Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

01 February 2013

Incredible Hulk: Pardoned

Collects: Incredible Hulk #269-85 (1982-3)

Released: April 2012 (Marvel)

Format: 400 pages / color / $39.99 / ISBN: 9780785162087

What is this?: The mind of scientist Bruce Banner gains control of the Hulk’s monstrous body.

The culprits: Writer Bill Mantlo and artist Sal Buscema

Even though I had all the issues collected, I was looking forward to Incredible Hulk: Pardoned. The book collects one of the best writer / artist teams in Hulk’s history: writer Bill Mantlo and artist Sal Buscema.

Mantlo isn’t the greatest Hulk writer; that honor belongs to Peter David, whose almost universally praised run on Incredible Hulk lasted for more than a decade. But some of Mantlo’s nearly seventy-issue run presaged and inspired David’s, and David never worked with an artist like Buscema. To me, Buscema will always be the Hulk artist, with his knack for imbuing brutes with human expression and humans with almost monstrous expressions.

Incredible Hulk: Pardoned coverIn Pardoned, Bruce Banner finally gets control of his Hulk persona after massive doses of gamma rays. (One might think Banner had futzed around with gamma rays so often that they wouldn’t have much effect, but that’s what Mantlo has chosen, so roll with it.) After that, Banner / the Hulk seeks a pardon and acceptance; with the help of the Avengers, he fights his old enemy, the Leader. The Hulk having the mind of Banner is interesting — and it’s hard to believe it two decades for Marvel to publish such a storyline — but it’s the implications, studded among the slugathons, that are the reward in this story.

You might think, as Banner does, that the fusion of brawn and brilliance will make life easy, especially after the pardon and support of the superhero community. But the change presents a new set of challenges. When longtime girlfriend Betty learns Banner wants to remain the Hulk, whom she hates, she rejects Banner. Former sidekick Rick Jones, who helped the scientist and his alter ego interface with humanity, feels useless now that the Hulk can function within society. Banner realizes the Hulk’s savage mind had an advantage to his more reasoning one: the Hulk was too stupid to fear danger, which made him furious and stronger. Banner also fares poorly under the media’s fawning attention. Fortunately, there is some compensation: the Avengers accept the new Hulk without reservation, and She-Hulk is happy her cousin is now, like her, in control of his gamma form.

So overall, it’s an action story with some exploration of how personal growth changes life. But this is also an early ‘80s comic story, and that means certain tropes that seem outdated appear. A couple of unnecessary fights break out because of miscommunication. Three alien Hulk foes appear, calling themselves “Hulk Hunters,” and wonder why the Hulk won’t go with them; alien insects devour a Canadian town’s wheat crop without a word of explanation, then blame the Hulk when he strikes back at them and ruins the boon they were going to give humanity. Of course, some hoary old story holes are eternal: the Leader refuses to kill the Hulk after defeating him, and the herald for the cosmic threat the Hulk Hunters want to Hulk to deal with is, of course, Hulk’s old foe, the Abomination.

(That last story ends with the Hulk punching a giant space mouth, though, so that makes it OK.)

Although Pardoned is a recognizable character arc, it obviously wasn’t written for the trade paperback form. Bereet, an alien filmmaker, plays an important role early on, but after a liaison70 with the Hulk about two-thirds the way through, she almost entirely disappears. 71 The pun-filled issue with funny animal Rocket Raccoon sticks out like a stalk of broccoli in a jelly bean jar. Rick Jones’s radiation poisoning is mostly pointless, and the fight vs. Galaxy Master and Abomination serves only to deliver an extra dose of gamma radiation to the Hulk — not much of a payoff for two issues. The Hulk fights a great deal of villains without much purpose, but as the stories in Pardoned were written around the Hulk’s 20th anniversary, that’s no bad thing. Besides, most of the villains are a threat — the Leader is the most important, but Pardoned also has Abomination, Wendigo, Zzzax, the U-Foes, and a cameo from the U.S. Army.

As I mentioned, I think Buscema is the greatest Hulk artist, based both on the quality of his work and his longevity (he came onto the title well before Mantlo and left a few issues before, with #309). Pardoned gives him a chance to do something few artists get to do: humanize Hulk. Buscema succeeds admirably, and he also keeps the savage Hulk in his back pocket for when he needs him. Writer and editor Mark Gruenwald is credited with the art on #279, and he does a fine job on an issue without action and full of crowd shots — an excellent job, really, for someone with no reputation as an artist.

Pardoned, at times, reads like Mantlo was plotting by the seat of his pants; the first three issues have little to do with the rest of the story, and they feel as if Mantlo was trying to figure out how to start the story. But Mantlo and Buscema combine for a story that is surprisingly nuanced and innovative. My enthusiasm for Pardoned was not misplaced … although it was dampened by those first three issues.

Rating: Hulk head Hulk head Hulk head Hulk head (4 of 5)

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