[This post contains SPOILERS for Hulk (2021 Series) #1-7, Hulk Vs. Thor: Banner of War #1, and Thor (2020 Series) #25-26, all available now from your local comics retailer or via Comixology.]
Welcome back, Hulk fans!
Some of you may have heard me voice my distaste for the recently-begun Hulk series by writer Donny Cates and artist Ryan Ottley. I'm not alone, either; there are many out there who feel let down following the absolutely incredible, 50-issue Immortal Hulk run written by Al Ewing.
I mean, on the surface, who wouldn't feel that way? Ewing's Hulk was dense and literate, showing the gradual rebuilding of Bruce Banner after coming back from death. He brought back the multiple personality elements of the Hulk, including not only the childlike Savage Hulk, but also the crafty Joe Fixit (although trapped in Banner's body for most of the run) and Paul Jenkins' contribution to the mythos, the aptly-named Devil Hulk. He made the Devil Hulk the glue desperately trying to hold Banner together in the aftermath of trauma before finally killing him off. And after that, it was Joe Fixit's turn in the spotlight, to build a bond with his "brother," the child Hulk, whom he previously never liked, even resented. Together, they rescued Banner, the missing part of their "system," from the Below Place in a showdown with the Leader, his arch-enemy bonded with his dead father's soul. In making peace with the Leader, he also made peace with the memory of his dead father once and for all.
Surely, after such weighty matters and a reunion of the primary members of the system, we thought Al Ewing would stick around a while and show us what the working system of Banner, the child Hulk and a cosmically-powered Joe Fixit in a Hulk form could really do, right? Alas, Ewing's Immortal Hulk now stands as a mere transition period, although one with a panoply of tools for a subsequent writer to employ.
Alas, Cates' and Ottley's Hulk opened by ripping off any band-aid Ewing put on Banner and his disparate selves, ushering in chaos even as Banner himself preached order. Gone is Joe Fixit, gone is any reminder that the Hulk became cosmically-powered just before the end of the prior run, and gone is any semblance of a detente between the personalities. Instead, we have Bruce Banner traumatized by actions he blames on the Hulk (which one, we know not - although when we've seen the green guy, he speaks like the child Hulk and Fixit at turns).
We glimpsed the bloodbath in El Paso, Texas, with Banner aghast at the Hulk's rage bleeding out, infecting those around him in ways above and beyond how The One Below All's influence leaked out of Gamma-spawned beings like both him and Walter Langkowski during Immortal Hulk. The bar patrons didn't just get unusually angry--they also got unusually green, dumb and gamma-powered. He then became a prisoner in his own body, able to only watch as some force took control and savagely beat the bystanders-cum-Hulks, unable to stop until he awoke from the spell, buildings aflame, his body covered in blood. We see him yelling at a shadowy creature he obviously thinks is the Hulk, telling it that he thought they were a team, asking it why it made him commit such an apparent atrocity. We see the shadowy creature answer that it did so because Banner is weak. And we know that from this apparent loss of control, Banner does something he's never been able to do before.
No less than Dr. Strange and Odin have observed some incredible sorcery at the root of the changes Banner has made to his own physiognomy as result of the El Paso tragedy. He built a mind palace that rivals the ones in the BBC's Sherlock, and implanted nanomachines into the Hulk's body, transforming him into "Starship Hulk." Inside the mind palace, Banner sits in a control chamber alongside the mental image of his wife, Betty. And locked away in a separate section of the palace, in the engine room providing the ship's fuel, is the Hulk--the only one, for now--who faces a relentless onslaught of enemies to power his rage. Because, as you well know, the madder the Hulk gets, the stronger he gets.
The idea of Banner resorting to such drastic means--abandoning his human form in favor of transforming the Hulk's body into a "starship" capable of leaving Earth and exploring new worlds--is drastic at the least, and balls-out gonzo at most. His mood in these stories is unfathomably dark and it really appears to go against a lot of established continuity.
When was Banner ever so overzealously against the Hulk without a shred of empathy? Probably in Jason Aaron's 16-issue Incredible Hulk run back in 2011, where one could easily blame his going cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs on being a clone. (Yes, a clone. I know from clones.) Alas, considering that we've been dealing with multiple Hulk personalities for over half the character's lifetime, you'd think Banner wouldn't be so quick to lump all of the Hulks as one--after all, two of them just saved him from the Below Place in Immortal Hulk. (No, there's no way I'm not going to beat that dead horse.) But treating all Hulks as one myopically prevents him from seeing the real issue. After all, how difficult should it be for Banner to say, "Hey, it seems like there's this new Hulk personality that's ascendant after my recent troubles, or maybe it's some kind of thing that wormed its way into my consciousness from the Below Place. Can I maybe get a little help from Fixit and the Kid and get this sucker out of my head?" Not very. In this instance, Cates' characterization of there being only one Hulk seems pure plot contrivance, and you can't convince me otherwise.(Note that nowhere in the text of all issues since Cates took over has he had Banner acknowledge more than one Hulk personality.)
And the idea of the Hulk being responsible for Yet Another Mysterious Tragedy is overdone to the point of cliché. Admittedly the details are different this time, as Banner hasn't in six decades been able to transfer his Hulkishness instantaneously to others for no apparent reason as he did here.
All of which leads me to the fact that the current series showcases perhaps the darkest turn from Banner in his six decades of history. That's no easy feat, considering the series has dealt with Bruce and his mother's abuse at the hands of his father since 1985, and considering Peter David--whom many consider to be the best Hulk writer ever--once wrote that a young Bruce Banner planned to bomb his own high school because he was being bullied. But I keep wondering if the character of Bruce Banner can now ever be redeemed, because the specter of his abuse, and the responsibility of said abuse in creating the Hulk, has seriously damaged the character in the same way that having Hank Pym/Ant-Man/Giant-Man/Goliath/Yellowjacket/Nom-du-guerre-of-the-week beat his wife damaged that character in ways that character can't lose forty years removed (and he doesn't even have a monthly series to call his own like the Hulk).
Buried in the mythos of the Hulk since the revelations of abuse in the 1980s is the burning question of whether the sins of the father would also be visited upon the son; that is, if Bruce Banner could become an abuser in ways that matched or even surpassed his father Brian. While many point directly to the creation of the Maestro in Future Imperfect, to cite such as the only example ignores the remainder of Hulk history.
Peter David didn't only create the character of the Maestro to suggest that in at least one possible future, Bruce would become worse than his father ever was. He also attempted to write an earlier tale where Betty gave birth to a child in order to address the topic head-on. That story was killed and he nearly walked off the series, a full year and a half before the advent of the "merged" Hulk; a guest writer told the tale of Betty's miscarriage, and paid lip service to the idea of a monstrous child by way of a dream conjured by cosmic entities Nightmare and D'Spayre. From the ashes, some years later David wrote the story, What Savage Beast, wherein Betty birthed two children: Ross, white-skinned, and Brett, of a gray pallor akin to the earliest Hulk. Ross died, but Brett survived thanks to Gamma exposure. He was then kidnapped by the Maestro, who groomed him in his future to be a warrior and his successor. However, Brett eventually chose the right side, sacrificing himself to prevent the Maestro from taking an army to conquer the Hulk's present. And later still, David told perhaps the darkest tale of his entire run, revealing in a flashback story how Banner had repressed the true memory of the last time he'd seen his father. In fact, Bruce had killed his father in self-defense when he attacked him at his mother's grave. Hence, David seemed to suggest that the darkness that could eventually manifest in the Maestro was indeed there. He even went so far as to suggest that the Hulk manifested the ability to see ghosts, not out of some childlike innocence, but rather as a pseudoscientific phenomenon out of guilt for killing his father and being afraid dear ol' dad would come after him from beyond the grave. And then of course there was that aforementioned business where he tried to kill his classmates.
Paul Jenkins may not have dealt directly with Brian Banner in his tenure during the early aughts, but that didn't mean his presence wasn't felt. When Bruce fell ill from a genetic disease, it was the gift of his father's DNA in a radical gene therapy invented by the Leader and synthesized by Reed Richards that cured him. In that way, his father inadvertently saved his life. Hence, one might construe a small measure of forgiveness.
Greg Pak explored the question in a very different way when he gave the Hulk two sons by way of his wife Caiera on Sakaar, as revealed in both the ending of World War Hulk and the spin-off series Skaar: Son of Hulk. The thread of Skaar was explored through the first year of the character's series, whereupon he was transported to Earth and hunted for the father he never knew. The Incredible Hulk charted the course of the super-genius Banner, temporarily cured of being the Hulk, teaching his super-powered son how to be a hero, with the not-so-secret secondary reason being that he wanted to train him to kill the Hulk when he returned. In the end, the Hulk indeed returned, and of course Skaar didn't kill him. Rather, the Hulk realized in battle with his son that he was in danger of repeating the same mistakes Brian Banner made with young Bruce.
Father (both Bruce and the Green Scar) and son embarked on several adventures together in the company of a "Hulk family" that also included She-Hulk, Red She-Hulk (Bruce's ex-wife, Betty), A-Bomb (a Gamma-powered Rick Jones), and Korg (late of "Planet Hulk"). One of their first challenges was Skaar's brother, Hiro-Kala (read: "hero-killer"), who grew up too jaded and could not be saved by his brother or father. Eventually, when Pak left the series, subsequent writers didn't care for the character as much, so he left the series, joined the Thunderbolts for a spell, eventually (and inexplicably) became cured of his Gamma power, and later still regained his power that he never should've lost in the first place (Thanks, Al Ewing!). Alas, he seems to have again fallen into the pit of unused characters, so it'll probably be another few years before we see him again.
Now, Donny Cates has stumbled onto yet another method of definitively stating on the record that Bruce Banner is a bad dad. Worse still, in order to do it he's victimizing the title character.
Follow: Bruce Banner has built an enormous mind palace and essentially terraformed the Hulk into a starship to traverse universes. And to do that, he's relegated the Hulk personality (not the multiple versions we just saw in Immortal Hulk, but rather some odd gestalt) to a glorified Danger Room right out of old X-Men comics. Rage makes the Hulk's body stronger, so Banner has created a VR simulation with various stages wherein the Hulk fights versions of his greatest foes, from Unlimited Armies in Stage 1, to a kaiju-sized Wolverine in Stage 3, to gods, demons, and worse the higher up one goes.What Cates makes transparently obvious from word one is that Banner is the Hulk's father, after a fashion. ("He's just a child," the Betty inside his head says, followed by, "You're hurting him.") What Banner's done by trapping him in the engine room and subjecting him to virtual battle after virtual battle amounts to child abuse.
|Yeah, Banner, he's just a kid!|
And as anybody who's read Hulk comics since 1985 knows, when you start with an abused child and add Gamma rays, you get the man-monster whose name adorns the cover. The Gamma rays are already there in abundance, and as I've addressed before, it's previously been hypothesized that the Hulk is "Banner's own internal defense mechanism, externalized." Hence, fresh trauma may result in the creation of a new personality and a new Hulk.
From reading Hulk #6 in April, the creation of a new personality and new Hulk seems to be exactly what's happened. That new Hulk is called Titan, and it stands at roughly 30 feet tall. And it came into existence when the same creature that overtook Banner's body in El Paso, which appeared in Banner's mindscape to both him and the Hulk, revealed it was the "Betty" on Starship Hulk's bridge. It referred to Banner as "son," as though perhaps it's another incarnation of Brian Banner (with whom the Hulk just made peace--again, in Immortal Hulk--and no, I'm still not letting it go) or just some entity trying to sound folksy. "Betty" exiled Bruce from the bridge and cranked the
Danger engine room to its highest setting, whereupon the Hulk personality inside becomes so agitated and traumatized that Titan is born. Right now, it doesn't look like the "Black Hulk" in Banner's mind and Titan are one and the same being, but I suppose anything--including an "Inception"-style birth, is possible in this realm where logic is at a lull and plot holes appear large enough for a Titan to crawl through.
Cates' obvious intent is to display that in trying to solve one problem--a Hulk that apparently took over Banner's body and made him kill--Banner has in fact created something much worse because he let his emotions overcome his rational mind. If only Banner had looked at the problem analytically--that is to say, if only he'd considered his several years of history co-existing with multiple Hulks--he might have devised a solution that spared him and anyone he may yet meet the wrath of Titan and whatever this other creature inside him is. But all that has happened herein is the reinforcement of what's become by now the tiredest of tropes: Bruce Banner isn't to be pitied, and he isn't to be identified with, because he's an evil person, unable to escape the shadow of the monstrous man with whom he shares half his DNA. Again and again, because it seemingly makes a good story in the eyes of writers who can't be bothered to try harder and do better, they make Bruce out to be the bad guy, a tortured soul far beyond his shared existence with the Hulk. Because a reasonably well-adjusted person who becomes a 7-foot-tall rage monster just isn't any fun to write about, I guess?
It's in many ways ironic that Marvel has spent the last three-and-a-half decades going in circles deciding whether or not Bruce Banner is as monstrous as his father. It's ironic because the question of whether Bruce Banner would abuse his own children really doesn't require the complex plot calisthenics of creating an evil future self or even artificially aging the children of his alter-ego. And it certainly doesn't require abusing the Hulk until he pops out a new, giant, ultra-evil personality that threatens to kill everybody.
All that's needed to answer the question of whether Bruce Banner is as wretched as his father, is to take a look at another character who's been there since The Incredible Hulk #1 back in 1962. Now a man, but back then a scrappy young kid, who looked upon him in every way that matters as a father figure. One whom he taught gifts of responsibility and whom he never forgot, whose path even still crosses with his own all these years later.
Of course I'm talking about Rick Jones, the Hulk's oldest sidekick and the kid most responsible for Banner's transformation on that fateful day on the Gamma bomb test site. Face it--if Bruce helped to raise a kid and has seen him through many years by now, and that kid has matured into a well-adjusted man who's befriended aliens, traveled throughout the universe, and even helped to end intergalactic wars--then I'd say he didn't do a bad job at all as a dad.
So can we all agree to back-burner all Bruce Banner's psychological trauma instead of heaping it on in great big Titan-sized gobs? I for one would love to see a writer accentuate and celebrate the positive aspects of Bruce: his intellect, his friendships, and finding redeeming qualities in the creature(s) with whom he shares an existence. It can be done, as the writers of the Hulk's long-lived 1970s TV show aptly demonstrated. Did you see a hint of psychological trauma there, or in any of the Hulk's animated incarnations, or even in the sum of his appearances throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
The last writer that deftly wrote a truly heroic Bruce Banner without delving too deeply into his more problematic psychology wasn't Al Ewing (the one criticism I have about his Immortal Hulk is that it never did give us a "whole" Bruce Banner) but rather Greg Pak, whose Bruce in The Incredible Hulk #601-635 (and especially #601-611) has set such a high watermark that I don't see it being equaled unless someone de-emphasizes all the horrific baggage that writers have added to him since Bill Mantlo (and/or Barry Windsor-Smith) introduced the abuse angle.
How about it, Marvel?