Review: Indestructible Hulk Vol. 1: Agent of SHIELD hardcover/paperback (Marvel Comics)

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at Hell Yeah '80s Marvel!]

Writing a Hulk comic book can be difficult because he is one of the rare heroes where his heroic identity and secret identity are truly two different people. Even though they share a body, Bruce Banner often does not remember what he did as the Hulk, which is a scary proposition considering what his alter ego is capable of.

Some writers combine Banner’s intelligence with the Hulk’s body; Peter David did this during his seminal run with both Grey Hulk and the “Professor” persona, and Greg Pak did it later in Planet Hulk and World War Hulk. All of those are excellent stories, but Mark Waid’s take in Indestructible Hulk: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. perhaps approaches the Banner/Hulk dynamic best of all.

Waid positions Indestructible Hulk as a book about Bruce Banner first and foremost; while the Hulk certainly does appear and has a number of great action scenes, he barely has any speech. Some might see this as undoing David and Pak’s work in creating a smart but angry Hulk, but most of the damage had already been done in Jeph Loeb’s Red Hulk stories and Jason Aaron’s bizarre misstep in splitting the Hulk in two and making Banner a supervillain. The “dumbing down” of the Hulk also has to do with the film portrayal; it’s simply too difficult right now to create a seamless, talking Hulk in convincing CGI, and most viewers know the Hulk mainly in his “savage” persona.

To make this new concept work, Waid takes away one of the driving themes of many Hulk stories in the past: Banner’s desire to get rid of his other half. Now he considers the Hulk a part of him rather than just a disease; instead of wasting resources on getting rid of it, he’s going to make the best use of his time as a monster. This is done, as the title of the trade implies, by working for S.H.I.E.L.D. as both a researcher and a weapon. Most of the time, he and his handpicked team discover new energy sources and create life-saving inventions. Should he turn into the Hulk in the process, S.H.I.E.L.D. can airlift him out and drop him onto an AIM base to wreak some havoc. The motif of a ticking clock is present throughout the first issue to drive the time-management concept home.

This new arrangement of more Banner and less Hulk also ties into Secret Avengers, Avengers Assemble: Science Bros and other Avengers stories. As I mentioned in that review, the “Science Bros” concept is a wonderful way to inject new life into Iron Man and the Hulk, and the second issue of Indestructible Hulk takes the concept further. The jealousy at the heart of their friendship is finally exposed, and considering all the crap Bruce Banner has been through during the last fifty years, you can understand why he wants to start over. It also reminds me of Waid’s Daredevil and Matt Murdock’s quest to change his life, and the connection is strengthened in the next volume with a team-up between Daredevil and the Hulk.

Even while Waid changes the Hulk’s characterization and status quo, he keeps up strong ties to the character’s past with the use of certain villains. The first issue pits the Hulk against the Mad Thinker, whose science-backed arrogance is his undoing, as usual. This fight takes place in Manchester, Alabama -- a name familiar for readers of Waid’s Impulse series. In the third issue, the Hulk takes on the Quintronic Man, which is easily one of the strangest versions of a piloted robot ever put on the page. Waid gets around resurrecting its pilots by having a new villain route his thought pattern through the pilots’ corpses in order to take over the robot. This is the first fight of the new Hulk against AIM, and it sets up the Hulk’s participation in Secret Avengers.

Issues four and five pit Hulk against a teammate of a sort, Attuma, who served alongside him as one of the Fearless in Fear Itself. This connection isn’t played up or even mentioned, but along with the overall swift pace of the story, I think the two-parter was cut down from a three-parter. A bit too much takes place off-panel and the Hulk’s Chinese and Lemurian allies never really get established. I think what happened is that the Hulk/Thor story starting in issue six, drawn by Walt Simonson, needed more space ... and if you’re going to get Simonson to draw Thor, you should give him as much room as he needs.

The art for Indestructible Hulk is provided by Leinil Francis Yu, with stylistic inks from Gerry Alanguilan and impressive colors from Sunny Gho. They’re so key to the look of the book that both are listed on the covers for issues four and five; it’s not often that the inker and colorist make the cover these days. Chris Eliopoulos devised a clever font for the book which grows in size when Banner Hulks out. There are moments when the book looks a bit blurry due to the computer-assisted art techniques, but that gets worked out quickly.

It’s rare for a thorough reinvention of a major Marvel character to be so impressive, but Mark Waid did the necessary work in Indestructible Hulk: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. to keep the Hulk relevant for years to come. Working for S.H.I.E.L.D. removes the common “indigent Banner” trope while opening up new opportunities for storytelling. Only the addition of Banner’s hovering robot assistant R.O.B. seems out of place, but I think even Waid dislikes the concept, as R.O.B. is barely present.

Add in the art from Yu, Alanguilan and Gho and you have a solid opening. The hardcover is, like all of the Marvel NOW hardcovers, far too overpriced for a five-issue collection, but definitely get the paperback or digital trade, especially because the next volume is even better. Meanwhile, next week we’ll look in on the Hulk and his new S.H.I.E.L.D. friends in Secret Avengers: Reverie.
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