BOOK REVIEW: The Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk by Greg Pak

The Incredible Hulk: Planet HulkThe Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk by Greg Pak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I was pleasantly surprised by the story arc and character development in this volume – which is to say it had both and they were well crafted. I often have a problem with comic books — in particular (and on-going series of any kind, in general,) and that’s that they often fail to be satisfying as self-contained stories. So much effort is put into keeping one reading that the climax and resolution – such as they are – feel like minor speed-bumps on the way to somewhere else. That wasn’t the case here. While the ending leaves open a route of continued story (as one would expect,) one sees the Hulk undergo a transformation across the events of this story. He’s shot away from the Earth, lands on the wrong planet, is forced to fight as a gladiator, escapes, fights his way across a world teeming with harsh adversaries, all the while building the respect of those around him until he is elevated to kingship.

Tough guy characters are notorious for remaining unchanged across a story arc. Hulk, being the ultimate tough guy, seems particularly unlikely to grow or develop. However, the Hulk who begins this story jettisoned into deep space by his superhero colleagues to avoid him causing chaos on Earth, feels different from the Hulk who assumes leadership of the planet Saakar at the volume’s end. Amid monsters, the Hulk is in his element and can be a better version of himself. On Earth he is a bull in a china shop, on Sakaar not everyone he meets is so delicate. Overpowered heroes are often hard to make interesting. However, a couple countervailing features make it easier to make Hulk more interesting than say, Superman. First of all, Hulk is overpowered in one dimension, i.e. power, and might be considered underpowered in other dimensions (i.e. intellect, pettiness, control, etc.) Second, there is an interesting game theoretic condition in which the Hulk just gets stronger the angrier he gets, and so he always presents an object lesson — that is, one can’t just fight fire with fire and get the better of him. Thirdly, and most importantly, no matter who the Hulk is fighting, his story is essentially man versus self. The outward opposition is secondary. Because of his past mindless destructiveness, he is uniquely able to understand the need to let bygones be bygones. This is nicely shown, and eventually challenged.

Movie buffs may wonder what this book has in common with the “Thor: Ragnarok” movie that features common elements. The answer is: not a lot. The Sakaar of the movie seems to be just a huge trash heap and a gladiatorial arena. The Sakaar of the comics is more fleshed out with agrarian areas and various indigenous peoples / species. There are a couple of common characters, including Korg and Miek, but they are only superficially the same character. (Korg is much more serious and Miek is a much more substantially developed character in the comic book.) Also, there is no Thor. The only other familiar hero from other comics that we see on Sakaar is the Silver Surfer – and only early in the story.

Besides the main story, provided by “The Incredible Hulk, #92 – 105” there is a “Planet Hulk Gladiator Guide” for the hardcore nerds the provides all sorts of detail regarding the geography planet Sakaar, biographical sketches of key characters, and the culture of various species on the planet. There is also another issue “Amazing Fantasy #15” that shows Amadeus Cho (on Earth) investigating what happened with his friend, Bruce Banner.

I enjoyed “Planet Hulk” considerably, and I look forward to reading the “World War Hulk” collection that was also written by Pak. The art was generally clear and conveyed action effectively, and I found the story quite intriguing.

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BOOK REVIEW: Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Vol. 1 by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Vol. 1 (Black Panther (2016-))Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Vol. 1 (Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book contains the first arc of a three arc story written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a 2015 National Book Award winner. The volume contains “Black Panther” (2016), #1-4, and—as a bonus—“Fantastic Four” (1961) #52, which is the edition in which the Black Panther was introduced.

The premise is that Wakanda is on the brink of coming apart at the seams, and there are nefarious forces afoot trying to spur a revolution. A mysterious woman, Zenzi, uses mind control unleash people’s rage. This results in an episode of violence that is the inciting incident for the story. But Zenzi isn’t working alone; she has a powerful ally named Tetu, who can control elements of nature.

Some background maybe useful for those unfamiliar with this character and / or who haven’t seen “Captain America: Civil War”–the movie in which Black Panther / T’Challa was introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU.) First, Wakanda is a fictional African nation. It’s quintessentially African with respect to culture, but it’s the most technologically advanced nation in the world. It achieved this first-world modernity and wealthy in large part because it possesses most of the world’s vibranium—a much desired, but fictional, metal. Vibranium can absorb huge amounts of energy and only become stronger. The metal is most famously known for being the material from which Captain America’s shield was made, but it crops up in Marvel stories quite frequently.

Second, the superhero Black Panther is the protector of Wakanda (though in some books—not this one—he does get drawn into global affairs) and is the alter ego of the Wakandan king, T’Challa. This duality is particularly relevant in this story line. On the one hand, the Black Panther must battle Zenzi and Tetu who are working together to bring the nation down. On the other hand, as King, T’Challa is forced to recognize his responsibility for the health of the nation, and he must be a good leader and not just a good fighter. There are the makings of an inner battle that must be fought concurrently with the battle against the enemies of the state. At the end of Volume #4, T’Challa is forced to face this through the words of a trusted maternal advisor.

In addition to the main plot in which the hero fights to keep the nation from collapsing, there are a couple of subplots. One involves an ex-member of the royal guard (i.e. the all-female Dora Milaje) using stolen technology to rescue her lover, another ex-member of Dora Milaje who was sentenced to death for killing a corrupt tribal leader. The two go on a spree of rescuing Wakandans. Another subplot involves T-Challa’s sister being trapped in a limbo between life and death called the Djalia—the plane of memory.

A word on the “Fantastic Four” comic book included: In it, T’Challa woos Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) into bringing the Four to Wakana by way of the gift of a flying car—a technology that seemed only slightly more feasible in 1961 than it does today. (Yes, I wrote that the way I meant it. In those days anything seemed possible. But after decades without a household jet-pack, we’ve become a more technologically pessimistic people… or is it just me?) Once in Wakana, the Black Panther battles the Fantastic Four, using not only his athletic prowess but also a series of technologies tailor-made against their powers. This makes it seem like the Black Panther was introduced as a villain, but he’s hunting them for the challenge rather than out of ill-will.

As would be expected from an award-winning author, this arc is well-written and sets up a fascinating story. As this is a comic book, I should also talk about the artwork, which was done by Brian Stelfreeze. However, I don’t know what to say beyond that I liked it well enough. I’m not particularly competent to speak on the subject–other than to say that it was generally easy to tell what was going on in the frames, and the action seemed to be well conveyed. I can’t speak at all to coloring as I read the Kindle edition in black & white (Not that I’d have anything interesting to say on the subject.)

I’d recommend this comic. There’s plenty of butt-kicking, but there’s also a thought-provoking tale of political intrigue.

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MOVIE REVIEW: The Wolverine

I don’t normally do movie reviews because, for one reason, I don’t watch that many movies–at least not in the timely fashion necessary to be relevant. However, I figured I’d do one for The Wolverine because I did a book review of Clairmont & Miller’s Wolverine.

The Wolverine shares superficial common ground with the Clairmont & Miller book.  The setting for each is largely Japan. The movie and the book share almost the same slate of major characters. However, the characters don’t necessarily have the same relationships to each other or the same personalities as in the book.

If you’ve seen the trailers, my synopsis will be largely spoiler/surprise free. The movie opens with Logan saving a young Japanese officer. It then flashes forward to Logan living in the wilderness of the Pacific Northeast. The primary reference to the earlier films is that he is tormented by killing Jean Grey in X-men: The Last Stand (a.k.a. X-Men 3.) Yukio (a female warrior who the movie makes friendly to Logan from the get go) tracks Logan down to take him to see her employer, the same individual he saved during the war. That individual offers him mortality. After their meeting, Logan’s principal goal shifts from living by a vow to not kill to one of keeping Mariko safe. Mariko is the granddaughter of the officer Logan saved and she becomes his love interest. As in the book, Mariko is tangled in intrigues of family and company (i.e. kairetsu), but the nature of these intrigues is somewhat updated in the movie. In the book, Mariko is a helpless damsel-in-distress, but in the movie we see her strength.

The biggest strength of this movie is that Wolverine becomes mortal in the film–at least for a time. This creates stakes for Logan where none usually exist. The problem with Wolverine’s combination of rapid healing and indestructible skeleton is that there’s no nail-biting over his fate. You know no matter how much he gets tossed around, he’s going to get up and within a minute he’ll be right as rain.

In my opinion, the biggest flaw of the movie is the creation of a twist ending that fails to surprise but yet requires distorting a character. I realize it’s hard to write a good twist ending. If one foreshadows too much, one gives away the surprise. If one fails to foreshadow, then one annoys the audience with a “gotcha” type ending. In this case, one of the characters behaves in a manner that is out of character with the first act portrayal. This is a “gotcha,” but one that one couldn’t help but thinking was a possibility. There are a number of little forgivable sins that I won’t discuss, and which may be inevitable in film.

The film also contributes to the general continuity muddle of X-men films. Because this film attempts to be a standalone film, it may not seem fair to critique this point. However, by using the aforementioned piece of the X-Men 3 timeline, I think they open themselves up to this criticism. As an example, while in the X-Men Origins: Wolverine film we are told that Wolverine can’t grow back his memories, he apparently grows back his memories of what happened in WWII just fine. There’s a post-credit scene which happens three years after The Wolverine timeline that is a set up for X-Men: Days of Future Past and Professor X appears in it, but they hint that there may be an explanation for this (Xavier died in the same X-Men 3 that this film references through about half a dozen dream sequences.) This is not so much an example of  discontinuity, also because the upcoming film features time travel prominently, but may or may not be example of the general X-Men muddle.

I’d recommend seeing this movie, but only if one goes in thinking of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. If one does that one will find it an enjoyable step up. However, if one goes in expecting a movie of The Dark Knight caliber, one will be sorely disappointed.