Over the past week, ever since the "bad reader" controversy, I've been bouncing from message board to message board, carrying on conversations about what it means to be a bad reader, what should someone reasonably expect from a comic, and does it matter what the author intends? Some of the discusions have been fruitful, while others have drifted away from the original topics, but it's been interesting to see how various comic book readers respond to these concerns, and it's given me a chance to clarify some of my thinking as well. I won't summarize all of the threads on all of the boards, but I've come away from it all with a new appreciation of how difficult it is to quantify the quality of a comic book. Even taking bias and subjectivity into account, whenever you try to set up any kind of somewhat objective standard of what a "good comic book" looks like, you end up either coming up with a list that has a giant disclaimer saying "THESE RULES MAY BE BROKEN AT ANY TIME," or you end up listing your favorite comics and trying to figure out what they all have in common, which in the case of someone with wide and varied tastes (like mine) ends up as a gigantically long list that doesn't help clarify any objective standards, ultimately.
So, what does any of this have to do with Planet Hulk?
Well, since none of us seem capable of coming up with clear-cut objective standards of comic book quality, Planet Hulk is going to be my guinea pig, as I approach it from several critical perspectives, none of which as fully-developed as I would like, but let's see what happens when we put this particular text through a limited and relatively shallow critical gauntlet for this trial run. We'll see if a combination of "objective" standards, applied to a text, gives us a more accurate assessment.
First, a note on the text. I'm referring to the Planet Hulk hardcover here, and my only exposure to the story is in this format. I did not read it during its monthly serialization.
By the way, I'm not going to define these approaches here, but their names should give you a pretty good idea about how each approach differs.
The Visual/Aesthetic Approach: This text holds together nicely. The art complements the bombastic drama when necessary and allows for quiet moments as well. Although several artists worked on Planet Hulk, none of the styles clash with one another, and the entire story flows together smoothly.
The "Expectation of Originality" Approach: Because Planet Hulk is a high-concept "Hulk as John Carter from Mars but with Gladiators" story, it suffers when looked at from this critical perspective. It's not even an original idea to place Hulk in such a foreign context anyway, since he has visited the microverse (the one with Jarella) a number of times in previous issues of The Incredible Hulk. It's at least a break from what's been going on with the Hulk in recent Marvel continuity, but it's somewhat of a rehash when looked at within a larger context. Even some of the story beats seem very familiar, because they are largely derived from the John Carter/Spartacus/Gladiator story archetypes.
The "I Want to See Hulk Smash Stuff" Approach: Hulk does indeed smash a lot of stuff. If that's what you're looking for, you'll get it here.
The Narrative Cohesion Approach: The text fares well if looked at with this approach because it reads as if it were composed as a long, single narrative. Nothing gets in the way of the main plot threads, and everything is resolved by the end of the book. Although the end is problematic, it does resolve the plot threads. Even though the entire story could be read as a kind of prologue for "World War Hulk," the fact that the Hulk is racing back to Earth to smash stuff in the epilogue of Planet Hulk is a type of closure. It's not necessary to actually see how he smashes stuff--just the knowledge that he will is enough to resolve all of the threads of the Planet Hulk narrative.
The Characterization Approach: The text fails on this level, ultimately. The Hulk has never been successfully portrayed with any complexity, and this story makes an effort, but there's just not much to work with. And the supporting characters are given "character moments" but they seem more like obligatory moments to make the characters serve specific roles within the plot. After reading the whole thing I didn't feel like I wanted to see more of any of the supporting cast.
The Authorial Intent Approach: This is where things get really sticky for me, and it's where the text meets its biggest failure. As I've said before, I don't care what the author intended if the effect doesn't show up on the page. But it is sometimes interesting to compare what the author intended with what the author actually accomplished to see if any discrepancy arises. In the case of Planet Hulk there is a HUGE discrepancy that points to the major flaw in the text. In his Afterword, writer Greg Pak says a lot of intelligent things about his concept of the Hulk, but one of the things he says about Planet Hulk is this: "...the terrible beauty of the story -- that kernel of truth that great writers from Stan Lee to Bill Mantlo to Peter David have bequeathed us -- is that rage, no matter how justified, always has a price." That sounds great, and that sounds like a story that I would have enjoyed reading, but that's not the story as presented in Planet Hulk. Pak refers to the end of the story as the proof that Hulk pays a price for his rage, but (and I don't want to spoil the story by explaining exactly what happens) the story does NOT end with a logical consequence of Hulk's own actions. It ends, if anything, with a strange deus ex machina--not even a deus ex machina, really, but whatever the opposite of that would be. Instead of a random force appearing at the end to solve the conflict, a random force appears to... well, you'll have to read it to find out. But the ending does not lead out of the Hulk's rage at all. If anything, the story ends up as a fable about the randomness of life and death. Or about the Hulk just having really crappy luck. But it's definitely not, as Greg Pak hoped it would be, anything about the consequences of rage.
So, by this last approach, Planet Hulk is a failure, and it points to the weakness of Act III.
Everything leading up to it was well-executed and logical, even if it wasn't shockingly original in any way. But that resolution so absolutely undermines everything that has gone before, that I can't help but feel that Planet Hulk is a failure. And that's why authorial intent doesn't matter in interpretation. Pak intended to convey a theme, and on the page that theme is not present. The text fails because the ending does not satisfy the thematic expectations established by the first 3/4ths of the story.
Pak doesn't get points for his intentions. He only gets points for the results.