Last week, I wrote up about the “Planet Hulk” storyline. In that write-up, I mentioned how the Hulk has on occasion been a character that creators have been allowed a certain amount of experimental leeway with. One such writer is a personal favorite of mine, and one of the better Secret Wars spin-offs was a retake of his earlier work.
The writer is Peter David. The work was the two-part Future Imperfect mini-series.
Written by David with artwork by the awesome George Perez, the story was set sometime in the distant future. An apocalypse (later revealed to be nuclear) has wiped out most of civilization, and all that remains is a single large settlement in the middle of a desert. The city in question is ruled with an iron fist by the Maestro, and the rebels are getting desperate. Using a time machine, they manage to travel back in time to the past to pick up a single hero that they believe can overthrow the Maestro and save the future.
They chose the Hulk.
The Hulk, at the time, was the combined Hulk, later referred to as “The Professor”. Peter David had worked with the idea that the Hulk had multiple personalities, and used some comic book psychotherapy to combine the Green Hulk, Gray Hulk, and Bruce Banner into one being who had Green Hulk’s strength and coloring, Gray Hulk’s cunning and haircut, and Bruce Banner’s intelligence and face. Later writers would reveal the process was not as successful as it appeared, but, at the time this story came out, Bruce Banner was always the Hulk, and the Hulk was far from stupid.
So, an intelligent Hulk, the strongest one there is? With the brain of a nuclear physicist and the street smarts of a mob heavy? What could go wrong?
Plenty, as it turned out. The Maestro was also the Hulk.
Backstory from an elderly Rick Jones explained what happened. At some point between the present and this future, a nuclear war broke out. Most of the world’s superhumans were killed by the bombs. Rick has a trophy room full of broken weapons, shredded costumes, busted robots, and three intact things from heroes who aren’t around anymore. The three intact things he has are Thor’s hammer (not sure how he got that in there since no one around seems to be worthy), Captain America’s shield, and Wolverine’s skeleton. When the bombs dropped, the Hulk, born of a nuclear explosion, simply soaked up the radiation, making himself stronger and a bit more twisted.
The trophy room is one of the bigger treats in the story. Perez can draw crowds, and it turns out he can draw tons of trophies too. Sharp-eyed readers can spot, in various places during various stops in the trophy room, a couple batarangs, Spawn’s chains, and the two main robots from the cult classic TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000. There may very well be others. I poured over those panels many times, and I doubt I spotted everything.
It doesn’t take long for the two Hulks to meet up. It likewise doesn’t take long for the younger Hulk to get his head handed to him. The Maestro already knows all of his younger self’s basic moves, and knows exactly how to counter them. When he isn’t whaling the snot out of the Hulk, the Maestro is taunting him. He wonders actively why the rebels didn’t grab Reed Richards, who was probably smarter than the Maestro, or Thor, who was maybe mightier, or even the Wildman, who…before he remembers the Hulk probably hasn’t met the Wildman yet.
The Wildman was actually a minor disappointment for me. David referred to him again later in another future-set story, The Last Avengers Story, where a much-older Hank Pym is trying to gather up whatever heroes he can find to take on Ultron one last time and is just rattling off hero names. He’s told some are dead, some are insane, and when he asks about the Wildman, he’s told the Wildman is “dead and insane.” Finally, the Wildman turned up for a single issue of David’s Incredible Hulk and was basically a small, skinny guy with glasses and fuzzy slippers who had all kinds of crazy powers and after a single fight was never seen again near as I can make out.
Getting back to the story, there is one further complication for the Hulk: the Maestro has no memory of the events that got the younger Hulk to the future. That means he can easily kill his younger self and not worry that he would also cease to exist.
David made the Maestro the kind of villain it would be easy to hate. He was bad, and he was cocky. He complained his long dead wife, Betty, had a mind and cared about herself instead of just submitting to him. Really, what a jerk. When the story ends with his defeat, it really feels like a triumph, especially considering how hard the Hulk had to work–physically, mentally, and emotionally– to get that victory. He wasn’t stronger than the Maestro, and wasn’t even as good a fighter. The taunts and sneers from the older Hulk made the reader want to see him fail. He obviously would, but its generally the “how” in these sorts of stories, not the “if” that readers expect.
David returned to this future for Secret Wars, and aside from a few minor changes owing to the change in scenery, it’s been a fun second trip. That one likewise ended with the Maestro’s cockiness getting the better of himself, and they didn’t even need his younger self to do it. I personally think Peter David stayed with the Hulk a bit too long, but whether that was due to running out of ideas or just editorial constraints finally catching up to him I couldn’t say. But really, between Future Imperfect and the “Planet Hulk” arc, there probably isn’t a better pair of Hulk stories out there for any fan of giant green men breaking things.