Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Comics You Should Own – ‘The Incredible Hulk’ #331-346

Hi, and welcome to Comics You Should Own, a semi-regular series about comics I think you should own. I began writing these a little over fifteen years ago, and I’m still doing it, because I dig writing long-form essays about comics. I republished my early posts, which I originally wrote on my personal blog, at Comics Should Be Good about ten years ago, but since their redesign, most of the images have been lost, so I figured it was about time I published these a third time, here on our new blog. I plan on keeping them exactly the same, which is why my references might be a bit out of date and, early on, I don’t write about art as much as I do now. But I hope you enjoy these, and if you’ve never read them before, I hope they give you something to read that you might have missed. I’m planning on doing these once a week until I have all the old ones here at the blog. Today it’s time to dive into the first of many posts about Peter David’s Hulk! This post was originally published on 8 April 2009. As always, you can click on the images to see them better. Enjoy!

The Incredible Hulk by Peter David (writer), Todd McFarlane (penciler, issues #331-334, 336-345; inker, issues #340-343; layouts, issue #346), John Ridgway (artist, issue #335), Erik Larsen (penciler, issue #346), Kim DeMulder (inker, issue #331), Fred Fredericks (inker, issue #332), Pablo Marcos (inker, issue #333), Jim Sanders III (inker, issues #334, 336-339, 345-346), Bob Wiacek (inker, issue #344), Chris Ivy (ink assist, issue #345), Petra Scotese (colorist), Rick Parker (letterer, issues #331, 333-343), John Workman (letterer, issue #332), and Joe Rosen (letterer, issue #344-346).

Published by Marvel, 16 issues (#331-346 of “volume 1”), cover dated May 1987 – August 1988.

It’s twenty years old, but there still may be SPOILERS lurking below! I can guarantee that I’m going to give away what happens in issues #345-46, as they lay the foundation for a lot of David’s run! [Edit: Obviously, it’s not even longer than 20 years, so if anything spoiled even now, you’re probably not going to read this anyway … but you still should!]

Issue #331 of The Incredible Hulk might seem like an arbitrary place to begin these Comics You Should Own. It is not, interestingly enough, Peter David’s first issue on the title (he wrote issue #328). It’s also not Todd McFarlane’s first issue. McFarlane pencilled issue #330, the final Al Milgrom-scripted issue. Issue #331, in fact, follows issue #330 by mere minutes. In the tradition of Marvel back in those days, the creative team wasn’t as important as the general plot, and David dutifully follows General Ross’s death in issue #330 by easing us into his grand scheme. He wraps up Ross’s death, continues with the Hulkbuster subplot, doesn’t alter the fact that Rick Jones is now the Hulk (he does alter it extremely quickly, but not in the first issue!), and makes the transition smooth. So why do I choose to start here? Issue #330 might work a bit better, as Milgrom ushers General Ross off the stage (he, of course, returned) and McFarlane debuts. It’s not a terribly good issue, however, and the only lasting impact it has is Ross’s death, which David deals with quickly before moving on. Issue #331 shows that David had grand plans for the book, as we see a fairly diabolical-looking person on page 4 named “Sterns.” David also begins his important sub-plot in this issue: What is the Hulk, and who is in charge of Banner’s mind? Bruce turns back into the gray Hulk in this issue, and we learn that the gray Hulk manipulated Banner into it. So for those reasons, issue #331 is a good place to start.

David, of course, wrote The Incredible Hulk for over a decade, and while not all of those are Comics You Should Own, the quality of the book for such an extended time is remarkable. The nice thing about David’s run is that he built on what came before (Middletown’s residents become very important later, for instance), but at the same time, each section of the run has a clear beginning and end point (usually when the artist changed). So McFarlane’s work on the book can be seen as a discrete whole, as can the runs of the artists that followed (only late in David’s run does this break down). David seemed to alter his writing style slightly for each artist to suit their strengths, and that’s evident with McFarlane. Even this early in his career, McFarlane was good at action, and David wrote that in spades. McFarlane’s characterization and anatomy isn’t great – his faces are too round, his hair styles are ridiculous, some of his poses are silly, and even this early he drew too many lines – but he has a manic energy, can draw some great grotesqueries, and his style is different enough from what you usually saw in mainstream comics that it’s not surprising he became a big star. McFarlane draws an odd Hulk, too. On the one hand, he does a nice job making him intimidating. For most of the run, he’s drawing the intelligent gray Hulk, and he gives him a nice thuggishness that fits in with the way David is writing him and also sets the stage for the next phase of the Hulk’s life. His Hulk isn’t a monster, he’s a punk. An extra-large and very tough punk, but a punk nonetheless. McFarlane also makes the Hulk downright scary in some issues, having him come out of shadows with hands ready to bash someone, eyes bright with menace. On the other hand, his over-rendering, especially when he inks himself, makes the Hulk look like an old man in some panels. Earlier inkers smoothed out and (possibly) erased some of his more egregious hatching, but the few issues he inked as well as drew show a marked increase in line work, and it’s strange to see. When Wiacek inks him in issue #344, the change back is obvious, although it’s also clear that by this time, McFarlane had become a big enough name that he could exert some influence over the inkers (unless it was the Marvel editors), and the extra lines remain. It’s really fascinating watching the evolution of McFarlane’s style over the course of the year-and-a-half he was on the book, because it really is the case of someone seemingly learning on the job. Of course, if you hate McFarlane’s art, you’re thinking he’s not learning at all, just becoming worse and worse, but it’s still fascinating. It also appears to be a case of someone becoming too big for their britches, to the point where no one could edit his work (I’m speculating, of course, but bear with me). When he left The Incredible Hulk, he went off to Amazing Spider-Man and then out on his own. As he became more popular, people wanted to see the “McFarlane style,” and it appears, as the art on this comic evolved, the inkers were less and less likely to mess with that. I don’t know how accurate that reading is, but it seems to happen to popular creators (not only in comics), where their egos don’t allow them to see that they might not be putting together their best work. But by that time, they’re so powerful editors don’t dare question them.

All right, enough editorializing! What about David’s writing? Well, on page 7 of issue #332, he sums up the next decade of The Incredible Hulk: Leonard Samson says, “It’s as if the Hulk’s evil and rage are contagious. The Hulk is the personification of everything that we deny we have inside ourselves. Struggling with him means confronting the dark side in all of us. Some people become overwhelmed as Thunderbolt Ross did. A typical blustering general until the Hulk entered his life and eventually turned him into something as monstrous as the Hulk himself.” David takes the Jekyll-and-Hyde theme that has always been present in stories about the Hulk and goes nuts with it. However, he doesn’t delve too much into the psychological aspects of the character as much as he does in later stories (as much as you can delve in a mainstream “superhero” comic book). Instead, he sets up the idea of the Hulk as monster and exactly how monstrous he really is compared to those around him. In most of the stories, the Hulk fights a “monster” and David, through his main character, points out that “normal” people can be as horrible as he’s supposed to be. This is, of course, far from an original idea, even for the Hulk comic, but David does a nice job with it, not simply contrasting the Hulk with, say, the Leader (the main bad guy throughout this portion of the run), but with other “deformed” creatures like him as well as regular humans. In succession, he fights Rick Jones (as the green Hulk); an abusive husband who happens to be a town’s sheriff; a gamma-radiated man called Half-Life who dies during the day and comes to life at night; a creature who springs from the subconscious of a drunken slacker; X-Factor; S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Hulkbusters; a beautiful alien called Mercy who “grants” death to those she thinks desire it; more S.H.I.E.L.D. agents; some guy named Wolverine; Man-Bull; Half-Life again; the Leader’s mandroids; Rock and Redeemer (the ex-Hulkbusters turned horrific monsters by the Leader); and finally, the Leader himself. In each case, David manages to make it not only an exciting fight, as befits a Mighty Marvel Magazine, but also gets into the subtext of the Hulk’s existence; namely, that he is far less horrible than many of the people who want to kill him. The gray Hulk, of course, wants to be left alone, but he’s given a purpose by Clay Quartermain and Rick Jones, who need his help to destroy the stockpile of gamma bombs that the government has created. This is the overarching story, as the Leader steals a gamma bomb so he can run an experiment that will recreate what happened to the Hulk, and he helps Quartermain and Rick because he doesn’t want more like him running around. Just this story shows the contrast between the monster that the Hulk appears to be and the monsters that “normal” humans are – the government has been stockpiling gamma bombs for years, despite the potential “Hulkifying” effects it has. They hate and fear the Hulk and try to kill him, but they have no problem creating more. David never makes this point explicitly, but he does a nice job implying it throughout the latter half of the run.

This idea of “normal” humans being as or more monstrous than the Hulk himself comes to a fore with the Leader’s grand scheme to explode a gamma bomb in a town just to see what happens to the inhabitants. As is David’s wont, this story arc doesn’t fill six issues of decompressed storytelling – even these days, David doesn’t do that, and this was long before that became trendy – as it only begins to take shape in issue #343, when the Leader turns two Hulkbusters, Craig Saunders and Samuel John LaRoquette, into Redeemer and Rock, two weirdly-powered creations. In issue #344, Rock and Redeemer steal the gamma bombs, and in issue #345, the Leader sets them off. Granted, the last issue is 38 pages of story, but it’s still a quick arc. David does a good job with his grand theme, however. Saunders and LaRoquette begin as regular folk, but their experience as Hulkbusters changes them. LaRoquette blames Leonard Samson and the Hulk for the death of the woman he loves, even though it was no one’s fault. When the Leader gives them the power to get their revenge, they take it almost gleefully, even though they are hopelessly naïve in thinking the Leader will return their true humanity when their job is done. They willingly give up that humanity to gain the Hulk’s power, showing how like the monster they’ve become. The Leader, too, is willing to kill hundreds of people simply to conduct an experiment. Issue #345 is a breathtaking issue, because we’re not completely sure if David will go through with it. When the bomb explodes, McFarlane gives us a wonderful two-page spread of the explosion, contained within a force field so that it stays within the town’s limits. (It’s ironic, given that McFarlane lives in Arizona, that he places Middletown, which is also in Arizona, in the middle of verdant farmland. I haven’t been all over the state, but I very much doubt that landscape exists anywhere here.) The brilliant Leader proves to be much more of a monster than the Hulk, perhaps not surprisingly.

David, interestingly enough, doesn’t let Bruce Banner off the hook either. Bruce is not the Hulk at the beginning of the run, but he quickly becomes the gray one, and he does it to himself. David points out that this is because the gray Hulk influenced him, but with what we learn later, it’s clear that Banner has a hand in it. Bruce’s relationship with Betty becomes more and more strained throughout this story arc, even though the Leader abducts Betty and she’s absent for a good deal of it. Early on, Betty’s ex-husband, Ramon, reappears, and although Betty never cheats on Bruce, she makes it clear that she likes the attention Ramon gives to her. After she escapes the Leader (who, to be fair, allowed her to), David writes a wonderful issue, #344, in which Betty finally has it out with the Hulk. At this point, she’s pregnant, but she doesn’t feel like she can tell Bruce. Bruce is the rational part of the Banner Mind, and therefore, as Betty points out, he locks up all his emotions, even those of love. He married her because he felt obligated to do so, and if she tells him that she’s pregnant, he’ll feel obligated to help her raise the child. She needs to talk to the emotional part of the Banner Mind, and for that she needs to talk to the Hulk. Interestingly enough, she tells the Hulk that she’s pregnant, mainly to shame him, but the fact remains that she can tell him, but she can’t tell Bruce. She knows that even though the Hulk is rage personified, he’s also Bruce’s wild side, the side that expresses passion. She doesn’t quite get through to the Hulk, but David has set the stage for Bruce and the Hulk becoming more like each other.

And then the Hulk dies. Right? I mean, he’s standing next to a gamma bomb when it goes off, and he’s nowhere to be found in issue #346. He must be dead? Well, of course he’s not, but David does a good job ending this particular arc but still making sure there are plenty of threads to continue. The Leader has a plan for the gamma-radiated survivors of Middletown, and of course, there’s Betty’s pregnancy to remember. David is very good at keeping things simmering for years, and it’s obvious he has a lot more planned after this issue. However, this arc works on its own. What we get in this arc is a lot of excitement, of course, but we also see the foundation for what would soon become a fascinating psychological drama. Banner isn’t quite as fractured in this story as he would later become, but it’s interesting to see how David is setting the stage. The juxtaposition of “monsters” – whether those inside society or those ostracized by society – is also fun to read, if somewhat obvious. As a single story arc, this is more shallow than later David arcs on The Incredible Hulk, but it’s still an exciting tale, and in the context of the longer run, it’s a good beginning.

(I love how the Leader’s “to-do” list includes “detonate bomb prematurely.” Check! On to the groceries!)

This run has been collected in at least two different trade paperbacks (issues #331-339 in one, #340-346 in the other; these have been rebranded as “Visionaries” trades, it appears). They still seem to be in print, too, although why Marvel would let them go out of print makes no sense to me (of course, they allowed some of the Simonson Thor trades to go out of print, so what the hell do I know?). The trades might be nice to check out, because I’m sure the pages are cleaned up nicely. And I know you’re dying to check out the Comics You Should Own archives! Aren’t you?

[I didn’t write quite as much about the art as I should have, but I think I covered the major points about it. McFarlane was in his “in-between” period, when he was slowly becoming the artist who drew the solo Spider-Man book and Spawn before he realized he could make buttloads more money doing toys. I probably would have written more about this had I done it today – I skip a lot of the big fight issues, mainly because David doesn’t care too much about them, preferring to allow McFarlane to draw the Hulk bashing on his enemies while getting bashed by his enemies. David’s slower parts are very good, but they can be distilled down to what I wrote about. I think I write more today because I’m worried about people not getting their money’s worth when they read these posts. These are the jokes, people. Anyway, I linked to the first “Visionaries” trade below. There are omnibuses, but I’m not sure if they started after these “Visionaries” trades, as Marvel loves rebranding things. Anyway, if you’re interested in this, remember that if you use the link below, even to buy something non-Hulk, we get a little piece of it, which is nice. And next time … more Hulk!]


  1. tomfitz1

    The PAD years. Probably the definitive run on the I.H. Just like Walt Simonson years on the Mighty Thor is probably the definitive run on that book.

    Speaking of Visionaries runs – someone was telling me that the Epic Collections runs is probably the replacements for Visionaries runs.

    In case you didn’t know it – the PAD years is being collected in Omnibuses with the third volume out this summer (4 volumes in total).

    Go ahead and break it all down in blogs. The Burgas way! 🙂

    1. Greg Burgas

      Tom: This is definitely the definitive run!

      I didn’t know if the Epic Collections replaced the Visionaries collections from the beginning, or if they picked up where the Visionaries left off. I own a few of the Epic Collections that I picked up cheap at my comics shoppe. I will probably get it all in trade eventually!

  2. Eric van Schaik

    When I started collecting comics in ’87 this was 1 of the titles I liked a lot. I later had to get the first Visionary trade to get the start of his run because back in the day those issues I missed (331-336) were a bit too high, even in Holland.

  3. Der

    Spoilers are weird. I started reading your post on Hitman and I just closed the window. I want to read Hitman, and I want to read this too, but this article I just read it without minding that there are spoilers.

    I really don’t care about spoilers(I mean, I try not to spoil myself, but I’m behind on everything so it happens and I don’t care) so why did I stopped reading your Hitman post? Who knows

    It’s absurd that Marvel just makes it hard to get important runs like these, I got the vol 1 of Thor by Simonson, and I look for prices of the rest and it never comes back in print. Same with this. And the epic collections don’t have the issues mentioned here, so who knows when I’ll get them(maybe when they are out of print and never coming back in print!)

    1. Greg Burgas

      To be fair, I REALLY spoil Hitman, and this run, while featuring some surprises, doesn’t really have that much big stuff that makes it shocking to read the first time out. Hitman is a bit better not knowing what’s coming.

      There’s so much from both Marvel and DC that fall out of print when you would think the companies would be smart to keep them in print. It took me forever to get the Simonson Thor trades because of that, and as I’ve noted before, the strange way Marvel reprints Claremont’s X-Men borders on the criminal. This is another run that ought to be evergreen, so maybe Marvel will get their act together one day?

  4. Peter

    Sad to say I did pick up the first Peter David omnibus HC with this issues shortly before the start of the pandemic… and I still haven’t read it! Maybe I’ll get cracking and get through the Purves issues by the next one of these columns and have something to contribute… I always wanted to read these a lot sooner, but it was surprisingly hard to find a coherent set of in-print collections until that Omnibus came out.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Peter: As I noted above, Marvel’s policy of reprinting old stuff is ridiculously haphazard … but perhaps they’re figuring it out now! Sheesh.

      The Purves issues will be up next Wednesday, as I don’t think I’ll be done the new one by then (but maybe?). So there you go!

  5. Darthratzinger

    Peter David´s Hulk run is really outstanding. First of all, I think The Hulk is one of the characters that is very difficult to write. Just look at almost every run on the title before David (with the exception of Bill Mantlo´s two years building up to number 300). It was just one boring punch-punch-punch “story” after another. In hindsight I´m surprised the title lasted that long. Even after David not that many Hulk stories are memorable: Paul Jenkins run, Bruce Jones started out so awesome but then turned into another “the leader is behind it all” in yet another nonsense-plot. That´s it. David didn´t just make the Hulk an interesting character, he made him a different interesting character every 2-3 years. How brilliant is that?
    And he finally added his signature humour (i know it will come up in another post, but the bunny slippers and the glasses: brilliant!)
    What McFarlane brought to the title was ramping up the brutality of the fight-scenes. Issue 340 is just the famous example. As a teenager I was also taken aback (is that a word? not sure) by the gore of the Hulk´s fight with the Leaders henchmen. This was beyond all other Marvel titles at the time except the Punisher. It also added a bit of a horror element that fit better here than his later Spider-Man work.
    Finally, from about ´93/94 on Incredible Hulk was almost the only readable Marvel title. DC was on fire in the nineties but Marvel was basically nothing.
    I do disagree about Marvel´s collection policy: in recent years they´ve started reprinting so many awesome runs in Omnis and Epic Collections. Compare that to the mess of DC-collections that are all over the place. I admit the X-Men collections are a bit confusing but that is mostly due to the x-overs and the damn number of titles. By the way, only one more Uncanny X-Men Omnibus and they have reprinted the entire Claremont-era in HC. Unfortunately I just had to get rid of the Marvel part of my collection (except for Daredevil) to make up for my financial Covid-losses:-( Damn You, virus!!!

    1. Greg Burgas

      I agree that the Hulk seems hard to write, and I also agree that it makes David’s achievement even more impressive.

      Marvel has gotten better with their collections, but I still think many Epic collections seem a bit random. For every Epic Collection series that begins with a #1 issue and goes from there, there are weird ones that seem to just collect a few story arcs in the middle of a run. I do agree that they are getting better.

  6. Ecron Muss

    I actually avoided this era of Hulk, Todd McFarlane’s art was too hideous for me. Seems I missed out on some good storytelling.

    Rock and Redeemer seemed a bit too corny for my churchgoing senses too.

    I still wonder why McFarlane changed The Leader’s look from domehead to flapjackhead?

    1. Greg Burgas

      McFarlane isn’t quite as unrestrained as he would become. Of course, if you don’t like his art, that’s just the way it is!

      The Leader does expressly claim he’s trying to build a new “church,” so you’re not wrong about Rock and Redeemer!

      The Leader’s new look was … dang, I can’t remember exactly why McFarlane changed him a bit. David had a reason, though!

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