In honor of the Halloweeny season, I’m going to take some time to look back at one of my favorite scary tropes in comics: the Monster Hulk. Don’t get me wrong, there’s room at the table for all kinds of Hulks, savage, smart, snarky Vegas bouncers, even red ones or she-ones or red-she ones or gray she-ones…there are a lot of Hulks out there. I especially hold the split personality era of Peter David’s run near and dear as that was the first time I ever really had the switch flip where I understood the Hulk. It’s all solid leading up to and including the Smart Hulk era. Thanks to Andy, I’ve been keeping up with the recent Immortal Hulk run by Al Ewing and a host of artists where they’re employing more monster/horror elements and it’s great stuff. I definitely recommend checking it out if you haven’t already. The current story shares elements with the older story we’ll discuss today. Every now and again it’s nice to turn the Hulk into a force of nature that appears sparingly, but when he does show up, you know there will be consequences.
It happens in the Immortal Hulk, and it definitely happened in Bruce Jones and John Romita, Jr’s storyline: Hulk Return of the Monster from 2001. This was the beginning of the Bruce Jones era. I have the fancypants collected edition that contains Incredible Hulk issues 34-39 and Startling Stories: Banner #1-4. There are a ton of reasons to love this, so allow me to break down my top 5.
The covers. Kaare Andrews is all over the place with the covers to this Hulk run, running the gamut from Steranko homages to originals to Norman Rockwell takes of the Jade giant. They’re all beautiful.
2) The interior art. All too often, comic book companies wrap beautiful covers around stories with subpar quality art. Not here. Sure, the John Romita, Jr. art is much much different than the sleek Andrews covers, but this is solid John Romita, Jr. The inks by Tom Palmer shouldn’t be undersold, either, as he brings out JR’s best. He shows off his mastery of the Hulk’s wanton destruction and the emotional impact that it takes on Banner. Not many artists are as skilled at both the action and the emotional sides of the coin as JR, jr. I didn’t even realize on my recent read-through that issue 35 was part of the ‘Nuff Said event of silent comics. JR, jr. doesn’t need words.
3) The classic monster elements
Consider this two page Frankenstein story starring the Hulkster. It’s the little things like the black and white coloring that help sell this movie homage that appears in the middle of the story. I just love the little callbacks.
4) The anticipation.
This is more of an extension of the last point, but this book treats the Hulk scenes as though they are something special. The first issue builds by keeping the hulk almost entirely from the reader. Instead you get Banner engaged in his Mr. Blue/Mr. Green computer plotline as well as the main plot regarding Banner trying to help an inner city kid see that there is a way out. All hulking takes place off panel. In the second issue, you get 3 pages of Hulk action while the rest is Banner helping where he can. Imagine how crazy frustrated you would be if you picked up an issue of the Hulk with no Hulk? At the same time, if you’re playing the long game, you know how necessary that is. Good classic monster movies and books know that you need to tease your audience a bit. You can’t just go all monster all the time, or it will lose its effectiveness. The build in this series to those Hulk-out moments makes them and their after effects all that much more satisfying.
5) The chase.
Do you remember the Hulk TV show from the 70’s and 80’s? If that was your Hulk, then this series is for you. Banner spends much of his time as the samurai without a master, wandering from town to town, trying to do good to make up for all of the destruction he causes while wearing his greenjeans. Meanwhile, all sorts of unsavory types from contract killers to government agents to his old pal Doc Samson have set out to bring Banner in (or take him out). Banner has to constantly stay one step ahead and not reveal his cards until he absolutely has to.
An interview with Bruce Jones in the back of the book shows off some of the fun to come later (including more awesome covers!) , but he mentions how he wanted to make the Incredible Hulk accessible to the masses. The resulting work is definitely something that both new readers and old grizzled vets should be able to appreciate.
Having read through the rest of the Jones’s run, I can attest to the quality level there, too. It wanes slightly here or there primarily due to the inconsistency on art, but the changing artists are all quality creators along the way.
I didn’t touch on the Azarrello and Richard Corben’s Banner miniseries that’s included in my collection. It’s …tonally different. Whereas the Jones run is Hulk as classic movie monster that’s being hunted a la Jaws, this is more Hulk as giant monster in a rubber suit swatting at helicopters and Doc Samsons.
Samson tries to get to what make Banner tick all the while Banner just wants to stop ticking altogether. Corben’s artwork is an interesting divergence from your standard super hero fare, and Azzarello’s story has its moments. It’s solid work, but not the draw of the collection to be sure.
Final Grade: Hulk Return of the Monster: A-. The only downside to all of the Jones teasing the Hulk is that it really leaves you wanting more. Unfortunately, movie fans know that is how things like Jaws 2 or Jaws 3 end up happening. I wish the Jones/Romita, Jr. team could have had a multi-year run together, as their styles mesh really well and they create beautiful scary music together. I think their work together really achieves that rare space that can be appreciated whether you have a long history with the Hulk or if you just know him from the movies and shows–heck the Mr. Green subplot found its way from here to the Ed Norton movie.
There are solid extras in the back including interviews, spec pages, and the script to the silent issue. My biggest gripe is the shoehorning of both stories together when I think they would both be better served on their own. Still, I guess they do cover the bases that the other story lacks, so there’s something for everyone. You could give this collection to just about anybody and have them enjoy at least part of it.
If you want to check out the graphic novel on amazon, feel free to follow this link here.
If you’re interested in checking out some of the Peter David or Al Ewing Hulk, I definitely recommend hitting up your local comic shop. Check the comic shop locator if you need help finding one near you.
Until then, I’ll be the ghost on the run, going from town to town, checking in at the local diners. No reason. What’s that, Alexa? Check, please.