Incredible Hulks #612-613
Greg Pak, Scott Reed, writers
Tom Raney, Brian Ching, artists
Marvel, August-September 2010
32 story pages each
When I talk about how Batman is the only superhero for whom I feel affection outside or beyond the quality of the Batman comic currently in my hand or movie/TV show currently on my TV, that’s not quite true. Years before I got into Batman, my childhood (and I mean young childhood, barely remembered fuzzy pool of memories out of which pops the occasional actual memory) favorites were, thanks to a back-to-back hour of Saturday morning cartoon programming, Spider-Man and the Hulk. But I think my continuing fondness for the Hulk, at least, stems from his being the superhero metaphor to which I most closely relate. First of all, huge green dude punching things is the superhero concept boiled down to its strongman essence. Secondly, mild-mannered smart guy who smashes anything that makes him angry? Sure, I’ll eat it. But best of all, the consequences of that superpower are built right into the concept. He might be able to put it off by becoming ruler of some planet someplace, or forming a surrogate family of super-goons, but ultimately the Hulk will always be an outcast, always unwanted, always on the run. If Spidey’s thing is “with great power comes great responsibility,” the Hulk is a cautionary tale about what happens when great power is used irresponsibly.
So I dig the Hulk. More specifically, I dig a lot of what writer Greg Pak has done with the Hulk. His Planet Hulk saga showed an admirable attention to detail in building the sci-fi space-opera world, aliens, and cultures through which an exiled Hulk cut a swathe on the road to becoming ruler of the planet. His subsequent World War Hulk event took the kind of concept that would make a third-grader say “Awesome!”–the Hulk vs. the Marvel Universe–and tied it to both killer fight scenes for John Romita Jr. to draw and an exploration of whether the ends justify the means and the extremes to which grief and rage will push us. After that, though, the Hulk disappeared from his own title, which became a road movie starring a de-powered Bruce Banner and his alter ego’s barbarian alien son Skaar, and then everything got tied up in a huge multiple-title roundelay of crossovers and spinoff miniseries and so on.
Now, I really liked all the huge gamma-irradiated bruisers suddenly coming out of the woodwork to jump ugly with one another throughout these events–after all, I love the Hulk conceptually, and there’s really not anything that having a million Hulk-type guys and girls running around pounding the shit of each other does to weaken that concept, so by all means let a thousand She-Hulks bloom. But without THE Hulk, without The Strongest One There Is, I decided to tune out until Big Green himself was back. Which is what Incredible Hulks–that’s not me referring to more than one issue of Incredible Hulk,that’s really a plural, it’s really referring to multiple Incredible Hulk characters a la William Safire going to Burger King and ordering five Whoppers Jr.–promises: Bruce Banner can transform back into the Hulk when he gets angry again, and he’s now surrounded by a posse of behemoths. If this is a book that lives up to the promise of a “Giants Walk the Earth” era of Hulks, I’m all for it.
As it turns out, I’m not all for it. On a surface level I think primary artist Tom Raney can pull off one genuinely impressive drawing of some big super-dude for every eight or nine drawings that make them look sort of gawky, so there’s that. But beyond that, you’ve got two problems.
One, I appreciate how hard Pak, aided by co-writer Scott Reed in this case, works at really doing the worldbuilding with regards to the space-opera concepts involved in this book’s co-feature, the story of Hulk’s other alien son Hiro-Kala traveling through space to find and kill his brother Skaar. But it’s almost impossible to get me to care about worldbuilding if the world you’re building don’t house a character I care about to begin with. Thus Planet Hulk works fine, because it’s the Hulk and I like the Hulk, but Hiro-Kala, Son of Hulk’s journey through space with his psychic-planet frenemy doesn’t work, because not only do I know very little about Hiro-Kala, the psychic planet, or anyone on it, but it also lacks the basic conceptual oomph that making him a huge strong awesome-looking brute would give him. He’s just a scrawny bald dude with crazy psychic powers, and the combination doesn’t mesh with the Hulk the way even his usual super-genius-model antagonists like the Leader or MODOK do.
Two, and this is the same problem I had with Incredible Hulk once it shifted to being the Banner & Skaar road movie storyline, I really don’t like stakes-free fighting in superhero comics. In the Banner/Skaar stories, Banner kept duping Skaar into meeting and fighting various heroes and villains with which the Hulk used to memorably spar–Juggernaut, the Thing, Wolverine, etc.–in order to train him to be a better fighter so he could kill off Banner’s alter ego if and when he ever reemerged. In other words, we knew these fights wouldn’t matter, because they were all pointing to some future fight; plus, in half the cases they were with other heroes, and we knew things could get only so ugly. So you just ended up twiddling your thumbs during what should be the most thrilling and visceral part of any supercomic.
In the case of Incredible Hulks #612-613, we know that the Hulk and the Red She-Hulk–the new vicious Hulk alter ego of Bruce’s ex-wife Betty–aren’t going to seriously hurt or kill each other or anyone else. We know it because they’re main characters who were married. We know it because they’re not really fighting for any particular reason–on an emotional level it’s the equivalent of two exes arguing. We know it because all the other characters are treating it with the seriousness of people watching a couple have an ugly spat in the frozen foods aisle of the supermarket. We know it because this is billed as a Hulk Family book and she’s the matriarch and thus she’s not going anywhere. In other words the book works overtime, on every conceivable level, to send the message that this battle doesn’t really matter. So…why have it, then?
Look, I know that part of superhero comics dating back to the Silver Age is having these goofy inconsequential fights where heroes smack each other around for a variety of reasons–mistaken identity, just being in a bad mood, whatever. But that it’s been done is not a good enough reason to keep doing it. If you’re like me, you think that fights in superhero comics are as important as songs are to musical theater. They’re where the real emotion of the story is expressed through spectacle. Granted, on a certain level that’s what’s going on here: Instead of just using harsh language, Hulk and Red She-Hulk punch each other. But the problem is that we know this won’t have any real consequences. They’re gonna make up and the story’s gonna move on. A good fight scene has to have some real, palpable ramifications for the participants–something that shakes up the status quo of the book on some level. As I detailed above, we know this won’t happen here. So keep your powder dry and save the fighting for when it matters.