SPOILER goggles on, yo.
The Incredible Hulk #611: "Sons of Wrath"
A Pak/Pelletier/Miki/D'Armata/Bowland/White/Paniccia Joint
Firstly, I should mention that this issue marks the 300th issue anniversary of Bill Mantlo, Mike Mignola & Gerry Talaoc's monumental Hulk story "Monster" which first appeared in THE INCREDIBLE HULK #312 in October, 1985. As I've discussed in this week's dissection of Mantlo's tenure on the title, the book forever changed the direction of the Hulk series, for better or worse, establishing the Hulk's origins in Bruce Banner's father having abused him as a child. The internalized, repressed anger from those childhood years finally manifested the day the G-Bomb went off and transformed him into the Hulk. Writer Peter David primarily built upon this idea for his "merger" storyline in THE INCREDIBLE HULK #377 where Bruce mentally "defeated" his father Brian's "ghost" in so doing integrating his three disparate personalities into one whole, Hulk-like creature. Needless to say, this story takes quite the opposite tact when dealing with the issue of Banner's tortured childhood.
The seeds should have been plain for longtime readers to see: On the savage world of Sakaar, the Hulk married Caiera the Oldstrong, whose Shadow People gave birth to strong offspring who could run within hours of birth. Marry that strength and advanced development with the Hulk's gamma-irradiated genes, and you could see that any offspring they could have would be quite strong and durable. Hence came Skaar, son of Hulk, who brought the most intriguing questions that virtually everyone at Marvel had been scared to death of asking until now: Would the sins of the father be visited upon the son? How would Banner, and for that matter, the Hulk, react to having a son who was himself, quite literally, a monster? Writer Greg Pak has been moving the pieces around the chessboard for over two years now, and here's where the payoff comes!
When we begin this story, it's thirty years ago (Thank you, Marvel sliding timeline!) and Bruce Banner, aged four, has sneaked downstairs for a peek at his Christmas presents, unwrapping an erector set he uses to build an enormous, ornate structure. Then, a dark shadow looms--Brian Banner, Bruce's father, who promptly destroys the structure, calling his son a monster and cursing his frightening intelligence. That's the story as it was told in THE INCREDIBLE HULK #312, right down to the Guardian doll alongside young Bruce. "Hate to break it to you, Pop," intones present-day Banner as be stands before a video camera, ready to record, "but you don't know the half of it."
Banner's message, recorded two weeks prior to the events of now, plays on several devices before the assembled heroes. He recaps how he manipulated and betrayed nearly every super hero and government on the planet to lead the good guys to victory over the Intelligencia (which he did, last month), but that the cost is that he has reverted to the Hulk--the same Hulk who agonized over the death of his beloved Caiera, the strongest Hulk ever, who defeated Earth's mightiest heroes without breathing hard. And now, only Skaar hates his father enough to do what must be done, what Banner trained him for over the last few weeks: kill him!
From the beginning, it indeed appears the so-called "World Breaker" Hulk has returned, his eyes glowing green, his body emanating gamma radiation in waves. He's so full of rage, or so overwhelmed by power, that he's inarticulate, growling as his every step shatters the ground. (Is it him, though? It doesn't matter, but yes, we only have Banner's word for it.) The end of last issue likened the effects to WORLD WAR HULK #5 with the elderly couple from that same issue crying, "Not again!" One must presume that it is only savage Skaar's use of the alien Old Power that absorbs the energy that would have shattered the Earth. He channels it instead to deliver a hit to the Hulk unlike any he has felt before--one that sends the Green Goliath over 250 miles, from Washington, DC to Gilmer County, West Virginia!
As Skaar leaps to continue the battle, the Hulk seems to glow less, his rage beginning to abate. Articulate at last, he dismisses his son, tossing him aside. "I'm not here to fight you," he says. Skaar brings up his mother's name, but the Hulk disparages the comment: "[S]he's dead. You never talked to her." He did, however--Caiera's connection to the planet Sakaar extended beyond death due to the Old Power--that is, until her savage son fed the planet to Galactus.
Just like that, it's on like Donkey Kong. Hulk is crushed by the news that his wife, his queen, survived in spirit only to be essentially killed by their son. He flashes back to the day Caiera told him she was pregnant, only to see her image shattered, revealing Skaar underneath before it is shattered again, revealing...Brian Banner??!? He remembers his (or is that Banner's?) father beating Rebecca Banner in front of him when he was just four. He casts his son as his father...and promptly hits Skaar into orbit, knocking him about 400 miles the other direction, into the Atlantic Ocean just off Ocean City, Maryland! Our boy Hulk doesn't kid around!
Betty Ross Banner, a.k.a. the Red She-Hulk, leaps down just in time to see the Hulk and Skaar emerge from the ocean. Skaar uses his Old Power to manipulate the Earth, sending it at his father at such speeds and volume it even rips through his dense body. Banner knew, didn't he? He knew that Skaar was strong and smart enough to kill the Hulk, but the training Banner gave him was to ensure he had the will to back up the skill. "I do," he thunders over a beaten Hulk. Then, Red She-Hulk breaks up the conflict, giving Hulk brief time to heal. Skaar dismisses her, hitting her with his Old Power, slamming her into a building which threatens to collapse as the Hulk struggles to rise. He hears the people's cries for help, and he flashes back to his mother, being beaten by her husband, crying out for help as the helpless young Bruce looks on. Skaar renews his monstrous assault, and the Hulk sees himself, hit by his father amid those torturous words: "You little monster!"
WHAKOOOM! The Hulk slams his hands together, causing a terrific shockwave of pure force, driving Skaar off him, sending waves of sand forward from the beaches, toward the toppling structure. Red She-Hulk thinks he's lost it. The people head for the hills...but then, the dust settles...and the Hulk has saved the people in the building and prevented its collapse!
"Those people...I didn't see them...but you..." The Hulk's savage son is incredulous. He had heard the stories that the Hulk united the people of Sakaar, but all he had heard from Banner were horror stories about the Hulk, the monster, the World Breaker. Now, not only had the Hulk displayed his heroism by saving the people in the toppling building, but he also revealed Skaar to be more like the very monster he accused the Hulk of being, putting others' lives in jeopardy.
The Hulk, however, doesn't stop, still flashing back to memories of Brian Banner, taking the soothed Skaar--who doesn't even lift a finger to defend himself--and beating him into the ground. The bloodied Skaar looks forlornly up at his father: "Fun show...but Banner sent me here to kill a monster. He doesn't...he doesn't really know you, does he?"
Cryptically, he tells the Hulk: "Hah. Just tell him...tell him I'm done. The rest of you...work it out," before transforming back to his "puny" self. It's apparent here that what Banner has done is deplorable. He has used the rage he internalized from having allied himself with his savage half during WORLD WAR HULK (that partially-misplaced aggression toward the Illuminati), and taken advantage of his son's plight to find the Hulk, twisting the two together in a suicide pact of sorts, relying on the fact that Skaar had only "known" his father through second-hand sources. He used his son the way he used the super heroes and the world's governments--as a super-strong "gun," but against the part of himself that he loathes instead of the Intel. Is Banner in his own way as much "damaged goods" as he believes the Hulk to be?
The Hulk stands above his son, and we see the inverse of the earlier flashbacks: Instead of Skaar as Brian Banner, the specter of Brian now hovers above the Hulk, with young Bruce above Skaar. Will the cycle of violence continue? Will Bruce Banner or the Hulk become his father? The moment hangs in the air, and then the Hulk transforms back to Bruce, who apologizes to his son. Skaar looks up at him, a worried look on his face.
We pan back to Betty Ross Banner, looking at father and son. Others have wondered why she even appears here; after all, she's not directly involved in the father-son conflict. The earlier appearance, breaking up the fight briefly, sets the stage for the scene that follows. She's there to represent the "family" aspect that writer Greg Pak is setting up. As Bruce's wife, she's effectively a "stepmother" to Skaar, hence at the core of the new dynamic. She has always helped Bruce to express his emotions instead of repress them. So, when she says...
..."This is where you hug him," it's the pivotal moment, what turns the narrative, and perhaps what makes Bruce do what he might not have otherwise done. She forces him to reconcile what has happened over the last year. If not for the Gamma bomb, there would be no Hulk. If there were no Hulk, then the Illuminati would not have exiled him off-world. Each event proceeds from the previous. The Hulk would not have met Caiera and married. Caiera would not have become pregnant with Skaar. Sakaar's Crown City would not have been decimated by the bomb that Red King loyalists set. The Hulk would not have left the son he didn't know survived and returned to Earth to punish those he blamed for the pain he endured. Skaar wouldn't have been raised by monsters in a savage world without the love of his father. He wouldn't have fed Sakaar to Galactus and rushed across the universe in search of the father who abandoned him. He wouldn't have been taken in by the embittered Banner and directed as a weapon at the father he never knew.
The bottom line is that Bruce Banner has a lot to answer for, and the Hulk has a lot to make up for. The way they can both start turning things around is by not neglecting their son but by embracing him, the way Brian Banner never embraced young Bruce. By stopping the cycle of violence. By opening up, and fulfilling the promise of Mantlo's #312.