I’m not what you’d call a comics guy — I don’t have a set of first editions in acid-free bags in the closet, I couldn’t tell you who the Fantastic Four are, or even distinguish between Marvel and DC (though I’m pretty sure Spiderman is in one camp, and Batman in the other). But I’ve always liked and respected the medium, and the rise of the graphic novel has made sampling the best of what comics has to offer convenient for casual fans like me. So, when I spotted a recommendation in an online forum for Planet Hulk, a graphic novel in which the big green superhero takes on the role of John Carter in a sword and planet epic, I was intrigued, and made an impulse purchase. I’m glad I did.
Planet Hulk is a compilation of Hulk #92-105, with further material from other special releases, and a wealth of supplemental art and background info rounding out a hefty hardcover. Lifted straight from the comic, Planet Hulk is clearly a slice of the ongoing story of the Hulk; a story of which I was wholly ignorant before jumping into this graphic novel. But that didn’t prove to be a problem.
The story opens in the midst of the action, with Hulk aboard a small spacecraft sent by the superhero organization S.H.I.E.L.D to destroy a rogue satellite. But Hulk’s presence there is a ruse, and he is betrayed by friends who find him too dangerous to tolerate any longer. He is being sent on a one-way trip to a distant planet so he can trouble Earth no more and, perhaps, find the peace that has always eluded him. But the vessel encounters a vortex that sucks it of course, and Hulk arrives on a world quiet different from the uninhabited, idyllic planet promised him by his betrayers. Instead, he finds a world perfectly suited to his talents . . .
Thus Planet Hulk presents the reader with a fresh beginning — one of the reason I had no trouble getting into it, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to other readers uninitiate in the mysterious of the Marvel Universe. Hulk lands on Sakaar, a Barsoom-inspired world of red-skinned humanoids, native insect men, giant reptiles, rogue machines, alien diseases, and assorted other monsters. It’s a world in torment, ruled by the despotic Red King, and Hulk immediately finds himself captured and forced to fight in the Red King’s arena.
I had no idea just how powerful Hulk was supposed to be in the comic, but Planet Hulk tones down his world-destroying strength initially by having him arrive in a weakened state because of his passage through the Great Portal that pulls ships to Sakaar. So Hulk begins with some limitations and vulnerabilities, and gradually gets stronger throughout the story until he approaches godlike status.
Author of Planet Hulk, Greg Pak, certainly has command of all the elements that make a fantastic sword and planet tale, and choosing Hulk as a protagonist for one is a natural fit. To start with, the action is extremely fast-paced, and the first issue ‘Exile’ moves Hulk rapidly through his arrival on Sakaar to a brawl in the arena and into a fight with the Red King himself (resplendent in robotic battle-armor), as well as the Red King’s female Shadow bodyguard. As the issue ends, the Hulk and a few arena survivors are being sent to the ominously named ‘maw’ gladiatorial school for further education in the fighting arts.
The pacing, colorful and detail-packed art, exotic alien setting, and continually escalating scale of conflict all make Planet Hulk a fun read, but it’s the depth of character and examination of the themes of friendship, revenge, and unchecked violence that truly make this a compelling saga. In the maw, Hulk becomes part of a team of misfits and monsters — an eager native, a revolutionary, a psychotic alien, a creature of living rock, and a disgraced shadow warrior — and alongside them he slowly relearns trust. His gladiatorial days do not last as he and his new friends regain their freedom, and soon Hulk finds himself not only at the center of a slave insurrection, but as the messiah of an entire world.
Who once was known to the natives as the Green Scar, strongest of the Red King’s gladiators, is now rumored to be the Son of Sakaar — the long awaited deliverer that will unite the contentious world and bring peace. But alongside the prophecy of the Sakaarson is that of the Worldbreaker, and Hulk wrestles with these two poles of his potentiality as he rages against the injustice of the Red King, and fulfills his expected role as warleader of the dispossessed. It is no great spoiler to say the Hulk prevails against his enemy — as all superheroes must in one way or another — and at Hulk’s apex of success he indeed brings a new era to the world. Messiah-like, it is only his vast strength that can keep the various factions at peace as they rebuild.
A narrative strand in Planet Hulk recounts Hulk’s various names and titles, and says that this is the story of his coming home. He indeed finds a home on Sakaar — just as John Carter found his own idealized masculine paradise — but Hulk also relearns trust, love, and mercy. But rage was always the motive force that propelled him in his quest to unseat the Red King, and the antagonisms Hulk sets in motion are not so easily checked. Planet Hulk gives us the vicarious thrill of the straightforward Hulk-smash, but also asks that we deal with the consequences.
Planet Hulk is a grand romp in the sword and planet tradition, not only visually impressive and visceral, but containing unexpected depths of character and theme. Highly recommended.
BILL WARD is a genre writer, editor, and blogger wanted across the Outer Colonies for crimes against the written word. His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, as well as gaming supplements and websites. He is a Contributing Editor and reviewer for Black Gate Magazine, and 423rd in line for the throne of Lost Lemuria. Read more at BILL’s blog, DEEP DOWN GENRE HOUND.