One of the things I love most about Jim Starlin is how he’ll do something visually that you don’t usually see in superhero comics. He has certain visual motifs that recur in his works like the energy being silhouettes with a mix of a single primary colour and white. Or even the hulking, bald, thick-ridged villains. Here, he uses another one that he’s pulled out a few times in the past: the single image/panel that’s on every page, eventually revealing its true meaning later in the comic. What I love most about this technique is that you don’t necessarily notice it right away. It’s like a quick flash that builds until it’s revealed. In this case, Bruce Banner in the mental plane where he goes when the Hulk is in charge.
The first panel of the comic is a close-up on Banner’s eyes, but, because it’s a short, page-wide panel above a large picture of Iron Man demanding Maria Hill’s attention (and ours), it almost goes unnoticed. Over the next four pages, as Iron Man and Hill discuss the disappearance of the Hulk, each page has that short, page-wide panel at the top with each panel’s perspective pulling back, eventually revealing Banner from the torso up. He appears to have a weird purple/blue energy behind him. He hasn’t done anything but look straight ahead. On the fifth page, we pull back even further to see him sitting with his knees pulled up against his stomach. He looks intense yet passive. He’s just sitting there. Why?
The fifth page uses this gradual pull back in an interesting way as it shows, in the bottom third, three panels where Banner’s head is upside down, and he wakes up with some sort of device on his head. We’ve pushed back in to a closer perspective on his face, but he’s upside down and in other location all of a sudden. This is a clear disruption of the previous status quo and, when, on pages six and seven, we have two pages of the Hulk appearing before being knocked out, there’s no panel depicting Banner in that weird energy space we’ve seen a bit of. What exactly it was meant to denote isn’t apparent until pages eight and nine where each page has the short, page-wide panel return, pulling back even further to show Banner sitting on a purple globe with the Hulk’s arm barely visible on page eight – his intrusion has just begun – and him clearly visible on the same small globe on page nine where the rest of the page actually continues from the first panel. Banner and Hulk are in some strange otherworldly place, likely mental in nature, both sharing a small purple globe that floats within the blue energy surroundings. Banner says it’s where he goes when the Hulk takes over (but he never remembers it when he’s not actually there).
The way that Starlin introduces the concept of this space and how Banner spends time there is both subtle and strange. With such little space on the page devoted to that top panel each time, the focus is always drawn away from it. It’s not until page four or so that you really notice that every page begins with it and, just as you begin to wonder why those panels are there, Starlin gets rid of the panel, thrusting Banner into the real world only to have the Hulk replace him almost instantly. He delays an explanation while actually providing a hint at what we’ve been shown. There’s a reason why the panel disappears when Banner awakens and returns once the Hulk takes over as we learn. But, Starlin places an emphasis on the visual element of his conception of this mental sphere where Banner goes; he shows us before he tells us, and he finds a novel, inventive way to show us.
I also like that the way you don’t notice or necessarily think about the panels reflects the way that we don’t think about Banner necessarily when the Hulk is there. Banner is shunted into this small little box that we are aware is there, but don’t pay attention to, because there are other things occupying our attention. After all, Banner is static and does nothing, while the story of the comic goes on for the rest of the page. Why would we pay attention to him? On the first page, the placement of Iron Man’s first bit of dialogue is over the panel border of that first panel, immediately drawing us away. Iron Man is the superhero, he’s what we want to see, not some loser clutching his knees to himself, practically sitting in a foetal position. Over the course of nine pages, Starlin tells us everything we need to know about Bruce Banner visually: he’s not where the story is, he’s passive, he’s not super, and we don’t care about him. Of course, he immediately subverts that impression the first chance he gets...