Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Two parts of the same Hulk: Planet Hulk and World War Hulk

Soooooo, Planet Hulk and World War Hulk. Yeah, I’m kind of coming late to a lot of parties here. What do you want, I’ve got a new kid, so I read what I can get at the library.

I was reading Planet Hulk when it was being released but a job change meant cutting down the subscription and it was one of the books I knew I’d likely get in trade. It’s a pretty simple idea that works unbelievably well. Send the Hulk into space but have him as the protagonist in Spartacus or Gladiator. Voila, comic book gold. There are new characters introduced who are all wonderfully atmospheric to the setting and who are also that wonderful breed of character only found in the Big Two superhero comics – the revamp/archival character rewritten for a modern story. This could be cynically keeping intellectual property on their creations or just a great way to add characters relevant to a story but with a bit of extra “wink, wink” to the comic reader with an encyclopedic knowledge of Marvel’s history. Sure there’s some recaps in there too where they talk about their own history just for good measure, but really, there’s some good easter eggs in the new warriors.

Now, why is Planet Hulk so dang good? I have a fairly standard conversation with my wife regarding The Incredible Hulk whenever he comes up, for whatever reason. She simply says, “I just don’t understand The Hulk. I mean what’s the point? He’s not a hero. He doesn’t really do anything.” Whereby I’ll follow up with, “well, that’s kind of exactly the point. It’s sort of about the duality of man. That if left alone we can be peaceful but we have a tendency not to leave well enough alone and end up creating very destructive things from our own technologies and within our own nature. It’s not about him not being the hero but being something that shows how cruel, petty and evil people can be. Yeah, he’s the uncontrollable force but he wouldn’t be a problem if people just weren’t dicks.” Whereby, she says, “Okay, but I still don’t really see the point. Why would I want to watch/read that?”

It kind of hit me while reading Planet Hulk. It’s what surrounds him. It’s how he affects and plays off the characters surrounding him that make him interesting. Create a great setting with great characters then throw him in the middle of it and the character works. Otherwise, it’s just finding a reason to make Bruce Banner mad then smashing stuff. It becomes the slapstick solutions to the problem of Hulking-out that you can find in droves on YouTube.

Give him a reason for his anger that isn’t physical – yes, he’s isolated physically, but it’s the emotional betrayal that fortifies the Hulk here. It cuts on a whole different level that just gets more and more reinforced through his physical challenges until it is brought around full circle to another deeply emotional wound at the end of the arc.

The big difference seems to be that on Sakaar the Hulk has an audience that is being influenced by him. What is the message he gives his followers – destroy at all costs, never stop making them pay, etc. On Earth, those around him tend to either pity him or want to control/destroy him. On Sakaar, they either fear or love him. Fear and love are much different beasts than pity and desire to control/destroy. On Sakaar the desire to understand Hulk are also found on an emotional level rather than the scientific level found on Earth.

In other words, it’s wonderful stuff and by the end of it you simply can’t wait to have him go back to enact his revenge. It is all justifiable and righteous.

And then there’s World War Hulk which just felt like a lot of wasted potential. There was a great game with home runs, the bases are loaded and while there’s a few runs scored, it’s not the grand slam it could have been. Sorry, I’ve been watching a lot more of the Blue Jays than I ever have in my life. There’s some great punch ups, and it’s great to see Hulk being the same righteous leader that he was in Planet Hulk, only playing with the toys of the Marvel universe. The trouble is the same old bugaboo as all these event comics of the last few years. There is simply too much happening outside of the main book for it to have much impact. The original Secret Wars, this is not. That was a comic that explained everything in the comic series itself. Here, there are some good action scenes with Iron Man in his Hulk busting suit, General Thuderbolt Ross, and some bits with Stephen Strange, but overall there were too many quick hits that could have been much more interesting than, hey, I think Hulk is hitting Luke Cage or some of the X-men.

There’s also a gratuitous butt shot of She-Hulk that stands out like a sore thumb to me. There’s a massive sound concussion that blurs everything, except her ass. Okay, maybe her ass has some kind of special sound cancelling properties but this is just completely gratuitous and just annoys the hell out of me. It pulls me out of the comic because it’s one of those unnecessary things that just doesn’t need to be there and cheapens the whole experience for me as a reader.

In the end, what really kind of gets me is that other hobgoblin of the superhero comic mind – the retcon. They didn’t even wait that long for this one. At the end of World War Hulk the protagonist discovers that “hey, this was all a misunderstanding because the justified and righteous reasons that brought you back to earth were actually caused by someone else completely, who went back to their home planet and died there.” So, while there’s an argument that, yeah, the Hulk is still justified because the other heroes acted like dicks, the retconning is a blatant attempt to make them seem somewhat less dickish. The story works better when they are simply wrong and get their asses handed to them like they deserved rather than, oh yeah, whoops I probably shouldn’t have beaten you to near death because something completely unrelated and not even hinted at was the real cause for setting me on this course.

It’s cheap, and it makes me glad I didn’t buy this when it was coming out. It also really just shows the whole problem that Marvel started with Civil War. You can’t have heroes on both sides. Superhero comics just don’t work that way. You can have protagonists, you can have anti-heroes, villains, misunderstood villains, but you can’t have heroes on opposing sides. I know I shouldn’t write in absolutes here, but if you handle things this sloppily, you’re just making your heroes into dicks because you don’t want them to be villains. At least have the gumption to make them out and out villains. Dickish heroes can also work but when it goes across your line and into characters that were never set up that way, it just doesn’t work.

I feel like this whole part of the Marvel history should be like that episode of Star Trek Deep Space Nine when the crew goes back to the Tribble episode and they ask Worf about the Klingon’s looking differently. He looks annoyed and says, “we don’t talk about that time.” I kind of hope that’s what happens in the Marvel Universe. It seems to need a good solid flush of the toilet rather than a deal with the devil, that’s what got it into this mess and it ruined a great set up story.

These are good creators who create stuff I like. I guess I understand what it’s like when you’re stuck doing a project that your manager, director or committee ruins. You’re stuck trying to finish it with the most dignity you can and in a manner that you can still try to salvage, but in the end you’re stuck working on yet another lame duck. What a shame.

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