When Hulky met Supey – Incredible Hulk vs. Superman
Intercompany crossovers almost never work. Yes, there’s an initial burst of excitement as two or more famed characters meet and duke it out, but the built-in reticence to have any events of lasting import spring out of it — since both sides of the equation will henceforth be sequestered — limits the potential. One needs only to look as far as the first and biggest to have an illustration of the rule: Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man. In that classic tale, the two superheroes lived in the same “imaginary” world yet had never met up at the start of the story (despite both having established crimefighting bona fides). It felt fake. It felt forced. These things always do. They’re events, but they’re non-events everyplace but the cash-box. They’re infuriating in their way.
Usually the only way any juice is squeezed out of the rind is when those crafting the book just say “screw it” and go crazy. Or take the concept and shake it up a bit, turn it on its head, as John Byrne did with his Batman/Captain America WWII plot. Or even Green Lantern Versus Aliens, though that rapidly collapsed under the weight of its own artifice.
Yet sometimes, in spite of the limitations, in spite of the ingrained transience, an intercompany meet-and-greet is at least a pleasant diversion, a pill of encapsulated nostalgia and old-fashioned storytelling mastery — a feast for the eyes, if not for the intellect. Enter Roger Stern’s, Steve Rude’s and Al Milgrom’s Incredible Hulk vs. Superman.
This joint Marvel/DC effort gets bonus points for coming before the mid-1990s DC/Marvel Amalgam venture, which robbed all crossovers thereafter of the bulk of their “Gosh, is this really happening?!” appeal. Superman and the Hulk, two stalwarts of their respective stables, had themselves been parts of the earliest minglings, Superman in his aforementioned tussle/partnership with Peter Parker, and the Hulk’s odd pairing with Batman. They had experience in this sub-genre. Both are hyper-strong characters who have to tone it down to play nicely with others, so putting them together gives them a chance to shuck the restrictor plates, and go all out. There are no worries about liquefying a mere mortal’s face.
But none of this would matter if the creative force behind the meeting blows it. Stern, Rude and Milgrom didn’t blow it.
The plot that Stern cooked up isn’t all that fresh. Told mostly in flashback, it recounts the first meeting, years before, of the Man of Steel and the Green Goliath, out in the Hulk’s native American Southwest stomping grounds, before the world knew that Bruce Banner was also Puny Banner. As is the norm, two primary villains partner up, in this case Thunderbolt Ross and Lex Luthor (though it’s not quite a happy marriage). There are initial confrontations between the two heroes, until they finally tag team to save the day.
The beauty of the book comes in its timeless feel, which is just as much a credit to Rude (and Milgrom) as it is to Stern — though the latter gets his share. The flashback story is set in an unidentified decade, but it has an appropriate early 1960s feel to it, mainly thanks to the wholesome, All-American, Vitamin D fortified ethos of Rude’s art. Take this sequence, as Rick Jones pulls up in his flamey hot rod to what looks to be THE GREATEST DRIVE-IN IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD, and then comes face to face with Lois Lane’s midriff:
And on the next page, as the Man of Tomorrow chugalugs a root beer float:
Rude’s artwork is oftentimes unheralded, and he doesn’t get nearly the fanboy adulation that his blockbuster peers attract. But whether he’s bringing visual life to his great independent creation, Nexus, or lesser known joys like the Moth, he always amazes. His art is Rockwellian without the schmaltz. You could color it with crayons or chalk and it would still look smooth, bright and beautiful.
Of course, the selling point is Superman vs. the Hulk — it’s the title after all. It’s helpful that this isn’t the dumb, childish Hulk, but the cunning, mean Hulk that was more prevalent in the character’s earliest days. Hence he’s not just a punch and smash monster, and is more than capable of adopting tactics that look to be pulled right from the Road Runner/ Wile E. Coyote Acme desert playbook:
The book is visually arresting, with bold colors that bring the characters alive. (Indeed, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Superman look so, well, Superman as he does with this red, blue and yellow palette.) It gets no marks for originality, but it can’t be faulted for doing what it set out to do: pit its stars against one another and then team them up. That it does this simple task with such modest aplomb deserves our praise. In an age when comics all too often strive to punch you in the face with every turn of the page, Superman quaffing a float at a drive-in burger joint with waitresses on roller skates zipping about is a like a DeLorean trip to the halcyon past.
Superman and Hulk did battle again in the Vs. portion of the Amalgam event, and there Superman triumphed over his super-strong foe, as he should have. After all, that green isn’t from Kryptonite, just good old-fashioned 1960s radiation. That battle, like much of the surrounding desperate, our-industry-is-on-the-verge-of-death hazarai, was a disappointment. This later book made it seem even more so.
[Note: This article originally stated that the crossover in question occurred before the Marvel/DC event in the mid-1990s. A commenter was kind enough to point out that this was utterly wrong, so that I could correct my inexplicable juxtaposition. I’ve left part of the original mistaken text in the article but crossed it out, as a totem pole of my carelessness.]