Howdy ho, campers!
Did I ever say that The Powers That Be in charge of the Hulk books (since when were there Hulk books?) could do no wrong? Oh, I'm sure since you figure I've been following the Hulk for a good, long while now and have come to own every issue of his regular series ever published, you think there's nothing that could scare me away, right? Alas, I've been close to dropping the title a few times over that period. Peter David's Merged Hulk nearly bored me to tears as it just seemed like standard superheroics with a big green guy. (I hadn't really started "collecting" the title when Bill Mantlo did it with the Banner Hulk, in case you're wondering. And, rest assured--through the obstinacy of friends, I have learned to appreciate David's Merged Hulk era more.) Then, Bruce Jones blew all the goodwill he'd earned on his first arc, relying too much on the maxim that "sex sells" and a labyrinthine conspiracy plotline ripped off from "The X-Files" TV show, as well as a one-note characterization of Bruce Banner akin to the old Hulk TV show (but without an actor like Bixby being able to carry off the part on the four-color page).
And now, in spite of the stellar creative teams they've assembled, and in spite of the terrific trust I have in writer Greg Pak (whom I've aptly in recent days called "The Second Coming of Bill Mantlo"--and yes, Mantlo's my favorite Hulk writer), I've a feeling if we're not careful, they're all gonna blow it. You may think it's funny, but it's all part of a time bomb that's been ticking away since, let's be fair, Jeph Loeb & Ed McGuinness' HULK #1. But not for the reasons you think.
I want to forge headlong into this editorial with the following fact I found myself tweeting about just over a week ago:
Did you know that all the major characters introduced in THE INCREDIBLE HULK #1 by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby back in 1962--ALL of them--have now been gamma or otherwise irradiated into super-beings? Consider that we have Bruce Banner, having turned into the Hulk in that first issue, and his mutated adversary, Yuri Topolov, a.k.a. the Gargoyle, who was cured and killed in the same book. Banner's assistant, the Soviet spy Igor Drenkov, was mutated into an unstable protoplasmic lifeform by the Russian super-villain, The Presence, and shreds of him are floating around the Darkforce Dimension thanks to the Winter Guard (as of HULK: WINTER GUARD #1). General Ross, as everyone now knows, became the Red Hulk (in the 2008 HULK #1), and his daughter Betty became the Red She-Hulk (in HULK #15). Plus, Rick Jones, sidekick of sidekicks, has transformed into the new Abomination, nicknamed "A-Bomb" (in HULK #2). Those are some pretty heady statistics. There's not one "normal" human among the original six!
Over the decades since his creation, the Hulk has largely been a solo act, his mutation and the circumstances of his changes setting Bruce Banner and his monstrous second self apart from humanity. True, there were gamma-irradiated villains popping up from time to time, like the Leader and the Abomination, but gamma irradiation was kept a rarity throughout the 1960s and the 1970s. It wasn't until the arrival of Jennifer Walters, Banner's cousin, in 1980's THE SAVAGE SHE-HULK #1 that the Hulk wasn't alone on the "hero" front.
Still, the Hulk's own book reinforced the notion not everyone could become a Hulk. Senator Morton Clegstead died when an injection of the Hulk's blood turned him into a decomposing, crawling unknown (INCREDIBLE HULK #151). Rick Jones nearly died from trying to irradiate himself because "the world needs a Hulk!" in Mantlo's run (INCREDIBLE HULK #270), and the Leader adopted a catastrophic plan to put gamma in the water supply, which he admitted would kill most, but transform a very few into gamma mutates like himself, the Hulk, and the Abomination (HULK ANNUAL #11). Banner's own experiments with gamma to cure the sick resulted in Max Hammer's using the radiation, creating the possibility of mutation (which proved true with Hammer himself) or death (for at least one elderly woman), and could have been worse if not for the intervention of Rom, the Spaceknight (INCREDIBLE HULK #294-296). Even when Rick Jones did eventually become a Hulk-like creature, it was either due to the magic of the otherworldly Beyonder (ROM #72), or some freak accident that bled off radiation from the real Hulk (INCREDIBLE HULK #324--which even then was hastily remedied--hello, Peter David!). The billionaire Hubert St. Johns' fat body couldn't take the mutation, perishing soon after changing (HULK ANNUAL #14). And in Peter David's tenure, the Merged Hulk freely acknowledged that death was the predominant consequence if he chose to give AIDS-afflicted Jim Wilson a transfusion of his blood (INCREDIBLE HULK #420).
So, no doubt you're looking at the above, rather lengthy, listing of reasons why gamma irradiation is bad, and you're thinking how strange it is that the Hulk's titles are now filled to brimming with gamma mutates today! We've got, not just Jen Walters, the original She-Hulk, but also Betty Ross (formerly the first Harpy), and Lyra, the Hulk's daughter by Thundra (conceived via artificial insemination, of course, from HULK: RAGING THUNDER #1). We've got Bruce Banner as a Hulk, plus General Ross as a Red Hulk, and two of Banner's sons by an alien queen (these two, conceived the old-fashioned way). Rick Jones' wife Marlo turned into the second Harpy. We've even had legions of "hulked-out" A.I.Marines empowered by the Leader and M.O.D.O.K., as well as over a dozen "hulked-out" superheroes. Doesn't all the above fly in the face of conventional Hulk wisdom?
It's true, you could partially explain away the "hulked-out" characters having been made possible by the Leader's genetic engineering. (It's even been said that most of the characters who were so irradiated would've died if not cured quickly.) Certainly, if Bruce's DNA is predisposed to gamma mutation, why not his offspring? I can even go with the long-held belief by M.O.D.O.K. that persistent, long-term exposure to gamma-irradiated beings allows a certain tolerance that makes those exposed more pliable to mutation. (It's this theory that led to his first experimenting upon Betty Ross to become the first Harpy.) And nobody has been longer-exposed to the ambient gamma radiation produced by Bruce Banner than the major cast from INCREDIBLE HULK #1. (Although, granted, Igor? A bit weird.)
I'm not so much concerned by the short-term mutations of the A.I.Marines and the superheroes in "World War Hulks" as I am by what's coming up. Have you noticed that, since "Planet Hulk," the Hulk has increasingly found himself surrounded by freaks, monsters like himself? Virtually everyone around him is now nearly as monstrous as himself. Even Kate Waynesboro, a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent introduced during Bill Mantlo's tenure, has become empowered by the alien Oldpower. Now, in September, the INCREDIBLE HULK title becomes INCREDIBLE HULKS, promising the first-of-its-kind team book made up nearly entirely of gamma-empowered characters (okay, if you don't count GAMMA CORPS). It's the era Greg Pak referred to when his return to THE INCREDIBLE HULK was first announced, stating on the Broken Frontier website, "If all goes as planned, we’ll take him places you’d never guess, but when we get there, it’ll be exactly where you always wanted to go." Color me a bit worried.
Two fronts chiefly concern me. First, there's the matter that, with the stark exception of the Hulk's son Skaar (who uses the Oldpower on occasion, and enjoys weaponry), virtually the whole cast thus far--Hulk, Red She-Hulk, Korg, She-Hulk, and A-Bomb--are all what role playing culture calls "bricks"--which is to say, they're all characters with a power base that makes them reliant on brute force and hand-to-hand combat. (Yes, there's A-Bomb with his camouflage ability a la 1970s-era Nightcrawler, too, but...) Having all the characters with nearly the same powers can be boring, so I do hope that the group enjoys some diversity. Adding Kate Waynesboro could help in this regard, as her Oldpower is about as removed from brute strength as you can get. Even Lyra (who hasn't been publicized as part of the line-up at present) would be a (slightly) more refreshing entry. As it is, the only real diversity I see in the group is their personalities. They're a pretty motley bunch, and personality can carry a book, especially a Hulk book, far, but I'm leery of relying on personality alone. In this column, at least, I'm glad we've got Greg Pak as writer, because he has a real gift for dialogue and action.
The other, more overarching concern I have is that by including the Hulk in a group of characters so like himself, green skin (aside from Korg), super-strength and all, it risks isolating him from the human elements that have been so present in the book for the last several decades. For years, the Hulk surrounded himself with human supporting cast members and some antagonists, but now, virtually all those characters closest to the Hulk have become empowered. Ironically, by making the Hulk part of a family, it instead may have the added consequence of separating him from humanity all the more. I hope this isn't the case, but I have to say it makes it more difficult for Bruce Banner and the Hulk to become embroiled in more human pursuits and tragedies when he's cavorting with a group of monsters, some of whom don't even have human forms to assume.
I'm going to stop just short of saying "I don't see how this could possibly work," because it's conceivable based upon the success of "Planet Hulk" that writer Greg Pak could do a bang-up job with this new status quo. But, now that I've brought up all of the above, tell me, readers assembled...how do YOU feel about "THE INCREDIBLE HULKS"? Do you have your trepidations, or are you full-steam ahead for the new, smashtastic era?