Storytelling Engines: Rampaging Hulk
(or “Rejecting The Continuity Implant”)
When Doug Moench took on the assignment of creating a new, stand-alone Hulk title (created due to the popularity of the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno TV show), he made something of an unusual choice. Not so much his decision to give the Hulk a supporting cast that consisted of Rick Jones and an alien “techno-artist” named Bereet with a transdimensional bag containing dozens of nifty gadgets, or his decision to set up a group of marauding aliens called the Krylorians as the Hulk’s principal antagonists for the series…although those were somewhat unusual choices, as well. No, the really odd decision was to set the whole series in between the Hulk’s original comic book series (which ran six issues, back in the early 1960s) and Avengers #1.
Series like this crop up from time to time. These “continuity implant” series (like ‘Untold Tales of Spider-Man’, ‘X-Men: The Hidden Years’, ‘X-Men: First Class’, et cetera et cetera) attempt to use a particular era of a comic book’s history to tell all-new tales. Obviously, this is of particular relevance to this column because the writers of continuity implant series generally choose their era (whether consciously or not) based on its storytelling engine. The team dynamic of a particular period appeals to them, or they decide that the supporting cast was better before half of them got killed off in the 1990s, or they prefer not to deal with the consequences of a particular dramatic shake-up in the book’s status quo. So they go back, they pick the storytelling engine that works best, and they fire it up all over again.
And for some series, that works. Doctor Who has actually made something of a habit of this, publishing over 100 novels and 25 short story collections set in between other televised stories. But Doctor Who has much looser continuity than Marvel, and that’s where the problem sets in. Because Marvel has, arguably, made a selling point out of their adherence to continuity. Actions have consequences, events in one book reverberate into another, the status quo changes based on characters’ actions, and we’re told that missing one book will mean we might miss a life-changing event. (Whether that’s true or not is an entirely different story.)
This demanding continuity has its consequences, and one of them is to train the audience to see stories that don’t alter continuity as being “undesirable.” ‘Rampaging Hulk’ readers look at the series and say, “Nothing’s going to change there, nothing important can ever happen, because it’s frozen in the past! We know the Hulk’s not going to find a cure, we know Rick Jones isn’t going to die, we know the Krylorians are going to be overthrown, so why should we care?” Doug Moench might say you should care because they’re good stories, he might even point out that it’s not likely that the Hulk will find a cure in the present day series…but generations of comics readers raised to expect “impact” as one of the primary attractions of a given comic book issue don’t listen.
Further, continuity implant series run another risk, one exemplified best in the grand finale to the Krylorian storyline–the Hulk teams up with Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man, and the Wasp to finish off the Krylorian forces. “But all this is set before Avengers #1!” the fan cries out. “Surely you can’t expect me to believe that the whole Avengers line-up met twice before they decided to form a team! And why is the Hulk talking so dumb? Back in this era, he was intelligent but brutish, and…” In a fictional universe with tight continuity as a selling point, errors in that tight continuity irritate fans, simply because they’ve been promised (implicitly or explicitly) that they won’t see them. A company that promises tight continuity has to deliver, and continuity implants have a hard time doing that, just because writers are as human as everyone else.
In the end, due to all those factors, ‘Rampaging Hulk’ turned into just another stand-alone series, and eventually the adventures of the Hulk, Rick Jones and Bereet were retconned away. Because the creators of the Marvel universe, the larger storytelling engine that all the other books are just a part of, set up certain conditions for these books to adhere to. And that made series like ‘Rampaging Hulk’ (and ‘Untold Tales of Spider-Man’, and ‘X-Men: The Hidden Years’, and other series that died too young) a bit of a hard sell for its target audience.