This is the volume when Peter David’s Hulk really moves into high gear. Up to this stage David had been courageous enough to tamper considerably with the status quo of the mindless green monster, but his plots only occasionally flashed into life to transcend the average, and much of the earlier material doesn’t read very well today. Most of this selection from 1989 and 1990 has some spirit, intrigue and excitement to it.

‘Countdown’ begins proceedings, a four chapter story with the Hulk pitched in his then current grey identity against enemies who gave his more powerful green incarnation a hard battle. Except in the case of the Thing, who at that point was plain Ben Grimm in what’s the weakest chapter until a heart to heart in a bar. As the story title indicates, it’s a race against time, and David also modifies the Hulk’s dialogue as it continues, which is a clever indicator of what’s to come.

That story is also the farewell to the Hulk, and seemingly to comics, for Jeff Purves, whose art never really caught on with fans after the difficult task of following Todd McFarlane. Purves would have a long career in animation. Dale Keown’s layouts for the conclusion are far more interesting, and by the end of the collection he’s already producing a memorably powerful Hulk and would improve further (see sample page). The best art here, though, is from Sam Kieth for what appears to be a rapidly concocted fill-in to cover the change of artists. His Hulk is also powerful, brooding, stubbled and barely contained by the panels. The story he’s drawing is a battle with Mr Hyde featuring a few good lines, but an ordinary plot.

Bruce Banner’s quest from the halfway point is to cross the country to where he’s been told his wife is, a journey made more difficult by attempting to suppress his Hulk persona and the fact that he’s a wanted man. The Hulk set against the Blob when Freedom Force come calling is good (“Stop! That’s not how my power works! You’re hurting me!”), and there’s an innovative artistic device used when the original Defenders meet again that works better now than when murkily reproduced in the original comics. It’s odd to see the Namor of the time portrayed as caring and reasonable, rather than arrogant and dismissive.

David plays with identity throughout the latter part of this collection, giving time to Banner’s assorted levels of rage and frustration. It eventually features the large green Hulk of old, and leads to the events of the next volume. There’s been a consistency to what David’s been doing with Bruce Banner and the Hulk, but it’s not fully gelled until the material collected here. David’s now plotting for the long term, and the final chapter here is a monumental tear jerker with David excellently manipulating the emotions in the style of a TV drama.

Peter David was a decent writer from his first published comics, and his Hulk series is now seen as the definitive run on the character, yet it’s sobering to note that it was almost three years worth of material before he really settled. From this point, barring the odd lapse, it’s almost all quality writing. Had he picked up the character today, though, those three years would barely have been the duration from one re-boot to the next.