A job, a girlfriend and a hometown? This isn’t your father’s Incredible Hulk. In the late ‘80s, writer Peter David overturned everything we knew about the Incredible Hulk. A second atomic explosion gave him a new personality and a mind of his own. (The Hulk, not Peter.) The Hulk took a job as a Las Vegas bouncer, renamed himself Joe Fix-It (Mr. Fix-It to those who aren’t his friends) and started dating Marlo Chandler. But that was the last volume. One of the things that you could count on with Peter David’s Incredible Hulk was that nothing stayed the same for long. These are the continuing adventures of Marvel visionary Peter David and the no-longer-rampaging Incredible Hulk.
In a previous article, I reviewed Volumes 2, 3 and 4 of Peter David’s Incredible Hulk. I enjoyed them so much that I went back to the library and brought home volumes 5, 6 and 7. So how did they compare?
I thought that volume 5 had a very weak start. It even seemed like a step backward from the high quality of volume 4. It opened with the four-part Countdown story which unfortunately repeated earlier ideas. Once again, there’s one villain working behind the scenes. This master villain manipulates other villains and the Hulk into a series of one-on-one battles until the final confrontation between the Hulk and the one pulling the strings. It felt formulaic. Even worse, it was a formula we had already seen twice before in volumes 2 and 4.
The plot wasn’t the only problem. The master villain, the Madman, wasn’t nearly as interesting as the Leader or even Glorian. The Madman was just a guy with a hood and a grudge. The twist concerning his second identity was pretty obvious, too. He certainly didn’t have the charisma or the intrigue to drive a longer story arc.
That isn’t to say Countdown was all bad. The final issue introduced a new artist to the Hulk’s adventures: Dale Keown. His first assignment was to draw an emaciated Hulk. It was a tricky assignment. How do you draw someone who is simultaneously muscular and emaciated? Keown pulled it off. We could tell that the Hulk had been drained of most of his mass and power. Yet we could still tell that it was the Hulk. It was a sign that the title had stumbled into something really good. Keown would quickly become the best Hulk artist to date.
The second half of volume 5 was slightly better. Once again, Peter David abandoned the status quo. The Hulk was out of Vegas and on the run. There was an interesting story drawn by Sam Kieth with the Hulk on a train. There was a good fight with Freedom Force. And there were guest appearances by Dr. Strange and the Sub-Mariner.
Dale Keown continued to impress as an artist. His Sub-Mariner looked like it could have been drawn by John Byrne (who had worked on a Namor series around the same time). His Hulk was expressive, capable of expressing a wide range of emotions and not just the rage of the Silver Age or the detachment of the Jeff Purves stories. He could handle humans in conversation and brutes in action. He could do anything. Well, except make Leonard Samon’s all-red costume look good (Kieth wisely dressed Samson in street clothes instead).
That isn’t to say that the second half was all good. The Hulk continued to fight an inconsistent line-up of villains. The unnamed radioactive freak was pretentious and boring. Mercy was equally off-putting, though she at least had potential. I’m not the kind of reader who always prefers established villains. But when it comes to Peter David’s Hulk, the newer villains just didn’t match up with the older ones.
Despite the weak start, volume 5 had a great ending featuring the reunion of Betty and Bruce Banner and the return of Green Hulk. That ending led to a whole new set of stories in volume 6.
While I had enjoyed earlier volumes of Incredible Hulk (especially volume 4), they had not prepared me for volume 6. Peter David upped the level of emotional conflict and characterization. At the same time, he turned up the comedy dial. These stories were both deeper and funnier. Amazingly, he did this on more than one level.
The primary level was the conflict amongst Bruce Banner’s various alter egos. The green Hulk had re-emerged but the gray Hulk wasn’t ready to let go. And Bruce Banner didn’t want to give room to either. David and Keown depicted the three identities in turmoil. There were some great scenes on the psychic plane (the physical embodiment of the subconscious) as the Hulks fought for dominance while Banner watched on. The battles were full of haymakers and one-liners. Then, David and Keown moved the battle into the real world with a body that was constantly shifting between three shapes.
The secondary level was the conflicted relationships between Bruce, Betty, Rick Jones and Marlo. These scenes were just as good as the ones between two Hulks. There was mistrust and misunderstandings. There were scenes and lines of dialogue that measure up to the best sitcoms. There were connections and complications and everything you need to keep things interesting.
The Hulk was truly firing on all cylinders. There was even a good array of villains: Skrulls, the Rhino, Santa Claus, Crazy Eight. You know that things are going well when the only complaint I have is about the guest artist.
Volume 6 also contained two other moments worth mentioning. With the help of Doctor Leonard Samson, Bruce Banner was able to integrate his various personalities. For the first time in years, he was whole. He had the body of the Hulk, but the mind of Bruce Banner. It should have been perfect. Of course, it wasn’t. Bruce may have shunted his rage into the Hulk personality, but he still some anger problems of his own. That was readily apparent, even in the new integrated Hulk.
(END SPOILER WARNING) Then, there was also the introduction of a new team. I don’t know whether or not to call them heroes, even though that’s how they seem themselves. They aren’t villains either, at least, not in the conventional sense. They’re the Pantheon. They start out as opponents. But they invite the Hulk to become a member of their organization at the end of volume 6.
Volume 7 was every bit as good as volume 6. The relationships settled down a little. Rick Jones resumed his role as the Hulk’s partner. Betty and Marlo overcame some initial hostility to become very good friends. Even so, the domestic situation was a long way from “happily ever after.” There was still the main source of conflict: the relationship between Betty and Bruce. Bruce didn’t always have time for Betty. And Betty wasn’t sure what to make of the new, integrated Bruce Hulk. Plus, there was still a lot of humor to be found in the misadventures of Betty and Marlo as room-mates. They made a great odd couple.
The big change, of course, was the new, integrated Hulk. Peter David spends significant time exploring the new Hulk. Bruce Banner loses some of his charm when he gains his confidence. Of course, I wasn’t much of a Bruce fan in the first place, so I find the less charming version to actually be more interesting. He still has a hair-trigger temper, though he’s better at mastering it. Plus, some situations can be a problem even for someone who is both smart and strong.
The Hulk faces a variety of foes. There’s a great confrontation with the Abomination that gets even better when the Hulk is shrunk. There’s the continuing partnership with the Pantheon which is part rivalry, part cooperation. And there’s a great three-way struggle between the Hulk, Sabra and the Pantheon’s Achilles. On the down side, the last villain in this volume is Speedfreek, another in a long line of bad antagonists.
There was another potential pitfall. The Hulk ties in to both the Infinity Gauntlet and Subterranean War crossovers in this volume. However, Peter David does a good job of dealing with the interruptions. He uses Infinity Gauntlet to create an interesting complication for the Hulk. That’s how he’s shrunk before his second encounter with the Abomination. (The Hulk, not Peter.) In the Subterranean War story, David includes some really good scenes that develop the relationship between Betty and Marlo. Crossovers can be intrusive, but David uses them to his advantage here.
Finally, David keeps up his tradition of introducing a major new story element at the end of a volume. Okay, David didn’t know these would be collected in trades twenty years later. So the credit should be shared. David gets some of it for introducing major new storylines several times a year. And Marvel’s book department gets credit for how they divide the trades.
This time, the major story element is the return of the Hulk’s second sidekick, Jim Wilson. Jim reveals to Rick Jones that he has HIV, the virus that develops into AIDS. David does a good job of dealing with the sensitive subject. He gives Rick Jones an understandably surprised reaction. He provides a story reason for Jim to reach out to Rick and Hulk at this time. And he avoids melodrama.
I thought I had enjoyed volume 2 and 4 of Peter David’s Incredible Hulk. And I did. But I enjoyed volumes 6 and 7 even more. These are some of the best stories I’ve read. I understand why the title was so highly praised at the time and why it’s so fondly remembered today. I’m looking forward to the upcoming volumes.