Happy Thanksgiving, everyone...here, Hulkinued from last time, without further ado (no, really!)...
WORLD WAR HULK #5
Writer: Greg Pak
Artists: John Romita Jr., Klaus Janson & Christina Strain
Editor: Mark Paniccia
Cover Artist: David Finch
After a rampage the likes of which New York has never seen, it's the end of the road for the Hulk and his Warbound. I have a bunch of key points to touch on here because this book touched off a bit of a firestorm when it hit last week. Some fans saw it as the worst issue of the series by far, a huge letdown, while others said it capped off the best Hulk story ever in tremendous fashion. Where do I stand? Well, I think it was a meticulously plotted but somewhat lackadaisically scripted story, with art that was sketchy but that conveyed incredible amounts of power. During my overview of the story itself, I'll be stopping to address some key points: namely (1) the decision to have the final battle be between the Hulk and the Sentry; (2) the identity of the true saboteurs of the Hulk's ship and the reason why; and (3) the Hulk's decision of his own fate.
When last we left the Hulk, he had converted Madison Square Garden into a gladiatorial arena a la the one he fought in on Sakaar. Outfitting those who had wronged him with obedience disks, he then forced the key foursome of Reed Richards, Tony Stark, Dr. Strange and Black Bolt into mortal combat against one another. Richards swings a mace up above his head, ready to drive it down and crush Stark, who tries to use his Extremis-enhanced abilities to "hack" the disks so they can free themselves. He's close when the mace falls...and lands within inches of his face. Reed begins to thank Tony, but Tony admits he wasn't able to hack the device: it was the Hulk who saved his life! The Warbound wonder why, and Rick Jones is quick to counter that they don't know "the real Hulk."
So who is the "real" Hulk? A being of immense power who could crush you were you stand just like a flea...but who has enough self-restraint to not...who makes you wish he'd deliver the killing blow and who leaves you mortified when he stays his hand. Does this truly make him a "hero"? Yes and no...more appropriately, probably an anti-hero, due to his unorthodox means of proving a point. Does this mean the Hulk has no teeth? Absolutely not--he's smashed enough bad guys over the years, right? This Hulk knows that he's better off having made the threat, punishing the other "heroes" in the eyes of the world. It's no harm, no foul for him because he knows he gets blamed anyway, being the one who looks like a monster. If the people of Earth believe his story about the Illuminati acting like jerks, fine, and if they don't, well, that's fine, too, he's in no worse a position than before. And anyway, he's got his escape vehicle, the Shadow People's great stone ship.
Suddenly, as the Hulk announces he's going to let the heroes live and just destroy the city around them, an explosion hits the stone ship, and down it falls toward the Garden! Astonished, the Hulk and his Warbound wonder what could have taken down the ship, as well as how they will escape offworld now. A golden streak flies through the sky, and the culprit reveals himself: it's the Sentry, and he's come to take down ol' Greenskin!
A word about the Sentry: a number of fans have complained, pretty much since day one, that if anyone was going to take down the Hulk, it would have to be the mighty Thor, thunder god and all-purpose bad dude, freshly returned in his own regular series after too long away. Historically, the Hulk and Thor have had some big brawls--check out Journey Into Mystery #112, Defenders #10, The Mighty Thor #385, and The Incredible Hulk #255, 300 & 440 for the highlights--but when you get right down to it, he and the Hulk don't have enough in common to make it a fight. The Asgardian rage bit was done in Hulk #440. Plus, as already seen in Thor #3, Thor wasn't wont to side himself with heroes who made a clone of him that killed people.
So, you may ask, what's the manufactured Sentry character have in common with the Hulk to justify his presence in the final battle? It's a combination of factors, really. Both characters have rather reserved alter-egos in Bruce Banner and Bob Reynolds. Both have alter-egos they must physically transform into, it seems (though Reynolds-to-Sentry is...cleaner). Both characters are immensely strong--with the Hulk historically being the strongest mutated human on Earth, and the Sentry being essentially Marvel's Superman archetype. More importantly, they each have their fair share of psychoses--Banner with his Dissociative Identity Disorder/MPD, Reynolds with his agoraphobia and schizophrenia. Both also struggle to not "let go" with their full abilities for fear others will be hurt. (More later during the actual battle discussion.) Plus, while it's true that it may have a "tacked-on" feeling because of the entire retroactive continuity explanation of the Sentry's introduction and origin, like it or don't, it's been established therein that the Hulk was, after a fashion, the Sentry's sidekick, for want of a much better term. Sentry and Hulk had a bunch of unpublished adventures, and there are hints (probably more due to the misapplication of continuity than anything else) that his presence led to the ascendancy of the Hulk's "Hulk smash" persona. (Take a look at Sentry/Hulk, the one-shot from the original run of The Sentry, and see what the Hulk's dialogue patterns are in the flashbacks that allegedly take place during the mid-60s publication period.) The Sentry, it seems, smoothed the Hulk's "rough edges" and calmed him down. It's said that the Hulk hurts, all the time, and that the Sentry's power in close proximity calms him down and makes the pain subside. Deep down, I'd have to think that the other Hulk incarnations resent the Sentry for reducing him to a sidekick and, in the likely words of the Fixit incarnation, a "baby." Then there's the throwaway lines in the Giant-Size Hulk #1 back-up tale, whereby there's some subconscious resentment of the Sentry found. In "Banner War," a dream version of Miek runs the Sentry through because when the Void nearly killed the Hulk, Sentry let him recuperate on the floor in his kitchen. ("But it's a very nice ki--URK!" replies the Sentry.) Obviously, then, the Hulk has some unresolved anger issues with the Sentry. Besides that, I think there are ample parallels as explained here that make the Sentry the best choice for the final WWH headline bout.
You'll notice that prior to WWH, every appearance of the Sentry and Hulk together featured the savage, simple-minded Hulk incarnation. It's a credit to writer Greg Pak that he picked up on this little fact, and used it as the basis for Reed Richards' synthesized weapon, power from the Sentry that regressed the Hulk momentarily to his childlike self (in #2). Of course the Hulk shook off those effects, and so, he's even more enraged by the point he encounters the Sentry here that another such tactic, though genuine this time, won't have the same result. The Hulk is so focused in his anger, he keeps his same personality. And the game, as they say, is on.
Right away, the battle blows up, the strength of these two titans visually displayed as something utterly unlike any battle since that with Iron Man in #1. The Hulk warns: "You don't want this fight, Sentry," to which the Sentry replies: "Yes. God help me, I do. because you're the only one I can hit...like THIS." And hit him he does, sending him through another building, and another, and into still another, blocks away in a single punch. All the while, the Hulk reminds us that the battle and any destruction caused is on the heads of Stark, Richards, Strange, and Black Bolt. (This continued reiteration does serve a story purpose beyond beating us over the head with a quick story recap, and I'll get to that before long.) Buildings explode and collapse under the onslaught of blows traded. The Hulk keeps hitting the Sentry, who receives each crushing blow with the chilling words: "Good. Just--once--more." Then the Sentry returns fire, exploding buildings for blocks, immolating the Hulk, fire funneling through the streets as Warbound and "super-hero" alike look on incredulously.
The heroes' dialogue is a point of contention here. The Thing seems to be reading right out of the writers' bible here ("...I'd say he's bustin' out the power of a million exploding suns")--probably an attempt at levity, gone flat. Again we get the "agoraphobic schizophrenic" line, this time from Reed, but blended with the idea that Sentry has "never" unleashed his power this way before. Tony reveals his "playing God" comment from last month's flashback. "Thunderbolt" Ross gives the truism of the moment: "You morons, trading one monster for another." And Hiroim tries to trump him: "Not monster, General Ross...WORLD BREAKER." The Hulk falls before them, and Rick fears that while the Sentry may not be able to kill the Hulk, the same cannot be said for everything else on Earth. Beside him, Miek expresses...glee.
As Hiroim and Korg attempt to cleave the flames from the Hulk's body, the town awash in fire, Tony begins to take advantage of the Sentry's first action against the Hulk: the decimation of the Shadow People's great stone ship. Does everyone remember that, in #1, when the ship entered Earth's atmosphere, it disrupted the planet's satellites, rewriting their code, riddling them with viruses so the defense satellites wouldn't be able to act against the Hulk and his crew? It seems a lot of people reading this story had forgotten, but the idea was very cleverly revived herein. Now that the ship is down, it's no longer jamming the satellites, which means Tony Stark can now mobilize them...but for what purpose? Ah, questions...
Interestingly, more traits of the Hulk's Warbound brethren come to light with their helping of the heroes clearing people out of the way. We've seen Korg say that the Hulk's taken things far enough; we've seen Hiroim say that they will be punished for their quest for vengeance; now we see that the Brood leaps to the humans' defense, as she "didn't come here to watch world die." It's a salient point and a direct contrast to Miek's glee at the current situation. Elloe Kaifi also seems to share a contrarian point of view, though less extreme than Miek's--questioning why they are saving the humans. (Perhaps this bit of characterization will come into play in what comes next, the Warbound miniseries. But, I digress.)
The Hulk and Sentry continue to fight, with the Hulk leaping up into the streams of destructive energies the Sentry creates. Interestingly, the Hulk echoes a line of dialogue he spoke in Hulk #93 with "You think your machines can stop him?" referring this time to Stark's positioning of satellites for...well, you'll have to wait for it! Of especial bewilderment is the Sentry's line: "Ah, Bruce...you have to tell me something. Does it always feel this good--when you finally let go?" Does it feel good for the Hulk to smash, to let loose? I know the line from the Hulk movie ("But you know what scares me the most? When I can't fight it anymore, when it takes over, when I totally lose control... I like it."). But I know also that Banner has struggled to suppress his personal demons, to avoid the destruction, the rampages, the angst that follows the anger. Does he truly revel in the power? I'd love to find issues or sequences that directly address this point. Basically, are the Hulk and Sentry more alike than they care to admit here? Moreover, it's interesting to note that the tables have turned here and that the Hulk is once more thrust into the role of protector, that he has, since the beginning of this story arc, been in control of his actions, and he must stop a friend, come to stop him, who has himself become drunk with power. (Another note: if Sentry is so out-of-control, why hasn't the Void come out in form? Is the Void truly exorcised from the Sentry now? Is that a result of the Sentry miniseries from last year that I only half-read?)
Why does the Hulk fight to save New York City now, when only moments before he was willing to raze the city to the ground? Well, the destruction of the ship would seem to be a big contributing factor. Stuck on Earth, faced with the most powerful adversary thus far, the Hulk decides to change his tactics. Sure, there are personal reasons: a show of pride, not to just roll over and surrender; also sheer bravado, wanting to show everyone he could beat the Sentry; part also showing the Sentry who's boss after making him sleep on the kitchen floor. But now that he and the Warbound aren't going anywhere, they're going to need to get along with the humans, to have somewhere to live, and that means sparing the city; not only that, but also showing what a hero he really is, taking down another hero-cum-menace. If he saves New York, he shows up the heroes and--just maybe--gets the respect he feels he deserves, and lets the humans who saw his victory preach what a bunch of chumps the Illuminati were. His thoughts are summed up in perhaps the most important passage in the book, spoken as he and the Sentry trade awesome blows, burning tremendous amounts of energy:
"They can call you whatever they want. Savior. Destroyer. All that matters...is what YOU choose."
As Tony Stark's satellites announce their readiness, a tremendous explosion rocks the city, a bright flash igniting, then dimming, to reveal the two titans, still tussling, expending massive amounts of energy. The Hulk and the Sentry simultaneously begin to transform back into their human selves, still throwing punches. Banner hurls the last punch at Reynolds, who thanks him and collapses in a heap. Has the Hulk defeated the Sentry, or is it just a meaningless punch between two lowly mortals? Well, seeing the gamma-green glow in Banner's eyes, I would say that they each took as much as the other would give, expending the totality of the energies that give them their powers, and the definitive victor is Banner/Hulk, united at last. It's over, and the Hulk stands triumphant.
This is Banner's most prominent appearance in the series to date, and it's a doozy. Finally, the Hulk's other identity stands revealed to his Warbound teammates. (Caiera knew Banner, as he related to Strange in #3; and as it seems no surprise to Hiroim, he may have spied the transformation in the same issue along with Korg, or at the very least, his suspicions of the Hulk's "duality" from World War Hulk Prologue: World Breaker seem to have borne fruit.) Interestingly, Bruce doesn't say a word during this scene until the very end, but it's clear from the visual of his gamma-green eyes that something fundamental has changed. Hiroim calls it: "Within each of us live the World Breaker, who destroys all...and the Sakaarson, who redeems the world. Today, finally...the Hulk knows who he is." He has defeated all his adversaries...there is no one left to beat. The Hulk has shown his superiority...and he and Banner have a detente. It would seem he will emerge as the hero, unchallenged. But then...but then...
Miek cannot believe his eyes or what the others are telling him, that Banner is the Hulk. He can't believe that the battle is at an end, that there will be no more fighting, that Banner has redeemed his world. And so, to prolong the fight, he aims his spear at Banner, to force the transformation anew...only to have Rick Jones, the Hulk's oldest friend, shove Bruce out of the way and take the spear himself, collapsing to the ground. Bruce mourns as his friend teeters between life and death, finally succumbing to the monster within. Between Miek and Rick, it's no contest. Once more, Bruce's body regenerates the gamma radiation necessary to force the metamorphosis, and within seconds, he is the Hulk, the master of all he surveys. (Bruce Banner has obviously recovered from times when he could burn off all the gamma radiation in his body, circa Hulk #223-226, having, as some have theorized, now become a living, self-renewing, gamma reactor.) Tossing aside his Warbound brothers, he hits Miek as hard as ever (intriguing sound effect, that--GRGPAKK...who's the writer of this mag, anyway?), crushing his shell beneath his feet. He rages and roars, pounding his fists into Miek, blood and pieces of his shell and body flying up all over him. Miek reiterates this is what the Hulk was made for. "Never stop making them pay," he says. Then, the coup de grace: "That's why I *kik* killed them."
It's here that the evolution of the character of Miek reaches its apotheosis. The first quote has been a part of his psychology since nearly his first appearance, how much what the Hulk taught him in the arenas of Sakaar stuck. The quote first came up in #96, when Miek along with his fellow Warbound found out just how badly the Imperials had treated Miek's hive. They killed his father, enslaved him, kept the rest of the hive under their thumbs. The Hulk's rage and words of apparent inspiration allowed Miek to fight one of the Imperials, to lose one of his own arms in order to gain the advantage (there's some symbolism there, for sure). Once Miek embraced the way of the warrior, the Hulk's way, he soon after transformed into a king, the last king of his people--a warrior as big and powerful as the Hulk himself (Hulk #97). The physical transformation, again, is a symptom of the greater transformation within the character, from weak-willed to a stronger creature. His own personal decline exacerbated as he discovered a queen of his species, the last such living specimen, kept by the Red King (Hulk #99), but then lost her when the alien Spikes transformed her into one of them, forcing poor Miek to take matters into his own hands and kill her (Hulk #100). Since then, Miek helped the Hulk take the battle to the Red King (Hulk #102), but after that, he thought, his friend lost his way, bringing peace, uniting the kingdoms instead of making more war. Miek's own world, his hive, was as nothing, so he believed the world must go down in flames. Hence, when Miek discovered the message from the Illuminati on the Hulk's ship (Hulk #103), he knew he had found a weakness to exploit. When Imperials, outraged over the fact their king had been overthrown, loaded an unstable warp drive onto the Hulk's ship, Miek said nothing, knowing that when it eventually exploded, there would be no direct evidence implicating anyone but the humans. He knew that the Hulk would not be killed, but that the apparent attack would spur him to return to the planet of his birth to wreak more vengeance, to bring another world to its knees--but he didn't count on the morality of the Hulk, the innate heroism of Bruce Banner--and so, he was let down, and had to force the Hulk into further action, even at (possibly) the cost of his own life. "Never stop making them pay," he said. "We all *kik* *kik* must die. All this *kik* passing, so the next *kik* thing can come...so the World Breaker...can finally make an end." Miek is a nihilist, a world view helped along and shaped in part by the Hulk...which is far from the worst of the green goliath's problems.
First, I'll briefly address Rick's "death." Do I think he's really dead? Probably not--he's loaded onto an ambulance later in the story. Besides that, his death doesn't really have the gravitas or follow-through the death of such a major character should. In any event, the attempted murder of Rick by Miek cements the latter (I'm guessing he isn't dead, either) as the Hulk's dark double--the meek (heh) character who revels in the transforming power of anger (vis a vis his metamorphosis into "King Miek") and all of the dark impulses such a consuming anger engenders. His journey has paralleled the Hulk's throughout "Planet Hulk" and WWH, and now his journey is at an ill end. He's already come up against the price of anger--but something tells me he won't learn.
Which brings us back to ol' Greenskin. Remember when I said there's a point to the over-iteration of the Illuminati's supposed guilt in the ship's explosion and the deaths of a million Sakaarians? Well, obviously, something was fishy and the fact that it was told, and the Illuminati denied it over and over, led us directly to this next point. The problem that Miek creates is very important to understand, and is more multifaceted than at first it seems. At first, it may seem anticlimactic that the Illuminati have been exonerated of the bombing. (For those following since "Planet Hulk," we've known this fact: the back-up tale in Hulk #100 included a crucial exchange between Reed Richards and Mastermind Excello during which Reed said there was, in fact, no warp drive on the ship.) So many people online have said, "Miek did it, I knew it!" or "Miek did it, where did that come from?" but these people are missing the point I believe Greg Pak was trying to make. Miek did not blow up the ship. Sorry and thanks for playing. Miek specifically stated that his guilt was in allowing the Red King's underlings to stow away a damaged warp drive on the ship so that it would explode and launch the Hulk into new attacks to feed Miek's own thirst for nihilism. Being played by someone he thought was one of his closest confidants is one thing. Having the ship blow up and having it be all Miek's fault would have given the Hulk a target for his pent-up rage. It would have been so easy for him to kill Miek, and negate his "I'm no killer" status that this series brought to prominence. No, the real culprits being nameless, faceless agents who are long dead is what brings the story its truest closure.
Think about it: the Hulk lives to smash the guilty parties, those who let one million Sakaarians, including his wife, die. When he thought the Illuminati were guilty, he went all-out trying to make them pay. But now, with the guilty long dead in that same blast, the Hulk has no outlet for his anger, no way he can balance the scales. On top of that, Miek committed the lie of omission to end all lies of omission, letting him believe others were to blame, twisting his anger to his own ends. He's still mad at the Illuminati because without their interference, Sakaar would still be plus one million inhabitants because he would never have set foot on that planet. On top of everything else, the Hulk is furious at himself, at his own failings, for being at least partially responsible for Miek's nihilistic tendencies ("Never stop making them pay!"), and for having been ultimately led astray by Miek, at having misdirected his anger for so long, at once again showing the world he's more monster than man. And Banner's likely equally furious at going along with him. Having nowhere and everywhere to direct his anger, the Hulk's rage and strength increase geometrically, until he glows gamma-green and the Earth shudders beneath his every step. This is the Hulk as powerful as he's ever been, so much gamma hormone flooding his system, making him stronger every second. It's meltdown Hulk! From the Sakaarson of moments prior comes the World Breaker, Miek's wet dream of Hulkdom. Miek's own statements provided the catalyst to bring about exactly what he wanted in the end.
Simply put, the cycle of guilt never ends: if not for Banner's invention of the G-bomb, the Hulk wouldn't exist. If not for the Hulk's rampages, the Illuminati wouldn't have targeted him for exile. If not for the exile, the Hulk wouldn't have met Miek, and wouldn't have imparted his philosophy of "Never stop making them pay." Hence, Miek wouldn't have taken his dark turn, turned a blind eye to the Red King's men, and let them plant the bomb that killed a million Sakaarians and the Hulk's wife, launching him back to Earth for all the wrong reasons.
The Hulk's not-quite-final words in the issue itself ring with truth and affirmation of the above: "Stop. Without you...none of this would have happened. I'll hate you forever. Almost as much...as I hate myself." 'Nuff said? Not nearly.
And yet, some part of the Hulk rebels. He doesn't want to be held accountable for breaking a world. He doesn't want his legacy permanently tainted. He doesn't want to be what Miek believed him to be. And he knows that all his power is helpless to stop the advent of the World Breaker: no, his words must be the sole catalyst of change. And his words are instructions to Tony Stark, who nearly used the satellites and their unknown potential side-effects to take down both Hulk and Sentry. Now, the Hulk implores Tony, "Do it. Before I break the world!" Amid Miek's protestations, Tony reprograms the satellites to fire their beam, engulfing the Hulk from above in hues of red (amid another sound effect...JRJRKJCSSSSS...hmm, these creative types...). The Hulk flashes back to the moment of Caiera's death, only this time, it's different, as he too dissolves into pieces alongside his queen. She speaks: "I will never leave you," as before, but now he replies: "I know. And now...I'll never leave you."
After the cataclysm clears, we see the vacantly staring eyes of Bruce Banner, apparently cured of his gamma-green burden...and comatose, unmoving, at the bottom of a crater as the heroes gather above. "This is the story of the Hulk," the narrator intones, echoing the beginning and ending of "Planet Hulk," "and how he finally came home." Members of S.H.I.E.L.D. load Banner into one of their ships. The city lies in ruins. Rick Jones, too, is carted off in an ambulance. Miek is by no means dead, just taken by S.H.I.E.L.D. for further experimentation, and, I suspect, a role in the Warbound miniseries on the opposing team. And the closing picture at the battlesite is of the four Illuminati, broken, bloody, but in the end...victorious? Not so fast. Who defeated the Hulk? Who could...but the Hulk himself? In the end, he allowed himself to be defeated for the greater good. He recognized his anger for what it was, in a way that Miek never could, and redemption may yet be his, as he has paid its truest price. At saga's end, Banner is confined in a chamber three miles under the Mojave Desert-not the desert southwest where the Hulk was born, but close enough. As the Hulk's final words are reiterated, we see Banner in the container inside which the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents sealed him, eyes still open, the room awash in green...before his eyes close and the light turns red. Foreshadowing? And is Banner truly comatose? Fittingly, if not for the final epilogue, this last panel could be the last page in the legend of the Hulk, with the saga begun in Incredible Hulk #1 ending in similar surroundings as to where it began--making the next Hulk #1 more of a new beginning, a fresh slate, than ever (though I'm sure Banner will return at some point).
One thing is for sure: the legacy of the Hulk shall continue in the stars. In another direct sequel moment to "Planet Hulk," the last page shows the offspring of the Green King and his queen, Caiera, rising from the radioactive soup that was once the Crown City of Sakaar. His skin is green, but with the stone texture of the Oldstrong. He is Skaar...the rightful heir to the planet so long as King Hulk remains away. And hence is setup the third part of the Sakaar trilogy...as radical a departure as anything, full of questions. It's known the Shadow People evolved to run within hours of birth, but couple that with the might of an Oldstrong and the gamma-irradiated DNA of Earth's Mightiest Mortal...it's going to be something seeing this kid grow up.
So, what's the final analysis of World War Hulk? As I've established many times throughout my critique, the story best serves as a direct continuation of the themes and character struggles brought forth in "Planet Hulk" rather than an event in its own right. Of course, the Hulk's return to Earth was going to be big, and it did have to involve many of Marvel's finest, but the ending, particularly the fall of Miek and the idea of the World Breaker, must be seen within the context of "Planet Hulk" in order to be most effective. To get the most enjoyment, read "Planet Hulk" and then World War Hulk, for together they do comprise a watershed moment in Hulk history, at least equalling, perhaps surpassing, the strength of the best Hulk writers (for me, Bill Mantlo; for most, Peter David). What World War Hulk has done best is to reestablish the Hulk character as perhaps the most powerful being of non-cosmic origin in the Marvel Universe, "the mightiest mortal to ever walk the Earth." And in today's market, that salient fact is as laudable as anything.
I'm going to let this one digest a while, then come back next week with some thoughts on Bruce Banner (and Rick!), and highlights from the World War Hulk crossover issues in other titles. Stay tuned, and keep Hulkin'.