Tuesday, 27 November 2012
On Indestructible Hulk #1
It's so much easier to have exceptionally intelligent characters behaving like psychologically damaged idiots. Why should a writer worry about constructing a convincing storyline when they can just have their supposedly brilliant protagonists perpetually behaving like oblivious fools? In a Marvel Universe that's top-heavy with the notably bright as well as the super-genius, it's a struggle to think of a single one that's consistently displayed the self-awareness and emotional maturity of anything more than a teenager. After fifty years and more of adventures, Reed Richards is still excluding his wife from the truth of his schemes despite all the misery that his obfuscation and lying has previously caused. Similarly, Peter Parker remains the world's oldest adolescent despite being an experience-saturated decade or so out of high school, and so on.
While much of Marvel's appeal has always been down to its protagonist's angsty flaws, there's an obvious difference between a character with a compelling human limitation and a perpetually oblivious, self-hamstringing idiot. While it would obviously make no sense to remove the conflict-generating failings from a super-person's nature, it's far too easy to ratchet them up to the degree to which a character's entirely helpless before them. The exceptionally clever and supposedly heroic character who never learns, and who actually seems to become stupider and more dangerous to themselves and others with time, is a cheap and grating way to stir up jeopardy. As the same old problems are recycled in ever more hysterically concentrated ways, the process inevitably wears away at the reader's capacity to believe, to care.
Thankfully, Mark Waid appears to have embarked on a campaign to credit Marvel's brightest heroes with the very intelligence that's supposed to define them. He's already presented us with a Matt Murdock who's determinedly working to mitigate the effects of his obsessional and depressive tendencies. (Although Daredevil may not be a hyper-brain capable of throwing together an interstellar spacecraft from the contents of an average household kitchen cupboard, he is a first-rate lawyer and an acutely bright individual. He may not be able to think away his psychological problems, but he can at least recognise and mitigate them, as Waid's brilliantly had him do.) Now, in Indestructible Hulk #1, Waid offers up a Bruce Banner who, after more than five decades of denial, finally accepts the overwhelming evidence that the Hulk will inevitably be part of him forever. His green-skinned alter-ego is an expression of an "incurable", "chronic" condition, Banner declares, which means that the only rational way forward is for him to manage the situation while trying to make the most of his life. Though it's hardly a deduction which requires a super-intellect to reach, it's still a remarkably sensible one to find in the pages of the superbook.
Sadly, the imprecision of artist Leinil Yu's work makes it impossible to know what we're to make of this at least partially clear-thinking Banner on any emotional level. Though Yu's work is fan-pleasingly glossy and packed with bold, static poses which appear to be very, very meaningful indeed, trying to deduce what his characters are thinking and feeling is an exhausting business. Characters reach through panel borders and pose without any context or purpose at all on his pages, as if the suggestion of activity and spectacle is more important than effectively transmitting the inner as well as the outer lives of his characters With very few exceptions, his frames carry at best a vague and puzzling sense of how his cast are experiencing and interacting with the world around them. Anyone following the story-opening meeting between Banner and Agent Hill, for example, will be stumped to know much about either person beyond what's carried in the word balloons, and even there, Waid's script is often made to seem confusing because of the way in which the art fails to clarify the writer's meaning. Given that's so, the fact that we're shown a Banner who's capable at moments of rational thought is more than cancelled out by the absence of any consistent, convincing sense of who he is as a person. Whether it's the lack of any precise emotion in individual panels, or the absence of an easily understood continuity of feeling between one frame and another, Yu's focus on isolated moments of eye-catching comic-book cool constantly derail proceedings on anything but the most facile of levels. And so, where Waid's words have Banner declaring that he's "sorry", Yu delivers a face that's anything but, while the artist's depiction of a supposedly-surprised Banner actually transmits all the concern of a man idly checking his watch against the time given by a wall-mounted clock. Because of this strange narrative-killing preference for the fannishly obsessive moment over the narratively specific, we just can't tell whether this Banner's genuinely cheerful or putting up a playful front, a brilliantly Machiavellian operator or an almost-overwhelmed victim attempting to cobble together a grand strategy. Beyond a single frame in which Yu shows Banner hammering his fists on a table in what might be jealously or frustration at the very thought of Tony Stark, it's hard to know anything much about him at all that might lend us give a reason to empathise
As with Banner, so with Hill, who's presented as a sweetly blank-faced if exceptionally beautiful and very young woman with a remarkably constricted range of responses. There's little sense of intelligence, guile, or heart in how Yu presents her at all, with the artist choosing instead to represent her as nothing more and nothing less than pretty if hard-edged. And so, she looks no more engaged or moved when she's just discovered Banner half-buried underneath a mass of rubble than she does when she's swinging a conveniently-placed wooden plank at his head. If the idea is that Hill possesses a remarkably good poker-face regardless of circumstances, then it's down to Yu to provide the subtle and telling variations which transmit her character and intentions underneath the mask. But between the modelesque, blunt-effect front of Agent Hill and the oddly unreadable Banner, the reader's left wondering what could be possibly be going on. Yes, Banner is looking to strike a deal with SHIELD, but why is he doing so? After all, his plan to work on improving humanity's lot while allowing SHIELD to put the Hulk's rampages to use is a clearly flawed one. Are we supposed to believe that either Banner or Hill believe that the Hulk can be let loose on a target and the consequences of that controlled? Surely not. And yet Yu's art lends us no sense at all of what to make of a Banner who seems to be both very smart, in terms of grasping his medical condition, and self-deluded, in terms of the Hulk's capacity to serve anyone else's agenda. Is this a transformed Banner who's gleeful when blackmailing Hill, or one putting forward a front while masking how desperate for sanctuary he is. Is this a man who's barely hanging on, or entirely in control, or perhaps a mixture of the two? Who can tell? The promise of the script, and that includes the potentially beguiling contradictions in Banner's plan, evaporates when it's superimposed over the constantly underinforming art.
Despite the weariness inspired by SHIELD's ubiquitous presence in yet another of this week's Marvel books, the basic premise of the Hulk as a WOMD in the hands of America's own law-unto-itself para-military is a fascinating one. So too is the idea of a Banner trying to create a life for himself while striving to cope with the intimidating shadow of the Hulk. But in the absence of the pathos which Yu's shiny, busy, dead-hearted pages fails to create, it's hard to care.
Waid's new direction for the Hulk is a potentially enthralling one, full of fascinating ideas and laced with forward momentum. Sadly, the art's nowhere near as smart as the script is, which leaves writer and artist working as well together as Banner and the Hulk have usually tended to. Indestructible Hulk could've been far more than its headline beats of Banner Schemes, Hill Calm'n'Pretty, Hulk Smash and Mad Thinker Bad, but sadly, that's pretty much all the reader's left with once it's finished.