Despite being a first-order nerd, I’m neither a huge comic book reader – I read most of my comics on a tablet using Marvel Unlimited (heresy, I know) – nor am I the biggest fan of the Incredible Hulk. It’s nothing against the big guy, mind you, but the TV show and movies always made the character seem rather shallow and limited. So when I say that Greg Pak’s Plant Hulk is the sort story to make me take the Hulk seriously as a fully-fledged character, you’ll understand the sort of praise I am offering.
My introduction to Planet Hulk came from the more recent Marvel animated movie, which I reviewed here. Both the movie and the comic book work for me because they eschew the typical depiction of the Hulk i.e. the Hulk as a force of nature. One doesn’t reason with the Hulk; one points the Hulk in the direction of the thing needing smashing.
Moreover, the Hulk is often presented as the Hyde to Bruce Banner’s Dr. Jekyll. Forgive me for not falling over myself to engage with a modern retelling of a novella from the 1880s. The inherent strength of Planet Hulk is the way in which it makes Hulk his own man. He’s no longer the consequence to Bruce Banner losing his temper. Instead, Banner becomes the cowed and suppressed symbol for all the people who call the Hulk a monster.
The story of Planet Hulk begins with Reed Richards, Tony Stark, Dr. Strange, and Black Bolt taking it upon themselves to banish Hulk from Earth. The betrayal is made all the more poignant as Banner volunteered to use the Hulk to stop a sentient satellite that was threatening the Earth. The self-appointed Illuminati of Earth-616 intended to send Banner/Hulk to a peaceful planet where he would be the only higher-order life form. Mid-way through his journey, Hulk woke from cryo-sleep and knocked his starship off course, ultimately sending it through a wormhole where he crash landed on the planet Sakaar.
Sakaar, itself, bears a striking resemblance to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom. It’s both a world both home to divergent species of life and a world the brink of extinction. What little social order exists on Sakaar is the product of a jack booted empire of red skinned humanoids who marginalize the insect-like “Natives” of Sakaar and another race of grey-skinned humanoids.
While the nasty and brutish nature of life on Sakaar is ideally suited to Hulk’s love of fighting, it also creates a place where he is more than a force for destruction. The wormhole that brought Hulk to Sakaar weakened him just enough to make him bleed when stabbed, shot, or otherwise beaten down. In the wake of his victories as a slave gladiator turned revolutionary – that’s right, the Hulk gets involved with the politics of Sakaar – his gamma irradiated blood catalyzes plant growth on the barren planet. This makes Hulk more than an object of spectacle or a symbol of resistance against the Empire. Planet Hulk allows the Hulk to exist as the living embodiment of a creation/destruction myth.
Does Hulk fit into the Sakaaran mythology as the Sakaarson, the son of Sakaar who will heal the world? Or is Hulk the World Breaker, the one who will arrive at the end times and shatter Sakaar? The answer to this question, though an integral part of the story, is not so interesting as how the question itself elevates Hulk to the level of a classically tragic figure.
Pak’s writing sidesteps the Shakespearian approach of facilitating the fall of a great man. Instead, Planet Hulk plays out the tragic hero archetype as a full cycle. Hulk literally falls from space only to rise and fall again in the course of arriving and leaving Sakaar. This style is probably nothing new for a comics as a whole, but it’s a dimension to the Hulk which was quite unexpected to this reader.
Perhaps the most telling indicator of Planet Hulk as an atypical Hulk story is the fact that it gives Hulk a name. I know what you’re thinking, Hulk has a name, it’s the Hulk, or Bruce Banner. I would submit Hulk isn’t a name so much as it is an epithet. It’s something Banner calls the gamma-irradiated part of himself. To readers, Hulk is a golem made animate and believable through the marriage of internalized hopelessness and rage made into a character. To Banner, Hulk is a burden to endure. Holku, as Hulk comes to be known by the Sakaaran most important to him within this arc, is an actual person. No longer is the Hulk a version of Bruce Banner desperately in need of a Snickers; rather, the Hulk/Holku is an actual character with a soul – at least until the Illuminati take it from him. Yeah, bad things happen. This is not a happy story.
Though Planet Hulk does a great many things, at its core it is a story about monsters and empires. Like most smart stories that explore the boundaries of the monstrous, the greater monsters are never the overt “others” on the page. In this case, the Hulk and his warbound are the most human characters in the arc; all of a reader’s empathy and compassion are visited upon this family forged in the crucible of brutality as they, despite their strength, are also the most victimized people in the story. It is the familiar and human looking citizens of Sakaar’s Red Empire who prove to be the worst monsters of all, embodying every cautionary lesson history has to teach us about the brutality of hegemony. Likewise, Reed Richards, Tony Stark, and SHIELD are part of the same criticism. For what is SHIELD if not an empire in its own right, deciding what is best for the whole at the expense of the individual – or in this case, deciding what is best for Earth at the expense of Sakaar and the Hulk.