Greg Pak’s work with Amadeus Cho in The Totally Awesome Hulk is important to my own personal Hulk journey. As a kid, I loved the Hulk. I read a lot of his comic books too – and every single Hulk comic I read (save a back issue or two) was written by Peter David. He shaped my entire understanding of the Hulk. As my (first) comic collecting run was coming to an end, Mr. David’s final issue of The Incredible Hulk was mine as well. Now, twenty years later, I’ve met a new Hulk and a new Hulk author. In Greg Pak’s The Totally Awesome Hulk, I’ve found a brilliant mix of the old and the new as well as a Hulk that’s fun, relevant, and even teaches me a little something along the way.
The setup for The Totally Awesome Hulk finds Bruce Banner heading to the coast of Kenya as a nuclear facility is in mid-meltdown. Iron Man and Black Panther are doing everything they can to evacuate the surrounding area but they can’t halt the impending explosion. Bruce arrives, Hulks out, and jumps into the heart of the facility, absorbing all the raw nuclear energy. The Hulk then dives into the ocean, screaming, as he tries to control more energy than he’s ever absorbed before. With his physiology in constant flux, Hulk can’t settle down or begin to control all he’s taken in. T’Challa and Tony can’t figure out a safe way to release the energy without catastrophic consequences either so they move to Plan B – teleport the Hulk to the Negative Zone. (Clearly the Avengers aren’t really good with #HulkProblems; he saves the world a bunch of times and all they can do is shoot him into space or zap him to the Negative Zone when things get dicey.) Enter Amadeus Cho, nineteen-year-old super-genius and the eighth smartest person on the planet (according to the Pym-Von Doom Raw Calculation Scale).
Amadeus heads out into the ocean with a plan he’s designed to cure Bruce Banner. With the Hulk about to suffer some sort of meltdown himself, Amadeus uses his tech to transfer the gamma radiation from Bruce (something Bruce’s always seen as an unwanted curse) to himself (something he willingly accepts to become the hero he knows the Hulk’s always been). With Bruce Banner finally legitimately cured, Amadeus Cho sets out to protect the world from the threats only the Hulk can. His sister, Madame Curie “Maddy” Cho, a sixteen-year-old super-genius in her own right, serves as Hulk mission control as the two travel the country in a flying food truck hunting monsters.
I know, right?! It’s even more awesome than it sounds.
It feels like a classic comic book in so many ways. I know there’s (sadly) a subsect of fandom that enjoys being vitriolic about much of the modern comic scene. (They want their new comics to be exactly like the comics they read decades ago…but still be new (?) and I guess that’s why they have to be hateful in letter pages and internet comment sections instead of just reading back issues??) Personally, I don’t have any problems with most modern comic offerings but I admire how Greg Pak’s The Totally Awesome Hulk balances the best of both worlds. He gives us the best of the past while situating it inside original stories. The Totally Awesome Hulk has great guest stars! Team-ups! Big, splashy battle sequences! Random monster threats! A variety of villains from the Hulk’s rogue’s gallery and others! And, perhaps best of all, there’s classic hero-battles-hero-until-they-learn-they-are-on-the-same-side-and-work-together stories :). In this title I find all the fun tropes I liked as a kid without sacrificing fresh stories that interest me as an adult.
In the first arc we see Amadeus and Maddy finding, fighting, and ultimately shrinking/safely storing monsters that are threatening people around the country. The story is exciting enough in its own right but we get to see them work alongside She-Hulk and Spider-Man too!! Yay! That’s not all. They also battle Lady Hellbender, the Monster Queen of Seknarf Nine. C’mon, tell me that’s not awesome. Comics just don’t have names like that anymore!!
The second and third arcs also see Hulk battling and then coming to work with, first Thor and then Black Panther. I’ll admit, even as a kid I wasn’t 100% sure why superheroes would always fight before teaming up. Even if there’s a misunderstanding it seemed to me like Spidey (or whoever) should just say, “Hey Daredevil (or whoever), I know it looks like you’re the bad guy right now but what’s going on here? We’ve literally worked together dozens of times. Can we talk for a second?” Obviously that’s still the case now. But do you know what? Logic aside, the stories are fun. I’m not sure why exactly, but they are! And Greg Pak has brought that fun back to The Totally Awesome Hulk, making it a normal feature but avoiding any overuse to make it feel trite.
So we have heroes, aliens, monsters, BIG battle sequences, really fun/quippy humor, and the classic battle-then-work-together trope all coming together to make this feel like a book I could have read as a kid. However, there’s also real depth to the narrative too, presenting an important message. The Hulk has always been a metaphor used to explore the nature of anger. With Bruce, the Hulk came as a primal rage monster (green) or an angry, mean, selfish asshat (grey). It is clear, in Hulk comics, our anger is a monster that’s always with us, trying to get out. What The Totally Awesome Hulk adds to the conversation is the important distinction that what we do with our anger affects the shape and abilities of the monster. We can control our anger. It doesn’t always have to control us. Amadeus and Maddy often discuss the importance of this. The narrative illustrates Amadeus’ struggle for control, depicting him driving a car with the monster. Sometimes the monster is in the trunk and others in the passenger seat. And, sometimes, he gives the monster the wheel. Amadeus has a lot more control than Bruce ever did…but the threat of losing control is still there. This is true of us all. And with a different approach to anger comes a different Hulk.
At first, when Bruce learns he is “free” of the Hulk he’s (naturally) scared. He’s scared for Amadeus. He’s scared of where the monster is. And, of course, he’s scared the cure isn’t real.
Bruce – “Amadeus! Wait! What are you…you don’t know…”
Amadeus – “I love ya Banner. You know that. But you’ve got…issues. A whole ‘nother level of anger. I’m not poking the bear. But you know what I’m talking about. Me, I’m different. So my Hulk’s different. You don’t have to worry about me Banner. I’m gonna go save the world. And it’s gonna be awesome. You? You’re finally free.”
As Bruce slowly comes to the realization that he is honestly cured, he finds the peace that’s alluded him his entire life. Settling into his new life, he becomes a mentor to Amadeus who is beginning to fear his own destructive potential as the Hulk. Starting in issue #5, we learn Amadeus is blacking out and waking up after being the Hulk. This would be a major problem for anyone but it’s an especially big one when you are, you know, the Hulk. Amadeus doesn’t want to burden Bruce with this but, in issue #8, they finally do have a conversation about his fears.
Bruce – “Let me just ask you one thing, Amadeus, have you ever killed anyone?”
Amadeus – “What? No!”
Bruce – “But I have. I’m not dumb, Amadeus. I’m very, very smart. So I know what you came here to talk about. So here it is: When I was four I saw my father kill my mother. And years later, I killed him. I didn’t mean to. But I did it I’ve got that kind of anger inside. That kind of capacity. But you, you have your own problems. And your Hulk’s gonna have his own problems as a result. And you may not love everything you learn about yourself. But you’re not a…you’re not a monster. You’re not me, Amadeus. You’re not me.”
Amadeus – “Dude…you’re not a monster either.”
Bruce – “That’s what you’ve always told me. When almost no one else believed it. So if you’re not scared of me, how the hell can you be so scared of you?”
As far as Greg Pak’s writing goes (and I’m saying this with boxes of beloved Peter David Hulk comics in my closet) issue #8 of The Totally Awesome Hulk was the most beautiful issue of any Hulk book I’ve ever read. Amadeus and Bruce shared this incredible, intimate moment but we also see Bruce finally, finally getting to enjoy peace after a lifetime of hell. It’s gorgeous. It has a passing of the torch. It shows faith and strength in family and friends. It explores the fear of what we can be and our striving to become our best. And it ends in peace. It’s perfect!
Amadeus Cho illustrates, while not always as easy as we may hope, controlling our anger is possible and when we do we are able to do incredible things (no pun intended). There is so much greatness possible when we transcend our fear and learn to control our anger. Amadeus also serves as a model of compassionate understanding. Where so many people saw something to fear, he looked at Bruce and saw who he really was. Then Amadeus loved him for it. Look at the brilliant metaphor Greg Pak has given us! In approaching Bruce’s Hulk with empathy instead of fear, he was able to heal him. How beautiful, how powerful, how relevant an analogy is that?? When we approach another in compassionate understanding, leaving aside our judgment and fear, we can heal them. In so doing, we can become stronger ourselves as compassionate understanding and acceptance gives us strength. Amadeus cured Bruce – physically and emotionally – giving him what he wanted more than anything else in the world. And, in controlling his own anger and destructive emotions while reaching out in empathy and compassion, Amadeus Cho becomes the strongest one there is.
Lastly, it’s important that Amadeus is another of Marvel’s brilliantly executed Legacy Characters. I’ve written before about how important these characters are. As a young, intelligent Korean American, Amadeus becoming the Hulk opens the door for a wider audience to connect to the character in a way that perhaps they never have before. We cannot overstate how important this is. In the most recent issue, The Totally Awesome Hulk #15, Amadeus joins Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel), Cindy Moon (Silk), Jake Oh (Agent of SHIELD), Shang-Chi (Master of Kung-Fu), and Jimmy Woo (Head of the Agents of Atlas) in a charity event for bone marrow donations. As they all walk to dinner afterwards, Jimmy captures the need for the growing diversity in comic characters perfectly. He tells the assembled group, “Yeah, you’ve got a lot of people looking up to you. All those second and third generation kids…when have they ever seem people who look like them doing what you do? I know you think you’re a pretty big deal. But the crazy thing is, you actually are. So don’t screw it up.”
This is what the angry subsect of comic fandom that spends their days spewing hate about legacy characters don’t understand. The idea of just making new minority characters is certainly important but a new character can’t carry the same cultural weight as one that’s existed for the better part of a century. As a white, American male I’ve been able to easily see myself reflected in the comic characters I’ve read about my entire life. Everyone deserves that experience. To argue against that is to argue irrationally from a privileged point of view lacking empathy. Yes, Marvel is clearly making a conscious effort to diversify their flagship characters. For that they need be praised. And, as Amadeus Cho clearly illustrates, the growing diversity in Marvel’s canon isn’t simply a matter of swapping the face behind the mask/green skin. Rather all these characters being created are rich in scope and story. There is a reason their story needs to be told and they add a great deal of excitement, depth, and fun to the Marvel Universe with their presence.
I’m so thankful that the first major non-Peter David Hulk comic I’ve read has been Greg Pak’s The Totally Awesome Hulk. I hesitate to say this is the best Hulk comic I’ve ever read. The old Peter David stories were such a big part of my youth. But, while they were exciting, they always made me so sad. I’m an empathetic reader and reading about the tortured life of poor Bruce Banner legitimately hurt. I still have vivid, painful memories of an episode of the old 90’s Hulk cartoon show where, to protect him, Rick and Betty had to tell the Hulk they hated him and wanted him to leave. My heart broke. It STILL bothers me!
That isolation and pain were, for better or worse, always a part of the Hulk. Yet that’s no longer the case. With Amadeus Cho as the Hulk, we have all the prerequisite fun (and smashing!) of Hulk superhero stories but without the pervasive (and, at times, oppressive) feeling of sadness and exclusion hanging in the air. Essentially, it’s the best of what I remember with none of the emotional pain. In a time when the news grows increasingly darker every day, this gift becomes more and more welcome each month. The story of a Hulk who works to control and direct his anger, while being a model of empathetic/compassionate understanding, becomes more and more relevant by the day as well. In reading The Totally Awesome Hulk, I certainly have a lot of fun. I also see a story that gently nudges me toward becoming the strongest me I can be too.