Hulk Annual #1 (the 2023 one, not to be confused with the several other “Hulk Annual #1’s”) utilizes a pretty unique framing device: found footage. Between this issue and the sneak peeks we’ve gotten of Phillip Kennedy Johnson’s The Incredible Hulk ongoing (one is included at the end of this issue), it feels like Marvel is trying to restore the Hulk to the eldritch horror of Al Ewing’s Immortal Hulk. One of the many things that Ewing did really well was explore the concept of the Hulk as “a monster”, and in this annual, writer David Pepose breaks out a reliable creature feature staple: the “mysterious lost tapes”.
Instead of following Bruce Banner, we follow a four-person team following him in an attempt to make a Hulk documentary. Their search takes them to Viridian, a small southwest town near the gamma bomb test site where the Hulk was born. The whole issue is presented through the view of a camera, though this is more clear in some scenes than others. Sometimes there’s a time skip when something happens to the camera, but in one scene the battery runs out and we can still see what’s happening, while the speech bubbles still have that look of being processed through technology (think Iron Man). However, the green “night vision” filter vanishes after the camera seems to die, and it’s… a bit confusing.
I don’t know if there was some kind of miscommunication behind the scenes, but there are a few narrative bits that don’t make a lot of sense. Some of the issues are admittedly nitpicks, like the exact date being in the corner of the camera sometimes (I feel like Marvel ordinarily discourages this because it distracts from a timeless feel). A much larger issue is how a character dies at one point, but it’s not really clear that this happened until we cut to his funeral. None of that is helped by the story’s nonlinear structure, which somehow makes the comic even more disorienting than certain found footage films.
It’s a shame, because Pepose wrote one of my favorite Fantastic Four stories (Issues #47 and #48, a Susan Storm-centric A.X.E. Judgement Day tie-in). He’s not a bad writer, and he’s really good at establishing the tone of this story, as seen in the chilling way that the issue ends. Pepose also seems to really like the Hulk. This issue brings back Herbert Josiah Weller, Bruce’s mentor who was last seen in 1978. That’s not the kind of deep pull you make if a comic is “just another job”. The thing is, I think that maybe there was an issue in the way this comic was assembled- simple as that.
This extends to the art. Calo Majado is a very talented penciler who has crafted some very solid art for this comic… but his style doesn’t feel like it’s right for this type of story. It’s very clean and fun, like something that’s better suited for a straightforward superhero story. For the most part, the art in Hulk Annual #1 doesn’t feel as scary as the writing, with the exception of a brief part where a bunch of moloids surround the crew’s car after it falls into a cavern.
Speaking of the moloids, I almost forgot to mention that Mole Man is sort of the villain of this issue. I say “sort of” because he barely has a presence and only seems to be there to explain why the Hulk is fighting Giganto, the bigger “giant green monster”. Mole Man is furious that the surface dwellers are dumping radioactive waste underground (where he lives), which seems like a pretty valid reason to be upset. Wanting to kill a camera crew? Not so valid.
The coloring from Edgar Delgado is very good. There are lots of neat little details like glowing green light illuminating dark spaces, distortions caused by damage to the camera, and the aforementioned night vision filter that are all made possible by the way the art is colored. The colors fit the art well, but that means that they also sometimes feel too bright and optimistic for a sinister horror story. Still, you can understand the reason that Delgado didn’t just toss dreary colors on top of Majado’s art: it would clash.
I feel weird criticizing Hulk Annual #1 because everyone in the creative team is very good at what they do, but the comic itself doesn’t quite work. There’s just a tonal distance between the different pieces that make it up, and the result isn’t smooth. It’s effective as a prelude to the upcoming The Incredible Hulk ongoing and it’s very pretty to look at (there’s a killer splash page of the Hulk charging the camera, and by extension, the reader). This isn’t a bad comic, but it isn’t an incredible one either.
Anyways, go read Fantastic Four (2018) #47 and #48.