It’s hard to make a corporately-owned superhero intellectual property something distinct. The temptation is to generally keep the character in the form fans recognize him or her in the most and try to give him or her some exciting adventures to please the fans. In fact, the more high profile the character, the less editorial is going to allow a certain level of meddling. Second and third stringers can be used for that sort of thing.
That’s sort of what makes the Hulk a unique character. Though often depicted as just a big, stupid brute who doesn’t understand how to use personal pronouns, the Hulk has often been used as a more experimental character, someone whose intelligence and setting can fluctuate depending on the story’s needs. The Hulk is high profile enough for Marvel to always have a Hulk book of some kind in publication, but not enough for them to really care as much about what he’s doing as they are, say, Spider-Man. That’s led to some interesting Hulk runs and experiments in the character. Writer Peter David played with the idea Bruce Banner had Multiple Personality Disorder and had different Hulks appearing at different times until Doc Samson figured out how to merge them into a composite being that was always the Hulk. Paul Jenkins developed this concept further, and had a run complicated by Bruce contracting Lou Gehrig’s disease and needing to find some sort of cure before he had to become the Hulk permanently. Even Bruce Jones, a writer whose comics I don’t much care for, initially had an interesting run where Banner was on the run from some conspiracy that seemed supervast and complex until Jones wrapped the whole thing up in two issues by saying it was just the Leader the whole time, which ended something cool in a lame manner.
And then there’s the Planet Hulk storyline, which may have been one of the most ambitious Hulk storylines ever done.
The story opens with the Hulk in space. He wasn’t there by choice. The Illuminati basically tricked him into a spacecraft so they could shoot him off to another planet, one where he wouldn’t hurt anybody and could live out the rest of his gamma-irradiated days in peace.
But, see, Hulk isn’t the kind of guy to take such concepts calmly, and starts breaking things immediately. His ship goes through a wormhole of some kind that makes him temporarily weaker and he crash lands on the planet Sakaar, a place that seems to be mostly desert with the occasional jungle. Once down, he’s found and captured by the armored despot the Red King, fitted with an obedience disk that will prevent him from doing anything other than what he’s told to do, and sent off to fight for the amusement of others in a gladiatorial pit.
Sakaar is a rather interesting place. There are several different native species. First are the imperials, red-skinned humanoids that include the Red King. Then there are the Shadow People, gray skinned types who can sometimes access the “Old Power,” which looks like control of the planet Sakaar itself. Then there are the bugs, a bipedal insect people. There’s also the wildbots, feral robots living in the wilderness, and the spikes, some sort of infectious hivemind that controls organic beings with spikey protuberances being the most obvious sign of infection. The Red King rules all these with an iron fist, as well as anyone who falls through the portal.
Hulk soon finds himself in a group that includes an imperial, a shadow priest, a bug, and two aliens: one from the Brood, and one rock man who battled Thor during the Thunder God’s first comic appearance. While Hulk isn’t at first the best of teammates, he does eventually come around.
And that’s where the fun begins.
For one, Pak gave the Hulk a level of crafty intelligence that he’s rarely been given. He wasn’t constantly shouting his own name in broken sentences. He may not have been Banner-smart, but he sure did know how to lead a rebellion. This Hulk knew how to make a strategy, and as he gradually grew to care about the people of Sakaar, he became an inspirational leader. A chance encounter with another gladiator who fell to the planet, the Silver Surfer, allowed Hulk to break the Surfer’s obedience disk, which allowed him to free every other slave in the arena. Now Hulk had an army, and more interesting, he turned down an offer from the Surfer to return to Earth. Forming a “Warbound” group with the survivors of the arena he was forced to work with, Hulk over time took the planet and made himself the savior of the people.
That was one of the running themes in the book. The people of Sakaar had two running prophecies, and Hulk could fit either of them. He could have been the Sakaarson, the savior who would unite the people of Sakaar, or the Worldbreaker, which sounds self-explanatory. Quite frankly, it’s the Hulk. He could go either way. In the end, he probably did both.
As another interesting aspect of the story, the Hulk rarely changes into Banner. In fact, when Hulk finally does calm down in the sequel series, World War Hulk, one of his Warbound teammates, Miek the bug, can’t believe that such a weak man is at the center of his hero. Banner appears all of twice in the entire storyline, once in the middle when he tries and fails to reassert some control over the situation while everyone’s sleeping, and at the end when the Hulk, moving to romance the Red King’s former lieutenant Caiera, a very potent user of the Old Power. Banner emerges as a sign of trust from the Hulk, and it works out well for the time being.
The Caiera romance was actually somewhat implied early on in a subtle way. Nothing on Sakaar was green like the Hulk…except Caiera’s eyes.
Showcasing the Hulk as a barbarian hero was quite the change for the character. Though the story ends tragically for the Green Goliath, he does return to Earth for the aforementioned World War Hulk with his surviving Warbound and an army of Sakaarans to get some ultimately misguided revenge against the Illuminati. He’d also gain two sons through Caiera: the chip off the old block Skaar, and the treacherous Hiro-Kala.
Pak would continue on the Hulk for quite some time after that, finding new and interesting ways to tell Hulk stories. Nothing quite reached the heights of “Planet Hulk,” but it is well worth a read. World War Hulk basically promised the Hulk was returning to Earth to smash the Illuminati, and that’s basically what happened. If you want more than that, don’t bother. Heck, it’s the rare big crossover event that doesn’t even kill anybody. The one character who might have been killed is seen being loaded into an ambulance in the background of the last issue and returns soon afterwards. Pak’s Hulk was such a breath of fresh air that when the new Jeph Loeb-written Hulk series started with the new Red Hulk–a character who, like many of Loeb’s characters, mostly goes around beating up any and all opponents in a way that probably annoyed a ton of readers when he did things like take Mjolinir from Thor with some sort of lame zero gravity excuse and then punch out the Watcher for no reason–it was a major disappointment that when the original Hulk finally showed up, he was again speaking in the “Hulk smash!” style. Pak’s returning to the Hulk, sort of, very soon.
I’ll have something to say about the new Hulk on Thursday.