Viewed in the context of the complete mini-series, many of my misgivings (concerns?) about Thanos vs. Hulk #1 seem to be truths rather than pessimistic speculation. Was this really a Hulk story that Thanos guest stars in briefly turned into a Thanos-marketed comic that could cause some fans to cry foul at the outright lie of the title promise? Yes. I saw some of those complaints pop up on Tom Brevoort’s Tumblr this week and his response of “Sorry you didn’t like it” seemed appropriate, but also a dodge that, yeah, this should have remained a Savage Hulk storyarc (Starlin even uses that specific phrase in the final issue for obvious reasons) because it’s very much a Hulk story that rubs up against the Starlin cosmic stuff briefly. Thanos only appears in the first two issues (save a one-panel cameo at the very end of issue 4) and only briefly engages in combat with the Hulk in a virtual world. But, that’s not the only problem with Thanos vs. Hulk #1.
The opening issue of this story is an odd mix of characters that are meant to come together from their disparate starting points to help form a coherent story – and that is what happens by the end. There is a clear direction over the course of the story from a very broad place to something very focused and specific. If that’s a positive or negative really depends on what you’re looking for in a comic. One of the most interesting parts of the first issue is the mental plane where Bruce Banner goes while the Hulk is in control, but it drops away after a one-panel appearance in issue three. As Starlin focuses on the fight between the Hulk and Annihilus, there is little room for anything else. That sort of focus makes sense, especially for a Hulk story; from issue two on, it’s basically a series of three fights (Thanos, Blastaar, Annihilus). That shunting of everything else to the side, though, does give the story a weird asymmetry that doesn’t entirely work. It doesn’t feel like the story gains focus and zones in on being a ‘big Hulk fights people’ story so much as those other elements were simply forgotten, sloppily cast aside.
In the final issue, the use of Pip the Troll leaves me of two minds: he winds up acting as a narrator, of sorts, for the Hulk/Annihilus fight before intervening. Given how the story began, in part, through Pip’s action to kidnap the Hulk at the behest of Blastaar and that he’s since worked to rescue his victim, his role in the final issue makes a lot of sense. The narrator/spectator role that he plays, though, seems like one that would have been well-suited to Banner in that mental plane. We’ve seen that, while Banner doesn’t remember being there when he leaves, from that place, he can observe what is happening in the real world. In the first two issues of this story, Starlin began to provide his take on the Banner/Hulk relationship and that take didn’t seem complete or as fully rounded as it could have been. Having Banner act as an observer while providing a few shots of Pip watching/getting ready to act could have kept the plot from playing out how it did, while also making this an even more Hulk-centric story, combining the physical brutality of the fight with the psychological interplay. It’s a missed opportunity...
The one place of symmetry in this story is that it begins and ends with Pip teleporting Banner/Hulk to and from Earth, seemingly at random. Pip’s interference in the Annihilus fight is a somewhat abrupt conclusion that makes you wonder why he didn’t do the same thing earlier. If it was fear of reprisal from the Negative Zone baddies, then I fail to see why assaulting Annihilus and allowing the Hulk to hit him a few times before teleporting away is going to prevent reprisal. Pip’s portion of the story was him trying to figure out a way to save the Hulk without anyone knowing that he did and, then... he does it by placing an explosive on Annihilus! There’s a sense of “It’s now or never,” that he had to act or the Hulk would be killed, and that does give Pip a nice moment of heroism – perhaps, it was meant to convey that this is what he should have done from the beginning: step up, do the right thing, and damn the consequences. It doesn’t read that way, unfortunately; as presented, it comes off more as “the comic has to end, so deus ex machina that actually could have happened at any point!”
The way that this comic advances (or adds to) the story Starlin is telling in his Thanos graphic novels is important, but ultimately detracts from this story as a complete whole. By the end of the story, Annihilus is now Hulked up and looks poised to do some bad things, while Thanos is aware of this and ready to act if need be. That plot looks like it will be explored in the upcoming Thanos: The Infinity Relativity graphic novel. But, the way that the Hulk is inserted into and taken out of this plot feels very artificial; like an opportunity came up to tell a Hulk story and Starlin figured out a way to have it set up a few things for the story he really wants to tell. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, except when the story told isn’t satisfying apart from that goal. The Hulk here accomplishes nothing, wins nothing, gains nothing... he merely pops in, is used to power up Annihilus, has a couple of fights, and then barely escapes with his life. It continues the recurring idea that cosmic threats are beyond Earth superhumans that Starlin has been exploring throughout his Marvel cosmic work, but this is ostensibly a Hulk story, not one of his cosmic-centric stories. I think.
I guess that’s what the biggest problem is by the end: it’s not cosmic enough to satisfy fans of that part of Starlin’s work and it’s not Hulk enough to work as a Hulk story either. The story comes down to a new/altered cosmic threat that Starlin wants to use in future stories (and thus keep strong) and the protagonist of the story (who must also look strong/seem to win)... it’s the classic wrestling booker’s mistake of booking a match where both men have to win and go over clean, and having to fall back on an unsatisfying finish to just get out of the match without screwing things up too much. So, we get interference from Pip and the Hulk escapes.
But, is the Hulk the protagonist of the story? I’d argue that Pip is actually the protagonist and even calling this a Hulk story is an overstatement (not as large as putting Thanos in the title, but not as far behind as you’d think). The Hulk is more a piece of plot that puts Pip in a position where he must overcome his inner conflict to be the hero. But, even that reading doesn’t really work. Maybe it’s dual protagonists where the Hulk suffers from a satisfying conclusion to his story because Pip needs one for his?
(On a slight tangent: does it seem like the cover to the first two issues were switched? Issue two’s cover a big group shot that shows all of the characters that appear in the first issue, while issue two’s cover has the Hulk and Thanos fighting with Banner in the background, something that occurs in the second issue...)
It’s hard to know what to make of Thanos vs. Hulk given the number of masters it needs to serve. It definitely has its place within the larger context of Starlin’s work, but that seems to be the only place where it really works. I completely understand anyone who was left unsatisfied by the end of issue four. I think the various flaws and conflicting interests of the series make it more interesting; it is definitely a work best viewed from a distance rather than up close, though.