by Troy-Jeffrey Allen
2022 marks the 60th anniversary of Marvel’s Hulk. Naturally, the publisher has already begun a year-long celebration of the character. The first quarter of this birthday SMASH! Kicks off with the March release of Hulk Grand Design: MONSTER #1 (JAN220934). Written and drawn by Jim Rugg (Octobriana 1976, Street Angel), the book is part one of a two-part comic series daring to recap the four-color history of Marvel’s main monster. What the book leaves out, however, is that the creator’s personal history with the character started at the breakfast table. “When I was six-years-old, I had a Hulk bowl and cup,” Jim Rugg recalls. “Every morning, I would eat cereal from that bowl and drink juice or milk from that cup. There was [art by] John Romita on one side and on the other side was the Hulk origin story. I practically memorized that art and text.” Rugg admits that the character appealed to his youthful unruly side. “I was a scrawny little kid. At age six, people tell you what to do, what to eat, when to go to bed…no one told Hulk anything! He was the most powerful mortal to ever walk the planet.”
Beyond the childhood power-fantasies and every boy’s God-given predilection toward monsters, Jim Rugg acknowledges that there is a relatability to the green goliath’s boiling madness that has allowed the Hulk to defy decades. “Everyone experiences anger. It’s universal. It’s self-destructive and destructive to others. Hulk is terrifying, tragic, and relatable. [Creators] Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created an all-time great character. In some ways, he’s very simple but his experience also feels true to human psychology and behavior. It’s a rare achievement for a fictional character.”
It’s kind of interesting that Rugg’s Hulk book found its rhythm by focusing on the humanity of the monster. That’s kind of a theme for the character itself…
Birthed from real world anxieties surrounding nuclear war, the pop art origin of the Hulk is loaded with bombast. The type of mythic bluster that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were so great at. In 1962’s debut issue of The Incredible Hulk, Lee and Kirby introduced readers to Robert Bruce Banner, a scientist who becomes irradiated by his very own gamma bomb! After the exposure, whenever Banner becomes angry, he undergoes a startling metamorphosis that turns him into the Hulk! A green (sometimes gray) behemoth desperate to be left alone in a world that constantly sees him as a threat. When Banner isn’t the Hulk, he’s desperate to maintain his humanity in every sense of the word. To Hulk, humans are the problem. To Banner, humanity is the solution. Each creative team over the years has tapped into variations of this idea — narratively and visually. And this is where Hulk Grand Design comes in.
Jim Rugg’s mini-series follows in the tradition of Ed Piskor’s X-Men Grand Design and Tom Scioli’s Fantastic Four Grand Design. Each title looks at the overall work of consecutive creative teams and weaves it into one big narrative/thematic thread pulled from hundreds of issues. It’s an undertaking. One that Rugg thoroughly enjoyed researching. “[The storyline with] Joe Fixit is my favorite…a mean, cunning Vegas enforcer who comes out at night? That’s the Hulk that drew me into comics! Gray Hulk in a suit made me pick up an issue to figure out what was going on. He still looked monstrous but obviously different from the green, mindless brute I knew.” Rugg is quick to also mention a Jim Starlin standalone as another favorite. “Jim Starlin does an issue where Hulk fights a monster in a cave. The art is cool and the story is more of a horror story which works great with Hulk.” Also on that list of favorites is Brian Azzarello and Richard Corben’s Banner limited series, Hulk #272 by Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema (“Talk about a great monster comic!”), an Iron Man three-parter, Incredible Hulk #340 (“McFarlane’s Hulk/Wolverine fight is a classic too!”), Sam Keith’s standalone from issue #368 (“Love at first sight!”), and the fan-favorite Secret Wars #4, where Hulk saves Marvel’s other heroes from, getting crushed by a mountain (“I saw that as a kid and it was terrifying.”). As mentioned before, Jim Rugg did his research.
Jim is quick to crown Sal Buscema as the ultimate Hulk artist, but he also considers several other pencilers to be integral to building out the Hulk’s overall character diversity. “Part of what I love about the Hulk is that there are many great artists who do their own version of Hulk…Trimpe, Kirby, Ditko, Marie Severin, Mignola, Purvis, Keown, McFarlane, Byrne…there really are a number of great Hulk artists. That’s been a fun part of Hulk Grand Design for me — seeing all these wonderful interpretations of the character.”
While the Grand Design series of books prides itself on building an overarching narrative from years of past contributors, there is another aspect that defines them: the look. The series has a small press, DIY quality that makes the process feel personal, tactile, and crafted. The Grand Design family of Rugg, Piskor, and Scioli, may be tackling Marvel mythology — the most recognizable brand in the entertainment world — but there is an underground “comix” approach and technique that has become their trademark at Marvel. For example, with the cover of Hulk Grand Design: Monster #1, Rugg utilized a dizzying collection of tools. “Newsprint, inkjet printer, Raphael 8404 size 3 brush, India ink, bristol board, scanner, Photoshop, ProCreate, Apple pencil, markers,” Rugg says while trailing off as if he may have forgotten a few items. He continues. “Hulk is Marvel’s scariest character. He’s a military weapon of mass destruction that goes terribly wrong and runs wild throughout the world. I wanted the cover to say — big, bad, scary monster. The challenge of a cover is always — grab people’s attention and make them pick up the book. There are lots of ways to approach that challenge. For Hulk, I want to be big and loud because it’s HULK! And I want to stand out on the new comics wall.”
Part of Rugg’s strategy for making his comic feel larger was making it part of two connecting covers. Hulk Grand Design: MONSTER #1’s front pairs up perfectly with the follow-up issue, Hulk Grand Design: MADNESS #1! “I’m doing two books, MONSTER and MADNESS. So I want them to look good next to each other. I chose the brightest colors for the logo — 100% Magenta and 100% Yellow. The logos should pop from some distance. Since “Hulk” is only four letters, I made that big.” “I wanted the cover to look like an enlarged, vintage comic book panel. So one challenge was giving it the organic, imperfect quality that characterizes old comics printing. I used a technique that I originally used on Afrodisiac over a decade ago. By printing out color separations, I get paper texture, some ink bleed, imperfections. I think those qualities give it warmth and humanity.”