I have read all of these terms being used to describe Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness’ Hulk. Hell, the last one was said by Ron on one of the Pick of the Week Podcasts when the book came up in discussion. With all the online fury directed at the book I dismissed it and moved on.
But then I read Augie De Blieck Jr.’s excellent review of the first hardcover collection and it made me reconsider everything. He made Hulk sound like the kind of over-the-top action thrill ride that doesn’t concern itself too much with the details, and with continuity, and with the things that most comic book readers cling to as sacred, and just sets out to have fun. And I like fun. After finishing Augie’s review I immediately pre-ordered the softcover on Amazon.
A few weekends ago, Josh, Ron and I were sitting in Ron’s apartment in San Francisco watching movie trailers on the Apple TV. We had pretty much exhausted all of the available trailers that we hadn’t seen when Ron shouted from the back to play the Crank 2 trailer. Ron loves Jason Statham. Ron loved Crank. Ron is super excited for Crank 2. We played the trailer. Now, I love Jason Statham as well, but I have never seen Crank. I do know the jist of the plot. The plot for Crank 2 seems 100x more ridiculous and outlandish. Josh made note of the ridiculousness of it as we watched the trailer. But then an interesting thing happened. Something ridiculously over-the-top-that-it’s-funny happened and we all laughed. And then we talked about how these movies know exactly what they are and don’t strive to be anything other than big, dumb, crazy over-the-top fun. They revel in it. They own it. And in that sense they are awesome. Hell, even Josh conceded the point.
I remembered that conversation as I finished reading Hulk Volume 1: Red Hulk, and I’m honestly surprised that Ron doesn’t love this book. Hulk is the comic book equivalent of the big, dumb, action movies he has a soft spot for. The ones that know they aren’t reinventing the wheel or delving into new depths of the human psyche. It’s a rollercoaster action movie and it revels in it. Hulk doesn’t pretend to do anything else than entertain and boy does it ever deliver.
For a comic book that has taken so much heat for being the worst thing that mankind has ever produced since telemarketing, I was quite surprised at the level of craft in this book. First of all, the book looks fantastic. I’m a big fan of Ed McGuinness’ work and I don’t believe that I’ve seen him on interiors on a regular basis since his stint on Superman. He does big, dynamic action better than almost anyone else in comics. His figures are broad and bulky and bursting with muscles. He is the perfect guy to draw The Hulk.
Now, I haven’t really read a whole lot of comics from Jeph Loeb in the last few years, but this was easily the most fun I’ve had reading one of his books in a long time. In fact, this felt like the Jeph Loeb glory days from 1999-2001 when it seemed like Loeb was writing every big book coming out from Marvel and DC.
The central story in Hulk Volume 1: Red Hulk revolves around a mystery. A mysterious Red Hulk has appeared and as the story opens he has killed The Abomination (thank god). Who is this Red Hulk whose steps are so powerful that they turn bits of the earth into glass? The only thing we know is that he’s not Bruce Banner because they’ve got him locked up in a secure facility. This particular arc posits a few possibilities as to who Red Hulk might be, but in the end we are still left wondering, which is nice because I really enjoy a good mystery. Who can stop the Red Hulk? Well, just about everyone including General Ross, Doc Samson, Rick Jones, She Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Namor, The Human Torch and Ares give it a try. But of course it comes down to the inevitable slugfest between The Hulk and Red Hulk.
The cavalcade of guest stars was actually something I found pleasantly surprising. The problem I tend to have with The Hulk is that my favorite version of him is when he’s the raging force of nature – I don’t like my Hulk to be too articulate – and you can’t really focus a book around that character. So any Hulk book needs either interesting stuff for Banner to do (as was the case for the first year of Bruce Jones’ run on The Incredible Hulk) or you need a fun supporting cast. Here we’ve got a fun supporting cast focusing mainly on Iron Man, Maria Hill, She Hulk, General Ross and Doc Samson. Set between the time after Civil War but before Secret Invasion, Iron Man personally directs the full force of S.H.I.E.L.D. to hunt down Red Hulk and I had forgotten how much fun it was to hate fascist Tony Stark. I actually clapped when he got clocked by Red Hulk. It is entirely possible that some of the guest star appearances or characterizations don’t match up to what was going on elsewhere in the Marvel Universe at that time, but I don’t care. That’s the beauty of the trade paperback – it’s all here and self-contained and I don’t need to worry about any other books. My only concern is with the story that is happening on the page.
I really, really enjoyed this book and I’m now eagerly awaiting the next installment.
After finishing this trade and thinking back to the Crank 2 memory and then ruminating on the vitriol that is directed at Hulk and then trying to reconcile that with the monster sales numbers that this book does – Hulk #8 sold 90,000+ in the direct market – and I’m at somewhat of a loss. Worst comic book ever? That’s an astonishing statement to me. I’ve read some bad comic books in my time, and this doesn’t even come close to the conversation. There are tons of bad comics out there. There are even more just flat out boring comic books out there. Hulk is not one of those books.
So why all the hatred? A few weeks ago on the Pick of the Week Podcast, and before having read this trade, I wondered if all the internet hate was because Hulk sounded like a book more concerned with telling an entertaining story to an audience whose increasingly primary concern seems to be how well any given comic book fits into an unfittable continuity rather than how good the story is. I do think there is an element of that in play, as well as a knee jerk reaction to blast anything written by Jeph Loeb no matter what the actual merits of the story are. Hulk is also a book that thumbs its nose at the conventions of the Marvel Universe. A lot of people complained when The Watcher showed up only to get promptly laid out by Red Hulk. I thought it was a really funny scene. There certainly seems to be an element of send-up in these pages. A lot about Hulk is a reminder that before we started analyzing every panel of every comic book for continuity implications like they were frames in the Zapruder film, they used to be primarily about fun.
I enjoyed Hulk. It was fun. It made me laugh. It made me want to read more. Hulk is a rock-em, sock-em slugfest layered over an intriguing mystery with fantastic art. Is it perfect? No. Are there some groaner lines of dialogue? Sure, but few are the comics (or movies or television or…) that don’t have one or two eye rollers. Am I confused as to why Doc Samson had short brown hair in the beginning and then long green hair in the end? Yes. But in the end the good stuff far, far outweighed the not so good.
Hulk doesn’t take itself too seriously. It just wants to be a good time, and in that sense it succeeds spectacularly. And when then next volume comes out I'll be there with little green bells on.