The Cinema King]
In the midst of a universe-wide reboot over at the Distinguished Competition, I wanted to check in with Marvel and see if I ought to jump on board any of their titles, too (as if I'm not not already spending too much on comics every week). I won't deny that the advent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has led me to dive into Marvel comics, and the appearance of a few creators I recognize from my life with DC made Red Hulk seem as good a place as any to begin.
There are only two things you need to know about the first volume of Jeph Loeb's collaboration with Ed McGuinness on Hulk: there's a new Red Hulk in town, and he's about to fight with as many Marvel characters as he can in the six issues collected in Red Hulk. After Abomination is murdered, apparently by a gun-toting Incredible Hulk, General Thunderbolt Ross and Leonard "Doc" Samson discover that Bruce Banner hasn't escaped captivity since his rampage in World War Hulk.
Enter the Red Hulk, Abomination's true murderer and the Marvel Universe's "Most Wanted" for a six-issue slugfest with Iron Man, Thor, The Thing, and even Uatu the Watcher -- before Bruce Banner "hulks out" and takes on his new nemesis.
I came to this title with Jeph Loeb as a favorite writer but the Hulk as one of my least favorite Marvel characters (blame two lackluster feature films in the last decade). In fairness, I've never read a Hulk comic book beyond the six Loeb volumes and Loeb's collaboration with Tim Sale on Hulk: Grey, not even the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby issues. The good news about Red Hulk is that I didn't need to. Loeb starts a new storyline with a new status quo (and a new #1 -- there's a bit of that going around on my comics reading list) and doesn't get bogged down in story-stopping continuity.
There's no question Red Hulk takes place in a larger universe, with an unfamiliar Avengers team and allusions to past storylines like Civil War, but Loeb smartly boils this Hulk story down to what every Hulk story has at its core -- large creatures brawling for pages at a time with stilted grammar.
To this end, Loeb is helped greatly by Ed McGuinness, whose exaggerated muscleman style is a natural fit for a Hulk story -- especially one with two Hulks. While his DC work (Superman/Batman, JLA Classified) was fun and cartoony, McGuinness is perfectly suited for drawing the Hulk, and now his unique style feels complementary rather than just entertaining. Not to slight colorist Jason Keith, but McGuinness does a solid job differentiating between Hulk and Red Hulk.
McGuinness's work with the other Marvel characters here isn't bad, either; his Iron Man and Thing have personality even behind their well-established looks, his Uatu channels Kirby without plagiarizing, and his Thor is as regal as he is intimidating. McGuinness is given plenty of double-page spreads to let his titanic juggernauts duke it out, and not a one of them disappoints.
Unfortunately, Red Hulk is filled with double-page spreads and wordless clobbering to the point that, despite being six issues long, the main story feels a little light. By the end, Red Hulk has smacked around everyone in sight, but even Hulk leaves the unconscious Red Hulk unattended -- a serious problem considering the whole story was about catching a murderer. The whole excursion feels like a popcorn movie, which isn't actually a bad thing. Red Hulk is a fun and entertaining read, but it's not (pardon the pun) terribly hard-hitting. This is quite clearly an opening salvo in a much larger story, and at this point the story is firing on all cylinders for excitement but remains a little light on content.
Taking a backseat to the action of Red Hulk is the ongoing mystery of the Red Hulk's true identity. At no point can the reader forget that Jeph Loeb is also the author of DC mystery mainstays The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, with red herrings and significant clues sprinkled throughout Red Hulk. Unfortunately, I had the identity of the Red Hulk spoiled for me long before I even bought this book (a spoiler I won't disclose until the sixth and final volume's review), but that made the reading experience a little more fun.
Knowing the who and not the how, I got a little more bang out of the red herrings Loeb throws in, trying to puzzle through them rather than simply scratching names off a list of potential suspects. To any reader, the identity of the Red Hulk should be fairly obvious, but when Loeb puts Red Hulk and the prime suspect in a room together, you have to wonder on what level you're being tricked. This act of "puzzling through" made Red Hulk more than just a mindless slugfest for me -- not that a mindless slugfest drawn by Ed McGuinness wouldn't be fun in and of itself.
The collection is padded out with two features of note. First, a Wolverine/Hulk story by Loeb and McGuinness that retells the infamous first meeting between the jolly green giant and Canada's own mutant. This story has no connection to Red Hulk at large and adds little to the relationship between these two characters; it's just one more opportunity to McGuinness to draw big men beating each other up, but it's done well with a curious allusion to the Ultimate Marvel Universe thrown in for good measure. The other feature is more entertaining, a few Tiny Titans-style "Mini Marvels" shorts written by Loeb's daughter Audrey, with three young Hulks (Red, Blue, and Green) in absurd but delightful comic scenarios involving zoos, finger paints, and swimming pools.
All told, Red Hulk was a good "first" experience for me, an easing into the Marvel waters with familiar creators and a new original storyline which has me hooked for the next volume.
To paraphrase our gamma-irradiated friend, "Zach satisfied!" Up next, Hulk goes to Vegas in search of the Wendigo while Red Hulk has his crimson keister handed to him by Marvel's loveliest ladies.