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“Banner is Everyman”

A visit to Michigan State University’s (Library) Reading Room Index to the Comic Art Collection ( details the amazing depth of writing in comic hooks alone by Bruce Jones dating back to the 1970s. To many more folks he’s known for his horror stories. But most importantly (and most recently), he’s been leaving a major mark on the Marvel book, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, which is no easy task. Recently I was able to e-interview him thanks to the efforts of Axel Alonso and of course thanks to Bruce himself. My thanks to Bruce, obviously, for his time and thoughts. Enjoy.

ORCA: Right out of the gates I want to ask one fanboy-type question. How long will folks have to wait until we find out who the computer correspondent Mr. Blue is? Or do you plan to reveal this fact?

Jones: Yes, we’ll definitely reveal the origin of the mysterious Mr. Blue. Giving a precise date would obviously be a disservice to readers and a clear spoiler, but let’s just say sooner than a lot of people may think.

ORCA: How surprised/pleased are you that HULK has jumped from #55 to #22 on the Top 100?

Jones: Very pleased, but not wholly surprised given the talents of John Jr. and Axel Alonso. Everybody really got behind the book from the get-go and gave it their all. I think there was that friendly competition thing going, that hey, let’s do the next one even better, keep pushing the envelope, tear down the walls. It’s a book that’s been given a lot of latitude by Marvel but at the same time has been fussed over feverishly by the creative team. We’ve tried very hard to make it feel emancipated and methodical at once; no mean feat. One of my favorite arcs is the one Lee Weeks drew. Stuart Imommen’s work is just phenomenal.

ORCA: It almost seems like rather than trying to avoid becoming the Hulk, Bruce uses the Hulk to his advantage. He’s come to this level through meditation and other means. (Your first issue had him reading such books Exercises in Mind Control Yoga and Taming the Inner Will, as well as employing a metronome, researching articles on such things as behavior drugs). How much research did you have to do to formulate your take on Bruce/Hulk?

Jones: I tend to be a bit anal anyway, so I probably over-researched the biofeedback aspects of the book, then had to consciously cut back in deference to it reading like a term paper. The hardest research was in our own collective consciousness; we wanted to break out with the new team but not disrespect long time readers. How do you do that? I think the answer is you contemplate it, give yourself a space of time to see all sides, but ultimately just take the plunge. I mean, the only thing worse than the book alienating people across the board would be one so homogenized it became bland. Even the most carefully prepared meal should have a dash of unabashed spice. In the end, you have to take a long walk in the woods and just trust your instincts, knowing you’re going to gain a few and lose a few and leave the percentages in between to the bean counters. Numbers aren’t everything. An awful lot of people watched The Gong Show. I wouldn’t say Banner has come to the point of being able to use the Hulk to his advantage though…not yet, unless circuitously.

ORCA: Prior to starting this book, you said this take would be more “reality-based” Bruce Banner is a hunted man, seemingly always has been, but in the past it’s been legal authorities pursuing him for the most part. Now (in a very 2000 fashion [an yet also hearkening back to the 1970s TV series and Jack McKee’s character]) the feeding frenzy of the media seems to be another Hulk hunter. Is this part of your reality element? In partially basing it on reality, do you hope on some level to make HULK a form of social commentary on some subjects?

Jones: Oh, I think everything you write is, in its way, social commentary if only by virtue of it’s to the now. Whether that becomes part of the normal flow of the narrative or a platform for greater ideas is up to the writer. The best kind of social commentary for me is that which doesn’t show. The minute we stray from universal truths we invite antiquity. Every generation is given a short hand built on proceeding leaps of logic; today’s readers can assimilate tremendous amounts of information from disparate, overlapping media so its easy to date yourself as a writer even within a margin of weeks. The world is ever shrinking and the price is the New Paranoia. That’s the underlying theme of our story even if every arc doesn’t hinge on it. To me, Banner is Everyman; his schizophrenic state is as metaphorical as physiological.

ORCA: Prior to this, your comics work had been with Vertigo (where you worked with current Hulk editor Axel Alonso).[and a Marvel TANGLED WEB arc] Now that you’ve had a taste of the Marvel universe, any other characters or books you’d like to try?

Jones: Oh, sure. But comic work is an occupation, not unlike any other; finding a character is only one part of a complex process involving the creative team and corporate policy. Like film, this is first and foremost a collaborative medium. The success of a particular title can pivot on so many variables, some of which are beyond one’s control. It’s those x factors that make working in the field at once exhilarating and terrifying. It’s a minefield of happy accidents (most of them happy) and the trick is to learn to recognize them when they appear then bend them to your advantage, or rather to the book’s advantage. The best professionals, I think, strive to make the other guy look good, like a basketball player. From the moment you start the drive down court you have to keep the goal uppermost in your mind– all the fancy footwork in the world means nothing if the damn thing misses the hoop. And, of course, the best moments come in those mid court swishes you used every muscle to make look effortless. Pounding away at the thing for fifteen drafts so it reads like you tossed it off with your left hand, that’s the trick. Being human, we often fall short.
As long as I’m waxing allegorical, let me also liken comics to the recording business. You work hard and finally get a hit. Then you have about five minutes rest before you’re expected to make a bigger hit. Meeting deadlines and staying fresh, that too, can become a kind of trap. Thank God for the sex and drugs. I’m speaking of marriage and aspirin, of course.

ORCA: Correct me if I’m wrong, but so far in your run on the book (at the time this question was posed he had not, this has since changed as the storylines progressed), the HULK has not been shown (except in flashback or on video). His actions or presence have merely been implied through other means or actions. Who’s idea was this and who’s job is harder in making this happen? Your job, as you have to come up with scenarios where the HULK appears without appearing, or JR Jr.’s job, drawing scenes of effect of chaos and destruction with out showing the cause?

Jones: I never consciously sit down and try to create story lines where the Hulk doesn’t appear. This may sound disingenuous, but I really think this whole Hulk appearance (or lack of it) phenom has been blown out of proportion. To me, Banner and Hulk are joined at the hip; Hulk is there even when he isn’t, so to speak. Our goal is to explore (and hopefully explode) some of the Hulk mythos in detail, but we believe you have to get there through Banner. He’s the cause, Hulk is the effect. You have to come at Hulk politely, on tip-toe, but always through Banner…and the passage, albeit a thorny one, is as convoluted as Banner’s cerebrum. Ours is a sojourn of the anterior, a study in both voluntary movement and the coordination of mental actions. I can promise you big surprises at journeys end, perhaps a host of them, though I can’t get you there faster than one cautious step at a time. But here’s a hint: what you get with my take is the voice of a writer closer to his 40’s than his 20’s and everything that implies. Whatever wisdom I’ve managed to glean through my own life experience I’m channeling into the books even if not always consciously. As we age, we tend to become more introspective, more responsible for our actions, or hopefully so. Some of that is going to leach into what ever fiction I produce, which may partially explain our deliberate pacing.

ORCA: In many ways you’ve made the character of Doc Samson as interesting as Banner/Hulk, was that your intent when you started on the series, or has it just happened as your approach toward the character evolved?

Jones: Both. We strive to make all the characters as complexly interesting as possible and at the same time a natural consequence of the narrative. I like the Sampson/Banner history because it’s so rife with shades of gray. There’s a competitiveness, coupled with a grudging respect that allows for numerous layers of characterization, making good foils of the protagonists. But I try to do that with all the major players. Half the enjoyment in writing is playing one character off another, exposing the chinks in their armor, serving up little surprising slices of their personality their outward appearance may have masked. Like the rest of us.

ORCA: Can you point to a scene so far (or an issue) and say “That’s one of my favorite moments?”

Jones: I’m usually wincing too hard at the ones that didn’t work to find time for self-aggrandizing! I always blame myself when good moment fall short because I think it’s my responsibility to telegraph those sometimes ambiguous details to the artist.
What makes your heart soar is when you think you’ve done a pretty fair job with the script then one of these brilliant guys takes a particular scene and makes it better even than you visualized it, comes up with a new slant, a different way to orchestrate something for maximum impact. Comics are made up of moments. Like movies, when we think of great comics, it’s great scenes or even individual panels we remember. They burn into the retina and walk with us forever. That’s when it approaches art. I hope what’s distinctive about our books is that you tend to recall the quiet moments as opposed to only the kinetic ones. Like the look in Sally Riker’s eyes in the fourth panel of the opening page of issue 40. Lee just caught that so right. He did it in the same issue with a silent panel of Banner on the phone—his expression when he realizes whom he’s talking to. Magical moments like that make it all worthwhile. And make the comic format uniquely its own.

ORCA: What do you consider to be your greatest strength as a writer, and more specifically as a comic book writer?

Jones: Tenacity. Bull-headedness. I just keep carving endlessly away at everything that doesn’t look like an elephant, as the old sculptor joke goes. Then start over again when Axel tells me it looks more like a giraffe.

ORCA: In the most recent issues, you’ve been leading readers toward a confrontation (or some form of interaction) between two professional assassins and Banner/Hulk. Again these villains are firmly rooted in reality. Will you ever have standard fare costume wearing villains, or would such an appearance compromise your reality approach to the book?

Jones: Well, reality in a fantasy—which is what The Incredible Hulk is—is always a relative term. I suppose you could fudge a bit and call it science fiction, but we’ve often introduced elements that challenge what most of us define as “realistic.” I think with us it has less to do with how a character is dressed and more a kind of mindset. In some third world countries our very way of life is a fantasy, which is the core of much of the current antagonism. I have less interest in the fact than an individual might wear Spandex then why he would chose to do so. It’s when action-oriented superhero comics operate only for their own sake that it doesn’t work for me, and you can always tell. After the decline (or censorship) of the horror trend in the 50’s, Stan Lee knew he wasn’t going to win over old readers again or gain new ones with the same old punch fest. He began to add subtext, bringing elements of the newspaper strips into the comic format. Every generation since has really just been embroidering on that. What’s satisfying about working on the Hulk is that we’ve repeatedly attempted to push the envelope in terms of traditional action and pacing, and the audience has responded enthusiastically. It’s been very gratifying to find that given exposure to alternative, even unorthodox story-telling, readers will embrace it.