I can’t peer behind the Marvel curtain and see exactly how the collaboration between Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente happens, but since Van Lente has joined this book, it has become something far better than it was before. Sure, it was a Hulk series when Pak was writing it solo, and now it features everyone’s favorite dim-witted demigod, but it’s not just the addition of Hercules that makes the difference. Van Lente brings an overt didacticism to the comic — something he has perfected in his independently published “Action Philosophers” and “Comic Book Comics,” and brought to bear on his Marvel work directed at younger readers: “Power Pack,” “Marvel Adventures Iron Man,” and even “Wolverine: First Class.” “The Incredible Hercules” features a story from Greek mythology in every issue — not as the main plot, but as a “remember that time…” flashback which informs the present situation. It’s easy to assume that such educational moments are Van Lente’s doing.
And that’s a good thing. The overt connection to Hercules’ mythological past adds substance to his character, and gives Van Lente and Pak a chance to show how little things have changed over the past few thousand years. Hercules is still rash and pugnacious, even after all these years. But he does show a bit more self-awareness, especially in this issue, where his own sense of identity is called into question.
The Eternals, fresh (or not-so-fresh) from their Neil Gaiman/John Romita Jr. relaunch, show up here to “awaken” Hercules, thinking him the “Forgotten One,” the rash and pugnacious strong man of the Eternals clan. The joke here is that Jack Kirby’s concept of the Eternals was that these characters are the proto-gods. The Eternals are the ancient scientifically-created superbeings whom humans have called by various names over the years. The Forgotten One is Hercules, Gilgamesh, and any other strong but dumb demigod from various pantheons around the world. Except, when Kirby was forced to set his Eternals stories in the Marvel Universe, that notion didn’t make sense. How can the Eternals be the single pantheon from which all other gods derive if the other gods are actually characters in the Marvel Universe?
Van Lente and Pak, with the more-than-able help of artist Rafa Sandoval (seriously, this guy is perfect for this comic), reconcile the conflicting mythologies not by ignoring the contradictions, but by questioning Hercules own conception of himself. He immediately denies that he’s the Forgotten One, but after a few punches are thrown (and really, in a Hercules comic, punches need to be thrown regularly), he begins to wonder if maybe his memories of the past are inaccurate. Did Hercules clean the Augean stables? He seems to remember doing so, but the flashback indicates that he didn’t do it alone. Van Lente and Pak posit a history in which the Forgotten One and Hercules can coexist and still get credit for each other’s deeds. It’s partly a continuity patch, but it’s mostly used to knock Hercules off balance, mentally. It shakes him up, and causes him to question his role in the world. It’s an effective emotional use of what could have been just no-prize gamesmanship.
I don’t know if this series is doing well or not, but it deserves to be one of Marvel’s top sellers. Like Hercules himself, it’s smarter and more nuanced than you’d expect. And it will punch you in the face if you don’t believe it.