Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Planet Hulk

I'm prefacing this review by saying that my expectations for "Planet Hulk", and the standards to which I held it, may have been a bit too high.

If I had to boil down Greg Pak's 14-part epic (15 if you include the Gladiator Guidebook, 16 if you include "Giant-Size Hulk"), I'd say it's characterized by missed opportunities. There was, I believe, a very solid premise at the heart of the story: the Hulk crash-lands on an alien world ruled by a monarchy that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Roman Empire, with slaves, gladiators and a Caligula-esque Emperor. Our hero is then enslaved, only to become a star gladiator and reluctant hero to the people, a figurehead around whom a resistance forms. Meanwhile, he befriends kindred souls - "monsters" similar to himself - and they forge "warbonds" that hold them together as a band of rebels. It's basically Spartacus in Space. Original? No, but as I said, it's a solid angle and fertile ground for good stories.

But Pak can't seem to make the most of what he's got. The biggest problem, IMO, is contrivance: things happen at the drop of a pin, with little or no set-up (ie: the Emperor goes crazy, Hulk gets a girlfriend, a bomb that sat around patiently for 13 issues suddenly goes off for no visible reason, etc.). Characterization is also deeply flawed, in that Pak's interpretation of the Hulk is even more erratic than he usually is, shifting motivations and goals at random intervals, and while this could have been attributed to the split personality aspect of the character, it's not clear if that's how we're supposed to interpret it. This has, I suppose, long been a problem with the Hulk, one of the more villainous heroes in the bunch - you can probably rely on him to show decency and heroism when it really, really matters, but he's also got the capacity to behave like an overwhelmingly obnoxious ass. Peter David balanced that out nicely by really exploring the Hulk's pathos; Pak forgoes any in-depth examination of the cast members, which only makes the story's developments seem even more forced.

It all goes back to pacing, and this is where I think I might be a little spoiled, because I read "Planet Hulk" shortly after finishing "Narbonic", a marvel of meticulous exactitude - every strip, every arc, every subplot was perfectly measured out and planned. By comparison, I can't help but feel like Pak was given lots of space - we're talking over a year's worth of issues here - and didn't do enough with it. His villains are two-dimensional (the Emperor in particular is a caricature), his heroes are stick figures (what, at the end of the day, can we really say about Elloe or Hiroim other than they're cliche archetypes?), and the lead-in to "World War Hulk" could only have turned out more contrived if Joe Quesada had materialized out of the ether, shoved Hulk into a rocket and blasted him off to Earth, Superman-style.

And now I'm starting to wonder if I've been wrong to endorse Pak all this time based on what he did with "Phoenix: Endsong" - if the "Warsong" sequel and "Planet Hulk" are any indication, he's not quite the bastion of talent he initially appeared to be.