by Charlie Brooks, CMRO Contributing Writer
The Incredible Hulk
Written by Greg Pak, Art by Carlo Pagulayan
Unlike 99% of the western comic reading world, Hulk fans tend to look fondly on the 1990s. That was when Peter David brought the character to new critical and commercial heights. Then, as the decade closed, Marvel’s editorial mandates drove Peter David off the title and we got a very long stretch of poor comics. Joe Casey never got a feel for the character. John Byrne let his petty fued with Peter David spill into his comics and had the horrible Hulk: Chapter One where he tried to write skrulls into the Hulk’s origin story. Paul Jenkins and Bruce Jones both started strong but petered out quickly, and even Peter David’s return didn’t get very far beyond merely average. So by 2006, Hulk fans had little reason to believe that the title would be good for a very long time.
Enter Planet Hulk.
A little-known writer named Greg Pak was handed a concept by Joe Quesada: the Hulk meets Gladiator. From a premise that offered little more depth than an average action movie, Pak and artist Carlo Pagulayan wove an instant classic that will be fondly remembered by many a Hulk fan. It all started here, in issue #92 with part one of Planet Hulk: Exile.
The story picks up where the previous writer, Charles Way, left off, but it isn’t necessary to have read what came beforehand. Everything is presented right on the opening pages: the Hulk has been blasted into space by Marvel’s Illuminati, a group of heroes who have decided that they’d rather act like Wildstorm’s Authority than heroes that care about due process. We know from the beginning that the Hulk will come back to Earth for some smashing, but it’s the journey that is important. Enraged, the Hulk knocks the ship he’s in off course and through a wormhole, which brings him to the alien planet of Sakaar.
Immediately upon arriving on Sakaar, we see one of the huge high points of Planet Hulk: a totally new world for Pak and Pagulayan to play in. Pagulayan deserves a lot of credit for the success of this story, as he managed to craft a unique and interesting alien world with lots of interesting things for the Hulk to smash. This world is inhabited by pink-skinned humanoids who serve a Red King and oppress alien bug-folk. The Hulk is unimpressed with all of this, but the travel through the wormhole has left him weakened, leading to his capture and quick enslavement.
Early on, the story is merely light-hearted action fare that will become more significant later on. The Hulk is forced to fight monsters in an arena and teams up with Miek, a bug-man who starts this story out as the comic relief. Then the Hulk spies the Red King and decides that he knows who to smash.
The Hulk in this tale is not the iconic, “Hulk smash!” version of the character, but rather a slightly more intelligent but no less volatile version that resembles the character from the original stories told by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. While he is capable of reasoning, he is still a creature of rage, and he shows that by attacking the Red King when it would have been smarter to avoid smashing. This causes the Red King to take the Hulk on in the arena while donning a suit of powered armor. He fights well at first, but the Hulk comes back and manages to cut the king’s face with a sword.
It’s here that we see the first hints of how deep this story was planned out. The Red King scars the Hulk, and the Hulk gives him a similar scar, branding them as bound together by blood and hate. The Red King mirrors the Hulk’s attitude by proclaiming himself “the strongest one there is,” giving the vibe that he is an evil version of our hero – a mighty creature who acts out of rage but does wrong where the Hulk does right. The fight is interrupted by the Red King’s bodyguard, whose larger role in the story is hinted at when she is revealed to have green eyes – the only other thing in all the planet that is green so far except for the Hulk himself. Props go to colorist Chris Sotomayor for making this decision.
Still weakened, the Hulk is taken out by a surprise shot from behind and sentenced to die in the Maw – a massive magma creature. While the bugs who have teamed with the Hulk panic, the Hulk grins and finishes the issue by saying, “This is gonna be fun.”
And you know what? This is going to be fun. For any Hulk fan who suffered through almost a decade of stories that ranged from mediocre to just plain bad, this story is a breath of fresh air. The opening of Planet Hulk feels more light-hearted than the epic story actually is, but it gets to the core concepts of the tale right away: the Hulk fighting his way through an alien world. We’re introduced to the key players right off, including the Red King as the antagonist, the mysterious lieutenant that serves as his bodyguard, and the Hulk’s plucky sidekick Miek. And although it’s only noticeable on a second reading, there is a lot of care in the way both the narrative and the alien world is presented. I don’t know if Pak, Pagulayan, and company knew what they had on their hands in this endeavor, but this issue is the start of something special. A relief to diehards and easily accessible to casual fans, part one of Planet Hulk: Exile is a thing of beauty.