The Hulk always appealed to me when I was younger. He’s big, green, angry, and eager to fight anyone at any time. So when World War Hulk was released, I was ecstatic. Here was one of my favorite characters, smashing his way through the Marvel Universe. The whole idea was just “the Hulk vs. everybody”, a series of fights that I always wanted to see. This particular version of the Hulk was definitely my favorite. Writer Greg Pak’s Hulk was smart, mean, more powerful than ever, and he was always the first one to call people out on their flaws. Looking back on my admiration for this iteration of the character, it’s surprising that I didn’t read Pak’s preceding tale, Planet Hulk, until about two years ago. Regardless, World War Hulk has always been a favorite of mine. The action is phenomenal, containing some particularly brutal fight scenes, and John Romita Jr.’s artwork is perfect for the epic feel of the event. Everything about World War Hulk felt monumental to me as a kid, and the Hulk and his friends, the Warbound, were an exciting set of protagonists.
Although not a Bendis-written event, World War Hulk largely takes place within the context of Bendis’ narrative of the Marvel Universe. At the time of World War Hulk, Civil War had just finished, leaving the superhero community divided. Captain America was dead, and the heroes more frequently fought each other than actual supervillains. The Avengers, for example, were split into two opposing teams. Luke Cage was in charge of the outlaw New Avengers, while those who registered with the government joined the Mighty Avengers. Both teams were adjusting to the status quo, including new lineups and even new costumes for some characters. Additionally, certain heroes committed some morally questionable actions before World War Hulk, leaving their status as heroes under considerable doubt. Reed Richards and Tony Stark behaved in a semi-villainous manner during Civil War, for example. Richards, Stark, Black Bolt, and Doctor Strange were also part of the Illuminati, a small cabal of heroes who met in secret to protect the world. The Illuminati’s methods were problematic, to say the least, unilaterally sending the Hulk into space to protect the world from his rampages. It is the actions of the Illuminati which leaves the Marvel heroes in a moral gray area at the time of World War Hulk.
Indeed, the actions of the Illuminati come back to haunt them, as the Hulk returns from space in order to punish these heroes. During the events of Planet Hulk, the Hulk landed on Sakaar, an alien world where he was enslaved as a gladiator. The green goliath managed to fight his way to the top, overthrowing the corrupt Red King. The Hulk’s happiness as the king of Sakaar was short-lived, as a bomb from the Hulk’s ship blew up, destroying his kingdom. Blaming the Illuminati, the Hulk will now stop at nothing to achieve retribution. The Hulk and his new allies, the Warbound, tear through the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, the Inhumans, and even the US military, in order to bring the Illuminati to justice. Throughout the narrative, Rick Jones, the Hulk’s old sidekick, follows the Hulk in an attempt to convince his friend to stop while he still can. Simultaneously, the Sentry, an old friend of the Hulk’s, must decide whether or not he can face the green goliath, for fear of unleashing his own immense power.
The Hulk himself is like a force of nature in this comic. After suffering so much loss and betrayal, the Hulk is angrier than ever, therefore making him stronger than ever before. No matter what is thrown the Hulk’s way, he manages to smash it with ease. Motivated by a desire to punish the Illuminati, the Hulk does everything he can to gain retribution. For example, when the Hulk captures all of the Illuminati, he places them all in Madison Square Garden, forcing them to experience the gladiator trials which he faced on Sakaar. The phrase “Never stop making them pay” becomes a motif of the story, emphasizing the Hulk’s relentless pursuit of justice. Yet the Hulk, despite his rather harsh exterior, is actually quite heroic in World War Hulk. Even when the Hulk forces the Illuminati to fight each other in the ring, he chooses to let them live, saying, “We came here for justice. Not murder”. Indeed, the Hulk never actually kills anyone, even going so far as to protect innocent civilians from falling debris during a fight with Doctor Strange. The Hulk also only seeks to punish the Illuminati, only fighting others who attack him. When the Sentry decides to attack the Hulk at the end of the story, the Hulk declares, “Stark! Richards! All of you! Never forget! Whatever happens next…is on your heads”. Despite the Hulk’s heroic heart, he still displays an anger and cruelty throughout World War Hulk. Much of this anger manifests itself from a place of pain. The Hulk lost his wife, Caiera, along with their unborn child, when Sakaar exploded. Throughout the narrative, the Hulk has flashbacks to the explosion, picturing Caiera in her last moments. This trauma compels the Hulk to act violently, enraged at those who took his wife away.
While the Hulk acts out of anger, the Illuminati, by contrast, make calculated decisions. Despite the careful consideration behind them, it is these calculated decisions, such as sending the Hulk into space, which become huge mistakes. Each member of the Illuminati is a leader or a genius of some sort, but none of them could predict the emotional and physical consequences of their actions. The Illuminati is representative of the recent moral uncertainty embedded in the superhero community, such as the actions of the pro-registration side in Civil War. Following purely rational motives and methods, this group of geniuses failed to take into account the morality of their actions. The Hulk arrives to show the Illuminati the moral flaws in their recent actions by punishing them and their allies. Although these allies, such as the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, are willing to stand by the members of the Illuminati, deep down, these men know that they are all guilty of their actions. It is worth noting that the Illuminati sent the Hulk into space without anyone else’s knowledge, acting alone. In the same manner, almost every member is taken down by the Hulk on their own, showing how these men’s actions have isolated themselves.
Although the Hulk doles out significant punishment to the Illuminati, he is constantly reminded of his true nature by Rick Jones. Rick appears to remind the Hulk that he always has been, and always will be, a hero. From the day Bruce Banner became the Hulk, saving Rick from a gamma bomb explosion, he has saved countless lives. Even as the Hulk, Bruce uses his anger and power to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. Rick prevents the Hulk from going too far, serving as a moral conscience. Indeed, Rick says much of what the Hulk himself will never admit. For example, in one scene, Rick tells the Hulk, “Don’t know why you’d be acting like Banner, unless…oh yeah…you are Banner”. Calling out the Hulk’s heroism and resemblance to his alter ego keeps him in check, reminding him of who he is underneath all of his anger. This reminder of the Hulk’s humanity is a bridge between his life before and after his time on Sakaar. Rick is the only friend who has stayed loyal to the Hulk throughout his time on Earth, which is why the Hulk keeps him around during World War Hulk. In the end, Miek attempts to kill Rick in order to push the Hulk over the edge, which nearly happens. When Rick is stabbed, the Hulk loses control, almost destroying the Earth.
Although Rick is the Hulk’s best friend, it is the Hulk’s Warbound, from Sakaar, who support his actions throughout World War Hulk. The Warbound are a diverse set of aliens who are all extremely loyal to the Hulk. There is a camaraderie to the Warbound which has been forged in battle, making them like a family to the Hulk. Moreover, the Warbound choose to fight alongside the Hulk, which no one has ever done before. Usually, people will fight against the Hulk. Yet just like the green goliath, each of the Warbound was seen as a monster on their home planet. It only makes sense, then, that the Warbound would be motivated to join the Hulk in his quest to bring the real monsters to justice. Of course, this does not make the Warbound a mindless set of drones for the Hulk. On the contrary, each member has his/her own unique personality traits and cultural values. Hiroim, for example, is a priest, saying a prayer for each enemy he defeats. Korg is quite merciful, saying, “We could make an end right here. Their whole planet knows what they did to us. They’re the monsters now”. Miek, on the other hand, is the most bloodthirsty of the bunch, ceaselessly demanding vengeance. When the Hulk reverts to Bruce Banner in the end, Miek is disappointed, crying, “Come back, Hulk!” Each of these distinct traits makes the Warbound believable characters.
Throughout this tale of rage and vengeance, Pak frequently cuts back to the Sentry, the only one with the power to stop the Hulk. The Sentry serves as a nice contrast to the Hulk’s uninhibited rage and power. Bob Reynolds is constantly restraining himself, trying to keep his own power in check. In the context of Bendis’ New Avengers this aspect of the character never really interested me. Yet, juxtaposed against the Hulk, Pak makes it work. If the Sentry lets loose against the Hulk, he fears that he’ll become consumed by his own power. The Hulk and the Sentry act as two sides of the same coin: both are incredibly powerful, with the capacity to destroy the world. Additionally, this power makes them dangerous tools in the eyes of people like the Illuminati. These commonalities bond the two characters, as both the Hulk and the Sentry really just want peace and quiet. Yet the world around them will not allow this. What makes the ending so well done is the final confrontation between the Hulk and the Sentry. The power of both characters finally allows them to release their full potential, expending their energies and thus, keeping them both in check. The Sentry has enough power to revert the Hulk to Bruce Banner, and the Hulk has enough power to wear the Sentry down. Indeed, at the end, before collapsing, Reynolds says to Banner, “Bruce. Thanks”. This gratitude is indicative of the balance that the Sentry and the Hulk provide each other.
World War Hulk has some excellent character moments, but overall, much of the event is composed of giant action scenes. This is not to say, however, that there are no underlying themes. Indeed, World War Hulk touches on some thought-provoking ideas in between smashing. Chief among these themes is the nature of monstrosity. Despite the violent attack on New York, the brutal assault of several heroes, and the generally monstrous appearance of the Hulk and his Warbound, the identity of the real monsters is always under question. Throughout the event, Pak shows several citizens who actually side with the Hulk, calling the Illuminati the real monsters. During a scene in Madison Square Garden, the Hulk gives a microphone to several individuals who have been harmed by the actions of the Illuminati. Each member is scrutinized for these actions, highlighting the sins of these supposed heroes. Despite labeling the Illuminati as “Liars. Traitors. And killers”, the Hulk himself does not identify under any specific label. For most of World War Hulk, the Hulk does not speak for himself. Instead, others interpret the Hulk’s actions verbally. Miek sees the Hulk as a figure of vengeance, Rick sees him as a hero, and General Ross sees him as a monster. Yet the Hulk lets his actions speak for themselves, ignoring the labels others give him. In the end, the Hulk says, “They can call you whatever they want. Savior. Destroyer. All that matters…is what you choose”. The Hulk knows who he is, choosing not to let anyone else’s labels define him. In fact, the Hulk knows himself so well that he knows when to stop. Much of World War Hulk showcases how far the Hulk is willing to let his anger take him. It isn’t until the last second, when the Hulk stops the Illuminati from killing each other, that he has achieved his purpose. The Hulk recognizes the limited extent to which anger can achieve justice, choosing to stop himself once he is finished. Even in the end, when the Hulk becomes so angered that he is about to destroy the world, he recognizes that he must be stopped. The Hulk calls out to Stark, “Do it. Before I break the world!” While all of these themes have some influence on the story, they are not touched upon too heavily. After all, the main focus of the story is “Hulk vs. the Marvel Universe”.
The plot of World War Hulk is competent enough, accomplishing what it sets out to do. Pak’s characterization is so well done that an intricate plotline is not really necessary. When the whole premise is the Hulk beating everyone up, why bother complicating things? Each issue is structured very well, featuring at least one major fight in each issue. There is also a lot of the Hulk’s history incorporated in the series. For example, the Hulk vs. the Thing is a classic comic trope that Pak plays on nicely. Pak also recounts moments in the Hulk’s history from General Ross’ perspective, and generally highlights the tense history between the Hulk and Ross. The friendship between Doctor Strange and the Hulk is given a nice moment, when Strange temporarily gets the Hulk to calm down. Rick Jones, himself, is a classic callback to the Hulk’s earliest days of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby issues of the character. Each aspect of the Hulk’s history is included, and given its own twist in the context of World War Hulk. There generally isn’t anything too complex or insightful about World War Hulk‘s plot, but the characterization is spot-on, the action sequences are epic in scope, and the whole thing is just a lot of fun.
Overall, in the face of more politically-fueled events like Secret War or Civil War, World War Hulk is a welcome bit of fun. The whole story feels like a summer blockbuster, in the best way possible. Pak sets the Hulk up to do some smashing, and there is a serious amount in this event. There are certainly some interesting themes thrown around during World War Hulk, but there isn’t much of an in-depth exploration of these ideas. Of course, World War Hulk doesn’t pretend to be anything philosophical, so simply touching on certain themes is a pleasant surprise. I do wish that Pak gave the reader more of a general reaction from the Illuminati, regarding sending the Hulk into space. There is definitely room for repentance on the part of the Illuminati, and it would have been satisfying to see these heroes come to terms with their sins more. As it is, World War Hulk still explores a little about the status quo, showing how divided the superhero community has become. The Avengers are without Captain America, split into two distinct teams that are philosophically opposed to each other. Furthermore, the Hulk calls the heroes out for other morally compromised actions, such as creating a clone Thor in Civil War. Seeing the Hulk arrive in this complicated status quo to deliver a good old-fashioned smackdown is certainly satisfying.
World War Hulk might not have as many ramifications for Bendis’ Avengers as Civil War, but there are still going to be some consequences. Doctor Strange will certainly feel haunted by the events of World War Hulk, particularly for his use of forbidden spells to fight the Hulk. The use of this dark magic will come back to haunt Strange in Bendis’ New Avengers, leading him to relinquish his role as sorcerer supreme and leave the team. This begins a long arc of redemption for Strange, continuing for years to come. World War Hulk also gave readers their first look at a truly unhinged Sentry. This side of the character is going to be explored further as Bendis’ Avengers run continues. Specifically, when Norman Osborn mentors the Sentry, leading into Siege, the Sentry will become more and more unstable. With no Hulk to keep him in check, the Sentry will be unable to control his darker side. Finally, the Illuminati is a group which Bendis will refer back to several times in his run. This group plays a major role in setting up Secret Invasion, along with many other events, demonstrating the problematic nature of a secret society. Bendis may not have written World War Hulk, but it is still a fun event with a lasting impact on the Marvel Universe.
That’s all for this week. How did you like World War Hulk? I’d love to hear your thoughts on Twitter, @book_column, and be sure to share the blog with your friends! Thanks for reading! Join me again on Monday when I dive into Bendis’ post-Civil War New Avengers!