Review: Hulk, Volume 1 – Red Hulk by Jeph Loeb & Ed McGuinness

HulkJeph Loeb’s run on HULK doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a fun, glib, action-packed extravaganza, and a breath of fresh air in this age of humourless Hollywood adaptations; c’mon Superman, would it have killed you to crack a smile in MAN OF STEEL? Readers hoping for a deep exploration of Bruce Banner, or his supporting cast, should look to the esteemed Peter David run; those hoping for a roller-coaster ride of big, dumb fun, should look no further.

In RED HULK, the first volume in Loeb’s run, the veteran writer teams with frequent collaborator Ed McGuinness, whose style is perfectly suited to the action-oriented story. Large, dynamic layouts perfectly capture the cartoon violence of the mysterious Red Hulk pounding Wendigo into submission, battling with Iron Man atop the S.H.I.E.L.D. heli-carrier, and going toe-to-toe with his green counterpart; not to mention a spectacular punch to the Watcher’s jaw. McGuinness has always exaggerated the physical characteristics of his characters, and he’s always made it work; here, it’s a match made in heaven. The Hulk has never looked more imposing.

Framed as a mystery, RED HULK is light on plot and heavy on the action set pieces. “Who is the Red Hulk?” our heroes want to know, consisting of Iron Man, She-Hulk, Maria Hill and more; but we never find out, as Loeb dangles potential clues without exposing the identity. Some readers might feel cheated by the lack of closure; but this is comics, and serial storytelling: if you want to learn the truth, you’ve got to stick around for a while. I certainly will. While I wouldn’t want such glibness present in all of my comics, every so often it’s nice to be reminded that, ultimately, we’re reading stories about irradiated humans wearing spandex, and shouting eye-roll-worthy lines such as “Oh the humanity!” It’s okay to have fun every once in a while; I get the feeling Loeb and McGuinness were beaming as they pieced together this blockbuster.

Review: Nova, Volume 1 – Origin – by Jeph Loeb & Ed McGuinness

NovaWhenever I see ‘origin’ as the title of a trade paperback, I groan. Not always discernibly; I am, if nothing else, acutely self-aware and wary of public displays of emotion. But if you were watching me from afar, you’d notice my shoulders slump. The spring in my step would revert to concrete blocks. The healthy glow of my skin would fade to sickly pale.

It’s not that I abhor origin stories. They’re essential, obviously. We need to know where characters come from. Their backstory. We need the layers of the onion. I realise that. I do. But origin stories that are so self-aware that they call themselves ‘origins’ are exasperating. And more often than not in superhero comics, these origins follow a standard path. There are few surprises. It’s like there is a blueprint, which must be followed precisely, with one or two fleeting moments of innovation allowed.

So when I grabbed a copy of NOVA, VOLUME 1: ORIGIN I was wary. Excited too, of course – who wouldn’t be, knowing you’ve got more than a hundred pages of superb artwork by one of comics’ superstars, Ed McGuinness – but disappointed I was in line for another run-of-the-mill origin. That’s the problem with judging a book based on preconceptions; if you allow it to, it can prohibit your enjoyment from all forms of fiction. And while NOVA, VOLUME 1: ORIGIN isn’t a pioneering origin effort, it’s great fun; an all-ages comic that readers of all ages will appreciate. Kudos to Loeb and McGuinness: they’ve hooked me into the Marvel cosmic universe.

Sam Alexander is a kid loathing life in the small town of Carefree, Arizona. His father, the school janitor and 24/7 drunk, tells Sam’s sister bedtime stories about the ‘Nova Corps’ and their adventures throughout the galaxy. Fuelled by contempt, Sam is certain these stories are fiction, and wishes his father would spend more time getting his act together than concocting tales. When Sam’s father goes missing, he’s sure the old man’s off on another bender. But then he’s visited by Rocket Raccoon and Gamora, from the Guardians of the Galaxy, who have with them a Nova helmet, which is attuned to Sam’s DNA. When he pops the helmet on, he discovers incredible abilities – and soon he’s meeting The Watcher, combatting enemies of earth, and learning what it takes to be a hero.

There’s a great thrust to ‘Origin.’ Loeb and McGuinness, long-time partners in crime, have fine-tuned their partnership. Loeb’s script is pared down, leaving room for McGuinness’s art to breathe, and boy does he take advantage. He has an exaggerated, cartoony style that’s perfect for the Marvel cosmic universe; his depiction of Rocket Raccoon is fantastic. There are several full-page and double-page spreads sprinkled throughout; awesomely dynamic shots that few of his peers could pull off. McGuinness improves with every new venture; his storytelling in NOVA is superb.

The story is lightweight, but again, it feels like Loeb did this intentionally for the sake of the artwork. He leaves plenty of dangling threads for the next writer to untangle, or cut entirely. Some of the humour falls a bit flat, and Sam’s incessant monologue begins to grate, but when you reach the story’s conclusion you’ll be left with a smile on your face. NOVA is entertainment, pure and simple, and further solidifies the Loeb / McGuinness partnership as one of comics’ best.

Wherever they land next, I’ll be there.

Review: Hulk – Gray by Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale

Hulk - GrayHULK: GRAY is another volume in Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s ‘colour’ series, which recount quintessential moments from the histories of Marvel Comics’ greatest heroes. With HULK: GRAY, the esteemed writer/artist pairing takes on the days following Bruce Banner’s exposure to the gamma radiation that forevermore altered the trajectory of his life, and the Hulk’s first conflict with General Ross.

The tale is narrated by Bruce Banner, speaking to his long-time ally, psychiatrist Leonard Sampson, soon after the death of his only love, Betty Ross. These sequences are rendered in beautiful black-and-white, with colour reserved for the green of Banner’s eyes. The flashbacks, which comprise the majority of the collection, embrace Matt Hollingsworth’s wonderful painterly colours, which gel perfectly with Tim Sale’s illustrations, who accentuates his reputation as one of comics’ premier storytellers. Equally adept at portraying raw emotion on the faces of the large cast of characters as he is at double-page slashes of the Hulk smashing, bashing and crashing, it’s a shame Sale has stepped away comics; his style is distinct and unrivalled.

Jeph Loeb’s script is nuanced, as they always are when he works with Sale; almost like the artist’s style has a pacifying effect that dampens some of the more outrageous moments we saw in his later run on “Red Hulk.” The framing sequence, of Banner talking to Sampson, is a tad redundant, and doesn’t offer much to the overall narrative, besides allowing for an emotional climax. The story begins at the precise moment Banner was exposed to the gamma radiation, and flits between his transformation into the behemoth, General Ross’ determination to destroy the beast, Rick Grimes desperate attempts to hide Banner’s secret, and the Hulk’s obsession with Betty Ross. The emotional beats come in the moments between the Hulk and Betty, as she desperately tries to explain, as if to a child, that she wants nothing to do with the mindless beast, that she’s afraid of him; and the monosyllabic Hulk unable to elucidate his feelings.

HULK: GRAY is another fine addition to the ‘colour’ series, and a perfect sampling of Hulk for those, such as myself, who aren’t especially enamoured with the character, but don’t mind dipping their toes into his world. It’s a short, action-packed, and ultimately emotional tale. In my mind, it’s up there with the best Hulk stories.

by Simon McDonald

Review: Batman – The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale

The Long HalloweenBATMAN: THE LONG HALLOWEEN spans the Dark Knight’s year-long investigation into a serial killer striking at the heart of Gotham City’s organized crime families. Wielding a silenced .22 calibre pistol, the killer strikes only on holidays – Valentines Day, Mother’s Day, Christmas, and so forth – and is quickly dubbed ‘Holiday’ by the press. Of course, Gotham being a city infested with psychopaths, this new killer stirring the pot arouses the attention of several of Batman’s nemeses, including Joker, the Riddler,  Catwoman, Solomon Grundy, and more – all of whom play varyingly integral roles to the overall narrative. But at its core, THE LONG HALLOWEEN is a mobster saga about the lengths good men will go to in order to defend the values they hold dear; and easy it is to overstep the boundary between good and evil.

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, now recognized as a true dynamic duo of comics, might’ve reached their apex with THE LONG HALLOWEEN. The two combine perfectly to deliver a dark, action-packed snapshot into a year in the life of Batman, centred on the Holiday killer. We see relationships develop and change over the course of the story; the seemingly unbreakable partnership between Jim Gordon, Harvey Dent and Batman begins to show signs of decay as the tale progresses, and the death toll rises; and Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle / Batman and Cat Woman flit between potential lovers and fighters. Tim Sale is one of the definitive Batman artists; his style is distinct and unparalleled, and he perfectly captures the break and moody atmosphere of Batman’s world. Loeb’s script is tight, and he encapsulates the various personalities with aplomb. The mystery – who is Holiday? – is unsolvable with the clues provided in Loeb’s script, which might be considered a fault, but doesn’t take anything away from the joy of watching it unravel.

THE LONG HALLOWEEN is hailed as one of the finest Batman stories of all times – high praise indeed, but deserved. Loeb and Sale strip the character down to his fundamental elements – a superhero detective – and weave a fascinating mystery with a satisfying ending.