“Always somebody yelling.”
The Hulk as a character can become easily reductive.
Of all the roles Hulk has been consigned to in an effort to streamline his contradictory nature – a brainless Frankenstein’s Monster, wild and rabid animal, genetic experiment, heroic protector, lonely defender – Gladiator seems the most pure and singular category. The brutal competition of physical strength is something Hulk, in the constantly violent world of Comic Book superheroes, has participated in for nearly his whole existence. Like the Hulk, gladiators maintain their self-worth by providing the entertainment for others through their intrinsic might. What writer Greg Pak and artists Carlo Pagualyan and Aaron Lopresti do within Planet Hulk is render this metaphor literal, freeing Hulk from the constraints of his own galaxy only to enslave him in a stadium of fighters. Of course, the reason Gladiator stories are compelling is witnessing these men, believed only to be brainless entertainment, transcend the simple roles they are given. Peeled away from the layers of unfettered rage, the Hulk is more than a slave. He is more than a monster.
Planet Hulk at the foremost represents a breakage from the status quo. Prior to this run, Bruce Banner had been hiding in Alaska, only brought out from hibernation to rescue the world from destruction. Only this time, instead of his shuttle returning to Earth, to his familiar planet and routine, it shoots off into distant space. Whilst an obvious departure from his normal environment, Hulk’s feelings of loneliness and betrayal is all too familiar. Pak establishes the Hulk’s hopeless endeavours to break from his cyclical trappings, describing the timeless story of the Hulk: “The monster saved them all. And in their fear, they betrayed him. As they always have. As they always will”. Even the promises of Hulk’s Earth-bound exilers, who assured an end to the Hulk’s fighting, are false. Hulk ends up on the chaotic Sakaar, full of colonial tensions, and ordering men trying to control Hulk. Hulk is aware of these confines, of his intrinsic inability to find peace. “Always somebody yelling” he growls, aware of his Sisyphean fate of continually proving himself. Hulk’s temporary solution is to find solace in own, superlative characteristics, rather than the vicious and fearful communities that have surrounded him. Even when captured, Hulk attempts to roar “I’m the strongest -”, before being overwhelmed by his new bindings. Weakened by the interstellar travel, Hulk is no longer ‘The Strongest There Is’. Paradoxically, his new restrictions have freed him from the normal parameters that defined his existence. Although he does not yet recognise it, on this new planet, estranged from his usual environment and companions and reputation, Hulk is no longer caught in the same system that has defined his existence. Now truly alone, Hulk can discover who he is.
Whilst the Hulk needs a change to relieve his perpetual suffering, The Red King, the main antagonist of Planet Hulk, the Emperor of Sakaar who possesses all the power and respect he desires, is introduced wanting a change for the sake of boredom. Established as petty and entitled, his petulant annoyance differs from with the Hulk’s justified anger, The Red King contrasts the Hulk like the colour red complements green.
In The Red King, Hulk finds a target to channel his rage towards. His antagonism towards the Emperor not only gives Hulk a temporary goal, but also provides a shield to disregard any potential heroic gestures. Hulk saves Miek, a poor weak lonely bugman, but masks his protection with a supposed need for sole vengeance against The Red King. Similarly, thrown to train in The Maw, Hulk insists his destruction of a Lava Monster was not for his teammate’s benefit, but his own. He insists he “just… felt like fighting”. Tired and wounded from previous experiences of trusting others, like an abused child the Hulk is trying to severe his connection to others. Rather than futilely attempting to escape the persecution of others, in this new world Hulk does not even try, doubling-down on his tough, aggressive, uncaring persona so he will no longer be hurt.
Whereas Hulk is the only one of his kind, the rest of his fellow slaves are the last of theirs. This small detail makes them survivors, instead of outsiders, and willing to band together, if only temporarily. Korg, the Stone Man of Saturn, emerges as the leader of this idea. In his first encounter with the Hulk, Korg tries to reason “If we work together, we can- -”, before being cut off by the Hulk. Hulk has rarely been accepted into a community, and if he has it has not been for long. While the Hulk uses this self-imposed isolation as emotional protection for himself, Korg understands these barricades are in fact a weakness. “Not anyone’s friend” Hulk says, “That’s why he’ll die”, Korg responds, knowing the instability of lacking support. The rest of the Hulk’s regiment are all outsiders too. From Miek, the unhived outcast, wanting to be self-reliant while desperate for friendship, No-name, the last of the Brood sisters, Hiroim the Shamed, ostracised from the elite nomadic Shadow People for heresy, to even Captain Laven Skee and young Elloe, highborn Imperials whom have been outcast from their society and their connective link, Elloe’s father and Skee’s employer, has been murdered. Unwillingly severed from their own communities, each are eager enough to form a new unit. But while they were forced away from their homes or families, Hulk was exiled by the community itself. The rejection from interior, rather than exterior forces, has broken the foundations of the Hulk’s trust. To devote himself to anything outside himself is not something the Hulk can do so easily.
This avoidance of cooperation comes as much from the Hulk’s internal doubts as from external experience. The Hulk’s uniqueness, what makes him the ‘Strongest One There Is’, has often been a point for bragging, but it isolates him too. How can the Hulk place himself into others, when others are incompatible with him? As Hulk tells Miek, “I don’t have any people”, and even allowing his supporting Gamma-infected cast like She-Hulk or Doc Samson, none have the same construction or capabilities as the Hulk. Among the heroes and humans of Earth, Hulk is a mutation, an anomaly, not a race but an accident, one which his native planet could not accommodate. Sometimes Hulk’s emotional coldness is useful for completing the violent work they have been assigned, as when Korg is faced with the hollow shells of his brothers, he cannot bring himself to fight them, held back by the bonds of family. The furthest the Hulk can go in cooperation is to literally grab and swing Korg at his brothers, destroying his family connection while reducing his team-mate to an inanimate object. However, due to necessity, Korg is able to defeat his kin, and due to another necessity, accepts his new teammates by transferring his community from a fraternal one to a martial one. Korg, as the betrayer of his own kind, is more open to others than Hulk, the victim of betrayal. Hulk’s reluctance to engage with others expands with the Rebellion, who also offer a mutual exchange of trust Hulk is disinclined to bring. Their ideological outcry that “We fight for the outcasts, the slaves, the discarded and despised! We fight for you! Will you fight for us?”, appears to accommodate the loners and survivors of the Hulk’s travelling troupe. For the Rebellion, outsiders can be collected together to form a new community, one of trust and not of happenstance, but the mutually beneficial exchange of services, to place yourself into this larger group, is needed first.
It is unfortunate the Rebels of Sakaar placed their hopes on such a difficult protagonist, at such a difficult time. Exiled and beaten and sold, the only pleasure the Hulk has gleamed is indulging in the violence he’s been subjected to, relishing the competition of the system rather than trying to escape it. Reluctance to escape does not begin to cover it. Hulk has heard pleas for help and assistance before, and recognises that they are uneven. Sakaar is a different planet to Earth, but Hulk still sees the same system, and the system is rigged. Earlier, Hulk disavowed a truce with his fellow fighters, questioning “What happens when it’s time to kill each other”. Korg’s response that “until that day, we’re friends” is not good enough for the Hulk. He’s been fighting for too long for such flimsy excuses. Beneath his aggressive posturing are decades of weariness. Hulk has become so disenfranchised with the system that the prospect of fighting against it is no different from fighting within it. For the Hulk, to rebel against the system would not escape it, but just an extension of a closed loop: “Puny pinkies. Like the puny humans. First they call us monsters. Then they come crying for help. And then they call us monsters again.”
Hulk believes no matter what he does, he will always be perceived as a monster. If he joined the rebellion, he would only be a monster on their side, used as a weapon or deterrent, but treated no differently. Hulk’s beliefs are not far off. From what we’ve seen of the Rebellion, they have stood around in shock and awe of the Hulk’s power and rage. Witnessing him at The Maw, their assessment was “I’m scared as hell”. The Rebels fear the Hulk too, but wish to use him as a tool to their own ends, like how the Emperor has his gladiators destroy packs of Wildebots. Neither considers the Hulk’s own agency. And if the Hulk believes he cannot discard being seen as a monster, why should he bother? Caiera, the Red King’s lieutenant, confronts Hulk with another option, to be left in the planet’s deserted outback, where he will “never have to fight again”. Having just been fed the same promise by the heroes of Earth, Hulk has become numb to such offers. Unable to face either betrayal or disappointment again, Hulk resigns himself to his current status, giving up on trying to change it. Caiera states what Hulk knows all too well, how he’ll “always be a monster to them”. Instead of futilely and endless trying to avoid this perception, Hulk has embraced what people think of him. “These guys know what a monster likes”, Hulk retorts to Caiera, indulging in what he is given rather than asking for more. Being a monster is not exactly what the Hulk wants, but it seems all that is available, and Hulk is prepared to settle for it.
The Hulk has always been judged for his surfaces. His thick green exterior is easily recognisable and condemnable, but underneath this surface are layers of emotions, of purposes and desires so messy and complicated Hulk probably could not articulate them if he tried. Hulk may not know how to talk, but he knows how to act, and faced with a Deathfire Bomb set to eliminate his teammates, Hulk chooses to save them. At first glance, Hulk’s actions can be seen as only extending his self-imposed isolation. While clutching the bomb he states “I’m the Hulk” as his justification, acting as if his own self is all he needs to survive. There are hints of Avengers #2 (November 1963) here, when feeling rejected from the team, Hulk storms away with ““I don’t need any of you! I’m still the Hulk!”. Perhaps the Hulk’s actions are not done for others, but to prove himself. However, even if this is what the Hulk wished to present, a gap in his protection armour has been revealed. Hulk tells Korg “Shield the others” before leaping to his doom, and with these brief words the true Hulk shines through his gruff façade. His stoicism has given way to concern.
Lavin Skee is killed in their battle, and with this blood spilt the estranged gladiators open up to each other. Each reveals their background and tales of survival. Hulk’s protective instincts exposed in the previous fight, his endearment to the group has been gestating until this moment, where he also joins them as a group. The depths of Hulk’s estrangement and self-hatred are revealed here too. We see that, from the Hulk’s perspective, Banner’s Gamma Bomb was created to kill Hulk. For the Hulk, his moment of creation was one of attempted self-destruction. His response to this abuse, from Banner and other humans, is to suppress it with rage and strength. Exiled from everyone, including his own self, it is no wonder Hulk is hesitant to let others in. This makes his concluding case, that the Red King “can’t beat us” a true revelation. By that tiny plural “us” Hulk has moved himself from lonely self-preservation, into the combined goals of a group. It is the weak, hapless and eager Miek who best encapsulates these ideals. Miek tells how he has been “all alone… Nobody helping him. Nobody caring”. Miek is cursed with Hulk’s isolation and Banner’s weakness, lacking the benefits of either part. But through his new companions Miek can be whole, he can survive. “Fighting for friends” Miek proclaims, and this phrase, awkward and sentimental it may be, contains the purest expression and benefits of community that can be had. Joining hands over the corpse of Lavin Skee, the remaining fighters become Warbound, through abuse and violence they have been united against it.
One last trial of the Hulk is severing the last vestiges of his former life, which is manifested by the Silver Surfer. Of all the Marvel Heroes, the Surfer is one of the closest to Hulk. Like Hulk, the Silver Surfer knows the persecution and violence that threatens the world, and the awesome might of potential world-breakers. Unlike the Hulk however, the Surfer’s own counterpart, Norrin Radd comes from a world where “we wanted for nothing”, a place where struggle and violence were history. A place where the Hulk would long to go, the Surfer ran away from. The Silver Surfer and the Green Hulk both are strangers on a strange planet, fighting against the environment they’ve been placed in, while also becoming a part of it. Although Hulk said he’s “not anyone’s friend”, he is open towards the Surfer, which only makes the subsequent betrayal worse. “I thought you were different,” Hulk cries, “But you’re just like the rest of ‘em”. Working against an occupant of his former life, Hulk works with his new Warbound to tactically take out the Surfer. Hulk’s anger towards his former colleagues, the exile and torture and betrayal, is unleashed upon him. His rage becomes elemental; Carlo Pagulayan draws a thunderous assault that shocks event the blood-thirsty crowd of the Coliseum. Hulk may have moved onto a new life on Sakaar, but his wrath is eternal.
The final barricade to Hulk’s freedom is a cruel choice. Kill Elloe and go free, or die together for treason. Silently and collectively, the group understands that killing Elloe would not be any true “freedom”. Even released, they would always carry the shame of choosing the system over their friend, and it is not something they can allow. The Warbound refuses to abide by this cannibalistic system, choosing noble loyalty over selfish freedom. Their trainer is dismissive about their ideology, “It’s the way of the world” he argues, the system appears omnipresent. There is no way to escape.
From both his long-term and immediate experiences, the Silver Surfer knows what it is to be complicit in the system. As Galactus’ herald, he helped destroy countless worlds, just as he killed for survival in Sakaar’s arena. Freed from his own slavery, the Surfer relinquishes all others from their forced obligations. He removes the Obedience Disks, allowing the Hulk for the first time in a long while to act for himself, with neither expectation or reputation or orders. “No more slaves”, the Surfer states, “Only free people now. Tied only by the bonds they have chosen”. The shackles of the system have been removed, people can only act from their own desires now, instead of imposing them on others. Escaping the system seemed long incomprehensible to the Hulk, given it was always at the behest of someone else. Whether General Ross, or the Avengers, or Defenders, or Doctor Strange, or Reed Richards, or The Red King, or the Rebels, the Hulk was always guided from an outside source, always part of the system. So now finally freed from these obligations, able to do as he pleases, how does the Hulk respond? What does he want to do to the system?
We tear this mother down.”
While the Surfer opts to leave this planet of violence and conflict, the Hulk rejects his offer to leave. He realises, finally, that this is a place he can not only survive but flourish. “I’m finally here” Hulk tells the Surfer, and it seems all of the Hulk’s misfortune have led to this moment and environment. Hulk has not yet mastered his new domain of course, there is more Planet Hulk to come, but unbound from the restrictions of Earth, in body and in mind, he is free to act as he chooses. “Be well” says the Silver Surfer, “No. Be Good”, understanding the potential heroics of this fresh start for the Hulk. As the Hulk’s irradiated blood nurtures the saplings of Sakaar’s soil, the planet feeds back into him, primed for cultivation and growth. The Hulk is not yet a hero, but now has the opportunity to be so. He can dream again.
Tomorrow in Planet Hulk: Anarchy, we investigate specifically how the Hulk reconciles his individuality with this newfound commitment to society, and how the questions of autonomy vs. obedience resonate in the idea of being a monster.
Planet Hulk: Exile is formed of Incredible Hulk (vol. 2) #92-95, and was written by Greg Pak, with pencils by Carlo Pagulayan, Aaron Lopresti and Marshall Rogers, inked by Jeffrey Huet, Danny Miki and Tom Palmer, and coloured by Chris Sotomayor.
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