I wrote a commentary piece for CBG called "WHY WON'T PUNY HUMANS JUST LEAVE HULK ALONE!?!?" My argument was that, rather than doing anything genuinely interesting with the character, writers had subjected Hulk to constant, radical change. Gimmicks disguised as depth. Rather than reproduce the entire article, I think this says it all: "We've had smart Hulks, gray Hulks, mute Hulks, evil Hulks, suicidal Hulks, psychotic Hulks, incestuous Hulks, Hulks borne of Skrulls, Hulks that don't even have to turn into the Hulk to get all Hulky, and Sybil-Hulks who change from green-to-gray and smart-to-dumb every day. We've even had a Rick Jones Hulk. Imagine if Mexican wrestlers broke Bruce Wayne's back every few years, and Spidey endured clone sagas bi-annually. That's what Hulk fans have dealt with for the past two decades." Loeb's Red Hulk proved my argument better than any Hulk run I can remember. Between the red Hulk, the gray Hulk, the green Hulk and the Wendigo Hulk, Loeb scrambled to grab any tired BS he could rather than scrounge up an actual idea.

More than any other faults I could list about the comic (and ho-boy, are the opportunities there), the Loeb/McGuinness Hulk was such a disappointment precisely because I desperately wanted to like it. Reading the Red Hulk trade as part of my re-introduction to the comic book world was kind of like a lapsed Catholic visiting his church after 5 years and walking in on his priest doing something a little too newsworthy with an altar boy.

And speaking of little boys, the Hulk's little kid didn't help much either. I knew about Greg Pak's Skaar: Son of Hulk. I think I saw an issue of it in a Barnes & Noble some months ago. When I went to the comic shop last week to clumsily rediscover my path into the comics world, I prepared by checking out Diamond's list of releases for that week, and was surprised to see the Skaar tpb was scheduled for the shelves. I found it, flipped it over, and had to blink my eyes a couple of times when I saw the $24.99 price tag. I thought maybe I was reading the Canadian price or something, but no, there it was, in black-and-white, $24.99. What the hell, I thought, That's HC prices! I "realized" that the trade must have reprinted more issues than I initially thought. I read the back description, sure I would find something saying it reprinted 12 or so issues - no dice. Seven. Seven and a little bit of an eighth.

No. I just wouldn't buy it. No way. Sure, it was written by the guy who wrote the World War Hulk I gushed over like a lovesick girl, featuring a Hulk-like character on the world Pak created for Planet Hulk, but $24.99 was too much. I'm no cheapskate. Hell, there are quite a few credit card companies, banks, and collections specialists that wish I was a hell of a lot more of a cheapskate. I might be willing to pay that much if we were talking about a comic I knew was just absolutely spectacular. If Skaar was a Morrison/Quitely book or a Brubaker/Phillips book, maybe I'd splurge. I never read a single issue of Skaar. I loved Pak's stuff on Incredible Hulk, but it wasn't like I'd seen any of his other work. After all, I loved Loeb's The Long Halloween, but that didn't make Red Hulk anything less similar to what belongs in a litter box.

Eventually, I realized it was foolish of me to expect anything more out of Hulk, particularly after reading the other books I brought home. I hadn't bought many floppies, but the books I did buy were largely confusing, boring messes. Dark Avengers hardly featured the Dark Avengers, which was particularly disappointing because I'd only bought the goddamn thing to find out who the hell they were. Moon Knight was, as Chris Allen wrote the other day, unfortunately what you would expect from the first issue of a chronically third-tier Marvel superhero. New Avengers was, as I remembered it, not horrible.

As the general cloud of ho-hum settled, it occurred to me that I simply could not afford this shit. I'm sure this has received plenty of discussion on the Net, I'm sure I'm just another geek complaining about it, but $4 a pop for a floppy is far out of my range. I can't do it. I cannot do it. I can't justify that much money to try new comics, to get comics just so I can review them online, or to keep myself stocked up on nostalgia junk food.

The comic that keeps springing to mind is Immortal Weapons. I adored Immortal Iron Fist and would've loved to check out this mini. It isn't very common that spin-offs live up to the original, but still I would've at least given it a shot. But for $4? No way in hell. And now, unlike before, there isn't even the chance that I'll "wait for the trade" since, if there is a trade, its price will be just as inflated as the floppies'.

The point is that superhero comics have proven so undesirable that the idea of purchasing one - unless I'm familiar with the creative team and know that they're a cut above the rest - is absolutely laughable. I can't imagine ever caring enough about the Avengers to spend $12/month on their exploits. For $12/month I could pay my water bill. I could pay half my cable bill. I could buy, like, at least five 2-liter bottles of Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi. Maybe six if there's a sale or something.

I am being forced, finally, to do what the Hulk has asked everyone to do for years - Hulk just wants to be left alone. Short of a finding a job that that pays a hell of a lot more, I don't see any other option. Hulk's going to get what he wants, and that's really not what makes me a little sad. What makes me sad, is that I have difficulty imagining there's anything bad about that. I'm not particularly worried that I'm missing the next great superhero comic. But at the same time, by missing out on the capes, I feel a little lost.

The dirty secret about me is that I've never cared about, or particularly liked, non-superhero comics. Well, that's not completely true, but even most of the non-superhero comics I've followed in the past were still action-adventure books (and someone could make a strong argument that Conan or Ogami Itto are as much superheroes as Hulk or Batman). I don't know why. There are plenty of stories I enjoy that have nothing to do with violence or irradiated heroes, I just prefer them in films or on television or in books. Something seemed inherently boring about using a comic book for non-action, non-violent stories. When I blogged years ago, and other bloggers would rave about Jimmy Corrigan or Ice Haven or Palomar, I would nod and smile and think "Yeah, that's great, whatever, when's House of M coming out?"

But here I am, desperate. I just don't have the money for this superhero thing anymore. At the same time, I know if I did have the money, there's so goddamn little that comes out that's worth it. There are so few superhero books that meet the bare minimum requirement of being more entertaining than my Xbox 360, much less the singular superhero stuff that truly soars as high as its subject matter.

So I got a new library card (my old one was all chewed up, I had some fines on it, and I moved to a new county anyway). Pretty much all they had was kind of stuff that, previously, I wouldn't have bothered with. Autobiography. Drama. Stories featuring talking animals who somehow managed to be serious. I borrowed a pile of books and brought them home, not feeling very excited about the whole venture. I took the thickest of the books and planted it on top of my girlfriend's bathroom cabinet, figuring I might flip through it if I was bored on the can. This is the book.

Luckily, I eventually took it out of the bathroom. Otherwise I probably would've been in there for three hours.

So, yeah. I changed my mind about some things.

More next week.

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