[Warning to readers: this review touches on topics of rape]
Immortality is legacy; immortality is suffering. Such are the theses presented by Future Imperfect and The Last Titan, entries into Peter David’s extended oeuvre of Hulk comics. Collected into Hulk: The End, the stories paint two diverging paths, stemming from an exploration of the Hulk’s very existence and the horror therein.
In a foreword written for the collection, Peter David muses on the notion of immortality. Eternal life, he posits, is not the continued inhabitation of a body. Immortality isn’t just living through countless generations to see the end of time. We as humans are just that: human. Life is fleeting, but the impact it has can be infinite. A common viewpoint, especially among creators, the notion of our work existing past ourselves is a romantic one, to say the least. To have a real, tangible impact on the world is not just the lofty aspiration of the artist; it’s the human experience. To that end, the work contained in this collection (Future Imperfect in particular) has become seminal, a touchstone not only in the mythos of the Hulk, but in that of the larger Marvel universe. Inspiring years of storytelling, the brief introduction to the Maestro is but a ripple in the larger pond of his impact. For the very human (Not an insult, I swear!) Peter David and George Perez, this is the ultimate goal: to foster a seed that grows well past their wildest dreams. As cliché as it sounds, though, the Hulk isn’t human. For a nigh invincible monster, legacy doesn’t matter. Do you know what does matter? Living through countless generations to see the end of time.
The bulk of Hulk: The End is ironically not the titular story, rather a recollection of Future Imperfect, one of the most important and impactful Hulk comics of all time. The influence contained within its two issues can be felt decades later; echoes of its story beats can even be found in 2019’s best selling comics. With this context, it’s interesting to then ask the question of how the story itself holds up these 27 years later. The answer is… “I don’t know, it’s complicated.”
On every technical level, the two-parter absolutely shines. I’ll start right off by saying that George Perez is a master of the craft (hot take, I know.) I honestly don’t know that I could give him the credit he deserves as one of the most influential creators in history. An absolute master of storytelling, Perez fills the page with detail, wondrously imbuing every line with pure intention. I don’t think there’s anything I as a reviewer can say almost 30 years later to shed any unknown light on George Perez’s skill.
Similarly, Peter David is a titan of the industry. His iconic runs on Hulk, Aquaman, and X-Factor helped to define a style of storytelling that still feels timely and relevant today. I say all of this not to gush over comic idols, but to express that the team that worked on Future Imperfect is perhaps more capable of creating such lasting work than nearly anyone else. Gripping from the opening sequence, the story offers a glimpse of a ravaged world and the emerald fist tightened around its collective throat. A fun, character-driven jaunt through time and continuity, Future Imperfect is a tightly written and well-paced adventure romp that explores the idea of Banner giving into his inner demons and letting them run rampant on the world. I would not hesitate to call it a masterpiece, a near-perfect gem woven seamlessly into the fabric of the Marvel universe. Except…
There are a couple things that I just can’t personally abide in storytelling. I don’t by any means intend to say that work should be censored or that we should give power to these subjects to let them hang over and terrorize us as a society. Really, it just comes down to the fact that I find that rape has no place in comics. Given the right treatment and the proper reverence, there are obvious exceptions. However, I don’t think Peter David writing a superhero comic in the ‘90s is that context. It is not a central point on which the story hinges as it does in his earlier Atlantis Chronicles, but its inclusion is frankly abhorrent, nonetheless. This combined with the fact that with one notable exception, women are used within the story as exclusively eye candy and pawns to raise the stakes for the heroes honestly alters the entire experience of the comic for me. The argument is of course made that the book was written in a different time, and I’m not blind to that. To be perfectly frank, though, I don’t find that excuse satisfactory; objectification and careless depiction of sexual crime is a timeless sort of wrongdoing in my opinion, and I think that its inclusion needs to be addressed if we are to recognize the active detriment that it is. It is honestly quite disappointing; were it not for this dark spot on the story, I truly think it could be revered as the peak of superhero storytelling, a twisted mirror held up to the idealist view of heroes as one of their own succumbs to his inner darkness.
Now, to pivot to a slightly more uplifting topic, let’s talk about the Nuclear Death of the Earth. Part of Marvel’s The End initiative, meant to bring iconic creators back to their respective characters to tell a definitive last story, Hulk: The End (alternately titled The Last Titan) reunites David with Dale Keown, series regular on Incredible Hulk for nearly three years at the height of David’s run. Tackling similar themes to Future Imperfect, it subverts the earlier story by examining the world outside of the Hulk.
Hulk stories traditionally and often comment on the inner turmoil of Banner’s personalities, as he struggles to maintain any semblance of control over his person both mentally and physically. The Last Titan is no exception, it in fact solidifies this inner conflict quite well with its copious inner monologue. What sets this story apart from the rest is its reliance on the outside world. With the entire population of the world wiped out by a cataclysmic display of Mutually Assured Destruction, Banner is truly alone with his thoughts. Poor guy.
As the world itself presses in on Banner, we see the emotional torment he must suffer for what he fears to be eternity. The world is dead, but that doesn’t mean it’s empty: the ruins of civilization stand to remind him of the life that was. The issue is saturated with internal monologue, telling us at all times the pain Banner endures and often hinting at his own self-hatred. Swarms of bugs fill the skies, descending to rend the Hulk into pieces with nothing more than a passing glance. Those damn cockroaches, Banner laments as he considers the adage of roaches surviving nuclear holocaust. Additionally, he has a companion in a vidbot left by a Rigellian Recorder, tasked to stoically observe and report the tortured life of one monstrously defeated man/monster/both. As a humorous side note, the Recorder brings news that the Kree and Skrull have formed an alliance to celebrate the annihilation of the human race, something that brings my little cosmic-loving heart pure joy.
The Last Titan tells a compelling narrative about the maddening emptiness of the world and the turmoil inside all of us. Keown brings life to that vision, rendering horrifying landscapes and gut-wrenching emotional scenes of Banner lamenting his former life. I don’t think there’s much about the story that I can fault. Rather, its largest fault is being kind of forgettable. The main thrust of the issue is given in the form of inner monologue, which is great for such an introspective take on the character’s psyche but leads to a drier reading experience. Given that the story was adapted from prose, this approach makes total sense, but the result is a near-uneventful plot that chooses to dump exposition in caption boxes rather than create any truly memorable sequences.
Legacy is crucial when it comes to comic creation; it is the very backbone of continuity. The ideas explored in these short stories by David, Perez, and Keown are without a shadow of a doubt crucial to the success that the Hulk franchise has had over the intervening decades between their publication and now. Immortal Hulk’s main conceit, the very idea of the Hulk emerging at night to wander the world is entirely baked into The Last Titan. I will fully admit that I do not know enough about Hulk lore to say if this is the origination of the concept, but echoes of the tormented creature’s journey can be felt to this day. Al Ewing’s run on Immortal Hulk could not exist without the groundwork laid by the two stories seen here.
The idea of direct confrontation between Banner’s personalities is such a direct influence to Immortal that Joe Fixit, main character of the current run, was a David invention himself. The image of Hulk resigning himself to seeing the end of the universe in the final pages of The Last Titan can be correlated directly to Immortal Hulk #25, my favorite issue of last year and a masterclass in cosmic storytelling. Hell, the scene where Hulk burrows through the Earth to Shadow Base is directly lifted from Future Imperfect. The power that these stories have all these years later is astounding and speaks to the lasting power of storytelling. While I do have issues with content and its treatment, it is truly a testament to the strength of the stories that I do very much want to call them good and recommend everyone read them. While I totally understand and advocate for self-care in the avoidance of damaging topics, the stories contained within Hulk: The End are nothing short of fantastic and anyone would do themselves a great service by reading them. (Just know what you’re getting into.)
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