Thursday, 23 October 2008

[56] Hulk: Gray, by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale [Great Comics]

I started writing the below piece as a short comment, as part of a new 'Recent Library Haul' post, but it got out of hand. It's still a little unrefined, but it deserves to be posted on its own.


Hulk: Gray, by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

I'm yet to read something by Loeb/Sale that I don't like. Even though neither of the Marvel colour comics I've read so far have lived up to their Batman graphic novels, I am still wildly impressed. From my experience, the DC universe lends itself much better to the graphic novel approach. For some reason, I have read very few landmark limited storylines from the Marvel stable. You can draw whatever conclusions you like from that.

However, Loeb/Sale's work on Hulk: Gray (American title, American spelling) is very similar to Spider-man: Blue, in that it tackles an early development in the hero's history. Both comics revolve around romance, and how both lead characters' super-powered situations disrupt normal relationships. However, whereas Spider-man: Blue was an at times joyous, at times emotionally touching celebration of lost innocence and untainted beauty (with Gwen Stacy embodying this carefree idyll), Hulk: Gray is a lot muddier, more cryptic. It takes the early, gray-coloured stages of the Hulk, where Bruce Banner effectively changed into an out-of-control demolitions team, and attempts to inject the character with rudimentary systems of values and morals. Hulk is contrasted with General 'Thunderbolt' Ross, whose extremist branding of the Jade Giant as a 'monster' reveals a love of fundamentalist binaries. Furthermore, Hulk's quick-to-anger, emotionally-immature persona is symbolised by his relationships with both Ross and Betty.

Loeb brings in a flashback narrative framework that is anchored in a conversation between Banner (now during his Green Hulk phase) and Doctor Leonard Samson. This conversation, which carries the majority of the book's psychological and emotional depth, appears throughout (as opposed to the more book-end approach used in Spider-man: Blue). It works very well, with whole span of the comic operating on these two parallel levels. One particular segment, featuring a surprise appearance from an equally early-stage Iron Man, is a long, elaborate action sequence. What could be a one-dimensional (yet entertaining) thrill-ride is buoyed by the dialogue, and turned into one of the best parts of the story.

Once again, Tim Sale's artwork really surprises me. His work on the Hulk is astounding, and some of his splash-pages are bursting with panache and character. His style is grounded in the interplay between detailed character pencils, and minimal backgrounds (brought to life by Matt Hollingsworth's colouring - who would have thought that muted, grey tones could contain so much personality?). Equally, the lettering and design work by Richard Starkings and John Roshell is wonderful. This comic just looks great (as did Spider-man: Blue, but I've never been impressed by Hulk artwork before - it has either been too shuffling thick-skull, or too beefy muscleman), as do the covers.

Sadly, I'm at a disadvantage regarding discussing this comic. Whereas I have a lot more background knowledge and reading experience with Spider-man (and more so with Batman), I don't think I've ever read a Hulk comic before, only crossovers and specials. Loeb/Sale's modus operandi here, to take early aspects of a character's biography, and represent them in interesting ways, worked very well for me. These graphic novels, more so than their work on Batman, are gateway books to the ongoing series or established continuity. Whereas Dark Victory or The Long Halloween were, in their own way, very self-contained and satisfying, the two coloured Marvel books I have read have open beginnings and endings.

Hulk: Gray
may start with the origin of Hulk, but Loeb's focus on Hulk/Banner's relationship Betty, Rick and General Ross opens up the narrative beyond what is on the page. The retrospective nature, as seen in Spider-man: Blue, allows Loeb to plant references and foreshadowings for what is to come, while he masterfully sidesteps potential 'tidy' endings. Just as with Gwen Stacy, the narrative strands involving Ross, Rick and Betty are not concluded. This might be frustrating for some, but I personally see it as a respectful way of celebrating the canon, and enticing the reader to look into the Hulk's long publication history. Hulk: Gray is as good an advert for the Marvel Essentials / Marvel Masterworks series as I've ever read. It is well worth checking out.


Lee Shin said...

spot on with this write-up, i like the way you discuss the things. i'm impressed, i must say. i'll probably be back again to read more. thanks for sharing this with us.

Lee Shin

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