Bugs of All Sizes, Boys Growing Up, & a Bungle in the Jungle (Incredible Hulks #625's All Right By Me)

Another week passes, and lo and behold, another bi-weekly installment of everyone's favorite not-so-jolly green giant arrives in comic shops! Today, I'll review the final installment of the Hulk and his Warbound's epic battle with the one who betrayed them all, Miek the Unhived, who as it turns out has a secret he's been keeping from everyone...

The Incredible Hulks #625
"Planet Savage," Conclusion

Writer: Greg Pak
Artists: Dale Eaglesham & Drew Hennessy
Colorists: Morry Hollowell & Frank Martin
Letterer: Simon Bowland
Production: Irene Lee
Assistant Editor: John Denning
Editor: Mark Paniccia
Publisher: Marvel Comics

When last we left the Hulk, he was depowered following his fight with Zeus, and had been captured by Miek, who used his still-healing body to incubate alien insect larvae. This issue picks up from that point, with Miek having brainwashed the weakened Green Goliath and set him against his Warbound allies and Ka-Zar. What follows includes the broad strokes you'd expect, of course--Hulk breaks Miek's control, gets angry, heals, and beats the big bug--but there are decent surprises in the mix, too. Those surprises are especially illuminating considering some of my comments on the relationship between the Hulk and Miek during my last review. The issue is nearly impossible to discuss without addressing the key development in Miek's life since the Warbound miniseries, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to try.

The advancement of the Miek storyline improves my overall opinion of the "Planet Savage" storyline considerably after last month's perceived decline. The change in Miek that's outright stated this issue makes sense in context (although, whew, is it weird!) and makes sense of the character's behavior with the Hulk and the Imperials earlier in the storyline. True, it's a major shift and may not be appreciated by all fans of the character, but, well, Miek is a character who's never truly remained static in body (while adhering to the Hulk's perceived mindset of "never stop making them pay"). The battle between the Hulk and Miek is appropriately grandiose, hitting all the right emotional chords. Is the character gone for good? Probably not, and it's a good question whether even the changes in this storyline will stick when the next writer arrives. I do however feel that Miek's arc completes itself well here.

What about the Hulk? His battle with Miek highlights his own tensions with the Warbound and his own son, and those tensions mount to a climax this month that paves the way for Rob Williams and Brian Ching's Skaar: King of the Savage Land miniseries due April 6 (which, I'm guessing, is where the Warbound will make their next appearance). The interaction between Hulk and his son is well indicative of the former's own emotional stuntedness and suits the character perfectly.

Probably most surprising and most subtle is the work by Pak this month that resolves the Hulk's own healing problems. They're never directly referenced in dialogue or captions, but Eaglesham's art brings the point home loud and clear that this Hulk is angry, and hence, as formidable as he's been in some time. In fact, this act is the strongest in the storyline all around, with everyone perfectly on-point. I did lament the loss of Dean White on colors, but Hollowell and Martin were able substitutes.

So, what's next for the Hulk--or is that still Hulks? (Solicitation copy and writer Pak's own comments have placed this issue as the end of the Incredible Hulks status quo, but a preview ad in the issue seems to state the book will continue in the plural for at least another arc.) While Skaar cuts loose in a new miniseries, the Hulk will return to deal with Red She-Hulk, it appears. This issue seems to close the loop on the Hulk's Warbound companions, which seems apt as "Planet Hulk" scribe Pak is also preparing to exit the book. Things are winding down and yet the momentum is just picking up again. If you didn't enjoy the last issues of this arc, come back, because here's where Pak, Eaglesham & co. give up the goods. Big, disgusting bugs? Check. Rich, emotional storytelling? Check. Hulk doing what he does best? Big ol' check.



Freelance Peacekeeping Agent, Yes? (A Death's Head Primer, Huh?)

Welcome back! It's been a few days, what with recording another episode of the Spectacular Spider-Cast for release (probably) next week, and work, and all those other things that keep me from blogging for you! I have had a recent uptick in traffic to this site as result of having my series of articles on John Byrne's Hulk linked to from the Byrne Robotics Message Board, so for those of you who saw something you like and have elected to stick around: welcome! As always, I do enjoy suggestions for future posts, so if you want to see me cover something at this blog, just contact me at the e-mail address on the right side of this page. Now then, where were we, huh? A little talk about a Freelance Peacekeeping Agent, yes? (I hear you out there! You think I don't hear your snarky little "It's about time, yes?" bit? For shame!)

If you've read some of my older blogs, you've seen me review some of the work of a terrific British artist who's worked on some of the Marvel UK line and made his presence known at many a Transformers convention overseas. His name's Simon Williams, and he recently drew a story scripted by Simon Furman, another Brit talent of some renown, featuring the incredible Hulk in mortal combat with a character that not every Marvel fan on this side of the Atlantic knows/remembers: Death's Head!

I had some familiarity with the character before hearing about his return in the pages of this month's Marvel Heroes #33, so I didn't go into the interview or the Soulman Inc. Sketchbook review totally cold. He guest-starred in an issue of Walt Simonson's Fantastic Four run that featured a cross-time jaunt, and he'd also appeared in Sensational She-Hulk when I was reading that book. There was a Marvel Comics Presents story I'm pretty sure I barely glanced at (preferring to read that "Weapon X" feature by a chap named Barry Windsor-Smith...heard of him, yes?) as well as an issue of What If...? that told of what might've happened had the character not been reborn as Death's Head II. And as for Death's Head II, I vividly recall grabbing up the first four issues of his second, regular series, as well as the first issue of the reprint series The Incomplete Death's Head, before going back to the back issue bins for the four-issue miniseries by Marvel's UK imprint that destroyed the first Death's Head and integrated him into the Minion cyborg. I never picked up the series after that, and don't even mention the other spin-offs like Die-Cut and Death3 (even if they were written by a then-unknown, pre-Annihilation Dan Abnett).

You may have picked up from the above that Death's Head, the original character, was imported to these shores from Marvel UK, and it's from the UK (and the Book Depository website) that I ordered the two volumes I'm reviewing this go-round, Death's Head Vols. 1 & 2 (Panini Publishing, £14.99 ea.). The two books, released in 2006 and 2007, cover almost the entire span of the character's career, from his introduction in the one-page story "High Noon, Tex!" by Furman and future superstar Bryan Hitch (now notable for The Ultimates); through guest appearances in Doctor Who Magazine and Dragon's Claws; ten issues of his own eponymous series and a graphic novel, The Body in Question; and finally several guest-appearances, many of which I mentioned as my earliest exposure to the character. The set, sadly unavailable in the United States (unless, of course, you order from overseas), is truly the best--nay, the only--complete resource for fans wishing to learn more about this most worthwhile character.

Death's Head resulted from Transformers writer/artist team Simon Furman and Geoff Senior's push to introduce more characters for their series. As result of Britain's weekly schedule as opposed to Marvel US's monthly one, Marvel's UK office had to generate many more stories than its American counterpart. Originally Death's Head, dreamt up as a bounty hunter charged with finding and eliminating the evil Transformer, Galvatron, was to have been a one-off character, but Senior's off-kilter design sparked something in Furman's imagination, and a cult legend was born! Not wanting the character to become absorbed by Hasbro, the owner of the other Transformers characters, Furman introduced the character before his first appearance in Transformers in the aforementioned one-page strip, "High Noon, Tex!" assuring that Marvel would keep the copyright.

The then-giant robot appeared in two major Transformers story arcs beginning in issue #113 and continuing intermittently through #151, both of which can be found in Titan Books' collections, Fallen Angel and Legacy of Unicron. I actually have yet to finish reading either volume, so I can't speak for the quality of the stories...however, knowing Furman and Senior's work elsewhere, it's certain to be excellent. In his next appearance in Doctor Who, the time-traveling Doctor tricked Death's Head, reducing him to human size so that he could interact with the rest of Marvel UK's properties, the first of which was the elite law-enforcement team Dragon's Claws, based in the year 8162 and also created by Furman and Senior. From there, Death's Head landed his own series, and the legend began in earnest.

The stories in Death's Head Vol. 1--collected in the US only partially in the trade paperback The Life and Times of Death's Head and in totality albeit with various unnecessary framing sequences in The Incomplete Death's Head--are a profoundly interesting showcase for the character, who never fails to get into lots of trouble. Chiefly by Furman and Hitch, the stories begin in 8162 in Britain and proceed forward, first to Los Angeles of the same time period, where Death's Head sets up something of an office, taking odd cases. Then thanks to another timely intervention by the Doctor in the first adventure in Death's Head Vol. 2, he's sent backward through time to the modern era (c. 1988) where he encounters the Fantastic Four and is then pingponged forward through time to meet Arno Stark, the Iron Man of 2020. After his series is over, he again travels through time to meet his maker, and then goes from time period to time period in various guest appearances.

To appreciate Death's Head, it certainly helps to have a warped sense of humor, as the character himself wallows in dark humor, from his observations to merely his normal speech patterns (ending nearly every sentence in "yes?" or "huh?"). He has a partner, Spratt, he doesn't want, and together (more or less), they find themselves involved in outrageous situation after outrageous situation, with disastrous/hilarious consequences. For example, in issue #4 Death's Head is hired to kill Plaguedog, a bio-engineered killer dog kept by mob boss Undertaker, by Undertaker's competitor Dead Cert. What he doesn't know as he infiltrates Undertaker's place is that Plaguedog has actually been sent to his new office, where Spratt has decided to take in the new surroundings. Hilarity ensues, and the adventure earns Death's Head a new enemy in Undertaker, who appears throughout some of the remaining issues.

The art in both volumes is by a who's who of British talent, from co-creator Geoff Senior, to Bryan Hitch, to Lee Sullivan, Liam Sharp, John Higgins, Art Wetherell and Mike Collins. Of them all, Senior and Hitch seem to have the firmest grasp on the character's mannerisms, but that's probably because they're the longest-tenured artists on the strip. Senior's art in The Body in Question, the Death's Head origin story, is near-revelatory, with terrific layouts and eye-popping colors. It's clearly the centerpiece of the second volume and perhaps of the entire series.

A graphic novel is only as good as its presentation, and Panini earns mixed marks here. While the books are sturdy and heavy--certainly sturdier than Marvel's US collections--the reproduction sometimes falters, and it's a problem I've had with their previous publications, as well. It's very apparent that with a handful of exceptions near the end of the second volume, virtually every issue has been scanned directly from hard copies of the actual published issues rather than reproduced from any original films (if, in fact, any films exist). Often one may see the ink reflection from a facing page, or some hint of the art from the other side of a page. It's distracting but not necessarily a deal-breaker. The reproduction still looks very good, with The Body in Question an obvious standout. Panini rounded out the package with a set of terrific, lengthy introductions by creator Simon Furman, and capped off both books with new artwork courtesy Geoff Senior, Lee Sullivan, Dave Roach, and Simon Williams (whose colorist Jason Cardy provides the best gag with Death's Head's gun, upon which is stamped an arrow pointing at the barrel with the words "Toward Enemy, Yes?").

I read both volumes of Death's Head over one weekend and I have to say, I understand the appeal and look forward to reading that Hulk/Death's Head story that was published in the UK last week. (Hint! Hint!) If you haven't read Death's Head's adventures before, well, I suppose the only question I have to ask if you've made it this far is, "What's stopping you, yes?"



Fiction Writers' Corner: "The Final Blow"

Interlude from the humble blogger: I thought long and hard about this post before sharing. I've been putting up lots of things largely centered around comics but haven't touched some of my other pursuits. Sure, I posted a Hammer Films blog, and threatened to look at some other things. Well, here's a step outside. I wrote several pieces of short fiction in college and have continued to dabble since then. (I also wrote lengthy fan fiction for television series like Friday the 13th: The Series, The X-Files and Forever Knight, but let's quit while we're ahead.) Here's a short piece dealing with the aftermath of a bad breakup. Not that art imitates life...not at all...

The Final Blow

 By Gary M. Miller


The words on the monitor, in their almost-elegant simplicity, delivered a blow fiercer than any I had encountered back when I was the nerdy kid in high school whom the jocks picked on incessantly.  Each word on the page made an increasing amount of sense, and yet, they made no sense at all.

How could this happen?

I tried.  I really tried to keep everything going, tried to keep the situation at a containable, acceptable level, yet all the while in the back of my brain something stirred—stirred like paint in a can, the thick liquid permeating, corrupting the ruler one used to mix it—and I cursed myself for not knowing what was wrong until it was far, far too late.  Fourteen months of bliss came to a weak decrescendo, fading away from consciousness as if they’d never even existed at all.  Fourteen months with the one I loved more than anything else on this godforsaken planet, whom I thought had loved me just as much.  God, it seemed, had now forsaken me as well.

The letter came in my e-mail box while I’d been away at the campus production of Death Takes a Holiday.  I’d only attended the damned play because I had to, for a theatre class assignment.  I didn’t really have the interest in going, since my mind was on other things—chiefly the surprise I was springing for Jen, my beautiful Jen, that coming Halloween weekend.  I’d go home, don the costume of the killer from the Scream movies, knock on her door, and she’d be shocked at my presence when I removed my mask because she’d thought that I was too busy to make it home—again.  We’d be blissfully reunited, and maybe, just maybe we’d make love that night.  I’d make my promise—that I’d never leave her, ever.  I’d always be her man.  It was an idea sparked in a moment of genius, in an attempt to inject life back into a relationship that I could tell was fraying like a rope at its edges.  How could I know my endeavor was too late?

I arrived in my dorm room after the play, hoping that Jen would be online and that we could chat for a while, so my doubts (what doubts? I now reflect) would be assuaged and I could go on making my ingenious plans that would reunite us, rekindle the love that had blurred focus, made us nearsighted in recent weeks.  The frostiness of the air conditioner in the window felt delightful, as the sweat on my brow began to cool like dry ice.  I glanced over the scenery quickly, finding it to be just how I’d remembered it—with ivory white walls, upon which hung a Frankenstein poster and several wooden picture frames, in which were 8x10’s of Jen and me at various dances and social events: Homecoming, Snow Ball, Spring Formal, Prom, Homecoming again.  We looked happy, truly happy, exhilarated by the fact the Fates had brought us together.  How could two people be more perfect for one another?  My roommate, Rod, with long golden hair and a face that was the spitting image of Jesus Christ, sat below all the pictures, at my computer, checking his mail, when I came in from the autumn weather.  Unthinkingly, I plopped down on my half-made bed which sat beside the computer desk, and dove over it like a bored swimmer.

“Rod, y’mind if I check my mail really quick?  I want to see if Jen mailed me back.  Only take a sec.”

Rod eased his chair out a small ways from the desk, enough so that I could slink between him and the keyboard.  “No prob, I’m done,” he told me, putting his hands behind his head and stretching.  I suppose I’d bored him to death many times by telling about Jen’s and my antics.  It made him, the consummate bachelor who never even dated, cringe whenever she came up in conversation.

My hand sweatily grabbed the mouse.  Beneath it, on the pad, was a photo of my beloved and me.  Within seconds I brought up Netscape Messenger, and clicked the button for New Mail.  Circuits hummed and transmissions went through miles of fiber-optic cable until the mail flag onscreen went up, heralding electronic death in the form of an e-mail whose subject line cried: “please read this.”

Innocently, I opened the message.  I skimmed it at first.  The words blurred together, and in the back of my brain I felt a subconscious locomotive of guilt and rage begin to chug its way forward and invade my conscious mind.  I couldn’t believe what I was reading.  I felt Rod move away, up and out of the wooden chair, walking to the far side of the room to his bed, near the door.  He lay down on the bed, atop his wrinkled coat and bedsheets, sighing in heavy fatigue.  But he didn’t matter; I couldn’t tear myself from the words on the screen.  What she wrote wasn’t important; don’t all Dear John letters read the same?  The words played with me teasingly, then began to cut into my very being like a farmer cutting through his harvest with a sickle.  No, not a farmer—like the Grim Reaper, lopping off heads with his instrument of death, drawing ever closer.  The sound of his scythe echoed, whistling through the air, over and over and over again, louder and louder, closer and closer every time until I could feel the icy chill of his dead breath upon my shoulder, smell the rancid stench of his rotting flesh.  Death had come—for the relationship, for me.  My enemies were rallying, the Reaper from one side, the train from the other, and I was helpless to avoid their gaze, their overwhelming desire to have me in the inescapable clutches of loathing and despair.

All I could think about, in that moment, was Jen, nearly two hundred miles away from me, two months hence since I’d moved away to college.  I dreamed of the way her deep blue eyes were like the fabled seas of the Caribbean; of the way her strawberry-blond hair cascaded down either side of her face, around her exquisitely shaped ears, curling gently at the ends, giving her features an unnecessary, but nonetheless lovely frame.  I ran my fingers through that luscious mane many times, delighting in its luxuriousness, smelling every bit as sweet as freshly-picked cherries.  I reminisced about the smoothness of her sexy alabaster skin, how its scent lingered like morning rain, and how delightfully creamy, silky it had been under my delicate touch, especially her long and lovely legs, stretching all the way up to her marvelous neck; how cute her little nose was and how I’d hover my head in close, then touch that nose gently with my index finger many times just before leaning in to kiss her full, tender red lips, our mouths opening, my tongue tangoing tastefully with hers, drinking in her sweet taste like vintage wine.  I recalled eagerly massaging her back, neck and legs; tickling her sides and watching, hearing her laugh that angelic brand of laughter; hugging her shapely form so tightly I sometimes felt her head would pop off and go flying from all the pressure; and I remembered every sensuous curve to her body, every imperfection, every tiny birthmark, every dimple and freckle, memorized like a treasure map.  Everything that had been mine.

And there were other moments I remembered in the flashes between words, each image coming more quickly as the train gained speed, chug-a-chug-a-chug-a-chug along the tracks of my consciousness.  Each image, each scenario, seemed to be from a lifetime ago.  Jen and I met at the Silverado on the day The X-Files movie premiered; she was the best-looking Scully I’d ever laid eyes upon, and I, apparently, the best Mulder she’d seen.  I quaked in my Reeboks as months later we confronted our ever-increasing feelings for one another, successfully.  My heart leapt for joy as she nervously put her hand in mine for the first time on the night of the Pirates-Cubs game at Three Rivers.  We kissed in front of her house, and she melted into my arms, once, twice, a hundred thousand times.  We made a habit of “half-watching” movies till 3 A.M. and her parents very nearly caught us making out (and more) in their basement so many times I’d long lost count.  I took her to her first rock concert, Dave Matthews, struck by spontaneity.  We’d give each other gifts, cards, and flowers at random, token reminders of how great our love was.  “Of all the places in the world I like, I like being in your arms the best,” one such card read, touching my heart.  She was the only person who’d ever convinced me to ride all the rides at Cedar Point.  I was the only one she’d ever let into her soul.  We were young but still planned for the future, often talking, not so jokingly, about maybe someday settling down—with me as a doctor and her as a burgeoning actress, raising a bunch of wonderful kids—foolish dreams to imagine so early, but yet, we did so.

Now, those dreams were gone, the Reaper slicing them to bloody ribbons.  It wasn’t death, not literally, and yet, it was.  But the train kept rumbling along, and before long, I couldn’t take any more.  I rose up from the computer, only a few seconds having passed since I sat down to read the letter, running around the edge of my bed, around to the door, where the train finally blared its horn and jumped its tracks as my fists, feet and head slammed into the wooden door with potent force.  Over, and over, and over.  I couldn’t stop.  The rage was too much with me.  My roommate took immediate notice, but at the time, I didn’t acknowledge him.  All I knew was that my dreams had been ground into so much pulp so suddenly it was making my head spin.  I banged on the door until my hands and forehead were raw and red; then I looked over at Rod, then at the monitor, and the tears began to flow.  If each tear that dropped represented one reason for the Reaper to spare me, I must have said thousands of words, if not millions, in my defense.  But none of it seemed to help.

“What’s wrong?” Rod asked.  He looked at me, almost crazily, not comprehending what happened just then.

I looked back at him although the rest of my body was still facing the door.  My throat was dry, all the fluid leaving out of my eyes.  I could do naught but point behind me at the computer screen across the room, the words still in plain view.  Pain, real physical tremors the like of which I’d never experienced before, wracked me from within and I held my belly even as my pointed hand turned, angrily, to a fist again.  I don’t think I could have said it; I think I could only express myself through action at that point, not totally wanting the words to escape my mouth for fear that if they did, then they would become truth if they hadn’t done so already.

The phone rang then, cutting through the white noise of my recollections and of the pain.  I turned my back to the door and sank downward, crashing against the door, my backside hitting the rock-hard floor with a thump.  Rod leaned over between the beds and picked up the telephone, cocking his head so that the phone rested between his ear and shoulder.  I didn’t hear the words he spoke.  My fists were clenched, knuckles white, nails digging into the palms of my hands, demanding blood be spilt.  The Reaper was acting through me; I was helpless to control him.  I just didn’t want to fight any longer.  How could something like this happen?  Was there a God?  A line from a television show I watched came to mind: “Better to ask, ‘If there is a God, must He be sane?’”

I looked about the room.  It would be so easy to find something that would fulfill the Reaper’s wishes, wouldn’t it?  The bedsheets could be tied together, strung from something high.  Several pairs of sharp scissors lay in the tray atop my desk.  I had enough Tylenol and other drugs in the room, certainly.  I felt nothing could fill the void within me, which increased geometrically with each passing second.  I had to do something.  Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, the Reaper cried out for Rod to leave so that he and I would finally be alone together.

“That was Mike,” Rod said, momentarily breaking the Reaper’s chanting in my brain.  “Wants me to go up t’ his place and do some drinkin’.  An’ he’s got his Halloween suit t’ show.”  He looked down at me from his place high on his bed.  Somehow, I think he knew what was happening to me.  I wasn’t quite listening to him; instead, as the tears still streaked down the dry skin of my face, I looked up at him.  My fists unclenched, as did my teeth, and I breathed in hard.  All the power had left my body, though I was still filled with rage.  My mouth was wet again.

“Jen left me,” I said.  There.  I’d said it.  It was true.

Rod didn’t look surprised.  He shook his head, although to this day I don’t know whether it was an act of condemnation, non-comprehension, or something else.

“Mike’ll be over in ten minutes,” he said, apparently ignoring what I’d just said.  Didn’t he care?  Anyway, that meant I had ten minutes until I could finally obey the Reaper’s silent order.  Ten minutes, then I’d never worry about anything again, or so I supposed at the time.  “You wanna come along?”

The words stunned me.  Why in God’s name would Rod even suggest something like that when the whole world had just crumbled to my feet?  Didn’t he know that now was my time to feel sorry for myself, to mourn a loss, to contemplate further losses?  The last thing I needed was to go out and do some drinking, which I never really did anyway for fear of losing control of myself.  And what was this about Halloween costumes?  Dammit, I didn’t need this, I thought.  I didn’t need some idiot roommate telling me what I should do.  I didn’t need someone rubbing my nose in the upcoming Halloween holiday.

I’m not even truly sure as of this moment what convinced me as we heard the brown-and-tan GMC Jimmy pull up outside, but for whatever reason, the demands being chanted in my head lessened.  The Reaper’s voice didn’t go away altogether, by any means; for several months after that it would continue, in a hushed, more silent tone until it would disappear for all time—at least, the Reaper that represented this failed relationship.  I picked my ugly body up from the floor, brushed myself off, smiled ever so slightly, and reached for the door.

“I’ll go with you,” I told Rod, facing him as I wrapped my sweaty palm around the doorknob.  I twisted it and opened the door towards me, and immediately felt as though angels were beckoning me outside to Mike’s truck.  I wanted to be with them.  What I had been thinking was fraught with madness, and in that direction there were no angels.  My God, what had I been thinking?

Rod stood up and walked up beside me, grabbing the coat that he’d haphazardly tossed onto his bed.  One step out the door was all it would take for me to begin the process of letting go, of that I am sure now, if I wasn’t then.  Maybe, as the door swung open wide and I placed one foot outside into the hall, the situation was not so unworkable as I had believed, the consequences not as dire as I had imagined.  Maybe, sometime later, I would see a way out of the seemingly hopeless situation.  Maybe Jen and I could talk things out, I thought then.  Maybe we could be lovers again, or, at the very least, friends.  But that wasn’t to be decided at the moment.  Then I only thought about drinking and forgetting—for the night, anyway.


John Byrne & The Hulk That Might Have Been (4)

It's getting ridiculous, right? Not to worry, this truly is the final segment of my analysis of John Byrne's plans for The Incredible Hulk--the fourth of a planned trio of articles! (That wasn't a misprint.) This time out, I want to go further with Byrne's plans for his revamped Hulk as well as explain reasons possible and definite for his premature exit from the title. Again, I'll quote as needed from magazines like Amazing Heroes, Comics Feature, Comics Interview and Marvel Age. Enjoy!
As mentioned previously, Byrne intended to kill the original Hulk who'd been separated from Banner, and then turn around and transform Banner into a new Hulk who would hearken back to the original Hulk of the first six issues by Lee, Kirby and Ditko. According to Comics Feature, the purpose of his own first half-dozen-odd issues--everything that saw print, plus a few unpublished stories--was to "get [Hulk] back to a point where I can say the last 100 issues didn't happen." He'd hit "a point that [would] essentially be issue seven of [the original six-issue] run. Then [we'd] go from there." He was also quick to point out that while he would be taking the Hulk "back to basics," he would remain green. Drastic plans? You bet. Necessary? Who can say?

Now, in my last entry I mentioned that I didn't think that Bruce Banner's "New Hulk" would figure into the death of the original one. Allow me to explain my logic with more information from Comics Feature. "One of the elements we're going to be getting into," said Byrne, "is that the world is going to come to believe that Hulk is dead. So Hulk is going to be functioning as kind of a secret identity for Banner. We're going to get back to the 'creature of the night' that he was in the first few issues, because you can't have Hulk as a secret identity if he's running around at high noon. He's going to be lurking in shadows." He didn't seem to specifically be making references to nighttime as catalyst for the change; rather, he obviously intended to use the original Hulk's death to "put the genie back in the bottle," so to speak, and make everyone, for the time being, unaware that Banner and the Hulk were again sharing one body. He couldn't very well do that while having one Hulk kill the other! How long he could keep the illusion going is anyone's guess--if you'll remember, the Hulk only kept a "secret identity" for a few years (1962-1966, until "unmasked" in Tales To Astonish #77). Could it really have worked? I have trouble believing it, but Byrne does make a good point about again making the Hulk a "creature of the night" to mask Banner's involvement.

Unfortunately, without the death of the old Hulk being the impetus for the birth of the new one, that leaves me without a reasonable hypothesis for why Banner decides to make himself into a new creature. Although Byrne made it clear that he would transform into a new Hulk before the old one passed, the reasoning yet escapes me. Can anyone shed some light on this? I know, I gave an idea that Banner's scientific curiosity about applying what he had learned during his years as the Hulk back to himself, a kind of "if I knew then what I knew now" bit, and that works okay. But I was hoping for something a little more in the vein of Bruce's original sacrifice to save Rick Jones a la Incredible Hulk #1.

At the very least, from the way he was acting in the issues that were released, I'm moderately certain that Byrne had planned for Doc Samson to die in his obsessive quest to kill the Hulk--perhaps even killing the Hulk at the cost of his own life upon discovering, as we did in Marvel Fanfare #29, that the Hulk wasn't truly mindless after all. Again, who can say? Just a feeling I have, but I also feel that it would have been more difficult keeping the Hulk's continued existence a secret with Samson still hanging around. Maybe it's me.

Also, in my last article I made mention of both the "creature of the night" Hulk and a Hulk with a measure of Banner's intellect. Again, Byrne clarified in Comics Feature: "Hulk's intelligence is going to come and go...You're going to have a nasty Bruce Banner who fluctuates towards being a virtual mindless brute occasionally. The situation is essentially, Banner is in control of Hulk as long as he lets Hulk out periodically. If he doesn't let Hulk out occasionally, there will come times when the Hulk breaks out. In the former situation he's in control, in the latter he's not." With regard to the transformation pattern, "While we're setting this up he doesn't realize that he needs to let Hulk out. By the time he realizes that it's a necessity. Hopefully, I'll have figured out how to get around that," he said, cautioning "that's not coming around for about two years anyway." He hoped to end up with a Hulk who was "about 60% hero and 40% bad guy. He does good things, not always necessarily for the right reasons, and sometimes he does out and out bad things."

What else would come of the new status quo? Byrne wanted to introduce "The General," in his words "an automated tank, which is the first foe of the new Hulk," as well as bring back one of the Hulk's first foes, the Metal Master (first seen in Incredible Hulk #6, but most recently seen in Rom #30). "When everything looks as if it's finally settled down and everything's happy, we cut to a warehouse in New York, where we find the adamantium statue of the Hulk [that Alicia Masters created as tribute to the Hulk in The Incredible Hulk #279]...where it's been gathering dust all these months [since the Hulk picked it up and chucked it at Thor in #300]. And slowly it stirs, steps off its pedestal, and crashes off into the street." Adamantium is metal, of course, and since the Metal Master controls metal, well, you can see where this is heading, right? Breaking out of my stoic comic historian persona for a moment, I just have to say: that idea is really cool and I really regret we didn't get to see it. (That said, a "New Hulk" vs. "Adamantium Hulk" battle also eliminates most remaining doubt as to whether Banner's "New Hulk" would be involved in killing the old one, as it was highly unlikely Byrne was planning back-to-back "Hulk vs. Hulk" battles.)

Byrne hinted at other less-realized events, including the return of the Abomination. "[He] intrigues me, and I am, bringing the Abomination back, but it won't be the same Abomination. He'll look the same, but it won't be Emil Blonsky. In fact, I'm going to have my Legion of Abominations, which should confuse everybody." Plus, in Comics Interview he expressed interest in returning another of the Hulk's earliest foes, the Ringmaster, wanting to get back to the "incredibly scary" aspects of the character from that first story in Incredible Hulk #3, where the villain would "[put] entire towns into hypnosis-induced comas." In Marvel Age #31, he also voiced intent to write a Hulk/Fantastic Four crossover, as at that point he never thought he'd leave the latter book.

Interestingly, although Byrne admits not particularly enjoying everything that wasn't an invention of Lee and Kirby, he did drop hints (again, in Comics Feature) that he would be bringing in some elements from the popular 1970s live-action TV show starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. "I'm thinking of possibly tossing in a reporter who's trying to track down these things that could only be caused by the Hulk. He won't be trying to prove there's a Hulk, but will be saying that things are clearly not what they appear to be. This is the guy who answers the questions when someone picks up their first issue and goes, 'What's going on here?' This guy's going to ask the same questions." While it's possible Byrne was in fact grooming a she, Dianne Bellamy (the reporter who followed Samson) for this role, there's really no conclusion to be made. Still, it might have been interesting having a Jack McGee-like character in the mythos.

Before any more inroads could be made to Byrne's new status quo, he left, or some argue was driven off the book. I've heard the story that during a cab ride he pitched one hell of a story to then-Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, who told him to go ahead, take the book and put his plan in action. Then, soon after he started doing the book, Shooter changed his mind and told him he couldn't do what they agreed upon. That's Byrne's side of the story. I'm sure Shooter's side of the story involves Byrne making significant changes from the initially agreed-on premise, with that change of plans directly leading to the creator's exit. (I'm not going to assign any kind of devious blame, but based upon what I've outlined above, the "death" of one Hulk and Banner's changing into Byrne's turn-back-the-clock-to-issue-seven Hulk might have been quite the sticking point. Whereas "death" in comics today is relatively common, in the mid-eighties it just wasn't so. It's also interesting that the plan was to literally kill one version of the character and magically replace him with the version Byrne wanted to write. Although more drastic measures have been taken with characters in the nineties--Clone Saga anyone?--again, such measures were really unheard-of in the eighties.)

It's interesting that Byrne's presumed stated goal--to kill the Hulk (regardless of how he was replacing him)--is so similar to the turn of events that led to the published ending of "The Dark Phoenix Saga" in Uncanny X-Men #137. As told in Phoenix: The Untold Story, Claremont and Byrne's originally stated ending was to keep Jean Grey alive but leave her powerless. However, when Shooter saw that Dark Phoenix had committed genocide in an earlier issue, he voiced objections at the light punishment, resulting in a new ending with Grey committing suicide in a moment of lucidity. Compare the death of Dark Phoenix with Byrne's Hulk having become a mass murderer (with reporter Dianne Bellamy explaining in #316 that "Loss of life [in Stoneridge] may yet mount into the hundreds") and it seems Byrne may have been counting on Shooter to agree with him that this Hulk needed to be killed--we'll call it "The Dark Phoenix Syndrome." Perhaps Shooter didn't want history repeating itself, especially in light of Jean Grey's return in Fantastic Four #286 at nearly the same time as all these Hulkish goings-on, and that's why he pulled the plug. You've got to admit, the timing is all a bit hinky.

Whatever the case, the next writer/artist, Al Milgrom, inherited the thankless task of picking up the status quo from where Byrne hastily left it, and would be on the book for ten issues (with a fill-in writer for #328) before Peter David assumed control of a book it's said nobody else wanted with #331. And the rest, as they say, is history. I sometimes wonder whether the specter hanging over the book--the fact nobody wanted to work on it which led "the direct sales guy" David to be tasked--had more to do with some animosity in the comics community over Shooter having fired Byrne than any actual disinterest in the Hulk character. We'll never know.

Regardless of other creators' reticence to work on Incredible Hulk following Byrne's exit, you can't deny that his short stint paved the way for virtually all that would occur over the coming years. When Al Milgrom came aboard, he immediately introduced elements that made it necessary for Banner and the Hulk to re-merge, making both sick the longer they remained apart. The only major rampage of the mindless Hulk that Milgrom wrote (#321-322) resulted in no loss of life. When they re-merged, the Hulk gained substantial intelligence, becoming closer to his original self than in many years. Then, re-exposure to the nutrient bath combined with Rick Jones' having been simultaneously dropped in the tank led to strange inversions of Byrne's concepts: the return of a crafty, grey-skinned Hulk (#324) who would be subject of the book for four years into David's tenure; and the introduction of Rick Jones as a second, green-skinned, long-haired, slow-witted "New Hulk" to effectively take the place of the recently-departed savage version (#325).

The new Hulkbusters would continue to be a staple of the book for some time, until Samuel J. LaRoquette and Craig Saunders were recruited by the Leader to serve as his Rock and Redeemer, respectively, during the "Ground Zero" storyline (#340-346). David addressed and resolved Betty's tryst with Ramón, her lover during the Hulk's exile from Earth, within a few issues (#334), at the same time exploring some of what Byrne discussed regarding Banner's emotions all sublimating the Hulk's rage. The longest direct result of these six issues was the wedding of Bruce and Betty, which is a plot element to this day, through her issues with the merged Hulk, her death by the Abomination, subsequent resurrection by the Leader, and development as Red She-Hulk.

However, more important than virtually all the rest of my points about Byrne's intended direction is his vision of the Hulk himself. If Byrne had his way, we would never have seen a returned grey-skinned Hulk. We'd have instead gotten a green-skinned version of same, akin to many of the early issues. (Though Byrne showed that the Hulk had indeed been grey-skinned upon his birth, according to Amazing Heroes he would have kept him green--returning to grey skin is at this time entirely attributed to Milgrom.) Byrne's visage of the Hulk raises an interesting question: with a Hulk only distinguishable from the classic savage version via demeanor and physical appearance, not color, would the future of the character have been drastically changed? Simply put, did Milgrom's turning the Hulk ash-grey as in his original appearance predispose Peter David to offer Multiple Personality Disorder/Dissociative Identity Disorder as an explanation for the character's origins and varying appearance? I find it difficult to believe any suggestion of multiple incarnations and personalities would have gained traction if the Hulk hadn't changed color during the Milgrom period. (It's easier to suggest that different colored Hulks equal different personalities.) It's possible an entirely different version of events would have unfolded if Byrne had been able to continue his schemes. Can you imagine never involving MPD/DID in the Hulk legend? Never having a "merged" incarnation? Never having the Hulk wear anything but purple boy shorts? Think about it a moment and let it boggle your mind.

In the final analysis, John Byrne's Incredible Hulk is a series to be appreciated less for what he did to advance existing plotlines and more for what he set in motion for future writers to pay off. As above, although it's taken writers like Milgrom and David to do so, the ideas Byrne provided set up conflicts and developments to advance throughout years. He might well be a visionary in the truest sense, or as seen here, he may only be a visionary for what he suggested and other writers carried through. It's difficult to tell as we never saw him reap what he had sown. Is it better or worse for Byrne to not have achieved his original intents on Incredible Hulk? I'll leave it to you to decide.

(Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Postscript)


  • Byrne, John. "Re: JBF Reading Club: The Incredible Hulk #314." Online posting. 1 May 2008. Byrne Robotics - The John Byrne Forum. 24 Mar 2011 <http://www.byrnerobotics.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=25324&KW=incredible+hulk&PN=0&TPN=2>
  • Byrne, John. Hulk Visionaries: John Byrne Vol. 1. New York: Marvel Publishing, 2008.
  • Salicrup, Jim. "John Byrne." Comics Interview 25 (1985): 85, 103. Print.
  • Sanderson, Peter. "The Big Switch." Amazing Heroes 76 (1985): 26-35. Print.
  • Schuster, Hal. "Talk With John Byrne." Comics Feature 37 (1985): 55-58. Print.
  • Zimmerman, Dwight Jon. "The Marvel Age Interview: John Byrne." Marvel Age 31 (1985): 10-12. Print.


John Byrne & The Hulk That Might Have Been (3)

Welcome back! This article is the third in a series analyzing creator John Byrne's 1985-86 tenure on The Incredible Hulk. In the first section, I gave a loose idea for what Byrne intended to do during his time on the book. In the second, I gave an in-depth review of each of the eight issues he actually managed to finish before Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter gave him the boot. This time out, I'm going to say a few words about those eight issues as they stand and then give some of Byrne's ideas about the direction of the book that never saw print (save hints in interviews in books like Amazing Heroes, Comics Feature, Comics Interview and Marvel Age, which I'll quote as needed).
The most interesting thing I can state about John Byrne's Incredible Hulk upon this recent reread and having read the various interviews is that by itself, it's relatively inconsequential. I don't mean this in a bad way, in fact, quite the opposite: what the writer/artist brought to the character was grist for the mill. The Hulk himself became a mindless cipher, perhaps less interesting than at any other point during the series' run, Mantlo's tenure included. The one real, salient event that came out of the book during these eight issues was the marriage of Bruce and Betty, which Bruce would only have allowed to happen once he was free of the immediate specter of the Hulk. The rest of what occurred during these issues can best be called "set-up." But, you might ask, set-up for what?

What really occurred during the six issues of the main title? We discovered the Hulk talked like his old self, but was more brutish, more disconnected with Banner than ever before. Doc Samson exploited that disconnect and literally separated man from beast, leaving Banner cured and the Hulk a raging, mindless beast nobody had to think twice whether to kill. Banner founded a new group of Hulkbusters, each one a new character--nearly as blank a slate as the Hulk himself now was. Doc Samson became a guilt-ridden one-man army, obsessed with ending the new mindless Hulk's threat that he blamed himself for causing; the next generation's General Ross. And Betty Ross finally reconciled her existence, the choice between Bruce and her estranged father not really a choice at all. Then, in a coda that was to have been the issue after the last one we got, we learned the Hulk wasn't as mindless as we were all led to believe. (You can see that "Incredible Hulk #320" was clearly marked in pencil behind "Marvel Fanfare #29" on the original art pages.)

I hope you remember how I made a point of Banner's dialogue with Rick Jones in issue #319, of his fascination with the metamorphosis, and his desire to have found a way to be both man and beast, Banner and Hulk, right from the beginning. Then, he told Rick he had no intention of going back. Why do I not take Bruce Banner, eternal scientist and experimenter, at his word? Perhaps it has to do with Byrne's comments in Amazing Fantasy. Although the issue numbers change, his intentions remained: "From #318 on things start to get squiffy. Issue #318 is where we first see the new Hulk, and #319 is where we see the last of the old Hulk." Huh? New Hulk? Old Hulk? While Marvel fans of the era may remember that Rick Jones also became a Hulk in 1986, that event didn't occur under Byrne's watch but rather that of his successor, Al Milgrom. No, for reference on this "New Hulk" I must direct fans to the rather unusual appearance of the Hulk in John Byrne and Josef Rubinstein's illustration for his entry in The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, Deluxe Edition #5:

While you might at first not see the difference, take a closer look at the version above and compare it to what Byrne drew during the six issues in his run. He's bulkier, so much so that he appears shorter. The hair is not the shaggy 'do of the Buscema period. As the artist states, "Avengers #1 is my definitive Hulk. [...] I think the Kirby style of that period, the Kirby-[inker Dick] Ayers look, was very well suited to a character like the Hulk." The tall, muscular look (like "a big Arnold Schwarzenegger," he notes) was "a mistake. He should have stayed slab-like, inhuman-looking, like he was in those early issues. And that's what he's going to be getting back to looking like, as of #318, because he's going to undergo a physical change. That's where he gets turned back into what he looked like in the first couple of issues, and in Avengers #1." He also noted that the Hulk would be at reduced strength levels once this change occurred. And there's that issue number, #318, again. Are we getting a clearer picture yet?

For his brief talk of a "New Hulk," Byrne also spent much of the article discussing his take on the Banner/Hulk dichotomy and the nature of the metamorphosis. "[I]f the Hulk is the Hulk all the time, he's not as interesting as he is if he's a regular, ordinary guy who turns into this monster." This statement appears to indicate he wasn't committed to the Hulk as a separate creature from Banner. "Since I'm going back to the original Hulk, they will be separate sides of the same being again." Further: "I'm getting back to that reason and rage, the two elements of any normal human being. In the Hulk they are clearly separated into two distinct beings: Banner is reason, and the Hulk is rage. Bruce Banner is a nebbish. He's a wallflower. He's a scientist whose life stops at the test tubes. Betty [...] was starting to coax him out [of his shell] a little when the Hulk came on the scene." He credited former Hulk writer Roger Stern with the idea that gamma rays brought out one's repressed self. "[I]n Banner they release all this repressed rage, which is there, as far as I'm concerned, because he was a wallflower and a bookworm. So Banner becomes this raging behemoth, the Hulk. [...] Jennifer Walters, when she becomes She-Hulk, becomes a swinger. The Abomination wanted to kick ass; that's what comes out in most of us."

Even more curiously given that for the issues we saw, Banner and Hulk were separate beings, Byrne stated that he would be playing up the "Jekyll and Hyde" aspects of the character, acknowledging Stan Lee's basis for the character as a blend of Stevenson's character and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In Comics Interview, the writer said, "[B]y about the eighth issue, we will be back in a situation where he will be the creature of the night and he will be locking himself in the little room under the lake and pounding on the wall." Then, in Amazing Heroes: "...Banner's changes will be voluntary for the most part," he said, while Sanderson added "Banner will find an easy way of turning into the Hulk at will while retaining his full intelligence." Added Byrne: "For a few issues, it's going to seem very much like the Hulk Bill [Mantlo] was doing." However, Banner "will become drunk on [becoming the Hulk] because he's never had this kind of control over the Hulk, where he can turn into the Hulk for as long as he wants to." Eventually, "Banner will willingly become the Hulk, but it will become anathema to him, the way that [turning into Hyde] did to Jekyll, realizing 'I'm becoming this scuzzy guy and I can't help myself.'" Sanderson said "At times too, Banner will become the Hulk when the Hulk wants him to, not when the Banner side of him wants to."

Later, Byrne intended to create an "emotional schism between Banner and the Hulk" where "a lot of Banner's dark side will go into the Hulk, including, essentially, his sexuality. [...] It's not so much that the Hulk shows the sexual side, but that Banner has lost [it]. Lust is one of our quote--darker--unquote emotions, and all of our 'darker' emotions go to the Hulk, who sublimates everything into rage. So Banner will [become] progressively more aloof and standoffish...towards Betty. Betty will notice, yes, he doesn't get mad, he doesn't get upset, but he also doesn't get particularly loving. It's as if he's turning into a robot, when Banner is completely in control."

So, you might ask, if Byrne's Banner were still the Hulk, and he were to introduce a "New Hulk" an issue before the "Old Hulk" were seen for the last time, "What the hell is going on?" Reading the Comics Feature interview, the answer becomes quite obvious: "The World's trying to destroy [Hulk] like they've never tried before because now there's no threat to Bruce Banner. We were always holding back in the past; we were always worried about killing Banner if we killed Hulk. Now we can kill The Hulk." The Hulk who has been separated from Banner must die!

Who would kill him? Well, the new Hulkbusters and Doc Samson certainly seemed ready to deliver the killing blows, if their appearances in the extant issues were any judge. There's an important point I want to make, later, about why Banner himself couldn't make the killing blow but would, in fact, rig up the gamma rays and make himself into a new Hulk. And this situation would leave Banner and the Hulk exactly where Byrne wanted them to be.

I can definitely see Byrne's purpose in reducing the "original" Hulk to a mindless monster such as he did with his second issue, as it allowed us to extricate all empathy from the creature and put readers in the same frame of mind as Banner: this was a monster with no redeeming values, killing indiscriminately, who was separate from Banner and who had to be destroyed. It's interesting, then, that the last Byrne story in Marvel Fanfare featured a Hulk with some access to his original memories and personality. Meant to be Incredible Hulk #320, as mentioned earlier, it threw a spanner into the above philosophy and makes me truly wonder if the path to the "New Hulk" was as cut-and-dry as I first believed. Ah, good questions without answers!

And it's these few lingering questions that I'll bring into the fourth and final segment of this treatise, due out tomorrow! The grand finale will include as much else as I could piece together about Byrne's aborted plans, as well as some potential reasons why he was let go from the book. I've also got some observations about how the future of the book may have shaped up very differently if Byrne had in fact been able to unfurl his full vision. Stay tuned, folks, I promise you this one's HULKLUDED once and for all!

(Part 1 | Part 2Part 4 | Postscript)



Lest Ye Forget: MARVEL HEROES #33 is Now at UK Newsagents!

Written by original Death's Head creator Simon Furman and illustrated by Simon Williams, an all-new eight-page feature pitting Death's Head against the ever-incredible Hulk is now available in the UK! Pick up Marvel Heroes #33 from your local newsagent today!

If you're outside the UK, chances are you don't immediately have the opportunity to own this collector's item (or to even read the story, yes?). I can only say if you're a fan in the US and at all interested in seeing the feature reprinted here, your best option is to inundate Marvel Comics with letters (to Hulk Office, c/o Marvel Comics, 417 5th Ave., New York, NY 10016), e-mails (to mondomarvel@marvel.com), whatever you can to convince them to run the story on this side of the Atlantic! Tell your friends to do the same!

You wouldn't want to make these guys angry, yes?


Good Times, Good 'Cue, and...Red Hulk? (Hulk #31 in Review)

(Yes, because I didn't get to post the Firestorm article last night, you get two articles today! Don't say I never gave you nothin', folks!)

What a difference a week makes! Last week, we saw Jeff Parker, Gabriel Hardman, Tom Palmer and Jim Charalampidis take on the Scarlet Smasher in the first part of a new arc due to introduce not one but four new baddies. Maybe I'm too used to the regular team after "Scorched Earth," because while we got a solid story that suited the "Marvel Point One" premise well, and breakdowns that kept the feel of the first arc, the finished art and colors didn't work quite as well. This issue, we're back to underrated artist Gabriel Hardman inking his own pencils, and Bettie Breitweiser bringing every page to vivid life with her colors. You want to know more? Well, that's why I'm here, aren't I?

Hulk #31
 "The Next Life"
Writer: Jeff Parker
Artist: Gabriel Hardman
Colorist: Bettie Breitweiser
Letterers: Ed Dukeshire
Production: Randy Miller
Assistant Editor: Jake Thomas
Editor: Mark Paniccia
Publisher: Marvel Comics

The cover to this issue asks the question, "Who is Zero/One?" and writer Jeff Parker begins answering the question this issue. In doing so he conjures up elements of his very first issue on the series. There's something of a master plan at work here, or at the very least, Parker knows how to weave threads between storylines to cause the Red Hulk the most stress from month to month. Zero/One's origin is something for which the Red Hulk can share blame with both the Leader and M.O.D.O.K. in a twisted fashion. She is both human and inhuman, in a study of dichotomies. Yes, she wants to destroy ol' Ross, but it also seems she has grander plans to set in motion. It's definitely going to be interesting seeing her finally meet up with the monster when that event occurs.

"When the event occurs"? Yes, you heard me right--while nearly half the issue is devoted to Zero/One and her cause, the rest of the story is about Thad Ross and his attempts to evade another plan set in motion by General Fortean, a man who served under him but who now tasks himself with the destruction of the Red Hulk, whoever he may be. The two sides don't actually meet this episode. It's in the Red Hulk sections that the story treads water, with Ross talking about his new situation and taking on rock golems created by military technology. Yes, it's all part of Fortean's attempt to gain greater knowledge about the creature he wishes to destroy, and it would fall flat in less skilled hands. As it is, Jeff Parker's wit drives the character-based scenes, and Gabriel Hardman's art holds great interest during the battle. Ross has a funny scene reminiscent of the savage Hulk of the 1970s involving a group of men holding a barbecue event that alone is nearly worth the price of admission. Also, Red Hulk's traveling companion, the LMD Annie, provides a good sounding board, as Red confides that maybe telling Fortean about his double identity would have been a mistake. That indicates he probably won't use that bit of information anytime soon--a good call in this case, too, because I think there's still much mileage to be had from keeping Ross' secret out of anyone but Banner, Steve Rogers, and the LMDs' hands.
Hulk #31 is another solid chapter in the ongoing story of Thad Ross as the Red Hulk, advancing the core storyline while consistently introducing new elements. Hardman and Breitweiser are in fine form and I'm looking forward to next month. (The only errors were apparently in the printing process--I see three pages of Red Hulk as green...a problem in anyone else's copy, or am I special? ***Update: Colorista Bettie Breitweiser & IGN reviewer Joey Esposito have confirmed a "regional" printing problem with the issue. Thanks! Now, anybody seeing a blue Hulk yet?***)

As far as the back-up feature, "Save the Date," goes, Jeff Parker constructs a story that teams A-Bomb with both of the She-Hulks that appears to again be more about setting up other events than providing a story with a set beginning, middle, and end. It's a good enough adventure as scripted by Parker and drawn by Tim Seeley (of Hack/Slash fame), and certain to be a springboard to future events in the Hulk's corner of the Marvel Universe. The best thing I can say about it is that it takes another step backward to embracing Lyra's roots and elements that seemed to be erased for the She-Hulks miniseries. Hello, Boudicca!

This issue combines the seriousness of Parker and Hardman's Red Hulk stories with the lightheartedness of A-Bomb and the She-Hulks. I have to say I'm thankful that next month, Hulk returns to $2.99 with only one story and no back-up tale. It's true that the stories in the back have contributed to the ongoing plots in the main feature, with the A-Bomb stories in the first three segments leading directly into the final two main segments of "Scorched Earth" and the two-part Watcher story introducing the Omegex, which continues to trek to Earth in this issue. Parker did his best to make the tales matter, but I think we'd all like to see full focus on the Red Hulk as long as he's in this title. This one's recommended, folks.


Storm Warning 6: From the Ashes...The Firestorm of Earth-8!

Hi, heroes!

When last we left our intrepid hero Ronald Raymond, he'd been through the proverbial blender. Split off from his partner, Professor Martin Stein, who'd become a Fire Elemental and gone off to explore the deepest reaches of space, he learned to once again harness his own atomic powers and become Firestorm anew, without having to merge with another being. He became an alcoholic and recovered. He became the "dumb jock" hero writ large, requiring other heroes like Oracle and the Atom to help him with his restructuring abilities. He rejoined the JLA and was even about to be featured in a new series that would've included several other beings in a re-exploration of the Firestorm Matrix. Then, plans changed, and DC instead decided to kill him in 2004.

If you can't make 'em marketable, kill 'em. Cover to Firestorm #6 by ChrisCross.
Well, actually the death would occur in Identity Crisis #5 (December 2004), when a group of super-heroes including Firestorm, Shazam, Vixen, and Shining Knight were on the trail of the sinister Shadow Thief. The villain used the Shining Knight's mystical sword to pierce Firestorm's body, triggering the equivalent of a nuclear core breach that led to a tremendous explosion. Of course, several months before creators Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales revealed this event, another pair of creators, writer Dan Jolley and artist ChrisCross, combined their talents for the newest Firestorm #1 (July 2004), telling the tale of Jason Rusch, a African-American teen in Detroit who mysteriously obtained the power of Firestorm during an errand for a local thug. It was only in the series' sixth issue that the connection was explained, that the explosion released the "Firestorm Matrix" which then found a new host in Jason.

While I liked the idea of a new Firestorm series, I wasn't totally sold on the concept as told by Jolley. While it'd been previously established that the Firestorm Matrix could absorb others into it, it had never before wholly transferred to another being who was not Ron or Martin. I did, however, enjoy the novelty of Jason needing to merge with other unrelated individuals to form Firestorm. The situation was vaguely similar to the early days of Ron and Martin's fusion, wherein Ron was fully aware of what happened when he was Firestorm, but Martin suffered amnesia. Each person involved in the merger would suffer from memory loss upon being separated from Firestorm, which was convenient--almost too convenient--to many stories' central plot. Also, each new individual in the Matrix now functioned like a battery for Jason, who had to be careful with his power output or else he could "burn out" the other person, killing them. (Disgustingly, this event occurred once, and blessedly only once, in the series, in issue #3.) The most interesting merger of the period involved a crossover with Jolley and artist Leonard Kirk's short-lived creation Bloodhound, where Jason combined with a criminal, resulting in a demonic-looking Firestorm creature controlled by that criminal while Jason became the one apparently at risk of dying.

Jason Rusch is the new Firestorm. Nice face tats. Cover to Firestorm #1 by ChrisCross.
After the first seven issues, I'm not sure whether there was an outcry by fandom to return to aspects of the original Firestorm, or if Jolley already planned to address specific plot elements.  The eighth issue by Jolley and new artist Jamal Igle was a quantum leap forward from the previous issue, with the reintroduction of original now-and-then cast member Lorraine Reilly, the original Firestorm's ex-paramour Firehawk. The narrative would expand to include Louise Lincoln, the second Killer Frost, whom Jason would modify with his restructuring power in an attempt to cure what he only saw as a sick human woman. Her powers returned and enhanced, she nearly defeated Jason, who had to let his partner of the moment go or else face killing him. When Lorraine caught up with him again, he decided to merge with her, to her shock and dismay. When the Matrix absorbed her, it triggered a tremendous explosion. Her own superpowers, having been triggered by a similar situation as had birthed Firestorm, supercharged the Matrix and returned Ron Raymond as Firestorm, with both Lorraine and Jason "on the inside."

From here on in, I was on board 100%--in spite of a distressing answer to a question I asked Jolley some months earlier at San Diego Comic Con 2004. Some Firestorm fans may remember seeing coverage of the DC Universe panel that Friday, July 23, when I asked one of the last questions of the panel. Would Martin Stein return in Firestorm? The writer had a one-word answer for me: "No." But of course, Ron Raymond would be a pretty good substitute, right?

A tale of two Firestorms. Cover to Firestorm #10 by Matt Haley.
The six-part storyline I can call "The Return of Ronnie Raymond" in issues #8-13 captured the essence of what made the original series so much fun, heaping on original supporting cast members and original villains. By re-introducing the original Firestorm, Jolley and Igle showcased what was so special about him, contrasting both his abilities and his very character with the "new guy" Jason. Yes, it felt like the last lap before truly saying farewell, but if this were the way Ron Raymond were going to go out, well, there were much worse ways to go! Jason defeated Killer Frost by restructuring her body back to what it was before, upsetting Ron but insisting he didn't have much of a choice. They discovered Firehawk destabilized the Matrix and had to fission, after which Jason still found Ron in his head.

Ron and Jason found they were both able to form their own version of Firestorm, and issue #11 developed a "teacher-student" relationship between the two men while Ron hoped to meet up with his father in Pittsburgh. They arrived at Ed and Felicity Raymond's home, but Dad and Stepmom weren't there, and before a reunion could occur, Firestorm again had to rush into battle in Detroit against Typhoon and Multiplex. Those villains were in turn following orders from a surprising face: Cliff Carmichael, Ron Raymond's high school nemesis, who'd years ago enhanced his own brain, become the Thinker, and briefly joined the Suicide Squad. Firestorm defeated him by dissolving the cybernetic enhancements in his brain, but shortly afterward Ron again dissipated from the Matrix. Jason's future was wide open, and he'd learned and grown tremendously from his experiences with Ron. Unlike when the character had been shoved down DC fans' throats, after issue #13 it felt like the torch had finally been passed.

Not a new #1, but DC wanted you to think it was. Cover to Firestorm #14 by Matt Haley.
More than we knew!

Citing having to devote increasing attention to new projects, writer Dan Jolley announced his leave from Firestorm in January 2005. He stated he was excited with what he would have been writing in the series' second year, but had to leave the book in editor Steve Wacker's capable hands. Soon after that announcement came another series of articles heralding the arrival of former DC/Vertigo and Marvel Knights editor Stuart Moore as the new writer, effective with June's issue #14. In interviews, he emphasized that Jason Rusch would remain the book's protagonist, and that he would delve into the character's more scientific aspects, making him a student at Lowrance University and giving him a job at STAR Labs, as well as introducing a new villain called the Pionic Man in his second issue. Here, although Jason doesn't have to merge with another person to become Firestorm, he can when he needs, fusing with a scientist to help him defeat the aforementioned villain. Then, there's this matter of some type of spirit at the fringes of the galaxy speaking of "Firestorm" and "Ronald." Hmm...

Over the next few months Moore continued the mystery of who sent the Pionic Man against Firestorm and he introduced Gehenna, an girl artificially aged to adulthood who'd become a major factor in Jason Rusch's life to date. The series was hit by crossovers with DC miniseries Villains United and The OMAC Project before the big crossover event of 2006, Infinite Crisis, hit. During this arc, the mysterious space entity stood revealed as Martin Stein, the Fire Elemental version of Firestorm, which made me stand up and cheer. (Take that, Dan Jolley!)

The league of extraordinary Firestorms? Jamal Igle conjures Uncanny X-Men #136.
It was wonderful to see Stuart Moore appreciated the rich history of the character, and events spinning out of Infinite Crisis #4 enabled the Professor to be re-integrated into the Firestorm Matrix, partnering with Jason as he'd done with Ron years earlier. In the two-part milestone "Building a Better Firestorm," spanning Firestorm #21-22, Firestorm had been effectively destroyed, and it was only due to the intervention of Stein that Jason did not perish with his partner and friend Mick. The storyline directly addressed Stein's whereabouts in recent years and presented an even greater possible teacher-student relationship between Stein and Jason than the one between Ron and Jason several issues previous. Jason implored Stein to join him, and together they rebuilt Firestorm from the ground up. Moore may have gone a little exposition-heavy, but he hit all the right notes, appealing to old and new Firestorm fans (including an homage that directly conjures the Ron Raymond-Martin Stein days of yesteryear) all the while paving the way for something new.

"Building a Better Firestorm" easily ranks among my top five stories featuring the character; unfortunately, Firestorm himself escaped back to Infinite Crisis for its remaining three issues without anyone ever really exploring the new dynamic. The most worthwhile thing we learned about Firestorm in that event miniseries was an interesting echo of pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths continuity, where there were often different versions of mainstay DC characters across multiple alternate realities (Earth-2, Earth-S, Earth-Prime). Fittingly, writer Geoff Johns revealed that in the pre-Crisis multiverse, Jason Rusch would have been the Firestorm of Earth-8, alongside that Earth's Green Lantern, Kyle Rayner. (Of course, the Earths were all combined into one in the aforementioned Crisis series.) Then, all series in the DC line jumped forward with the "One Year Later" event, and the status quo shifted yet again.

Brian Stelfreeze brings Firestorm's covers to life.
One year after the end of Infinite Crisis, Jason Rusch was bonded with Lorraine Reilly again, but this time, thanks to the "ideal merge" with Stein having effectively rewritten the rules, the duo couldn't physically separate by more than a mile without causing an immense explosion. Reilly was now a U.S. Senator, taking over the same district as her father. Jason had transferred from Lowrance to Columbus University in New York, where Stein was now a professor of physics. Prior to Firestorm #23, the first issue of the new era, Prof. Stein was kidnapped by persons unknown, so the first arc through #27 became a search for Stein. Jason and Lorraine found that he had been kidnapped by the Pupil, who was intent on discovering as much as he could about Firestorm. They freed Stein and defeated the Pupil, after which the imperfect merger was negated. Finally--finally--the path was clear, and the next issue, #28, would feature the new Jason Rusch-Martin Stein merger. And another new Firestorm.

"In My Father's House," this Firestorm incarnation's final major arc, took all of what Moore had been planning from his first issue and drove the overall storyline to a grand climax. Looking back, it's likely that the writer had an inkling that this arc would be his last, as it ties up the main arc so neatly while allowing just a few nuggets out there to transition to whatever subsequent writer that might pick them up. Yes, the story featured the merger I wanted, and it was used superbly in a way that screams "more!" but there was so much else to recommend "In My Father's House" to longtime Firestorm fans, like the return of Mikhail Denisovitch Arkadin as Pozhar, transformed this time as result of a nuclear accident in Russia. Thankfully, Mikhail seemed to have spent quite a bit of time studying English since his last appearance! But the nods to older Firestorm stories didn't stop there, because this five-part arc functioned as a direct sequel to the first mega-arc in The Fury of Firestorm #14-18 & Annual #1, featuring the return of Hewitt Industries.

If you'll remember from my fourth "Storm Warning" entry, Henry Hewitt developed a plan to turn himself into a nuclear engine of power similar to Firestorm, first experimenting on Lorraine Reilly and turning her into Firehawk before he himself became Tokamak. Hewitt apparently died in that earlier story, but in fact he was able to survive, and began a series of cloning experiments. He "merged" Firestorm-style with one of those clones, becoming his own son, "Victor Hewitt." He raised another of his clones, Gehenna, as his own daughter, while employing other clones as "Dollies," his footsoldiers. His aim this time was simple: to use his strategically-placed Dollies to create an unparalleled, worldwide nuclear disaster to teach humanity the error of their ways, while at the same time giving himself incredible power. The final battle included all of the major players in Moore's stories to date--Jason, Martin, Lorraine, Pozhar, Gehenna, the Pionic Man, Tokamak and the Pupil--and concluded when Jason used his abilities to fission Hewitt from his cloned "son's" body. Before his weak body passed, Hewitt confided a secret to Firestorm: that he knew why Firestorm existed, and after he died Jason never would.

Firestorm faces Tokamak, in Moore & Igle's finale. Cover by Brian Stelfreeze.
Moore and Igle's final issue, #32, served as an epilogue with Jason and Martin dealing with dire weather-related phenomena caused by their having transmuted organic matter in the previous issue. It's a nice coda to the series, with resolutions among the major cast members. It still isn't clear whether the secret of Firestorm's creation was a plot point for a future arc if Moore had continued to write the book, or if it was mere setup for the then-upcoming Countdown to Final Crisis series, in which Firestorm would play a role. The late Dwayne McDuffie took over for Moore on the final three issues, taking Firestorm wholly out of his element and setting him against Darkseid's legions because the Firestorm entity contained one-fourth of "The Life Equation," which Darkseid saw as a threat to his own Anti-Life Equation. In the final issue, #35, Darkseid separated the Professor from Jason, and took him back to Apokolips. Then, Jason fused with Gehenna and the two of them left in pursuit. It was a hasty, contrived exit that led to Firestorm's involvement in Countdown, in which his involvement was nigh-incomprehensible, with Desaad stealing his power.

The downward spiral continued in McDuffie's Justice League of America, where the bad sadly outnumbered the good. While it was a good idea for Batman to draft the new Firestorm into the League, and a pleasant enough idea to have the new Firestorm face the Shadow Thief, the villain who "killed" Ron Raymond, the series underscores the problem of featuring the character in a team lineup. Firestorm is already a "team" unto himself, and other heroes can't really "see" the other person he's bonded to, so it makes his own internal dynamic difficult to present when there are seventeen other characters to deal with. From what I've seen in Justice League of America: The Injustice League (the only collection I own featuring Firestorm in the League), we don't even know who is merged with Firestorm! (However, if I had to guess, I'd say it's Gehenna...anyone wanna confirm?)

Similar to the era that preceded it, DC's recasting of Jason Rusch as Firestorm had its share of problems. The best stories came up when embracing the character's rich history, like the brief return of Ron Raymond during Jolley's run, and especially the return of Martin Stein during Moore's. Unfortunately, DC showed tremendous aversion to actually using Stein once he returned, giving him next to no part in Firestorm's involvement with 52 (the less said, the better) and only really giving us one good storyline with him as part of Firestorm before taking him away again for Countdown. The Professor is truly my favorite character in the Firestorm mythos, so the book was at its best when he was involved and the quality fell precipitously when he wasn't. On the plus side, Jason Rusch, whom I never really liked under Jolley, matured and developed tremendously under Moore, who fleshed out his family life and gave the character a relatable quality he previously lacked. And the interplay with both Stein and Lorraine was always solid. Stuart Moore and Jamal Igle should particularly be praised for their nineteen issues (excepting the fill-in here and there). I've met Jamal at Pittsburgh Comicon and told him so--but sadly, I didn't get to say hello to Stuart Moore last year at New York Comic Con. (Maybe next year?) When Firestorm was good, it was really good, and became a must-read, top-of-the-weekly-pile event.

To date, the only Firestorm graphic novel collection. Ever.
Unfortunately, DC never saw fit to release much of the series in graphic novel collections--only issues #23-27 are in a collection, Firestorm the Nuclear Man: Reborn. A few issues more have popped up during Brightest Day, albeit in 100-page collections alongside other heroes, but it's highly unlikely we'll ever see the collections this series truly deserves--especially in light of where DC now seems intent on taking the character.

And that's a terrific cue for an exit.

Next: In Brightest Day, In Blackest Night. (No, Green Lantern's not taking over!) The finale!



We're Back! The Spectacular Spider-Cast Episode 3.1....errrr, 4!

Howdy all!

Today I'd very much like if you all moved your butts over to www.spectacularspidercast.com, which is, of course, the home of The Spectacular Spider-Cast, a podcast devoted to the misadventures of everyone's favorite hero who could be you! I've hosted the podcast since late last year alongside Comic Addiction's Chris Partin, but Chris has moved on *cough* Image Addiction podcast *cough* which has led to my wrangling Joltin' Jonathan Westhoff as my new co-host as of this month's episode!

Spectacular Spider-Cast Promo:

This is the fourth episode, and if you haven't listened to the first three episodes, well, they're still readily available both on the website and over at iTunes! By all means, if you like what you hear, share the love! The Spider-Cast has a Twitter feed (@spider_cast) and an e-mail address (spidercastpodcast@gmail.com), and there will likely also be a Facebook fan page in the near future. Don't forget too that the podcast is part of the Comic Book Noise family of podcasts, with many other thrilling shows like The Incredible Hulkcast (to which I sometimes contribute) and Marvel Noise (with Rampagin' Rick Hansen's "Smash Tales" segment dramatizing the Hulk's best moments)!

Who says this isn't the Marvel Age of Pandemonian Podcasts?



Oh Hell Yes.

Three words: Planet. Red. Hulk.

'Nuff said?

No, really: "Planet Red Hulk." Jeff Parker. Carlo Pagulayan. June 2011.

Jeff, do you want to steal Greg's thunder, or what?

Let's all be there, shall we?