Sometimes comics can be poetry; they can be works of art; they can be an allegory to a far greater statement used to illustrate the thoughts of their creators in a unique and beautiful medium.
But other times it’s just fun when people in colorful costumes punch each other and talk smack with lots of double page spreads.
However, to say just about any comic book story is just about the punching is a disservice to that story, as there’s generally—not always—something going on at a deeper level even when the surface is a popcorn movie. In my mind though, there’s certainly nothing wrong when the first level of fun is what sticks with you and you perhaps lose the sublevel context unless you’re re-reading; a well-executed fun comic is every bit as impressive as any other sort of achievement from where I sit.
Greg Pak and John Romita Jr.’s World War Hulk is the type of story I remember fondly as a fun comic with lots of punching. Pak had just told a year-long epic weaving science fiction with commentary on The Hulk’s inner identity and sense of self and managed to climax all that character work in a blockbuster that both showcased Romita’s proficiency for drawing the big fights as well as the emotional payoff for the build.
Within the larger event was the three-issue World War Hulk: X-Men limited series by Christos Gage and Andre Di Vito. Now just as the main event worked in pathos with the action, so too did this side story, with moral dilemmas playing a major role and the quiet moments of characterization standing out, but at the end of the day, I know my friend Christos Gage, and I believe he set out to tell the coolest “action figures come to life” romp he could with The Hulk fighting the X-Men—and he succeeded.
The gist of World War Hulk is that the Illuminati rocketed Hulk into space with the intention of sending him to a quiet planet where he would be happy and left alone, but instead he ended up on the war-town world of Sakaar; nonetheless, Hulk flourished on Sakaar, overthrowing a dictator, making friends and falling in love, but then a bomb he thinks the Illuminati placed on his ship detonated, killing most of the populace—including his new wife and their unborn child—so he heads back to Earth with what remains of his army and declares war on the dudes who sent him into space to begin with.
The gist of World War Hulk: X-Men is that Professor X wasn’t at the Illuminati meeting where they made the whole “send Hulk into space” call, but Hulk wants to find out how he would have voted had he been there, and he’ll beat the crap out of every X-Man to get his answer straight from the source and then decide his response.
The first issue has Hulk crashing the X-Mansion where Professor X and Beast are hanging out with the New X-Men while the adults are all off on a mission. One of many cool/smart moves Gage does with this series is structures the whole thing like a boxing/wrestling card with the undercard stuff gradually building excitement to the main event. In this case, the opening bout is the inexperienced and outclassed New X-Men going up against the strongest force in the Marvel Universe and getting their plucky butts kicked, but not before dishing out some decent shots like X-23 kicking Hulk in the eye with one of her toe blades. It also gives Xavier a chance to agonize over yet another mistake coming back to haunt him—this came right on the heels of the double reveal that he created Danger and concealed the existence of Vulcan and the rest of the second class of X-Men—and his most innocent students suffering as a result.
By the end of issue one, the first cavalry arrives in the form of the Astonishing X-Men cast: Cyclops, Wolverine, Colossus, Emma Frost and Kitty Pryde. At this point, Xavier is ready to surrender, lest more of his protégés suffer, but Cyclops and Emma, showing signs of their growing independence from the Professor, tell him that’s not happening—they’re pissed at him for lots of stuff, but only they get to punish him for it—and we’re set for the next round.
This would be a good time to mention how perfect Andrea Di Vito’s art is for this story. His figures are smooth and exaggerated in the right way for super hero comics, even more so super hero comics with lots of fighting with fists flying, claws popping and energy blasts of every shape, size and color being tossed around. As he showed in Annihilation, Di Vito knows how to choreograph the visual aspect of a massive battle beautifully and also how to bring a large cast to life, two musts for this series. Di Vito’s art perfectly walks that line of intensity and fun with some brutality mixed in for effect, and it’s exactly what Gage’s script calls for here.
So with the second issue we get into the big ticket battles in earnest, as Hulk has some actual competition, and said competition continues to expand as the smashing continues and more X-Men—including Nightcrawler, Warpath, Darwin and Hepzibah—along with X-Factor get conscripted into service. You’ve got to love—or at least I do—how Gage doesn’t just go for the easy route of fan service taking all the toys out of the toy box and then putting all the work on Di Vito to just make an eternally neat premise come to life; he actually thinks out the fights and comes up with some genuinely clever twists. I dig how he solves the issue of Darwin, the mutant who evolves to face any threat, by having his power determine the best way to protect him is teleport him to Connecticut, thus taking him out of the fight.
Given their history, Wolverine and Hulk obviously get some significant screen time, although I’m once again impressed on how this creative team is able to push quality over quantity and not let this battle take away from any other in terms of real estate. Di Vito proves up to the task of depicting the requisite grisliness of Logan slicing up his most unbeatable foe and two guys with mega healing factors going to town, but my main kudos goes to another thinking man’s twist by Gage as to the resolution of the fracas—and I am of course going to spoil it here—as he has Hulk rattle Wolverine around by the head, reasoning that even though he can heal real quick from physical wounds, the brain damage caused by squishy gray matter inside an Adamantium skull is a lot tougher to bounce back from.
Another deserving character who gets a nice spotlight here is Colossus, the X-Men’s resident strong man and the Marvel Universe power broker who generally gets left out of the discussion when folks debate their Hulk vs Thor vs Thing battles. Peter Rasputin has a nice showing that focuses on how even though he’s no match for The Hulk—or probably any of those guys—from a pure power perspective, his heart and how much he cares about his friends keeps him in the game; it doesn’t stop him from getting brutally dispatched and having his metal arms broken backwards, but it keeps him in the game for a bit.
On that score, World War Hulk: X-Men is in a lot of ways about Christos Gage giving every X-Man across the board of power and popularity their turn to shine even if it’s in the smallest way, and it’s neat to see that kind of instant credibility a character can receive by lasting even a couple panels with The Hulk—and indeed Gage makes sure to impress upon us that is a big deal.
The Hong Kong action movie style you’d see in a Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan flick where the bad guys attack one at a time to give the star a chance to show off their moves is what Gage employs here with the X-Men as the henchmen, but in this case he manages to use the fight tableaus to give both combatants cool moments. Warpath gets to do a little slicing and dicing with his Vibranium knives before getting swatted away. Monet actually stands toe-to-toe for a bit. Strong Guy nearly gets the job done before being undone by the inherent limitations of his own power. Hepzibah uses the Blackbird as a lawn dirt. And Jamie Madrox gets to hold his own in a verbal spar with Emma Frost.
Nobody gets to shine like The Juggernaut though.
If you know Christos Gage or have ever read an interview with him, you know that he has his particular passion characters, among them Union Jack, Devil Dinosaur, Red Ronin and in particular The Juggernaut. He’s a pro, but he’s also a fanboy, and he’s a dude who loves seeing Juggernaut being big, bad, and crushing everything in his unstoppable path. By the time World War Hulk rolled around, Juggernaut had spent a couple of years at diminished power levels and on the side of angels; when he got his turn at bat, Gage decided to take a swing at bringing back the character he loved but without having to disrespect any work that had come before in the process.
In the second issue of World War Hulk: X-Men, Cain Marko makes a plea to his patron, Cyttorak, to amp his powers back up, ostensibly so he can rescue his half-brother, Professor X, from The Hulk, but ends up getting dropped into the action still at half-strength then stomped. Cyttorak wants his avatar back to being vicious, and realizing on some level that’s what he wants as well, Cain agrees to go back to being a badass, armoring back up and giving The Hulk a real run for his money. Gage scripts the Hulk-Juggernaut smackdown with glee while Di Vito brings his amped up A-game to bear on the comic book equivalent of slamming two locomotives together over and over. It’s a great fight, but perhaps more importantly it allowed Gage to add some edge back to Juggernaut without overwriting his years as a decent dude, placing some acknowledged internal struggle between the character’s desire to better and deeply held love for mayhem.
Without completely spoiling the ending—even with all I’ve already given away, you should still absolutely check this out for the stuff I haven’t plus the great art—the ultimate resolution comes from a fairly unlikely source and in a way that leaves the story without any real winners, a parallel to the larger story of World War Hulk.
Fitting the X-Men into larger events has been a tricky proposition since the days of Secret Wars, as they’re so vast and such an overwhelming presence that bringing them in without making the story all about them can be tough. Their co-star billing alongside the Avengers in House of M pretty much shoved everybody else out of the picture, while I can’t picture the main threads of Infinity Gauntlet, Civil War, Secret Invasion and so on holding up as solidly with a few dozen mutants crowding the picture. Off-to-the side stories that have value and make the X-Men part of the bigger happenings are always welcome and that’s what Gage and Di Vito give us here.
They also created a story I remembered as fun and then came to see as darn clever upon reflection, so well done all around.