Saturday, December 29, 2012

Immortal Coil

So, we're still here. Mankind deserves to be ripped from the garden we've despoiled and chucked into frigid space, but we're still here. The ancient Mayans (and their modern day horde of capitalist proselytizers) were wrong. Whoops. Next year, when Bravo launches a program called Look What This Idiot Bought, many of us will vie for camera time to display our 2012 books, shirts, ornaments, statuettes, and probably fanny-packs. Not me, though. I paid tribute not by checking my brain at the temple door (nor by leaving vomit and glow-sticks on its steps), but by reading Red Hulk: Mayan Rule.

You're thinking, "Wait. Hold it. Slow your roll, poindexter. Red Hulk?" Bruce Banner, Marvel's scrawniest, angriest doctor, has been a gray or green monster, but never red. This feisty character is actually General Thunderbolt Ross, the man responsible for the gamma-bomb test that created Banner's duality. In this tale, written by superhero purist Jeff Parker and drawn by Canadian visionary Dale Eaglesham, Ross and his supporting crew tangle with the pantheon of Mayan gods.

Now, when I call Parker a purist, I compare him to the writers who followed Stan Lee at Marvel in the late 1960s and early 70s: Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway and Steve Englehart. Parker's scripts worship their era of dense plots and challenging characterization. He fills his comics (such as Thunderbolts and Agents of Atlas) with missing artifacts, enchanted locals, boisterous team-ups- anything and everything to not only keep you reading, but then rereading later, for the propulsive thrill of it.

Having not perused Red Hulk in a few years, I enjoyed seeing such elements still in fluid motion. Former sidekick Rick Jones continues his turn as A-Bomb, a blue version of the Hulk villain Abomination. Also present is Alpha Flight (Canada's premier team of mutant heroes), Machine Man (a cybernetic Mr. Fantastic), and newcomer Annie (an android, whose public displays of affection for Ross bring weapons-grade Viagra to mind).

The deity-on-deity action begins when Rick Jones (in human form) investigates an all too permissive tour of a Mayan temple in the Yucatan. The guide brings his group inside the ancient structure, only to pull a knife and drip some of his own blood on a squat, tabular idol. Shafts of aquamarine light then engulf a pair of tourists. The goddess Ixchel appears and sucks the life from them, leaving Rick to gawp at the bony husks. "I knew this tour was going somewhere bad," he says before launching into battle, "but you didn't know this temple had an A-Bomb in it."

Only certain artists should be drawing a Hulk comic. Eaglesham, whose panels roll forward like superhero evolution in progress, is one of them. Ed McGuinness (Red Hulk's first artist) is another; both polish Jack Kirby's furious sense of weight. But Eaglesham also combines it with John Buscema's wondrous musculature.

In other words, his fight scenes are frackin' astounding. As the narrative leaps among holographic pyramids (and the continents hosting them), more of our heroes fall to the Mayans, who drain life-force to reignite their presence in the here-and-now. Eaglesham plays with the paneling, offering borders that zig-zag, crumble, or are actually chunks of carved stellae.

Parker (likely jazzed by Eaglesham's drop-in for these five issues) meets the visuals with fang-sharp dialogue. "I've screwed up," says Rick Jones to Ross, after returning from the Yucatan, "and unleashed something horrible on the world. Figured you'd know some things about that." Another scene sees the General comment on riots in Guatemala (and our own cabinet of war criminals): "Shock and awe. [The gods are] shaking up the populace, upsetting order. Then they'll provide their own order, and the people will accept it."

Most intriguing is the fact that the would-be Mayan rulers continuously refer to Ross and his companions as gods. It never occurs to Big Red that while tussling with lava giants, man-serpents and living tidal waves, he himself could be worshiped. In the end, as Annie echoes scribe Grant Morrison's idea that superheroes encompass modern creation myths, Ross quips, "I just now got used to being a Hulk." And I never should've stopped reading Parker's work. The New Year will see that corrected.

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