Andy’s Read Pile: Hulk, Season 1

IMG_4653Howdy Gents and Germs! It’s Andy Larson back for another rousing game of:  “Who can finish reading a comic book and then make sure everyone else knows that they did that thang?”

As I mentioned in last week’s blog, all this month I’m going to be reviewing horror or supernatural related books in my read piles. That means it’s a perfect time to read some Incredible Hulk, right? I mean that’s what I think of when I think of a horror comic, right? Well, actually, you wouldn’t be too far off, as the entire premise of the Hulk is pretty grounded in classic horror and monster related literary themes. Stan Lee himself often said that the Hulk is just a modern retelling of the same old story of Dr. Jeckel and Mr. Hyde, in that a man can be both generous benefactor and creature that stalks in the night, and that the horror comes from that stark duality of nature. In fact, it’s right there on the cover of issue #1 of the series by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby: Is he a man? Or is he a MONSTER?

The Hulk has always worked best when viewed through the “monster” lens vs. the “superhero” lens, because at his core he is Banner’s Id come to life. Although he often times does right by others as the Hulk, it’s always counterbalanced against the wanton destruction of all that power left unchecked. He’s hounded by his fellow men who want to either capture, enslave, or destroy the Hulk because of the great fear they feel for him. He can not be stopped, or contained, or killed and that freedom to do what he pleases when he pleases has a deadly price in modern society. It sets him apart from even his fellow super-humans, and it’s no wonder that eventually the smartest among them decided to shoot him into outer space rather than continually deal with this uncontrollable beast.

And so it’s been since those early days of the Hulk. So much so that when I first decided that I wanted to do a Hulk book for this series of read piles to help illustrate why his whole story is wrapped up in the monster genre, I originally thought of the first 6 issue run of the original Incredible Hulk, before it got cancelled and the Hulk wandered through other books like the Avengers and Fantastic Four before settling back in with the Tales to Astonish book. However, really most of those stories are pretty much garbage, wandering aimlessly from idea of what the Hulk should be to the next.

He only comes out at night, he’s mentally controlled by Rick Jones, he’s just as smart as Banner, then he’s dumb, Banner can control the change, then he can’t, then he’s gray, then he’s green…bah! I mean to be honest it wasn’t until Steve Ditko’s run on Tales to Astonish like 3 years after he was first created where it was established that he changed when he got angry that the character first started to crystallize around something resembling what we know about the Hulk today.

So instead I decided to cover a retelling of his origin story, and I thought what better one to review than Fred Van Lente and Tom Fowler’s Hulk book from Season One series. These more modern takes on the classic Marvel stories weren’t supposed to be some sort of reboot of the original like what happened with the Ultimate universe. But instead were just supposed to be a way to get new readers in these flagship characters in a more engaging way by telling the story with more modern sensibilities. Plus they benefited from having narrative hindsight, in that we all know exactly where the story is going now, so any missteps in terms of the character can now be avoided and thus a smoother more cohesive tale.

Also on the plus side, the series is written by Fred Van Lente who many of the Ghosts of Stratosphere are huge fans of his work, including myself. Although, Chad swears by Fred’s work on Action Philosophers and the Comic’s History of Comics, I will always be a fan thanks to the fact that Fred gave me one of the greatest Machine Man stories ever with “Marvel Zombies volume 3”. Man, I should have reviewed that book for this series instead…oh well…there’s always next October.

In any case, a lot of the Hulk origin is still delivered in Season One such as getting his powers from the explosion of a gamma bomb Bruce created, saving Rick Jones from said gamma bomb, his early struggles with both the Gremlin and with Thunderbolt Ross, the army hunting him as a monster, and his love for Betty Ross. In fact, so much of the original material is there but only repackaged in a more condensed digestible package, that if I wasn’t a stickler for having everyone read the original silver age stuff just on principle, this series would be a perfectly good substitute for all of that. But alas, you should read the original silver age stuff, folks. If for no other reason that you need to appreciate history and understand the foundations on which great houses are built.

Still though, once you do, I feel like then reading Season One should be the next step as there is some terrific stuff in here. I will say it’s nothing long time Hulk readers wouldn’t already have seen before, but again what Van Lente does is chop and channel decades worth of slow character growth and place it out there in the Hulk mythology as integral parts right from the beginning.

Like the notion that the Hulk was created due to Bruce’s inability to deal with persistent terrible child abuse he suffered at the hands of his father. The bottling up of that rage, anger, and feelings of being powerless in the face of bullies directly lead to the development of Hulk persona which came to life once the bomb let the gamma genie out of the proverbial bottle. Despite these ideas not key aspects of the Hulk’s backstory until years after his creation, Season One makes them a focal point so much so that it’s Banner’s ability to survive that awful childhood that gave him the inner strength to conquer any demon and thus prove to the Hulk persona that in the early war of wills, that Banner is in charge regardless of how physically strong or intimidating the Hulk is.

Next is the development of Betty Ross into an actual character. As long time Hulk fans would know, for years at the beginning, Betty Ross was the quintessential Beauty to the Hulk’s Beast, but that’s all she was. Window Dressing. The dainty daughter of General Ross who didn’t seem to have any reason to be on the military base other than she was with her Dad until he could find some army buddy to marry her off to. Really sterotypical 60s army wife stuff. Sure eventually, Betty Ross would be elevated by various writers to pretty decent heights, such as becoming the Red She Hulk in 2000s, but again that took nearly 50 years to accomplish.

In Season One, Betty is made to be one of the officers overseeing Banner’s Gamma bomb project and thus has a level of authority over Banner from the start. Yes, she still has the hots for this nerdy bad boy, but at least there’s a modicum of professional respect between the two of them which goes along way to provide a more empowered version of the character.

I will say it was a little weird at first to see Betty as a solider vs. a scientist as so often than not when past writers have tried to give Betty some credibility by linking her to a profession, it’s been as a colleague of Bruce, not his military overseer. But in retrospect, it actually makes more sense as a character for Betty to have followed in her dominating father’s footsteps and joined the army, as given Thunderbolt Ross’s personality, I don’t know if she would have had much of a choice given she was constantly surrounded by military life. It’s like either join up or go insane from the constant in your face reminders from Daddy Dearest.

Sure eventually, she’s again made a damsel in distress as she’s captured by the big bad and the Hulk has to come to her rescue, but last least she’s the victim of overwhelming odds being stacked against her and she does put up a decent fight before her jolly green boyfriend stops by to mess up someones face.

Finally, Season One delivers on some strong scientifically charged baddies for the Hulk’s opening tête-à-têtes. Instead of Commie spies and Toad men like in original issues, we get the uber neferious organization, AIM, up to their usual dirty tricks of creating clone children to harvest for genetic designer drugs to combat diseases for the highest bidders. What is more interesting is that the Hulk is a willing accomplice of theirs at least originally, as they hire him to destroy their rivals in exchange for giving the Hulk a way to become the dominant form of Bruce Banner. That goes south eventually once the Hulk finds out about what they are doing to this cloned kids and settles that hash.   Yeah, the one thing you don’t want to do around the Hulk is pick on kids. That’s a “no no”.

But in addition, we also get an actual Gamma related villain, which in the original series took years to finally deliver. I never understood why that was such a hard leap of logic for Marvel to make in those early days. If you have a Gamma powered hero, make him fight Gamma powered baddies. It’s a no brainer. It’s like if you have mutants, make robots try to hunt and kill them. But alas, for early Marvel, the Hulk didn’t get Gamma villains until late, and the X-men fought the Sentinels for 2 issues before they disappeared off the face of the planet for nearly a decade. It is what it is I suppose, but gawd does it seem dumb.

Anyways, we do get this Gamma related cancer like creature formed from the body of a former solider after a failed attempt to duplicate the Hulk’s powers. This solider is kind of like Glenn Talbot-lite in that he rides Bruce’s ass for most of the book, putting him down and trying to mack on Betty every chance he gets. And then after the failed experiment, he transforms into The Abomination-lite, as yet another sort of call back to a part of Hulk’s mythology without just coming out and saying it. The Hulk of course kills his would be pretender to his crown as king of the gamma-verse, ensuring that he won’t show up as a major baddie in later stories. Although his threat is short lived, it’s again indicative of this series that they fast forwarded to another important portion of the Hulk’s overall universe in that they introduced these gamma related rogues gallery members right from the start.

As a side note: I thought it was super awesome that Fred Van Lente dropped the Easter Egg about Ted Sallis developing a super solider serum substitute using plant matter from a lab in the Florida Everglades during the creation of the Abomination-lite monster. MAN-THING IN DA HOUSE! WHAT WHAT!

And I thing that sums up my thoughts about this book in general. Is it anything I hadn’t seen before in countless other Hulk books? Nope. It’s pretty much a rehash of Hulk 101. However, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s a stylized retelling of what most fans believe is the Hulk’s Greatest Hits. And like any Greatest Hits album, with Season One, you get the essential parts of the Hulk mythology in a clean concise package with all the filler stripped away. And there’s no knocking Fred Van Lente on writing in essence a “Greatest Hits album”. On the contrary, it takes true skill to synthesize decades of story ideas and boil them down into one tight little narrative which can be easliy read by both new and old fans alike, so definite Kudos to him! Plus with fantastic art by Tom Fowler, it’s a visual treat as well.

Long story short, if you have any interest in getting into the Hulk for the first time, or have been a Hulk fan for years, I would recommend picking up Season One and giving it a read. There’s no better time to read monster stories than the Halloween season, and this one is a “monster” of a good time.

Andy’s Read Pile Grade: B+

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