Few other creators do cosmic the unique way Jim Starlin does, but there’s not enough cosmic to make up for the rest of Starlin’s “Thanos vs. Hulk” #1, inked by Andy Smith and colored by Frank D’Armata. That’s largely because there’s a lot more Hulk than Thanos in this first issue, and no battle between them, despite what the title boldly proclaims. The closest the two really come to facing off, in fact, is on Starlin, Smith and D’Armata’s catchy cover, although it’s just as evocative of a promo for a Mike Tyson/Buster Douglas rematch as it is a promised superhero/super-villain smackdown.
The Hulk was never really one of the better toys in Starlin’s sandbox, and it shows here. While his traditional take on The Hulk looks pretty menacing, his handle on the character is anything but; Starlin’s going with the lower-intellect Hulk for this story, but there’s lower intelligence, and then there’s stupid. The Hulk doesn’t really get the opportunity to do much yet, smart or stupid, but he sure gets to talk a lot and utter no shortage of dialogue that really is stupid. Thanos, however, is Starlin’s own child, and at least that character’s lines are much stronger and true to form; once he finally appears, that is.
Other characters share some insufferable exchanges as well, although they can’t top The Hulk’s. Iron Man and Maria Hill painfully trade barbs for a very long four pages, which ends with the two looking oddly and awkwardly chummy in their final panel. The only reason the two make an appearance in this story is because it appears to have been composed back when Bruce Banner was still working for S.H.I.E.L.D. in The Hulk’s own comic. This fact is tidily shared on the very first page to satisfy continuity purists, but the story is one that would have worked better had it been just set out of continuity in the first place, rather than have to shoehorn it into a storyline that has already moved on.
Starlin than goes off on a tangent featuring Pip the Troll and his new fling, a labored and roundabout story device that only exists to set up the encounter between The Hulk and Thanos. This element of the story carries zero interest, and it’s one that takes place in an intergalactic bar audaciously called “Starlin’s.” The attempt at deprecation doesn’t really diminish the clumsiness of this odd, self-referential moment in the story, and while many of the characters inside this bar are in fact Starlin’s, the reminder is somewhat uncalled for.
Starlin’s art, at least, remains a draw. His renditions of Marvel heroes, villains, and cosmic creatures are always a treat, as are his alien spacecraft and locales. Smith makes everything looks crisp, and D’Armata makes it look colorfully cool. Starlin brings a kind of B-movie, old-school charm to the comic, and for all of this introductory issue’s shortcomings, at least “Thanos vs. Hulk” #1 is fun to look at.