Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hulk in Space

I’d wager when asked to picture The Hulk—a bizarre request in everyday life, but totally par for the course if you’re reading this blog, I imagine—most of you flash to a desert or shattered cityscape as your setting, the big guy having either leapt into scene or just finished demolishing an opponent and probably lots of property. Cinematic and television portrayals of the character tend to point him towards either heavily urban areas rife for destruction or the calm of nature for moments of reflection that play against the beast’s violent existence.

It’s interesting to note then that while the default locale for The Hulk would be against concrete or sand, many of the best—and my favorite—stories starring him take place in the far reaches of outer space.

In its way, Planet Hulk is more of a gladiator story, at home on the same shelf as Conan or, well, Gladiator, but science fiction trappings play a pivotal role. Even if Hulk and his Warbound are swinging axes or maces at one another in a sparse arena, technology drives the story, beyond just the explanation of enslavement or means for the villain’s power, but also as bookends that drive the story to and from Sakaar. That The Hulk is an alien unbalances the setting and sets up revolution, but the notions he introduces coupled with the very technology that accompanied him literally and figuratively blow up this exotic setting.

The presence of a diverse cast that varies not just in character but their very species, from the familiar Brood to the races dreamt up by Greg Pak and his conspirators, sits at the core of Planet Hulk. As Pak has said many times, Planet Hulk—and his indeed his entire run with The Hulk—is largely about a monster finding his place and that there’s somewhere for everybody to belong; that Bruce Banner needs to travel light years and associate with bugs who walk like men to find his was a great tale to tell, and the gaining and losing of this enriched the overall lore.

It also doesn’t hurt that when you move The Hulk out of the desert and away from the familiar tanks and soldiers out into the galaxy where he’s got giant space monsters and elaborate robots to smash, it’s a lot of fun; there is an inner depth to the character, certainly, but an outward joy in his appeal as active protagonist as well.

One of my personal favorite Hulk yarns from my beloved Peter David era was “The Troyjan War,” a mid-90’s mini-epic illustrated by Gary Frank that had Banner and the Pantheon journey to the heart of an interstellar empire to save one of their own from a forced marriage. It was during the “Smart Hulk” era and as such while it shared a setting—albeit a vast and multifaceted one—with Planet Hulk, it was a very different kind of space saga.

Among the many beauties of PAD’s “Professor Hulk” was that he could recognize the absurdity of certain situations, even if that didn’t necessarily mean he would do much to combat said absurdity (like when he had the giant gun and the bunny slippers during “War and Pieces”). When it came to “Troyjan War,” Banner felt out of his element as a guy who solved most problems via punching when he got stuck floating through the cosmos or on the verge of that situation when in space stations he could not cut loose in lest he risk losing gravity’s sweet embrace. PAD and Frank made the most of this for laughs and sight gags, as they so often expertly did, whether it was Hulk sitting on the Silver Surfer’s board to hitch a ride or the goofy visual of him in a giant space suit. There were hard-hitting emotional elements to “Troyjan War” that I would delve deeper into were this post solely about that story, but as with all the crème de la crème of the PAD run, that didn’t stop it from being funny as well.

Speaking of The Silver Surfer, he’s a guest star in both Planet Hulk and “Troyjan War,” as well of course as a recurring ally of the Hulk’s in the Defenders. The Surfer and The Hulk make for an interesting pair as both are displaced “others,” generally separated from the ones they love and lost in exile, though one represents extreme introspection and the other impotent rage at their respective imprisonments. The Surfer’s most noteworthy estrangements from happiness place him physically far from home, whereas the Hulk’s don’t always put literal distance between him and what he wants so much as emotional degrees, making it interesting when the latter does experience the former’s dilemmas in stories like the ones mentioned. They’re similar in some respects, opposite in others and good foils for one another.

I’m not as familiar with the classic Hulk stories set in Jarella’s world or the Bill Mantlo “Crossroads” stuff, but while I know they take place in other dimensions rather than outer space, there’s certainly a common ground there. From what I’ve gathered, in both cases and a lot of others, it’s the Hulk’s durability as a character that can move between genres and landscapes with relative ease given how his demeanor and language is fairly adaptable, that makes him ideal for stories like the ones Harlan Ellison liked to dabble in. You move Spider-Man to the Microverse, there’s a certain amount of incompatibility that demands to be played for laughs just with the quips, but Hulk can grunt and punch his way through a fantasy setting or be darkly clever in sci-fi; green and purple seems to blend.

Outer space and inter-dimensional adventure has become as much a part of the Hulk mythos over the years as strength-based slugfests and psychological examination, and it makes sense to me. For one, The Hulk is at his gamma-irradiated heart a science fiction concept, set apart from the street level Daredevil or mythological Thor by his origin ripped from 60’s atomic nightmares; the stars are the logical extension of his genre. The Hulk is also a force that demands sufficient challenges and for which the stakes must consistently be raised; we can believe Spider-Man would be preoccupied by an old guy with wings, but the Green Goliath needs the caliber or competition sometimes only an interstellar armada or hostile planet can provide.

However, it’s also about breaking beyond the brilliant Jekyll/Hyde dynamic the Hulk’s existence centers around and flipping it on its axis. In stories like Planet Hulk or in the journeys to Jarella’s, we get to see our hero take a break from being the outcast and affirm or question his own values when he’s on the same setting as those around him rather than consumed with being hunted and hounded.

You can tell Hulk stories that are just him beating up The Rhino, you can ruminate on the origins of his dark side for psychological fodder and you can use him as the pivot for great comedy. But you can also drop him into strange settings, post him up against the craziest aliens you can come up with, and do your ode to whatever space opera floats your starship with an undercurrent commentary on the human condition.

For a character still best known as a guy who likes to smash stuff, The Hulk has incredible depth.