July 2, 2009

WAITING FOR THE TRADE: Hulk -- Heart of the Atom

So what did new comic day (Wednesday) bring to me?

The latest issue of X-Men? The newest development in the ongoing soap opera that is Superman . . . or Batman . . . or Spider-Man? The comic book adventures of Star Trek, Transformers, or Terminator perhaps?

No, all of those things were brand spanking new and on the shelves, but nothing appealed to me.

So I took a look at the graphic novels shelves at my local comic shop and found this gem that I had considered getting a long time ago. I was casually acquainted with the story inside, and decided that this would be my new comic for new comic Wednesday: a collection of stories between 30 and 20 years old.

Like Iron Man's Doomquest and Sword of the Atom (another collection I hope to review soon), Heart of the Atom takes the Incredible Hulk and drops him in a land of swords and sorcery. And for that, it's a cool concept. It's also developed a little further than Doomquest, as Hulk returns there a number of times over the years of publishing. (The collection alone contains ten issues from the Incredible Hulk, and one stand alone What If? issue.) Like many fantasy stories (John Carter of Mars especially comes to mind) we have a hero dropped into a strange alien landscape. This time, though, the hero is more than equipped to handle the challenges thrown at him. He is, after all, the Hulk.

Launching off with a story by Harlan Ellison (if you know who he is, you know why that's pretty incredible to begin with), the Hulk is shrunk down to microcosmic size where he comes to rest on a world smaller than an atom. This world is populated by creatures and people who seem to come straight out of Middle Earth or Narnia or Hyperboria and they use primitive weapons and magic and what technology they once possessed is now long gone, save some artifacts here and there used by evil people. Oh, and they're all green.

I expected this to be a "Hulk smash puny dragons . . . and medieval armies . . . and magicians". But while that was an element, I was surprised to find out as I read through this thing last night, it was really a romance, as Hulk fell in love with the (green) queen of this world. A parallel storyline develops on earth as Betty Ross, Bruce Banner's one time lover, falls in love and gets married as well.

But Hulk's relationship, and the consequences of it both in her world and his, form the spine of these stories. Since these stories develop over numerous intermittent issues of a monthly comic, taking years to come to a conclusion, I'm surprised how well this holds up as a straight narrative (although, there were a couple points where they had a page of text to tell the story of the fifteen issues between the ones they chose to put into this volume). This story is a tragedy, of course, but it ends on just the right note. Judging from the notes between stories, it seems there have been a couple more recent stories with Hulk returning to that world, but from their description I'm glad they weren't including in this collection. That would have ruined the satisfying conclusion of this storyline.

Bottom line, it's a love story. A love story set in '70's and '80's era Marvel comics, with a fantasy background. I enjoyed it and was surprised how emotive it was. Normally, I associate Hulk with anger and rage (and there was plenty of that in this volume), but because of the magic of the fantasy world Hulk's humanity is allowed to come into play, and his other emotions. I mentioned above that Hulk was more than equipped to handle the challenges thrown at him by this fantasy world, and that almost makes this a boring story. Except for one thing: he's not equipped emotionally to deal with what happens.

Check it out at your local comic shop (they should be able to order for you, and if you're not sure where your closest comic shop is, you can find out here: The Comic Shop Locator), OR you can buy Hulk: Heart of the Atom here!

Visit the Waiting for the Trade bookstore here, where you can buy, from Amazon, many of the comics I'm reviewing!

~ Ben

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