Tomorrow, issue two of Thanos vs. Hulk comes out and this exercise changes. Another quarter of the story will be revealed and, unless I feigned ignorance or put off reading the issue until February 1, it will change how every post after this is approached in some way. As it exists, this is the final post where I can discuss Thanos vs. Hulk #1 in its vacuum of being a first issue and what that entails before another issue comes out. As Abhay puts it, first issues are monsters. There are a lot of demands on them; less so when it’s a first issue like this one that can rely on a lot of implied backstory. Still, this is the issue where people decide if this is a comic worth buying or a comic that has convinced them to save a further $11.97.
This issue is mostly set up: Bruce Banner is kidnapped by Pip the Troll, delivered to Blastaar who is in service to Annihilus, Pip is given back Heater Delight and then schemes to get Banner back, turning to Thanos. He quasi-tricks Thanos into getting involved to stop whatever Annihilus has planned. Banner and Hulk occupy a mental plane of existence where Banner’s conscious mind goes when the Hulk takes over. Thanos arrives there at the end of the issue. It introduces the problem, how it affects several characters, and hints at a direction for the story to go without making it too obvious. It’s a serviceable first issue when it comes to plot. The ambiguity of Annihilus’s reasons for wanting the Hulk is the only thing that I’m not a fan of in this regard. Barring some big reveal that really wows, it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that needs to be kept hidden despite that probably being the way most people would go. Then again, it probably doesn’t matter.
Where I think Starlin succeeds most is in establishing the Banner/Hulk relationship, mostly by putting them in a unique situation together. He lays bare what each being wants and how each handles the possibility of death. Given Thanos’s relationship to Death, using that as a starting place with Banner and the Hulk is a smart way to link them to Thanos beyond Pip’s involvement. That subtext makes the pairing less random than it may seem on the surface. That also points to the possibility that this series will help further Starlin’s attempt to return his version of Thanos to his roots a bit more, leading up to his transformation in The Infinity Revelation. And I imagine Starlin assumes that more than a few readers of this issue will have read that graphic novel. Aside from the dedicated Hulk fans, the main audience for this comic is the Starlin/cosmic fans. As such, Starlin relies on knowledge of his previous work for Marvel along with other appearances of Thanos. At the same time, that reliance is more for subtext and making the story feel deeper than it is on the surface. After all, you don’t need to know what the Outriders are or know the history of Pip and Thanos’s time in the Infinity Watch to get what’s going on. All of the essential information is spelled out clearly.
I think one of the biggest weaknesses of the issue, particularly as a first issue, is that it’s almost all set-up. Despite some nice storytelling tricks and an interesting take on the Banner/Hulk dynamic, there isn’t a lot of content. Pip is at his most thin as is Thanos. It’s an issue of follow-up to the inciting event of the story, but not much else. It’s almost an “And then...” comic where one event leads to the next which leads to the next which leads to the next. That’s not a poor way to approach the issue; it’s also not a great way. ‘Serviceable’ is my word of choice. I enjoyed it more than that word says, but my interests are so specific and fulfilled in large part through my knowledge of, not just Starlin’s previous Marvel work, but all of his prior comics work, that the actual plot of the comic is one of the lesser concerns for me. So, for me, it’s a winner...