Welcome to “How to Collect,” a series of articles about how to collect a comic book series in trade paperback, with all the irritating research done for you, to make sure you have the best, most thorough collection of great comics possible. Today, we’re going to look at Peter David’s time on The Incredible Hulk.
Ah, Peter David. Your 12-year run on The Incredible Hulk is at once a classic and wildly underrated. Exploring the psychological nature of the Hulk with his various different incarnations, there’s a real humor, pathos, and characterization that remains subtly understated. The art is often fantastic, I have yet to read a story that didn’t work, and just… wow. I’m jealous of him in the way any writer is when they read something brilliant; I love the work and want to see if there’s some ritual I can invoke so that I can possess his power.
David went from being kicked out of the bullpen to stick with his sole position as Direct Sales Manager at Marvel, after writing a classic Spider-Man story no less (“The Death of Jean DeWolff”), to one of the most prolific writers in comics and one of, if not the most definitive, Hulk writers. That’s a hell of a leap. Part of that leap is because, literally, no one else wanted the job, but still, you take what you can get. And turns out what he got was issues #331-467 of The Incredible Hulk, written from 1987 to 1998.
His dialogue is witty, his stories have theme and depth to them, the characterization is always strong and focused, and part of that is because the Hulk talks.
If you’ve seen the Marvel movies with Hulk in them, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Hulk can’t do much more than grunt—until Thor: Ragnarok came around, anyway. You’d also be forgiven for thinking this paragraph makes me sound like an “if you were a true fan” kind of guy, but it’s not that. The movies significantly altered Bruce’s character. Originally, he was someone who couldn’t live a normal life because of the Hulk’s destructive personality and his own psychological issues. In the MCU, he’s a mildly awkward guy with a superpowered green form who only appears in team-up films because Universal owns the distribution rights to his solo movies.
Bruce Banner, the Hulk, and character
Understanding that Bruce is a deeply troubled, psychologically complex, good-natured… I believe the technical term is “nutjob,” is a critical difference between the movies and comics, and why his speech is so important. It’s not a matter of “Hulk smash,” either, we’re talking loquaciousness that makes you need to look up words like loquaciousness on the regular. That insight in to his character, the development that stemmed from childhood trauma (physical and psychological abuse and the horrific death of a parent being large components of that) to a full-blown mental disorder made manifest through gamma radiation, was heightened by understanding how Bruce was able to deal with it internally and externally, and this is where Peter David excelled.
One of the first things he delved into was the different forms of the Hulk. Hearkening back to the six-issue Kirby/Lee run, the Grey Hulk came out during the night and was affected by the phases of the moon, an independent entity that hated Banner personally. The interactions between Grey Hulk and Bruce Banner, by way of notes and traps to keep one from influencing the other, are absolutely fascinating and funny. It also serves to lead to the memorable Joe Fixit storyline, where the Hulk took the pseudonym took the name Joe Fixit and spent his time as muscle for a mobster in Vegas—without Bruce Banner to keep him in check.
And that’s just the beginning. Each incarnation of the Hulk served as manifestations of various parts of his psyche, with Bruce trying to deal with that trauma in different ways. The traditional Green Hulk in his anger and childish, tantrum-like rage, seeking power when Bruce felt helpless. The Grey Hulk, who serves as Bruce’s id and expressed his desire for a life outside of Bruce’s meek, carefully controlled numbness. And the merged Hulk who came out through therapeutic hypnosis—a version of the Hulk that Bruce believed his ideal self to be, with all the strength, power, and determined nature of the Hulk, and the genius intellect of Bruce Banner. While these are all attempts to wrestle with the mental health issues he suffers, to obtain the safety he feels he lacks as Bruce Banner, his definition of healthy and safe aren’t necessarily the same as how reality would define it. The evolution of Bruce Banner through his permutations of the Hulk is the single greatest throughline in his stories.
How it all began
In the first volume of the Hulk Visionaries collection (we’ll get to that in a minute), David discusses how he got the job, and his incredulity that he was considered a “Visionary” for the character. On his website, however, he explains it in greater detail. He spoils little in the article, at least no more than I will in this, and it’s a much better read than the introduction in the book. But Peter David’s run on Hulk actually started with a fill-in issue, #328. It hasn’t been collected in trade, but I mention it here because of its plot: Bruce Banner, torn apart by his affliction of the Hulk, contemplates suicide.
Don’t mistake David for the kind of ’90s grimdark crap writer that’s worth mocking. One, this was written in the ’80s. Two, this wasn’t done for the sake of edginess, but because of his interest in the psychology of Bruce Banner. It’s what makes him such a compelling writer, his willingness to dive deep into the character and ask an uncomfortable question. If you transformed into a rampaging monster and spent your entire life on the run, with no end in sight, wouldn’t that thought occur to you? And whatever question he wants to explore can be looked at through different lenses: in his two-part masterpiece, Future Imperfect, he asks what would happen if the Hulk decided to stop running, and gave in to the emotional impulses that he worked so hard to suppress?
What would happen if you met a version of you who made a decision that you had rejected? What would you think of him? And what would he think of you?
David worked with wonderful artists throughout his series, with pencilers like Todd MacFarlane, Gary Frank, Dale Keown, Jeff Purves, with a special mention to George Perez on what might be the best Hulk story ever written: Future Imperfect. I can’t go over the individual artists in detail, but I can say that David worked with his regular pencillers to ask the kinds of things they liked to draw—MacFarlane wanted to draw machinery, for example—and wrote stories to suit them. This is a level of flexibility that was indicative of David’s strengths as a writer, and allowed each artist to show their best work. It’s a marriage of art, plotting, and scripting that I very rarely see in comics. There’s no way we could get this iconic cover without the discussions between MacFarlane and David, and the world would be lesser for it:
David’s first run on Hulk was cut short by an editorial mandate, but he was given an issue which (to my understanding) tied a bow on “his” version of the Hulk before he was fired off the title. I’m looking forward to reading it, as the run has not currently finished being fully collected. Fortunately, this gives me the opportunity to explain not just how to collect his run, but one of Marvel’s smartest decisions ever: the Epic Collections. But first…
The main run of Peter David’s Hulk is collected in two places: Hulk Visionaries and the Epic Collections.
The Visionaries are a now defunct line of trades from Marvel, showcasing a particular writer or artist’s time on a title. Under the Visionaries line, Peter David had eight volumes of his run on Hulk published, covering issues #331-396. These issues contained just a few crossovers, ones that were strictly necessary to the plot (multi-part stories, really). The collections are easy to read, have good paper quality, and are a little over 200 pages apiece.
Volume 8 was published in 2011, leaving issues #397-467 languishing on the single-issue stands. And, for a while, it was probably believed that his run would not be given a full collection. Happily, when the Epic Collection imprint released their first Hulk volume in 2015, they continued from where the Visionaries left off at Issue #397.
… with Volume 19.
An Epic Explanation
Now I know what you’re thinking: this numbering system sounds stupid and warrants a big long rant. Surprisingly, no. I love the Epic Collections and think they’re one of Marvel’s best ideas. The reason that The Incredible Hulk Epic Collection: Ghosts of the Past is marked as Volume 19 is because the first 18 volumes have their contents written out to begin with on some spreadsheet in the Marvel offices. But they started at Volume 19 because that was where the most pressing hole was: an unfinished collection of one of Marvel’s most well-regarded comics.
That’s the entire purpose of the Epic Collections, in fact. When a comic has been collected poorly (such as the original Wolverine series or Excalibur) or hasn’t been done at all (like the Fantastic Four comics immediately following John Byrne’s run), the Epic Collections are released to swoop in to save the day. They include any relevant tie-ins, crossovers, or specials that tie into the character, and even graphic novels. They don’t stick to just one writer or artist, either, which makes them a huge upgrade over something like the Visionaries line.
The way the collections come out is interesting, because in some cases it’s out of order, while in others it’s starting from the beginning. Master of Kung Fu and Excalibur start from their first story, and each volume is released sequentially. The Incredible Hulk works a little differently. It, and titles like Iron Man and Amazing Spider-Man, are currently released twice per year. In 2018, the releases for Hulk were Volumes 3 and 21. After three years, this leaves Volumes 1-3 and 19-22 released as Epic Collections.
So if you want to enjoy Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s creation of the Hulk from the beginning, the Epic Collections are a perfect place to start. If you have old copies of Hulk Visionaries by Peter David (or found them at used bookstores because your girlfriend kept an eye out for you), the Epic Collections are a perfect place to start that too. And because Peter David is a good writer, if you’ve never picked up a Hulk comic before, the Epic Collections are a perfect place to start too. The price point is generally quite cheap, with each volume clocking in at about 500 pages for $40. And, of course, you can always get them cheaper online.
I am compelled to note something about the Epic Collections: they changed their paper stock sometime in the last few months. It’s thinner, a little softer, and not quite as sturdy. The binding is still good, the comics are very readable, but my West Coast Avengers collection did have some printing errors. I suspect by now that they’ll have worked out the kinks in their system, but if you see bad reviews about the way they’re printed, I honestly don’t believe it’s because they’re printed badly—just that they’re printed differently.
The Main Run
Starting from the beginning, these are the books collecting Peter David’s run. You can get them physically or digitally—Amazon links and searches on this topic are a little broken right now, so these links will circumvent the navigational problems placed on Amazon.
Hulk Visionaries: Peter David Volume 1
Hulk Visionaries: Peter David Volume 2
Hulk Visionaries: Peter David Volume 3
Hulk Visionaries: Peter David Volume 4
Hulk Visionaries: Peter David Volume 5
Hulk Visionaries: Peter David Volume 6
Hulk Visionaries: Peter David Volume 7
Hulk Visionaries: Peter David Volume 8
The Incredible Hulk Epic Collection Volume 19 – Ghost of the Past
The Incredible Hulk Epic Collection Volume 20 – Future Imperfect
The Incredible Hulk Epic Collection Volume 21 – Fall of the Pantheon
The Incredible Hulk Epic Collection Volume 22 – Ghosts of the Future
Physical copies of these are all relatively easy to find, with the singular and strange exception of Hulk Visionaries Volume 5. Every once in a while you’ll run into a volume in the middle of a run where they fell asleep at the wheel, and the print run is lower than normal (oh hi, Starman Volume Omnibus Volume 3, Spirit Archives Volumes 12 and 14, and Man of Steel Volume 5, how are you doing?). While all the Hulk Visionaries are (to my knowledge) out of print, they are available digitally. Say what you like on the debate of print vs. digital, and I do fall under physical as my primary method of reading, but I’ve never heard anyone say they’ve run out of digital copies.
But if you really can’t stand the idea of reading something digitally, Ghost of the Past is a great jumping on point. That’s something that David really seemed to take pride in, making sure that you could jump in and read any issue without needing to know the entire history of everything that had ever been written.
While the new release doesn’t finish David’s run, Volume 23 very likely will. However, that’s not the end of David’s time on the character.
They keep pulling me back in…
Sometime around 2005, David was asked to write a standalone miniseries about the Hulk. He called it “Tempest Fugit” (I haven’t mentioned this before, but I hope you like puns as much as Peter David does), and to my knowledge delved further into the idea that Hulk was a defense mechanism for Bruce which had always been present. The gamma radiation was just the thing that made his defense mechanism physical instead of purely psychological. I haven’t read it, but apparently, the editor liked it so much that they asked him to take over the Hulk full time. He only completed one more story before departing, saying he had to write characters other than Bruce Banner to continue and grow as a writer. The stories, comprising issues #77-87 of The Incredible Hulk (2000), are collected here.
House of M: Incredible Hulk
While that was his final bow as writer on The Incredible Hulk title, he also wrote the final bow for the Hulk himself in 2001, adapting a short story he wrote for a prose collection to a one-shot from Marvel’s non-canon The End series, with Hulk: The End.
It’s a world where no one is left on earth but Bruce Banner—and by extension, and despite mutual hatred of that fact, the Hulk. Teaming up with artist Dale Keown, a long-time collaborator on David’s first tenure on The Incredible Hulk, The End brings a rare opportunity. With it, you can see happens when a series that was never meant to have an ending has a writer show what makes an ending worthwhile—and the kind of story that can only be told in an ending. Due to its relatively short length (46 pages), the original physical volume also includes Future Imperfect. The fact that it isn’t mentioned on the cover is a testament to the power of that story. However, in an amusing twist, the 2015 edition of Future Imperfect‘s trade paperback release also includes Hulk: The End. Since the second one is in print, I’m going to recommend that instead. On top of that, at the time of this writing, it’s also the same price to get the trade digitally as it is to buy a digital copy of Hulk: The End.
Hulk: Future Imperfect
You can also pick up the original prose story that The End was adapted from, Peter David’s own “The Last Titan,” in the anthology The Ultimate Hulk.
Of course, Peter David is known for his extensive prose work—in fact, any medium he’s written is known for his extensive work within it—so when it came time to novelize the first Hulk movie, the Ang Lee Hulk movie, he was tapped to adapt the screenplay to prose. This is that very novel.
Mediums and Compromises
David’s Hulk stories are almost certainly never going to be adapted to the movies, and not just due to licensing issues. The intimate, quiet moments that serve as the focal point of many of his stories, the need to take a breath for as long as the comic does to control the pacing, the shifts in genre to fit the mood of the story that needs to be told in each issue, the long game storytelling that runs over years of issues, those are all counter to what movies do best. The Marvel movies (at their best) are a tight, compressed format that distills the core of its characters into something meaningful and iconic, like using a sieve to find the most critical pieces of the character within that format. And I’d say that the MCU has done an exceptional job with that. Iron Man launched what may well be the biggest film franchise in the world. That’s hard to argue with.
Comics and films are different mediums. The specific mastery over this medium is what makes David’s run so worth reading. I’m not writing this as someone who grew up on the Hulk, or someone who thought the movies were bad. I thought Edward Norton was a great Hulk, and that Mark Ruffalo in Thor: Ragnarok was a fantastic portrayal of Bruce Banner (and Lou Ferrigno, of course). And to let you know what a relative newbie I am, the first Hulk comic I ever read was Issue #331: Peter David’s, and that was about two years ago. So when I talk about the differences between the movies and comics, and how little resemblance they might bear to each other, there’s not a shred of upset in it. I’m doing it because it’s worth showing that even to someone who only knows “Hulk smash” the way that I did before I picked up that copy of Hulk Visionaries, the comics are accessible, a great read, and show the kind of long-form storytelling that can only be done in comics.
Peter David once wrote, in his very last issue on the first run of Hulk, “My legacy will be nothing but fallen, forgotten rubble.” I disagree. Peter David’s Hulk is, unquestionably, a classic for the character and for comics as a whole. He did something special, something worth collecting, something worth enjoying. Not because you might be a Marvel fan, because I know I wasn’t when I started reading. The work is worth enjoying because it’s a good story with something to say, and that’s what matters more than anything.
If there are any series you want to collect that you’re having trouble tracking down, just leave a comment below or message me on twitter at @ReviewOrDie.