[28 May 2014]
Mark Waid’s run as the chronicler of the Hulk’s adventures is quickly coming to an end. The next issue, #4, will be his last. He is to be replaced by Gerry Duggan in August. This news comes very early in the latest re-launch of the book. Waid wrote 20 issues of the previously titled Indestructible Hulk and was just beginning a new direction for the character with the newly titled and renumbered Hulk. It is doubtful that things will now proceed as he had planned for the character.
Waid’s work on Indestructible Hulk had a lot going for it, even if many of the stories never seemed to live up to their potential. The setup was promising. Bruce Banner finally came to the realization that the Hulk was indestructible and that there was no way that he was ever going to be cured of his monstrous transformations. Instead of spending his time chasing after the impossible, Banner now thought of his condition as a chronic illness, like diabetes; not something to be cured but something to be managed. With that in mind, he offered his services to S.H.I.E.L.D. The spy agency could use the Hulk as a weapon against their enemies. In exchange, they would provide Banner with all the resources he needed to conduct top-flight research for the good of humanity. Hulk smashes; Banner builds.
The scenario was a good one. For the first time in a long time Banner seemed in charge of his destiny, like a hero rather than a victim. Perhaps the idea was to make Banner more like his character in the The Avengers movie as portrayed by Mark Ruffalo, a match for Tony Stark in brilliance and self-motivation, if not charisma. If so, it mostly worked. Issues #9 and 10, in which Banner teams up with Daredevil, are particularly effective at establishing Banner’s character and at making Banner himself heroic.
Unfortunately, what Waid gave to the character by revamping his Banner-half and placing him in a new and more proactive setting, he took away from the Hulk. Waid’s Hulk seldom speaks. He is a menacing, terrifying, monstrous force of nature, but one without personality and pathos. Of course, the Hulk has had many incarnations through the years, some more verbose than others, so Waid’s version is certainly not without precedent. Perhaps with a renewed emphasis on Banner’s character, his contrast with the Hulk would have been something that, over time, paid off. (I personally prefer Hulk’s dialogue to be written as if he were a four-year-old child, a version of Hulk that I recognize is hated by many Hulk fans.)
Unfortunately, everything changed with the transition from Indestructible Hulk to Hulk. I don’t know whether or not the new storyline would have allowed Banner to continue his relationship with S.H.I.E.L.D., but probably not. In interviews, Waid seemed to indicate that the new title was reflective of a new direction for the character. In any event, the first two issues of the new run have not seemed very promising. Banner, shot in the back of the head by unknown assailants, Hulked out during surgery and before all of the crucial repairs to his brain could be made. Consequently, when Banner resurfaced it was with his cognitive abilities greatly impaired. Gone was the brilliant scientist and burgeoning hero of Indestructible Hulk. Instead Banner was now severely brain-damaged, twice the victim he was before Waid revitalized him.
Now, something like this has been done before. (Nothing is ever really new in the world of comic books.) Banner was first shot in the head way back in the Lee/Kirby years (Tales to Astonish #69-73). In that instance, the bullet remained lodged in his brain so that Banner was forced to stay in his Hulk version, fearful that if he reverted back to normal he would die. Even though the Lee/Kirby-Hulk was a lot more intelligent and talkative than the Waid-Hulk, Lee and Kirby made a good decision to imbue their gunshot-victim-Hulk with Banner’s personality. For the multi-issue story arc, Banner’s intellect was in Hulk’s body. In Waid’s case, however, we were left with a raging, destructive, non-verbal Hulk and a Banner who was almost equally impaired. Banner was back to being a victim, even worse off than before.
That is not to say that issue #3 is not a good issue, however. Things start to look up a bit for Banner, and the Hulk’s battles with the reanimated corpse of Abomination are rendered magnificently by Bagley. But it is telling that the best scenes are not ones that involve the Hulk or Banner. The issue is, instead, carried along by S.H.I.E.L.D. director Maria Hill and the visiting Avengers. (Despite the cover by Jerome Opena and Dean White, Hawkeye is not one of the guest stars. Nor does Hulk wear his Hulk armor. But I suppose mistakes like that happen, especially when a book is in transition.) The final panel is also pretty great. But, once again, we are left with a Hulk book in which the guest stars, villains, and supporting cast are more interesting than the main characters. Here’s hoping that Duggan will remedy the situation by following up on Waid’s rehabilitation of Banner in the Indestructible Hulk while imbuing his alter-ego with a bit more personality as well.