Since its launch in the wake of Marvel's Manhattan-shaking mini event "World War Hulk," Jeph Loeb an Ed McGuinness' "Hulk" series has trafficked in equal parts mystery and muscle-bound mega-fight. But beyond the in-story questions about who the gun-toting villain known as the Red Hulk is and what exactly he has to gain from pummeling the world of Bruce Banner to a pulp, fans have asked aloud how the series fits into the landscape of the broader Marvel Universe, from how "Hulk" plans on dealing with earthbound events like Dark Reign to the title's connection to writer Greg Pak's larger plans in "Skaar: Son of Hulk."
As Jeph Loeb told CBR, both the in-story events that have been percolating for a year and the questions fans have sought answers to will finally come to a head in July 22's 600th issue of "The Incredible Hulk."
"It was always planned from 'Hulk' #1 that Greg would come back after we had established who the Red Hulk was and what that story was going to be about," Loeb said. "It is not by coincidence that 'Skaar' was a book that built right up until 'Incredible Hulk' #600. When you put it all together, clearly we had a plan. What we never did was say at the beginning, 'This is what we're going to do' because I think it's one of those things where if you come right out at the very beginning and say, 'Jeph and Ed are only doing to the first six issues of the book' then your investment is less. I think then everybody focuses on, 'What happens after that? Where are Jeph and Ed going after that?' That's not what you want. You want people to be present in the stories you're telling."
In the wake of the anniversary issue, Marvel plans to reinvigorate the Hulk line of comics as a more cohesive universe. In August's "Hulk" #13, Loeb and Ed McGuinness follow up on the events of "Incredible Hulk" #600. Also in August, "Incredible Hulk" establishes itself as a proper new title, with Greg Pak and Ariel Oliveti beginning their run with issue #601. The end of this particularly big month for the Hulk sees the release of "Hulk" #14, beginning the four-issue "Code Red" story by Loeb and guest artist Ian Churchill, who will depict what happens when someone discovers who the Red Hulk is, and the dangerous consequences felt by characters including Wolverine, X-Force, The Punisher, Elektra and Deadpool. Finally, writer Paul Jenkins steps in with the newly renamed "Son of Hulk" title, which is still set in space.
Of course, the ball for all these upcoming plot lines gets rolling in "Incredible" #600 and the main feature by Loeb and McGuinness. "There was some question about how much we were going to give up in #600, and the more and more the story started rolling out, the better the story became," Loeb said of the story pitting the reporter Ben Urich against the Red Hulk, a mystery that's been vexing readers. "I think the piece of the puzzle I can talk about is that the story begins, as Ben reports, with an ending, and the ending is the end of 'World War Hulk.' What everybody needs to remember is that the Hulk destroyed Manhattan, and so this is a New York City story. Because this is a story that happens currently but also fills in a lot of the gaps in between the last issue of 'World War Hulk' and the first issue of 'Hulk,' it becomes a Ben Urich story. And when Ben Urich gets a news story, he's going to need a photographer, and hilarity ensues."
That photographer, of course, is none other than Manhattan's friendly neighborhood Peter Parker - a.k.a. Spider-Man. His inclusion is only the latest guest-starring spot that's come along in the "Hulk" series' brief history, but as Loeb explained, adding guest stars and guest artists was important for he and McGuinness' building of the Red Hulk mystery. "The reason for doing the stories that we did with Arthur [Adams] and Frank [Cho] and then with the Offenders/Defenders is that you really needed to understand more of who the Red Hulk was and how he worked so that the story would have some meaning. It couldn't just be -Â and this is what Ed and I said from the very beginning -Â it's not really a mystery story. It's a story of the appearance and origin of the Red Hulk, and the more you know the character, the more powerful the reveals will be. Had we just blown it all at issue #6, people would have said, 'Oh, that's a nice story' and 'Maybe we won't see the Red Hulk again for a long time.' The popularity of the character has really helped drive the story in the direction we hoped it had go.
"You never know where these stories are going to go. It cycles all the way back to 'The Long Halloween' where Tim Sale and I were worried that by issue #3, everyone was going to say, 'We don't care who Holiday is.' And then we'd have 12 stories to tell, going, 'Eh...that's a problem!' So it's almost the same thing. It was always planned that the first year would look like this and the second year would look like that, and I'm very excited not only about #600 but about the arc that follows it with Ian Churchill, 'Code Red,' and the last arc with Ed where everything comes together."
"Code Red" aims to expand the circle of characters interacting with Red Hulk even further as well as allowing McGuinness time to draw the upcoming "The List: Secret Avengers" one-shot for Jonathan Hickman before returning to "Hulk." "Ed is taking a break because the last arc is so huge and involves pretty much everyone in the Marvel Universe, so we wanted to take the time for Ed to do the whole run between #19 and #25," Loeb explained. "Ian's work is nothing short of astonishing, and I'm incredibly happy to be back with my other old partner. And there's an interesting story there as well as people will see from some of the covers and the preview that Ian's style is completely different from anything he's ever drawn."
When Loeb says "completely different," he means it without hyperbole. "This is one of those very strange stories that can only happen in comics where when we first started talking about it, Ian said, 'I want to do this in my original style.' And I said, 'I don't know what you're talking about. I've been working with you for 15 years. You draw the way you draw,' which let's say for the sake of argument we'll call 'the Jim Lee style' -Â a lot of crosshatching and certainly the layouts more resemble what Jim does than anyone else. And what I find out for the first time in 15 over the course of this conversation is that Ian drew a very different way and went to San Diego and met an editor at Marvel who's no longer there who said, 'Don't draw like that. Draw like this' and gave him Jim's samples. And Ian went and drew like that and has drawn in a style that he never wanted to draw in for 15 years. He's absolutely built a fanbase and had a terrific career.
"The only way I can explain it is, imagine you were dating a girl for three years, and she turns to you and said, 'I don't want to speak English to you anymore, I want to speak French.' And you go, 'What are you talking about?' And she says to you in French, 'I'm French, and I've always spoke French...until I met you in which case I only spoke English.' And you're sitting there going, 'Wait...what?!? I don't know what you're saying.' And that's what it was like. I saw Ian's original style, which was much closer to Ed and in an odd way Darwyn Cooke, who if you think about it couldn't be more on the other end of the spectrum from Jim Lee. And so it's great fun. There's some John Byrne in there, and it's really cool."
To top it off, the arc reunites Churchill with a character he's played with before and one Hulk has some dicey history with. "Ian has a history drawing Wolverine and a history drawing the Hulk, and with the Red Hulk you really get the size and the power of this guy with a character who's quite a scrapper," Loeb said. "But it's not just Wolverine. It's all of X-Force. It's the Punisher. It's Deadpool. It's Elektra. It's very much about 'Who is the Red Hulk, and what would happen if that secret got out?'"
But before Jeph Loeb and Ian Churchill spin their piece of the Hulk pie out into its own direction, new answers await fans in "Incredible Hulk" #600, and Loeb hopes the wait will prove worth the while for readers. "There's pluses and minuses [to waiting for a big revelation]. What you don't want to have happen is after the meal have people say, 'I'm not really interested in dessert.' If you serve dessert first, than nobody's interested in having a meal, so you've got to play it back and forth. I was talking to Geoff Johns about 'Flash: Rebirth' and about how that's a story that very much is woven as a single piece, and in the same way that you would read a novel, it is a journey that will come together as it goes along. By the time you finish it all, you realize it's this incredibly complex story that's a great piece of entertainment. And that's the risk you take whenever you tell a story that's more than one issue.
"Are there people who are frustrated by not having the answers? Yes. But that only happens when you care. If you don't care, then you don't buy the book and you're not frustrated by anything. You just throw up your hands and go, 'I don't care who's behind the cowl.' If you're not compelled to read 'Who is Batman?' -Â which people clearly are -Â what are you going to do? Nothing. And there have been some very good story lines where the readers have abandoned the story. We're super lucky - and I never take it for granted -Â that people are on board and want to know what I refer to as 'the story of the Red Hulk,' not necessarily 'Who is the Red Hulk?' Because once you know who the Red Hulk is, that's a valuable piece of information, but as you learn in #600, that's just a piece of the puzzle."