I gotta say. It’s been quite a “Hulk”-ish past 6 months. Growing up I wouldn’t say I was a huge fan of the Adventures of the Incredible Hulk, although I really did love that short lived 80s cartoon that aired on NBC Saturday Mornings right after Spider-man and his Amazing Friends. Y’know the Sunbow one with all the sweet Sal Buscema style designs and the same voice actors as GI Joe (aka Duke and Bruce Banner were the same dude).
For those of you not in the know, here’s the epic opening credits from the cartoon with the insane fracturing of the Earth’s crust, shrugging off tons of rubble after taking a spaceship laser blast to the chest, lifting an enormous steel block with the Hulk’s name emblazoned on the side of it.
Y’know Ice Cube saw his name on the side of the Goodyear Blimp and said it was “A Good Day”. Would having your name permanently etched in a mountainous cube of metal mean it was an “Epic Day”?
Dunno, but these credits are epic for sure!
Anyways, although I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the Hulk, he wasn’t among the characters I read comics about as a kid. However, again, recently it seems like that’s all I have been reading. From Al Ewing’s Immortal Hulk series, to reviewing the Fred Van Lente’s Hulk Season One, to revisiting some of his earliest adventures in the Man or Monster Epic Collection, it seems I’ve been camping out in the land of Jolly Green Giant for a while now.
So of course, that must be the reason that I decided to do another read pile book about some characters from the Hulk universe, in the case, the adventures of the Red She-Hulk aka Bruce’s long suffering “OTP”, Betty Ross, who at one point got Hulk powers from Modok and took after her dear old daddy, Thunderbolt Ross, in taking the Red Hulk moniker. Right? That’s the reason, right?.
Yes, there is no doubt that my dirty frat boy mind was heavily influenced by the fact that like She Hulk for many years, the Red She Hulk is a delight to look at. It must be nice to have gamma irradiated blood that can be used to re-sculpt your body with a snap of your fingers into that perfect “fit” look that’s all the rage nowadays. I mean I’m not complaining. I love me some cheesecake, and I’m sure the Hulk doesn’t mind either.
But no, as much as Betty Ross’s bootylicious crimson alter ego is a delight for my male senses, it’s not the reason I picked this book to read for a review. It was actually two other factors:
Jeff Parker wrote it.
I am a huge fan of Jeff Parker stuff from his run on Age of Sentry to Flash Gordon to Future Quest. He writes fun, whimsical adventures for the most part that are difficult to put down.
It also stars Machine Man.
Yes, friends. Now we hit the nail on the head. Even more than it being a Jeff Parker book, this series also stars one of my favorite characters of the entire Marvel Universe, the often times overlooked but never ceases to disappoint, Aaron Stack aka X-51 aka the other android that gets ignored because we have the Vision.
Yes, for those of you that read my blog regularly, you’ll know that I’d walk a million miles for another Machine Man story, and whether it was good or bad, I’d probably end up reviewing it on this site. In fact, if you end up liking this particular read pile, check out the end of this article where I’ll have some links to two other X-51 stories I took a look at in days past.
I honestly don’t know why the “Robot whose Brain Requires Beer” is so underused in terms of the Marvel Universe of heroes because he’s got an interesting personality, pretty nifty power set, and is an original Jack Kirby creation. That seems like a winning combination to me, but alas, his appearances in comics are as infrequent as the Chicago Bears making a Super Bowl run (this might be the year, baby!)
Any who, regardless of the reason, I recently sat down and read this trade collection of X-51’s Adventures disguised as a Red She Hulk book and now you are going to hear about it. So Buckle in, kids, it’s time to take a trip on Nikolas Tesla’s magic future roller coaster (that reference will become clear in a moment, I promise).
Story begins with the introduction of a new military related project aimed around creating new super soldiers. Sort of like Captain America, except as moralistically righteous or legendary, more like the 2 weekends a month reserve version of the super solider program. Anyways, Red She Hulk smashes the shite out of the place, breaking tanks and ribs all over the place all while carrying on about what a bad idea this whole project is.
Unfortunately, it has the opposite effect as instead of intimidating the government into putting on the brakes, it actually reinforces what a good idea it would to have super soldiers so that every Red, Green, and Blue Hulk monster in the area can’t just drop in uninvited and wreck things to pieces.
In addition, it’s that point that the Avengers are called to deal with the threat of another rogue Hulk smashing things to bits, and for some reason, Machine Man volunteers himself to be assigned to this detail. He’s had some past experience with the Red She Hulk, and he feels that there might be more to this attack than just rando Hulk PMS.
Turns out he’s right as the plot unfolds to reveal the fact that at some point while Red She Hulk was running around in the jungle punching giant crocodiles, she found this weird pyramid. A pyramid built by a long dead Tesla that looks like he could be a dead ringer for Tony Stark’s grandfather (yeah, just think of that for a moment…Howard Stark’s Dad?).
Anyways, this pyramid contains a roller coaster and is somehow tied to the Earth’s “mojo” as in its some sort of prediction computer. Yes, Tesla found a way to tap into some previously unknown planetary force to see the future, and it uses humans as its processing power. And She Hulk became privy to one of these possible futures in which this new super solider program basically spells doom for the entire planet as some sort of genocidal war will break out between them and super humans. That’s why Red She Hulk was trying to stop the program, to avert this possible future.
Although Machine Man eventually pieces things together, the rest of the Avengers are still skeptical that a Hulk is nothing more than a engine of mindless rage and pretty much fights Red She Hulk at every turn. So in the end, Red She Hulk and the newly fugitive accomplice Aaron Stack hit the road trying to avoid the authorities long enough to save the world.
Things I Liked:
Well, let’s start with the obvious by restating the reason why I picked this book in the first place: Machine Man. It still baffles my mind why there isn’t a regular series starring this too sweet technological titan. I mean I understand that in the original Jack Kirby run the characterization was pretty terrible so it was for a while hard to get a beat on exactly who this hero is. However, that didn’t stop Tom DeFalco from writing the bad ass Machine Man 2020 limited series which you can read my review of here.
Sure, there was a misfire with the X-51 series of the late 90s, but seriously everything out of the late 90s was terrible. But I feel like any issues with how to write Machine Man became non existent once Warren Ellis included him in the Next Wave series. That series took this “D” lister and showed what a smart, funny, versatile character he could be.
Not only that but then Fred Van Lente gave us another great outing with the character in Marvel Zombies Volumes 3 and 4, allowing the character to be truly heroic and fearless as well as sarcastic and deadpan.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that these writers gave equally interesting characters for Machine Man to play off of, such as the former Captain Marvel, Monica Rambeau in Next Wave, and Howard the Duck in Marvel Zombies. Those team ups allowed the right sense of tongue and cheek without making it seem over the top or campy, which is key for a story that contains a robot that loves to drink beer.
Jeff Parker also gives Machine Man a strong partner to play off of in this book as well in Red She Hulk, a wish fulfillment alter ego of a woman that’s played the battered housewife persona one to many times in her life. The partnership is a bit more fleshed out and cerebral though than those previous pairings I mentioned from Zombies and Next Wave.
Machine Man channels is inner “Vision” to play Ego to Red She Hulk’s Id, and the result is what you’d want from a duo like that: impulsive, yet deliberate, clever yet soulful, the right mix of chaos and mechanical order. And by the end of the book, the characters actually genuinely like each other, as although X-51 started as a playing a psychologist to a lost and damaged Betty Ross, by the end, she takes the responsibility of protecting him when things get rough.
Overall, I’m looking forward to the next trade paperback worth of the dynamics between these two characters, because I really do think it works extremely well. Especially with the notion of these two on a road trip together. It’s like these are both characters that could use some more self exploration for both the narrative and as we the readers. And what’s a road trip better for than some quality team building and self examination? Okay…Cheetos and Red Cherry Slurpies also count.
Things I Didn’t Like:
Pretty much everything dealing with pyramid connected “Earth” computer portion of the plot. I mean I understand too well the fascination with Nikolas Tesla aka the more Emo version of Thomas Edison. Or maybe the more hipster version of Edison, you take your pick.
Anyways, there was a time in my life were I thought Tesla was also one of the interesting men that ever existed, and decried all those that didn’t believe in his absolute genius. I mean the guy invited A/C current. That’s the form of electrical energy that everyone uses when they plug in practically everything in their house like kitchen appliances, televisions, phones, lamps, elliptical machines you never use but you swear you will one day, the toaster you sometimes want to drop into the bathtub after a horrible day at work.
He also developed the sweet ass “Tesla coil” which everyone knows from those old mad scientist movies what with the electricity crackling from pole to pole.
Plus, he was the whole reason the Christopher Nolan movie “The Prestige” was truly one of the creepiest films every made.
But yeah, despite all that, I thought including him in the Marvel Universe was just kind of weird. Not only that, but then putting him in Iron Man armor and making him look like a dead ringer for Anthony Stark, was even more out of place and off putting. Now I know this isn’t the first time Tesla was used as a character in the good old 616, but I still thought that it wasn’t a good idea then and it’s not a good idea now. For me it sort of breaks my suspension of disbelief that this is a work of fiction by his inclusion. I mean, you could have easily substituted Howard Stark or even Howard Stark’s dad as the futurist that came up with this mega computer that tied into the Earth’s premonitions if that’s what you wanted to do. I mean the characters were laying around, it’s better to use them that just make sub in a clearly “Stark”esque Tesla to do your exposition points.
I mean for me it made me question whether the Stark family stole all of Tesla’s ideas in this universe as it’s clear he has the designs for the suit and everything already. That just made me feel even more icky about the Stark family and again shattered by disbelief in this as some sort cohesive fictional universe.
And then there was this notion of the Earth computers themselves predicting future events. It all seemed way too Ancient Aliens for me. Like when Kirby used to channel is inner “Chariots of the Gods” into some of his Fourth World or Eternals series. I’m a science fiction fan for sure, but the notion of the Earth having a life force that we could tap into to see the future, is like alternative medicine talk to me. Healing Chakras and all that.
Again, like with subbing out a Stark for Tesla, you could have easily told the same story by just having Red She Hulk meet a teenage girl with mutant powers that allowed her to see glimpses of the future. I mean we do have mutants in the Marvel Universe. It seems like a perfectly reasonable power, thank you very much. No need to get all herbal remedies on me, Jeff.
Some of the most interesting parts of this story from the Red She Hulk’s perspective is her constant struggle with her new Hulk powers and the inevitable comparisons to her lifetime beau and gamma monster kingpin himself, Robert Bruce Banner.
I mean although I know that it fails the Bechdel test in terms of a powerful woman immediately trying to relate her experience through that of her relationship with a man, but I feel given the enormous amount of backstory the two share together, especially in regards to Betty’s life being turned completely upside down by the Bruce’s struggles with the mean green machine, to not talk about it would have been a gross oversight.
As I mentioned before, Betty Ross is probably the woman in the Marvel Universe who has had to deal with the most in terms of her man’s alter ego getting in the way of her living a normal life. I mean compared with Betty, Mary Jane Watson, had absolutely nothing to bitch about in terms of her husband’s piddling problems as Spider-man. At least, her relationship with Spider-man didn’t have MJ transformed into a giant Harpy monster…and that was just the tip of the iceberg of her psychological and physical torment just because she loved Bruce Banner.
There are pages and pages of her being hounded and pursued by the Hulk, defended, yes, from other monsters, but still kept prisoner to whims of a simple minded brute. It wrecked her perfectly good marriage to Glen Talbot, it caused her Dad to go insane and become a Hulk himself, at one point she felt like her only choice was to join a nunnery to escape from all of the terror. And don’t forget I believe she was killed at least once by the Leader, so there’s that. I know that death eventually led her to getting the Red Hulk powers, which did empower the character a bit, they were also forced on her against her will so again we are back to a woman that’s pretty much been a victim for her entire existence.
Yeah, I can feel for her when she would sometimes go ape shit on Bruce in some of these comics. It was totally justified.
Although we don’t get a ton of Betty waxing the philosophical on her relationship with the Hulk, we do get some good insights into her struggles to maintain control over the Hulk powers, and her fear of losing it like Bruce would. She admits to having some more empathy with his plight now, as she says she would notice that mixed with the anger in Bruce’s face when he transformed into the Hulk, was a equal measure of fear, in that he knew what he was becoming and was powerless to stop it. That he was afraid that every time he would never come back from that state of never ceasing rage, and that was her concern for herself too.
And for me, that rang true. It’s the struggle we all deal with in terms of balancing our power and emotions with appropriate self control, and the self actualized horror we all have in those moments when we find ourselves losing it. It’s another reason why the story of the Hulk, whether it’s Bruce’s story or Betty’s story, is one we can all relate to, and as a result, as importance in terms of its cultural resonance.
At the end of the day, this series was sort of a means to an ends for me. I sincerely just wanted to read more Machine Man, and since there was so little out there for me to read, I found myself picking up this run just to get my Aaron Stack fix.
However, it’s not to say that I didn’t mind it. The Red She Hulk is a pretty interesting character. She’s obviously a rookie super hero not yet comfortable in the mega powerful skin yet. In fact, her backstory in this book prior to getting involved with dismantling the super solider program was just bungling in the jungles with her huge f*ing sword. In a word, that’s aimless.
But now she has a cause to fight for and a direction in which to channel her great power and of course she’s all gung ho and overcompensating for her previous lack of purpose. But you have to remember, this is a character that never wanted these super powers, they were thrust upon her against her will, and they are some of the most incredible powers in all of the Marvel universe. She’s gone from the sidelines to one of the Earth’s most heaviest hitters. That’s gotta be a little jarring.
So this is a series about a new super hero defining what she believes in. What is her “Great Responsibility” moment? Where will she plant her tree by which river? These are all things we are getting a birds eye view of and for that it’s a pretty rewarding read as a result.
Sure, the plot is more than a bit nackers and I could have done without most of it, but it too is also just a means to an ends. It moves Red She Hulk on her way to becoming a full fledged super hero, it allows Machine Man to get involved as her companion on this journey, and most importantly, it sets up some additional trades worth of stories to come.
I won’t lie. I did take a look at the next trade, and I think I might enjoy it even more. I mean they have a dinner date with the Mole Man. That could be all kinds of hilarious!