So I guess what it comes down to is that I’ve underrated Jim Rugg for a significant amount of time. When I trip merrily down the primrose path of memory I’m struck by how I’ve enjoyed the products of his career, for the most part. And also by how little I’ve rated him straight-up, in relation to the enjoyment his work has given me over the years. Off the bat, I'll say so there's no suspense: this essay is ostensibly a review of Rugg's Hulk: Grand Design, a two-issue series finished last year but just collected in Marvel Treasury-sized form last week, and I liked the book but I did not love the book. That's where we'll end up, more or less, so no one thinks there's a "gotcha" waiting. I’ll talk about Jim for a bit (Act I), spend some more time giving you a potted history of the Hulk (Act II), then we’ll meet up back at the end to discuss the sum of Column A and Column B (Act III). Sound good?
Anyway: liked but did not love, enjoyed but not really felt that much more deeply. Still found compelling, for all that, because in the end Rugg nudges it over the finish line with his trump card: it looks great. It may not always be great, but it looks great. And there I go again, qualifying my praise! Sorry. Force of habit. I shouldn't say that, because Rugg really did beat the spread. He's still around, he's still making comics when a lot of other people who were making comics 20 years ago have fallen by the wayside, at all ends of the industry. People who made good comics and bad.
I was down at a storage unit a while back - because yes, things are complicated. Since my mom passed, I've got two households’ worth of storage units to pay for. More to the point, I've got a few boxes of comics in a storage unit outside Sacramento, which is a much smaller cache than the collection I've got crammed into a unit up here. It's much smaller because it's the comics I bought and collected in my 20s and 30s, after I got just a little bit more selective in my buying habits than my reading habits. Boxes I’d even purged at a juncture or two, for the benefit of Mike Sterling. I'm only carrying around books that I actively chose to bring along, not just stuff I bought when I was a kid, a time when - well. When I bought a lot more of ye olde crap. Much of which I love, but, c'mon. Who're we kidding? I bought Spider-Man and all his spinoffs religiously for years and years, and he's nowhere near my favorite character. I liked the sensation of keeping up with Spider-Man, and to be honest I still kind of do, even if I'm a much more selective purchaser in the 21st century. He was never really my guy, though. I like his villains and his girlfriends more, invariably.
But still, let's be real. Saying "I bought every Spider-Man title every month for years" is a bit less impressive in hindsight when you realize, oh yeah, that's not even $10.00 a month in 1995. Barring the occasional Annual or Prestige Format. Different value proposition entirely. I read a lot of Alex Saviuk Spider-Man when I was a kid. I've never heard anyone put Saviuk in their pantheon of Spider-Man artists, but the guy drew Spider-Man for years and years. Long stretch on the character, never mentioned. Yet for all that, I think he drew an interesting Spider-Man. Kind of stiff. Never as flashy as the guy on Amazing. Never as stark as the guy on Spectacular - the great Sal Buscema, who drew the thinking man's wall-crawler. Learned more from Miller than anyone has ever credited. Saviuk was on Web of and Adventures - a pro, able to deal with whatever you threw at him. Always drew characters apple-pie on model, even when the model didn't make a lick of sense. Drew a few Infinity Crusade crossovers.
Now even a lot of the good artists at Marvel and DC kind of blend together after a while. Is that just because I’m old? Seems like we're really in for a big swing away from the fine line Clay Mann school - he's another one I didn't necessarily see sticking around, and now I see him in almost as many artists as I see Sara Pichelli. Almost.
Anyway, there I was in Sacramento - taking a fairly thorough inventory, grabbing books I wanted to bring home for whatever reason. Came across those first few issues of the first Street Angel series that Rugg sent me back in the day because - now boys and girls, gather 'round. There was a brief period during the darkest years of the second Bush administration when people were very nice to comic book bloggers. I know! Your first thought was, "didn't they know giving bloggers attention would be like feeding Gremlins after dark?" They should have known.
And when I pulled those issues of Street Angel out of the boxes, let me tell you - they are still sharp-looking comics. Not getting rid of those any time soon. If you don't remember the first cover, it's right up above. That odd garish pink thing? Looks a lot more like a Fantagraphics book than SLG ca. 2004. Nothing else looked like that at the time - at least, nothing on the racks where Street Angel was being stocked. That was what stuck out, what made those issues so nice to look at. They didn’t look all that dissimilar from some of the design-forward material that publishers like Fanta and Drawn & Quarterly had been putting on the market for a while. They just had more ninjas.
But that book shipped during the bear market of all bear markets, in terms of comics. It just wasn't a good time to do anything but sell manga. There was sure a whole lot of nothing coming out of Marvel and DC, both of whom were just then running back to line-wide crossovers with the enthusiasm of sinners to a revival. That's the period that gave us such flop sweat adrenaline classics as Identity Crisis and House of M. Years of very grudging comics from people who seemed to be losing their creative direction. A lot of pathos in the naked striving of those years in the mainstream. Given market attrition, both companies felt they had no choice but to become worse versions of themselves in order to survive. Looking at the landscape in those dark days and launching a gorgeous little gem of a comic like Street Angel must have been an agonizing experience for a creator. Not a lot of positive tailwinds for direct market comics of any stripe in 2004.
Somehow Rugg survived to tell the tale. He washed ashore in 2007 with the first volume of The PLAIN Janes, from DC’s ill-fated Minx initiative. Minx could best be described as a company going out of its way to do the worst possible version of something it didn’t want to do. Everyone was tearing their hair out that Marvel and DC were completely sleeping on one of the most seismic audience changes in comics history by not putting out American material in genres manga was proving could sell, in formats and price points American readers had gladly embraced. So finally DC decides to do something about it. Calls it “Minx”. Gets some pretty decent talent to do books they have no intention of ever moving so much as one single muscle on one single finger to ever try to sell.
I believe I wrote about The PLAIN Janes for the print edition of The Comics Journal, in another life and another part of the world. I also want to say I wrote something nice. It was, as with all the other Minx book—even the shitty ones, and there were a couple stinkers—so far ahead of its time it's hilarious to think about. Absolutely hilarious! The real fucking joke, and I mean, this is the real killer: go back and look at who did books for Minx. I, just last week, reviewed a book written by Alisa Kwitney - she did a Minx book! Just go back and look at that graduating cohort, circa 2007-08. Sophie Campbell. Sonny Liew. Joëlle Jones. Derek Kirk Kim. Look at all those names that DC did everything they could to avoid publishing back in the halcyon waning days of Bush II. It literally lasted a year and a half. Piranha Press lasted three years longer than Minx - no one even mentions Piranha Press anymore. I’ve never even seen a single fascinating Twitter thread about Piranha Press. Nothing. Omertà.
And I’m sure it also hasn’t escaped your attention that DC and Marvel both are putting out a lot more material aimed at that demographic these days, in both comics form and YA prose, for a multitude of markets besides the Direct. Have you seen all the YA material they’re putting out now? Impossible to keep up. They put out a hot teen John Constantine YA graphic novel. Silver Sable has a YA prose novel. It’s a completely different value system than the direct market we know. DC had a unit back in 2007 that was at least on paper supposed to plant a flag on that territory. And instead, they ran as far and fast as they could away from the implications of ever intentionally publishing books for girls. Just think: had the winds of history shifted ever so slightly, DC could have published a few books and cartoonists that eventually ended up in places like Scholastic. Because, you know, the companies that should have been aggressively colonizing that space for years completely abdicated the responsibility.
Dan Didio said the other day we lost a generation of comics readers. You’re damn right we did.
And you know who was one of the first people who saw that? Jim Motherfucking Rugg. He saw where the market needed to go, where it was inevitably going to go, and he went there a good five years before anyone else did. He didn’t do the Janes alone, by the way; he collaborated on that with Cecil Castellucci - another name, come to think of it, I see a lot more now than I ever did back then. I really should learn to stop underestimating Jim Rugg.
But I’ve never been above admitting when I was wrong. I saw him every step of the way, more or less approved of what he was doing, and I am nevertheless surprised to find myself in the position of contemplating the oeuvre of Jim Rugg in 2023.
If you were in or around comics in 2004 and are still in the business, in any capacity, well. Chances are very good you had to work for it. You had to really want it. Because at that time it was getting so much easier to do anything but. And the price of admission was never not eating a lot of shit.
So what were we talking about? The Hulk? Oh, yes. The Incredible Hulk.
Well, you know - Spider-Man was never my guy, as I say. I liked Spider-Man’s world and supporting characters a lot more than I ever felt connected to the guy himself.
Now - the Hulk. He was my guy. From just about the very beginning of my reading Marvel.
The Hulk isn’t maybe my all-time favorite, but he’s undoubtedly the character I responded to the most as a kid. The Hulk was really simple to understand and yet deceptively complicated in practice: Bruce Banner’s got anger issues. He’s got mental illness. He comes from a family that also had mental illness. That stuff got bolted on later, well after the character had passed from his creators and through a succession of caretakers - but ever since the early '80s, the idea has stuck that the Hulk is uniquely tortured, owing to the most painful kind of family problems. My family has been marked for generations by various types of mental illness. My own life. The premise made a lot of sense to me as a kid who’d already seen the consequences of that stuff by the time I started picking up the book, right about when the Peter David run hit its prime time.
It’s a testament to Lee & Kirby that subsequent teams were able to pile so much meaning on characters that were, in hindsight, barely sketched at their creation. Kirby did a fair amount of Hulk stories, but never seemed close to the guy in the same way as much of his other '60s work. Certainly the child abuse that later became such an integral backdrop of the character’s milieu wasn’t part of the lexicon of mainstream comics in the 1960s, so in hindsight the earliest versions of ol’ Jade Jaws seem to lack a necessary hook. (It is worth pointing out, however, that familial violence did go on to become a theme in Kirby’s '70s material, albeit filtered through the sturm und drung of Fourth World mythology.)
There just aren’t a lot of big-tent family-friendly properties out there built around the cumulative consequences of multiple generations of mental illness and abuse. And yet that’s what the Hulk has been about, explicitly and in-text, since Bill Mantlo’s run in the '80s (although the idea was generated by Barry Windsor-Smith, that’s a long story better discussed elsewhere). Suffice to say, the development turned out to be extraordinarily generative for the franchise. Peter David spent over a decade exploring the consequences of Mantlo’s revelations, and almost every writer since has maintained and further developed the idea that the Hulk—Bruce Banner—suffers from serious mental illness.
The problem is that Marvel kind of hates this. Marvel really wants the Hulk to be a turnkey operation. For decades, they wanted nothing so much as for the Hulk to be the least challenging book in the line - a trend that didn’t start with the success of the TV show in the late 1970s, although that development sure did exacerbate the problem. For long stretches in the early Bronze Age, the Hulk was a terrible comic. That was when he was pretty much exclusively the dumb green “Hulk smash!” guy, who hung around with the Defenders and pushed over cars on TV. The Hulk’s reputation as a terrible book springs from that era, and it wasn’t unearned. (Looked great when Sal Buscema drew it, but those weren’t otherwise great comics.)
Then Bill Mantlo came along and wrote the Hulk like an actual story with a real central character, who developed and even changed as a result of learning new things about himself. Marvel didn’t really want that. To prove just how much they didn’t want that, after Mantlo left they put John Byrne on the title for a brief, aborted run in the middle of the 1980s. And I don’t want to dog that run, it was actually pretty interesting - Byrne moved as far from Mantlo as he could go, consciously doing a “widescreen” all-action book a decade and a half before The Authority. He didn’t even make it a full year before leaving for DC and Superman, however. So the name creator left the book and Marvel once again immediately stopped caring about the Hulk.
The expectation was, I believe, that the Hulk would revert to type and go back to being a series they didn’t have to worry about. But the book was plainly rudderless. It hadn’t had a direction for years in the 1970s, and got along just fine because the book was more explicitly geared towards little kids who could watch the show on TV with their parents. But after Mantlo and Byrne both, the sudden lack of direction was noticeable. Al Milgrom wrote it for a little while, which should tell you it was the last book anyone in the office wanted anything to do with. Milgrom was actually the guy who made the Hulk grey again - part of a stretch when they were clearly scrambling, throwing stuff at the wall. Rick Jones was the Hulk for the better part of a year somewhere in there, that’s how bad things were going.
So: someone in the company said, let’s give the book to that thirsty guy in sales. He’s got some surprisingly good Spider-Man stuff under his belt. Let him beat his head against the wall for a year. What’s the worst that could happen?
Well, turns out the worst that could happen was they’d accidentally create another Chris Claremont. Think back to the late '80s. Claremont himself was quickly becoming too much Claremont for the company. They wanted more X-Men books, for years they wanted more X-Men books. And if you pushed them about it they maybe wanted the books to be more accessible too. The problem was that the X-Men were being written by a guy who had made the cardinal sin of becoming the driving force of a title. He had some degree of control over the cash cow, and that meant trouble.
Marvel - well. Ok. Marvel’s a business. They are all about making money. As I’ve pointed out a few times over the years: Marvel is not above making good comics, if they have absolutely no other choice in the matter. They know how to hire new writers and change up art regimes. The company has done that many times over the years. Maybe it will again, if it can ever learn to properly chafe at corporate ownership.
They do, however, have a very strict hierarchy of preferences. Marvel’s first preference is simply to do nothing. They don’t send out promo stuff to anybody. Haven’t for years. That’s their comfort zone: profitable inaction. Their second preference is to sell with gimmicks: any kind of cheap promotional tool that you can use, like gimmick covers, or crossovers that require a great deal of busywork on the part of grudging creators. They drain the unfortunate creatures who design them of precious vitality. But none of them really change anything. Their third preference is to shed skin like a snake and switch out for a new editor-in-chief, the surest and historically most productive kind of churn the company can utilize. This used to happen no more than twice a decade, and the change would seep into the entire line as that person’s taste imprinted itself, for better or for worse.
When I write my book about Marvel—ah, I’m sure we know that’s coming somewhere—it could only ever come in the form of historiographies of the various editors-in-chief. It’s important to remember that Peter David’s run on the Hulk was in many ways the signature product of a very productive and underrated time at Marvel, under Tom DeFalco. The books got better after Jim Shooter left. DeFalco was more permissive in a lot of ways, both good and bad. Notable creators with proven track records were given a lot of rope, even when they acted out. It should be noted that for a period at the beginning of the '90s, his name was going out on the masthead on books by Moebius, Ōtomo and Aragonés. In addition to Claremont and David. DeFalco’s Marvel did a few things right.
The idea of the Hulk turning into a writer-driven book that flattered darker material wasn’t what the company had ever wanted, because everyone knew the TV show - it saturated public consciousness. The Hulk was a family-friendly brand, which is a weird thing to say about a story where an unpleasant person is always angry because his life sucks. There is no version of the Hulk that can sidestep the fact that he usually wins fights by being really angry and hitting things. But by the late '80s, the margin for books intentionally anodyne in deferment to a putative wider readership was shrinking precipitously. Even DC recognized Superman had to change with the times. So, yes, if they had done nothing to arrest the fall, Incredible Hulk might have been canceled in the late '80s. They were surely happy not to have to cancel Incredible Hulk, never not happy to sell lots of comic books under any circumstances.
But the guy who was responsible for the title not selling like shit was somebody who used to work in sales. Who'd figured out how to sell books based as much on his name as anything else. Marvel's fourth preference, way at the bottom of the list after, in order, 1) Nothing, 2) Gimmicks, and 3) Firing People, is 4) Actually Make Good Comics. As a rule, they don't relish power struggles with creators, especially writers. Good writers are usually necessary ingredients on the way to good comics, but writers with name value can get ideas above their station.
Just so the record is clear in the matter: the Hulk sold when Peter David was writing it, because he was writing it. Of course it sold when Todd McFarlane drew it. It still sold when a guy named Jeff Purves was drawing - he finished literally a handful of comics before leaving the industry forever, for Hollywood. An inestimable loss, just based on the growth and potential of his brief run. Then it was Dale Keown. Gary Frank. Liam Sharp. Mike Deodato. Adam Kubert. The Incredible Hulk sold with all of these great artists. It never stopped selling because an artist left. It didn't sell X-Men numbers—don't get me wrong!—but on a slow month it could poke its head into the Top 10. That it was even in the conversation was more than Marvel had bargained for.
The Peter David run proved just as generative in absolute terms for the Hulk as Claremont's had been for the X-Men. He changed the character, period, in a way that you could never really walk back. Because you know what? Marvel tried to do just that! They brought Byrne back in the late '90s after David left - he was still sore about not having been able to pick back up on Hulk after he first returned to Marvel at the tail end of 1988. If Byrne's mid '80s run is a truncated buried treasure, his late '90s Hulk was a tire fire. And I say that even though it featured customarily strong work from Ron Garney.
(And spare a thought for Joe Casey, who had the unenviable task of providing a six-month buffer between the reigns of David and Byrne. Worked with a very young Javier Pulido, and provided Ed McGuinness his second opportunity opportunity on the character. Beautiful gem of a runlet.)
After Byrne's return did a belly flop they course-corrected with Paul Jenkins. (I'll always associate Jenkins with his underrated run on Hellblazer; he had the not-inconsiderable misfortune of following Garth Ennis on that title, but I think Jenkins' run is the dark horse candidate for my favorite Hellblazer - the Ann Nocenti rebuttal to Ennis' Frank Miller.) By then the EiC seat was about to turn over from Bob Harras to Joe Quesada. Marvel didn't seem to have any problems with making writer-driven comics in the year 2000, which is what desperation can do to a body. (The company didn't seem to have any problems antagonizing Peter David in the new millennium either). It was accepted... or perhaps better to say, acquiesced after that point that the Hulk was going to be a book that lived or died on the strength of its writer.
Jenkins' run is little-discussed today, even though he did good work with Garney and with John Romita Jr. It was a clear influence on Al Ewing's recent The Immortal Hulk, however, with much of the tone and many specific elements of that series playing prominent roles during Jenkins' tenure. Another strong antecedent to Immortal Hulk was the Bruce Jones run, which featured the aforementioned Romita, Deodato, and Lee Weeks. The Jones run was a signature success of NuMarvel, notable for being an instance of the company rolling the dice not on a Marvel newcomer, but on a veteran who just hadn’t done a lot of work in the previous decade. Jones came through the door with an unorthodox pitch at just the right moment. He was the first writer to treat the title explicitly as a horror comic. Alas, it sort of falls apart in the home stretch, but it wouldn’t be the Hulk if the third act wasn’t just a little bit weaker than the rest of the show.
Jones was followed by Greg Pak, who wrote what is inarguably the most successful Hulk storyline of the new millennium "Planet Hulk". In the build-up to Marvel's first Civil War, the Illuminati shot Hulk into space. (You remember the Illuminati, when all the heroes from your childhood gathered around a table at Mar-a-Lago to run the VA?) They shot him in the direction of a planet that was supposed to be peaceful and unpopulated, but wouldn't you know, his capsule got knocked off course and he ended up instead trapped on a hellish Mad Max barbarian world. It's just how these things work sometimes. There's a lot of ways "the Hulk as an intergalactic Spartacus" could have gone wrong, but they put a little bit of that story in a Thor movie, so I guess we must judge it a success.
After Pak, as the 2010s beckoned, the franchise entered a bit of a trough. There were a few crossovers and multiple main books, if I recall correctly. I actually didn’t mind the Jeph Loeb run because it had a lot of Ed McGuinness drawing the Hulk, and Ed McGuinness draws a great Hulk - might still draw some great Hulk, he’s been doing some dynamite work on Amazing Spider-Man lately. But I know that run was also kind of brainless. Sadly, the next couple of tries didn’t even make it that far. They gave the book to Mark Waid at the height of his unlikely renaissance on Daredevil and the book just sort of sat there. I don’t know if he ever found a hook that satisfied him. Jason Aaron brought Marc Silvestri—my dear sweet Marc Silvestri!—and somehow got my boy to draw a few surprisingly boring Hulk comics.
Nothing they had was working. They straight-up put Bruce in the background for a year or two after the Jonathan Hickman Secret Wars. Then they killed him as part of Civil War II, and to the character’s great benefit they actually kept him off the map for a couple years in the second half of the '10s. I believe they spent much of the subsequent time pushing Amadeus Cho in the Hulk role. (He’s not a bad character, but the biggest mistake they ever made was getting rid of the dog. Should have moved heaven and earth to keep the animal sidekick. I don’t think that’s a mistake they’d make again, since animal sidekicks are back. If you hadn’t noticed!)
When they brought the Hulk back it was because someone had an idea on how to do it and make it stick. And for the good of the world, that person was Al Ewing. He took the best parts of the last 40 years of Hulk comics and sold the character to a new generation of readers. People really responded to Immortal Hulk. It’s a good run. It’s not my favorite Hulk run, to be frank, but I do rate it quite highly. Probably as dark as the character could be while still remaining legible. More importantly, it was by common consent the best book Marvel was publishing for much of its duration, 2018-21. It kept the lights on during some lean years.
I don’t know if I’d say Marvel is out of the woods—their product line is still very brittle and tentative—but that they’re still in the game at all is because Ewing continues to deign to grace the House of Ideas. One day he will pick up the phone and the man on the end of the line will say “Green Lantern” and on that day many things will change in the shape of the universe. But until that day, he’s Marvel’s greatest asset not named Peach Momoko.
So just what is a Grand Design, anyway? If you’ve read this far, you’re probably interested in learning how you can protect your family.
The Grand Design series presents subjective overviews of the history of selected Marvel characters. The first book in the series was Ed Piskor’s X-Men: Grand Design, followed by Tom Scioli’s Fantastic Four: Grand Design. They’re an odd family of books. They take the form of outlines of the respective franchise’s history - or at least selected portions. They take their lead from the prevalence, now almost gone, of series having long and detailed flashbacks to sum up long swaths of backstory - a la Uncanny X-Men #138, the archetypal “catch up” episode in so many ways. I always liked those sections because I paid attention and made store lists based on that precise information. Didn’t have a Wikipedia to look up when Wolverine first appeared or wherever - had to learn all that stuff more or less from the comics themselves, combined with various fan publications.
It’s a wonder more contemporary books haven’t picked up on the great insight of Grand Design and brought back the occasional lush flashback sequence. Sometimes recapping a story in the words of someone else can give the reader new insight, and allow the artist the chance to draw a few pages of more-or-less just the gravy. Highlight reel. One of the oldest storytelling tricks.
One shortcoming shared by all the books in this series is they all sort of peter out at the point the creator loses patience with their subject. You can tell where that point is in each volume... not like it doesn’t make sense. These are fan documents of a very specific type, after all. The remit is that it make sense as a cohesive unit in the idiom of the cartoonists at hand. Jim Rugg has been very upfront about the fact that he doesn’t think much of contemporary Marvel comics.
Now, before anyone thinks I’m about open up a bottle of Haterade, let me just say I’ve watched my share of Cartoon Kayfabe videos. Even learned a few things over the years. Was I about to sit down and read all those Michael Fleisher court transcripts? We both know the answer to that, so thanks to Jim and Ed for bringing the drama home. I’d never given a second thought to Frank Teran, but I sure did scoop up those issues of The Punisher when I came across them in a dusty box a while back. I’ve learned stuff from that channel, I’m big enough to admit.
But I also invariably grind my teeth a bit when I do, and partly it comes down to their pejorative: “jobber comics,” seemingly most often used to describe anything more recent from Marvel or DC. It hangs in my ears so deleteriously precisely because I find myself in the position of having fought against that attitude in myself and my own writing for many years. It rings in the ears as lacking grace from two artists blessed with such rewarding careers.
Today represents a fundamentally different dynamic than ever before. It’s not like it was 30 years ago, when an amiable pro like Alex Saviuk could saddle up for a respectable but in most respects quite sleepy six-year run on a tertiary Spider-Man book. Second- and third-tier stuff for a general audience that could otherwise enjoy a long, genial afterlife in quarter bins and discount packs just doesn’t last very long in a day and age when every book is printed to order. If you’re living month to month, there’s a chance you’re making material sacrifices to pay for doing something you love. Notice how quickly “starving cartoonist” became a comic type.
Perhaps I’m too generous in my advancing age. Good artists get bogged down drawing crossover tie-ins because that’s the direction the paycheck is coming from. I try to be more forgiving. I forgive Jim Rugg for surprising me. He’s doing something right. Can’t say that it was luck, because he actually caught some ferocious headwinds along the way. It was hard work. He got where he is, still in the conversation, his choice of projects, with all his stuff in print, because he hustles his ass off and makes good choices in terms of collaborators. I for one find myself unable to knock the hustle. I got a TikTok account because BookTok said it was a great promotional tool. I update it every day, religiously: Tegan Reads A Comic Book. Check it out, and drop into my Patreon when you’re done there. The hustle is the only way to go in 2023 if you want to make any money at all doing something you love, even just on the side. Rugg gets to draw comics for a living because he works for it.
Nonetheless, I don’t really know what to do with Rugg’s Hulk: Grand Design. As I believe I belabored a few paragraphs ago, I’m a person not without significant opinions on the question of the Incredible Hulk. I wanted to know what Rugg’s hook was. How was he going to find his way in?
For the most part, I don’t think he really does. The scheme of this Design is such that the first of its two issues, “Monster”, is devoted to everything from the Hulk’s creation up through Bill Mantlo; the second issue, “Madness”, is mainly dedicated to Peter David’s run, bookended on either side by the consequential first Byrne run and highlights of Pak and thereabouts. It stops, pretty much, with a mention of Loeb's Red Hulk - a character I quite liked, at least in his classic form, because Ed McGuinness drew a pretty awesome Hulk. Rugg’s greatest strength is now what it's always been: he’s a very good designer. Extraordinarily good eye. What he seems to enjoy about the Hulk is that he looks cool and that he makes an interesting subject for a book about a visual history. It’s fun to see him stretching his legs and doing game approximations of different artists' styles - that’s the deep pleasure at the heart of the Grand Design impulse, a desire to pay homage, to see contemporary artists native to a different idiom paying their tribute to the greats.
Without question, the greatest tribute this book pays is to Peter David. Rugg’s schema of the Hulk’s corpus ends with David’s run, barring a few pages of Epilogue devoted to a speedrun of Pak. Now, that’s a pretty significant editorial decision. Mr. David can sleep well in the knowledge that he remains the last word for so many people regarding the character.
But... man, I gotta say, JRJR drew some pretty good Hulk comics, for three different writers, only after the turn of the century. Lee Weeks is one of the best Hulk artists no one talks about, drew one of a couple brief returns to the character by David during the period. Even Mark Waid, bless his heart, managed a fun two-parter drawn by Walt Simonson with the Hulk and Thor against a pack of frost giants. Those ill-fated Silvestri issues are nothing if not fascinating, in hindsight. A lot of highlights left off Rugg’s reel.
I think Rugg’s Grand Design suffers, frankly, from its proximity to the conclusion of Ewing’ Immortal Hulk. Such an impassioned, empathetic, harrowing run - both an era-defining book and a resoundingly personal statement from the writer. A series that really tears your guts out. Ewing and Rugg were both essentially going at the same problem from different angles: how to make sense out of seven decades of history for a character who’s been in and out of the hands of hundreds of disparate creators. How to create one more story, and one with real meaning, out of so many strands? So many great minds chafing against the same odd bit since the Kennedy Administration. In Rugg’s hands it's difficult not to see the Hulk’s life as a series of one damn thing after the other. Did Rugg read Ewing? If he hasn’t, he really should give it a shot. It’s good comics - even if, yes, it does fall apart a little in the home stretch. Literally everything about the Hulk falls apart in the third act, even this essay. At this point people would feel disappointed if it didn’t.
Jarella, princess of a sub-atomic world and one of the Hulk's key romantic interests, is mentioned by Rugg a few times, very briefly. Now, for her outsize significance to the character, she wasn’t in very many comics - but she was significant to the Hulk in the same way Gwen Stacy was for Peter Parker. Her brief return during the Chaos War crossover was my favorite Hulk moment of the new century - even above anything in Immortal. Rugg mentions her the one time and moves past - Hulk’s true love swept aside in the course of events. A steady drumbeat of insular history unmoored from context, an odd effect native to this Grand Design.
So, at the end of the day - I guess I don’t even know if the Hulk was Jim Rugg’s guy. You know what I mean. Back in the day. Where’s the connection? Where are you in this book, Jim? I see your skill and your taste, but I don’t necessarily see you. You need to loosen up a bit. Figure out how to get more of yourself on the page. I like those notebook drawings you’ve been doing lately - confident, fun stuff. Continue in that direction and you might find yourself somewhere in the vicinity of Emil Ferris. You just need to find some material you really believe in. Take away that ironic remove. Leave aside the exploitation stuff, it doesn’t flatter your best instincts. Do something to get your own blood pumping. I can’t tell if there’s anything in the present volume to make you break a sweat.
Hell - and this is a serious suggestion, since you do seem to have an affinity for the guy: write a couple Hulk comics for some other hotshot to draw. Might be fun.
For all that, however... I’m still considering getting the Treasury Edition. Even though I already bought the singles. Because even if it’s not my favorite, I still might want to look at it bigger. Point to you, Rugg. It looks great.
P.S. My personal favorite Hulk artist, since I didn't tell you and I’m sure you’ve been dying to know, is a dark horse: Gary Frank. A weird time on the title, in hindsight, but that was my very favorite series for every month he drew it. Just a perfect comic book. That was the period where the Hulk was strong and smart, living a fairly stable life with his family in Nevada. It was a status quo that was never going to last - never supposed to last, to be fair, obviously just another in a long line of fake-outs involving Bruce getting his shit together. A real heartbreaker when you consider just how unlikely the idea of the Hulk finding domestic bliss, even fleeting. You know Bruce is going to blow up and lose everything, that’s rather the point. It’s just a matter of when - although, if you want to talk about a weak third act, the Gary Frank period on Hulk also qualifies for that discussion.
Frank changed up his inking eventually, got rid of that smooth Mark Farmer line Cam Smith gave him. Started using a lot more hatching, which you’d think I’d like.