#9 – THE INCREDIBLE HULK #13-15 – HULK UNITED
By Jason Aaron and Jefte Palo
Jason Aaron is one of my favourite Marvel writers. He’s had probably the greatest run on GHOST RIDER of all time, and his (non-AvX tie-in) WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN has brought some fun, wide-eyed innocence back into the X-side of the Marvel Universe. I think it’s fair to say his run on Hulk was pretty decisive among Hulk fans, especially after Greg Pak’s fantastic epic on the character, but far as I’m concerned, it was one of my favourite Hulk runs, right up there with Buscema, David’s definitive take, and Ditko/Trimpe. The elevator pitch goes as follows; what if everything good that was in Banner came from Hulk? What if every heroic act Banner ever did was fueled by the Hulk side of his personality, while all the petty/obsessive elements were pure Bruce? In this story, Hulk represents repression, but not necessarily repressed rage. Repression of any kind, and as it turns out, a lot of what made Banner so miserable over the years was Hulk’s constant battle with a whiny, egotistical genius who felt he never got the respect he deserved.
HULK UNITED opens up after the events of the previous years’ worth of stories. After having Doctor Doom separate Bruce Banner and Hulk once and for all, into two separate bodies and personalities, the Hulk found peace. Living with the Moloids miles beneath the Earth’s surface, he hunted, feasted, and remained…calm. Banner, meanwhile, loses it. He puts all of his energy into recreating the Hulk, dousing himself with so much radiation he ends up with a tumour inside his brain that will kill him any day. Hulk is recruited by Amanda Von Doom (no relation), leader of a squad of robots and Doctor Frankenstein’s henchman, Igor, dedicated to taking down all evil scientific geniuses. In a climactic battle, Hulk watches Banner die after he sets off a Gamma bomb, hoping to merge them together once again, which it, in fact, does…except now the scenario is reversed to what we’re used to seeing. When Hulk relaxes, he becomes Banner, the monster. Using his intellect as a weapon, Banner leads Hulk into scenarios where Hulk will be forced to gather esoteric items for Bruce to use to remerge their personalities the way they originally were.
What I loved about this series is how it looked at Bruce Banner at such an extreme way that it actually ended up revealing a very intimate truth about him. Yes, as a Hulk fan myself, I would never call Banner a monster, and I constantly found myself shocked at his actions in Aaron’s storyline. But just as I agree that just because a story is controversial doesn’t mean it’s good, I also think superhero fans are quick to dislike a run for not playing things by the book (obviously I’m not the first to stumble upon this fact). What this story taps into, and specifically what comes to surface in this last arc, is the idea that Banner is a lonely and misplaced man, at odds with himself, defining his entire personality by the idea that he’s trying to cure the negative parts of himself. As brilliant as he is, his entire life has actually been supremely irrational. To look at yourself and say, ‘I am not a perfect person, I have flaws, I am broken and need fixing’, is naïve, plain and simple. Bruce, like so many superhero men, is very stuck in his childhood, as Peter David’s run explored. This arc shows the deepest he could possibly go, the farthest he could take his desire to be what he wants to be, and a story like that, of course, must end with Banner realising he needs to be what he is.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Using the items Banner had Hulk retrieve (the finger of a mutated Mexican drug dealer, magic brew from hillbilly Atlanteans, metal from a Russian spacecraft, and a froth of Sasquatch gumbo) Bruce creates a cure for the Hulk. Banner threatens to ‘kill’ the Hulk, just as the Hulk ‘killed’ him, unless he helps him. In one of my favourite scenes of the run, in a pre-recorded message Banner gives a ‘you complete me!’ speech to the jade giant. “As frightening as it sounds, you’re apparently the only thing keeping me sane. That day I got caught in the gamma bomb explosion…that day saved me. I’m tired of fighting with myself. I’m tired of fighting with you.”
Hulk and Banner are now one, and agree they have to begin working together, and they’ll start with taking down Doom. Meanwhile, Victor has plans of his own, and he hires a villain called the Vegetable, an ominous threat who attacks through the mind, not the physical body. I loved the idea that the Vegetable reinforces the idea that it’s Banner’s insecurities and neuroses that prove to be his greatest weakness, and unless he can learn to accept them for what they are, he’ll constantly be damaging himself. “I’ve come to tear your puny mind to shreds”, says the colossal pure-black villain who enters Banner’s consciousness, and that’s a threat all of us face with the tiny, shattering negativity we all carry around. Banner only comes to defeat him when the words he said to Hulk earlier really set In, the idea that he can’t fight the Hulk anymore, and as Banner accepts this a multitude of multi-coloured and shaped Hulk hands appear from the permeance of Banner’s inner psyche to defeat the demented mercenary. “You were right before, when you said I was scared of the inside of my own head. And there’s a very good reason for that.”, Banner says to the Vegetable, in a very chilling sequence where Banner seems to say that the capacity for human pain is endless, that the endless inner-destruction we put on ourselves is more terrifying than anything in the outside world, and yet, the strength this gives us is what allows us to keep making it through an often difficult world.
As Bruce and Hulk give their final words, we see the overlaps in both their lives, and how they literally need each other to be of use to anyone. Banner admits to using science as a way to fight to prove himself past his abusive father, for using the loss of the Hulk as an excuse to go insane, and finally that his ultimate fight, his fight for control, was the one that defined him and the one that was the most false. Banner created his own loss of control by refusing to admit that he and the Hulk were one and the same. Hulk undergoes a similar epiphany, in a really incredible reminder that Hulk has fought his entire existence to be left alone, which is really the same thing as looking for something, for fighting to be whole. As Banner and Hulk together defeat the Vegetable, as well as an army of Doombots and gamma-powered beasts, they both finally except that they will forever be unhappy unless they admit what they truly are. It was a real ride-of-in-the-sunset kind of an ending, uplifting and thought provoking, and encapsulating everything I love about this character.
Honestly, this arc would have been higher on my list had it not been for a small amount of nitpicky fanboy factors. First of all, the subplot of Amanda Von Doom never really goes anywhere in a satisfying way. Amanda is a fascinating character, because she defines herself by her hatred of her (supposed) heritage. She’s a person ready for violence that doesn’t seem to put a lot of thought into the consequences of her actions, and appears to speak candidly about sex in a way to embarrass and alienate herself from the people around her. I mean, I could be reading too much in to this, but I thought she was one of the great surprises of the book, and it was a shame that we only saw hints and glimpses at what she was about. My other nitpick is this entire run appears to take place outside of continuity, as Mark Waid’s and Leinil Francis Yu’s new run completely ignores everything that happened here. And, fair enough, Aaron ignored his fair share of Pak’s developments too, but Aaron’s run at least felt like a post script as to what Pak was saying, a further exploration of the identity issues surrounding Banner and the Hulk persona. Whereas Waid has gone back to Hulk being at cookie-monster intellect, running rampant with SHIELD chasing after him. It’s a head-scratcher far as I can see, and though I hate to make a continuity glitch affect my enjoyment of a story, the reality is the on-going nature of these stories is part of the appeal, and this development affected my placement of THE INCREDIBLE HULK on my list.
With that needless pontification out of the way, Aaron and Palo’s HULK UNITED explored the character in a fresh, unique and necessary way, allowing the world of Banner to progress, which is something we don’t see all the time in Big Two books. Not only was it an intimate exploration of the Banner psyche, of the human need to look at the less positive sides of our personalities as cancers needing to be removed, it was also loud and dirty and full of alcohol and sex. It was a hillbilly run through the wide Marvel Universe, including often ignored areas such as Atlantis and the Sasquatch race. Just as Waid’s DAREDEVIL has done so successfully, it reinvigorated the Hulk simply by having him face new villains, from new creations like The Vegetable, to pre-existing characters like Kraven The Hunter and of course, the mastermind behind the entire series, Doctor Doom. Palo’s art is as lively and emotional as a story like this needs. THE INCREDIBLE HULK was a criminally undervalued Hulk book, and it is one of two that fit those criteria that you’ll see on this list.