#7 – HULK #53 – 57 – MAYAN RULE
By Jeff Parker and Dale Eaglesham
Jeff Parker is a man I have an unparalleled amount of respect for, and it’s not just because the man is aware that Machine Man is one of the greatest Marvel characters of all time. In my mind, he is one of the few working in the corporate superhero comic industry that is a real artist, who treats his medium with immense respect, pushes the stories into new areas every arc, and uses the cape genre to tell very human stories that make us rethink our position in the world. I hate to sound like I’m repeating myself, but if I’m setting criteria here, that’s really what separates the Marvel books on this list from the others I enthusiastically devour every week. A lot of the writers at the Marvel office these days are a really interesting result of their influences – a lot of Jason Aaron, Rick Remender and Matt Fraction Marvel books read in a similar way, by which I mean, and I’m not criticizing or complaining, but…these boy’s loved their Morrison. I’m not saying Parker isn’t influenced by Morrison, or if you are you’re automatically excluded from being a serious superhero writer, because Morrison’s influence can be seen all across the comics landscape, Big Two or otherwise. That being said, a lot of what felt so fresh about DOOM PATROL and ANIMAL MAN were that they really felt like one of the first times somebody fused personal experience and intellectual ideas with canonical superhero knowledge and entertainment, and now that we’re blessed enough to see even some of the more mediocre cape books on the market filling that criteria, we – as a more sophisticated audience – start to expect more. Basically, this is my longwinded way of saying Jeff Parker’s Marvel work has always felt as fresh to me as Morrison’s early DC work.
First off, I’d like to recommend Parker’s entire HULK run to anybody interested in Hulk, Marvel, superheroes, art, or life. The entire 27 issue run is a sincere and challenging examination into a failed man’s sense of purpose. The pitch is that Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross is a man defined by his failures. From the first moment we saw him, in THE INCREDIBLE HULK #1 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, he was about to see a colossal failure, the biggest of his military career, that would change his life forever. HULK is about Ross’ realization that his entire life, devoted to the destruction of The Hulk, has been a waste. In fact, his hatred of Hulk took him so far that he even became one. I may be making it sound overtly simple, but the idea that a man was so consumed and so driven by hatred and rage that he turned himself into a monster fueled by hatred and rage…I mean, man, that’s poetic far as I’m concerned. He begins his path towards redemption by devoting himself to the idea that, in order to redeem his sins past, he must fight for the future. And Parker illustrates this in what must be described as pretty much the most awesome way possible – namely, by having Ross befriend Machine Man and an android named Annie. So Ross, a defeated, right-wing military man is now on a journey to become a futurist and a hero, and as much as his story is an examination of what his life is worth, it’s also a look at what any life is worth, and even more so, what even defines a life. Is a super powered being on a level beyond human? Are androids on a level below humans? This and many more questions are brought up throughout this five-issue finale to a series that began with a crimson skinned mystery Hulk punching Uatu in the face.
MAYAN RULE begins with Rick Jones on a tour with several other Americans to see the ancient Mayan temples of Chichen Itza, Yucatan. The tour guide is quite the ominous fellow, and it isn’t long before he’s slicing his palm with a knife and letting the blood spill onto the temple floor. As he does so, he explains how the Mayans expected humans to sacrifice life force to the Gods. Soon, a mysterious God named Ixchel appears and begins draining the tourists life force and turning them into bones. Jones quickly goes A-Bomb to try and stop the threat, and what makes this more than just an exciting fight scene are the ideas being presented. A lot of innocent humans (and mutants) have been sacrificed for the greater good in the Marvel universe. I mean, even look at Joss Whedon’s THE AVENGERS movie; when the giant-Transformer whale thing was floating through the streets of NYC… that was a ton of dead office workers. Superheroes never expect harm to befall ordinary citizens, in fact, they put all of their effort into stopping that tragedy from ever happening. That being said, it’s something that ends up happening in a large majority of superhero stories, and I feel like some of our presumptions are being threatened here in a really cool way. After all, the Mayan Gods aren’t malicious. They stop droughts, they grow crops, and they attempt to bring peace. Obviously, there’s a clear difference here where they presume the humans will fulfill their part of the deal by sacrificing themselves, even unwillingly, but the more you look at it, that’s not very much different from the trade-off we get from the Avengers saving us from robot snake whales.
After Rick recruits Ross, Aaron, Annie, the She-Hulks (that’s Jen and Lyra) the team heads down to the Canadian Rockies (side note: this is kinda close to my neck of the woods, but BPRD wins this years ‘closest to my home’ awards. Thanks for the small-town BC place setting, guys) where Alpha Flight informs them a Mayan temple has appeared out of nowhere. Soon we learn that the Mayan Gods gain more and more power, and are able to resurrect more and more ancient deities, the more life force they drain, superheroes containing a particularly powerful surplus. This leads to the members of Alpha Flight and both the Shulks having their powers completely diminished and their bodies in a mummified state, entombed in a Mayan temple. As Rulk, A-Bomb and Machine Man realise their adversaries are only growing stronger having super powered beings around, they flee, followed by a short, quiet scene that features some of the most powerful character work in the book, and focuses directly on the major theme of autonomy, will and humanization.
Rulk discovers Annie has sneaked along with them, after he made her promise she would stay behind to be safe. As he expresses his concern for her life and safety, she reminds him she is only a Life Model Decoy, and in fact, has no life to save. Not only does this hurt Ross to hear, as he’s had conflicting romantic feelings about Annie throughout Parker’s run, it shakes the core of his beliefs. I mean, not only has Ross sent a lot of men to their deaths throughout his military career in pursuit of the Hulk, he’s destroyed his fair share amount of robots, too. Were those robots just as sentient, as thinking and feeling as Annie? A moment later, A-Bomb also ends up questioning his sense of identity and life worth; “Alpha Flight. They’re all mutants, aren’t they? I mean, that’s essentially what we are. But we’re not…natural.” This small line of dialogue fascinates me. I mean, Gods tend to not gain their fantastic powers by radioactivity or cosmic rays. They’ve always been Gods. They were born with their powers. As A-bomb thinks of this threat, and reflects upon the fact that they’ve increased their power by stealing that of mutants, you get the impression that he’s realising there might be something wrong with unnatural freaks of scientific chance policing the world. Mutants tend to spend a lot of their time fighting for survival, whereas superheroes, or metas or whatever term you prefer, tend to end up fighting for control. A-bomb is not only seeing himself in the face of his enemy, he’s beginning to question his entire life value, and if mutants have a higher value than himself for being natural products of nature.
Afterwards, Rick is trapped by the Mayans, Annie is off to rescue the bodies of Alpha Flight, and Rulk and Aaron Stack are off to find a way to take down the Gods, who now number a solid half-dozen, and are storming the streets of El Salvador. As the two land six hundred miles from the scene of carnage, they are sequestered by two chatty holwer monkeys. They turn out to be Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who in terms of Mayan mythology were underworld ballplayers who eventually turned their half-brothers into Howler Monkey Gods who were the patrons of artists. These two appear to represent both the Hero Twins and the half-brothers, but it seems appropriate to say they are more the later, with Ross and Aaron playing are artists. As Rulk is pestered by the two trickster imps, Machine Man is curious and questions them, including why they wear the guise of primates. “All Mayans man, no matter what you see.” The one responds, “But others not see us, long as we have tails.” Again, identity is touched upon, including the idea of social statement or critique, and of avoiding people’s worlds by becoming a non-existent part of it. Machine Man soon learns that the Gods he and Rulk wish to face were also once originally human, which is a very heavy twist on the established concept of this arc. If what Rulk is attempting to take down were once human, they really become hardly any different then he and his Avengers teammates. After this, Kukulcan the God King appears, promising to restart the world by the Mayan calendar, ending our world and starting a new one.
As it turns out, Rick’s gamma fueled powers were the ultimate meal for the Mayans, becoming the sacrifice necessary to bring back the God King Kukulcan. The serpent God makes quick work of Rulk, with half of his body in the mummy state that befell Alpha Flight, and trapped down in the depths of a Mayan tomb. He is joined by Machine Man, who is nothing but destroyed mechanical scraps lying next to him. Now, this is a key scene, so please forgive me if I begin extrapolating, but if it hasn’t been made clear thus far, there’s a lot going on here. Red Hulk is literally trapped in an isolated scenario, with half of his body reminding him of the mortality and fragility of his human life, of the idea that he is aging, his daughter is aging, and one day he will be gone. While the other half is, at this point, almost mocking him of his God-like powers. This is the scene in the arc that seems to challenge us to find an answer to the question “What is the difference between these Mayan Gods and the superheroes we love?” and the answer, or at least, what I believe the answer to be, is their humanity. As Ross waits for death, unable to move and barely speak, the voice of Annie continues to bellow from his comm-link. The android who, a handful of issues ago, he wasn’t even
sure counted as human being, is now the only thing keeping him going. Machine Man then reveals he has not perished, as first appeared, as his conciousness still remains in a small memory drive with mechanical legs. He explains to Rulk that even without his body, he is still very much alive. To me, this is the moment when Ross decides to love Annie. His idea of humanity and about the value of life is cemented as he sees that his partner is, not only willing to save Ross’ life, but doesn’t need a body to do so, I feel that Rulk decides our values, philosophies and loved ones define us more than our wiring, origin stories, or anything else. The Gods assume themselves to be better than those beneath them, and expect sacrifice. Superheroes only expect to sacrifice themselves.
Aaron’s memory drive is found by the two howler monkeys, and soon Hunahpu and Xbalanque are returned to their human forms and set on ending the Mayan Gods rule. As Rulk, Alpha Flight, A-Bomb and the She-Hulks are revived at the sacrifice of one of the Hero Twins, good once again triumphs over evil, and Rulk’s journey as penned by Parker comes to an end. As the heroes celebrate on the steps of a Mayan temple, Rulk finds himself looking with good humour at the bizarre elements of this latest adventure. “You think this was out there?” Annie replies, “If any of the Ancient Mayans were here to see all the people you work with…turning into animals, flying, shooting energy, artificial men and wome. What else would they call us? Face it, giant red leader. In any age, we’re what pass for Gods. And our adventures are tomorrow’s myths.” I don’t think I could say it any better than that, but I think it highly appropriate that a story that focused on identity, on the value of humanity and where it begins and ends, finalized with our main character questioning whether he could even classify himself as human, or instead was something more. HULK looked at the some of the grandest questions the superhero genre propose, while still being an intimate story of one man redeeming himself for his failures and accepting his love for a woman who’s consciousness exists in a way that pushes the boundary of humanity. This is the sort of story that appears in a big two book once in a lifetime, and we aren’t even half way through this list!