Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sword & Planet Hulk

Last week I watched the blu-ray of the animated Planet Hulk feature from Lions Gate. It’s an adaptation of the 2006 storyline in The Incredible Hulk, written by Greg Pak with art by Carlo Pagulayan and Jeffrey Huet. Having not read the comic, this was my first exposure to the material, and I found it pretty enjoyable, and one of the best of Marvel Animation's direct-to-video efforts.

The plot, in brief, goes something like this: the Hulk is rocketed into space by a group of Marvel Universe big-guns who think he’s menace. He winds up going through a space-rift and winding up on one of those mostly barbaric worlds with elements of advanced technology here and there—this one being named Sakaar. There, he’s put into the arena by the forces of the planet’s tyrant, the Red King, with sort of an eclectic group of other aliens. He proves himself in brute strength, but must overcome his sulkiness and stop being a loner. Then, he bursts his bonds to fight for justice (as it were) and takes a page from the Spartacus revolutionary handbook. Ultimately, the Hulk gets a love interest, defeats the Red King, and proves himself to have been the prophesied messiah of Sakaar all along.

The story is pure “sword and planet” or “planetary romance”—which is to say the subgenre of science fiction (or fantasy) that features an earthman (or woman) engaging in heroic adventure on other worlds. Generally these worlds are primitive—or have strange primitive elements—which is where the swords come into play. The prototype of these sorts of stories is Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, but the genre has had many adherents, particularly during a revival in the late sixties.

Planet Hulk isn’t the first fusion of superheroica and planetary romance—it isn’t even the first starring the Hulk. Harlan Ellison’s “The Brute…That Shouted Love…At the Heart of the Atom” (The Incredible Hulk #140, 1971) had the Hulk romancing a queen and winning a kingdom in the subatomic world of K’ai—most likely inspired by Ray Cummings’ 1922 novel The Girl in the Golden Atom. The X-Men’s Nightcrawler got into otherworldly swashbuckling in his 1985 limited series. He also got to stand-in for John Carter in a one-off send-up of the genre in Excalibur #16 (December, 1989).

Is there any gaming value here? Well, I think that for those playing superhero rpgs, a sword and planet sojourn might be a welcome respite from slogging it out with super-villains. My personal favorites for something like this would be the old Marvel Superheroes rpg (or maybe one of its retro-clones), or maybe Mutants & Masterminds, utilizing the Wizards & Warlocks supplement (which doesn’t offer a Sword & Planet setting per se, but does swords and lost worlds, which ought to be close enough).

The other possible inspiration would be for a Sword & Planet game with more over-the-top action and power levels than traditionally found in the literary genre. In other words, maybe something analogous to what Exalted is for fantasy --at least in terms of power level, not necessarily flavor. I don’t off hand know the best system for this—though either of the two suggested above could do it, and HERO System no doubt could as well, depending on the level of crunch one wants.

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