Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Marvel's Planet Hulk a masterful blend of word and art

The Hulk, Marvel Comic’s green-skinned monster, has been in existence nearly 50 years. In that time, I’ve thought of the Hulk as largely a one-note super hero. “Hulk Smash.” “Hulk Strongest One There Is.” That sort of thing. There wasn’t much gray matter behind that green façade and any super villain he inevitably defeated seemed more the result of serendipitous rage than from any sense of justice or moral outrage. He could just as likely pound the Thing or Thor into the dirt as the Leader. All that changed in a remarkable series by Greg Pak that originally appeared in issues #92-105 of The Incredible Hulk.

Pak has reinvented old Greenskin. In this series the Hulk is smarter, stronger and more capable of channeling his anger into constructive paths, although that doesn’t mean he doesn’t administer a beating or two. As the Green Scar, the Hulk takes on a dignity and depth that’s been absent for five decades. He assumes tragic dimensions and suddenly that anger that always so diffused and misdirected is focused squarely on a foursome that’s stood tall in the Marvel Universe and one can’t help but cheer for the Hulk.

The Planet Hulk mini-series has now been assembled into a handsome hard-bound graphic novel of the same name. As the series begins the Hulk has been shot into space by those relentless do-gooders Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), Iron Man, Dr. Strange and Black Bolt, leader of the Inhumans. Their intent was to send the Hulkie to a lush, uninhabited world. Instead, the Hulk ends up as a gladiator on Sakaar, a savage world of pink-skinned humanoids and intelligent, mind-linked insects, which is ruled by the cruel Red King.

By the conclusion of Planet Hulk, the Green Scar, aided by his War Bound, who meet in Sakaar’s version of the gladiatorial arena, and a handful of native rebels, overthrows the Red King and is himself crowned king. He takes a queen who soon announces that she’s preggers. In the comics, like the soap operas, nothing ends on a happy note and events lead to the destruction of the entire world, including Hulk’s queen and impending child. Only the Hulk and his War Bound survive. That sets up round two, now unfolding in a comic shop near you in World War Hulk. The Green Scar is pissed and he’s returned to Earth, along with his War Bound, seeking revenge.

An entertaining aspect of the series is that among the War Bound,” largely a motley assortment of “monsters,” are several minor characters who made long-ago appearances in Marvel Comics, including Korg, part of the Kronan race, stone creatures who once fought Thor in Journey Into Mystery #83 and a member of the Brood, a race of insect-like, parasitic beings, who first appeared in Uncanny X-Men #155 That’s a nice touch by Pak. Another deft touch is Pak’s handling of Bruce Banner, the Hulk’s alter ego. Banner, the nerdy scientist who Hulk hates most, makes only a cameo appearance in the series, but that brief appearance is in a touching scene in which the Hulk demonstrates great vulnerability and trust. It’s a testament to Pak’s skill as a writer that he can evoke such emotions from this green-skinned behemoth.

Planet Hulk demonstrates the power and popularity of the comic book and, by extension, the graphic novel. I’ve been around longer than the Hulk, yet I continue to become deeply caught up in a comic’s narrative arc. Pak’s writing drives this book, but it would be incomplete without the exceptional artwork, principally that of Aaron Lopresti and Carlo Pagulayan, who offer up several full-page set pieces, sans text, that are marvelous, as is the one-panel snapshot of the Hulk – almost an aside – when he realizes he is to be a father. A superlative blend of word and picture, Planet Hulk easily ranks among the finest comic book efforts in a half century and is a testament to that special blend of storytelling that makes the comic book such a special, enduring medium.

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