NEW: Hulk & Thing: Hard Knocks

October 12, 2018
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Hulk & Thing: Hard Knocks

Year: 2004-2005
Writer: Bruce Jones
Penciller: Jae Lee
Rating: ***

Hulk & Thing: Hard Knocks was released as a four issue mini-series during 2004/2005. The title wasn’t a major hit, being shipped for just over 44,000 copies with its first issue, and falling to just over 31,000 by the time it ended.

Yet Hard Knocks starts off incredibly well, with a strong script by Bruce Jones and wonderful art by Jae Lee. Lee gives the Hulk and the Thing a humanised, distorted look, accentuating their human forms, but in doing so illustrating how distorted their forms really are. By making Ben more human he succeeds in making him more horrifying.

Some of the art is beautiful in its semi-realistic way, and a special mention has to go to the colouring of June Chung. Perhaps most memorable are the bizarre covers, with the two grappling and biting each other, almost with a homoerotic edge. This is a story with 88 pages of content, less than half of which feature an actual Thing-Hulk battle, with the two instead reminiscing over coffee. This isn’t a criticism, as it’s a title which subverts expectations.

For three issues, the story rattles along, and is a far better read as a collected volume than as a four month, four issue mini-series, where the length of time didn’t suit its decompressed storytelling. Although the title is largely told from Ben’s point of view, Jones had written the Hulk’s title for the best part of three years, so he was well acquainted with Bruce Banner's alter ego. Although some of Ben’s dialogue choices are questionable - “oooooookay”, “dude” and “Hulk-Meister” all manage to slip from his mouth – he really has a handle on Ben.

What informs the book is the nature of memory and the unreliable narrator. Both Ben and the Hulk have a differing memory of a fight, and we see a previously-undisclosed battle between them. Although Ben saying he was about the kill the Hulk is incredibly out of character, the entire three issues act as a love letter to fans of the Thing who got tired of him always being second-best. In the earliest of their battles they were able to trade on competitive terms… yet the Hulk has got so strong and Ben so staid in the following years that internet message boards can’t even countenance the idea of the two being on relatively even terms in any hypothetical “who would win?” match-up. In 1963 the question of who would win in a fight between the two was hotly anticipated... by 2018 it's an idea barely taken seriously by modern readers.

While an upgraded version of Ben did beat a weaker version of the Hulk in 1988, generally Ben’s always come off worst. Most of their battles took place outside of the Fantastic Four title, with just six Hulk-Thing clashes in the book as of the Hard Knocks release date, and the majority of them painful experiences for Grimm. Hard Knocks seems to try to reclaim some credibility for the Thing, but is on the wrong end of history; just the following year the Hulk would break Ben’s ribs in a largely one-sided battle, while the year after that would see Ben easily defeated (along with, in fairness, most of the Marvel universe) in World War Hulk.

Hard Knocks looks wonderful, the story works in collected form, and there’s an intriguing backstory underpinning it. So what happened to make this just an average read? The fourth and final issue. In it, Ben reveals that he just kept the Hulk talking so the army could catch up with him. Although he says he did it to give the Hulk a chance, rather than see the army attack him, it still feels very unlike Ben. But this still wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it wasn’t for the revelation that the entire three preceding issues were basically just Ben lying. The entire story was made up,didn’t mean a thing(!), and… that’s your lot.

Three issues that redefine the Thing-Hulk rivalry, confirming that Ben’s conscience holds him back and that, if he suffered a nervous breakdown and lost all moral values, he could actually beat the Hulk… and then a fourth issue which reveals it was all nonsense invented on the fly. Ben starts the book as an alpha male wanting to revisit past glories and reclaim his status… and ends it as a treacherous man who reveals his only decisive victory over the Hulk was all in his imagination, a three-part fiction that ultimately meant nothing. What began as an attempt to rehabilitate Ben's standing sees him instead belittled, and readers having shelled out $14 for a tale that didn't, to all intents and purposes, even happen.

Johnny Rotten once had a phrase he said at the end of an underwhelming Sex Pistols concert in San Francisco.

“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

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