Comic book reviews: Marvel Masterworks Incredible Hulk Vol 5

I have to admit to being an old-school Marvel Zombie, and that often extends to my opinions of which artists drew the definitive versions of certain characters.  When it comes to the Hulk, the two names that immediately come to mind are Herb Trimpe and Sal Buscema.  If I had to pick a third artist, I’d go with Dale Keown, who penciled some astonishing issues of Incredible Hulk in the early 1990s.  But “Happy Herby” and “Our Pal Sal,” as they were referred to back in the day, are tied for first place, at least in my mind.  I’ve written about Buscema’s work on Incredible Hulk before.  So here are a few thoughts on Trimpe, who I have always felt is a very talented, underrated artist.

Herb Trimpe had a seven year run penciling Incredible Hulk, from #106 in 1968 to #193 in 1975.  During that period, he missed a mere two issues.  Strange as it is to say, though, I haven’t actually read a large number of the issues that Trimpe worked on.  But there have been certain covers and pin-ups of the character drawn by him that have been repeatedly reprinted over the years.  And, of course, Incredible Hulk #s 180-181, the first Wolverine story, periodically gets the reprint treatment.  So it really seems like I’ve seen a whole lot more of Herb’s Hulk than I actually have.

I set out to rectify that.  I think most of his issues have been collected in black & white Essential volumes.  But I found a copy of Marvel Masterworks: Incredible Hulk Volume 5, which reprints #s 111-121, for sale at half price.  I’d much rather read some of his stories in color.  After all, the Hulk just isn’t the same if he is not colored green.

Incredible Hulk 111 pg 13

The majority of the writing on this volume is by Stan Lee, with Roy Thomas coming in to script #120 before taking over fully with #121.  My favorite story had to be the two-part tale that opens this volume, which sees the Hulk snatched off into outer space, pitted against the menace of the cosmic-powered Galaxy Master and his army of alien pawns.  And once those servants see the Hulk resisting their tyrannical master, they decide to throw of the shackles of slavery, resulting in a huge battle between the Galaxy Master and a fleet of space rockets.  Trimpe must have been really inspired by Lee’s plots, because the artist does phenomenal work.  Trimpe’s layouts & storytelling are absolutely dynamic in these two issues.  This really shows that, even this early in his career, he knew how to draw a riveting story.

Once the Hulk returns to Earth, I think the stories become rather more mundane, with the Hulk settling into a pattern of fighting the military over some misunderstanding, or being tricked into a partnership with various supervillains.  Perhaps Trimpe was somewhat less inspired by the plots on these issues, because his work, while solid and professional, doesn’t really display the dynamic energy of the Galaxy Master story.

In the midst of this is a three-part story featuring the Hulk’s arch-foe, the Leader, who pretends to want to turn over a new leaf and seemingly proves himself by helping General Thunderbolt Ross imprison the Hulk.  Of course the Leader is really just doing this to get his adversary out of the way while simultaneously gaining the trust of the military, enabling him to enact a plan for global domination right out of a James Bond movie.  He’s going to seize control of General Ross’ base and launch a nuclear missile at the Soviet Union, starting World War III, with the intent of ruling over all the survivors.  Of course the Hulk, with an assist from Betty Ross, breaks free and smashes the Leader’s plans.

Incredible Hulk 115 pg 4

I think that before these issues, the Leader had been drawn as having a large but round skull to correspond to his gamma radiation-enlarged brain.  Trimpe seems to be the artist who tweaked the design, giving us the Leader with the now-famous head that shoots straight up, a version that would endure for the next two decades.  While I do wonder how this guy walks around without bumping his head in doorways or on the ceiling, it is an instantly recognizable look.

After splashing down into an aquatic scuffle with Namor the Sub-Mariner, the Hulk encounters Maximus the Mad and his renegade faction of Inhumans.  Maximus manages to manipulate the Hulk into fighting the U.S. armed forces, and we get some more excellent action sequences from Trimpe.  Certainly the stand-out piece is the cover to issue #120, a truly iconic image of the Hulk fighting the military.

Incredible Hulk 120 cover

With the shift to Roy Thomas as writer in #121, we get an interesting, unusual tale, “Within the Swamp, There Stirs… a Glob!”  Amidst the Florida wilderness, the Hulk encounters an eerie muck monster, a dead man resurrected as a shambling monstrosity by radioactive material and, it is implied, some mystical element of the swamp itself.  The Glob, prodded on by the memory of a long-lost love, kidnaps Betty Ross.  Of course the Hulk pursues the creature, intent on rescuing the one human being who has expressed sympathy & understanding for him.

Years later, in the pages of his magazine Alter Ego, Thomas freely admitted that he conceived the Glob in homage to the Golden Age character the Heap.  A self-proclaimed fan of the Heap, Thomas also later was involved in creating the similar Man-Thing.  Thomas even worked in a one-panel cameo by the Heap into an issue of Avengers during the famous “Kree-Skrull War” storyline.  And a few months ago a hardcover volume reprinting some of that character’s earliest appearances, Roy Thomas Presents The Heap, was released.  I wish I’d had a chance to pick that up when it came out.

In any case, Trimpe’s art on #121 is very good.  He does some rather moody, atmospheric work.  The Glob is quite effectively rendered by the artist.  I enjoyed this one so much that I wish it could have been a two part story.

Incredible Hulk 121 pg 17

If you pick up Marvel Masterworks: Incredible Hulk Volume 5, you’ll certainly find some nice art by Herb Trimpe.  In his introduction to this volume, Trimpe is somewhat dismissive of his work on these issues.  They do say artists are their own harshest critics.  Admittedly this was early in his career.  Throughout the 1970s and 80s he would certainly grow & develop as an artist, seeing much improvement.  But there is definite potential in this early work.  Undoubtedly the strongest aspect of his work here is his superb storytelling.  Trimpe really knows how to lay out a page and tell a story.

So, yeah, I’d recommend checking out Trimpe’s amazing run on Incredible Hulk.  If you don’t want to pick up the expensive Marvel Masterworks volumes, the Essential collections are perfect for the reader on a budget.

Comic books I’m reading, part one: DC and Marvel

Back when I was a teenager and in my twenties, I read a lot of books published by DC and Marvel Comics.  I was very much into the mainstream superhero titles.  Over the last several years, though, my tastes have gradually changed.  Additionally, comic books have become more and more expensive, now costing around $2.99 to $3.99.  I don’t have as much disposable income as I used to, so I cannot afford to buy as many books.  Additionally, a lot of titles have become very decompressed and long form in their story arcs.  That means it takes more issues to tell a story while, conversely, much less time to read each actual issue.  I don’t see the point in spending three to four bucks for a ten minute read.

So, what ongoing series am I picking up?  From DC, I’ve been following Justice League International, Wonder Woman, and Blackhawks, and the last of those three was just canceled.  That leaves just two.

JLI is a pretty decent book.  I decided to give it a try because I liked the creative team of Dan Jurgens & Aaron Lopresti.  Also, the cast of the book contained Booster Gold, Fire, Ice, and various other so-called “second-stringers” who do not have their own solo titles, enabling Jurgens to engage in character development.  I also enjoy the interaction between Booster and Batman, which is almost of a student/mentor relationship.  So far, it’s been pretty entertaining.  The main ongoing subplot concerns a group of superhuman anarchists.  I’ll be sticking with JLI for the immediate future, to see what happens.  Lopresti’s art is very nicely done.  I just wish that he was also drawing the covers, but I guess David Finch is a hotter creator.

Justice League International #8

(I am somewhat curious about the main Justice League title, but seeing as it’s penciled by Jim Lee it is inevitably going to end up collected in trade paperbacks, so I can always check it out later.)

On Wonder Woman, the major draw, so to speak, has been Cliff Chiang’s stunning artwork.  It really is beautiful.  I am not nearly as much sold by Brian Azzarello’s writing.  Something about it doesn’t quite click with me.  He is one of those writers who play a very long game, so the plotlines he’s set up could take years to resolve.  I’m not sure I want to stick around that long to see it all pan out.  The major distinction for the Wonder Woman revamp has been Azzarello & Chiang re-imagining the Greek gods.  Instead of a bunch of people in white togas standing around spouting pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue, they are a dysfunctional group of freaks with murky motivations.  They really feel like mysterious, dangerous deities who could do some serious damage with their manipulations.

For me, the two best books DC has released lately have been miniseries.  I absolutely loved The Ray, which I initially picked up for Jamal Igle’s artwork.  Igle is an incredibly talented creator, and his artwork on this four issue miniseries is stunning.  What made The Ray such a great book was that the writing by Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti was of an equally high standard.  If you haven’t already, I highly recommend tracking down back issues of this series.  I don’t know if there is going to be a TPB collection of this, but if DC has any sense, they will collect it.

The Ray #1

The other miniseries I enjoyed was Legion: Secret Origin written by Paul Levitz.  He does an excellent job setting down the post-Flashpoint origin of the Legion of Super-Heroes.  Levitz introduces the characters and the world of the 31st Century in a manner that will please long-time Legion fans such as myself, yet is accommodating to newer readers.  Legion: Secret Origin is also an excellent example of how to set up a miniseries in such a way that it is self-contained and stands on its own, but at the same time plants the seeds for future storylines elsewhere.  Also, the series boosts superb artwork by Chris Batista & Marc Deering.

Over at Marvel, well, there’s not much I’m picking up, either.  I used to be such a HUGE fan of both Captain America and the Avengers.  Nowadays, they are hotter than they have ever been but, ironically, I’m just not as interested.  Brian Michael Bendis’ run on Avengers just never did much for me, so it has been several years since I followed any of the titles regularly.  (I did really enjoy Mighty Avengers when Dan Slott was writing it.)  As for Captain America, well, Ed Brubaker has been doing excellent work but, like Azzarello, he sets up storylines that take a long time to pan out, plus his writing style is definitely decompressed.  When the Captain America: The First Avenger movie came out last year, Marvel re-started the book with a new issue #1.  I was sort of underwhelmed by the first five issue arc, “American Dreamers.”  I’ve bought the next five issues, the “Powerless” arc, and read the first two chapters, but just haven’t gotten around to finishing it, despite some gorgeous artwork by Alan Davis & Mark Farmer.  The thing is, I’ve religiously bought every issue of Captain America since 1989, but now I’m actually wondering if I want to continue with it.

I’ve been somewhat more entertained by the original Captain America volume one, which continued the original series numbering, but was re-titled Captain America & Bucky for nine issues, before switching over the second spot to a rotating co-star.  Right now it’s Hawkeye sharing the spotlight with the Sentinel of Liberty.  The two Bucky-related stories were both very good. Part of that had to do with them being self-contained.  I wish Brubaker would write more stories of that nature.  A new creative team came on-board with Hawkeye.  So far, I’m not especially impressed, but I will wait to see how the entire story plays out.  But again, I am uncertain if I will stick around after that.

After a very long time away, I have started picking up Avengers, at least for a few issues.  The legendary Walter Simonson is penciling a six issue arc that ties in with the Avengers vs. X-Men crossover.  I am a huge fan of Simonson, and I have long wanted to see him draw Avengers.  He is doing an absolutely stunning job.  I was blown away by the first two issues out, #s 25 & 26.  In the later, we see Thor in combat with the Phoenix Force out in space.  It is just beautiful work.

Avengers #26 page 17: Thor vs the Phoenix Force!

Mention definitely has to be made of Scott Hanna’s contribution.  He is one of the absolute best inkers in the comic book biz today.  I often think he does not receive anywhere near the credit that is due him.  This is his first time inking Simonson, and the results look fantastic.  I also have to point out the vibrant coloring by Jason Keith, which really stood out in that sequence with the Phoenix.

The writing by Bendis is pretty good, but he could do a bit of a better job making this portion stand on its own.  I realize this is part of a huge crossover, but in the middle of #26, there’s a sudden jump forward in the action, with the explanatory caption “For details, see Secret Avengers #26-28 on sale now!”  That was jarring.

Anyway, despite this, Bendis does have a nice scene earlier between the Protector (not familiar with the character, but I think he’s a Kree agent and a new Avengers recruit) and his cute punk rock girlfriend.  Bendis is usually better at penning more personal character moments like this than monumental superhero spectacles, so it plays to his strengths.  That said, if you are going to do big & cosmic, Walter Simonson is your go-to guy, and Bendis gives him plenty to play with in the issue’s second half.  I would complain that it only took ten minutes each to read Avengers #s 25 & 26, but they both look so amazing thanks to Simonson & Hanna.  So I’m on-board for the next four issues, which they are also illustrating.

Other than that, the only Marvel book I’m following right now is the five issue limited series Hulk Smash Avengers.  It takes place during different eras of the team’s history, and examines their contentious relationship with the Hulk.  Topped off by beautiful covers from Lee Weeks, each issue has a different creative team.

The main reason why I decided to get this miniseries is because the first issue is by Tom DeFalco, Ron Frenz & Sal Buscema.  I have really enjoyed DeFalco & Frenz’s work on Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, Thunderstrike, A-Next, and Spider-Girl.  Buscema is one of my all time favorite comic book artists.  Nowadays mostly retired, he still breaks out the old pen & brush to ink Frenz on various projects.  They go together extremely well.

Their issue is an homage to the early Avengers stories by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Don Heck, and Dick Ayers.  In it, the Masters of Evil join forces with the Hulk against the original Avengers team.  DeFalco is very much going for a Silver Age vibe with his scripting, which makes it a bit goofy, but a lot of fun.  It was fun seeing DeFalco & Frenz do a story with Thor once again.  And, yay, it actually took longer than ten minutes to read this issue!  DeFalco, like Paul Levitz, really knows how to script a story full of substance.

Hulk Smash Avengers #1 page 3

I haven’t had an opportunity to read the next two issues of Hulk Smash Avengers yet, but they’re written by Joe Casey and Roger Stern, so I have high expectations.  And I’ll be buying the final two installments when they come out.

That’s really about it.  Aside from picking up an occasional issue of a title here or there, right now I’m not really committed to any other specific series from either DC or Marvel.  My interest has been shifting more and more over to releases from “independent” companies such as Image, IDW, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, and others.  I will be discussing those in an upcoming post on this blog.  Keep an eye out for it.

A marvelous G.I. Joe reunion at IDW

I’ve been enjoying the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero series that IDW has been publishing for the past couple of years.  The main drawing point has, of course, been the return of writer Larry Hama to the characters he made such a phenomenon in the 1980s.

(I previously did a review of the first two IDW trade paperback collections on Yahoo Contributor Network, but that’s no longer online.  One of these days I should re-post it on this blog.)

GI Joe Annual 2012 cover

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero has continued to be enjoyable.  The recently-released 2012 annual was definitely a highlight.  Hama took a break from the monthly storylines to present a stand-alone tale focusing on a rogue Cobra Crimson Guard unit attempting to carry out a terrorist plot, with both the Joe team and Zartan’s outlaw Dreadnoks racing to thwart them.  The writing may not have been nearly as strong as Hama’s work on the monthly book, but it contained an abundance of his trademark dry wit & deadpan humor.

(I don’t think Hama likes the term “deadpan humor” but I’m not quite sure how else to describe it.  Well, whatever you want to call it, it works very well.)

The main selling point for me was the line-up of artists.  Ron Frenz, Ron Wagner, and Herb Trimpe shared penciling duties, with Sal Buscema inking the entire story.  In service of the multiple artists, Hama cleverly structured his storytelling to shift focus between the three groups.  The Guardsmen pages were penciled by Frenz, the Cobra and Dreadnoks pages by Wagner, and the G.I. Joe pages by Trimpe.  Buscema’s inking gave the overall book a certain uniform feel, so that the transitions back and forth between the trio of pencilers were not jarring.

GI Joe Annual 2012 pg 18

The annual was something of a mini-Marvel Comics reunion, both in terms of the G.I. Joe title and in a broader sense.  Each of the four artists produced a large body of work at Marvel in the past.  In regards to G.I. Joe, Trimpe was the book’s original artist in the early 1980s.  Even though he has drawn numerous covers for the IDW series, this annual features his first interior work for the revival.  Wagner also worked on G.I. Joe, penciling the book in the late 1980s.

Additionally, both Herb Trimpe and Sal Buscema had momentous, nearly-uninterrupted runs penciling Marvel’s Incredible Hulk series.   Trimpe was the artist on the Hulk from 1968 to 1975, while Buscema drew the Hulk between 1976 and 1985.  So you have two men who are almost universally regarded as the definitive illustrators of one of Marvel’s most recognizable characters.  And, as far as I am aware, they have only worked together on a handful of occasions in the past (I believe Trimpe was inked by Buscema on a few issues of Incredible Hulk way back in 1971).  So, for a long-time Marvel fan such as myself, it was a thrill to see the two collaborating on this annual.

GI Joe Annual 2012 pg 19

Of course, I would be even happier to see Trimpe & Buscema together again on a Hulk story.  I don’t know if Marvel would even be interested in such a project.  But occasionally they do publish a “retro” special or flashback sequence, so it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility.   Until that happens, this G.I. Joe annual serves as a nice reunion between the two comic book legends.

In any case, considering the very unfortunate tendency of Marvel (as well as DC) to offer less and less work to older artists such as Trimpe and Buscema, or even to such talents as Frenz or Wagner, who both had regular monthly gigs as recently as the 1990s, I certainly appreciate them being given the opportunity to produce new work.  For that reason alone, the 2012 G.I. Joe annual is well worth picking up.