The Incredible Hulk: Nightmerica
(2003 - six issues, mature readers, Marvel Comics)
Writer: Robin D. Laws. Painted art: Brian Ashmore.
Bruce Banner (a.k.a. The Hulk) finds himself hooking up with a young woman, Chrissie, searching for some old friends of hers who have gone into hiding -- misfit freaks from an aborted covert project. Once reunited, she intends to bring them to a sanctuary, even as the newly revived corporation that created them in the first place is searching for them, too.
When I first started my review site, I did it partly because I felt there were very few review sites of graphic novels out there. That seems to have changed over the last few years, to the point where my site seems less and less to fill a need. But often where mini-series are concerned, reviews can still be hard to come across. Case in point is Nightmerica, where what few reviews I saw of it were only of the first issue -- not really allowing for an assessment of the story as a whole. (I'm not saying there aren't such reviews -- just I didn't see any in a quick google search).
This was released around the time of the Hulk movie, Marvel hoping to grab an audience temporarily keen for all things Hulk. And perhaps the big "selling" point is that it's fully painted by Brian Ashmore, giving the story a rich, ambitious feel. I sometimes have mixed feelings about painted comics, Ashmore's work included, in that often the underlining pencil work isn't necessarily any better than conventional comics. And there is some stiffness to the poses, some muddy visuals in the action scenes. But I'll admit, it is generally quite effective -- realistic, with a slightly impressionistic feel, and a beautiful eye for capturing the way light plays off surfaces. There's a lot of atmosphere and, certainly in some scenes, a nice eye for story composition.
When writing a Hulk comic, I suspect each writer has to decide whose comic is he writing? Is it about the "Hulk"? "Bruce Banner"? Or some combo of the two? The Hulk has undergone various overhauls over the years, ranging from the angry child to a stretch where he had Banner's brain and intellect! Here we have a fairly traditional Hulk -- big, green, none-too-bright, and angry. But despite the first issue featuring Jade Jaws in gamma irradiated action, Laws is writing about Banner, not the Hulk, with sometimes a whole issue trundling by without Banner transforming, and where despite some effective captions reminding us how disorienting it would be to be the Hulk (constantly achieving awareness just as someone you don't know is attacking you!), the Hulk's character isn't really being explored. The Hulk is almost more a plot device -- both to, occasionally, get Banner and the others out of a scrap, and to provide Banner with motivation: an excuse to be on the run, and to shy away from close relationships.
The story has an inherent simplicity to it -- a road trip as they collect up these misfit characters (each with their own clever abilities), building to the inevitable confrontation with their pursuers. Laws offers some surprises relating to motivation and such, but not so much the broad strokes of the plot.
Called Nightmerica, with the characters travelling cross country in a mobile home, going from inner city ghettoes to rural religious cults, one wonders if this was intended to be a road trip across the soul of America ala the classic Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories of the early 1970s. If so, Laws doesn't quite pull if off as well -- or rather, as consistently. The sequencee in the ghetto is a memorable episode-of-its-own within the greater arc, but the other vignettes aren't as well rounded. Still, the perception of the intent is there, and that extra ambition adds to the enjoyment of the story.
It's also funny how "life" has finally justified "art" -- comics, and pulp fiction, have long been full of stories about projects to create super soldiers, like this one. But such beings wouldn't really be that useful in the context of armies massed on a battlefield. But this roots the "super soldier" project in the new war on terrorism, and in that sort of conflict, a few elite agents really could be useful.
A relative newcomer to comics, Laws may've still been feeling his way through the format. The second issue's "previously in..." page actually gives us more info than the first issue itself, as if maybe Laws had forgotten to explain certain things properly. In fact, overall, the story might've used a bit more explanation. There are spots where the logic's a bit dodgy, the motivation a bit murky. I think it does make sense (loosely) but Laws could've explained things better (obviously, I'm trying to avoid spoilers; in fact, why certain characters have to die by the end is a necessity of the plot, if you think about it). Law also brings a nice sense of wit and humour to the story without (as can sometimes happen) being so self-reflective it undermines the seriousness or the "reality"
Above all, Nightmerica is self-contained, not referencing previous adventures, nor (necessarily) setting things up for later ones. And that's its strength -- making it a graphic novel (apparently Laaws had originally been contacted about writing a prose novel about the Hulk). As such, there's a nice sense of a character arc, and a romance that tentatively blossoms between Banner and the young woman. (Presumably Ashmore used a real person as Chrissie's model and, though not the glamorous super model type of most comics, that's part of what makes her so appealing). Banner himself is nicely portrayed as both the mild mannered everyman, noble but not super human, but also as someone who's been on the run so long, he could've taught Abbie Hoffman a thing or two about the life of a fugitive. The other characters aren't necessarily as thoroughly depicted, save Stu -- a truly grotesque character who is both comic relief and heartbreaking and emerges as the most endearing of the characters.
In fact it's worth mentioning the series might warrant a slight "mature readers" caution, just for some unsettling aspects.
Ultimately, though not flawless, Nightmerica emerges as an engrossing read, visually atmospheric, with some nicely realized characters. And though unfolding at a relaxed pace, nonetheless has some thrills and action. In a way, the story puts me in mind of a long ago Hulk story, where the Hulk (not Banner) ends up travelling with some circus freaks who are being pursued. That similarity may have given me an extra nostalgic appreciation for this tale, but regardless...an involving, stand alone Hulk/Banner saga.