The Incredible Hulk vs. Superman

The Incredible Hulk vs. Superman By Roger Stern, Steve Rude, Al Milgrom, Jim Novak, Steve Oliff.
By Roger Stern, Steve Rude, Al Milgrom, Jim Novak, Steve Oliff

Published in 1999, The Incredible Hulk vs. Superman is one of the more fun crossovers coming out of Marvel and DC in the last 12 years. On further thought, it might be the only inter-company crossover from the period that could be considered remotely entertaining. These kind of projects are naturally targeted at the fanboy contingent, in particular the section of fandom which feels compelled to debate endlessly about the comparative power-levels of favorite characters. The Hulk and Superman are obvious fodder for such bull sessions, and they have met twice before (As far as I recall). The last time was the pandering Marvel vs. DC in which readers could vote for the winners of various matchups. It's no surprise that these kind of stories are usually exercises in self-indulgence, since they require a certain degree of preexisting emotional investment in the characters and their respective continuities to work. IH vs. S certainly works best if the reader already has a preference for at least one of the characters. But its effectiveness comes from avoiding the deep-end of nostalgia and continuity porn, and presenting an uncomplicated adventure tale featuring two highly recognizable properties.

Not that the story can entirely avoid its own metatextual issues. The comic begins and ends with the current version of the characters, with all their accompanying emotional baggage. These sections are unavoidably clunky. But the substantial portion of the narrative takes place in a flashback when the characters are at the beginning of their superhero careers. Given the basically incompatible timelines of DC and Marvel, a certain degree of finagling has to happen just to make them fit. For example, because of DC's practice of rewriting Superman's origins, this version of Superman seems to be the standard post-Crisis version viewed through a Silver Age filter. This is to bring the character's visual identity in line with artist Steve Rude's interpretation of the Hulk, which is clearly based on Jack Kirby. This may sound like an incidental, but it's an essential part of the book's appeal. Setting the story in the past not only allows writer Roger Stern to sidestep much of subsequent continuity, but to also present the characters in a more "innocent" time. This might sound needlessly nostalgic, but the approach allows them to be closer to the iconic versions that even the general audience can recall through cultural osmosis: Clark Kent and Lois Lane are still rival reporters. Dr. Bruce Banner is still working for the military, and dating Betty Ross, who's still unaware of his Hulk identity. So is General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross, who's still hunting the Hulk with the resources of the army base at his disposal. Rick Jones is still the loyal teenage sidekick. Lex Luthor differs in that he appears in his post-Crisis identity as a corrupt business magnate. But it could be argued that media exposure to this role had already begun to supplant the more traditional role of rogue scientist.

The Incredible Hulk vs. Superman By Roger Stern, Steve Rude, Al Milgrom, Jim Novak, Steve Oliff.

Rude's art is necessary to this effort, as his retro stylings capture the most "classic" look of the characters without drawing too much attention to itself. The aforementioned Kirby-inspired Hulk is a surly, always hunchbacked figure possessing a massive brow. Dr. Banner wears thick, horn-rimmed glasses and loose-fitting shirts over his scrawny frame. Clark looks like a reporter wearing a cheap striped suit with accompanying fedora. Betty looks sweet and innocent in a white dress and pink neck scarf, while Lois looks more assertive in her blue blazer. Even Superman's squinty-eyed face and lean, athletic physique recalls his Golden-Age design. Only Luthor's Colonel Sanders-style business suit feels like a misstep. The book is full of nice period touches from the hot rod cars, drive-ins, ham radios, small town buildings, to the Kirby-like design of Banner's scientific devices, like the massive Gamma Gun.

The plot itself follows the standard "superheroes fight, then team-up to beat the villain" formula. So predictably, the fight scenes are central to the story. But surprisingly, they're very brisk. They're less calculated to deliver a knock-down-drag-out slugfest that most hardcore fans have come to expect. Instead of a bloodletting, a certain amount of manic glee comes through. The Hulk hurls Superman into Earth orbit in one scene, and later on Supes returns the favor by bouncing him of several large cacti, pinball style. There's less an attempt to make the fight feel epic, than to make it an enjoyable ride for the reader. And Milgrom never neglects the interaction between the two supporting casts by crafting a plot that logically gets the characters to mingle with each other. Part of the fun is in watching how the cast does, or doesn't, get along. There's nothing in his scripting that's particularly original. But in the end, this is an unassuming and breezy meet-and-greet between two icons that have come to be taken far too seriously over the years.

The Incredible Hulk vs. Superman By Roger Stern, Steve Rude, Al Milgrom, Jim Novak, Steve Oliff.