Jones'n to Get Smashed: acclaimed scribe talks 'Incredible Hulk'

Fri, July 26th, 2002 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

[Hulk 46]Take one part classic character, add a veteran writer with a fresh perspective, keep the hype to a minimum and you have the makings of sure-fire hit. You also have the formula for Marvel's surprise smash in the rejuvenated "Incredible Hulk." With newly exclusive writer Bruce Jones at the helm, Marvel Comics has found their Green Goliath's sales are up and with the Hulk movie building momentum for a 2003 release, the timing could not be better. CBR News was one of the first comic press sources to present an in-depth interview with Jones back in January and decided that it was a good idea to follow up with the multi-faceted scribe. But if you still aren't sold on the Hulk, Jones is more than willing to explain to you his perspective of the character that is winning over droves of fans each month.

"Defining the Hulk is hard because his persona is so inextricably linked to Banners. Also, the definition of both is part of the gradual reveal we're attempting. Banner is still coming to terms with his definition of himself so I'm learning as he does. I'm trying to make both he and the reader aware of the defining moments at the same time. Different from us as he may appear, my take is that Banner is really Everyman with the complexities inherent in all of us. So it's rough condensing his psyche into a logline. I'm obviously drawing from my own private well, so in that sense I'm learning about Hulk and Banner the same way I'm still learning about myself. As far as a jumping on point for new readers, Banner is a scientist who was exposed to a lethal dose of gamma radiation and somehow survived it. But when incurring a rise in blood pressure, he morphs into a large, green humanoid with an extremely large muscle capacity and a correspondingly short temper. Dr. Banner is currently on the run from both the law and sinister, unknown forces."

Many fans have commented that Jones hasn't showcased the Hulk himself quite enough, though we've seen Bruce Banner playing a large role in the series. Two schools of thought come to mind- one, that the Hulk appears more than readers realize or that, two, readers are looking for too literal a representation of the Jade Giant- but Jones won't dismiss either. "I think it's more a case of the latter. Hulk is always there, because Hulk is Banner. Hulk's appearance doesn't dictate story arcs; the arcs dictate Hulk's appearance. It's as much about "the attitude during" as how often and how much. The moment Hulk's appearances feel obligatory we've lost the hard-earned credibility establish in a franchise that already begs credulity. The same applies to Banner. If someone criticizes the Hulk for not showing up enough, he's also criticizing Banner for showing up too much. I think what most readers lodging those complaints are really grousing about is the paucity of widescreen action that traditionally went with Hulk comics. They expect a more kinetic read as opposed to soul-searching talking heads. Well, no one's a bigger fan of John Woo's films than me; I love action, as long as it advances the narrative."

Another reason that we haven't seen much of the Hulk himself is that Jones has been focusing on the character of Bruce Banner through one or two issue character vignettes that have dealt with real world issues from bullying to being a failure in one's career. Jones says that he enjoys writing stories about the Hulk and real world issues, even though so many previous writers have focused on the Hulk as an action hero. "It's simply easier to write stores about real people and situations. I don't subscribe to that old axiom; 'write what you know,' otherwise there would be no science fiction. I believe we may never have gotten to the moon if a lot of budding astronauts and technicians hadn't gotten stoked on speculative fiction. Even if I'm not as smart as Banner, I can still relate to his fundamental human idiosyncrasies. The Hulk is a different problem. I'm attempting to suggest there might be a parallel between Hulk's primal anger and Banner's supposed civilized veneer-how the line between is often finer than we like to think. I'm big on action-reaction, cause and effect, the idea that every time something is gained, something else is lost. The comic's verisimilitude is paranoia, but in fact our theme is really more about irony. The best humor is ironic, so is the best tragedy, because life IS irony. You live your entire existence being taught and believing that the law of physics is immutable, and then something like quantum mechanics comes along-- what can be more ironic than that?"

In his previous interview with CBR News, Jones mentioned wanting to tell the story of Bruce Banner as a "running sojourn" and really avoid keeping the individual story arcs from running two longs. But when the first storyline did end, a lot of questions were left unanswered and Jones says that this is all a part of the plan. "I think everything must be held accountable. Writing a series is like that Bradbury story where the guy goes back in time and steps on a butterfly and the whole world is different when he comes back to the present; you're always craning over your shoulder, covering your ass. But I also feel there's a distinction between sloppy plotting and intentional ambiguity. I read a lot of books and saw a lot of movies as a kid and didn't understand all of the plot much less whatever the author's message was, but that didn't stop me from enjoying and even learning from the experience. I think its sophomoric to believe the best writing is built on a set number of rules and techniques all of which can easily be dissected and studied like a math theorem. It leaves little room for subtle shading or even deliberate contradiction. My belief is that art reflects life because of life's inconsistencies, not because it can be reduced to a formula. Editing a film or book down to its leanest, most succinct best is one thing, making it palatable to the most number of people is another--the danger is in homogenizing the story past the point of bothering with it in he first place. Done with intelligence, I don't mind stories in which a scene or a character's personality is left slightly askew, intentionally ambiguous. It gives my brain room to roam and breathe. People like fiction with a distinct beginning, middle and ending-but life isn't like that. Life is uncomfortable. And a lot of people don't want to work for their entertainment. I've always been attracted to the uncomfortable, the edgy, and its influence on the human spirit. Richard Matheson once said his approach to writing is to take an almost prosaically normal scene or environ, plant a single seed of fantasy into it, and see where that takes him. I like that."

The latest storyline has also introduced a new villain into the life of the Hulk, namely the devilish Agent Pratt, who seems like one of the most inhumane villains that Banner has ever faced. According to Jones, Pratt is going to be a thorn in Banner's side for some time to some and the scribe says, "Almost from the get-go Banner has been pursued by this mysterious faction known variously as The Silhouette Men, Home Base, etc. Because they all wore sunglasses or were only shown in silhouette or deep shadow, I thought we needed to put a face to the mystery, give the reader a pictorial icon to hang onto. Someone with an attitude and demeanor that reflects the organization. In the initial episodes Jink Slater and Sandra Verdugo did this, but they were work-for-hire soldiers of fortune, not direct members of this clandestine, underground power. Pratt is big, imposing, intelligent and ruthless and seemed a likely choice. His charismatic lack of conscience also made him a wild card and played toward the possibility of an agenda apart from the "company"-apart from the whole world, really. Pratt is the iconoclast you love to hate-making him a good foil for Banner's essential goodness. Also, he's just so goddamn hard to kill off!"

Jones says that he isn't having any trouble finding inspiration for his "Hulk" stories: everything around him gives him ideas. "I think the same thing that inspires writers in general: everything around us. I can't point to a single source. I'm just screening stimuli, awake and subconsciously. Everybody does it; writer's just extrapolate and put it down in goofy little stories. I tend not to read science fiction much anymore and horror not at all-there's enough horror in the real world. There are a handful of comic writers who still get me amped. I lean toward mainstream fiction as I always have, a few obscure novelists nobody has ever heard of, TV shows like 'Six Feet Under' and 'Once and Again.' For goof-off I watch Adult Swim on The Cartoon Network. My single biggest inspiration is just trying to be as good as I can with each issue of whatever I'm working on; that's inspiration aplenty. My feeling is that everything comes in cycles. If you give the very best you can of yourself, you can stretch that cycle for a while."

After working on "Hulk" for over half a year, Jones says he's learned to deal with all the nuances of the job and knows how to balance the harder aspects. "It's like going back to school after summer vacation. A few months into it and you're riding easier in the saddle and pushing down the panic. You get to know your editor and the other people you work with on a more personal level and you gain a certain rapport. Hopefully you don't become over-confident and drift into ambivalence and sloth. A good editor-like Axel Alonso-won't let this happen. He's hard on himself and expects the same from his creators, which is a good thing. I guess the hardest part is pushing to stay fresh and edgy and keep bringing an individualistic slant to the material. The reader isn't going to turn the page if the writing wasn't an immersive experience itself."

[The Hulk]Jones also isn't quite sure how his approach to writing the series has changed since he began his successful run on "Hulk," but he's sure that he's improvised on some level. "Well, I've worn out the film metaphor, but writing for comics really is a lot like writing movie scripts. In comics the writer and artist sort of share the directing chores. The best directors, I think, do their homework first, prepping and planning as much in advance as possible, trimming the fat and laying down a blueprint. When filming begins, the trick is recognizing when to adhere strictly to the blueprint and when to accommodate unforeseen traps and happy accidents. Comic writing is the same. Part of you must remain flexible at all times while consciously fighting to protect the story's spine. The best stuff really does write itself. Except for those mornings you reread the previous day's work to find someone else entirely was writing in your place…some idiot with grandiose ideas and no idea what he's doing. It's like waking in the middle of the night with what seems a brilliant idea, jotting it down on the nightstand, falling back to sleep, then waking up to find what you wrote was something like "the Universe no longer needs us" or something equally obtuse. Flexibility and horse sense are the best allies. And the ability to check your ego at the door. I never set out consciously to change the Hulk series, just to bring my own peculiar take to the title."

From John Romita JR to Lee Weeks, Jones has been blessed with talented artists on "Incredible Hulk" and his writing style has really let their work shine through, something he explains is very purposeful. "For me, comics are a visual medium first, a prose-oriented form second. That doesn't mean words take a back seat to pictures, more like the passengers seat (also known at the Death Seat-draw your own metaphors.) At first, political cartoons used words as a necessary evil--a one-two punch to the brain. The artist's job was to distill information into a single illustration. Later, progressive panels allowed for more extended storytelling. But comics were--outside of some newspaper strips primarily aimed at children. The emphasis was kinetic energy. As the medium matured it began to draw on the movies, which is where the 'wordless' panels idea probably came from. Comic writing still defers to the pictures; otherwise there would be no point in the pictures being there--novels and short stories were around long before comics. I think adults begin to come to comics when they realized the way words could be combined with pictures to create a unique reading experience. The best comic writers know when to get out of the way and let the pictures tell the story. They also know when to use words, and how to be succinct with them. Before the VCR, comics were the only pictorial medium where the reader could stop, go back, reread and alter continuity. To me, comics are the jazz of American art forms; known by many, understood and appreciated by too few.

Speaking of Lee Weeks, Jones is thrilled to have him on as the new regular penciller of "Incredible Hulk" and can't stop gushing about Weeks' talent. "Weeks is hands down one of the best artists I've ever worked with. I've never had what you'd call a lot of communication with my artists: I tend to write full script, send it off and pray for the best. For the most part, that's really all you can do. Week and John Jr. are both terrific story tellers which is crucial to unraveling the form. They have wonderful instincts for pacing and expression, choice of angle, subtle characterization. What makes them a joy for me to read, is that every artist brings something unexpected to the table-that's just a natural part of the collaborative medium-but guys like Lee and John not only follow where you point them, they invent and embroider along the way-- and the result is always up to or better than what you had in mind. It's a very subtle thing, a very rare thing; most artists don't have it and it's particularly hard to do with a realistic style because you can't fall back on double page histrionics or anatomically impossible poses. When you're drawing people who look and act like people, you have to come through the back door with your nuance. You can usually tell from page one panel one. As far as I'm concerned, these two guys are equally talented for entirely different reasons and I've been damn lucky to have them. Thank Axel for that."

Depending on how you look at it, Jones is also lucky to have the momentum of the upcoming "Hulk" movie helping to draw attention to his series and he admits that it reall isn't affecting his work at all. "The only pressure has been to keep up the quality, and that's mostly self-imposed. We aren't attempting to ape the movie or follow its plotline. I haven't read the script, and really don't want to. I want to sit in the theater with my popcorn and enjoy the show with everyone else. Of course I hope the movie is a hit, or at least a good film, but that kind of thing is out of my hands and I tend to not concern myself with things beyond control. We just go on doing our thing, and Hollywood goes on doing theirs. I honestly enjoy the process of writing and-when working with talented people-the input of others. There's something basically joyful about creating something from nothing, I don't know why. I mean, it's a minefield, but an exhilarating one. Probably it all boils down to compulsion. Someone once said the difference between real writers and those who only talk about it, is that the real writer would be doing it on a desert island. Of course, it's also true that the Marquis de Sade did the bulk of his work in solitary confinement writing on toilet paper (an apropos metaphor to some) so maybe we shouldn't get too elitist about this. It's only fiction."

Even it is only fiction, when Jones looks back at the fiction that he has created, he can't help but grin and be happy with the results. "It's been both challenging and exhilarating while remaining fun. I've met a lot of great people whose own talents contributed as much as mine to whatever commercial success the book has achieved recently. I suppose everyone has his own definition of what success means. I love to write, and Hulk and the good people at Marvel have allowed me that; that's a major kind of success in itself."

[Hulk 44]But Jones isn't about to spoil that success by revealing any upcoming plot points. "I'm not supposed to talk about it-I understand how letting the cat out of the bag can be a disservice to readers. I will tell you that the upcoming giant Issue # 50-all thirty-eight pages of it-is some of the most incredible artwork I've ever seen; just explosive. That and the fact that we're doing for the first time something a lot of fans have asked for and really going over the top with it, could make for the most exciting arc to date. I'm just so stoked about it-and I haven't even seen the color yet! Hang on to your hat."

One of the biggest changes being made at Marvel in the last few years will be in September when the company replaces one page in each of their comics with a recap page that brings new reader up to speed with past events. While this does guarantee accessibility to all readers, it does mean one less page of actual story and Jones' own thoughts on this subject accurately represented the divided feelings of comic book fandom in general. "Ambivalent," says Jones of his feelings of the change. "The diminutive nature of the comic business is both a blessing and a curse. Mediums that cater to niche audiences tend to retain their own peculiar vocabularies. It's what John Updike describes happening when a tribe segregated in a valley develops an accent, then a dialect, then a language all its own. A focused audience is a more demanding, quicker learning one, which by extension raises the creative bar. Conversely, the kind of shorthand gained by this more elite clientele can appear as a swamp of confusion to the mainstream reader. As a creator, you're walking this line between information and ideas that can be enriching to Constant Reader and at the same time alienating to potential newcomers. The idea behind the recap pages/panels is to give first timers a starting point. The trick is to do this without dumbing things down to existing readers who not only know the language of comics but demand and have a right to growth in art and story-telling technique. We must strike a balance with this. I'd hate to see creatively viable ideas wither under the heel of myopic stratagems. But neither do I want a still struggling industry to expire from sheer lack of nutrition."

Tired from all his hard work of recent, Jones decides to depart for the evening but has a few parting words for fans of his "Hulk" work:

"I'd like to thank all those readers who have supported our endeavors, especially those who'd never been inclined to pick up the title until now. And a big thanks to all the good folks at Marvel, of course. Whatever the merits of my interpretation of The Incredible Hulk, they would have been stillborn if someone hadn't given me the opportunity."

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