Portacio Takes On "Hulk"

Exposure to gamma radiation has made him immensely strong, and his savage alter ego makes him incredibly dangerous. His name is - Doc Samson? Known to longtime Hulk fans as a psychiatrist who gained superhuman strength and endurance after being exposed to gamma radiation, the good doctor has always attempted to be a steadying influence on Bruce Banner and his gargantuan green alter-ego, the Hulk. However, in recent issues of Marvel Comics' "Hulk" series writer Jeph Loeb revealed that Doc Samson has developed his own sinister alter ego, a savage persona simply known as Samson.

At this point, many questions surround the Samson persona. How long has Leonard Samson been harboring this dark personality? What caused Samson to appear? And what is Samson's connection to the mysterious Red Hulk? Some of these questions will be examined and answered in December's "Hulk" #18 by Loeb and acclaimed artist and Image Comics co-founder, Whilce Portacio. CBR News spoke with Portacio about his work on "Hulk" #18, what it was like working with Loeb and what it's like to come back to Marvel; a company he left 16 years ago..

CBR News: It's been a while since you've worked with Marvel - how did you end up getting the "Hulk" #18 gig?

Whilce Portacio: Right after I signed up to do my recent arc on "Spawn," Jeph asked me to do an issue of "Hulk" with him. That was big surprise for me, because I had always wanted to work with Jeph, but had never actually met him. So I had no idea he wanted to collaborate with me. I promised him that, after I finished my work on "Spawn," he would be the first person that I called.

So I gave him a call, and he told me that he had this great "Hulk" story that he thought would be fun to do. There was plenty of action, because the Red and Green Hulks are involved, but there's also this dark, moody, psychological story surrounding Doc Samson, and that's totally up my alley. I said, "Perfect," and the long wait was worth it because I think the script for "Hulk" #18 is one of Jeph's best.

[Coming in,] I didn't know much about Doc Samson's history. It's colorful, and we touch on just about every aspect of it, from his birth to rebirth. As an artist, you read a plot and sometimes it's hard to envision. This story blocked out really well for my style, though. I have to thank my editor, Mark Paniccia, because he put together a beautiful team for me. It's my first job back with Marvel, and he gets Danny Miki to ink me, Dean White to do the colors, and of course Jeph to write the plot.

Was it tough to visually differentiate between Doc Samson and his darker half, since they appear to be two personalities that inhabit the same body?

No, I love that kind of stuff. I'm an armchair psychiatrist, and I've always enjoyed watching people and asking myself, 'Why do they do the things they do?' That's the nice thing about this story. It delves into the psyche of Doc Samson. We've always known him as the pretty boy, brilliant psychiatrist who's always wanted to be big, bad and powerful. The twist that Jeph adds in this story is that Samson is like many people with psychological problems that keep them from being satisfied with who they are. That never stops. Once someone like Samson gets to what should be the perfect point, their twisted mind's eye tells them that thing's aren't perfect yet. They still want more.

In our story, Samson wants more. As Doc Samson he achieved it all. He was arguably as powerful as the Hulk, and he retained his intelligence and youthful good looks, but he still wasn't satisfied. So Jeph is suggesting that all these years Samson has been targeting Bruce Banner and the Hulk, that maybe there's one thing Samson hasn't been; he's never been as savage or bestial, and in this story he achieves that. We find out, though, like most Marvel stories, there are bigger forces weaving all these things together.

What can you tell me about the settings and perspectives of "Hulk" #18? Does the action unfold in the present? Through flashbacks? Or Both?

One of the things I really love is when writers give me an artistic problem to solve. The book opens with a step into Doc Samson's mind's eye. We have a few scenes like that, and then we have some actual flashbacks. Then there is the "real" story that's unfolding, and that story has a psychological pretext to it because his "reality" is slowly becoming more primal. So we've got all these different facets, and I've got to jump back and forth between them very quickly. Plus, you've got this undercurrent of all the different emotions that Doc Samson is going through.

So as we move from mind's eye, to flashbacks, and unfolding reality, how do people keep track of all these different visuals? I think Dean, Jeph, and I came up with some really nice ideas, and then Dean took all of those ideas and hit them out of the park. There are scenes with jagged edges and muted colors. Then there are scenes with saturated colors, followed by scenes with overly wrought white pastel palettes and faded borders. So there are a lot of nice tricks using every tool of the trade, and hopefully they're stark enough that readers will catch on.

From what you're telling me, it sounds like this issue needed to have a dark, almost psychological horror feel to it. Was it tough capturing and conveying that mood?

It's a very dark and emotional story. The real challenge for me as an artist was that it called for multiple close ups of Doc Samson as we showed him going through turmoil and his decision making process. His outlook on himself is constantly changing because of conversations and what's happening at each moment. That could get very boring, but Jeph interwove those close up scenes with events from his past, and that gave me a really nice context on how to differentiate all those images. Again, the whole team, Danny and Dean included, added to the flavor of the book. It doesn't look like a talking heads book.

What was it like working with Jeph Loeb? Several of his artistic collaborators have told me that Jeph really knows how to cater his scripts to their particular strengths. Did you find that to be the case?

That's why I wanted to work with Jeph. From my point of view, comics will always be a visual medium at its core. So the writer has a tough job. He has to write to his heart's content, but 22 pages isn't a whole lot of room to tell a story and let it breathe. A writer not only has to tell the basics of a story by getting things from point A to point B and have those events seem interesting, but he's also got throw some emotion in there as well. Most writers do that, but where I think Jeph and some other writers stand out is that they're visual writers. They understand what the 22 page count really means in terms of space to unfold the story.

I've had stories where you read them and they're beautiful, but when you try to lay them out, there's really not enough room to let things breathe. You'll have this really great scene followed by another really great scene, but you're boxed into one page. You can do that and be effective, but to really let the story breathe and make an impact, you want to take a little pause so the reader can appreciate those moments and then go on. Jeph knows how to do that. He knows how to write the story he wants to write and give his artist room to play. He knows when some scenes need to go by quick, and knows that some scenes, even if they're just one panel, need to be big enough to encompass a multitude of details.

You did a lot of work for Marvel in the late '80s and early '90s, most notably on "Uncanny X-Men," then you left to form Image with your partners in 1992. After that you came back in 1996 for a brief run on "Heroes Reborn: Iron Man." "Hulk" #18 is your first work for Marvel since then. How does it feel to come back to the House of Ideas, 12 years later?

It feels pretty good. I have a lot of artist friends working at Marvel, and they're all exclusive guys. They all say it's fantastic. I took that with a grain of salt, but I have to say, the experiences I had with Mark and Nate Cosby on "Hulk," and the experiences I'm having now with Axel Alonso and Sebastian Girner are a lot different from the old Bob Harras days. Those days were fantastic because back then Marvel Offices were like little families.

Everything now is more disciplined. My younger self would have balked at that, but now, with kids and a family, I really appreciate that. I can rely on the editors or their assistants to get me what I need, when I need it. And I, of course, have to reciprocate and assure them that they can get what they need from me when they need it. So it's a much more disciplined environment, and that's where my head is at right now. I'm back to prove that I can do a monthly book again. This is the place to be.

You mentioned that you're working with Axel Alonso and Sebastian Girner. Can you tell us anything about the project you're doing with them?

The script is wonderful. Part of it is like coming home for me. I can't say much beyond that, because it's a big book and they'd kill me dead if I said any more. As for the future, there are so many things I'd love to do at Marvel, and I'm excited to be back!

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