The Incredible Hulks #618-620
"Inferno," "Hell Break" & "Harrowed"
Writer: Greg Pak
Artists: Paul Pelletier & Danny Miki
Colorist: Paul Mounts
Letterers: Simon Bowland
Production: Irene Lee
Assistant Editor: Jordan D. White
Editor: Mark Paniccia
Publisher: Marvel Comics
After the sprawling epic "Dark Son," wherein the Hulks family faced their first challenge in Skaar's brother, Hiro-Kala, the team wanted nothing more than to come back to Earth for some much-needed reflection and relaxation. Unfortunately, the Chaos King (from the pages of The Incredible Hercules) has risen, killing the lord of the dream realms, Nightmare, and catapulting Earth's denizens into eternal slumber. He has destroyed the underworld, freeing the dead to haunt the world anew. And so, Dr. Strange warns the Hulks of the dangers by bringing his astral self to their great stone ship. The Hulks then proceed to Earth, checking to be sure the Hulk's daughter Lyra is okay, and then...the real terror begins!
"Dark Son" was an important and necessary storyline in Hulk history, showing a son who had become a deadlier version of what Brian Banner believed Bruce would become (although, granted, not using his intellect to do so), it suitably took up six issues of The Incredible Hulks. By contrast, we have an innocuous-looking crossover to a "major Marvel event," that by rights really shouldn't count for much, but it ends up being anything but. These three issues may be overly full of important, emotionally resonant events, each of which could certainly fill an entire storyline all their own.
Fans and reviewers alike have spoken out on Chaos War, and some have likened facets like resurrecting the dead (who are running rampant without any help in books like Chaos War: Dead Avengers and Chaos War: X-Men) to the DC Comics crossover sensation of 2010, Blackest Night. While it's true both sagas share a theme of bringing back dead heroes and villains, the key distinction lies in Marvel's free from external influence and only allying themselves with the Chaos King if they so desire. Hence, that freedom to choose makes Chaos War a richer experience, and it allows so much dramatic potential to be infused. Nowhere is that potential more well-utilized than in Incredible Hulks.
Over the Hulk's storied history, a number of important characters have been lost to tragedy. Even beloved villains have passed beyond the veil, and though we know those villains won't be gone forever, it's fitting that the first resurrection here is Emil Blonsky, the Abomination. Eagle-eyed readers may have seen him in the bowels of Hades during the "Dark Reign" stories in Incredible Hercules #129-131, but here he returns from his ignominious defeat in Jeph Loeb's Hulk #1. As has happened so many times throughout the character's history (Thanks Mick!), Blonsky has again been reinvented, this time as the Chaos King's lackey, sent to locate Rick Jones' estranged (?) wife, Marlo Chandler-Jones, whose presence and predicament lead to the storyline's other, more notable returns of the heroic sort.
A substantial bit of character drama leads off the book, as the Hulk and Stephen Strange have had a strained relationship of late. Readers of World War Hulk recognize that for the second time, Strange played a part in exiling the Hulk from his homeworld. To combat his old friend turned enemy upon his return to Earth, Strange drank the contents of the magical amphora that contained the essence of the demon Zom, imbuing himself with his essence, however diluted. Strange fought back the possession and the majority of Zom's self was returned to the amphora, but the damage was done: Strange soon lost his title of Earth's Sorcerer Supreme. Here, disgraced, he appears to ask for the Hulk's help, but we discover at #618's conclusion that he has again been usurped by Zom, who has been set free anew by the Chaos King so that he and the Abomination may locate Marlo.
Why does everyone want Marlo? Once upon a time (in 2001's Captain Marvel #17-18), Thanos hid Death's spirit away from a cosmic villain called Walker. Where did he hide her? None other than inside Marlo, who had once died and returned to life. Thanks to this brush with Death, Marlo now harbors a piece of her power inside her--a piece that, if extinguished by the Chaos King's servants, would allow those merely sleeping, immune from death's embrace, to die anew. No sooner does Rick reveal Marlo's whereabouts--in Phoenix, Arizona--Zom reveals himself and the battle is joined anew.
Where the story starts to distinguish itself is in its second chapter, where we begin with the fight between Hulk and Zom, where Zom's mystical aptitudes (shown way back in Strange Tales #156-157) are virtually forgotten to make him more a match for the entirely physical Hulk. Soon, focus shifts from Zom and Abomination almost entirely and goes squarely to the Hulks' protection of Marlo, as well as the exploration of Marlo's "gifts." Given that when we see her, cowboys and other dead people she doesn't even know are protecting her from demons, it's not so much a stretch seeing her bring back someone she knows is dead--Doc Samson. (I'm going to have to guess that Rick or someone else tipped her off to Doc's death in Incredible Hulk #610...much like Abomination just magically knows Rick is now A-Bomb, and Betty is now Red She-Hulk, and he knows all about the Banner family! D'oh!) Doc then proceeds to summon three souls especially important to Hulk lore.
In increasing order of importance: first among the resurrected is Hiroim the Oldstrong, the disgraced Shadow priest who was a part of the Hulk's Warbound and who passed on fighting the Leader in Warbound #5. This return marks the first time an issue has been made in the main Hulk book about Hiroim's sexuality, but fans of the earlier miniseries may remember he and Korg talked about one day participating in the ceremony whereby Kronans produce little rocklings. It's not dwelled on, is done tastefully, and does enhance the relationship between these characters. (It's interesting that Samson chooses Hiroim to be resurrected, since he was relatively unfamiliar with him in comparison to the others below.)
The second of the resurrected is Colonel Glenn Talbot, former mortal enemy to the Hulk, who also happens to be Betty Ross' first husband. (They married in Incredible Hulk #158, and divorced in #238 after years of trouble; he died in #260.) Of course, Glenn was just seen in the major Hulk crossovers "Fall of the Hulks" & "World War Hulks," but contrary to the reading Bannertech gave, he was ultimately revealed as just another Life Model Decoy, created in the image of the real Talbot. The Leader and M.O.D.O.K. created the Talbot decoy to be their deep government mole in the event Ross abdicated his responsibilities, and also to be an influence on Betty, who'd recently been resurrected and turned into the Red She-Hulk. His military record was doctored to satisfy deep digging (such as Cho struck in #608). That LMD was "killed" by Ross as the Red Hulk in Hulk #23. As is obvious from the first moment they see each other in #619, Betty and Glenn still have feelings for each other, although in Betty's case, hers could be colored by hindsight and how crazy her life has become since having married Bruce.
The last to be brought back is Jarella, princess of the sub-atomic world of K'ai. It's noteworthy she appears here, as she's been referenced as recently as "Dark Son," since it was K'ai that Hiro-Kala brought through The Fault and on a collision course with Earth. She was first seen in Incredible Hulk #140, created by Harlan Ellison, Roy Thomas & Herb Trimpe for the second in a two-part crossover with Avengers #88. She fell in love with Bruce Banner and the Hulk, who returned to her world a few times in subsequent years before she was stranded on Earth. She eventually died there, saving a young boy from falling debris (Incredible Hulk #205). The Hulk eventually recaptured her body from Gamma Base and buried her on K'ai. Evidently her soul remained on Earth, so here she was resurrected.
Since the Hulks had their own army made from the dead, it only made sense for the Abomination to bring others to his cause. After emotionally satisfying scenes that showed Betty beating on Blonsky for having killed her, the Abomination decides to resurrect the two most important figures to Bruce Banner's early years: his mother, Rebecca Banner, and his abusive father, Brian. This storyline marks the first "present-day" appearance of both characters, as they have previously only been shown in flashback to Bruce's childhood. Brian's three previous appearances--Incredible Hulk #312, 377 and -1--are the stuff of Hulk legend and are terrifically important in understanding the modern iteration. Brian Banner always saw his son as a monster due to his abnormal intelligence displayed from an early age. He blamed his own work as an atomic scientist for some manner of mutation, and his abuse of alcohol fueled his rage, directed physically at his wife for bearing Bruce, and Bruce himself. The physical and emotional abuse both mother and child suffered at Brian's hands not only led to Rebecca's death, but also Bruce's emotional repression that led to the development of the personalities that would become the Hulks. Conversely, to Bruce, his father Brian is the real monster, and he's been shown in mental images to be two kinds of beasts. (One was the form of Bruce's monstrous id, "Goblin," circa #312; the other was a more literal, green-skinned, reptilian monster that was later hinted to be a giant manifestation of Bruce's guilt--most recently seen in Incredible Hulk #12-13 in 2000.)
Pak's script in #620 offers the idea that the dead are granted their power by the emotions of the living, which means that Brian Banner feeds on his son's fears. Although it seemed that Bruce and the Hulks defeated their mental image of Brian in #377, the emotional scars obviously linger. After all, on top of the abuse Bruce suffered, he did let his emotions boil over and killed Brian in the cemetery where his mother was buried (#-1). The Hulk's ability to see ghosts like Strange's astral form appears to spring from the idea that Brian would come for him one day. In fact, some manifestation of Brian Banner was shown taunting the Banner-less Hulk in the wake of "Onslaught." The Hulk didn't have to have that power to see Brian coming this time, as in #620 he reappears in the same guise as #377--a giant, reptilian creature, his size, form and strength all given because Bruce and the Hulk fuel him with their fear.
While Bruce's father is poised at the start of #620 to play a major role in the conclusion of the crossover, he isn't intended to be the primary focus, and we shouldn't forget that. It's likely the reason why a wealth of rich emotional material remains unresolved beyond a one-dimensional conflict that remains unchanged since its introduction in Incredible Hulk#312. We don't have Brian and Bruce talking things out. We don't have an honest conversation about Bruce being the one who killed Brian and committed him to Hell in the first place. We don't have Brian taking on the fact that his son has given him this power beyond death and that he is now a literal monster. These ideas are out there, but never expressed on a big enough stage, but that's because the story isn't all about the Bruce/Brian feud. It's about protecting Marlo, and anything else along the way is incidental at worst and future story fodder at best. hence, Brian Banner here is little more than a caricature.
I have to say I was also looking forward to a broader use of Rebecca Banner here, but what we see works well, in any event. I love her dialogue with the Hulk about Betty. ("Who's that?" "My wife." "I don't like her." "Join the club." Interesting since in #377, writer Peter David went out of his way to establish the Hulks as likening Rebecca to Betty.) But the real tell here is in Rebecca's opinion of the other great love of the Hulk's life, Princess Jarella of K'ai. Although dead for many years, her presence has been felt more strongly in recent years--from the obvious allusions between her and the alien Caiera from "Planet Hulk," to her actual appearance in the "Banner War" chapter of that storyline (Giant-Size Hulk #1), to her being brought up more strongly via Hiro-Kala's arrival on K'ai in Scott Reed & Miguel Munera's Realm of Kings: Son of Hulk - Conquest of Jarella's World limited series, and finally the "Dark Son" storyline referenced earlier. Greg Pak's affection for her is obvious, and after the key moment in this issue, so is the Hulk's. Rebecca Banner even voices her approval: "Okay. This one I like."
Although Greg Pak makes a sizable error in informing readers that Jarella was the Hulk's first wife--they were betrothed but never actually married, and you can check the hardcover Hulk: Heart of the Atom which'll back me up--he nonetheless establishes what Hulk fans of the 1970s remember well. Jarella is one of the Hulk's greatest loves, and perhaps she was his single greatest. Just as Brian Banner has been imbued with all of Bruce and the Hulk's strongest fears, Jarella has, in death, been the recipient of their pure love, and at the risk of being sappy, the overarching message of Jarella impaling the Brian-monster through the head with her sword is "love conquers all." That is, the power of the Hulk's love for Jarella--shown in his unbelievable rampage in the wake of her death as well as his determination in returning her to K'ai for burial (and keeping in mind, it was the savage Hulk doing so!)--is more potent than the fear that empowers his father!
It becomes not only interesting but vital that Glenn Talbot appears in this arc, and the foursome of Hulk/Banner, Jarella, Betty/Red She-Hulk and Talbot all but pushes aside the resurrected Hiroim as an afterthought. Again, back in the swingin' '70s, remember that Jarella and Betty never met, so their encounter here is pretty accurate in that regard. But Betty did know about her, as hers was the name on Bruce's lips when they briefly reunited in Incredible Hulk #150 ("Jarella...my love...!"). Bruce tried to explain, but it was this event that acted as a catalyst for their own break-up, and drove Betty, very quickly, into the arms of Talbot, whom she married a scant eight issues later. That the foursome is fully included here spells potentially big changes in the air in the relationship between the two live individuals, as shown by Hercules' wholly appropriate monologue at issue's end. ("...[Y]our hearts are breaking...for the ties that bind you have shattered," he says as we see him standing with Red She-Hulk to his left and the Hulk to his right.) The memories drudged up by actual contact with the deceased, and the emotions they bring, may yet drive a wedge between members of the Hulk family.
In the end, Zom and Blonsky get to Marlo, who then uses her "death whammy" on them causing them to disperse and Strange to return. Then, the Hulks are pulled away from their loved ones, once more into battle alongside Hercules--into the January 26-shipping Chaos War #5, the fallout of which will be presented on the same day in Incredible Hulks #621. I can certainly hope that those recently resurrected for this three-parter won't be altogether gone for that issue and the one following, the aftermath to the event. I'm also thinking more about just who that mysterious, blacked-out figure is on the cover to #622.
What other final thoughts do I have on this storyline? Well, I really liked that Paul Pelletier came back along with Danny Miki on inks, because this storyline needed a solid artistic team on board, and boy, did they ever deliver. I'm glad they'll be here for another two issues. Aside from that, I think it's worth reiterating what I did at the beginning: the Chaos War crossover was a storyline so densely packed that virtually every major development inside it could have used its own storyline all to itself. Maybe the two-issue epilogue will heighten the stakes even further. Still, in spite of the frustration of a densely-packed three issues as these, for old time Hulk fans, there's a lot to like here, between the Abomination's (increasingly irrelevant) presence, the fact Betty gets some licks in on her killer, the shout-outs to older Hulk continuity like Brian and Rebecca Banner and particularly Jarella and Talbot, and the pervasive emotional resonance putting all these characters together gives the narrative.
Can't wait for next issue!