By Mick Martin
Iíve been working on this fucking thing since last November.
Actually, thatís not true. I first got the idea after reading ADDís wonderful exploration of Frank Millerís final issue of Daredevil, and if the date in the URL is right, that makes it July of 2004, meaning Iíve been working on this piece for the better part of a year. November was just when I sent ADD the e-mail to see if heíd want it.
Yeah, there are peripheral factors that could explain my procrastination: working and going to school full-time, helping my mother with her various medical issues, every now and then trying to squeeze in time to pay attention to the nice woman whoís kind enough to sleep with me, etc.
The real problem, I think, is that Iíve tried to be very professional. Detached. Unbiased. Every time Iíve started to write a review of The Incredible Hulk #467, "The Lone and Level Sands" -- the last issue of Peter Davidís original twelve-year run on the title -- Iíve tried to write it from the perspective of someone who isnít a shamefully loyal Hulk-nut; who doesnít see every empty space in his collection of Davidís Hulk as an unpardonable sin; who didnít absolutely dread the idea of publishing online negative reviews of Peter Davidís work and considered it a Herculean act of bravery when he finally did; who didnít initially consider turning down his girlfriendís offer to cohabit because he was afraid her cats might break his Randy Bowen Hulk statue; who didnít leave his girlfriend alone to eat lunch in a pizza parlor because he was afraid he might not be thirty minutes early to the Hulk film; whose forgiving girlfriend didnít buy green drapes for their office (once he capitulated to cohabitation, after realizing the statue was much too heavy for the cats to topple) to match his Hulk posters. And mirrors. And clocks. And stickers. And action figures, model kits, coloring books, baby shoes, coffee mugs, twisty straws, Christmas ornaments, mini-busts, stamps, cards, bobble heads, key chains, sunglasses, board games, lunchboxes, wastebaskets, baseballs, cardboard stands, t-shirts, matchbox cars, electronic talking hands, and probably some other stuff (mostly green).
But I canít, and considering the genius of "The Lone and Level Sands," itís only the truly bugfuck-crazy Hulkophile who can see how masterful Davidís finale was, and why.
The entire story is told in flashback, with an aged, chain-smoking Rick Jones recounting the aftermath of Betty Bannerís death (she dies in the previous issue) on the tenth anniversary of her demise to a Daily Bugle reporter. Most of the story is told in double-page spreads with Jonesís hand -- a cigarette scissored in-between his index and middle fingers, the smoke curling up the sides of the pages and through the guttersĖbreaking only to return to Jones at the end as his eyes grow heavier, the ashtray gets more crowded, the fire grows smaller, and the various superhero paraphernalia (alluding to the vast trophy chamber seen in The Incredible Hulk: Future Imperfect) are swallowed by the shadows.
David and Adam Kubert create a beautiful montage of the aftermath of Bettyís deathĖfrom the more familiar scenes like old Thunderbolt Ross stupidly blasting at the Hulk with a handgun; to the tragic grace of a grinning Bruce Banner taking a swan dive off the Empire State Building.
Through Jones we learn of Bruceís first suicide attempt, his subsequent imprisonment, his escape, a brief glimpse at the Hulkís future battles and adventures (most of which, of course, have yet to come if ever, though Chris Cooper may or may not have been attempting to be faithful to the reference of a "face-to-face with Namor" with the Hulk/Sub-Mariner 1998 annual), Bettyís funeral and the gathering of superheroes it drew, and a final meeting between Jones and Bruce Banner. David throws in the fates of some of the seriesí peripheral figures (e.g., the citizens of Freehold, the vengeful Armageddon, and the time-traveling Janis Jones) for good measure.
Something always nagged at me after re-reads of the story, and it didnít take me too long to figure out what. As much as Iíve long considered it the perfect Hulk tale, there was something about it that simply made no sense. The title, "The Lone and Level Sands," is the thing.
The line comes from a Percy Shelley poem that Banner recites to Jones as his long time sidekick visits him in prison after his first suicide attempt. The poem speaks of Ozymandias, "King of Kings," and the traveler who finds his shattered statue in the desert. "I can see it, Rick," Bruce tells Jones. "The broken legs standing there...barefoot, the cuffs torn. The Hulkís feet. And that broken face, lying half-buried in the desert...My life, a shattered ruin."
A powerful image, but does it fit? This is the Hulk weíre talking about. The poem is about a man who built a kingdom, but succumbed to the inevitable. How is the analogous to the Hulk? What has the Hulk built? And what has Banner built, besides the Hulk? What did either create thatís worth mourning its destruction?
The answer is that it isnít strictly the Hulk who David is talking about. David blatantly injects himself into the story from the very first pageĖthe unseen Daily Bugle reporter is named Peter (and for a nice little double entendre, we all know someone else whoís worked for that rag with the same first name).
Most often we hear David through Rick. David purportedly left the title over a creative dispute regarding the future of the Hulk, and Jones refers to Bettyís death as "the day the Hulk started down the road he never wanted to travel." Rickís final monologue can easily be read as Davidís farewell to his readers: "I could keep on telling stories about the Hulk...keep on going...but thereís other things in life, you know? Itís like what Bruce told me. Realize whatís important...family, loved ones...thatís the important thing." He includes a continuity loophole for subsequent writers who would doubtlessly steer clear of his version of the Hulkís future: "So maybe Iím an alternate timeline. Who knows whatís really fated or Ďofficial?í" He ends fittingly with, "Iíve said enough."
David switches seats in the narration, from Rick to the reporter to the Hulk himself. We hear him lamenting his departure from the series when Banner laments the loss of Betty during a meeting with Rick in a military prison, but when he subsequently transforms into the Hulk, Rick tells us, "Iíd seen so many things in his eyes over the years. Anger, resentment, betrayal, exhaustion...but in all those years...Iíd never seen him look at me that way...with envy. And then he was gone." Considering we already know this is apparently the road the Hulk, "never wanted to travel," it seems likely the Hulkís envy is leveled at David himself: the writer who will escape this unwanted path, while the Hulk will remain. During Rickís last meeting with Banner, Bruce leaves him with, "Sometimes itís best to move on," and in a nice symbolic gesture the scene opens with Bruce sitting in Rickís wheelchair. Even the unseen reporter switches places. Despite his first name, he often resembles the reader more closely than the writer: "Look...I hate to keep you...but thereíre so many other things Iíd like to hear..."
But while David wrestles with his own demons throughout the story, itís far from self-indulgent. Ultimately, the Ozymandias/Hulk analogy does fit, because of the one theme that consistently distinguished Peter Davidís Hulk from those that came before and after.
Contrary to popular opinion, not all Hulk fans were happy with Peter Davidís interpretation of their favorite muscleman, particularly in the case of the so-called "Merged" or (the name that Paul Jenkinsís misreading of Davidís run helped him create) "Professor" Hulk: an incarnation that came about after Doc Samson brought Bruce Bannerís personality together with that of the childlike green Hulk and the thuggish gray one. A cunning, green strongman with the IQ of a rocket scientist is what emerged, though when you strip away the bigger words and not-quite-as-tattered clothes, on the surface the Merged Hulk was never really much different than his savage counterpart. You could often throw a "Hulk" or a "puny" into the Merged Hulkís dialogue with predictable results, often changing a line like "Pathetic humans. Getting in my way," (The Incredible Hulk #383) to "Puny humans! Always getting in Hulkís way!"
Ambition is what distinguished Davidís Hulk from the previous interpretations, which probably has more to do with some fansí dislike of Peter Davidís tenure on the title than anything else. He didnít have to count on money heíd stitched into his pants which would somehow survive a fall from orbit after battling the Toad Men. He didnít have to sleep in the woods or in the houses of trusting strangers. The Hulk had been the worldís most powerful hobo, even stealing food from the campfires of homeless men and family reunion picnics in some stories. By gathering some semblance of control over his life, Bruce Banner and his alter-ego became less pure in some eyes, and perhaps less of a hero. Ambition is what made the Maestro of Future Imperfect -- an evil, future version of the Hulk who ruled over the last vestige of humanity on a post-apocalyptic Earth . Itís why the Hulkís membership into, and eventual leadership of, the Pantheon -- a paramilitary group of that intervened in international crises without official sanction, whose founder was eventually revealed to be much less altruistic than he originally claimed -- was so important to the Hulkís development. It was the first time since that fateful day in New Mexico that either Banner or the Hulk had wielded any kind of power or control, except the kind that came from an emerald fist.
Part of what makes this story the perfect ending not only to Peter Davidís initial run on The Incredible Hulk, but to the story of the Hulk as a whole, is that itís less than an ending, and at the same time itís so much more.
Itís the ongoing aspect of superhero comics that both renders the characters immortal and makes them less than characters. Stories end. Superheroes do not. Theyíre like endless porn scenes. The money shotís never gonna come. If Luke Skywalker were a superhero, Vaderís emphysema would still fill theater speakers every few years. If Frodo were a superhero, heíd still be stumbling towards Mount Doom. If William Wallace were a superhero, heíd be wrestling the Brits for centuries to come (and it would probably be a CrossGen book). Stories end. Characters die. A story that never ends is not a story. A character that never dies is not a character: itís a franchise.
Peter David achieved the impossible with The Incredible Hulk #467, by circumventing the necrophilia of the superhero genre. Before bowing out of the green-sometimes-gray goliathís franchise, he wrote the endless finale to a story that canít ever end. And while, upon reading it, you will know that itís a story that only Peter David could write, itís a story youíve known for a long time. Youíve felt it in your bones. David wrote it, but you knew it before you read it. David wrote it, but so did Lee and Thomas and Wein and Stern and Mantlo. Despite the fact that the Hulk series continues, despite the various limited series and guest appearances, despite even Davidís own The Incredible Hulk: The End, "The Lone and Level Sands" is the last Hulk story. Itís the only Hulk story. And itís certainly the best.ĖMick Martin
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