Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Review: Indestructible Hulk Vol. 3: S.M.A.S.H. Time

I'm afraid I can't quite figure out why this collection of issues #11-15 ofthe Mark Waid-written Indestructible Hulk series has the title it does. "Smash Time," without the former word written as if it were an acronym, makes more sense, as the story arc in this volume is about The Hulk traveling through time and smashing things; at the climax, the Hulk gets so angry, and/or is so strong, that he throws a punch that literally breaks the time barrier and travels a few decades into the future to hit a villain in the face.

The acronym "S.M.A.S.H." doesn't appear in the story at all, although I understand that there's a television cartoon entitled Hulk and The Agents of S.M.A.S.H., wherein the acronym stands for "Supreme Military Agency of Super Humans." The word "time," which is not treated as an acronym in the title, does appear in the story as an acronym at one point. "Dr. Banner, welcome to T.I.M.E.," Maria Hill tells Bruce Banner upon bringing him to a super-duper-secret S.H.I.E.L.D. lab, "Temporal Irregularity Management and Eradication."

So I could see "Smash Time" or "Smash T.I.M.E.," but I can't make sense of "S.M.A.S.H. Time."

After those puzzling two words on the cover, however, this is a pretty great superhero comic, start-to-finish. It's also something of a done-in-one trade paperback; there may be a "Vol. 3" on the spine, but this reads perfectly well as a standalone book. It's not an original graphic novel, but it reads like one; it may, in fact, be the most new reader friendly of the three volumes of the series so far, which is a little odd, I admit. The first volume wasn't a bad jumping-on point or anything, but it did deal quite a bit with establishing a premise and a new status quo for The Hulk and Bruce Banner. This introduces a conflict in the first issue, then spends four issues having the hero/es resolve that conflict, through a mixture of super-smarts and super-strength. There aren't really any plotlines from the previous volumes being carried forward here, nor is there anything of great left unresolved by volume's end).

The book opens with a really rather neat sci-fi scene, of the sort that maybe couldn't only be done in comics, but can certainly only be done in this precise way in comics. SHIELD's TIME division has sent a "chrononaut" exploring, but his protection suit is breached, and time ravages his body, aging and de-aging various parts of him. During the episode, he talks forward and backwards, the dialogue balloons the only clue as to what direction he's going in as he's tossed back and forth.

It turns out that, because time in the Marvel Universe is currently "broken" (something that was a long time coming, apparently, but the events of Age of Ultron were the straws that broke the camel's back), only The Hulk can safely travel through time, and SHIELD needs to send someone back through time, as extremely minor supervillain Zarrko, "The Tomorrow Man" explains to his SHIELD jailers that various bizarre goings-on are related to a villain/group of villains—The Chronarchist/s—manipulating events in the past in order to achieve their desired results. This, however, wreaks havoc, as, say, and an airport disappears because it was made to suddenly never exist...just as a plane is about to land. And so on.

After the better part of an issue is spent explaining the very comic book-y—but still rather clever comic book-y—plot and stakes, and preparing our heroes for their task. Because they need Hulk in Hulk form to survive time travel, but they need Banner's reasoning abilities in order to actually get anything done, they devise a way to download Banner's brain temporarily into a floating, indestructible, ball-shaped droid, and so Banner and Hulk can "team up" with one another.

They visit various time periods for various page counts, finding allies among the locals as they face different Chronarchists. So an issue is spent in the Old West, where Hulk and Banner teams up with Two-Gun Kid, Kid Colt and The Rawhide Kid to fight all the dinosaurs the Chronarchist imported to serve as muscle. The next issue is set during the time of King Arthur, where The Black Knight naturally aids our heroes (and we learn that the Ebony Blade really can cut through anything, just as later we learn that Hulk really is the strongest force there is, able to punch through time itself).

Much of the fourth issue has The Hulk and Banner hopping through various time-periods montage style. Here's Hulk fighting The Abomination on The Moon, here he is fighting The Sandman in ancient Egypt, and, as the saying goes, "In 1492, Hulk punched out Fin Fang Foom."

His final showdown with The Chronarchist occurs on the day Banner is set to test that fateful Gamma Bomb, and things get pretty weird, with The Hulk becoming The Hulk in the blast instead of Banner, so there's like, a Hulk squared (it's not a terribly good design, sadly; The Hulked-out Hulk just has long hair and some spikes for some reason, instead of being to The Hulk as The Hulk is to Banner).

The bulk of the art is the work of Matteo Scalera, who handles the majority of the first three of the five issues, and the last three are drawn primarily by Kim Jacinto (although Jacinto shares a "with Mahmud Asrar" credit for #14). The styles of the artists blend together fairly well, although it's clear when Jacinto and/or Asrar assume artistic duties. Jacinto has a much, much thicker line, and the characters and figures all therefore look a bit bigger, a tiny bit more static, and in much greater contrast to their surroundings. I liked Scaleara's art much better, however I suppose that may be in large part due to the fact that the story starts out with his artwork before changing.

That minor imperfection is really the only weakness to the book, though (And it's hardly one unique to this volume or this title; Marvel's accelerated shipping schedules has only furthered the primacy of writer over artist on most of their titles, to the point where books as associated with a single artist the way they are a single writer are fewer and farther between then ever before). Otherwise it's a pretty perfect superhero genre comic (That is, in other words, if you like superhero comics, you'll like this one; no need to start with Vols. 1 or 2...although those are pretty good too).

As much fun as the story itself is, Michael del Mundo's variant covers—included in the back of the collection—are better still. There's one of The Hulk punching the nose of the sphinx, another of the front page of The Bugle from the day The Hulk landed on the moon in 1969, another of The Hulk as the Mona Lisa, and my two favorites.

First, there's this:
"Puny Hancock, Hulk's is the biggest one there is!" Sadly, Hulk does not actually attend the writing of and signing of the Declaration of Independence, but how great a story would that have been?

Maybe in a Secret Wars tie-in...

And, secondly and finally, this one:
"Puny assassin, Abrahulk Lincoln smash!"

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