This collection is an interesting beast, collecting several issues that introduce boy genius Amadeus Cho and lead into the events of the massive World War Hulk event. The reason for this is the unconventional way in which this story arc began, as Hercules literally took over as the lead character of the series for a while, necessitating a title change from The Incredible Hulk to The Incredible Hercules (but retaining the same numbering for the issues).
This first volume covers much of that transitional period and the ensuing story arc, with stories written by Greg Pak, Jeff Parker, Fred Van Lente, and Peter David; and artwork from Khoi Pham, Rafa Sandoval, Gary Frank, and many more.
With that preamble out of the way, let’s talk about the book itself, which is a hell of a lot of fun. The first half of the collection covers Amadeus’ efforts to reach the Hulk and Hercules’ conflicted relationship with the Hulk and the wider superhero community. Basically, it shows us the trajectory of these two characters and how a few years’ worth of stories showed us that they were a good team.
Some of the World War Hulk stuff feels a little repetitive, with battle after battle and scene after scene of Amadeus insisting that the Hulk is really on the side of the angels, but it’s necessary to show us how the two leads of the series got together. It’s also nicely contextualized by narration and the occasional snarky info dump from Amadeus, so it never completely feels like readers will need to have the WWH Wikipedia entry open to be able to follow the story.
Once the series clears all of that setup (which is necessary, to be fair), the book really comes into it’s own. The real meat of this collection focuses on Hercules and Amadeus’ journeys together. In The Incredible Hercules, Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente brilliantly parallel this story with looks back at Hercules’ long life, including his highest achievements and his lowest failures. The modern day storyline becomes a new labor for Hercules, as the demigod works to ensure that Amadeus becomes the hero he’s meant to be.
The character work in this book is astonishing, with Hercules in particular being written as a more layered and interesting character than ever. The humor all works, but it does so because there’s a genuine humility and very human sweetness underneath all of the punching and explosions. Not since Bob Layton’s Prince of Power miniseries has Hercules felt so relatable and fallible. Unlike that series, which took place far in the future, this book has the added bonus of showing us how Hercules is viewed by the rest of the Marvel Universe, as well as how apart from them he feels from time to time.
“This new world… everything is upside down,” he tells Black Widow. In a world where villains can join the Avengers and the Hulk can be sent to die on another world, where S.H.I.E.L.D. can put a warrant out for a young boy’s life and the citizens of New York City are stuck in refugee camps, the man who has always been a self-styled hero finds himself without a direction. It’s a surprisingly heady direction in which to take such a boisterous character, but the dialogue and pacing sells it every step of the way.
Being that this book takes issues from a few different series, the visual style switches up a bit. However, the artwork throughout the collection is exceptional. All of the heroes feel appropriately mythical for a story of this type.
Rest assured the whole collection looks beautiful, but there are a few standout moments where I must commend the artists involved. I especially love a sequence from Hulk vs. Hercules: When Titans Collide, illustrated by Eric Nguyen, that shows the story of Gaea, as well as her connection to the Hulk. These are done with a color palette and line-work that reminds one of an old tapestry depicting a bygone battle. It’s absolutely gorgeous stuff.
Another stand-out moment comes in The Incredible Hercules #115, illustrated by Khoi Pham, inked by Paul Neary and Danny Miki, beautifully colored by Dennis Calero, which depicts a total brawl between Ares and Hercules. Through this fight, the rage and years of tension are plain in their faces. It’s a fight loaded with purpose that just so happens to feature these two literally grabbing rockets out of the air and smacking each other with them. It’s wild and over the top, but there’s still a strong emotional component to the whole thing.
That kind of sums up this whole storyline, which embraces the absurd and the completely relatable all at once. It’s a heroic epic (starring a mythical being!) that still feels entirely human.