The Hulk is not a hard character to figure out. A holdover from the early days of Marvel, where giant monsters and weird science were as common as superheroics, he’s evolved into a pure embodiment of rage. When Bruce Banner gets angry, he loses control, and he turns into a powerful brute as dangerous to his friends as he is to his enemies. It’s not a subtle metaphor, but it doesn’t have to be. The Hulk is a nightmare and a fantasy about power and anger, being strong enough to hit back at those who wronged you, but risking hurting people you care about.
The Totally Awesome Hulk, by Greg Pak and Frank Cho, shifts both the status quo and the metaphor quite a bit. In this new series, Bruce Banner is nowhere to be found, and the role of Hulk is filled by his protégé, genius scientist Amadeus Cho. Through so far unrevealed means, Amadeus is able to shift between human and Hulk pretty much at will, and he uses his new powers to beat up and capture various kaiju-like monsters that have been attacking civilians. It’s a fresh take, in line with the rest of the All New, All Different line Marvel has been pushing. But it also does something interesting in terms of male gaze and power fantasies.
Superhero comics are no stranger to male gaze and objectification, with impractical and overly sexualized costumes often coming under fire. Hulk himself has been used by writers as a vehicle for some violent, grotesque displays of intimidation and sexual violence, especially by writer Mark Millar in books like Ultimates and Old Man Logan. When you have a character strong enough to do whatever he wants, without a lot of rational thought or empathy, it’s easy to see the bad directions some writers are going to take him in.
Totally Awesome Hulk is the opposite of that. When Amadeus transforms, he’s not angry or prone to violence. His “flaw” is simply that he becomes more cocky, gorging on cheeseburgers and flexing his muscles for girls on the beach instead of punching the monster at hand. It’s still a male power fantasy, for sure, but a playful, self-deprecating one, like an SNL sketch about a Charles Atlas course. Instead of looking for revenge on people or wreaking havoc, Amadeus is just excited to be the big, muscley center of attention, to be the hero in the spotlight after an adolescence as a supporting character. He’s a funny, flirty dude who tries to impress and show off for people instead of intimidating him. There’s even an imaginary conversation between him and his Hulk alter ego during a climactic fight scene, where Amadeus asserts he’s “doing this my way, not yours.”
The comparison that comes to mind immediately is She-Hulk, Bruce Banner’s cousin and a superhero in her own right. Unlike Banner, Jennifer Walters doesn’t become a mindless beast when angry, but can shift at will to a tall, super–strong, shapely green form. The comics have long played with the idea that Walters’ She-Hulk form is closer to her “true” personality, the strength and beauty giving her more confidence than her normal human form. I’d joked with friends about transposing this dynamic onto a male character, a “He-Hulk,” but that’s pretty much exactly what Totally Awesome Hulk is. It’s a different kind of male fantasy than the usual “Wolverine stabs a millions guys” fare. It’s more vulnerable because it admits it’s silly, blushing as it teases itself.
And it’s doubly refreshing to see a Korean-American guy in this silly, sexy lead role. Mainstream media is slowly starting to accept Asian leads who are outside the usual stereotypes, with characters like Brian in Master of None and Glenn in The Walking Dead, and it’s nice to see that kind of variety in comics as well. As a Greg Pak creation, Amadeus has clearly been important to him for a while, and this direction for the character as he ages is both natural and unique.
One of the most impressive features of the book is how well Frank Cho’s art is suited for it, too. I’m not always a fan of Cho’s cheesecakey style, and it’s come under fire for being too objectifying, but that stuff tends to play in the book’s favor here. As a story through the eyes of a horny young adult with Hulk powers, exaggeration is a feature, not a bug, and a lot of the more pin-up elements are played for laughs, like Amadeus’s attraction to shapely villain Lady Hellbender, who regularly stomps on his face and throws him around. It’s not a perfect book; there could still be a little more physical diversity, and a jab at She-Hulk in the first issue feels cheap, even coming from our sometimes incorrigible hero. But it’s clearly a collaboration between creators who have a vision of the story they want to tell, how they want to tell it, and why it’s important.
Totally Awesome Hulk isn’t gonna be around forever; it’s a little niche for a hero that’s appearing in Marvel movies roughly once a year. But it’s a cool, interesting take on the very idea of the Hulk, one that deconstructs a core of anger and rage and rebuilds the character with fun and self-deprecation.