Jeph Loeb’s recent work has been -- to put it charitably -- poorly received by critics. It’s hard to find reviews worse than those that “Hulk,” “Ultimates 3,” and “Ultimatum” have garnered. I should know; I wrote many of them. So believe me I say that despite all the problems I’ve had with his “Hulk” run to date, things are actually getting better. This issue guest stars Domino of “X-Force,” as well as a cast of assassins and mercenaries from across the Marvel Universe. Loeb’s tenure on the title has been marked by frequent guest stars, and that trend continues here -- though not to the detriment of the supporting cast, who actually bother to show up for a change.
Whether someone, somewhere is taking steps to address the many valid complaints people have had about “Hulk” remains to be seen. Perhaps we’ll never know. But with this issue, Loeb has finally started to tie together the disparate characters and threads into something resembling an overarching story arc, and for the first time, he does it without using bombast and vulgarity as a substitute for plotting and characterization. The parade of guest stars is gratuitous, yes, but it’s also driven by the story, rather than the perceived opportunity for kewlness, which is what it seemed like in the past.
It’s not a perfectly-written comic, by any means. Domino’s opening exposition is labored and illogical (seriously, would a sniper really be talking to herself while on assignment?), Deadpool’s jokes are hit and miss, the character himself is overexposed, and it’s hard to imagine a man as brutally intelligent as the Punisher coming at any Hulk with a knife -- but it’s nowhere near as bad as it has been. On a purely technical level, this is acceptable stuff. And for this series, "acceptable" is a real step up.
Perhaps part of that is due to the arrival of Ian Churchill on art. Since I last saw his work, Churchill has dropped the faux-Jim Lee style he was known for, and it’s a pleasant surprise to see any artist reinvent themselves after this long. There’s a touch of McGuinness to his work, but for the first time ever, Ian Churchill’s art looks like Ian Churchill, not like someone else. It may be that Loeb is working in slightly safer territory without McGuinness’ penchant for splash pages to fall back on, but if that’s the case then get Churchill on the book full time, because it’s caused a vast improvement in the book’s readability.
For the first time since its relaunch, “Hulk” feels like a comic I could read. Not necessarily one I want to -- the Red Hulk is still too irritating a protagonist -- but it isn’t so dumb that it feels like an insult to customers that it got published at all. Things might actually be moving in the right direction.