art feature
July '03

 

Twisted tales and a green giant
by Jason Aaron

It was almost two years ago when maverick editor Axel Alonso took control of Marvel’s Incredible Hulk comic, a book that after 35 years of publication was saddled with low sales and no direction. Alonso, known for his radical retooling, placed a call to Kansas City native Bruce Jones.

“Bruce excels with tormented souls,” says Alonso. “I wanted to skew the Hulk in the direction of psychological horror/weird science, and I knew that he excelled with those genres.

“Bruce is a bit long in the tooth to be — what’s it called — an ‘enfant terrible,’” adds Alonso, referring to Jones suddenly being labeled a “hot new writer” after almost three decades in the industry. “His work shows that he’s lived, and he’s known pain, and he’s not afraid to probe it.”

Jones learned the language of comics as a kid. “I loved reading them, not because I ever dreamed it would be a source of income,” he says. “Until fairly recently, no one ever got rich in the comic industry. You did it because you were compelled to do it. Now it’s cool. Now it’s an American Institution. Back then you hid them from your girlfriend.”

“Back then” was the 1950s and ‘60s when young Jones lived with his family on Paseo and Harrison in Kansas City. Though the family moved around quite a bit, Jones eventually attended Kansas University where he majored in drawing and painting.


Hulk smashes a car.

The original Incredible Hulk comic book series was created in 1962 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.


“Most of the things I learned about composition, color value and technical application began in college,” remembers Jones. “The only thing I didn’t learn there was comics, which universities hadn’t begun teaching yet as a valid art form.”

Hoping to break into comics as an artist in the early ‘70s, Jones headed to New York, where the major comic book publishers still congregate. He ended up getting more work as a writer, working on the Warren line of horror magazines that included anthology books like Eerie and Creepy.

“There used to be so many books published every month you couldn’t help getting work by virtue of the sheer volume of work,” says Jones. “Some editor always needed something in a hurry, and if you showed up at the right time, you likely got the job.”

Jones found his way to industry powerhouse Marvel Comics, best known for superhero books like Amazing Spider-Man and Uncanny X-Men. Jones however worked mostly on spandex-free characters like Conan the Barbarian and Ka-Zar the Savage (a thinly veiled version of Tarzan).

In the early ‘80’s, Pacific Comics, an upstart San Diego-based company, offered Jones the chance to write and edit his own line of comics. The results were books like Alien Worlds and Twisted Tales, which represented a return to the horror anthology work he’d done earlier in his career. But Pacific Comics didn’t last. By the time the ‘90s rolled around, Jones was in Hollywood working on The Hitchhiker series for HBO and various made-for-TV movies.

“But after age 40, it’s tough getting work in Hollywood,” says Jones.

Jones then found himself again living in Kansas City, his comic book work having dwindled almost to nothing. That’s when he got the call from Alonso at Marvel. The pair had previously worked together when Alonso was an editor at Marvel’s chief rival, DC. Alonso was one of the brains behind DC’s Vertigo line, a collection of Mature Readers books that included anthology mini-series like Strange Adventures and Flinch.

“I was a big fan of Bruce’s work on Creepy, Eerie and Twisted Tales,” says Alonso. “I recruited Bruce because he was a natural for the material — pound-for-pound, the best writer of comic short stories.”

However, not everyone was convinced that a middle-aged writer best known for short, horror stories was the right choice to take over the ongoing Hulk series. Since its creation in the ‘60s, the character of brainy weakling Bruce Banner, who transforms into a gigantic green monster whenever he becomes angry, had never made a very convincing superhero. By the ‘90s, the Hulk had become a brooding, complicated mess of multiple personalities. Alonso was looking for a fresh take on “the man behind the monster.”

“Bruce [Jones] understands that there is something cathartic about turning into a 1,000-pound monster,” says Alonso. “I mean, it ain’t ALL bad.”

Alonso’s gamble paid off. When Jones took over as writer with Incredible Hulk #34, the book wasn’t even in the industry’s top 50 sellers. Before long, it had climbed into the top 15. Once the movie version hit, the comic jumped even higher. Jones’ take on the character struck a chord with readers. Gone were the countless pages of “Hulk Smash!” Some issues don’t have the green goliath appearing at all. Instead, we see the aftermath of his rampages or simply feel the threat of his emergence. Bruce Banner is once again a man on the run, this time from a shady, covert organization that’s literally after his blood.

“Maybe American readers responded to the paranoia and sense of unease because of things like Sept. 11th and other world events,” wonders Jones. “I wasn’t really conscious of the amount of paranoia in my writing until someone mentioned it.”

He plans to stay on as writer “Until they throw me off.”

“Comics hold their own vocabulary and sense of pacing and getting hooked on them can be very seductive,” says Jones. “Most people aren’t aware of their potential, which is not at all unsophisticated. Comics have matured way beyond their formative years.

“The average age of a comic book reader is older now, which has helped the medium mature. The level of creativity and intelligence has really shot upward. The industry has been more financially healthy in the past, but rarely more exciting than right now.”

 


              
              
                 

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