Monday, August 20, 2012

Review - Hulk: Season One

Hulk: Season One
By Fred Van Lente and Tom Fowler
Published By Marvel; $24.99 US
136 pages

If you know me and/or if you've ever been a regular reader of the blog, you probably know Hulk is a favorite of mine.  And if you know that, then you might presume that any comic redefining the character's origin as Hulk: Season One attempts, will be met with some stubborn resistance on my part. I couldn't blame you for that. I've been guilty of prejudging comics trying to mess with the who and whats of my sacred super-cow's beginnings. I'd say, for example, I didn't really give Brian Azzarello's Startling Stories: Banner the chance it deserved. Though I still would argue that Paul Jenkins's Mythos: Hulk was memorable only for how forgettable it was and Jeph Loeb's Hulk: Gray was interesting only as a way of telling the story of Hulk's origin from Betty Ross's point of view. But I swear I really did want to like Hulk: Season One, if for no other reason than it would have meant one of my first reviews upon returning to blogging would be a positive one about a book chronicling the adventures of my favorite funnybook hero. It just wasn't meant to be.

Though, in a bit of a reversal of my usual way of going about things, I want to talk about what I liked first.

I don't know if I've ever seen Tom Fowler's work before, but I think I can officially consider myself a fan. His style is not one I would normally associate with a Hulk comic, and it's vibrant and refreshing. His Hulk manages to be ape-ish and childlike at the same time, which goes along perfectly with the story Fred Van Lente tells. Some of his Hulk drawings reminded me of Eric Powell's Goon, and some actually put me in mind of Sam Kieth's brief work on the Hulk in Incredible Hulk #368 and later in the Wolverine/Hulk mini. In particular, I love one specific panel toward the end, when Hulk looks like an angry little fat kid in swim trunks, but still manages to be menacing.

I enjoyed many of the minor changes to the origin. I found it bizarrely satisfying that the gamma bomb explosion that transforms Bruce Banner is set in one of the strange mannequin-filled replica towns rather than the featureless expanse of desert in the classic origin. On one hand I like the weird unreality of it, and on the other it gives that piece of the story a bit more definition. I appreciated changing Betty from the doe-eyed damsel of the original Lee/Kirby story to someone more like Battlestar Galactica's Starbuck (from the newer series, not the old; that would really be a redefinition of the origin story).

I'm a little more neutral about other character changes. While the notion of Rick Jones belonging to a drug-peddling gang leaves a bad taste in my mouth, admittedly it makes sense Rick might find himself in that kind of crowd at that point in his life. Though, speaking of another character important to Hulk's beginnings, I'm disappointed that Glenn Talbot was nowhere to be found in Hulk: Season One.

It is reassuring to a Hulk nut like myself that Van Lente proves he's done his homework by pulling a lot from different corners of the Hulk's history. He doesn't go very deeply into the abuse Banner suffered - an element of the origin introduced by Bill Mantlo and greatly expanded upon by Peter David - but it's clear that it's important not only to Banner, but to his alter ego's existence. Monica Rappacini, first introduced during Peter David's brief return to Incredible Hulk circa House of M, returns to find an integral place in the origin. And something that I initially disliked but eventually realized was a testament to Van Lente's knowledge of the character's history is how the Hulk's dialogue changes drastically throughout the story. When he fights the Gargoyle and his robotic minions, the Hulk sounds like his thuggish, grayer self. Later when he fights the monstrous Biocide, he sounds more like the classic savage HULK SMASH Hulk. But I soon realized that what I initially saw as a discrepancy was actually intentional and, considering Banner's fractured psyche, makes perfect sense.

One thing that always rubs me wrong about stories like this are the "updates" to the dialogue and the culture in general so that Marvel can show younger readers that they're With It you know, daddy-o? They're not like the squares! I see the need for it. Even though I cringe when I read Rick Jones saying, "Ain't no thing, Scummy, just how I roll, youknowwhatI'msayin'" I still know there's a reason for it. It's just that the execution is always so clumsy and obvious. My least favorite part of the book comes right after the Hulk crashes into an alleyway and surprises some gangbangers. One of the bangers yells, "WHAT IS IT? IS IT PO-PO?" Really, dude? You think the giant green half-naked thing that came crashing out of the fucking sky is a member of the El Paso police department?

But that's a relatively minor gripe. What leaves me more concerned is how busy the story is. There's too many villains, too many random and unconnected elements, and very little actual redefining. There's the Gargoyle and his robots who apparently work for the Russian mafia rather than the Soviets.  There's the strange science group Them (who are clearly A.I.M., so why the hell aren't they just A.I.M. instead of Them?) and their stockpile of bald kiddy clones. There's the manipulative temptress Rappaccini and the junkie douchebag Special Agent Derek Halperin who eventually transforms into the gamma-eating Biocide. The story would've been better served with one major villain rather than enough villains to make Sam Raimi laugh and say "What do you mean 3 in one movie is too many?"

Part of the problem with the plot is perhaps my biggest disappointment with the story. Unfortunately, mentioning it would spoil it, so let's just say the book ends with Banner coming to a fairly huge decision, and I don't think Hulk: Season One ever comes close to showing us why Banner would make such a choice. It's something he eventually came to in the comics regardless of this new origin, but it was something that took years. And it was something that should take years. If there was anything in Hulk: Season One to convince me he could reach such a drastic change in outlook so quickly, I missed it.

Regardless, Hulk: Season One won't ruin my enjoyment of the character. Is it the official history of the character now and forever? Sure. Just like that last three were. And in a year or two there will be a new official history of the character now and forever. Who cares?


Anonymous said...

Just picked this up - was wondering if it's going to be good... this doesn't make it sound promising! But that's alright - nice review!

James K. Moran said...

Hey Mick:
I know Tom Fowler, and let him know how enthused you were about his art, when I saw him at the speculative fiction conference in Ottawa a ways back. He was happy to hear it, although he admitted he wouldn't be staying on the book much longer because of shifting priorities.