Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Communists of the Marvel Universe #001: Igor Drenkov

(Part one of an ongoing series analyzing the role of communists in the early Marvel Universe and how they have been adapted - or, in some cases, how they glaringly haven’t been adapted - by comics creators in a post Cold War climate.)

So this guy is arguably one of the most important figures in the history of the Marvel Universe.

He was, you may recall (though you’d be forgiven if you don’t), the Soviet spy sent to infiltrate Bruce Banner’s gamma bomb project. Tries to get Banner to give him his notes, but Banner's all "I don't make mistakes." And when Banner goes to warn Rick Jones off the testing ground because the bomb’s primed to go off, Igor (he’s not given a last name until much later than this story) decides not to halt the countdown – he’ll let the bomb take Banner off his hands if he’s not going to cooperate. This, of course, results in the creation of the Hulk.

So yeah, this is the dude directly responsible for the Hulk’s existence, so you figure such an important guy’s gonna keep popping up in the Hulk comic, right?

Except that after Incredible Hulk #1 in 1962, not counting flashbacks to the origin, he does not appear again until issue #393 in 1992.

That’s a phenomenal time span, especially for superhero comics. Comics writers and editors seek out and extrapolate and elaborate upon the tiniest, most obscure details of continuity and ephemera, and yet nobody except Peter David wanted to use this huge player in the scheme of things. He appears in that ’92 issue of Hulk where he’s driven insane after realizing that he’s responsible for all the destruction the Hulk has caused, but also for the good things the Hulk has done. And I didn’t know it before I did a bit of research, but Igor appeared just a couple months ago in a Winter Guard one-shot where he, ah, gets turned into a monster by The Presence and fights Russia’s answer to the Avengers. Modern-day Marvel, you guys are scamps. Anyway, it’s totally not important.

So why is it that, even before the Soviet Union collapsed and enough time had passed to make the Red Menace irrelevant to modern-day readers, nobody wanted to touch poor Igor?

Igor, I would suggest, was made irrelevant very early on in Hulk history when Stan Lee & Co. decided to depoliticize the series.

Because that first story is pretty explicitly political. The amoral scientist Banner is a weapons maker to put Tony Stark to shame; Marvel historian Peter Sanderson points out the gamma bomb is, after all, a “dirty” bomb that he’s making on behalf of the U.S. Government. It’s a pretty standard sci-fi trope for its time – a scientist blinded to the consequences of his actions by his own hubris is made to pay himself for the horrors he threatened to unleash on mankind. It’s the political and military presence that makes it interesting. There’s incredible potential for black comedy and satire – here you have this weedy intellectual who has trouble communicating with his girlfriend, so he builds a weapon of mass destruction as an expression of his surpressed emotions. You’ve got General Ross, who hates Banner for not being a “real man” and dating his daughter, and yet he can’t just totally dismiss him because otherwise he won’t build that bomb they need. Igor seems oddly dejected by Banner’s refusal to show him his notes; it stops being a matter of his spy mission and becomes almost an affront to his dignity. The whole thing’s entering Dr. Strangelove territory, and if they followed through with it, you could take this places Kubrick wouldn't've dared to tread.

But then the Hulk becomes about psychology instead of politics. You know the drill – an uncontrolled, unhealthy expression of repressed emotion, the conflict between brute force and intellect, struggling with base desires, loneliness and alienation, multiple personalities – all that stuff Peter David took and ran with. Okay, I’m not fond of the multiple personality angle, but I can’t say this new direction was a terrible idea. It’s fertile ground and it’s clearly touched a nerve in the public consciousness, and anyway they’d soon come up with Iron Man to do political stuff with. The military that's always after the Hulk becomes just a symbol of authority.

But where Igor comes in, or rather where he doesn’t, is because if you’re going to set up the Hulk series as internal conflicts externalized as a giant monster, the whole damn thing is muddied up by Igor acting as an external prime mover for the series. It weakens the dynamic; Igor becomes a cheap device who’s more trouble than he’s worth, and that’s why he’s forgotten. You’ll notice the movies and TV series don’t want to deal with Banner the bomb-builder; he’s invariably portrayed as a guy who’s trying to use gamma power to help mankind rather than blow it up, but tampering with nature is still tampering with nature, and thus is punished. But it’s always a freak accident, or some matter of hubris getting back at him. There’s no Igor or Igor stand-in. It’s just Banner.

If the Hulk is about personal demons and personal mistakes, it’s got to be Banner’s finger on the button, not some Commie spy who never shows up again. So Marvel hasn’t really had to rehabilitate Igor or make him relevant for the 21st century (although John Byrne did try to retcon, in that particular John Byrney way of his, that Igor was a Skrull). He’d been phased out long before changing political fortunes would have necessitated it.

Although you know, if I were handed the keys to the Hulk franchise and told to write whatever I want … frankly, I think the psychodrama aspect’s been so thoroughly mined I’d be pretty anxious to swing it back into the political arena, to exploit that potential for satire and commentary. And if the Hulk were back in that mode, maybe Igor could come along for the ride.

But then again, we’d have to figure out just what Igor’s deal is if he’s not a Soviet agent, so we’re right back where we started from. SORRY FOR WASTING YOUR TIME, EVERYBODY.


David Gallaher said...

>>And I didn’t know it before I did a bit of research, but Igor appeared just a couple months ago in a Winter Guard one-shot where he, ah, gets turned into a monster by The Presence and fights Russia’s answer to the Avengers. Modern-day Marvel, you guys are scamps. Anyway, it’s totally not important.>>

"Doesn't anyone believe in foreshadowing anymore?" says the guy who wrote the Winter Guard one-shot with Igor in it! Other than that, I agree with a lot of what your posted.

Justin said...

Hey, don't mind me! I'm just mad that somebody poked holes in my carefully constructed "nobody cares enough about Igor to use him in a comic" theory by actually CARING ENOUGH ABOUT IGOR TO USE HIM IN A COMIC.

But if you're cooking up a way to make this dude relevant again (or possibly for the first time) - it'd be a hell of a thing.

plok said...

This is an interesting topic for me, because I have LOTS of little thoughts in my head about what I'd do if I were writing a Hulk comic, that are mainly political in the sense that Banner was the Army's private super-scientist -- Tony Stark is a government contractor, Reed Richards is an independently wealthy freak of nature, but Banner is the Army's boy, lock stock and barrel. He doesn't have ethical conflicts about his technology, it doesn't come with strings attached, and no one outside the Army ever even knows just what in the hell he's working on even in general terms. Reed and Tony may talk to one another, help each other out, have a good business relationship as well as a collegial relationship, but it seems likely Banner just up and took off one day into the federal budget, sort of like Dr. Erskine vanished into the super-soldier project back in the late 30s and never came out again. Even when Banner got briefly cured one time in the late Eighties (I think), what did he do? Went straight back to work. For the Army.

In this general situation, Igor makes a real interesting addition even given the Cold War background -- I mean, you've got to think Ross would've been all "uh-uh, no way, are you kidding me? The guy's name is IGOR DRENKOV, he's still got an ACCENT for God's sake! No way this guy gets near the research site."

And then you can imagine bloodless Banner just sort of looking through him and saying "well, it's just the way I want it, General." No wonder Ross has a problem with Banner! I bet if we could see the months leading up to Hulk #1 we'd be a lot more sympathetic to Ross than we are, Banner is probably an extreme passive-aggressive prick, and he's probably got ludicrous amounts of clout...forget the "walking A-bomb" stuff, Banner's a walking A-bomb factory, the Army probably was way more careful not to piss him off than they've ever been with the Hulk...!

So what's Igor doing there? Maybe he's worked hard to become Banner's friend. Only to find no one can really be Banner's friend, he won't even let him see the gamma-bomb notes, we could even say Igor is a great scientist, but Banner treats him like a janitor. Ohhh, this is gonna be too long to post, isn't it...

plok said...

...Yay. So I think this is sort of interesting to toy with, it doesn't really make sense for Igor to kill Banner either, does it? The gamma bomb's made, already. I think Justin's hit it, Igor's emotionally engaged: he's pissed at Banner, Banner's gonna pay for his arrogance. And Banner is arrogant, obviously, because he's gotten himself into a situation where he's in unquestioned control of everything going on around him. "Hey, hold the countdown for a minute, I'm going outside." That's a CRAZY thing to say to only one person, and then stop thinking about. He could've said "attention everyone, we're holding the countdown -- MPs, get out there and get that kid off the testing ground", but he didn't because he just figured Igor's his puppet, you just teel Igor to do things and he does them, it's just the natural order of things.

You could call it hubris!

Wow, somebody call James Sturm, I think the Hulk needs the Unstable Molecules treatment. HOLY CRAP I'd read that comic.

Justin said...

Cool, you're on board with the real potential for blackest comedy gold there, right? You could do so much with Igor if you played it that way. Gets lost in his cover - forgets that he's only *pretending* to want to be Banner's friend and starts to want it for real. Why does he apply for a job at a US military facility under the name Igor Drenkov? "Well, they'd be *expecting* a Soviet agent to change his name."

And I love the idea of Ross totally being suspicious of this Igor guy, but nobody seems to care but him. "I'm telling you people, I saw him talking into a radio hidden in his thumbnail!" General Ross - the only sane man at Gamma Base, except everyone dismisses him because he acts like some caricature of a general he saw in a movie once.

So I guess the question is, how do you pull off Igor in the present day? HYDRA agent doesn't work because it's not real enough for satire. Ditto the Skrulls (I say Byrne's solution is so typically him because, like, it's like fixing stuff with duct tape - you can't say it doesn't solve the problem, but it's inelegant and doesn't have any of that resonance you'd want).

Do we just have to make him a Soviet spy and tell everyone to deal with it? But I would like it to be more relevant than that - does the world really CRY OUT for Cold War commentary?

Justin said...

And this Banner we're talking about - it's obvious why Betty digs this dude, right? She sees a guy who's quiet and mysterious and brooding and brilliant and eccentric. She thinks this guy is Johnny Depp or Robert Pattenson. A bit of the old "Oh, all he needs is someone who could try to *understand* him." But BANNER doesn't even understand Banner.

Man, you CAN almost see where General Ross is coming from. Except he's as much to blame as anybody; he could've pulled the plug on this thing at any time, presumably, he just WANTED THAT BOMB SO BADLY he let the whole thing go to hell. Scientists dictating their own terms, wild parties in the MP barracks like something out of "Stripes"; it's no wonder those guards let some kid with a harmonica slip by them, they're that hung over...

plok said...


Personally, I think there's no way Igor ever gets into that facility at all, ever, never even knows where it is, unless Banner brings him there himself. Banner makes him part of the deal, and Igor's got a good defector cover story, maybe. And he's got to be a top-flight physicist, impeccable credentials. Everybody's fooled but Ross; faced with Banner's bland immovability about Igor, the top brass adopt a posture of "well, why would we take in the genius guy after he defects if we're not willing to use his big brain? And we can't upset Banner."

Meanwhile, Igor's a much tougher customer than he looks, and he's got a solid background in psychology. Bit Hannibal Lecter-ish, but Banner's way past amoral, way past damaged...Banner's like what Igor would've turned into if things had gone wrong for him. So...Igor defects, gets close to Banner, makes himself useful to Banner, develops a very weird and unhealthy relationship with Banner as you describe, wants to be his friend, wants his recognition and approval, wants to reach him somehow...but can't. Igor, the asshole, is almost like the good guy here...

Meanwhile as soon as they all get to the base, Banner just starts to make Ross' life hell, because Ross is the only one who's not on board with coddling Banner but he does want that damn bomb, and he's got his orders. Why the Army sticks Ross in there is anybody's guess, but one thing Betty can't help but notice is...well, how many college football boyfriends do you think she's brought home who Ross just scared the shit out of, anyway? But Banner's not scared of Ross at all, and he can push Ross around and Ross can't push back, Ross can barely get Banner's attention. Betty foresees a future with some bootlicking major her father dredges up for her, who'll be far more a wife to Ross than a husband to Betty...or, you know: Banner, if he'd only look her way. Maybe Igor sees a way to push this, play Banner's Cyrano...find the chink in his emotional armour, convince Banner to help him shoulder all kinds of loads. But Banner only goes for Betty, and not for Igor -- Igor's still out in the cold.

In the Unstable Molecules story, wow, can you imagine? Rick Jones just dies out there on the testing ground, and the bomb works perfectly. SLAMMO.

But I wonder if every time you take away the Cold War stuff, you just have to replace it with stuff it served as shorthand for -- it made Ben Grimm blackmailable in the name of patriotism, without it he has to be dotty about Sue? It made Igor an external factor in Banner's accident, but without it Igor needs to suffer at Banner's hands?


plok said...

After Igor, the Other Side has to give up on stealing the theory, and just concentrate on trying to steal the technology -- dude who's been in super-deep cover just goes to the base to take pictures, talk about ignominy! Emil Blonsky's a super-spy, he's supposed to be about more than button-cameras, he's supposed to be James Bond. But it's that fucking Banner guy, everyone who ever has anything to do with him or his stuff just gets humiliated by the system he's constructed around himself, even after Banner's starting to become a slightly better person the machine he made his life into just fucking crushes other people's egos. And then they can't help but react.

So what does "Soviet" translate to in these stories, once you take out its, uh, Sovietness? Maybe something that decomposes easily into "victim" around Bruce Banner? Maybe idealism, empathy, self-assurance...

Probably won't work as a general principle, any of it, but I kind of dig it in Hulk stories. I think Igor could work just as a guy who thinks he's Banner's colleague and friend, only to find Banner doesn't think of him that way, and he gets really jealous and doesn't halt the countdown, and then he has to live with it. You'd probably have to lose the thumbnail radio, though, which would be a damn shame.

Or maybe not, since he's still from a foreign country...but then damn it in today's world you're just not going to have that bomb project anyway, are you?


Justin said...

I suppose when you remove the Soviet-ness from Igor, Blonsky and the rest, you're left with people who are just DESPERATE TO GET INSIDE BANNER'S HEAD, guys who want his secrets at all costs.

I guess you *could* just make Igor a scientist, drop the foreign power stuff. And as for the bomb ... well maybe the gamma bomb's *not* a dirty bomb. "Gamma bomb" doesn't mean anything anyway, that bomb could be anything. Some sort of weapon that's meant to be non-lethal but goes horribly wrong somehow? Um...

plok said...

I always assumed a gamma bomb was a clean bomb -- a totally clean bomb. You can think of a few things it might be: it might not use fissionable material (now THAT would be a technology worth killing for!), it might emit most of its energy as gamma rays, thereby lessening the size of the shockwave at the expense of just soaking everything from ground zero to the horizon in hard radiation...hmm, actually there's a lot of cool stuff you could make up about this, imagine a nuke that once it goes off you can just get out of your lead bunker and walk around the blast site in shirtsleeves. Of course it seems like a waste of the technology, to make a bomb out of it...

But then, it's Banner. AHA! Yeah, without the Cold War stuff, it's just that Banner's much more of a head case, because...well, this is world-changing science, but he's using it to build a bomb, how CRAZY is that? He'll never win a Nobel Prize for that! The "basic research" aspect of it (one assumes Banner doesn't make bombs just because he likes to see things go boom) is tainted by the deal he takes to a degree that just wouldn't make sense to you and I, but Banner must not care, if this is 2001 or whatever. And can he be free of the Cold War anyway? Would you start a new nuclear arms race in the year 2000, instead of developing your technology openly and non-militarily?

Christ, you need the Cold War background in more than one way, I think!

Justin said...

I like where that's going...

Is the bomb, perhaps, not Banner's idea? Is there a subset of top military brass that's wistful for the moral clarity they felt during the Cold War, reading about this scientist dude's research on gamma radiation and starting to get ideas? And Banner, being Banner, just says "Sure, whatever."

There was a miniseries Marvel put out in the 90s called Conspiracy - a pre-New X-Men Igor Kordey *painted* it, I'm pretty sure! - where it was a revealed a top secret cabal MAY OR MAY NOT have engineered all the superhuman activity since the Silver Age. You know, in that very X-Files/Invisibles kind of zeitgeist. Anyway, one of the ideas brought up in it is that the military *allowed* the existence of the Hulk because then you could justify all sorts of military spending to contain him. While I'm not too keen on the conspiracy angle anymore (at the time I must've in middle school and it BLEW MY MIND), I do rather like the notion that a bunch of guys looked at the rampaging monster loose in the desert as a happy accident and started rubbing their hands together - "You can't put money into *education*, Mr. President, we need Hulkbusters!"

To make any of this stuff work you'd *have* to make it satire, wouldn't you?

And Banner isn't some guy who *just* likes to see things go boom, and yet ... the idea must excite him to some degree. It's a way for him to express himself, at least, externally. For banner, the bomb is an art piece.

plok said...

Notice how quickly and naturally we move into the idea that Banner is just a fucking head case here...I like it. Igor's moonstruck, Betty's looking for an escape, Ross is totally conflicted, it's a huge mess, all because of that "Banner being Banner, it must be like so" thing. Much more interesting, then, to have Banner gradually change as a result of being the Hulk: that's the real story, I think.

Remind me to give you my "Why I Should Write The Hulk" pitch sometime!

Justin said...

I think Banner *has* to be a headcase to lend the concept any weight. If he's Just Some Guy, the message is "We've all got a little Hulk inside us," and the only thing to take away from that is "Well, I better not get hit with gamma rays."

But nutjob repressed Banner is a cautionary tale - you can see the poor ways pre-Hulk Banner deals (or doesn't deal) with stressors and life in general and the consequences of his actions. (In fact, that might be a clue as to why Banner agrees to this bomb project in the first place. I mean, science is a long and tedious process; journals are gonna want procedure and testing and results, and he's got to secure funding and jump through hoops, all of which has gotta be frustrating as hell. But the Army wants a gamma weapon SO BADLY they'll just let him do whatever he wants and fast-track it all. Ironically, Banner joins up with the Army to *avoid* discipline!)

And yeah, like you point out, you actually get some character arc out of that - in theory, Banner should be gradually working to get better through the years. He shouldn't be trying to *contain* the impulse to become the Hulk - that's what creates the Hulk in the first place - but rather to work *through* them. Peter David's "merged" Hulk is a step in the right direction; I don't know how they resolved that status quo, but the lesson *ought* to have been that's he's still not cured because he has to be Hulk... not a healthy and balanced Banner, but still somebody else.

Totally curious to hear your pitch one of these days.

plok said...

Aha! I'll email it you just as soon as I need to procrastinate about something!

I think the MPD-Hulk was a serious misstep, myself...there was just noplace to go with it, and the side-effect was that Banner didn't need to change, didn't even need to have changed -- he became just another frozen personality. Oh, superhero conventions of externalizing character shit, how amazingly you sometimes go wrong! Having Banner start as a head-case really revivifies all the old Seventies and Eighties comics though, and it makes his attachment to Rick Jones a lot more meaningful too...but mostly the Seventies stuff, the "Fugitive" years of Wein and Trimpe, look really good through this lens: Banner is forced to grow and change, learns to do simple things like get angry without changing into the Hulk, sometimes he punches people, he gets more active and more human as he wanders through these tragic road stories of powerful losers and lost loves. Even ends up with actual friends, over in the Defenders!

LOVE the bit about Banner going into the Army to escape discipline! He could really be an interesting character, if anyone cared. WHO FUCKING KNEW there could be life in the damn Hulk concept still?!

Justin said...

The multiple-personality disorder thing in superhero comics I usually don't care for in general. I think writers use it because it sounds interesting because it's "realistic," but most of the time it just robs this stuff of its hidden complexity. Why would you take boring old "good Harvey Dent vs. evil Two-Face" over a guy who's so burnt out over the tough decisions he's had to make as district attorney that he snaps and decides to TOTALLY ABDICATE RESPONSIBILITY by flipping a coin. I know which one sounds more interesting to me!

plok said...