Sean Maher's Quality Control

Monday, June 19, 2006

Hulk: Gray

I read a number of solid books last week. Among them was the trade collection for Hulk: Gray, the most recent of the "color" series that Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale did for Marvel.



Loyal readers will remember that Hulk is, maybe, my favorite of Marvel's super-heroes. Largely, I think this is because Hulk is not a hero, at all. He's a child, a dangerous one, as given to lashing out in anger and accidentally harming his own loved ones as he is to accidentally finding himself on the "good guy" side of a brawl against the Abomination.

Somehow, this makes the Hulk a more personal character for me than, say, Captain America. The Hulk is a very psychological, emotionally-driven character concept. Bruce Banner lives with the constant fear that his emotions will become stronger than he can control rationally, something I think a lot of us can identify with; how many mistakes have we made in our lives, at just those times when we allowed our emotions reign over our reason? "You always hurt the ones you love," that sort of thing. At the same time, those moments when your heart is beating out of your chest and you're feeling something so strongly you don't even understand it... well, sometimes that's the best part of life. The delirium of feeling is a euphoria no drug can match, and it's often when we release control of that feeling that we really begin to experience life in the most rewarding ways.

And that's the real tragedy behind the character; Banner is a man of strong emotions ranging from love to anger to guilt to loneliness and more, but he's found himself leading a life where acknowledging those emotions, letting them anywhere near the surface, will literally turn him into a monster. And it's this aspect of the character I think Loeb and Sale really knock out of the park in Hulk: Gray, easily the best Hulk story I've read since Peter David's Hulk: The End one-shot several years ago (which, incidentally, is being reprinted this week in Giant-Size Hulk #1). In one particularly powerful (and strikingly quiet) scene, Hulk sits alone atop a rocky cliff in the desert holding a small rabbit, smiling softly and petting it with his finger. He thinks of the rabbit as his friend and knows, if only for a few minutes, the calmness and peace he's always wanted. But in showing his affection for the animal, he crushes its skull with his finger. "Ross say Hulk am monster. HULK NOT MONSTER!" he cries, smashing the cliff beneath him in his anger and grief.

It's heartbreaking, and it highlights another character element Loeb explores here: we've all heard Hulk saying for years that all he wants is to be left alone. But this isn't really true; Hulk wants company, companionship. In an extended scene between Hulk and Betty Ross (the highlight and emotional climax of the series), he struggles to understand why she's so upset. "Hulk protect Betty," he tells her, with no idea that it's his own actions that are terrorizing her. Of course, it's just as she's broken his heart by telling him so that General Ross shows up with guns blazing, and we see another facet of the Banner/Hulk tragedy: even when Banner falls apart and the Hulk comes out to give form and catharsis to his emotions, he still fails to achieve intimacy with anyone around him. Hulk screams into the thunder and rain that all he wants is to be left alone, but what we're realizing as his audience is that in his anger and rejection, he's confused the truth: Hulk doesn't want to be left alone. Hulk is alone. And because he is, by design, Banner's invulnerable and strong side - "Nothing can hurt Hulk," he tells Betty in a chilling moment - he forces the tables to turn, making his alienation a demand rather than a disappointment.

All of this is part of the basic Hulk concept, it seems, but I've not often thought about it in such specific terms; part of the strength of Loeb's script and Sale's haunting facial expressions is distilling these often neglected aspects of the character, and reducing the story to the bare elements needed to expose why the character should matter to the reader. It's a stylistic choice they've used on all the other "color" books as well (looking at Peter Parker's natural melancholy in Spider-Man: Blue and Matt Murdock's complex relationship to fear and failure in Daredevil: Yellow), but it's in fullest form here, making Hulk: Gray the most successful book in the series yet.

There's plenty of Hulk smashing and gorgeous Tim Sale layouts and character designs to talk about as well (why hasn't anyone ever given Hulk such ugly teeth before?), but you hardly need me to tell you about that, do you?

2 Comments:

  • At 8:28 AM, Blogger zilla said…

    Glad you got to this sean... i actually pulled it off the shelf and re-read it after your post. the hulk is my fav mainstream marvel character too, and there's been some BAD hulk lately... but hulk: gray is very, very good IMO. as a matter of fact i enjoyed most all of loeb and sale's color series (daredevil: yellow especially)... you can even through in superman: for all seasons (though it's DC it's basically superman's "color" book).

     
  • At 11:32 AM, Blogger Sean Maher said…

    Yeah, Hulk hasn't really been very good for a long time. I'm enjoying Planet Hulk reasonably well, but I wish we were seeing a little more Banner in there. Taking away the alter-ego aspect of the character is kinda crippling. Don't get me wrong - I think Pak is the best writer the book has had in a long time - but I sure hope the whole thing isn't just a big adventure story. The identity crisis issue is just too good a part of the character.

    And I think you're right about Loeb/Sale. That's an amazing partnership - I don't think Loeb ever writes for other artists as well as he does for Sale, and while I think their DC work has, on the whole, been stronger than their Marvel work (DD: Yellow felt too much like a do-over of Miller/Romita's "Man Without Fear" to me), I always look forward to their projects together.

     

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