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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Panel Vision - Incredible Hulk: Future Imperfect

Hello, my name is Lido, and I like ‘90s comics.  Now on the off chance you’re just some random citizen who knows nothing of comic book history that’s actually kind of a big thing to admit in the realms of comic fandom.  The generally accepted wisdom of comic books is that the ‘90s sucked for comics as a result of things like an emphasis on dark yet empty stories in the wake of books like Dark Knight Returns, the speculator bubble, and the rise of superstar artists and Image comics. 
However, I’m not here to explain why ‘90s comics suck, I’m here to talk about all the amazingly good ‘90s comics I think we’ve come to overlook while snarking about Youngblood or the Clone Saga.  The ‘90s comic that doesn't suck I’m focusing on today has actually returned to the public consciousness in recent times as part of the big push of ‘90s nostalgia gripping both DC and Marvel.  I’m referring to Incredible Hulk: Future Imperfect, a 2-part prestige graphic novel by Peter David and George Perez from 1992/1993. 


Future Imperfect is emblematic of a larger trend of stories that gripped most the ‘90s I like to call ‘evil clone syndrome.’  This was a common story trope in which the main hero was in some way replaced or had their powers duplicated into a villainous version of themselves.  It started with Mark Gruenwald’s storyline in 1985 when Captain America was stripped of his rank and title and psychotic jingoistic madmen John Walker became Captain America.  These stories have always been very popular in comics because they allow for a lot of new costumes and characters that basically write themselves. 
The two most successful examples of this are probably Knightfall from the Batman universe, in which Batman was replaced by a mechanized religious fanatic, and Venom from Spider-man, a villain with all of Spidey’s powers only taken a monstrous turn.  Of course these stories also tended to get out of hand like the empty ponderousness of Reign of the Supermen or the previously mentioned Clone Saga.  For my money though Future Imperfect is the most succinct and enjoyable evil clone storyline you can find, mainly because of how well its villain balances thematic arc and vicarious indulgence.

The story is that roughly 100 years in the future humanity has been all but wiped out due to nuclear war.  The only remaining outpost of humanity is the city of Dystopia, an aptly named metropolis that blends futurist technology with the hellish nature of most post-apocalypses.  The artwork by George Perez is a major selling point of Future Imperfect.  Perez is one of the greatest comic artists who ever lived, basically inventing the Teen Titans as well as working on the Jurassic Park comics I spotlighted last month, and he is on top of his game in this series. Dystopia is beautifully rendered as Perez finds the unique neutral zone between post-apocalyptic squalor and costumes with the vague implication of futuristic technology.  It’s one of the few comic book locals that feels actively alive, both figuratively and literally given how densely populated it seems.  Perez’s panels are never cluttered but always dense with information that creates a very claustrophic and oppressive atmosphere in the foreground while the background is punctuated by decaying buildings and red skies. Tom Smith also does a great job on the coloring, drawing everything in a lot of unique shades that clash with our modern notions of apocalyptic colors.  This kind of attention to detail and emphasis on atmosphere and mood is why Future Imperfect works SO well.  Dystopia oozes personality and atmosphere and it all conveys a sense of hopelessness incredibly well. 

The architect of Dystopia is the villainous Maestro, a thuggish, super powered tyrant gifted with incredible strength and a malevolently ingenious intellect.  To defeat Maestro, a rebel band summons the Hulk from the ether of time, revealing that Maestro is actually a future version of the Hulk.  I should state that at this point in the Hulk’s history he wasn’t the raging beast we all know from the films.  He called himself The Professor and was actually quite intelligent and erudite.  From there things go pretty much as expected, lots of smack downs and chases, betrayals, villain speeches, plans and counter-plans, etc.  It’s all very well written in a sort of pulp scifi manner, similarly to how some of the originally Transformers was actually well written.   Where Future Imperfect really shines though is the interactions between Hulk and Maestro.  The comic is very aware of the fact that that’s what you’re here to see and it delivers en mass.  Almost all of issue 2 is spent with the two bouncing off each other in basically the entire villain/hero gauntlet of interactions.  They fight, they verbally duel, Maestro makes his “Join me” villain speech while pushing Hulk to his moral limits, all the standard stuff you’d expect from a good antagonist. 
Where Future Imperfect really manages to shine and eclipse all other evil clone stories is in its particular evil clone of Maestro.  Maestro is a bizarre centerpiece of the tale, all at once an ultra violent monster of pure appetite while also being depicted as probably the most human the Hulk has ever felt.  It’s the same kind of approach to character you find in things like David Ayer films, in fact Ayer’s Fury is actually a pretty solid comparison point.  Both stories take on well-worn genres but with key elements of realism and subversion.  For instance in Maestro’s world he has a complete harem of slave girls at his pleasure which is something you rarely see in post-apocalypse stories and almost never see in comics, certainly not with the Hulk.  But again the idea that Maestro indulges his appetites, especially sexually, helps make him seem more real and human.  Additionally we actually see the world Maestro has built out of the ashes and the way things work to carve some kind of existence out of the wasteland for his subjects. 

This sly humanization of the villain is Future Imperfect’s greatest trick because it allows the comic to have its cake and eat it too.  Maestro himself ends up straddling the line between likable villain and terrifying monster perfectly, which enables the comic to be both en indulgence of appetite and a condemnation of that very indulgence.  Maestro is drawn as the more charismatic character between he and Hulk, with the Hulk playing sort of a dopey second fiddle to Maestro’s strength and skill.  We naturally gravitate towards Maestro throughout the bulk of the comic especially because for a lot of the book his more brutal actions are kept to a minimum. 
We revel alongside him in the wanton destruction of his battle with Bruce or the way he adorns himself in pleasure slaves.  However, underneath Maestro’s likable exterior the truth of his character is that his villainy flows from those same indulgences.  He’s a Hulk who ultimately gave in to his rage and by the end of the comic rage and brutality is all he is.  Even Maestro’s ultimate defeat comes at the hands of Hulk’s newfound intelligence rather than his fists. 

The significance of all this is rooted deep into the overriding philosophy of ‘90s comics.  ‘90s comics as a whole were all about indulging some of the basest desires of its readership.  It was a time when blood and boobs ruled the day, Future Imperfect finds the perfect way to incorporate the kind of wanton indulgence that makes that kind of storytelling fulfilling while also sprinkling a layer of thematic criticism over the very thing it’s embracing.  That’s why it holds up so well 20 years later, it’s a cautionary tale that makes the brilliant choice of letting you experience the thrill and joy of the very thing it’s cautioning against, and that’s why it’s an awesome ‘90s comic.  

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