06 February 2010

Daily Breakdowns 061 - Ural Nautilus

Weapon X: Wolverine #10
Writer - Jason Aaron
Artist - C.P. Smith
Publisher - Marvel Comics. $3.99 USD

I'm pretty sure this is my first exposure to Aaron's writing. Marvel seems to have locked up more of the younger, fresher writers the past couple years than DC. Anyway, I was intrigued by the cover, which is badly drawn by Adam Kubert but has the germ of a funny idea to it: Wolverine as ladies' man. Kubert draws such a tiny cocktail glass for Mystique that I have to think he never goes out--maybe he just drinks from a hose in the backyard? He also has to use a sound effect--unusual for a cover--to convey Wolvie's boredom. At least the idea reflects the contents within, as Logan only has thoughts of his new gal, Melita, a San Francisco reporter. Smith draws a leaner, more Jackman-like Logan, and has the honor of drawing the flashback to his loss of virginity (Logan's, not Smith's). Aaron gets to the finish line where there's an unsurprising wrap-up: Melita is the one for Logan, because she accepts him, won't put up with his crap, has her own gig away from the X-Men, and is able to rationalize the severe increase in her chance of being killed due to dating a superhero as no different than the dangers of riding a bus. We'll see how long that lasts and if Aaron has the chops to find real dimension in her character and their relationship. What's funny is how he gets through the issue, with centuries-old Logan acting like John Cusack in Say Anything, leaning on his female friends like Ororo, Rogue and Black Widow for advice. Of course, Lloyd Dobler never had to turn down guilt-free, cyborg ninja sex.

Red Hulk #1
Writer - Jeff Parker
Penciler - Carlos Rodriguez
Inker - Vicente Cifuentes
Publisher - Marvel Comics. $3.99 USD

Parker has a pretty good batting average with me, but when you write for Marvel or DC, you do tend to get sucked into crapping out a superfluous story or ten when you're involved in a multi-title event. This could have just been a regular issue of any of the regular Hulk books instead of a new #1, and not a whole lot happens. Red Hulk and Rick "A-Bomb" Jones team up to break into an AIM base for information on M.O.D.O.K.'s new doomsday device. It's a trap, though, designed to get Red Hulk near the old "Cosmic Hulk" clone/robot/something, which gives it the spark of energy it needs to take off. So, basically, our heroes blew it, plus Red Hulk revealed himself as a traitor to old bosses M.O.D.O.K. and the Leader.

Sturdy enough work from Rodriguez but without the power Romita, Jr. and McGuinness have been bringing the Hulkverse of late. I'm still getting used to Rick Jones as a big, spiky blue behemoth, and despite his many years around superheroes, Red Hulk comes off the more sensible, pragmatic one. All in all, you'd be fine to skip this and just catch the next recap page of the next related Hulk issue.

The Indomitable Iron Man
Writers - Paul Cornell, Howard Chaykin, Duane Swierczynski, Alex Irvine
Artists - Will Rosado, Howard Chaykin, Manuel Garcia & Stefano Gaudiano, Nelson DeCastro
Marvel Comics. $3.99 USD

I'll give it an extra point for a new adjective for Iron Man, although if you're going to use "indomitable," maybe the longest story here, the Cornell/Rosado "Berserker," shouldn't be about failure? It reads a lot to me like an '80s inventory story, maybe something David Michelinie would cook up for the month when Bob Layton got behind or something. A kooky terraforming robot probe designed by Tony Stark for NASA gets its lifelike programming screwed up and tries to turn Earth into an alien world. It's angry at its daddy, Tony, for abandoning it, and in reprogramming it he somehow has some feelings of paternal regret. Not a bad premise, just not done that well here, although I liked Rosado getting into that old school spirit with an abundance of Ben-Day dots.

While that one certainly isn't a real inventory story, Chaykin's "Multitasking" looks more like one, as he draws more of an '80s style of armor. Actually, "multitasking" has lost a lot of its significance, hasn't it? It's like "recycling" or "rebooting,"--something that's so commonplace now it has lost all its initial zing. Anyway, it's an insignificant tale of Tony Stark fielding a number of calls from big clients and friends like Nick Fury (still directing S.H.I.E.L.D.), Captain America and Mr. Fantastic, while fighting a number of minor menaces as Iron Man. It's notable only for Chaykin's art, rarely seen in just black and white (the whole special is colorless, modeled on Marvel's '70s magazines), and his use of the exact same panel composition for each page, which works splendidly. Also, no one draws Stark more like an early '80s porn star than Chaykin. You can almost smell his mustache.

Swierczynski offers probably the most interesting story here, "Brainchild," which finds the granddaughter of Pepper Potts entering the protective monolith where an aged, Howard Hughesian Stark has been cooped up for decades, working on solutions to the real problems of the world without the distraction of fighting supervillains. There's a nicely bittersweet quality to the ending, where she gets him out into the fresh air to see how his ideas have been the building blocks for other scientists to finish and improve upon, but this only makes him feel obsolete. However, my favorite part was when he tells her he recycles his waste into nutrients and then asks her if she'd like something to drink. "Ah, right. You're probably going to pass on that. I would."

In keeping with the Marvel magazine model, there's a text story by Irvine and DeCastro, but as I've written about many times, I just have a big hangup about text stories when I'm trying to read comics. Aside from that, though, it's a pretty entertaining, if mostly forgettable, special, and probably a little more forgettable due to being in black-and-white from artists who are not generally good enough to carry the art on their own, or in the case of Chaykin, who is almost invariably served by thoughtful coloring.

Demo (Vol. 2) #1 (of 6)
Writer - Brian Wood
Artist - Becky Cloonan
Publisher - Vertigo. $2.99 USD

Demo was the first thing Brian Wood wrote that I actually liked. I found the works that got him his first industry attention, Channel Zero and The Couriers, to be pretty childish, petulant, though well-designed and drawn. But from the first issue of Demo on, I felt like he was reaching a new level, focusing on real emotions and with a genuine attempt to understand other people. Part of that may have been in writing for an artist like Cloonan, someone who hadn't yet settled on a style but had at least half a dozen capable-to-very-good ones to choose from, and also because he was writing stories that didn't use car chases or explosions to make their points.

Demo brought both Wood and Cloonan to Vertigo for other series, but they've overcome any trepidations they may have had about trying to catch lightning in a bottle to offer up another six issues together. This first, "The Waking Life of Angels," is a bit further removed from the "young people with superpowers" umbrella under which much of the first series operated, but there is some mysticism here, at least. Our heroine, Joan, has been experiencing dreams/visions of an angel in danger, falling from the upper floor of a cathedral. No one ever said Wood was the subtlest writer, so yes, our Joan is kind of like Joan of Arc, and readers can find out for themselves if she suffers a similar martyrdom for reasons that may be divine or could just be mental imbalance.

I haven't read much of Cloonan's work since the first series. It's lost some of that lovely, chunky inkiness, but while it's more assured, she hasn't lost that essential innocent quality. Even though rough pencils included at the back of the issue show just how hard she works, the end result feels unforced, and both she and Wood have a special working chemistry that doesn't appear to have dissipated. I wasn't absolutely thrilled by the ending, but ambiguity will do that, and all in all it's a quite welcome return.

Ultimate X #1
Writer - Jeph Loeb
Artist - Arthur Adams
Publisher - Marvel Comics. $3.99 USD

I sure didn't expect to start off 2010 reading a bunch of Jeph Loeb comics, but that's how things work out, I guess. I also thought the reformed(?) Ultimate Universe would be restarting small, but I suppose it's pretty typical of Marvel to start cluttering it up again right away. I actually picked this up not really knowing it was part of the Ultimate Universe at all. I mean, sure, it's got "Ultimate" in the name, but the trade dress is different from Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man and Ultimate Comics: Avengers. I just wanted to see Adams' art.

Adams has never been one to be able to handle monthly deadlines, so we'll see how long he lasts on the book. But what you do get from him is, still, excellent work, for however long he can manage. And clearly, he doesn't adjust his effort based on how important he may think the title in question is, because let's face it, no one was exactly clamoring for another title with "X" in it.

And yet, this is pretty good, even while it has so many familiar elements, not just from various mutant books but also the recent Star Trek movie. Based on one of the variant covers which features a team of heroes including the Ultimate Hulk, Loeb is going to give us a "gathering the forces" arc, each issue focusing on one future team member. This time out, it's Jimmy Hudson, a rebellious, reckless teenager who's a real handful for his parents, James and Heather Hudson. In this universe, neither are Canadian superheroes; James is the sheriff of their small town, Heather his wife.

Like his dad, Jimmy has a thing for redheads, except Hudson isn't his real dad. As he learns from a visiting Kitty Pryde, his father is Wolverine, who died during Loeb's much-derided Ultimatum storyline, but not before recording a Princess Leia-style hologram for Jimmy. Jimmy knew he healed quickly from any injury, and now, with Kitty's prodding, he finds he can extend bone claws from his hands just like his dad, PLUS form metal over them, kind of like Colossus. And that's pretty convenient and easy, ain't it?

It would probably be rather been there, done that, if not for a couple things. Adams, as mentioned above, brings his "A" game, helped enormously by Peter Steigerwald's beautiful coloring (I suppose it's a sign of the times that Steigerwald gets cover billing while the digital inker, Mark Roslan, doesn't). Also, Loeb's use of the elder Hudson narrating, while a little confusing at first, ends up adding a warmth to the proceedings. You know how much the man cares for and worries about his headstrong son, and any kind of focus on the parents of mutant children is a welcome change. Of course, there's a lot more work to do from here, getting readers to care about the other characters, offering Ultimate versions of villains that aren't simply retreads, etc. But it's a better start than I expected.

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04 January 2010

Daily Breakdowns 051 - Fall of the Hulks Pts 1 & 2

Fall of the Hulks: Alpha
Writer: Jeff Parker
Penciler - Paul Pelletier
Inker - Vicente Cifuentes

Fall of the Hulks: Gamma
Writer - Jeph Loeb
Penciler - John Romita, Jr.
Inker - Klaus Janson
Published by Marvel Comics. $3.99 USD ea.

I've written not long ago how I'm not really "an event guy," and that's true to the extent that I haven't been very interested in most of the superhero events for Marvel and DC the past few years, or if I've been initially interested I've dropped out before they finished. But I'm also not really a guy who goes to the comic shop and buys just one or two comics, and I've been enjoying the Jeff Parker-written stuff I've been reading lately, so I decided to follow this one from the beginning, and hopefully, to the end.

Parker starts things off with the Alpha one-shot, which one would suppose is intended to lay the groundwork for the various plotlines that will snake through the various regular Hulk books. I actually checked the chronology before I picked this up to see what I was getting into. Marvel doesn't make it easy, just taking us through March, so who knows how long this thing will take. Plus, I see it will lead into a new series, Red Hulk and possibly another series, miniseries or one-shot, Savage She-Hulks. But since these are in addition to just the two regular Hulk series, well, okay.

Anyway, again, one would expect that Alpha would set all this up, and it does, but if one is hoping for any Hulk action, or any Hulk Family appearance, sorry. What it does give is an amusing, dense series of short adventures of what I guess is a previously unknown secret cabal of supervillains who call themselves The Intelligentsia, or Intel for short. They're made up of Hulk, Fantastic Four and Avengers regular foes, The Leader, The Wizard, The Mad Thinker, The Red Ghost, Egghead (until his death), M.O.D.O.K. and Doctor Doom. Parker has the difficult tasks of weaving in the backstory on all these creeps (ably executed through Leader's narration/analysis) as well as making their secret union plausible between all their varied misadventures as solo acts or in other teams. He's got a good partner in Pelletier, who has a very old school (and by that I mean '80s-'90s) style: stolid, not too distinctive but capable, detailed and very clear. He's not going to give anyone their favorite rendition of Doom or Red Ghost or whoever, but he gives kind of a Marvel Handbook version that's very recognizable and representative.

Intel goes about secretly stealing ancient knowledge recovered from the fabled Library of Alexandria by the Eternals and the kingdom of Atlantis, which is kind of nice because they're after knowledge rather than some superweapon, and because they are using their intelligence to avoid unnecessary conflicts, although of course that might be more fun to look at. Still, it reenforces the idea that these guys do their best work together, their vast intellects focused on a common goal and doing their best to avoid infighting. Parker quite rightly recognizes that most of these villains are basically the same personality type, so he focuses on the Leader, who comes off as the best analyst, and in one way, superior to Doom, who can't help but betray the group for his own gain. By the end, which is the beginning of the Fall story to come, the Leader and M.O.D.O.K. have reteamed after Doom's betrayal, and M.O.D.O.K. has helped create Red Hulk but wants Leader in on what to do with him, because he respects his intellect. They're getting the rest of the band together and they're going to take down Bruce Banner, Doom, and anyone else on their shitlist. For an issue that's so exposition heavy, it's still well done. There are also Marvel Handbook pages on the entire Intel.

Loeb's work on the next one-shot, Gamma, is a study in contrasts to Parker's work, in both intent and execution. This is more like a regular Hulk issue, though designed for new readers, and again, fairly light on action. The first page is amusing because it presents, against a black border, the first Ed McGuinness sketch of Red Hulk, and lets you know it's from May 2007 as if this was somehow a momentous occasion and not just a way to sell action figures, or at best, a simple but fun idea to inject some juice into what has been for a long time a second-tier Marvel franchise. Let's face it, a black-and-white sketch of Red Hulk is just a sketch of the Hulk, but with a better haircut.

We then get a two page recap-done in more of a house ad style and not very helpful--and then much of the issue is set in and around the funeral of General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross, who, along with the Leader, is one of the oldest enemies of Bruce Banner/Hulk. Apparently, Ross put on some armor and tried to take out Red Hulk, who, to my knowledge, he wouldn't have that much of a grudge against, compared to Banner's Hulk, and Red Hulk punched a hole in his chest and killed him. Also, Bucky Barnes, the current Captain America, is able to sling old warhorse platitudes just like regular Cap, Doc Sampson is now a jerk and is working with M.O.D.O.K., former Hulk (and Cap) sidekick Rick Jones is now a huge, spiky blue metal covered superhero named A-Bomb (a thoughtful name when your oldest friend has lived most of his adult life in misery from exposure to radiation), Captain America (Steve Rogers) is not only alive but walking around freely at the funeral, and Bruce Banner can no longer become the Hulk and thinks it's fine to show up unannounced and speak at the funeral of the former father-in-law who repeatedly tried to kill him. There's some other quite interesting stuff with Banner later that does get me interested in this storyline.

All that being said, Loeb does do a good job with Banner's speech, as well as Ben Grimm's, and there are some game if not entirely successful efforts at giving Ross some dignity, gravitas and humanity he never really had in his decades of prior appearances. But Loeb does seem to cut corners in several spots. Sure, if you've got Romita, Jr. doing the pencils, you want to showcase his gift for dynamic action and naturally you want to break out of the dull curtains and pews backdrop of the funeral parlor, but the one page of McGuinness sketch, two page recap, two page Red Hulk/Ross punch, one page She-Hulks punch, two page Hulk/FF fight flashback pin-up...they get to be a bit much, like he's not getting the best out of Romita but really just getting through the issue with as little script and plot as he can manage. I'm not sure how I feel about him apparently having his daughter(?) Audrey help Dad get his job done with two cutesy, sub-Giarrusso one-page strips with the "colorful Hulks" (there's a blue one, too). If I think about it longer, I'll like it less. I was okay with the issue overall, as the various plot setups were mostly intriguing, but if this is how it's going to be when he's working with McGuinness and others I like less than Romita, it's going to be tough sledding.

Next time (almost three weeks), I'll look at Loeb/McGuinness on Hulk #19 and Pak/Pelletier on Incredible Hulk #606

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23 October 2009

EXTRA MEDIUM #3: Hulk vs. Hulk

Believe it or not, a comparison between Ang Lee's Hulk and Louis Leterrier's Incredible Hulk is often one of the first conversations I have with people. It's not on purpose, I don't ask for it, but sometimes it's inevitable. I get introduced to someone, the introducer mentions my interest in comics and my sometimes obsessive attachment to the Hulk, and the person to whom I'm being introduced will usually say something along the lines of "Oh yeah, I liked that last movie with Ed Norton. That one before it though, MAN, did that suck." I don't agree, but I'll usually nod and say something like "Yeah, it did drag in parts."

I think Lee's Hulk gets a bad rap. It's a deeply flawed film to be certain, but it doesn't deserve the space it's enjoyed on most viewers' mental scorecards -- somewhere around Batman and Robin and Elektra. Sure. I can't deny it. I'm a huge fan of the character so there's definitely bias. But I still have problems with the film. They just seem to be different from the problems everyone else has with it.

Most haters of Lee's film mention the computer-generated Hulk right off the bat, and my response to their criticisms makes me feel very old. All I can think is, "What the hell did you expect?" Yes. You're right. The giant green monster looked like it wasn't real. I guess as someone who was just barely old enough to see the first Star Wars film, I'm used to giving the filmmakers a break when it comes to bringing fantastic creatures to life. Considering the possible alternatives -- a muscle man in green paint or a "Hulk suit" like the Thing suit Michael Chiklis endured two years later in Fantastic Four -- I didn't think I was straining my disbelief-suspension muscles nearly as much as I might have otherwise. Lee's Hulk never fooled me into thinking he was real, and yeah he could've been better, but he could've been worse too. I think, more than anything, we were all spoiled by The Lord of the Rings. Don't get me wrong. The creators of those films deserved all of the accolades they got when it came to the special effects, but let's not forget something fairly important. Jackson and co. brought us stunningly rendered fantasy creatures living in a fantasy world. Lee's Hulk, on the other hand, is a creature of the fantastic set against the backdrop of the real world. There was no way he was going to look like anything but a cartoon.

Leterrier's Hulk is certainly an improvement, mainly because of lessons learned from Lee's film. To make him look more realistic, Leterrier shrinks him, both making him shorter and a bit more lean and sinewy. His Hulk is also a much darker shade of green and it helps to minimize the cartoon-y contrast that helped damn Ang Lee's version. But I'd be curious to see what Leterrier and co. would've come up with if they didn't have Lee's version from which to learn. The Hulk of Incredible Hulk is certainly better and, physically, more believable. But he's still a computer puppet in the real world, and it shows.

The place where both films unquestioningly pale in comparison to LotR's Gollum is in the inability of either Lee's or Leterrier's computer-generated Hulks to convey a full range of emotions. You can't fall back on the fantasy/real contrast excuse here. The movie Hulks of both 2003 and 2008 have exactly three different kinds of facial expressions -- anger/pain, dull/expressionless, and what I call the Betty Face. It's just a slight variation of the dull/expressionless face that looks just a little more pathetic, like a monkey about to fall asleep, to convey that Betty is nearby.

Incredible Hulk, I think, also got the sound of the Hulk in a way that Hulk just didn't. I remember, maybe 10 years ago, I wanted to put together a desktop theme for the Hulk, complete with some kind of sound that would play whenever I booted up my PC. I tried different soundbites from the '90s cartoon, the opening theme from the '70s show, and finally settled on something that sounded like the Hulk I imagined even though it wasn't from any media involved with the Hulk franchise - the sound of the T-Rex roaring in Jurassic Park. The Hulk should sound big - bigger than he actually is. But the green goliath we got in Hulk hardly even sounded like a particularly loud person. He snarls, grunts, and growls, but he sounds like a small, choked animal. In Incredible Hulk, though, I have to say, they really got it right, particularly during the few instances when he speaks, like when he roars from the shadows "Leave me alone" or his "Hulk smash" towards the end.

Computer puppetry aside, visually there are some truly stunning moments in Hulk. To go along with the the film's message of interconnection, Lee blends wildly different settings seamlessly. One of the things that impresses me the most about his ingenuity here is that, in spite of using a plot that necessitated jettisoning quite a bit of the source material, he pays homage to the original comic visually, and in ways that make it seem quite a bit more than mere homage. They almost make it seem like metafiction.

For example, in the origin story Bill Mantlo added in Incredible Hulk #312, a story that laid much of the groundwork for Peter David's historic run on the book, as a child Bruce Banner watches his mother endure physical abuse at the hands of his father until he finally beats her to death. This is one of the most powerful and important stories ever told in the comic, because it introduces the notion that, at least in some sense, the gamma bomb blast didn't create the Hulk so much as set loose what had already been created by emotional trauma. This is presented differently in the film. There is no recurring abuse in the film, but Banner's father still kills his mother. Lee merges the murder scene with one of the discarded aspects of the original comic - the gamma bomb blast. Earlier in the film we see that Bruce's crazed father caused a meltdown at the military base where he was stationed, and in the murder flashback we see that his mother died the very moment the base exploded in a green mushroom cloud. After being stabbed, Bruce's mother pushes her way out of her house, crawls across the ground, and finally reaches towards the sky at the very moment the green of the gamma blast flashes across the desert. As a Hulk fan, it's a moment that's absolutely heartbreaking. And it unquestionably beats homages like putting file folders on computer screens named after past X-Men storylines.

Unfortunately, there's some bad here too. Lee tries a lot of visual tricks in Hulk, and they don't all work. In particular, his use of comic-book-panel-like splits largely comes off as gimmicky: something that might have been novel if Hulk had been the very first film to be based off a comic. I want to think it was more than a cheap gimmick, but there are a lot of instances in which I genuinely don't get what he's trying to convey. And in other cases, I get what he's doing, but it just doesn't work. In a lot of cases, like when he splits the screen to show two different points-of-view of the same conversation, it looks like a cheesy long distance phone commercial. In some, it just seems useless. For example, after the military captures Bruce Banner, we watch a bunch of helicopters transporting him across the desert. Lee uses his panels to show us four different points-of-view of the same helicopters doing the same thing and I can't even really say I know what the point was. There are some instances when it's interesting and even inspired, but not often enough to forgive the bad.

Leterrier, on the other hand, doesn't really seem to want to do much visual experimentation in Incredible Hulk, which is unsurprising because of the movie he makes. For better or worse, it's just another superhero movie. That's not meant to be dismissive. It's a good superhero movie. In fact, I was surprised by how much I liked it. But visually it looks exactly like I expected it to look -- like a slightly Michael-Bay-ish movie that seems to want to say "I could be a car commercial, just longer."

As far as the various actors' performances, it's tough to say in the case of Lee's Hulk. Most of the actors were well cast in their roles, but unfortunately I think the dialogue ruins most of it. You get the feeling that the writers got lost trying to take a story meant for adults -- because of tone, not content -- and rewriting it to be accessible to children. Out of all the actors, the only one I have a strong opinion of either way is Nick Nolte, who makes for one of the most wonderfully twitchy and believable supervillains on film.

I've been saying for a while that Ed Norton, who built his career playing characters that could be doormats one minute and intimidating macho types the next - most notably in Fight Club and Primal Fear -- would make the perfect Bruce Banner. Unfortunately, Incredible Hulk failed to touch the more emotional side of the character. If you spend the extra dough to get the special edition DVD, you can watch a very brief impromptu therapy session between Bruce Banner and Leonard Samson, but it hardly scratches the surface. We never really see any of the Hulk in Norton and never learn much about his past at all. He still does a good job, but it's such a wasted opportunity. The rest of the cast is fine. Liv Tyler is a far less annoying Betty Ross, William Hurt is an unexpectedly un-William-Hurt-ish General Ross, and if a sequel does see the light of day I wouldn't mind seeing Tim Blake Nelson return (presumably, next time, as The Leader). Tim Roth is okay, but I don't believe his character, mainly for physical reasons. I understand that he's supposed to be an older soldier, and that that's part of why he fixates on the Hulk and harnessing his power for himself, but I just don't buy it. He not only looks too old to be an active special ops guy, but looks far too unshaven to be in the military at all. And it has to be said, while I fully admit that this may be nothing more than the memories of other movies coloring my impression of Incredible Hulk, there's something about Roth's demeanor that says "gangster" or "thug" more than "soldier."

What I have to say about these movies may seem contradictory. It may even seem just plain fanboyish somehow. Overall, I think Incredible Hulk is the better film. But I like Hulk more.

Incredible Hulk is a better film in the sense that it succeeded at being what it was trying to be -- a summer money maker. Leterrier succeeded in taking the Hulk and fitting him into the proper superhero formula. Audiences bought tickets to Hulk and didn't know what the hell they walked into. The movie was too long, there wasn't enough action, and the Hulk took too long to show up. But Leterrier gave us exactly what we've come to expect. We got a lot more action, we got a villain from the comics, a love interest denied because of the hero's heroism, and we even got something not too different from that moment towards the end of most superhero movies when the hero stands astride the rooftops of his city victoriously (except rather than standing astride a gargoyle or a flagpole, he's leap-frogging away from a helicopter spotlight). Incredible Hulk succeeded in being what it was trying to be, but what it was trying to be was something we've already seen again and again.

I like Ang Lee's Hulk more because while it failed to be what it was trying to be, it failed because it was trying to be something more than the next funnybook-inspired popcorn flick.

I can't tell you that I know what Lee was trying to say with Hulk. At the risk of sounding like a wise-ass, I suspect Lee wasn't completely sure himself. When I look closely at Hulk, I see a mishmash of ideas, but nothing that unites it all.

In particular there's a lot going on with nature. We see Banner as a toddler associating his mother with nature as he watches her garden. Later as an adult, he keeps some kind of moss-covered rock by his home computer which Lee makes sure we see him water and care for. When he temporarily escapes the army, the Hulk only stops to ponder Zen-like over strange plants and rocks far from civilization. When Betty Ross first meets Bruce's alter-ego, he is initially hidden when his skin blends in with the shadows of the massive sequoia trunks surrounding her cabin. Along with plants, there's a lot of animal imagery in the film. As early as the opening credits when we see David Banner performing his dangerous genetic experiments, he has a veritable zoo he sacrifices for his science and later when Bruce Banner is hit with the gamma radiation in his lab, the zoo reappears in flashes, suggesting that part of what makes the Hulk who he is has been culled directly from the animal kingdom. In the final scene, as Banner's eyes flash a dangerous green and it's clear he's about to change into the Hulk again, the camera raises to reveal a green parrot perched nearby and a green frog hugging the brim of Banner's hat. As the camera shot takes us to a bird's eye view, the green of the jungle completely swallows the scene.

The suggestion seems to be that Lee's Hulk is meant to somehow be an agent of the Earth or nature, not radically different from how Alan Moore envisioned Swamp Thing; not in the sense that the Hulk is supposed to be able to control nature or that he's an elemental, but that the Earth is his "mother" in a very literal sense. This seems to be supported by Lee making the Hulk a modern version of Hercules. He battles the three hulk dogs just as Hercules battled the three-headed Cerberus, and the climactic battle begins with the Hulk's father absorbing the electricity of San Francisco to become something suspiciously like Zeus (and Zzzax). Just before he turns into Big Daddy Zeus, David Banner screams wildly about his son becoming a hero like those who "walked the Earth long before the pale religions of civilization infected humanity's soul!"

The political relevance of Hulk is potent, though it seems to be something that was overlooked or ignored at the time of its release. The environment has been a hot topic since the '90s, but more than that it needs to be remembered that Hulk was released 2 years after 9/11. It doesn't seem to mean so much now, but consider the immediate Post-9/11 environment. Consider the anger and the fear of the time. Consider why, and then consider a movie about a superhero who spends most of his time fighting the United States military. In the desert. With Arabic music playing the background.

There's a lot of potential here, but none of it seems to go anywhere. There are messages about manhood, and emotional trauma and repression, but it's all a jumble. You get the feeling Lee didn't really know how to turn it into a united, cohesive message but convinced himself otherwise. It's messy and ultimately I just don't know what the hell to make of it. If nothing else, I think it's safe to say Hulk is the most unique superhero film we've seen so far, and I think that's precisely why I like it more than Incredible Hulk, even though of the two Hulk is the lesser film.

I think we like to use words like "bold" and "risky" and "courageous" for certain artists and their work, but ironically most of us fail to use those words precisely when the artists prove just how bold, risky, and courageous they are by trying something and failing. I think if we only recognize brave artistry when the bravery is rewarded with unquestionable success, then it kind of kills the meaning of the word "brave." And I would like to think if the choice were put to me, rather than opting to succeed at what's easy, I would choose to fail at something great.

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24 September 2009

Mick Reborn #2: You Can't Go Hulk Again

This was my first comic book, and really it had to be. I bought it at Arthur's Pipe & Gift Shop on New Scotland Avenue, right across from St. Peter's Hospital. There's a pizza place there now. At least there was last time I cared to notice.

I think at the time I recognized some of the characters on the cover. I'm sure I recognized the Hulk from his live-action show and his Saturday morning cartoon. I probably vaguely knew who some of the others were. Captain America. Iron Man. Maybe the Fantastic Four. The Vision looked exotic and almost scary to me, which seems pretty silly now.

What follows is no pop psychology, no retrospective reinterpretation. I was very conscious of why I bought the comic. The cover made it appear to be a story in which the Hulk faced down the rest of the world's superheroes. Later it turned out that wasn't really the case, but that didn't matter. I was a lonely and angry kid. I felt like the other kids at school would like me if they just tried to get to know me, and I dreamed of the day that would happen. In the meantime, every day on the playground felt exactly like the cover of The Incredible Hulk #278. The thing that never occurred to me until I saw the comic was that maybe on that playground I was the hero, and all those bastards who made fun of me, they were the assholes. After all, it was obvious to me from the cover that the FF, the Avengers, and the rest of them, they were the bad guys in the comic. How could they not be? They were facing off against the Hulk, and it's his comic. Duh!

When I eventually stopped blogging about comics, the story of the Hulk's exile to another world by the Earth's heroes - Planet Hulk - was, maybe, three-quarters of the way done. Everyone knew World War Hulk, the story of the Hulk's return to Earth, was coming. During a time when I was hardly reading any other comics, World War Hulk was one of the few trades I made sure to pick up as soon as it was out.

In spite of the fact that it really wasn't published very long ago, it's one of the most worn trades in my collection. Strangely enough, while I have reread it numerous times, usually I only flip through one specific scene: the standoff between Hulk and the Avengers.

Apologies if I'm misremembering, but I think it was Dave Campbell of Dave's Long Box who immortalized the phrase, "FUCK YEAH! Moments?" To me, World War Hulk was nothing but one FYM after another. Just a trailer of money shots.

For me, World War Hulk had nothing to do with Reed Richards and Iron Man and the rest exiling the Hulk into space. It had nothing to do with the death of his wife, the destruction of his alien world, a poorly timed IRS audit or any other inconveniences. World War Hulk came hot on the heels of Civil War, which was about as close as Marvel has ever come to attempting a complex, mature concept in a company-wide event. The Hulk rocked into the Earth like a mad, stripped-down Superman to punish the world for getting so goddamned high-minded. Dressed like a gladiator, like the ancient mythic heroes to whom Superman owed so much inspiration, the return of the Hulk was an apocalypse brought about by the world's Proto-Superhero - the World's Forgotten Boy - reminding his descendants of nothing more or less important than the simple fact he's the strongest one there is. No debates. No recruiting. No plans.

Punching and property damage.

More than that, World War Hulk was the realization of the promise the cover of my first comic made but never delivered; the Hulk declaring war on the entire mutie-loving world and pounding its heroes to tar. It was a conflict I'd waited decades for, and not to settle any stupid "Hulk vs." debates. I wanted to see my favorite green goliath smash the other heroes of Marvel because they deserved it. For denying him, for misunderstanding him, for hunting him and for hounding him, I waited decades for the day when I would see a triumphant Hulk clutching enough bloody capes to fill the last few minutes of 300.

It is possible that, sometimes, I over-identify.

Regardless, it seemed natural upon my decision to return to reading and writing about comics that Hulk would be my go-to guy. After all, as I wrote last week, I feel a little unsure of my footing here. It's been a while. Attaching a lifeline to the character who served as the comic book icon of my childhood seemed a good idea. Not that I would only write about the Hulk, but that he would be my doorway to the rest of the funnybook world. I don't know what's different about comics since last I was writing about them, and I need something familiar to anchor myself. Something familiar. Something dependable. Something-

Christ-on-a-space-shuttle, who the fuck is that?

The Loeb/McGuinness Hulk disappointed me as much as any comic ever could. McGuinness draws the Hulk like a Cartoon Network parody. Loeb's stories, in every way I could imagine, don't make sense. I'm constantly convinced I skipped something. Hulk will be free and at large at the end of one issue, and imprisoned at the beginning of the next, meaning the character who has been hounded by the military since his birth is now willingly submitting to imprisonment? Including going BACK to prison after he's already freed himself? I can't decide whether or not his Hulk is more or less unreadable than his Superman/Batman. His Hulk lacks the Supes-Said/Bats-Said narration that rendered Superman/Batman immediately annoying, but it has its own host of boring, vapid gimmicks. One issue features, once again, the Hulk switching back and forth between his green, savage self and the gray-skinned legbreaker "Mr. Fixit." Then, later...WendiHulk. As in a Hulk-ified Wendigo, or a Wendigotten Hulk, whichever you like better. And his time at DC has apparently left him with the notion that every comic needs enough superhero guest appearances to fill a clown car. Yes, I understand the dollars-and-cents logic of "guest appearances increase sales," but that really only tends to work with guest appearances by popular characters, right? I fail to see how Moon Knight and Brother Voodoo are going to increase Hulk sales, especially when they really add nothing to the story. Someone will say "Hey! We need some magic crap done!" and poof! Brother Voodoo shows up, does some magic crap, and leaves. It all takes place in the space of a couple pages. Wow. That's chemistry.

Some years ago I wrote a commentary piece for CBG called "WHY WON'T PUNY HUMANS JUST LEAVE HULK ALONE!?!?" My argument was that, rather than doing anything genuinely interesting with the character, writers had subjected Hulk to constant, radical change. Gimmicks disguised as depth. Rather than reproduce the entire article, I think this says it all: "We've had smart Hulks, gray Hulks, mute Hulks, evil Hulks, suicidal Hulks, psychotic Hulks, incestuous Hulks, Hulks borne of Skrulls, Hulks that don't even have to turn into the Hulk to get all Hulky, and Sybil-Hulks who change from green-to-gray and smart-to-dumb every day. We've even had a Rick Jones Hulk. Imagine if Mexican wrestlers broke Bruce Wayne's back every few years, and Spidey endured clone sagas bi-annually. That's what Hulk fans have dealt with for the past two decades." Loeb's Red Hulk proved my argument better than any Hulk run I can remember. Between the red Hulk, the gray Hulk, the green Hulk and the Wendigo Hulk, Loeb scrambled to grab any tired BS he could rather than scrounge up an actual idea.

More than any other faults I could list about the comic (and ho-boy, are the opportunities there), the Loeb/McGuinness Hulk was such a disappointment precisely because I desperately wanted to like it. Reading the Red Hulk trade as part of my re-introduction to the comic book world was kind of like a lapsed Catholic visiting his church after 5 years and walking in on his priest doing something a little too newsworthy with an altar boy.

And speaking of little boys, the Hulk's little kid didn't help much either. I knew about Greg Pak's Skaar: Son of Hulk. I think I saw an issue of it in a Barnes & Noble some months ago. When I went to the comic shop last week to clumsily rediscover my path into the comics world, I prepared by checking out Diamond's list of releases for that week, and was surprised to see the Skaar tpb was scheduled for the shelves. I found it, flipped it over, and had to blink my eyes a couple of times when I saw the $24.99 price tag. I thought maybe I was reading the Canadian price or something, but no, there it was, in black-and-white, $24.99. What the hell, I thought, That's HC prices! I "realized" that the trade must have reprinted more issues than I initially thought. I read the back description, sure I would find something saying it reprinted 12 or so issues - no dice. Seven. Seven and a little bit of an eighth.

No. I just wouldn't buy it. No way. Sure, it was written by the guy who wrote the World War Hulk I gushed over like a lovesick girl, featuring a Hulk-like character on the world Pak created for Planet Hulk, but $24.99 was too much. I'm no cheapskate. Hell, there are quite a few credit card companies, banks, and collections specialists that wish I was a hell of a lot more of a cheapskate. I might be willing to pay that much if we were talking about a comic I knew was just absolutely spectacular. If Skaar was a Morrison/Quitely book or a Brubaker/Phillips book, maybe I'd splurge. I never read a single issue of Skaar. I loved Pak's stuff on Incredible Hulk, but it wasn't like I'd seen any of his other work. After all, I loved Loeb's The Long Halloween, but that didn't make Red Hulk anything less similar to what belongs in a litter box.

Eventually, I realized it was foolish of me to expect anything more out of Hulk, particularly after reading the other books I brought home. I hadn't bought many floppies, but the books I did buy were largely confusing, boring messes. Dark Avengers hardly featured the Dark Avengers, which was particularly disappointing because I'd only bought the goddamn thing to find out who the hell they were. Moon Knight was, as Chris Allen wrote the other day, unfortunately what you would expect from the first issue of a chronically third-tier Marvel superhero. New Avengers was, as I remembered it, not horrible.

As the general cloud of ho-hum settled, it occurred to me that I simply could not afford this shit. I'm sure this has received plenty of discussion on the Net, I'm sure I'm just another geek complaining about it, but $4 a pop for a floppy is far out of my range. I can't do it. I cannot do it. I can't justify that much money to try new comics, to get comics just so I can review them online, or to keep myself stocked up on nostalgia junk food.

The comic that keeps springing to mind is Immortal Weapons. I adored Immortal Iron Fist and would've loved to check out this mini. It isn't very common that spin-offs live up to the original, but still I would've at least given it a shot. But for $4? No way in hell. And now, unlike before, there isn't even the chance that I'll "wait for the trade" since, if there is a trade, its price will be just as inflated as the floppies'.

The point is that superhero comics have proven so undesirable that the idea of purchasing one - unless I'm familiar with the creative team and know that they're a cut above the rest - is absolutely laughable. I can't imagine ever caring enough about the Avengers to spend $12/month on their exploits. For $12/month I could pay my water bill. I could pay half my cable bill. I could buy, like, at least five 2-liter bottles of Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi. Maybe six if there's a sale or something.

I am being forced, finally, to do what the Hulk has asked everyone to do for years - Hulk just wants to be left alone. Short of a finding a job that that pays a hell of a lot more, I don't see any other option. Hulk's going to get what he wants, and that's really not what makes me a little sad. What makes me sad, is that I have difficulty imagining there's anything bad about that. I'm not particularly worried that I'm missing the next great superhero comic. But at the same time, by missing out on the capes, I feel a little lost.

The dirty secret about me is that I've never cared about, or particularly liked, non-superhero comics. Well, that's not completely true, but even most of the non-superhero comics I've followed in the past were still action-adventure books (and someone could make a strong argument that Conan or Ogami Itto are as much superheroes as Hulk or Batman). I don't know why. There are plenty of stories I enjoy that have nothing to do with violence or irradiated heroes, I just prefer them in films or on television or in books. Something seemed inherently boring about using a comic book for non-action, non-violent stories. When I blogged years ago, and other bloggers would rave about Jimmy Corrigan or Ice Haven or Palomar, I would nod and smile and think "Yeah, that's great, whatever, when's House of M coming out?"

But here I am, desperate. I just don't have the money for this superhero thing anymore. At the same time, I know if I did have the money, there's so goddamn little that comes out that's worth it. There are so few superhero books that meet the bare minimum requirement of being more entertaining than my Xbox 360, much less the singular superhero stuff that truly soars as high as its subject matter.

So I got a new library card (my old one was all chewed up, I had some fines on it, and I moved to a new county anyway). Pretty much all they had was kind of stuff that, previously, I wouldn't have bothered with. Autobiography. Drama. Stories featuring talking animals who somehow managed to be serious. I borrowed a pile of books and brought them home, not feeling very excited about the whole venture. I took the thickest of the books and planted it on top of my girlfriend's bathroom cabinet, figuring I might flip through it if I was bored on the can. This is the book.

Luckily, I eventually took it out of the bathroom. Otherwise I probably would've been in there for three hours.

So, yeah. I changed my mind about some things.

More next week.

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