I’ve generally enjoyed everything I’ve read from Aaron, and while “Scalped” is likely the title he will and should be remembered for, the man has also done an admirable job of steering Wolverine and his half of the X-Men over the past few years. Yet I held off on checking out his run on the Hulk for a couple reasons. One, the hardcover edition of the first volume was ridiculously overpriced at $35 for seven issues. Two, I’d heard from friends that it was best described as “uneven.” So I held off on picking it up until Comic-Con where... well, you can probably do the math at this point. Long story short, I wound up liking that first volume enough to put it on my Amazon wishlist, and then a friend got it for me as a birthday present. Based on my cost-per-page investment in these two volumes, I feel I got my money’s worth. Can I imagine paying the $50 combined cover price for them? No. No I cannot.
The story picks up on something that I’m sure has been done a few times before in the Marvel Universe, but not in recent memory. That would be the fact that Bruce Banner and the Hulk have finally been separated from each other and are now doing their own thing. For the Hulk, that means spending time away from the world of man with a tribe of moloids who welcome and accept his presence. As for Banner, he’s now obsessed with finding a way to make the Hulk part of him again.
Make that finding ANY way to reunite with his bigger, badder, greener half. It’s to the point where he has gone all Dr. Moreau on a deserted island, exposing animals and himself to gamma radiation in an attempt to re-create the experiment that turned him into the Hulk without resorting to a giant bomb... yet. This has attracted the attention of a secret government team known as the Mad Squad, who specialize in taking out -- you guessed it -- mad scientists. Banner has just made their list and they want the Hulk’s help in taking him down.
The key idea underpinning this volume, and Aaron’s run overall, is that while Banner has spent years trying to free himself from what he views as a curse it was the sole thing keeping him sane. Without the Hulk around to focus his attention, the scientist starts discounting morality and utilizing his knowledge to more weaponized and destructive ends. In finding a way to separate the two, the Hulk has created something even more dangerous and unpredictable than they were together.
As for the actual plot of the first volume, it centers around a whole lot of the Hulk beating up monsters under the Earth and on an island. It’s done pretty well with Marc Silvestri (mostly) illustrating the first three issues and Whilce Portacio taking up the last four, and their over-the-top old-school-Image styles work really well with the material. Which involves lots of gamma-radiated beast like warthogs, tigers, and sharks. While the conflict with Banner and his creations takes up most of the action here, there’s a parallel plot thread showing us just how he and Ol’ Jade Jaws were separated. The reason essentially involves one of the more notable villains of the Marvel Universe acting as a Mac Guffin for this particular plot point, but I can give it a pass because it’s actually somewhat believable that he’d be able to pull something like this off.
Mac Guffins play a larger part in the second volume when Banner and the Hulk are back together again. I’d have said “spoiler warning,” except anyone should’ve guessed that it was going to happen sooner or later. The twist is that while they’ve reunited, Banner is still quite mad and now it’s up to the Hulk to stay angry so that the real monster doesn’t get out.
The good news is that this leads us to what is easily the best part of these two volumes: a series of five issues, each illustrated by a different artist, where the Hulk wakes up in a strange place and has to deal with Banner’s crazy manipulations. These places include a forgotten Russian space station, an undersea village filled with hick Atlanteans, and the lost city of sasquatches. Not only are most of these places imaginatively crazy, they also lead to some equally impressive fight scenes between the Hulk and the local inhabitants and some impressive planning on Banner’s part when it comes to manipulating his other half. The five issues in this arc have a great “What’s going to happen next?” vibe to them and it was a genuine thrill as I went from issue-to-issue, eager to see the craziness that Aaron had in store.
Steve Dillon, Pasqual Ferry, Tom Raney, Dalibor Talajic and Carlos Pacheco provided the art for these issues, and they all do mostly fantastic work. The “mostly” part is regrettably reserved to Dillon’s contribution as the man is not cut out for drawing the Hulk. His version of the character looks like a giant green man rather than an imposing monster. While Dillon’s style works very well for everything else in the issue -- the Punisher, Mexican thugs, a dog-faced drug lord -- it just wasn’t meant for the character.
On the other hand, the rest of the issues in this volume were done by Jefte Palo and while I didn’t think he did a good job of adapting his style to conventional superheroics in “X-Men,” he proves much more capable here. He’s an artist who works in straight lines, giving his characters a stylized look to them, and that works fine for a story that involves lots of Doombots, a very spiky psychic assassin, the return of the Mad Squad, and both Hulk and Banner doing lots of smashing. It’s good stuff and it helps give the last few issues some real momentum.
That’s necessary because the things that Banner was collecting in the previous arc turn out to be more Mac Guffin in nature than the result of detailed plotting. On one hand, the thing these items come together to create defies belief even by the standards of the Marvel Universe. Particularly since its very existence effectively “breaks” any Hulk-type character now. We’re told that it’s all used up at the end, but... well, now that it’s out in the open I’m sure we’ll see someone whip it out again. However, on the other hand, it’s actually kind of interesting to think that Banner wasn’t able to whip this thing up until he stopped trying to separate himself from the Hulk. Its existence also could mark a turning point for the character and cement Aaron’s run as adding something significant to its mythos. We’ll see how that turns out in a couple years.
So yeah, the description of “uneven” for this run’s quality turned out to be pretty spot-on. However, I think that there was enough interesting work done with the character, and some entertainingly crazy concepts to make it enjoyable overall. Of course, my cost-per-page-to-entertainment ratio here was fairly skewed by the way I acquired these volumes. Based on that, I’d say that if you’re a fan of the character or of Aaron in general, then this is something to look out for in the half-off bins the next time you’re at a convention.