Incredible Hulk #112, Incredible Hercules #113–115 by Greg Pak & Fred Van Lente and Khoi Pham, and Hulk Vs. Hercules: When Titans Collide by Greg Pak & Fred Van Lente and various artists
If you spend enough time reading comic book blogs, there is only so much internet buzz you can ignore before you have to give in and try the book in question. The Incredible Hercules is one of those books. Now, the difficulty with picking up a book about Hercules is the main character himself: I’ve never had the slightest interest him (and seemingly the rest of the comic book-buying public: he’s had three limited series to call his own since he was created back in 1965, suggesting that he although he might be good as part of a team, he hasn’t got what it takes to be a lead character in an ongoing series of his own); those ridiculous leg strappings, the silly speech mannerisms, the drinking, the general stupidity all combine to make a Hercules a bit of a joke in the Marvel universe. That’s a lot of inertia to overcome before I try a book where he’s the lead.
It’s a good thing I took in what those bloggers were saying because this is really rather good: entertaining comics doing something substantial with someone I don’t care about to the extent that I want to know what happens. Pak and Van Lente have given the ‘three-thousand-year-old Greek demigod’ some gravitas and depth but with humour as well (SHIELD is after Hercules for fighting on Hulk’s side during World War Hulk; when they catch up with him, he bombards them with a cask of merlot).
Hercules has an anguished back story – he killed his own wife and children due to an unstoppable bloodlust put upon him by the goddess Hera, which is quite harsh but fairly normal for those wacky Greek gods. Relating this and tying in with his mythological stories, the authors have created somebody with more dimension than any other Hercules story I’ve read (although that’s not many).
The Twelve Labours play an important role in the story: Ares, his older brother and now official Avenger, is still angry about ‘the stupid birds’, where Hercules saved the peasants of Arkadia from Ares’ man-eating birds at Lake Stymphalis for the sixth labour. Ares now keeps a Hydra for its blood because it was the only thing to kill Hercules before, so that he can hurt his brother solely because humans hate Ares and love Hercules. Sibling rivalry, eh? When Ares uses it on Hercules to subdue him as part of an Avengers mission, it only drives Hercules crazy, making him unable to recognise reality and thinking he’s back in the past (he is helped out by Black Widow, who is supposed to be capturing him but was the leader of The Champions when Hercules was on the team and she read all the mythology books she could find in order to understand him). As Walt Simonson proved with The Mighty Thor, the successful incorporation of the mythological and modern superheroic elements into a character with that background is the best way to revive and invigorate them.
The other aspect of the story is Amadeus Cho, boy genius, who is friends with Hercules – he is a great new character, smart yet still a teenager, who we can see is not happy about the accidental death of his puppy but doesn’t know how to deal with it. He is funny, brilliant, sullen, insolent, interesting: the two of them make for a great pair.
The art by Pham works well because it seems to have a slightly different feel for the modern scenes and the flashbacks to the mythological scenes, so you can tell which is which (even without all the togas). He has a light touch, if a little raw and cartoony in places, but it adds to the charm. The four issues he does in sequence provide a consistent visual stamp for the characters and the setting, and he is able to strike the right facial expression for the comedic moments which rely on them. He can only get better with time, but there’s a good bit of raw talent, so his art can only get better.
The real stars are the authors, however, who do a great job of mix myth and Marvel, characterisation and comedy, action and emotion. I don’t know why they work on this book as a team when they write so much other material on their own, but I hope they keep up the partnership for this book. I’m not sure if they get the balance right on the special included at the end of the trade – the first meeting between Hercules and Hulk – which has a point to make about who Hercules is as a character, but it isn’t helped by the deliberate use of multiple artists to illustrate different sections; it didn’t work as well for me, although it’s not an awful comic book. I hope this is just a slight blip on the radar and that the rest of the series is more like the rest of the book, something I look forward to discovering.