He’s big and gray and mean. He’s the incredible Hulk. And I’ve never really read his adventures before. Oh, I have a few issues of the Hulk: some from the late ‘90s that received as free give-a-ways and a couple I had read as a child guest-starring the Soviet Super Soldiers. But I can’t say that the Hulk is a character I’ve followed or ever cared all that much about.
He’s bald and white and funny. He’s Peter David. And I’ve read plenty of his adventures before. In this case, I’m talking about the adventures he’s written. His Captain Marvel was one of my favorite titles at the time. I loved his Young Justice, admired his Spider-Man 2099, enjoyed his Spyboy and still love his X-Factor right now. But I had never read the run that had earned him more accolades than any other: his work on the Incredible Hulk.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw a row of Incredible Hulk trades on a library book shelf. And, right in the middle, I saw a half-dozen volumes of Marvel Visionaries: Peter David. I decided to take the plunge. I grabbed the first three volumes (2-4, as number 1 wasn’t there) and figured I could come back later for the rest.
First things first: I liked them. I enjoyed them enough to set any other comics aside for a couple of weeks and plow through these instead. I even took one volume on vacation with me and read it at a friend’s house. If the point of a comic book is to entertain, Peter David’s Incredible Hulk succeeded.
So what did I like about it? And, if I’m being honest, what didn’t I like about it?
In volume 2, I liked the structure. I liked that there was an over-arching story- the Leader manipulating the Hulk- while each issue still had its individual battle as the Hulk fought the Leader’s minions in succession. The structure made sure that each individual issue (or, in the case of the trade, each chapter in the story) was satisfying while also giving you a reason to keep on reading.
I liked that the Leader was able to pull off his plan. It’s not often that you see a villain succeed. Two-thirds into this volume, the Leader successfully completed his plot and exploded a gamma bomb. I like the resolution even better. Peter David gave us a great done-in-one story as Rick Jones, Clay Quartermain and others dealt with the fall-out from the explosion (pun intended, I am reviewing a Peter David book after all).
I liked the abrupt change in status quo. After that, we were introduced to an all-new Hulk as he assumed the identity of a Las Vegas bouncer named Joe Fix-It. The sudden shift kept the title fresh and interesting. I understand that’s one of the hallmarks of Peter David’s work on the Incredible Hulk, and a major reason why he was able to last so long.
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I also liked the Todd McFarlane art. I realize that may be heresy in these parts, but I did. The Hulk’s body was bulging all over the place, like his skin couldn’t contain him. He looked like a clay monster, a golem, something simultaneously more and less than human. It was great. I also liked his exaggerated features for the Leader and most of the human cast. Ironically, the only depiction I didn’t care for was Bruce Banner. Banner was so exaggerated- with huge glasses and big bangs- that it was difficult to identify or empathize with him.
That’s not to say that volume two was perfect. I didn’t like that some of the Leader’s scenes were long-winded. I didn’t like most of the villains. We had Wolverine at the beginning (yay!) and Absorbing Man at the end (hooray!) but it was a league of losers in between.
However, my biggest problem was with the Hulk himself. It’s not entirely Peter David’s fault. The Hulk was created to be a Jekyll-and-Hyde character, two distinct personalities sharing one body. I happen to think that Wolverine is more interesting as an anti-hero, knowing that the demons he fights are part of who he is and not some other. But David didn’t help himself either. Triggering the change by the moon instead of by anger
separated the two halves even further. We weren’t reading about Bruce Banner as the Hulk; we were reading about Bruce Banner and the Hulk.
In volume 3, I liked the situation. The idea of casting the Hulk as a Las Vegas bouncer was brilliant. It gave him motivation beyond smashing things for the sake of it. He had a job. He had a reason to beat people up. He had a boss, co-workers, rivals and a potential girlfriend. And he had a secret to protect. The set-up had been established in volume 2 and came to a head in volume 4. In volume 3, it was the background yet it still added to the story over all.
I liked the side-trip to Jarella’s world. It was funny seeing the locals treat the Hulk as a god. It was even funnier seeing the Hulk’s reaction. It reminded me of some of the great Conan stories in which the barbarian is baffled by the customs of civilization. The Hulk’s reactions are just as surprising to the locals and the reader. It’s a great way to keep things interesting. It’s a great way to include humor. And it’s a great way of exposing the foibles of our own society.
I liked the developments with Marlo. She’s an interesting addition to the cast. I was amused by her infatuation with Mr. Fix-It and intrigued by her interactions with Bruce Banner.
Once again, I mostly liked the art. That was kind of a surprise to me. I wasn’t familiar with Jeff Purves and was expecting a bit of a let-down between the bigger names on the title. But Purves did a very good job. He was more consistent than McFarlane and gave the Las Vegas stories his own imprint.
But I didn’t like everything. Volume 3 had a very rough start with crossovers with Web of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. The stories were mediocre. Even the art was bad, and not just on the non-Hulk halves. Purves had trouble drawing Spider-Man, Dr. Doom and Beast (the last in a one-panel cameo).
In volume 4, I liked just about everything. I liked the progression of the relationship triangle between the Hulk, Marlo and Bruce Banner. The web of assumptions, expectations and deceptions was intriguing. It had humor, as Bruce had to keep coming up with stories and excuses. It also had depth, as Marlo and her friend began to fear that Marlo fell for an abusive boyfriend. Mr. Fix-It had never been rough with her, but his tendency towards violence with everyone else was starting to scare her. And it had pathos, as you really hoped that the Hulk would find happiness in love.
I liked the antagonists. This volume had the strongest cast of adversaries- even if some of them were expressions of someone else’s power. The collection of Wolverines, Things and other Hulks was fantastic. The battle with Iron Man was great. And the unknown Ghoul was developed much better than foes from previous volumes. I even liked the opponents from the short stories- Hulk Hogan (though David overdid it a little with the “who deserves the name” argument) and a killer whale. Plus, there was a behind-the-scenes antagonist in Glorian. Like the Leader, he cast a shadow over the entire volume even though he rarely faced the Hulk directly. Unlike the Leader, Glorian was trying to save the Hulk instead of defeat him. It was a great twist, with a lot of possibilities and emotional conflict. There were a few duds in there- I think that Nightmare and D’Spayre are pretty boring as metaphysical threats but that can be blamed on guest writer Bob Harras.
I especially liked that Peter David addressed some of my earlier concerns. Marlo had a great speech in which she told Bruce that he and “his cousin Joe” had a lot more in common than they thought. Bruce had anger in him and Joe had sensitivity. They just didn’t like to show it. Though she wasn’t aware of it, Marlo spoke to the fact that the two of them were halves of the same person.
I’m looking forward to volume 5 and beyond.