Superhero Makeovers: The Incredible Hulk, part three
When we last left Bruce Banner, he had been cured of being the Hulk. Yeah…that never actually holds. Banner has actually been cured of the Hulk many times over, but it didn’t get mentioned here because it’s always at most a one- or two-issue fix. This time around is no exception.
With John Byrne come and gone, Al Milgrom would be the next guy in line to start something he couldn’t finish. He left before the story arc he began with Banner’s apparent cure was even finished. That was a symptom of a bigger problem for the Hulk in the 80s: nobody wanted to write the character. Driven into a funk by attempts to cash in on the TV show in a medium that lacked the acting and soundtrack that made the TV show huge, the character had become stagnant. That’s what forced Bill Mantlo to introduce a Banner-controlled Hulk and then a completely mindless Hulk – he had started to run out of ideas for the classic savage Hulk. But since his departure, and since Byrne’s plans to recreate the Hulk his way had been stopped short, the character was basically seen as a dead end. It got bad enough that the book was eventually handed over to some marketing guy named Peter David. And what did Peter David do with the book? Started a twelve-year long stint that turned the Hulk into one of Marvel’s hottest franchises, of course.
Return of the Gray-Skinned Goliath:
By the end of Milgrom’s short run, there were actually two Hulks running around. While Banner was seemingly cured, Rick Jones wound up becoming a green-skinned savage Hulk due to him getting involved in the procedure that seemingly cured Banner. But he’s not really the Hulk, so he doesn’t count here. What does count is that Bruce Banner went back to transforming into the Hulk at night (take a shot). This Hulk retained the mean, belligerent personality we had seen previously, but was gray-skinned (take a shot). Thus, for the first time since the Hulk’s very first appearance, he was back to being gray.
I would at this point mention how the gray skin in issue #1 should have been written off as an error, and that this is another example of comics continuity catering to fans who analyze every minor detail instead of playing a bit more fast and loose and allowing for better, more accessible stories, but I happen to like the gray Hulk better than most of his green-skinned counterparts, so I won’t complain in this case.
Like Byrne, Milgrom left with a bunch of dangling plot threads, and then Peter David came on for his long, long run on the character. In twelve years on the book, David only missed two issues – one due to the death of a friend and another due to his disagreement with an editorial mandate. That’s pretty impressive, especially for a marketing guy. Whether it was a good thing for the character depends on whether you enjoy David’s writing style. On the one hand, he delved deeply into not only the Hulk’s psyche but also the personalities and backgrounds of his supporting cast. He introduced a lot of new and interesting characters and told mostly solid stories. On the other hand, he seems to have a love of puns and topical humor which find their way into all of his writing, and the Hulk is no exception. Seeing the Hulk act out a scene from Young Frankenstein is definitely amusing, but not necessarily something I want to see in the actual comic. As he got more comfortable, David also tended to insert a bit of his own political leanings here and there, making for a couple of heavy-handed “very special issues” but also an excellent story about AIDS in the 1990s that landed on my list of awesome Hulk moments.
Basically, Peter David had a long, solid run on the Hulk with a few faults here and there. Some of his best work might have been his earliest stuff with the character, as he fleshed out the differences between the gray Hulk and the green Hulk. The gray Hulk wasn’t as strong, but was craftier and had a mean streak a mile long. He also hated Banner even more than his savage counterpart and went out of his way to keep Bruce bottled up. He revealed that Banner’s use of the gamma gun early on was him influencing Bruce into letting him out, and once went so far as to break into a liquor store and drink up the entire supply just before dawn, ensuring that Banner remained comatose the next day.
Probably the best of the gray Hulk stories is “Ground Zero,” in which Bruce Banner finds that the government has been stockpiling gamma bombs. He teams up with Rick Jones and secret agent Clay Quartermain to destroy the bombs. The story marks the revelation that Betty has been pregnant (which would unfortunately end in a miscarriage due to the aforementioned editorial mandate) and had some very good Hulk-Betty moments as a result. It also marked the Leader’s transformation from somewhat effective comic book villain to magnificent bastard when he used a stolen gamma bomb to destroy a town, creating a handful of gamma mutants that could serve as the beginning of a new race in the process. The gamma bomb actually was set up to be defused in a last-second heroic effort by the Hulk, but the Leader wound up using that big brain of his to pull off the unexpected – instead of waiting for the hero to save the day with 0:01 left on the clock, he detonated the bomb remotely while the Hulk was still trying to stop it. End result: vaporized Hulk, Leader wins.
Seriously. The “Ground Zero” storyline ends with even Rick Jones stating that the Hulk was dead. What sealed it was a Hulk-shaped mass of ash that blew away in the wind when the rest of the crew got to ground zero.
Maybe it’s all the alcohol in my system, but I’m suddenly feeling a little misty-eyed.
All right, we know the drill. This is comics, so the Hulk wasn’t really dead. He had actually been teleported away by wizards from the planet K’ai, where the Hulk had previously met his alien bride Jarella (ah, you goofy, goofy comics you). The Hulk-shaped object that disintegrated was a statue used as part of the summoning spell. Upon returning to Earth, the Hulk was believed dead by the populace and, thanks to the wizards of K’ai, did not change back to Bruce Banner during the day (take a shot). From there, he wound up landing a job in Las Vegas as a casino bodyguard under the alias of Mr. Fixit. Sure, having a six and a half-foot tall legbreaker in a casino seems odd, but this is the Marvel Universe, where aliens invade New York two or three times a week, so it’s really on the less strange side of things.
As Joe Fixit, the Hulk got fine food, pretty ladies, and all manner of luxury. But Banner ultimately returned (take a shot) and this time started messing with the Hulk, ruining the Hulk’s happy existence in Vegas. Ultimately, the Hulk’s cover was blown, and he and Banner wound up wandering the world again. The eventually tracked down Betty, who had joined a convent following her miscarriage, but the reunion between Bruce and Betty was nearly ruined by a mysterious group known as the Pantheon trying to kidnap Bruce. Since it was during the day, Bruce couldn’t transform into the gray Hulk, but his rage at being kept from Betty let the savage Hulk out again for the first time in years (take a shot). For a short while, Banner could transform into both the savage and the gray Hulks. This wound up going bad and causing Bruce to have a breakdown when the two Hulks fought for dominance. It seems that two of my favorite franchises have something in common – like Highlander, in The Incredible Hulk, there can be only one.
The Merged Hulk:
The psychological fight between the gray and green Hulks spilled into the physical world, with Banner transforming into both and nearly strangling himself. Ultimately, Banner took control, flooring both the Hulks and setting himself up for some psychotherapy courtesy of Dr. Len Samson, who had previously been the guy to psychoanalyze the Hulk in Roger Stern’s run on the book. The result tied back to the events of Bruce’s traumatic childhood, and established that Bruce Banner had DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder, at the time called MPD or Multiple Personality Disorder), with the green Hulk representing Banner’s anger from his traumatic childhood and the gray Hulk representing his darker repressed feelings from college. Thanks to some hypnotherapy and comic book science, the green and gray Hulks were merged together with Banner, resulting in a transformation to a completely new Hulk. This Hulk had the strength of the savage Hulk, the craftiness of the gray Hulk, and the intellect and ethics of Bruce Banner (take a shot). Unlike the previous Banner-controlled Hulk, this version could get madder and stronger. However, he was trapped in his Hulk form – he couldn’t transform to normal Bruce anymore (take a shot).
This period of time was when the Hulk was the closest he would ever be to a traditional superhero. He joined up with the Pantheon (the superhero group that had attacked him earlier; turns out they were using the tried and true “beat up the member before recruiting him” strategy) and traveled the world serving as a sometimes too-proactive hero, like when he tried to single-handedly overthrow a dictatorship that the United Nations had decided to leave alone due to a touchy political situation. The merged Hulk also allowed Peter David to use a lot of his trademark humor, sometimes getting entire issues that served mainly to set up a plethora of puns. However, he also had a dark side, such as when he effectively killed the Leader in cold blood in retaliation for being played so many times by the evil supergenius – the Hulk couldn’t accept that the Leader was still manipulating him even though his intellect now matched his strength. Ultimately, this dark side would get explored in an alternate future, which would set the blueprint for the eventual disintegration of the merger and the return of a more traditional Hulk.
What is thematically the most important part of Peter David’s run actually occurred outside the normal book in a two-part miniseries called Future Imperfect. In this story, the Hulk wound up traveling forward in time to a post-apocalyptic world ruled by an oppressive dictator called the Maestro. The Maestro, in actuality, was the Hulk himself, having survived nuclear Armageddon while gaining even more strength by soaking up the radiation from the holocaust. But don’t take a shot and count this as another new incarnation of the character…this was just the merged Hulk, grown bitter and evil with years of being hounded by humanity and finally given the chance to take control himself. While the Hulk has always had a dark side, the Maestro was an example of a completely evil version of the character. The Hulk ultimately defeated his evil counterpart by sending him back in time to the very first gamma bomb, right at ground zero. So while, miles away, Bruce Banner was bathed in the radiation of the blast for the first time, the Maestro was disintegrated by the full force of the blast.
The Hulk went back to his own time after this adventure, but the scars from seeing how evil he could be lasted. He actually wound up putting a mental failsafe on himself to prevent him from getting too angry and powerful. When he reached a certain point of rage, the merger actually broke apart, resulting in the savage Hulk’s personality emerging but also resulting in the Hulk’s body transforming back into Bruce Banner, thus giving him all of the Hulk’s rage but none of his power. He would remain in that state until he calmed down, at which point he became the Hulk again, creating a complete inversion of the normal paradigm of Banner transforming into the Hulk in times of great rage (take a shot).
As the Hulk’s adventures went on, things started to fall apart around him. The Pantheon went from being the Hulk’s allies to his enemies. A number of terrorist attacks around the world left the nations with nuclear armaments on the brink of war, leading to the possible dystopian future that had created the Maestro. And, during one transformation into the “savage Banner” incarnation, the Hulk, not realizing that he was in his squishy human form, took some shrapnel to the brain from an exploding grenade. The end result brought us one step closer to the elimination of the merger, but also a step closer to the Maestro.
Ghosts of the Future:
After the Hulk took shrapnel to the brain for the second time in his life, he went a wee bit insane…or rather, more insane than normal. Certain that the future the Maestro predicted was about to happen, Banner let go of his psychological failsafe and went totally ballistic. He transformed into a version of the merged Hulk with olive-colored skin and a full beard, resembling a young Maestro (take a shot). He then went public and claimed responsibility for the terrorist attacks that had the world on edge. This brought the wrath of Thor down upon him, but when Thor succumbed to a berserker rage during the battle, the US government decided to solve the problem by dropping a nuke on the battling pair. The Hulk, a bit more lucid than Thor, knocked Thor away as the bomb fell and was presumed dead in the blast. In reality, he returned to his normal form (take a shot), but was still more unbalanced than usual due to the shrapnel in his head.
This status quo would last until Peter David’s plot got derailed by an editorial mandate demanding that the Hulk appear in the huge Onslaught crossover of the 1990s. In that crossover, the Hulk would get Jean Grey of the X-Men to “turn off Banner,” thus unleashing a fully enraged savage Hulk (take a shot). The Hulk wound up shattering Onslaught’s physical body and somehow got separated from Banner in the process. This was all part of Marvel’s ill-conceived Heroes Reborn idea, which was basically a failed attempt to launch an alternate universe that wouldn’t be muddled up as much with continuity. The concept would eventually find more success with the Ultimate Marvel line of the 2000s. Personally, I think the project failed for three main reasons: first, for a universe that was supposedly freed of continuity, it had a continuity mess as its origin thanks to the Onslaught mess. Second, it took heroes out of the mainstream Marvel Universe, whereas the Ultimate Marvel line created a truly alternate continuity. Finally, the writing and art just wasn’t all that great.
The Hulk got a major screwjob due to the Heroes Reborn stuff, mainly because it tore the plot with the Maestro that had been building up for years right off the tracks. In the alternate universe, Banner became the Hulk again, and was basically a savage Hulk who ran around naked instead of wearing torn purple pants (make the alternate universe version of yourself take a shot). In the mainstream universe, the Hulk was running around without Banner but instead of being totally mindless was basically a merger of the green and gray Hulks without Bruce’s genius – crafty and mean, but also strong and green (take a shot, plus a bonus shot since it was never explained why we didn’t get the mute mindless Hulk back). This Hulk was also a nexus for the Heroes Reborn universe, and the energies within him caused him to grow increasingly powerful but also began to slowly kill him. But at least for one issue, the Hulk got a new costume out of the deal.
Since everything in the entire freaking Marvel Universe revolved around the X-Men in the 1990s, it took an X-Men villain to get the shrapnel out of the Hulk’s brain. The immortal mutant Apocalypse provided this cure in exchange for the Hulk joining him as the horseman War. This was the same Hulk, but suped up on technology provided by the cosmic beings known as the Celestials and loyal to Apocalypse. He was only around for a little over one issue, but he made his mark. For one, he was the strongest version of the Hulk that had been seen at that point, performing feats that were considered impossible in the Marvel Universe, such as stopping the Juggernaut (his catch phrase isn’t, “Nothing stops the Juggernaut!” for nothing). On another point, the issue where the Hulk was busy smacking the Juggernaut around like a little pansy, the story veered toward some character development. Rick Jones, the Hulk’s long-time buddy and sometimes sidekick, tried to stop the Hulk from murdering the Juggernaut and got backhanded into a brick wall. Although it was a glancing blow and Rick had received martial arts training from Captain America, the result was nearly fatal, resulting in short-term memory loss and major paralysis to Rick. The act of hurting Rick caused the Hulk to lose it, ripping out the implants given to him by Apocalypse and leaping away, going back to just being the Hulk instead of being War. In a way, it was a shame that the story had to end so soon. There’s something cathartic about seeing the Hulk just beat guys like the Juggernaut to a pulp. Maybe if there was some way to have him take on the entire Marvel Universe…sort of like a World War…involving the Hulk…but that wouldn’t happen, would it?
As the Heroes Reborn fiasco was finally scrapped, the universes got re-merged and the Hulk was joined again with Bruce Banner. The merger, however, was gone for good. The Hulk we got was more or less the original deal again, albeit green instead of gray and with a boost in power. He transformed more or less at random – sometimes when Banner got angry, other times when he just felt like coming out (take a shot).
Unfortunately, Peter David wouldn’t last much longer on the title. Due to the request of editorial and the fact that his own marriage had hit the rocks, he wrote a story where Betty died, later revealed to have been poisoned by the Abomination. David had a lot of big plans on the horizon, since he had modeled Bruce and Betty’s marriage partly on his own and that the divorce meant that he was sharing a similar sense of loss as his main character, albeit on a smaller scale. Whatever plans he had were not to be, because Marvel had a Hulk movie in the works and wanted the Hulk to be accessible to new readers drawn in by the blockbuster movie. The Hulk was to become mute and mindless, ready to smash through other characters’ books and provide a fight scene at a moment’s notice. Rather than tear apart his story of over a decade to chase after short-term sales, Peter David walked off the title. Oh yeah…that movie? Never happened. The project got shelved, and a Hulk feature film wouldn’t happen until Ang Lee’s 2003 movie. The only trace of the old screenplay was that the Hulk grew larger as he got angrier. Oh yeah…and it turned out that the 2003 film based a lot of its plot after the deeply psychological tales that Peter David wrote in the 90s. Good job, Marvel.
We’re almost on the last leg of this rant! Next time, we’ll be hitting the mess that was the Hulk in the late 90s and early 2000s, and hopefully finishing in the instant-classic tales that are being told right now! There’s loads more of the drinking game, but we’ll hopefully end on good times!