Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Peter David's "Tempest Fugit", Incredible Hulk 77-81

I finally got my hands on the trade collection of Peter David's return to the character of the Hulk, his "Tempest Fugit" storyline which was published as Incredible Hulk #77-81. I come to this story with a particular interest in David's use of Shakespeare's play The Tempest, which is where the title comes from, but you can't just talk about one part of a story like this, you have to wade on in.

There's perilously little plot in this story, which is something it has in common with The Tempest. The Hulk walks up onto a mysterious island before devolving into Banner, whereupon he is rescued from a monster by Gwen and Ripley, two other castaways who seem to be entertainers hired to sing on a pleasure cruise before the yacht exploded and the two washed ashore. Somewhere Ripley acquired a flame thrower and, more worthy of comment, he has apparently gone blind. There's no real reason as to why Gwen, who can see and seems to be in perfectly good shape, and who has something of a snarky attitude to boot, lets the blind guy carry the flame thrower.

The three are attacked by more monsters, including Fin Fang Foom and a three-headed dog which may or may not be Cerberus, before General Ross appears to give the first explanation for what is going on: this island is a place where scientists have developed a weapon which makes your imagination into reality (ala Forbidden Planet, a famous Tempest riff), said project has gone out of control and the imagined monsters are now killing everyone. The trio are separated; Hull fights Foom, Wolverine, Kang the Conqueror and Mephisto, Ripley gets drugged to sleep by a "Professor Yarish", and Ripley is seemingly drowned by Ross, but then wakes up. This leads to the denoument, a few pages at the end of a 5-book story which finally tells us what was going on. "Ross", Kang, and Mephisto were really Nightmare. Gwen is really Nightmare's daughter, "Daydream," stripped of her self-knowledge and thrown to live among mortals. Ripley appears to really be Gwen's boyfriend, and Nightmare has been messing with Hulk's reality and memory for years now, as revenge for various insults and slights which the Hulk has inflicted upon him over the years. We never get a pin in "Professor Yarish," who might be a creation of Nightmare or a Silent One playing the role.

This sounds really complicated, but it's not really, because as I say it is all suddenly revealed at the end of the story in the manner of a man pulling back the curtain on things you never could have really known or figured out for yourself, so to a very great degree the entire plot is a pretense for various cameos by antagonists the Hulk gets to beat up on which, we are forced to admit, describes the vast majority of Hulk stories anyway.

Parallel to this main plot is a subplot, a flashback sequence in which Bruce Banner, the skinny new guy in high school, tries to get involved in a lunchroom spat only to get beat up and unappreciated by the pretty young thing he was trying to rescue. During this sequence, the Hulk is portrayed as Bruce's "imaginary friend," a kind of split personality which Bruce has nurtured since the departure of his father for a psychiatric ward. Hulk is constantly pushing Bruce to "smash" everyone at school who puts the diss on him, culminating in a "Dark Side" moment in which Bruce wakes up to discover that, while he was asleep, Hulk used his body to plant a bomb -- which Bruce had built in his basement -- in the school. Bruce reaches the school in time to defuse the bomb, but he is still caught and found culpable for putting the bomb there in the first place, leading to more violence wrought upon him by students, his expulsion, and a move out of the city by he and his caretaker aunt. After all this, a young Thunderbolt Ross shows up to offer Bruce a job as a weapons designer since, after all, he is a teenager who built his own bomb.

There's more plot in this subplot than in the Hulk's actual wanderings in the island. David is pulling on a number of threads here, and only one of them is Shakespeare. To get that part out of the way first: Nightmare is Prospero, the magical mastermind who has lured his enemy to a magic island for revenge. Daydream is his daughter, Miranda, but also his magic-wielding servant, Ariel. Ripley is Ferdinand, the guy Miranda falls in love with and leaves to marry at the end of the play. Hulk is Anotnio -- Prospero's brother and hated enemy. I'm not sure if any of the monsters on the island count as Caliban; we could give the nod to Foom or to Wolverine, or even to Hulk himself, since Caliban is consistently described as fish-like and Hulk spends the first several pages of this book walking on the bottom of the ocean, killing sharks and giant squids, before revealing that he apparently has a gland in his body that creates oxygen-filled liquid, just like that pink stuff in the Abyss, which is where David clearly got the idea.

And this reveals one of the most important things about this book: Peter David's number one priority does not seem to be telling a good story so much as it is redefining, yet again, the Hulk and how he works. David has to put his stamp on the Hulk one more time, and the number of retcons in this story is pretty crazy. First off, there is the big one about Nightmare being responsible for most of the Hulk's woes over the past few years, a reveal almost as cheezy as the Crossing, in which Kang took responsibility for Tony Stark's alcoholism. In fact, now that I think about it, I think that might be why Kang shows up in this book, of all the crazy individuals David might have thrown in. Kang smells a heavy-handed retcon and he's snuck over to reminisce.

But there's plenty more, starting with that opening sequence in which we learn that the Hulk did not, after all, have to hold his breath while underwater because, apparently for years, maybe since his creation, he's had a gland in his body that creates oxygenated fluid in his lungs, thus balancing out the pressure in his body and making him immune to the bends. This, apparently, was really bugging David. So much that he had to clue us in. Then there's the sudden reappearance of Betty at the end of the story, an un-telling of David's famous decision to kill the gal off in the first place, all those years ago. To these retcons, add Bruce's decision to bomb his own high school, and Ross's subsequent involvement in Bruce's life, presumably establishing that this is when Bruce got put on the road to eventually building the Gamma Bomb.

So on one hand, David is writing a Tempest riff. On the other hand, his priority is the retcon. His third story is to say something about 9/11, terrorism, and school violence along the lines of Columbine. Nightmare reveals that he now has power in the mortal world because of the fear and terror which 9/11 caused; everyone looked at the smoking towers and said, "Let this be a bad dream." Invoked by an entire nation, Nightmare created his new island and began experimenting upon human beings with his powers, with the Hulk as a primary test case. But Bruce's high school plot also ties into this thread, making him an instigator of school violence. It's hard to get too sympathetic over Bruce either, since while getting beaten up regularly is certainly bad, and being humiliated by a girl is also pretty terrible, the Karate Kid certainly did not need a bomb under the school to get even. David seems to be saying that Bruce's youthful history of violence and psychological problems also contributed to that atmosphere of fear which 9/11 is a part of, so that Bruce, too, becomes somewhat culpable for Nightmare's newfound power and freedom. After all, plenty of people are afraid of the Hulk. All of this compounds to make Bruce Banner even more guilty for all the awful things he has done, which I am not sure was really necessary, considering how much guilt he's already got.

The cleverest bit of this entire story -- and really it is quite well done -- is the bit about Nightmare being invoked on 9/11. I mean, sure, I can totally see that day as America's Nightmare moment. And it makes perfect sense for that to be the high water mark for Nightmare himself, who surfed that wave all the way from the Dream Dimension to the real world. The trouble with "Tempest Fugit" is that there just aren't enough other clever moments in this story to give this one jewel any decent competition. Hulk's one liners are just cynical and jaded (see what I did there), the island itself has no real story, and the flashback story paints Bruce as so psychologically disturbed that I would lose all empathy with him were I to acknowledge David's version of the character instead of my own.

You have to work pretty hard to make a nerdy kid who got kicked around in school no longer identify with Bruce Banner.

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