Spandex Wedgies Are No Laughing Matter
Planet Hulk, World War Hulk
Welcome back, true believers!
I'm still waiting for the cease and desist order from Marvel for using "true
believers." Perhaps they're intimidated by my massive pectorals.
My longtime readers may have noticed that this column follows a format. First I
take on a mainstream superhero comic, and after I've thoroughly defeated it, I go
after an indie-oriented, darker series. This month, things have changed. I review
an event so huge, so fearsome, that I dare not spare an ounce of strength for lesser
foes. Yes, it's the Crossover That Ate Marvel, World War Hulk.
Bout time. I've been a Marvelite since I was a kid wearing Spider-Man undies.
My dad, like every other boy born in the fifties, used to own first runs of Fantastic
Four, Hulk Spider-Man, and X-Men. (He claims my mom got rid of them all. My
mom says they were ruined by a flood.) He did keep some damaged yellow copies
for me to inherit. I'm haunted by Jack Kirby's Hulk, swelling to Frankenstein
proportions, and Steve Ditko's Spider-Man scuttling down a wall, white eyes
alight. I have the kind of loyalty to Marvel that people have to sports teams after
all the good players have left. (I even read most of the mid-90s Spider-Clone saga.
But I'm trying to be objective here. Even if Thor could take the Justice League
World War Hulk is Marvel's giant event for the summer, spinning out of two
years' plotting in the Planet Hulk storyline, which I review first. The core story is
one five-issue miniseries, but don't let that fool you -- like all Big Fat Crossovers,
World War Hulk has its fingers in everything. In fact, before we go any further, it
behooves us to review the four main ingredients to a Fat Crossover and where they
stand in WWH:
- Slugfest factor. This dates back to the first Big Fattie, in 1984, when then
Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter signed Mattel to make Marvel toys, and
came up with a comic tie-in. The gimmick was really simple: every Marvel
hero fights each other. They called it Secret Wars. It sold. Ever since, a
crossover can boiled down to "X fights Y." World War Hulk is Hulk versus
- The competing DC event. It's called Countdown. I have no idea what it's
about, since I blew way more than I could afford just to keep up with WWH.
This is a tradition; see last year's Infinite Crisis versus Civil War, or
Avengers Disassembled versus Identity Crisis in 2004.
- A million tie-ins. There's two mini-series: World War Hulk: Gamma Corps,
about a specialized Hulk-busting team and World War Hulk: Front Line,
about the reporters covering the alien invasion. There's the X-Men, Iron
Man, Fantastic Four, She-Hulk and Ghost Rider tie-ins, as well as the Hulk's
own regular title. There's the Planet Hulk prequel and the Prelude to Planet
Hulk pre-prequel. There's online exclusives and T-shirts.
- Despotism among the heroes. This was also pioneered in the 80s, by Frank
Miller and Alan Moore of 300 and V For Vendetta fame. They realized that
superheroes would, like all powerful figures, eventually do horrific things in
the name of justice. In Moore's Watchmen, for instance, a costumed
adventurer commits mass murder in order to bring world peace -- and
succeeds. Recently, Marvel and DC have opened to this idea. Besides
pushing new creative boundaries, it sells. So Infinite Crisis opens with
Wonder Woman murdering a criminal on national TV, and Civil War has
Iron Man recruiting super-villains to bring in the heroes who don't agree
with his policies.
For WWH, a cabal of Marvel heroes decided the Hulk had smashed enough and
should be shot off to a nice uninhabited planet where he could be left alone.
Things (gasp!) went wrong. Hulk actually fell through a wormhole to a planet full
of warring races, loosely united by a tyrannical emperor, who, in classical hubristic
fashion, made the Hulk one of his gladiators. The Hulk gets stronger the madder
he gets, right? So how strong does he get when he's been shot away from his
planet, stuck in an arena full of strangers and forced to fight alien monsters?
Stupid emperor. Stupid humans.
That's the premise of Planet Hulk, an operatic opus following the Hulk's journey
across the planet of Sakaar, from slave to gladiator to conqueror. Planet Hulk is a
rare kind of comic, a full-blown space opera on a scale with Dune or Battlestar
Galactica. It even has a fifty-page appendix. It's ambitious and different,
especially in a formulaic genre.
That said, we've all seen Romanesque alien empires, even if they weren't in
comics. But one must be impressed at how much sci-fi the longtime Hulk scribe
Greg Pak manages to pack into fourteen issues. There's the imperial forces, insane
robots ravaging the countryside, hive species searching for their last queen,
ninja/Fremen desert tribes, and killer spores that turn organic material into globs of
hungry goop. Hulk faces all these and smashes with aplomb. Of course, there's
also a prophecy about a savior and a destroyer, tying the series together with the
question of which one the Hulk really is. Is the Worldbreaker, fated by his nature?
Or can he learn to be an instrument of peace, the Sakaarson?
It's a tried-and-true idea, and the story is more than a little contrived, but Planet
Hulk is worth the read for this spin. The various Hulks were always seen as Bruce
Banner's dark sides -- a dark personality manifested to counter the light. But in
Planet Hulk, Banner appears twice, each time held prisoner within the Hulk's
increasingly complex psyche. Old Greenskin emerges as a whole person, with
friendships, loyalty and love. By the end of the epic the Hulk is a married man,
rebuilding from the war. He even contradicts his own dictum of "Never stop
making them pay" by ordering his soldiers to stand down from their old conflicts.
So why World War Hulk if he's in such wedded bless? Well, (double gasp!) things
go wrong. The ship that sent him to Sakaar -- the ship programmed by Iron Man
and Mr. Fantastic -- blows up with A-bomb force, destroying the capital city of
the Sakaar Empire and killing the Hulk's wife and unborn child. Standing over the
dead body of his wife, Hulk says, "I was the Worldbreaker all along. I just didn't
know they were too." Our last shot is of Hulk and his army, on a ship returning to
Earth, ready for revenge.
The art for Planet Hulk is -- well, first I should say that this is one tough story to
draw. See list of sci-fi elements. And rather than one penciler and one inker, as
usual, Planet Hulk used two pencilers, Carlos Pagulayan and Aaron Lopresti, to try
and stay ahead of the infamous monthly grind. This means that, try as they might,
there are some radical differences between shots. Some are brutally realistic, some
are exaggerated and cartoony. The colors are also little too pastel, full of brown
desertscapes and gray hive aliens.
There are spectacular moments. One is the first full shot of the Hulk's future bride,
Caiera, in her burly-sexy assassin glory. Another is the hideous, fourteen-eyed
monster Hulk faces in the Arena. The legions of hungry Spikes, spores possessing
the organic life of the planet, are truly freaky. In both story and art, Planet Hulk is
a comic that aspires for a Platonic ideal and doesn't quite make it, but in trying,
goes farther than most comics dare. Reach for the stars and land on the moon,
(Special thanks here to our new friend Eric for being kind enough to loan Planet
Hulk to a guy he just met in a comic store. That is the best of humanity.)
World War Hulk is not yet finished (see next ish, true believer copyright infringer)
but in the four issues so far it's the opposite of Planet Hulk. Planet Hulk was a
full-immersion epic striving for the highest height. World War Hulk has good
dialogue and fantastic art, but it's about as deep as your average summer
blockbuster. With the themes of Planet Hulk to work off and the aftereffects of
Civil War, it makes, as popcorn movies go, a good one.
I've got to gush about the art. John Romita Jr., one of Marvel's mainstay artists,
does the penciling for World War Hulk with his longtime inking partner Klaus
Janson. Romita Jr. is not good because he's unique, though he is. He has a blocky,
shape-based style with minimal detail, only comparable to Frank Miller's work in
300. (Shame on you if you saw the movie and didn't read the comic.) But Romita
goes beyond Miller and beyond almost every other artist. It's not just style and
dynamics. He draws movement. Hulk thunders through concrete and slams his
anvil-sized fists into Reed Richards, causing Reed to flop across the page like a
deflated balloon. Hulk batters Iron Man into crumpled wreckage and looms from
the shadows over shards of armor. It's like Romita can distill the essence of
movement and dynamism to a few lines, put them in the right order, and,
alchemically, they come alive. Janson's inks are perfectly dark and Christina
Strain's vivid colors deserve mention as well. Every hue is perfectly rich and deep
for such an epic.
The Marvel heroes determine early on that only one hero can take Hulk: the
Sentry, a Superman-type character who is a recent addition to the Marvel Universe.
Unlike his DC counterpart, the Sentry is not a people person. He's schizophrenic
and agoraphobic, afraid of people and a kindred spirit to the Hulk. So the Hulk
smashes the hell out of Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic and Dr. Strange (in a demon-possessed slugfest with exploding chest cavities) for four extra-big, world-breaking
issues while the Sentry stands in the doorway of his house.
After overcoming them all, in issue #4 Hulk forces his foes to fight each other in
an arena, with obedience disks very similar to the overthrown Emperor of Sakaar's.
Keeping with the summer blockbuster tradition, the subtext is as subtle as a
bulldozer. Is he becoming what he once hated? (Triple gasp?) After yet another
breathtaking fight between the mind-controlled Mr. Fantastic, Dr. Strange and Iron
Man, the comic closes between a shot of the Hulk ordering Mr. Fantastic to murder
Iron Man and the Sentry flying through the air, finally coming to save them.
Will the Hulk win his battle but lose his soul? Will the Sentry kick green tush?
Will I get to say "slugfest" enough? Find out in the double-sized epic conclusion,
in thirty days!
Plus I examine the many spawn of World War Hulk and we take a look at a little
comic called Sin City. You may have heard of it.
Read more by Spencer Ellsworth