Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Hulking Mess

It’s a strange paradox that any retelling of a pop-culture legend should make its central characters more one-dimensional in attempting to make them less one-dimensional.  Hulk: Gray sees itself as a critique of 1D characterizations, preaching that real people can rarely be divided into black and white categories, that a man’s true nature most often falls somewhere within the realm of the gray, but the storytelling within this 6-volume miniseries is so inept that collaborators Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale inadvertently create the very tale they so revile.  Sadly, the most incredible thing about this Hulk is that his conflict remains utterly simplistic, boring, and unfulfilling even in spite of the authors’ noble efforts to infuse his origin story with themes that could easily have been plucked (and in some places were, by the creators’ admission) from King Kong, Frankenstein, and Beauty and the Beast.

Hulk: Gray uses a story-within-a-story framework to recount the hours immediately following Bruce Banner’s disastrous contact with a Gamma Bomb explosion somewhere in the Midwest.  The first issue opens upon Bruce Banner paying a late-night visit to his psychiatrist Leonard Samson.  On the run from some unknown forces, Bruce nevertheless finds time to spill his inner thoughts and feelings on the Hulk to his old friend for the umpteenth time.  As Bruce explains, his monstrous alter-ego was originally gray before he was green; this is supposed to be clever symbolism reflecting the moral ambiguity surrounding the Hulk himself, but it’s really more symbolic of the stylistic decision to set nearly the whole story at night and to paint everything in muted colors and overwhelmingly dark hues.  Prior to becoming the Hulk, Bruce had fallen in love with a beautiful woman named Betty Ross – at least she’s supposed to be beautiful.  As far as comic book girls go, Betty isn’t much of a looker, especially considering that Sale’s previous artwork in Superman: For All Seasons and several Batman series gave us some of the most seductive or attractive interpretations of Selina Kyle, Poison Ivy, Janice Porter, and Lana Lang in the DC universe, but that’s all beside the point because everyone knows true beauty comes from within…  Anyway, as if the Hulk’s brutish appearance didn’t throw enough complications on his sex life, Betty’s father also happens to be the wrathful General Thunderbolt Ross, a loudmouthed and results-driven pragmatist who will use any means to arrest and put down the creepy monster who’s hitting on his unwilling daughter.  When Kong – I mean Hulk – kidnaps the girl who won’t requite his love, Ross sends soldiers, helicopters, and even Iron Man to get her back, all of which our giant freak of nature (not a giant freak of nature that can speak) crushes while spouting Hulky one-liners like:

“Robot Hurt Hulk. Hulk Hurt Robot. Hulk SMASH Robot!”
“Ross Say Hulk Am Monster. HULK NOT MONSTER!”
“Hulk Is Hulk.” (The psychiatrist thinks this is a profound statement.)

Despite the Hulk’s frequent gestures to protect, warm, and save Betty from the evil, trigger-happy military, she never really embraces him for what he is, and the relationship between her and Bruce is never coherently resolved, although it’s implied in the present-day conversation that they got married at some point.  I should also note that there’s a snotty, inarticulate kid named Rick who occasionally shows up as a plot-advancing utility and an object by which to develop other characters.

Team Loeb-Sale has repeatedly demonstrated an aptitude for telling captivating stories through words and illustrations.  The Long Halloween and, to a lesser extent, Dark Victory were moody and thoughtful crime thrillers with a touch of noir that crafted compelling portrayals of Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne, among others.  Superman: For All Seasons took a thematically lighter but no less powerful route, retelling Clark Kent’s rise (or fall, based on one’s perspective) from the humble life of a farmer to the duties of a godlike titan as a solemn but uplifting coming-of-age yarn.  Hulk: Gray, on the other hand, tries to be a monster romance, anti-war parable, and commentary on human nature all in one, but fails to execute any of these ideas well.  Its failure, for the most part, can be attributed to clumsy and often cheesy writing.  Aside from The Odyssey of Homer, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and William Goldman’s The Princess Bride (both the movie and the Good Parts Version on which it was based), I’ve rarely encountered a novel or film which utilizes the story-within-a-story or voiceover-in-a-3rd-person-narrative effect to enhance the overall impact of the story, and Hulk: Gray is no exception to this generality.  Not only does the realization that all the main plot’s events have already happened strip the book of any urgency it might otherwise have possessed, but the pervasive background commentary from Bruce and his friend proves to be an intrusive distraction of the most egregious order, tearing readers apart from the action and spoon-feeding them whatever thoughts or reactions they’re supposed to experience, as if they’re too stupid to figure the comic out for themselves.  A far cry from the believable and multi-layered scripts that Loeb produced for his past series with Sale, the dialogue here is terrible and feels like it was ripped out of a children’s cartoon.  I’ve already touched on the Hulk’s ridiculous expressions, but he at least gets some special leeway to sound stupid, having lost control and turned into an enormous green rage monster.  The humans, on the other hand, have no excuse for saying such things as:

“EVERY person I’ve ever depended on has walked out on me.  YOU saved my life.  I OWE you.  So, until you get a handle on this thing… I come with the dinner.  GOT IT?” ~ Rick Something

“Leonard… am I just insane?”
“‘Just’ is a vague word, Bruce.”
“More insane than a psychiatrist who comes out in the middle of the night to talk to a…?”
“…friend, Bruce. Don’t forget that.”
“That’s the problem with not living in a black and white world. You’ve got the possibility for ‘vague.’ The probability for… gray.” ~ Bruce and Leonard, spelling out the book’s message in a conversation that has no logical procession of ideas

“Do you want me to beg? Is THAT what you want, monster?!”
“Hulk Wants to Be Left Alone.”
“GO TO HELL!” ~ Hulk and Ross, who apparently doesn’t like to leave people alone

The other huge problem plaguing the storytelling lies in character development.  The book desperately wants – probably even needs – the reader to despise Hulk’s arch-rival Ross, and the authors even clarify in the behind-the-scenes extras that he’s supposed to represent the evil imperialist dimension of the U.S. military.  Bruce suggests repeatedly that his foe was an abusive father and murderous bully, but the book doesn’t bother to substantiate any of these speculations, simply presenting the narrator’s claims as truth without giving any kind of visual proof.  Loeb demonizes the general for obsessively hunting and attempting to kill the beast created by the Gamma Bomb, but most people, put in the same position that Ross occupies, would likely equate the Hulk to a lion that’s escaped its enclosure at the zoo, a public menace that must be subdued and, in the worst case, put down to prevent the more unfortunate loss of human life.  When you break everything down, the very worst transgression that Ross commits in the course of the novel is slapping a teenage boy for withholding vital intelligence on the Hulk; at his worst, the general is just a really grumpy guy.  Disregarding his simplistic portrayal as a powerful but gentle giant, the Hulk essentially proves Ross’ perspective numerous times over, smashing military vehicles and infrastructure, flinging soldiers with lethal force (although we’re supposed to believe he doesn’t kill anybody in this story), and abducting a woman with seemingly malicious intent.  All these things considered, it’s effectively impossible for an open-minded audience to love the ‘heroes’ and loathe the ‘villains’ in this warped adventure.

The book’s artwork is also severely disappointing, though by no means as horrid as the writing.  Ever since the spaghetti western rose to prominence in the 1960s, many filmmakers have used the deserts and valleys of Utah, New Mexico, and California as a kind of tertiary character, something grand and poetic that tells a story in and of itself on top of the main plot’s action.  Whereas Sale once succeeded at transforming Gotham City, Metropolis, and Smallville from mere settings into vibrant and memorable characters, here he utterly wastes the potential offered by the wild west, staging most of the book inside military compounds or caves and giving only occasional glances at altogether bland landscapes.  So too does he fail to capture the savage gait and apelike charge of the Hulk, which was so well conveyed in The Avengers.  In this book, the Hulk appears to fly around a lot in a manner more befitting Thor and Iron Man than a gigantic man with disproportionately massive arms.

Hulk: Gray is ripe with thought-provoking themes one wouldn’t normally expect from a franchise that’s spawned so many crappy TV shows and movies, but struggles to handle any of these themes in a way that’s remotely exceptional or satisfying.  The Hulk may not have completely smashed Team Loeb-Sale’s near spotless record, but he did smash an hour or two of my life (plus many more I imprudently spent to raise awareness of its reek for these Files) that I’m never getting back.  Take the monster’s own advice and LEAVE HULK ALONE.

Side-note on comic books: I have now broached the 7th book and 800 pg. mark of Jeff Smith's fantasy masterwork Bone, a hulk of a book if there ever was one, especially given that I have to juggle it with Latin, American literature, physics, precalculus, book writing, movie writing, and blogging.  Suffice it to say, before I write a full review, that it's probably the funniest and most ambitious cartoon to come along since, well, anything.  “Stupid, stupid rat creatures!”

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