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GRAPHIC NOVEL AND TRADE
PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


THE HULK ~ Page 3

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The Incredible Hulk is published by Marvel Comics
 


Hulk: Gray 2004 (HC & SC TPB) 144 pages

coverWritten by Jeph Loeb. Illustrated by Tim Sale.
Colours: Matt Hollingsworth. Letters: Richard Starkings, others

Reprinting: the six-issue 2003 mini-series

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: June 2015

Loeb and Sale became something of an "it" pairing in comics working on a bunch of mini-series at both DC and Marvel with similar themes -- namely retro tales set during the early days of a super hero's career. Usually the point was to unleash Sale upon the pages with his striking, if idiosyncratic art, with lots of big panels and splash pages. Meanwhile Loeb would dress things up with introspective captions and dialogue, the stories meant to be more than just an adventure, but a chance to delve into the character's feelings and motivations.

At least that's how we're supposed to take it.

I'll admit I've been rather mixed on these Loeb-Sale extravaganzas. I do like Sale's art, at once quirky and cartoony, yet also moody and atmospheric. The two creators combine to deliver moody, often low-key sort of tales. But Loeb's scripts, though easy to digest, often strike me as the embodiment of pretension over true profundity.

Which brings us to Hulk: Gray (they also did a Spider-Man: Blue and Daredevil: Yellow). It features a modern-day framing sequence of Bruce Banner (a.k.a. The Hulk) visiting his friend and psychiatrist (and sometime super hero) Doc Samson for a therapy session. What ensues is Bruce reminiscing about his origin and the first few weeks of his becoming the Hulk, filtering the memories through his feelings of guilt and remorse. A particular focus is placed on his love interest, Betty Ross.

One thing to mention up front is that I'm not sure they do a good job (or intend to) of explaining things for new readers. It isn't that the story is hard to follow, but there are bits and nuances that aren't clearly explained. Like a scene where General Ross and the army are consulting with a civilian in a tux and it's never explicitly stated that he's supposed to be Tony Stark -- nor that, when Iron Man shows up for an issue, that Iron Man is Tony. More crucially I'm guessing Betty had recently been killed off in the comics, explaining why Bruce is looking back on their early days with such guilt. But that's not clearly articulated (except in passing toward the end).

As well the story can feel a bit choppy. This isn't simply a retelling of the Hulk's origin expanded to six issues. Instead it can feel a bit like vignettes, presenting scenes, moments, but glossing over the development of the relationships. Loeb instantly dives into the Hulk-General Ross feud before the two characters have really had much to do with each other. And he has the Hulk thinking how he hates the Banner-side of his persona when it's not clear at one point the Hulk even became aware he had another persona.

As a side point, given all of the Loeb-Sale Marvel "colour" series involve the super hero reflecting on his relationship with a dead girlfriend it kind of draws attention to what some have pointed to as a disturbingly high mortality rate among female characters in comics (or that Loeb and Sale are having trouble coming up with another idea).

Now obviously a big appeal of these Loeb-Sale collaborations is Sale -- I suspect even Loeb would acknowledge that. People buy these series for the enrapturing visuals (and the complementarily moody colouring, here deliberately skewing toward a lot of grey as though a black & white comic) but then pretend it's not just for the eye candy because of Loeb's brooding scripting. And Sale does have an enormously appealing style, even though it's quite cartoony and not a style I'd necessarily be a big fan of. But he's one of these artists who manages to mix his cartooniness and caricatured faces with dramatic composition and lushly rendered environments so that it almost doesn't seem cartoony. It's more like it's an alternate reality where people really do have big heads and women big, doe eyes. And he's perhaps better suited to the Hulk than almost any other character he's tackled since the Hulk is a caricature to begin with. Sale manages to evoke a Frankenstein Creature-style monstrousness and a kind of sad, child-like figure all in one.

But though the story is moody and visually striking -- it feels lacking in the depth and complexity it wants to pretend it has. There isn't a lot of "plot" here, per se. No exciting or complex adventure that bubbles along beneath the thoughtful brooding. Instead part of this just recycles scenes from the early Hulk comics (Bruce gets bathed in radiation trying to rescue Rick Jones; the two traipsing about the dessert keeping ahead of soldiers) others are fairly generic Hulk scenes (battles with soldiers; scenes of General Ross fuming). The main "new" sequence is the battle with Iron Man (which it's specifically stated in the dialogue had never previously been recounted) -- but even it is just a diversionary battle with Iron Man. And other than Iron Man being in an earlier version of his armour, Iron Man-Hulk battles have happened in other comics.

That's because the "real" point of the series is the brooding and rumination, Bruce reflecting on Betty.

Funnily enough, though Loeb is deliberately rooting the story in this early era of the Hulk -- he ignores or disregards things he doesn't want. So the usually green Hulk is grey here, as he was in his earliest stories -- but Loeb writes him as the befuddled, tantrum-prone child he would evolve into. But when the Hulk was actually in his grey period, he was a Jekyll/Hyde concoction, more a belligerent misanthrope cum sociopath with normal intelligence (whose transformation was triggered by the night). Likewise Loeb writes Betty in a much more modern way, spunky and tough, and even has Bruce admit he's perhaps misremembering her.

So it's a nostalgic blast from the past -- that doesn't worry overmuch about being true to that past.

Whether he's trying to bring a greater, modern sophistication to these old stories or to find some radical, new, interpretation of the characters...Loeb doesn't bring much fresh to the table. Bruce is broody and guilt-ridden -- but isn't he always? Indeed some of the characters, like General Ross, are actually rendered as less nuanced than usual (using as a crutch that this is Bruce's perspective on the past and so not necessarily an accurate record of the events).

As you get toward the end, you can find yourself at a loss as to what it was all about, or in service of. I had to re-read the final few pages to get what Loeb was going for. And that is basically him trying to come up with a bit of armchair psychobabble explaining Betty's willingness to love Bruce despite the monster inside. Unfortunately, even once I did, it kind of left me going -- "um, six issues and that's all you got?"

After finishing this I re-read the original first issue of The Hulk by Lee and Kirby -- and honestly, it actually holds up quite well (and squeezed more plot into its 24 pages!) For all the (acknowledged) 1960s juvenile corniness, the characters felt a little more rounded and nuanced and some of the scenes were more dramatic, even chilling.

Cover price: $__.


Hulk: Heart of the Atom 2008/2012 (HC & SC TPB) 240 pages

coverWritten by Len Wein, Bill Mantlo, Archie Goodwin, Peter Gillis, Roy Thomas (with Harlan Ellison). Pencils by Herb Trimpe, Sal Buscema. Inks by Sam Grainger, Joe Staton, John Severin, Sal Buscema, Herb Trimpe.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: The Incredible Hulk #140, 148, 156, 202, 203, 205-207, 246-247, What If...? #23 (1971-1980)

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Jan. 2015

Heart of the Atom is a kind of unusual collection of stories. Some TPBs collect a specific story arc serialized over consecutive issues. Others will be random "best of" issues or perhaps involve a theme (a recurring villain). But Heart of the Atom collects various comics by different creative teams spanning a decade, sometimes with years between the issues -- that nonetheless are meant to, in a way, form a story arc.

That story involves the Hulk (and his alter ego of Bruce Banner) and his/their relationship with Jarella -- the emerald-skinned Queen of a sub-microscopic world. It's a collection that, on one hand, can take on aspects of a "graphic novel," even as, equally, it's different stories/adventures reflecting different writers and artists and, to some extent, evolving comic book styles.

It kicks off with the story "The Brute That Shouted Love at the Heart of the Atom" -- which, itself, followed on events in a then-recent Avengers comic. The Hulk is inadvertently shrunk to sub-microscopic size by an evil alien named Psyklops, and The Hulk winds up in the medieval land of K'ai where everyone has green-skin like him. Some wizards cast a spell on him so that he can speak their language -- and, as a side effect, Bruce Banner's mind dominates the Hulk's body. Bruce/Hulk meets Jarella, they fall in love, and he saves her kingdom from a coup d'etat -- but then he's wrested back to his own world.

In a way, it's a kind of odd story for such a seminal issue. The plot is credited to short story and screenwriter, Harlan Ellison (though Roy Thomas writes the script) and there's a kind of self-conscious tongue-in-cheekness to it, Thomas (or Ellison) peppering the script with in-jokes borrowed from Ellison's own canon (Repent Harlequin! A boy and his dog, etc.) and other pop cultural allusions, including naming a couple of the wizards Holi and Moli (which becomes awkward when, later, the characters crop up in more sombre tales but still saddled with their joke names). It's a perfectly okay issue but I'm not sure it would be especially remembered if subsequent writers hadn't latched onto the Jarella idea.

So Jarella recurs occasionally in subsequent issues -- as the Hulk returns to her world a few times (sometimes as the Hulk, sometimes once more with Bruce Banner's intellect) and Jarella even visits our world -- allowing the comics here to mix both "traditional" Hulk stories set in modern America and the atypical fantasy/sci-fi setting of Jarella's world. Though the latter predominate, which itself means the milieu can seen a bit less representative of Hulk stories in general.

I'm not sure if anyone quite had an idea what to do with Jarella (even her personality is a mite bland) -- but they clearly felt there was potential, hence why they kept dragging her out again. But even the idea that she originally knew the Hulk with Bruce Banner's personality isn't used to any purpose (she seems equally happy with the Hulk as the Hulk and with Banner as Banner). Some stories reintroduce her -- only to write her out again by the end of that issue (or the next).

Funnily, part of the impact, and emotional resonance, of Jarella is unavoidably lost in a collection like this. Because you could argue Jarella herself was less important than the idea of Jarella. There were many comics inbetween the issues collected here where the Hulk would poignantly pine for his lost love, or go on futile quests to find her (his tiny brain not grasping that she didn't actually exist in his world) so that the importance of her to the Hulk mythos isn't fully represented just by focusing on the issues in which she's actually a presence.

But the other aspect to this collection is a chance to sample different creative talents.

The art is supplied by two artists largely seen as the signature artists for the character at the time -- Herb Trimpe and Sal Buscema. And with the inkers providing even more variance. Only one of the Trimpe issues is inked by John Severin -- a pairing I always really liked. While a number of the Buscema issues are inked by Joe Staton (better know as an artist in his own right) for a nice combination, Staton's finishes entirely sympathetic to Buscema's style, while bringing a firm polish. The final issues, where Buscema inks himself, are less strong -- I tend to find Buscema inking himself made the art a bit rough and crude at times.

As I say: these guys were kind of "the" Hulk artists. Buscema, inparticular, seemed ideally keyed into the Hulk, capturing his bestial rage of almost frightening ferocity, yet also his child-like innocence. I was not a big Sal Buscema fan, but I do think he was one of the best at capturing the dual spirit of the Hulk.

While the writing chores switch from Thomas (with Ellison), to Archie Goodwin, to Len Wein, to Bill Mantlo -- all delivering decent work, within the context of the times and the character (given, you know, Hulk stories do tend to devolve into protracted "Hulk smash!" sequences). I think Wein may have had the best feel for the character. Like Buscema, having a feel for the extremes of the Hulk's moods and most emphasizing the Hulk, less as a raging man monster, and more like a frustrated child, given to tantrums because it's a world he rarely understands. Wein's Hulk can be as heartbreaking as he can be belligerent.

A scenes in issue #202 by Wein/Buscema/Staton perfectly evokes the Hulk's child-like innocence.

Throughout there are recurring appearances by the Hulk's usual supporting cast like General Ross and Doc Sampson, and because the issues are spread over so many years, we can get a glimpse of the evolving soap opera (such as Betty Ross and Glenn Talbot's up and down marriage) -- and with guest stars such as The Defenders and the original Captain Marvel dropping by for an issue or two.

If I was critical, I'd admit that few of the stories here necessarily stand out on their own as great tales, or would likely warrant being collected other than for their relevance to the whole Jarella saga (#140 and #205 have, indeed, been reprinted before). I've read other Hulk comics from the era that are more memorable just as stand alone stories. And, as I say, one could argue the Jarella saga was an idea in search of a defining story.

But, equally, none of the stories here are bad -- all are decent page-turners. And they allow you to sample various key Hulk writers and artists. And being both a collection of separate tales, yet also a story arc -- as well as being, to my knowledge, one of only a few Hulk TPBs to significantly draw upon tales from the so-called Bronze Age -- it satisfies as a solid collection.

Cover price: $__.



Hulk: Transfer of Power 2003 (SC TPB) 144 pages

cover by Kaare AndrewsWritten by Bruce Jones. Pencils by Stuart Immonen. Inks by Scott Koblish.
Colours: Studio F. Letters: various. Editor: Alex Alonso.

Reprinting: The Incredible Hulk (3rd series) #44-49 (2002)

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Transfer of Power is, in many ways, well drawn and interestingly written.

But I'm still not able to give it a particularly enthusiastic review.

Oh, sure, part of that is because the art and writing have flaws (which I'll get to), but that's not the main reason. You see, for all that Transfer of Power has been packaged as a TPB collection, it's really part of a bigger, on going story arc. To fans of the Hulk, following his current exploits, that's not a big deal. After all, Marvel (and DC) have begun collecting many of their comics in sequential TPBs, forming a kind of "library" -- the entirety of Bruce Jones' tenure on the series is being collected, and Transfer of Power is numbered as vol. 3. Which is fine. Really. But I'm reviewing books, as best I can, from the point of view of someone who, on a whim, picks up a TPB for a weekend's entertainment. I've read Hulk comics, I know the character and the premise, but I'm certainly not up on every little nuance of the character's current life.

And Transfer of Power doesn't seem all that interested in inviting me into the fold.

The Hulk's alter ego of Bruce Banner is on the run from a shadowy organization which wants a sample of the Hulk's blood. O.K., I can get that. But characters crop up who Bruce knows from previous issues, references are made to past events, but without saying when or what issues they transpired in, Doc Samson's hair changes from red to its usual green with no explanation, and Banner has a big showdown with a bad guy -- which provides, at least, a story arc and a resolution. To be fair, as you go along, you can pick up the gist of things. But is "gist" really enough? As a story, as a "graphic novel", Transfer of Power is too much an episode in a bigger, on going saga. And one where, gist or no gist, I still had no real understanding of certain scenes and sequences.

Because there's some good stuff in the writing and art, that's a problematic complaint. After all, sometimes a few dangling plot threads, a few intriguing hints, is precisely what encourages a reader to pick up subsequent issues/volumes. But then again, maybe that's a reflection of short comings in the telling.

Because I just wasn't that intrigued.

Oh, I wasn't not intrigued, nor was I bored, but scripter Jones didn't quite make me care that much about where it was all headed, or where it had come from, or about his heroes. The latter is funny since, of course, the hero -- Bruce Banner -- is a long established protagonist. Jones scripts some good dialogue, some clever exchanges (though he has two different characters refer to the police colloquially as "gendarmes" which doesn't do much to establish different personalities). But Jones, like so many modern comics writers, seems more in love with movies than comics, aping cinematic styles -- it's all dialogue and visuals; no thought balloons, and little in the way of narrative text (rarely even clarifying location or time jumps). Without thought balloons, Jones maybe doesn't do too good a job of letting us into the minds of his characters...which is kind of crucial if we're supposed to care about them. Banner, for instance, is put through a trippy experience where he wakes up accused of murder, and carrying ID naming him as someone who he isn't. But instead of really getting a sense of what he's thinking, and how he's trying to rationalize his predicament, Jones prefers to focus on the sequence of events, rather than his hero's reaction to them.

And, since I wasn't sure what Jones' take was on the series, I kind of thought the solution was going to be weirder than it was, as Banner finds himself taken in by an enigmatic woman while the same tune plays over and over on the radio. I thought maybe it would turn out he had been drawn into a lonely woman's dream reality or something. But no.

Jones also seems to want to turn the Hulk into more of an X-Files wannabe, emphasizing strange goings on and a shadowy conspiracy, rather than action. In fact, in these six issues...the Hulk barely appears at all! And it's not even clear why Banner doesn't, or can't, seem to turn into the Hulk for much of it.

It has been claimed that Jones' Hulk tenure has seen the series' sales climb; but is that because he writes a really great Hulk comic...or is it because he isn't writing a Hulk comic and a lot of non-Hulk fans are starting to read the comic? I mean, as much as I can appreciate some of what Jones is doing...what's a Hulk comic without the Hulk? Where's the pathos of the misunderstood monster who just wants to be left alone? Where's the escapist fun of Big Green leaping through the sky? (And frankly, I also heard the claim that after garnering some early praise, Jones' run began to lose fans and critics, as it just seemed to ramble on somewhat directionlessly).

Jones also seems to be part of the current trend attempting to, uh, maturify even supposedly mainstream comics. There's a lot of racy innuendo, like a chapter title, "Multiple Organisms", or a scene of a female character being ordered to strip by a bad guy for no reason (she refuses before it gets too explicit) or, in a confusing sub-plot, there's a guy who regularly visits a porn shop to get info from his mysterious superiors (and really, what's the likelihood that a tiny town of, apparently, no more than a few dozen buildings, is going to even have a sex shop?)

Stuart Immonen's art is striking and effective, but problematic. I've liked Immonen's organic, realist art before -- and discovering he's a fellow Canadian just puts me more in his corner. Here, the art is haunting, moody, and even gorgeous (aesthetically and literally: he draws a pretty gal or two). So what's to complain about? Well, like with Jones, the style and aesthetics can get in the way of just telling the story. To suit the murky, X-Files mood, Immonen swathes everything in shadow. The problem with that is that when you have scenes taking place in the middle of the desert in the middle of the day, and the characters are still shrouded in heavy shadows, it begins to seem a bit much (and the dark, sombre colours just adds to things, making it visually oppressive). It also means the characters themselves become less like people, and more like mood pieces.

The fact of the matter is, I didn't dislike Transfer of Power. It was interesting, and moodily illustrated. But, though it has a story arc that sort of climaxes and resolves in these pages, it just isn't really meant to stand alone, making for an unsatisfying read. And Jones' handling of characters and plot, though interesting, didn't really make me say, oooh, I've gotta see where this is headed.

Cover price: $__ CDN. $12.95 USA
 
 

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