Saturday, September 04, 2010

Out of the Vault- The Rampaging Hulk

So Internet access is restored and to celebrate, we've got a flood of stuff on its way. First up, a new Vault, and on Monday, look for a BIG surprise.

If you've been reading comics for any length of time at all, then you know about the Comics Code Authority, the self-censoring body that was set up by the major comics publishers in the wake of Congressional hearings on sex and violence in comics. You may also know how William Gaines shut down Mad as a comic book and began publishing it as a black-and-white magazine as a way of avoiding CCA censorship, a tactic that was soon imitated by other publishers, especially horror publishers like Warren, which produced Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella.

In the 70's, Marvel joined the black-and-white, non-CCA world starting with Savage Tales. For the most part, the mid-70's magazine characters were either characters outside the main Marvel continuity, like Conan and Kull, or else they were minor Marvel Universe characters like Dracula, Shang-Chi and Iron Fist (not that Dracula is a minor character, but that he existed mainly on the fringes of the Marvel Universe) from genres that appealed to older audiences and could presumably benefit from more mature treatment, like horror and kung-fu.

But in late 1977, Marvel decided to toss one of their major superheroes into the magazine mix with The Rampaging Hulk. The storyline was unrelated to the continuity of the Hulk's monthly color comic, but was a throwback storyline that ostensibly fit in a gap between the end of the Hulk's original comic series (which was canceled after six issues) and his appearance in the first issue of The Avengers. Bruce Banner, along with teen sidekick Rick Jones, traveled with an alien techno-artist named Bereet who was being pursued by her fellow aliens intent on invading Earth.

The Rampaging Hulk never really caught on. Unlike some of the other magazines that capitalized on the lack of Code enforcement to take a racier approach to their material, Rampaging was pretty much indistinguishable from its color counterpart from a storytelling standpoint.

The big difference was in the art. There was no regular art team on the magazine. Pencils were provided by a rotating squad of American Marvel talents like Jim Starlin, Walt Simonson, and Hulk regulars Herb Trimpe and Sal Buscema. But because these were black-and-white magazines, they usually received florid inks from a stable of mostly Filipino artists like Alex Nino, Alfredo Alcala and Rudy Nebres.

One advantage of the format was that the artists had more page room to work with, and the lack of color printing made details sharper, resulting in impressive splash pages like this shot of Hulk destroying a colossus in issue 7, art by Keith Pollard and Jim Mooney (one of the few Americans to ink a story in the series).

On the other hand, this set of panels from issue 8 by Herb Trimpe and Alfredo Alcala show a clumsy disconnect between the pencils and the inks. To be fair, Trimpe was always an idiosyncratic penciller, with a dynamic approach to layout and storytelling but often clumsy draftsmanship. On his own, Alcala produced lovely wash work, but he and Trimpe just couldn't sync. One thing that jumps out at you here: Trimpe sure did love him some splayed hands reaching toward the viewer. The other thing that jumps out at you: the overblown dialogue doesn't play any better in B&W.

The alien invasion storyline ended abruptly in issue 9, and with issue 10, the magazine retooled completely. The title was changed from The Rampaging Hulk to simply, The Hulk. The magazine was now being printed in full-color on white, high-quality paper as opposed to the cheaper pulp used in the earlier issues (I usually color-correct old black-and-whites to remove the yellowing when I scan pictures in for the Vault, but in the panels above, I let the yellowing remain, so that you can contrast with the whiteness of the paper in the panel below).

The other big change was in editorial direction. You see, between the time that The Rampaging Hulk started in 1977 and the time it retooled with issue 10, the Incredible Hulk TV series starring Bill Bixby had become a surprise hit.

Therefore, the stories in the new issues of the magazine were written to appeal to viewers of the series who might not read other superhero comics. Which is not to say that The Hulk was a comic adaptation of the TV series. Main character Banner was still Bruce and not David, and the Hulk looked nothing like Lou Ferrigno, nor was he limited by a TV budget to a few simple super-strength gags like lifting a car or busting through a wall.

But each issue had a self-contained story with Bruce as a drifter helping out people in need, rather than the soap-opera-style continuity of the color comics. In addition, instead of aliens and supervillains, the Hulk battled enemies like greedy mine owners and abusive fathers.

I kind of liked The Rampaging Hulk as a teen, but after the magazine changed direction, I abandoned it after two issues. It wasn't so much that I couldn't stand reading a story without a supervillain. But Doug Moench, the main writer on the magazine, couldn't really adapt to a more naturalistic style, and his plots couldn't evoke the kind of emotional responses that he clearly hoped they would. Plus Ron Wilson's art abandoned basic solid drawing for a superabundance of ticky-tacky detail (see above) and the too-bright colors didn't help (also see above). The entire enterprise was the definition of "trying too hard." It was embarrassing.

On the other hand, The Hulk did prove to be the precursor to better things to come. The comics industry as a whole began to adopt better printing methods and better paper, and occasionally, the writing and art were even good enough to justify them. So The Hulk was a pioneer, a bad magazine that pointed the way for better ones.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Huzzah! The return of the Fraze!