The Grand Design books are an interesting comic book artifact, equal parts character history and love letter of and to major Marvel franchises. The first entry, by the recently-passed Ed Piskor, began the Herculean task of condensing 61 years of X-Men history – arguably one of the most convoluted in all comics – in 2017. Tom Sciloi, whose recent Stan Lee and Jack Kirby books do a similar work of condensing a biography into a small graphic space, took on Fantastic Four in 2019. The most recent of the series is 2022’s Hulk: Grand Design from Jim Rugg.

Both Piskor and Scioli’s books hold tight to a sort of classic grid of panels – Piskor’s dynamic and playful (mirroring a sort of Bronze Age aesthetic) and Scioli’s composed of small, tight cells (as if condensing many pages worth of panels to a single layout), Rugg’s Grand Design is more willing to play with space and format as if his subject is too wild and unruly to play by the graphic rules of comics.

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Part of this graphic playfulness includes ballpoint-illustrated notebook pages, pages of newspaper clippings, and insets of comic book and magazine covers. There’s a page covered in what appear to be the sorts of white-bordered stickers any kid would remember; because of all these graphic choices, the book begins to feel less like the in-medium accounting of its predecessors and more like an invitation into Jim Rugg’s childhood Hulk obsession. This is a book about Jimm Rugg’s relationship with the character as much as it is the character’s relationship to his medium.

Marvel Comics

Further, the book is less an attempt to catalog the whole history so much an accounting of moments cherry-picked by Rugg as key or beloved. This is a singular artist’s closely examined relationship to the work of decades and decades of creators. This relationship is a very real, tangible presence within Hulk: Grand Design. Any other artist might have found different pieces of the Hulk history to engage with, different issues and panels and conflicts that resonated with them differently than they resonated with Rugg.

The project must have been an overwhelming undertaking for the research alone – the body of the book covers 474 issues of The Incredible Hulk and Tales to Astonish (and some related material, such as 1979’s The Savage She-Hulk), which altogether ran from 1962 to 1999, and includes a small epilogue that very briefly covers more modern stories like Planet Hulk. That’s a lot of deep reading and re-reading. Given how the project presents itself, that reading most likely didn’t feel like work so much as a return to a beloved, comfortable space.

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Personal nature aside, the book makes a few things about Hulk clear. The cyclical nature of his stories – themes and repetitive narratives that make up the Jade Giant – don’t illustrate a staid sameness of the character, they represent what aspects of creative curiosity he has inspired. There is the ever-present war between Bruce Banner and Hulk, a struggle of literal self-control. Periods where one identity has power over the other, where the monster takes on the intelligence of the man, where the man takes on aspects of the monster. We are not in control of ourselves, these stories seem to say, but we do our best to be.

Another constant are stories of separation, of loss of power, of the peace in letting go of your demons. For a book ostensibly about a rampaging monster, the threads Rugg pulls illustrate a book more often about sensitivity and emotional vulnerability. Loss of loved ones, via death or circumstance, becomes a clear motivator in the character’s saga. Loneliness is as present in the lives of monsters as it is in the lives of human beings.

Hulk: Grand Design is a book that finds the human in a history of high-action and the personal in the mass-produced. Like its predecessors, it illustrates not just a love of comics and their long, weird histories, but suggests how that love and those histories shape the very people who craft them.

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“]] As much a book about a fan’s relationship with the character as the character’s relationship to his medium.  Read More