Trouble with Comics, It Takes A Villain #7: Worse Ways to Live - Future...
It Takes A Villain #7: Worse Ways to Live - Future Imperfect: Warzones!


It Takes A Villain is TWC’s bi-weekly column about comics in which super-villains take the starring role, brought to you by the alternate future reality more bad-ass version of Mick Martin.

The army of mini-series rolled out with Marvel’s Secret Wars event had its share of villain titles. The chronicles of Battleworld included M.O.D.O.K. Assassin, Squadron Sinister, and Red Skull. But while It Takes A Villain continues to feed my interest in super-villain comics, my first comic book allegiance was to a certain green-sometimes-gray (never red, not in this house) goliath. Because of that, because of the fact that I write about super-villain comics, and in spite of what was initially a lukewarm interest in the new Secret Wars event, the announcement of Peter David and Greg Land’s Future Imperfect mini-series confirmed that I would be reading at the least one of these alternate-reality-crazy, nostalgia-fueled Secret Wars things.


Now, I have to warn you that this column is filled with spoilers. That’s something I like to avoid normally, but this isn’t an ordinary review. What intrigues me about this new version of Future Imperfect has less to do with how good the series is and more to do with the intentions of the writer. And it’s impossible for me to discuss that without revealing exactly how this series ends. You’ve been warned.

Incredible Hulk: Future Imperfect was released in 1992 as a two-issue prestige format mini-series. During a period in which Banner’s mind occupies the Hulk’s body, the hero goes into the future at the request of a squad of desperate rebels. Shortly after he arrives in Dystopia – presumably the only city left standing in the post-nuclear Earth – the Hulk learns that the super-powered despot he’s been recruited to take down is, in fact, himself.  The radiation that killed so many only served to make the Hulk of the future more powerful, as well as helping to nudge him toward insanity. The Robert Bruce Banner of the future calls himself The Maestro. He sports long white hair and a beard, and a skin of darker green with sick-looking welts rising off its surface.

Incredible Hulk writer Peter David had already won over scores of fans to his redefining of Bruce Banner’s relationship with his alter ego, and his original Future Imperfect series is widely considered one of the best stories in a run that is still a fan standard against which every other Hulk writer is judged. Veteran artist George Perez created visuals in the comic that remain fan favorites; the most memorable being a double-page splash of a trophy room featuring relics from just about every Marvel character you could think of.

Of the many Secret Wars series based on old series and crossovers, Future Imperfect is possibly the only one written by the same guy who wrote the source material. Because of this, there’s something of a metafictional edge to Future Imperfect, particularly to the Hulk fan who remembers David’s groundbreaking run and how it ended.

Like most of the Secret Wars series, Future Imperfect’s opening setting is just another one of God Doom’s kingdoms. This one is Dystopia, of which The Maestro is the Baron. The series opens in the wasteland outside Dystopia, where the mutant Ruby Summers (presumably the daughter of Cyclops and Emma Frost, though I don’t remember if this is ever confirmed) stumbles upon an old, weak man who claims to be a de-powered Odin. Ruby is a member of the anti-Maestro resistance and brings the old man to the rebel hideout. Once there, a psychic scan reveals the truth: the old man is The Maestro, but in Banner’s human form. It’s a brilliant move by David for a couple of reasons. First, when Maestro was introduced, the Hulk did not transform back and forth between his body and Banner’s, so it was always kind of assumed the Maestro was the future version of that specific incarnation of the Hulk. I don’t believe a single appearance of the Maestro exists before this one in which he transforms to human. Second, having Maestro enter the story as a false god is a nice bit of foreshadowing.

Once the cat’s out of the bag, Maestro gets his Hulk on and the rebel leader soon appears: The Thing, but not Ben Grimm. In this Dystopia’s history, it was good ol’ Thunderbolt Ross who got belted by cosmic rays and transformed into the Thing. It’s a huge, bloody battle, and in the end the Maestro is the victor. Maestro takes Ross prisoner, but he has more in mind than torture and death.

Okay, the biggest spoilers are inbound. Again, I consider you warned.

The Maestro, predictably, doesn’t like taking orders from God Doom. He’s found a book claiming that a suit of armor exists called The Destroyer that gives its bearer the power to kill Doom. With the possible outcomes that the Maestro will either succeed and leave Dystopia or fail and be murdered by Doom, Thunderbolt Thing and his rebels agree to join Maestro on his quest to find the armor. They travel to the very Asgard-y Battleworld domain Nornheim. After a tussle in a tavern and fight with Ulik and some of Ulik’s troll buddies, Maestro and his reluctant comrades learn that the aged, wheelchair-bound Rick Jones is the guardian of the Destroyer armor.

Jones happily allows the Maestro to use the armor. Soon after, Doom appears and attacks his subversive Baron. The Destroyer armor is as good as the stolen book promised and the Maestro easily kills Doom and takes over Battleworld.

But, not really.

One moment we see a triumphant Maestro standing amid a crowd of kneeling super-heroes, promising to be a just and beneficent god. The next, we see Ross and his rebels watching Maestro, confused. They see the Maestro standing before the armor, yelling at no one in particular. Rather than giving him the power to kill Doom, the armor simply fed the Maestro the dream he wanted to see and apparently will always see until he dies.

Future Imperfect ends with the deluded Maestro – a false god now as he was in the desert in the beginning of the series – paraphrasing lines from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias: “I am the Maestro! King of kings! Look on my works, ye mighty…and despair!”

This is not the first time David has quoted Ozymandias.  He referenced it heavily in Incredible Hulk #467; the powerful issue that ended his 12-year run on the series. The title of the story, “The Lone and Level Sands,” was taken directly from the sonnet.

Reading this new Future Imperfect series with that in mind puts an interesting spin on it.

There are loud echoes not only from the original Future Imperfect, but also David’s original Hulk run and even his one shot Incredible Hulk: The End, in this newer mini.

Some of the references are specific. During his final, delusional battle with Doom, the Maestro taunts Doom by implying the villain’s deadly blasts are serving simply to scratch his back.


Any fan of the fantastic Peter David/Dale Keown era of Incredible Hulk should immediately recognize this gag as a repeat from the Hulk’s battle with the U-Foes in Incredible Hulk #397.


I guess it’s possible to take a less generous view of this and assume David just did something easy rather than coming up with something new. The fact that he uses the same joke in a battle between the Hulk and Avengers of the Secret Wars mini Secret Wars 2099 could support that, but not in light of all the other references found in Future Imperfect to his previous work.

David introducing Maestro as a false Odin, the journey to Nornheim, and all the references to pagan gods are reminiscent of Incredible Hulk: The End. In that one-shot David compared the Hulk and the other, long-dead heroes of Marvel to gods and titans. The Hulk was specifically compared to Prometheus who gave fire to humanity and who was punished by being strapped to a rock and having his insides ravaged by birds every day, only to survive and have the process repeat. To reproduce this in Hulk: The End, David gives us a swarm of irradiated cockroaches who constantly hunt the Hulk and tear him to pieces though he survives because of his healing factor. In that one-shot, David waited toward the end to compare super-heroes to figures of myth, but in Future Imperfect, he does it as early as the first page. As she walks through the desert, Ruby Summers’s narration tells us about the myths of the world that existed before Battleworld: myths she doesn’t believe in. Her attitude is echoed a few issues later in Nornheim’s blind Hoder, who laments the downfall of the gods.

The ending of the first issue is a surprising and clever reference to the original Future Imperfect mini. In the 1992 series, the first issue ended with the Hulk of the present and the Maestro meeting nose-to-nose in the underground rebel base and saying in unison, “Doctor Banner, I presume.” Again, in the 2015 Future Imperfect, the issue ends with the Maestro having found and infiltrated the rebel base, but the issues ends with Maestro not facing another Hulk, but facing Thunderbolt Ross as the Thing.

In light of everything else, this seems like it could almost be a tribute to not David’s own work on Hulk, but to Jeph Loeb’s. Or, if not tribute, then some kind of commentary. The reason why it should have been a surprise to no one that Thunderbolt Ross was the Red Hulk in Loeb’s Hulk was that, through the eyes of Betty Ross, Loeb had portrayed Hulk and Thunderbolt Ross as two sides of the same coin in the first significant work he did on the character: the 2003 retrospective mini-series Hulk: Gray. And here, David puts Ross in the Hulk’s shoes. The absence of a heroic Hulk, like the intelligent Hulk of the 1992 Future Imperfect, is the biggest absence felt in this newer series. We have a Maestro, but no Hulk to counter him. Thunderbolt Thing is the closest we have and he’s a poor substitute. Like the Hulk of the original mini, Thunderbolt Thing’s battle with Maestro ends in his defeat. He is captured, just like Hulk in the original mini. The difference is when the Maestro offers the Hulk an alliance, he tells him to go to Hell, eventually only appearing to give in so he can lull Maestro into a false sense of security. Thunderbolt Thing, on the other hand, isn’t awake five minutes before he bends over and gives in.

The Maestro’s ultimate fate in the 2015 Future Imperfect should remind Hulk fans of one of David’s tie-ins to the 1996 Onslaught event. In Incredible Hulk #445, an egotistical Hulk led a small team of Avengers in hopes of taking down Onslaught, all in defiance of Captain America’s plans. In the scene that unfolded, the Hulk defeats Onslaught, but only after the villain kills everyone else. As the Hulk cheers over his triumph, it’s revealed that the battle never happened. Just like Maestro’s “triumph” over Doom, the battle with Onslaught is an illusion Onslaught psychically created to fool the Hulk. When the rest of Hulk’s team sees him celebrate his victory in spite of what he believes to be their grisly deaths, the last few of Marvel’s heroes who feel any trust toward the Hulk turn their back on him.

The very quest for the Destroyer armor is a reference to David’s original Hulk run. At the end of the original 1992 mini, the Hulk defeats Maestro by sending him back in time to ground zero of the original gamma bomb blast that created the Hulk. The Maestro was so powerful, however, that some piece of him survived the blast. We eventually learned toward the end of David’s original Hulk run that the mysterious call back to the gamma bomb blast Hulk had felt over the years was, in fact, a summons from the Maestro. He was calling the Hulk there to feed off of his gamma energy in hopes of one day resurrecting. In Incredible Hulk #461, the Maestro did return but not in his own body. With the help of some vengeful trolls, the Maestro possessed the Destroyer armor and used it to go after the Hulk.

But the loudest echo back to his original work on Hulk is David’s handling of the ancient, wheelchair-bound Rick Jones.

In David’s Hulk finale, the story is told from the perspective of Rick Jones ten years after the events of the previous issue. David’s departure from the title was not a happy one and was over a passionate disagreement of the future direction of the title. David speaks through Jones of his own situation at many points in the story. Speaking of the disagreement in the title’s direction, Jones says the events of the previous issue were, “the day the Hulk started down the road he never wanted to travel.” Toward the end of the issue, he says, “I could keep on telling stories about the Hulk…keep on going…but there’s other things in life, you know?”

It’s tempting, then, and perhaps fitting to see Jones’s words in the same light at the end of Future Imperfect. Maestro’s quoting of Ozymandias certainly seems like a direct signal that we should do that. And, if we do, it does not exactly put a positive spin on David’s return to this story.

In spite of working for 12 years on Incredible Hulk, subsequent Hulk writers rarely referenced David’s run. It seems likely this is at least in part due to what used to be some fairly public conflicts between David and Marvel’s Powers That Be. It’s always been surprising to me, for example, that of all the wonderful villains David created during his tenure as Hulk writer, few have popped up elsewhere. It’s only been in very recent years that we’ve seen them surface. Mark Millar killed off Speedfreek in the opening pages of Civil War. Daniel Way brought back David’s villain Mercy for his Thunderbolts revival.  The Maestro, in the meantime, has appeared a couple of times, but considering the success of the original Future Imperfect, it’s surprising how rarely it’s happened. Usually, he’s shown up only because David himself was writing him, like his appearance in a time travel issue of Captain Marvel. Perhaps because the conflicts have cooled over the years, Maestro is just now peeking out of the sand. He appeared in an issue of A+X, and Gerry Duggan gave his new Flowers-for-Algernon version of the Hulk nightmarish visions of his transformation into the Maestro. And now, with Secret Wars over (again), and Amadeus Cho replacing Banner as the Hulk in Totally Awesome Hulk, we have a Maestro appearing regularly in the mobile game tie-in Contest of Champions. In the pages of Totally Awesome Hulk, we so far we have been given only snapshots of what happened to Banner, and it seems like a good possibility we will eventually learn that the reason Cho replaced Banner as the Hulk is because Banner has finally become the Maestro. That’s only speculation, but the evidence fits.

You might think that this would give David some satisfaction; that his stories are finally being honored and acknowledged. But the ending of the 2015’s Future Imperfect may make you question that.

Once we learn that Maestro’s battle with Doom has been nothing but an illusion, Maestro transforms back to human form. We learn that the quest for the Destroyer armor has been an elaborate trap that Doom set for the Maestro. The now ancient Rick Jones is there on Doom’s orders. Just as she appeared in the original mini, Jones’s granddaughter Janis Jones is one of the rebels who accompanies Maestro to Nornheim.

When Janis asks Rick to leave with her and the rebels, Rick tells his granddaughter that Doom has tasked Jones to stay and watch over the deluded Maestro. “Me and him. Until the end of time.”

“That sucks,” Janis says.

Jones answers, “Eh. There’s worse ways to live.”

If we consider David speaking through Jones in Incredible Hulk #467, consider Jones’s appointed task, and consider the very fact that this new Future Imperfect series even exists, it casts a pretty dismal light on David’s opinion of the whole thing.

Jones says he has to stay with the Maestro until “the end of time.” Likewise, here’s David, tasked to return to a story he wrote over 20 years ago, with a character he set aside before the current century began. Not just tasked with writing the same character, but the same story. Not a sequel. Write Future Imperfect, David. Write it again.  

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