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Subj: Pondering Roger Stern, Mariko Tamaki, and... Hulk #8!
Posted: Sat Jul 15, 2017 at 03:14:34 pm EDT (Viewed 192 times)
It's a struggle. Inherently I feel it instinctively unfair and illogical to be directly comparing books from across two different and distant era's and with both clearly embodying such fundamentally different storytelling techniques for appealing to, theoretically, two seperate generations of very different audiences and their different levels of expectation. I am conflicted as, having read both within days of the other, I feel I shouldn't be making notes and comment on Mariko Tamaki and Georges Duarte's Hulk #8, while at the same time thinking of how thoroughly enjoyable Roger Stern and Sal Buscema's 1978 run on The Incredible Hulk was. And indeed still is.
Whenever talk of the mans impressive body of work arises online and in print today Roger Stern's time on the The Incredible Hulk barely registers even a comment, perhaps forgivable and understandable given the relative brevity of it and coming before lengthy reigns on The Avengers and Doctor Strange for just two, but then even the briefer time the writer spent on Captain America with John Byrne will always provoke more column inches and praise than the work he did with Sal Buscema on the Hulk, so does this reflect on the limited impact of the content of their run on the title, or could it be that The Incredible Hulk by nature will always be the poor relation when it comes to this particular era of the character and his relatively simple-minded characterisation when compared to Stern's more developed and multi-faceted reigns on Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Captain America, etc?
The point is rhetorical. Cast an eye over Roger Stern's body of work for Marvel and DC Comics and there you will find an extraordinarily competent and professional assortment of different titles that stand up to rereading years down the line like few authors in the genre actually do. To dip into his work on Doctor Strange for example is to experience just the same sense of wonder and absorbtion that a reader would have experienced at the time of publication, so well trained is Stern at his craft that the essential plotting style used for Doctor Strange or Spider-Man is purposely constructed to offer the reader a series of hooks, that begin with the very first page, and compel them to keep turning the page right up until the final denoument that will either resolve the equation or deliver an irresistible cliffhanger that will get those readers to come back next time and reward their time and patience for doing so. It was these exact same impressions that i felt myself on rereading some of Stern's Incredible Hulk work recently, and admittedly my impression is informed by the fact I have an enormous fondness for the run anyway having read it at the time and it being one of my first exposures to the character in print, but what strikes about reading this run on the title after many many years is how extraordinarily packed each issue is. How unambiguous, how clear, and direct, the storytelling is from both writer and artist working as a team.
With each passing year, the span to which story and art have tended to become more and more de-coupled in genre superhero books increases. It's now largely commonplace from Marvel and particularly DC to have entire books where the artwork is composed of full page splashes, 'money-shots' and in some cases grossly wasteful page design. The rise has been such a gradual and cumulative one that I suspect a generation of readers are now so accustomed to it that the generation that produced the abilities and understanding of the medium and i the audiences needs that a Buscema and Stern embody would be altogether too great a culture shock to this modern generation if both were to have their time again on a Marvel/DC title. But as I reread that run on The Incredible Hulk from nearly four decades ago I couldn't escape the conclusion that both we the audience, and for that matter Editors, are at the stage where we are starting to forget what good effective storytelling actually is...
But then, should I be doing this? Out this week is Mariko Tamaki' s Hulk #8, a book nearly forty years after the fact of that Roger Stern and Sal Buscema run on the book and obviously therefore differences in both style and content are to be expected -
and Change is nothing to be objected to or rejected, as different to Lee and Kirby's initial work on the character is to Stern & Buscema's so too should the Hulk comic of today be of a similar evolutionary foot forward and exist rightly in its rightful time a place, appealing to the consumer of today just as Stern & Buscema's work was calibrated and packaged to do so back then.
But... how to be polite about this issue from Mariko Tamaki? The books shortcomings can hardly be blamed entirely on the writer here. The product of a publisher and editorial decree that has Jennifer Walters left as a damaged and recovering victim of a meta-human assault that has caused her to become a true Jekyll & Hyde in much the same way as her now deceased cousin spent much of his adult life is not the spirit in which the character of Jen Walters, the She-Hulk, was intended or created. A clever and thoroughly well adjusted modern woman Jen was created to be the direct contrast to the plight of her cousin Bruce Banner. She had control, over herself and her life, and the will to exercise he newfound power. Bruce Banner though had no control, over his transformations, his actions, or his life. And so the two Hulks and their story were as different to the other as could be. But, for reasons of commercial and the aesthetical, the premise today has been supplanted and this is the scenario by which Tamaki has been handed by the publisher, and the one she has had to thereby deal with, with rather too little enthusiasm if the eight issues so far are to be taken as evidence.
Opening up the issue out this week and a well designed pre-face page is apparently necessary to explain the broad strokes of the series' premise and where the story is up to. On the one hand the design is thoroughly modern as it uses current concerns such as media-player imagery and television shorthand to deliver a "Story so Far.." summary that is, on the face of it, useful to any new reader. And yet when one recalls the techniques of yesteryears writers, who would incorporate such explanatory information usually on the first page and as part of the story itself, one has to ask whether this preface summary is not altogether too indulgent and unnecessary. A waste of a page that could have been taken in hand by the artist and writer. Whatever the worth of that preface page Mariko Tamaki and Georges Duarte certainly do construct a worthy and absorbing first page introduction proper by exploiting the everyday sight and content of the internet social media and more sensationalist news outlets, the subject of "fake news" laid out before the viewing public/reader/and Jen Walters in Georges Duarte's page design is entirely recognisable and thoroughly digestible to anyone seeing it.
That an innocent man has been seen transformed, violated, and quite possibly killed on front headline broadcast is greeted not with shock or questions by the social media but instead with all too recognisable jeering, contempt, and not a small amount of suspicion that it is of course all fake and a stunt. And it is a shame that due to its refreshing honesty and sheer relevance for story content that this opening page is by far the most noteworthy and praiseworthy event in the entire issue, as while Mariko Tamaki's basic plot is revolving around the darker side and uses for online sensationalist media, and those who exploit it for utterly self-centered and immoral purposes, the potential for moral and ethical study in that material is never actually explored and developed as it could, and should, have been herein. What occurs in its stead is talk, lots of talk. Jennifer has watched a web-broadcast of a well regarded cookery series that ended with its host transforming into a monster, while onlookers react with a mixture of disbelief and scorn experience informs her that what occurred onscreen was a real event and so she begins to follow up leads to find the whereabouts of both the series' location and therefore begin tracing the wherebouts and fate of its unfortunate host. On the face of it it all sounds a worthwhile and genuinely engaging plot, where the criticism enters however is that in terms of its execution any horror or concern the audience/reader should be experiencing is absent from the reading experience as it has not been put across on the page why it is the reader should be caring what happened to poor of-no-consequence Oliver Constantin. Thus we watch as people we don't know talk, and talk. And talk some more. And some More. Until finally a degree of excitement enters affairs as Jen Walters dramatically falls backwards from a rooftop in order to trigger a transformation of her own, into a grey scarred and thoroughly strange 'Hulk' like none we or she has seen before...
All largely talk then, and yet an all dialogue issue (or even series) can work. While reading Mariko Tamaki's scripting the experience is reminiscent of early Brian Bendis in its reliance on talking heads per page and favoring of decompression in its sense of pace and execution. Yet even at his most arcane Bendis seldom felt the confidence or benefit in passing issue by issue without some action element breaking the flow of the dialoguing and thereby lending incident to the issue at hand. To read Tamaki's Hulk one comes away with the distinct impression the writer either dislikes the 'Hulk' element handed to her or has failed to find a way to incorporate a dialogue based format with the necessity for action dynamics as dictated by the superhero format of this genre.
None of this criticism is intended to diminish the worth of her overall work I have to stress, as a series I hold this to have been a worthwhile exercise in itself and a bold attempt to show a different possibility for the concept of the Hulk. And yet with issue #8 here the sheer limitations of the format are impossible to ignore or paper over. As the issue reaches its conclusion there isn't excitement at the arrival of the Hulk, I repeat:there isn't any excitement, at all, in the appearance of the Hulk into the story finally. Just the now unavoidable conclusion that this series actually doesn't have a purpose to it. Bruce Banner's story was filled with purpose, fliight and survival being primary goals, in contrast Jen Walters' aims, motive, and purpose, in the series have never been at all made clear... they certainly aren't anything like her cousins however. And therein lies the fundamental problem. As charming and refreshingly mundane as it has been in its first six issues here is a series that stands with neither a reason to be or an actual sense of direction and purpose to its title character.
Looking back and collating those introductory pages to The Incredible Hulk in the 1978 Roger Stern/Sal Buscema issues brings forth any number of impressions and reactions, for myself my thought and opinions are tinted by nostalgia as I was there when they debuted, or at least not long after. Yet despite bias there is an undeniable power and appeal to the opening pages of comics of yesteryear, designed and intended to introduce the reader to the story at hand, the page is both loaded with information tightly delivered and using the minimum of text to do so thanks to the writers discipline, and on the other hand this first page acts on the visual level, an image using action and/or some dilemma by which to hook the browsing viewer and gain their interest enough to purchase and find out the story that informs the image.
There's no reason todays comicbook should resort to such a format of course, that isn't my necessarily my intention in speaking here about it, after decades of evolution and refinement surely other means to introduce the reader to the issue are as valid as the old techniques of yesterday, but regardless of personal preference what those opening pages of the Stern/Buscema issues do so very well is appeal. After nearly four decades, and even when taken in isolation, these opening pages remain memorable and, in all liklihood, even worthy of framing, so rich in visual information and visual appeal are they. The format no longer exists on 2017 superhero comics, it is a matter of fact rather than opinion that no one is going to remember the opening page to Mariko Tamaki and Georges Duarte's Hulk #8 any more than you or I remember an opening page to any Brian Bendis Avengers issue between 2004 to 2013+.
In terms of content too it has to be said that any given issue of the Roger Stern Incredible Hulk is packed, I say packed, with incident and subplot. From Gammabase to The Corporation and its assorted colorful employees to the hapless Fred Sloan and Trish Starr Roger Stern manages to push in such an astonishing array of characters and interweaving plots that one might almost speculate he was desperately cramming in three years worth of material into six months of publication. It would be unthinkable today. Stern's approach to writing was often the direct contradiction to todays industry norm of slow pace/extended storytelling decompression thinking, and certainly Mariko Tamaki's style of plotting and scripting is the polar opposite of that tight discipline which Stern and his contemporaries at Marvel were instilled with, but this is not to say that Tamaki's approach is inherantly bad in itself, more the case that her obvious favouring of character-work over any action-based considerations is always in itself going to be problematic and probobly quite a difficult thing to accept for a readership expecting and demanding something altogether in the other direction from a book titles 'Hulk'... but paradoxically an approach entirely sensible when the character in question is sensible level headed Jennifer Walters, rather than troubled insecure Bruce Banner. The shame is, as I have said, if taken as a six part mini-series the story of Jennifer Walters recovery from a significant physical and emotional trauma has been actually rather enjoyable and worthwhile as a venture. Showing the possibilities for a 'Hulk' book don't have to be as limited as the typical format saddled to Bruce Banner and can possibly offer something altogether more thoughtful if taken from another perspective. No, the problem is that this is issue #8, and the story ran its course with issue #6...
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