Greg Pak: The ‘Incredible Hulk’ Exit Interview
During his five-year tenure as the primary writer of the Incredible Hulk, Greg Pak took the character through a series of epic battles, starting on the war-torn planet Sakaar and ending with an all-out brawl for the fate of his friends and family, with more than its fair share of massive battles between them. This week, the release of Marvel’s Incredible Hulks #635 puts an end to the series, and to Pak’s run on the title.
As this chapter of the Hulk’s life closes, ComicsAlliance caught up with Pak for a look back at the past five years in The Greg Pak Incredible Hulk Exit Interview.ComicsAlliance: Let’s start at the beginning. You were a big Hulk fan well before you started working in comics, right?
Greg Pak: I loved the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno television show beyond all reason. I’ve said it once; I’ll say it again: It was my introduction to the literary concept of tragedy. A good man does the right thing, in show after show, and still suffers. Made a big impression on me.
CA: Is that what you think is the essence of the Hulk? You can trace his suffering all the way back to saving Rick Jones in Hulk #1.
GP: Well, I think it comes down to anger. (Surprise!) The Hulk is perpetually angry, and wrath is a sin, of course. But more often than not, or at least very frequently, the Hulk is righteously angry. He’s not just mindlessly raging about being inconvenienced or annoyed or attacked, he’s angry because he witnesses someone bullying someone else. He’s angry because of a moral wrong in the world, and he smashes to defend the underdog. So he’s a hero — he’s trying to help people. But he always pays the price, because anger, no matter how justified, always takes its toll on our soul.
CA: There’s also that big wish-fulfillment aspect to it, that everyone wishes they could just flip out and smash whatever’s in their way. I always love that scene in the TV show’s opening credits where he gets a flat tire and flips over his car, which doesn’t help the situation at all but probably makes him feel better for a few minutes.
GP: Absolutely. Vicarious enjoyment in seeing stuff smashed is a huge part of the Hulk’s appeal, but I don’t think the character would have endured and thrived for decades if that element of tragedy wasn’t part of the mix. Wish fulfillment is tons of fun, but the emotional truth of the story is what pushes the Hulk into that rarified realm of myth.
CA: The tragedy and the consequences of Bruce Banner losing his temper are a huge part of the character, but you still want the big action stuff, the smashing, to be fun and enjoyable for the readers. People need to be able to look forward to it and still fear the consequences. Was it difficult to find a balance there?
GP: Yes. A big part comes from finding good villains for the Hulk to smash. I imagine that huge part of the success of World War Hulk comes from how ready so many readers were to see Iron Man and Mister Fantastic get their comeuppance. Tyrannus has been a blast to play with over the last few months.
He’s so cocky and insufferable, and yet he’s canny enough to get out of the Hulk’s direct grasp time and time again. And of course having people you really want the Hulk to save helps. I think that was part of the appeal of Planet Hulk. We had the time to really build up that supporting cast, which made everything that happened more emotionally powerful. Oh, and there’s always the sheer fun of coming up with crazy things for the Hulk to do and surprising things for him to smash. I got a particular kick out of the Marvel-themed casino at the beginning of the “Heart of the Monster” storyline.
CA: With the Scarlet Witch waitresses?
GP: Heh. Yes. Paul Pelletier really knocked that out of the park. I guess another way to think about it is that everyone loves an underdog. And while he might be the strongest one there is, the Hulk’s absolutely always been an underdog. Rejected, abandoned, exiled, alone. So he’s got that going for him.
CA: You talked about the TV show being your introduction to the character, which I actually find pretty surprising. Usually, people who claim the show as an influence tend to like the stories about Bruce Banner wandering the Southwest, but your run never even came close to that.
GP: Yeah, I’m a big fan of Bruce-on-the-road thumbing a ride stories. And I’ve referenced that kind of imagery more than once. But the stories I was hungry to tell were a bit crazier, I guess. I’m a huge Bill Mantlo fan. And I loved his epic sci-fi comics like Micronauts and the Hulk “Crossroads” stories. That kind of fantastical worldbuilding has always appealed to me. And Mantlo (and other Hulk writers before him) showed it could be brilliantly applied to Hulk stories. So when Joe and Axel and Mark came to me with the idea that eventually became Planet Hulk , I was immediately hooked.
CA: Your last issue has a really nice text piece about Mantlo. He’s one of my favorite writers, and since his long run on the Hulk included stories where he was exiled to a Barbarian world where he found love and lost it, then came back and had a huge, epic fight against all of the Avengers, I guess it’s pretty safe to say he was a powerful influence.
GP: You bet. Mantlo also explored the relationship between Banner and his parents, which had a big influence on the Skaar/Hulk stories I told in my run. I also loved the way Mantlo depicted Dr. Strange during the “Crossroads” stories. A true friend doing his best to find a way for his insane friend to find peace. That sympathetic take has definitely influenced how I’ve written Banner and Strange.
CA: Were those stories you’d read as a kid?
GP: No, I read them when I was all grown up, actually. Micronauts I read as kid. Moon Knight and Micronauts were my two Marvel Comics obsessions.
CA: Did you read them when you knew you’d gotten the job, or was it just going through the back issues as a fan to find good Hulk stories?
GP: I’d read the Jarella stories as kid — I was a huge Harlan Ellison fan and so I sought ’em out. So when I got the “Planet Hulk” gig, I did some research to see if there were other stories in which the Hulk was sent off planet. And I found all those great Mantlo stories.
CA: Which brings us right to Planet Hulk. I’ve always wondered about this one: Did you just walk into the offices and say “Hey, give me Hulk for a year so I can turn it into a sci-fi barbarian book?”
GP: Heh. No. I actually had a pitch for a story called “Gammaworld” in which a terrible accident results in a giant dome of gamma energy rising over the desert. Cities are trapped underneath it, gamma monsters emerge, and a whole Wild West kind of culture emerges. And the Hulk rides through Gammaworld as a kind of gunslinger, keeping the peace in this lawless region. So I’d been thinking about certain themes that fit right into the story that became Planet Hulk.
The way it came together was that Joe Quesada and the other editors had been talking about the Hulk and what should come next for the character. They wanted a chance for the Hulk to cut loose, to smash like crazy, and I believe it was Joe who said let’s shoot him off planet, send him to a planet where he’ll be a slave and a gladiator. That dovetailed beautifully with a story Daniel Way was currently writing about the Hulk heading into orbit to deal with a deadly satellite. So I guess I’d dropped enough hints to Hulk editor Mark Paniccia about how much I loved the character. And one day Joe pulled me into his office and said Hulk, alien planet, gladiator, battleaxes, and I said heck yes.
CA: Did you know from the start that it was going to be this big fourteen-issue epic?
GP: I think at the very beginning it was going to be eight issues. Which was still the longest story I’d done at that point for Marvel — I’d been writing minis up ’til then. But as we worked on the story and as Marvel figured out how the next year or so was looking, they said, take fourteen! Which was fantastic.
CA: That’s a pretty big vote of confidence.
GP: Yeah. I’ve always been enormously grateful to Joe and everyone else for letting us cut loose like that.
CA: What did you want to accomplish with it? Obviously there was the idea of the Hulk as the underdog — when he arrives on Sakaar, he’s far less powerful than we’ve ever seen him — and by the end of it, there was the chance for him to cut loose and smash an entire planet, which was a huge step up from what we’d seen.
GP: I couldn’t say so publicly when the story first launched, because it’s a spoiler, but the big theme is monster-to-hero. That’s what the story was all about to me — it was about the Hulk, reviled on Earth, finally ending up in a place where his anger and strength are virtues, a place that needs someone like him, and a cadre of friends who love him for exactly that which the puny humans fear. That’s a world where the Hulk could shine, where he could begin to form real bonds with others, where he could become a leader and fall in love and truly belong to a place. And that’s where he could be a hero.
Aaaaand then we took it all away from him.
CA: So you wanted to give him the one time when his anger wouldn’t have any consequences?
GP: That’s the initial impression, isn’t it? But as it turns out, his anger still has consequences. That’s the key to the Miek story. The Hulk comes into “Planet Hulk” with all his Hulkish attitude. And puny Miek totally loves that. And that’s a blast, a liberation for Miek. But as the story proceeds, we realize Miek has learned the lessons the wrong way — he goes too far.
Mark Paniccia and I talked about this all the time, really working hard to figure it out. Hulk is basically a bad father to Miek. He teaches him the wrong lessons. “Never stop making them pay,” is the big line. The Hulk says that to Miek at a key moment in issue #96, as I recall.
And Miek totally takes it to heart. He internalizes that wrath, and the Hulk eventually pays the price. Even though the Hulk himself may have moved beyond that by the end of “Planet Hulk.” He pays the price for his earlier sins.
CA: I assume you didn’t know from the start that you’d be on the book for the next five years, but did you approach Planet Hulk as though it was your one chance to do everything you wanted with the character? Did you know that you were going to be able to do the follow-up story as well?
GP: I didn’t know how long I’d be on the book. But I planned out the story with the assumption I’d be able to write the Hulk’s return to Earth, which panned out nicely. And I pitched Joe a crazy story about the Hulk’s son, left behind on Sakaar. And that became Skaar: Son of Hulk, which I wrote for a year after World War Hulk. And some time during all that, I began talking with Mark and Jeph Loeb about the next steps, which involved Banner’s depowering and Skaar’s arrival on Earth. And that allowed me to tackle the next huge emotional story I’d been hungry to get into, which was Banner’s and the Hulk’s relationship with Skaar, which came to a head in issue #611.
CA: That’s something that I’ve noticed has been a recurring theme in your run, the idea of creating a family for the Hulk. First it was the Warboundin Planet Hulk and World War Hulk, then Skaar, then the cast of Incredibel Hulks, with Betty Ross, Jen Walters, and Rick Jones in their hulked-out identities, plus Skaar, Red Hulk, Amadeus Cho, Kate Waynesboro… this whole giant cast.
GP: Yep. At a certain point, I realized that was really the big theme of the book. It’s the irony of this guy who’s always said he wanted to be left alone surrounding himself with all of these loved ones. And of course that’s what the “Heart of the Monster” is all about. The Hulk trying to find a way to save his family. From the world, from the villains, from himself.
CA: What do they mean to the Hulk? What do they represent?
GP: Whoa. I don’t know if I have quick ‘n’ easy answers to all of that… but let’s see…
She-Hulk and A-Bomb in some ways are examples of people who can make it work, who can handle that kind of tremendous power with grace and humor. But they’re not as strong as the Hulk, so when he faces tremendous foes, they become subject to terrible danger. They’re also people who wouldn’t be Hulks if the Hulk weren’t the Hulk. So he has this feeling of responsibility towards them. Maybe he shouldn’t, because they’re pretty happy in general. But he can’t escape that feeling of guilt and responsibility for them.
Skaar is interesting. After he and the Hulk reconciled and bonded, he chose to stay behind in the Savage Land. As I see it, Skaar is savage. But he thinks of the Hulk as an animal. Skaar grew up in a barbarian society. But he’s not lawless or out of control — he has this kind of grim barbarian ethos and morality that works for him. But Skaar thinks the Hulk enters these modes wherein the Hulk loses his mind. When the Hulk truly becomes a monster. That’s not really a place Skaar has gone in the same way.
And then there’s Betty. As I see it, Betty’s incredibly interesting because she’s put up with Banner’s anger and her father’s anger for years and years. She has a huge amount of repressed rage. So when she Hulks out, she’s capable of all kinds of crazy. She’s more like Bruce than any of the other Hulks in that regard, I imagine. Which is why she plays such a pivotal role in “Heart of the Monster.
CA: If Planet Hulk was about the monster becoming the hero, take us through the rest of your run. Was it all geared towards building a Hulk Family?
GP: Issues #601 to #611 are all about saving Betty and reconciling with Skaar.
#612 to #617 are about dealing with the horror of Hiro-Kala, the second son he never knew he had.
#618 to #620 are about the Hulk exorcising demons, literally, during the events of “Chaos War.” And seeing the terrible sacrifices his family members make when they’re around him.
#621 to #622 is about the Hulk finally demanding justice. Going to Zeus himself to demand peace for his family, who have suffered so much. And getting the not-unexpected answer. Hint: You don’t generally get much by threatening the gods.
#623 to #625 is the Hulk finding a place where he thinks Skaar can be happy — even though it means their separation.
#626 to #629 is Banner’s and Betty’s chance to cut lose as the Hulk and Red She-Hulk, and maybe find each other all over again. This is one of my favorite stories in my whole run.
And #630 to #635, “Heart of the Monster,” is about the Hulk finally making an end, finally going as far as he possibly can in the effort to protect his family.
CA: Were there any besides “The Spy Who Smashed Me” that suck out as favorites?
GP: “Planet Hulk,” “Son of Banner” (#601-605), the Skaar/Hulk confrontation in #611, and “The Spy Who Smashed Me” (#626-629). “The Spy Who Smashed Me” was a story I’d wanted to write for ages. I loved the idea of Betty as Red She-Hulk and couldn’t wait to explore her relationship with Banner/Hulk. A lot of Hulk stories have been deeply romantic, and I liked the idea of writing something fun and flirty and sexy with Banner and Betty and Hulk and Red She-Hulk. I also loved the way Tyrannus came together as a character in this storyline. I’ve always loved him. And this story gave me a nice chance to make him a little wiser, a little smarmier, and a little more dangerous. And boy did I love those pencils by Tom Grummett and the inks by Cory Hamscher. Such great storytelling and such clean, fluid lines.
CA: There had to have been a lot of appeal in the idea of having those almost melodramatic Banner/Betty scenes of tortured confessions of love and devotion contrasted with them suddenly turning into Hulks and going “Oh, it’s you. Let’s go hit something.”
GP: Yes, exactly. Hulking out always is more fun and interesting when there’s real emotional story to back it up. And this love triangle fed that beautifully. Edgar Delgado provided beautiful colors on that storyline, too. I’d also like to tip my hat to letterer Simon Bowland, who did amazing work under insane schedules as we doubleshipped the book for the last year. Simon’s a huge Hulk fan and really cared about the characters. His lettering and balloon placement were just fantastic and he put up with more than one last-minute tweak of dialogue because he cared about the story and wanted to make it just right.
CA: So that all led to “Heart of the Monster,” this big, crazy action storyline involving demons, other dimensions, AIM, a gamma-powered Fin Fang Foom, a giant-sized Bi-Beast and a machine that grants wishes. Am I right in thinking that the goal here was just to pull out all the stops for your finale?
GP: Yeah. It’s a wishing well story. And I guess I granted a few of my own wishes along the way.
CA: Like what?
GP: FIN FANG FOOM!
CA: Ha! Fin Fang Foom shooting nuclear missiles out of his mouth, no less!
GP: And Umar. Just love that character. I thought what Giffen, Dematteis and Maguire did with her in the Defenders: Indefensible mini was hilarious. And it was clearly time for the Worldbreaker to actually break a world.
CA: Was it your choice to end the run?
GP: At a certain point, I saw that this big cycle of stories about anger and family was coming to a head. And it just made sense to let it genuinely end. As I’ve said before, a true ending is a pretty rare thing in serial storytelling. It felt like the right thing for the story and the characters to embrace it.
CA: Do you feel like you got to accomplish everything you wanted to do? Like I said, that last story feels like you’re taking everything that was left and buildilng one gigantic cap to the last five years.
GP: I have a few Hulk-related stories I’d love to do some day. I have a Korg/Hiroim story that I’d love to find a place to tell. And I have a Hulk story for kids. And that initial Gammaworld-Hulk-Western pitch still appeals to me. But a huge part of good storytelling is about editing — about knowing what to cut and when to stop, right?
CA: I have to say, as much as I like your run, I’m now completely disappointed that we never got to see Gunslinger Hulk.
GP: Heh. Hey, never say never!
CA: Was there anything else you didn’t get to do? Anything that got cut out of the run we got?
GP: I had an idea of the Hulk as a New York gangster, with Banner as his enforcer. The gag would be that you’re REALLY in trouble when Banner comes out. But for that slot, I went for “The Spy Who Smashed Me” instead, which set up the emotional story I wanted to tell much better. Zero regrets there.
I also always wanted to do a big fantasy epic, with the Hulk and Strange and other characters in a Lord of the Ringsy milieu. Heh. It occurs to me that I shouldn’t be telling you all this, since I might revisit these ideas some day in another form. You heard it here, folks! Remember this interview! Where Greg Pak first revealed the pitches for his big 2017 comic book projects!
CA: Ha! We have to wait that long for the Gangster/Gunslinger/D&D Hulk? That’s a shame, Greg.
GP: Heh. Pleasure deferred is pleasure increased.
CA: One of the things about your run — along with the other Hulk books under Jeph Loeb and Jeff Parker — is that it added a lot of elements to the stories. Skaar, the Warbound, the Old Power, the idea of Bruce Banner as a guy with all this crazy tech that he can use when he’s not a big green monster. Is that stuff that you want to be your trademark? Do you hope they get picked up and used by others?
GP: Oh, sure. It’s hugely flattering when other folks use things you created. I’d love for future writers to revisit this stuff. I should also note that I didn’t necessarily come up with all of this stuff on my own. The idea of Banner as a master inventor/engineer is as old as the character. In those very early stories he was creating all kinds of insane tech.
CA: What are you working on next? You’re still on Herc with Fred Van Lente, in case anyone is worried that they won’t be able to see you write about a strong dude who punches monsters.
GP: I’m also co-writing Alpha Flight with Fred, which just got upgraded from a miniseries to an ongoing! I’m writing the Red Skull: Incarnate mini, with fantastic covers by David Aja and amazing art by Mirko Colak. And I have two new books in November. “Astonishing X-Men” #44, with art by the brilliant Mike McKone — featuring Storm kissing Cyclops! Whaaaaa??? And Dead Man’s Run, a story about a prison break from Hell — literally. It’s from Aspen and Gale Anne Hurd’s Valhalla with art by the great Tony Parker. Preorder them today, friends!
CA: All right, last question, and it’s a big one.
GP: I’m all aflutter…
CA: You were on Hulk for five years. When you look back over that run, all the stories you did and stuff that you added, what do you feel like you accomplished? Are you happy with it? Do you wish you could’ve done anything differently?
GP: Wow. That is a big one! I had a blast, worked with a bunch of great editors and phenomenal artists, and told a lot of big, crazy, emotional stories. What that all adds up to is for the readers and Hulkologists to decide. But I’ve been extremely grateful and sometimes really moved by fan reactions at cons — particularly regarding Planet Hulk and issue #611. You guys have made it a blast every step of the way, and I thank you.
I also learned a huge amount during the course of this run. I was pretty new to comics when I started Planet Hulk. I’d been writing for just over a year, I think, and it was my first ongoing series. My editor Mark Paniccia was an incredible guide and creative partner, who really helped me every step of the way in getting to the heart of the stories I wanted to tell. And Joe and Tom Brevoort and all the other editors who at one point or another chimed in about different scripts and stories all taught me important things about every aspect of comics writing. Assistant editors like Nate Cosby and Jordan White and Jake Thomas and John Denning gave me constant feedback and perspective — and helped me get what I needed at key points under huge deadline pressure all along the line. They’ve played a huge role in the book’s successes.