Have you ever broken up with a character? For his own good, I mean?
Recently, because apparently I crave punishment, I was reading Tom Brevoort’s blog during “Spidey Answers” week. (I don’t know why I read the web the way I do; I really should just put on a ball gag and a dog collar every time I log on.)
Mr. Brevoort, clearly and utterly out of things to write about comic books (solidarity, brother!) has started opening himself up for Q & As using the same rules by which he let readers pick the Worst Marvel Book Ever: ask any question you want, veto any question you want. Because Mr. Brevoort also apparently loves the all-you-can-beat punishment bar, the Q & A topic has been Spider-Man. The resulting deluge has taken six days to answer and shows no sign of slowing down. As you might expect from an open-phone-lines discussion about Spider-Man, people have asked a lot of interesting, insightful questions that really peel the curtain back on the creative and editorial process.
Ha ha, no! Of course I’m joking. It’s six pages of pointless tail chasing again about the unmarriage from one year and thirty-six issues ago. In fact, I apologize for referring to it as “an open-phone-lines discussion”; that is an insult to the comparatively open-minded, free thinking callers of AM talk radio. I think Mr. Brevoort had some remaining shred of childlike optimism and began the discussion in the earnest belief that “maybe, if I let them ask the Mephisto questions as many times as they want, they will tire themselves out like children running around the yard and move on. Maybe if I exhaust them with honesty, they’ll get bored and go bug the X-editor about Xorn or something.” I hope he never loses that, even in the face of Guy Who Seems To Think He Is Conversing With You Privately and Guy Who Posts Six Consecutive Comments In A Row.
As I scrolled through this unending line of posts that each read like a prosecutor’s closing argument, written by people who are clearly so inflamed that they’re typing standing up and who have clearly not read any other post on the page, I thought as I always do when subjecting myself to this conversation, “It has been a year. What are you doing here? Break up with Spider-Man. Spider-Man is not treating you the way you want to be treated, and he is not going to change just because you keep coming around with charts and back issues showing him how wrong his behavior is now. Your cards and letters will not win him back. You are not staging an intervention on this message board. Spider-Man is just not that into you.”
“Sure,” some people say when they get this tough-love pep talk, “that’s easy for you to say. You’re dead inside. But I have a passion for this character. I have been reading Spider-Man since I was four years old”– you see a lot of the post where the guy lists his entire reading history, chronicling every issue he ever bought to establish his bona fides so that it builds to a crescendo of condemnation when he finally unleashes the but you have gone too far this time at the end– “you have never loved as I love.”
But this is not true. I have loved and lost. I have walked away from perhaps the most beloved character of my lifetime, for I have broken up with The Hulk.
I never consciously realized it until this week, even when I named him as the hero I most resembled, but I think over a lifetime The Hulk may qualify as my favorite. He’s definitely in the running. The Incredible Hulk was the first Muppet-free television show I ever loved; I can still remember those pre-VCR days riding home from my grandma’s house on a Friday night, breathlessly watching the dashboard clock with the urgency of Jack Bauer, saying, “Mom, hurry! We’re missing it! We are missing it.” It was the seventies; I didn’t know there’d ever be complete season box sets. As far as I knew, they finished showing each episode and threw the reels into a roaring fire that powered the transmitter.
The Hulk was also in the very first comic I can remember getting, an (apparently fill-in) issue of Marvel Team-Up. In it, Hulk misunderstands, Hulk fights, and Hulk calms down and leaves. Haters recognize this plot as “The Hulk Story.” I’ve gotten my grownup eyes on this comic, and it amazes me; there is action happening in every panel, and absolutely nothing happens in the book. It’s like a zen koan with sea monkey ads. This masterpiece did not kindle in me a love of sequential art, but as a six year old I loved watching Hulk fight, calm down, and leave. The Hulk Story as it was in the seventies and eighties was so perfect for six year olds, they must have come up with it in a lab. At that age, you’re too small and weak to reach the peanut butter jar, much less open it. You’re powerless, and you don’t understand things, and it’s all so frustrating that sometimes you just want to break something and make a big noise. The Hulk summarized sounds like something Mister Rogers would sing to you.
(Of course, from another angle it still has some appeal to me as an adult. The Man always on Hulk’s case. Hulk always being hassled. Hulk just want to be left alone. Hulk just want ten minutes of quiet to check e-mail. It’s like looking into a mirror.)
On some level the fatal, repetitive flaw in The Hulk Story must have stuck with me, because even when I did start biking my entire allowance directly over to the comics shop I didn’t pick up The Incredible Hulk for quite some time. When I did, though, my timing couldn’t have been better; I hopped on right as Peter David was beginning his decade-long journey with the character, exploring the nature of Bruce Banner’s personalities as he actually made some headway curing himself of The Hulk, only to have each attempt result in some new permutation and set of complications. I loved Banner’s cat-and-mouse game with himself during this era, and just when I thought I’d seen it all they gave me The Hulk as a Las Vegas legbreaker. When I stopped reading comics, David had so thoroughly sucked the marrow from The Hulk’s bones that I didn’t think there was anything left to do with him.
I may have been right.
I’ve been patiently trying to keep the faith with Hulk comics ever since I returned as a reader. I put in a valiant effort with the Bruce Jones run, which started strong, but it was so unmemorable to me that I think it damaged my hippocampus. There was a mystery in this run about the identity of a “Mr. Blue.” I’ve often wondered who Mr. Blue was, and I’ve asked people on the iFanboy message boards if they knew. Someone tells me each time I ask, and although I legitimately want to know it is impossible for me to remember, no matter how many times I am told. Someone will post a comment after I write this, telling me again. It will slide through my head like it’s been sprayed with Pam. The whole story was aggressively uninteresting to me. But I stuck with it much longer than I should have, because I loved The Hulk.
The book got my interest again under the Greg Pak regime, but even when it was good it wasn’t The Hulk I wanted it to be. At some point in Peter David’s wake, we lost the Hulk Rules. Banner used to turn into The Hulk when he got mad and change back when he calmed down; for a while, he turned at nightfall and turned back at sun-up. Each time he turned into The Hulk, he had a personality that was separate from Banner’s. Now, I have no friggin’ idea what’s going on. Is he mad? Is he smart? Is he dumb? Why is he The Hulk for six months at a time? Who’s driving? No idea. Nobody writing it cares to say. Reading the 21st century Hulk has taught me there’s nothing worse than finding yourself thinking, “This book is dumb, and I don’t understand it.” But I stuck with it… for a while.
Have you been keeping up with this Red Hulk business?
That makes one of us. I’m out.
Jeph Loeb made me dump The Hulk. Was it the Hulk gun? Was it Iron Man crying “oh, the humanity!” as the helicarrier crashed in a fireball in New Jersey? Was it The Hulk jumping into space with Thor and hitting him with his own hammer, probably in the balls just to keep the tone consistent? Well, it wasn’t that last one. I was long gone by then. It was apparent almost immediately that Jeph Loeb and the people who handed him the keys were finished with using any kind of nuance when it came to the character, and that the era of psychological metaphor and introspection was a tiny speck in the rear view mirror. Indeed, the inner lives of the characters are so irrelevant that we literally no longer know who the Hulk is in the book, and it doesn’t matter. If the book could find a way to depict the Hulk beating Thought to death, it would. Readers can’t be more than three issues away from seeing The Hulk pummeling the Grim Reaper. By holding the president’s legs and using him as a bat.
Well, okay. I might buy that if Arthur Adams was drawing it.
No! No. I must be strong, and I will be. That’s the point. I knew about five pages into Hulk #2 that the Hulk and I needed to talk. I needed some space, to take some time for me, specifically some time for me to not read s###ty comics that should have review blurbs from Beavis on their covers. I needed to say, “It’s not me, Hulk; it’s you. I love you too much to stand by you while you go around punching The Watcher. Pack your bags.”
So that’s what I did. I didn’t go to the editor’s blog and ask him a series of condescending questions about his mental faculties, pausing to include enumerated lists of all the ways in which The Hulk Would Never Do That. I quietly lamented the fact that The Hulk as I know him isn’t being used in anything currently being published, and I lamented the fact that it’s probably going to be that way for years at this rate, but… whaddya gonna do? It kills me that the book is now dumber than its title character, but I’m not going to wear a sandwich board and pace outside their offices. I’m not starting a petition. I’m not even really going to talk about it, unless there’s some random occasion when I need to say 1,000 words or so about comics. All it would accomplish is making me look like a loon. They would read my single-spaced Unabomber rant and say, “Well, any comic that provokes this kind of reaction is doing its job; tell the printer we need 50,000 more copies!” All I can do is nothing, and it’s better that way. The book’s direction will only be changed by one thing: suffering sales. Besides, I’d rather never read another Hulk book again than torture myself watching someone wreck him every month. It’s like finding out the sweet girl who broke your heart is doing porn now, and then buying all her movies. Why do it to yourself? In the end, I’ll miss him, but I’ll always have the memories. And a lot of Todd McFarlane back issues that I really should have sold in 1992 while the gettin’ was good.
Jim Mroczkowski has talked about comics like he was dating them two weeks in a row now, and people are starting to worry. The facade of sanity remains firmly in place at Twitter and Jimski.com.