The Vocation to the Hulkhood

(WARNING: This post contains spoilers from recent issues of The Totally Awesome Hulk and Civil War II from Marvel Comics.)

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I’ve both been an avid aficionado of Marvel Comics and the mythical universe portrayed in them and a dweller of the Marvel margins for nearly 30 years, since dropping 75 of my mom’s cents on Incredible Hulk #337 in 1987. while I have a great appreciation and respect for Spider-Man, Captain America, the Fantastic Four, and most of Marvel’s flagship characters, I have only consistently followed the Hulk–every monthly issue of whose comics I’ve purchased since 1987–and Jim Starlin’s Thanos/Warlock saga. Unless a favorite author is assigned to craft the narrative of other characters, I learn what’s going down in the wider Marvel Universe primarily as it is interacted with by the Hulk or Thanos.

This is an era of Marvel Comics in which interest is maintained in the characters in large part by frequent, rapid changes from the established norm. Though any or all of the changes may well have occurred in stories that were inherently solid, when popping in from the Marvel margins to discover that there are now two Captain Americas, two Spider-Men, a female Captain Marvel and a female Thor, it’s tempting to be cynical and presume that these changes were made for the sheer comics-selling power of change itself. I was especially skeptical a few months ago to learn that my homeboy, Bruce Banner, would both no longer be the title character in his own monthly series nor any longer be the alter ego of the Hulk, and that an altogether different person, Amadeus Cho, would be turning into an altogether different Hulk in the pages of the new series, The Totally Awesome Hulk.

Skeptical though I was, I gave the new series the benefit of the doubt, both because the author, Greg Pak, has well established himself as a solid and credible steward ot the Hulk mythos over the years, and because the new Hulk, Amadeus Cho, has long proven himself to be a friend and supporter of Bruce Banner. Against the greatest odds over the years, the young Cho has defied the orthodoxy of the super-hero hierarchy and maintained a stalwart recognition of Banner’s legitimate vocation to heroism and proven to be a loyal man of honor. It was gradually revealed that Cho’s transformation into a Hulk was birthed in a selfless act of risking his life to save Banner, who himself was, for the umpteenth time, giving of himself in service to the ordained, capital-H heroes like Tony Stark. Banner himself, freed from his enmeshment with the Hulk, was beginning to move on with his life and enjoy a semblance of peace.

It sounds odd, but I’ve long numbered Bruce Banner among my closest friends. I’ve found the saga of the Hulk, as I’ve followed it for the past three decades, to be far more than “just” a story–if, indeed, the word “just” is ever meaningfully attached to story–but, like the greatest works of fiction, almost sacramentally able to absorb me into its reality. There, as a temporary visitor to an incredible world, I walk with giants and scoundrels, and, in dialogue with them, work in the ongoing task of forging my own meaningful identity. That’s the power of the greatest characters in the greatest stories. Indeed, I credit Peter David, who wrote the Incredible Hulk from 1987 to 1999 among the most influential figures in shaping my worldview.

I initially bonded with Banner the misfit as a dorky child, perhaps taking comfort in the fact that this outcast was, beneath the surface, the mightiest mortal on earth. Later in life, Banner’s struggles with mental illness helped hone my powers of empathy, his bumbling missteps helped dull the shame of my own, and the constant, repetitive refusal of the wider super-hero community to recognize the merit in his gifts and talents helped me embrace my own identity as one happy to minister to the marginalized from the margins of ministry.

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I can appreciate Amadeus Cho because he shares my appreciation for Bruce Banner. And so, my verdict on The Totally Awesome Hulk is that it is a fine comic and one well-named.

Outside the pages of Hulk, however, Bruce Banner has received yet another rejection from the self-proclaimed heroes of Marvel, and this one definitive. When a young Inhuman with the gift of seeing the future foretold an impending rampage of a newly re-enHulked Banner that would lead to widespread casualties, the hero community en masse confronted Banner at his laboratory. In the midst of an argument, while hiding in the trees like an abject coward, Hawkeye shot an arrow through Banner’s face, killing him.

Just like that. My close friend of 30 years–THE Incredible Hulk–is taken down by a guy who does archery good.

It’s comics, of course, and he’ll almost certainly return from the grave. But Hulk comics are, for me, sacramental, and part of me genuinely mourns for my good friend, betrayed one too many times.

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