I remember reading the third issue of The Incredible Hulk sometime after the New year broke, and immediately things plateaued. Well, maybe not immediately. But there was definitely something there, something so good that made it hard to go to this fantastic Island-of-Dr.-Moreau-style Hulk where the Hulk himself was made to war against Banner. By December, Incredible Hulk had already had three issues under its belt. And Defenders was just at issue one. Defenders was everything I could hope it would be. It was every bit as postmodern as the original Defenders of Steve Gerber and David Anthony Kraft that I had missed by decades. And it seemed to be able to go the distance that “the Return of the Defenders” storyarc that crossed over four Annuals in 1992 had failed to do. With everything else in December, there was just about enough jello-time left over for Defenders. Incredible Hulk, the other reboot title that so enthralled me during the Epilogue sequences in the final issue of Fear Itself, would just have to wait until January. And it did. And then I hit the cliff.
The traction set in almost at on page two. Could Jason really pull off a sustained, focused thematic around the characterization he made so explicit on that first page. The Hulk as a victim of Banner’s abuse, what an amazing reorientation. “No matter how strong I got, he was always there to make us weak again,” Jason writes, not for Banner, but for Hulk speaking of Banner. Even if you’ve never heard these words spoken to you or around you, you know they’re the words of a victim of the worst kind of abuse. The words of a person beaten back into the worst kind of victimhood, one where they’re psychologically dominated before they can ever raise their hands to reach for help.
It was such a strong opening, but it was also a poor gambit to open an issue with such a show of strength. How much different might this single issue have been had Hulk’s meditation on his relation to Banner been seeded slowly throughout the issue? Arguably this could have been one of the strongest single issues of the year. But you can’t always be predictive of what might come, and with a writer of Jason’s caliber, you’re almost always more engaged by the wider arc of the stories being told, than by any one misstep. So even with Incredible Hulk having plateaued at issue #3, it’s not a title you let go of easily. Not really, not at all.
But issue #6 comes back from this in such a truly amazing way, every page between issue #3 and this one seems to have been worth the wait. On the surface of it, Jason still plows the highly fertile soil of mysterious-island-scifi. This is the highly familiar at play—we all know the Dr. Moreau story well, mad-scientist-colonizes-an-entire-island-and-begins-gruesome-genetic-experimentation. We know the territory so well, it’s become a vibrant sub-genre within the folds of scifi. It’s the sub-genre I secretly hoped for when I heard the first rumors of “Spider Island” early Summer last year—that writer Dan Slott would secretly move Spidey to some distant, subtropical somewhere that would pit him against the Jackal’s loathsome human experiments.
This was not to be of course, Dan instead tapped the inner, vigorous dynamic of social media to craft the finest kind of tale about the spread of an infection. A tale that played out not on some distant subtropical somewhere, but one that played out on the most hyper-urbanized island in the world… Manhattan. And yet, there’s enough of this mad-scientist-island genre at play for us to recognize “Spider Island” for the genre and sub-genre it truly is. With Incredible Hulk, with this current arc “Hulk vs. Banner” and particularly with this current issue of “…And Only One Shall Smash!”, Jason Aaron gets to that tipping point again, as he did once before on the first page of issue #3. But this time he actually transitions to the far side of story.
In Jason’s hands, this isn’t simply the mad-scientist-mysterious-island genre, this is Philip K. Dick, this is William Gibson, this is scifi tempered and refined and crafted into a tool. The mad-scientist-mysterious-island genre is just the entryway, the thing that gets you in, and gets you comfortably situated. The real drama of the story here is how Jason is able to untangle (in the space of just 20-some-such pages), both Thomas Hobbes’ classic meditation on political philosophy Leviathan, and Professor Timothy Taylor’s treatise on techno-material evolution, The Artificial Ape.
Jason’s finally transcended the tipping point, finally transitioned as issue #3 seemed to promise he would. And like the scifi of PKD which is primarily about the psychology of perception, surveillance and knowing, or the scifi of Gibson which is primarily about this strange Faustian pact we’ve entered into with both technology and subcultures, Jason’s scifi is a tool to speak of greater things, rather than a retracing of the generic conventions of science fiction.
I use the term “a classic of political philosophy” in strictly its technical sense, as Hobbes’ Leviathan is abhorrent. It is the purest, most sincere, most well-reasoned defense of fascism ever conceived. There’s a cold, ugly beauty to its clear logical structure, like a psychopath convincing you its preferable you sell yourself into slavery. But whatever beauty can be found in the book’s argumentation, is undone by the loathsome conclusions. If there’s An Enemy, it’s this book that would compromise the freedoms fought for and won during the War of Independence.
The argument goes something like this. Human senses extend the human into the natural world. The natural world therefore becomes a kind of public good. But that’s only how we lay claim to the natural and the fabricated world. How do we secure our own claims above the equally-merited claims of our fellow humans? By the exercise of violence. This creates a specific condition, a war of each against all, or bellum omnium contra omnes in the Latin that Hobbes himself uses. It is only in surrendering your rights to the Leviathan (the Monarch whose power comes not from the divine, but is an aggregate of all individual human power), that this condition of perpetual war might be suspended.
This issue’s opening meditation by the Hulk himself (running two pages this time), is not only a recapturing of bellum omnium contra omnes, but a playing out of this condition at the level of inner psychology. Banner and the Hulk, the scientist and the unforeseen mutation of science are locked into a perpetual cycle of bellum omnium. But for Jason, works of classical political philosophy are just the beginning. The real drama that unfolds in these pages is the drama of how Jason frames the debate. How he as writer, guides us as readers from political philosophy to evolutionary psychology. By page nine already we get to the evolutionary psychology, and after a few cut-scenes, we loop back to the unfolding drama by page 17.
The backstory here is Timothy Taylor’s The Artificial Ape, which is perhaps the clearest, most well-structured, most accessible theory on how humans have become the most successful species in the history of species on this planet. The argument is simple. We haven’t really evolved alone. We’ve co-evolved with our technology. In truth, it’s our technology (like reading glasses, say) that has allowed us to resist and ultimately invert the traditional evolutionary dynamo of natural selection.
Nature always selects for the fittest, strongest, best-suited to the current environment. Co-evolving with technology means we’ve been able to select for the weakest (like those with poor eyesight, say). But it’s this technological support for the weakest that has provided wholly unprecedented sciences (eyeglasses gives us the science of optics and color, gives us telescopes and eventually spaceflight, gives us microscopes and germ theory and eventually antibiotics).
When Whilce Portacio illustrates the contestation between Banner and the Hulk, where one panel is a caption-box of Banner’s wordy description of his science-fictional weapon, and the very next is Hulk’s equally elegant “Smash!”, we’re cued into both bellum omnium contra omnes and Taylor’s notion of techno-materialist evolution. Because as we’ve already established in issue #3, Hulk, despite his raw power, is really the weakling in this situation.
It’s purely beautiful to watch these ideas cascade through the pages of the final part of “Hulk vs. Banner”. But what’s even more beautiful is how very skillfully Jason resists the actual story being overwhelmed by this highly evolved idea—architecture. Because, at the end of the day, the deeper question here is, after all of this, will there still be a Hulk who can Smash?