In the mid ‘80s, Batman stopped being fun. Suddenly, everything was dark and deadly serious. Frank Miller was, of course, to blame. The one-two punch of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One forever recalibrated the character, simultaneously taking Batman back to his roots and setting his course for the future. Miller’s worked shaped the way that Batman has been portrayed in both comic books and movies for the last thirty years.
From my vantage point as a high school/college kid during the time of Miller’s ascendance, I found all that darkness both attractive and off-putting. I liked, and still like, the grown-up black-and-gray Batman that Miller brought to the fore. But, I confess, I sometimes enjoy my Batman in primary colors, with a grinning wise-cracking Robin at his side.
For a moment, for a few months in the winter of ‘86 and the spring of ‘87, it seemed unclear which version of Batman would become established. Between the publication of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, Alan Davis and Mike Barr produced some thoroughly entertaining Batman and Robin stories for Detective Comics. The heroes battled Catwoman, the Joker, the Scarecrow and the Mad Hatter; they teamed up with Sherlock Holmes; they slugged it out with the villains while balancing on oversized pool balls; they made corny jokes; they were, as the Dynamic Duo have always been when they are at their best, both dangerous and amusing. Batman’s smile sometimes seemed genuinely warm, at other times like the grin of the devil himself, like a darker version of the Joker’s ruby-lipped, toothy terror. Davis’ Batman was a little scary, and a lot of fun.
I loved it; but it didn’t last. Batman: Year One appeared to critical acclaim; Barr and Davis were assigned to the less-than-perfect “Batman: Year Two”; and the darkness fell. And, as much as I have come to accept the darker Batman forged by Miller, Klaus Janson and David Mazzucchelli as THE Batman, I have always kept Alan Davis’ grinning hero in the back of my mind, always found a place for it in my idea of who and what Batman is.
Now, while my relationship with the Hulk is decidedly less complex than my relationship with Batman (and whose isn’t?), I have recently found myself feeling about the Hulk the way that I have often felt about Batman, as if everything has just gotten too dark, too serious, too broken. This was particularly true in the last few issues of Mark Waid’s run on Hulk. Bruce Banner had a gunshot wound to the head and a resulting debilitating brain injury; the Abomination was a reanimated corpse; the Hulk barely spoke, was nothing more than a raging brute, violence personified.
And then, once again, there is Alan Davis.
For two issues now of Savage Hulk I have not only enjoyed reading about the big, green brute, I have also been having fun. It helps that the story is set way-back in the past of the Marvel Universe, as a sequel to X-Men #66. The X-Men have followed their own dark paths since then, but little of that is evident here: Iceman cracks wise, Cyclops leads with authority, Beast has big feet and no fur, Jean is powerful but innocent, Angel is ineffective. It is just like old times.
Davis’ story moves along at a brisk pace, reminiscent of those Lee-Kirby stories of old. The X-Men battle Abomination with ice slides, psychic defenses and precisely targeted optic blasts. Then the Hulk battles Abomination and says just what the reader is thinking: “Big talk. Abomination is all big talk. . . . Hulk is the strongest one of all.” The army almost messes everything up, but doesn’t, in the end. The Leader plots from the background. Xavier is wise but meddlesome. Bruce is filled with pathos, but not pathetic; he is remorseful, yet witty.
This is fun. It is serious, exciting, thrilling, substantial, but fun, the way comic books used to be when they were at their best. (The only thing that seems amiss, that marks the story as a product of this age and not of that one, is the brevity of the narrative; there are too few pages and too few panels per page. A story that would have occupied a single issue in the past will take four to tell by today’s standards. Sigh.)
What really makes Savage Hulk #2 a success is Davis’ art. Like his work on Detective Comics way back when, this is a refreshing change from all the darkness. Then, his bright and lean Batman was a contrast to Miller’s hulking grey-and- black hero; now, his classically muscled Hulk is a nice change from the veined-muscle-look of recent incarnations. This Hulk is big and he is powerful, but he is not ugly; he is savage but not ferocious; he is incredible.
Davis is part- Neal Adams, part Jim Aparo, but more fun and primal than either. He is a master of the realistic cartoon. His lean figures are anatomically correct, but vibrant in a way that no real human ever could be. His work borders on the frivolous, the comical, the cartoony, but seldom crosses that line. There is light here, and color, but darkness when it is needed: witness the close-up on Hulk’s eyes, the shadows that fall across Banner’s face. (Matt Hollingsworth’s colors are exquisitely complementary. These pages are, as they should be, awash in greens: Hulk green, Abomination green, Marvel Girl green, Leader green, Army green, gamma green.)
Not that this is a perfect Hulk story. It does not break new ground. It does not raise important issues. It does not plumb the heart of the characters. But, frankly, who cares?