Wednesday, August 20, 2014

HULK Smash-hit: Incredible Hulk 201-300, pt 1

In one of the more questionable uses of my time, I've recently read a hundred issues of the Hulk #201 to  #300--that's the period from 1976 to 1984. Most of the period is Bill Mantlo's time as writer on the title, and it's... an odd bag. Join me, then, after the break, for a general discussion of issues 201 to 220, as we talk about such things as deadbeat magicians, over-eager landladies, and the special love between villain and henchman.

The basic concept of the Hulk is simple enough: it's Jekyll and Hyde meets Godzilla. Caught in the explosion of the gamma bomb he helped develop, pacifist scientist Bruce Banner now becomes the Hulk whenever he gets angry, a green-skinned being of great strength who gets stronger the madder it gets. (And yes, in case you're wondering, the books eventually address why an avouched pacifist would sign on to develop bombs for the military.) In short, the Hulk is a stand-in for the sort of things that Hyde and Godzilla stand for: suppressed human aggression, unchecked military force, and human science without proper checks. And for the most part, the run from 201 to 300 plays with those notions, in some interesting ways.

It was also interesting to read the issues in comparison with how comics are written now. There's the obvious difference, that older comics tend to be more bombastic, to the point of what we'd now call overwritten. But beyond that, there's a major difference in pacing. Nowadays, stories are consciously crafted in arcs. That is, everything very clearly builds towards some sort of narrative climax within the span of a few issues. Often, that rise and fall is the length of a graphic novel collection--a tendency so common it's called "writing for trade." Even with longer storylines that span years, like Planet Hulk, there's a very clear sense of progression. These issues don't work like that. There's clear continuity, and issues will build from one to the next (and sometimes, they'll take into account plot points from months or even years in the past, to a degree the arc-based contemporary storylines usually don't).

I'm going to start with a broad outline of the run, then delve into some specific points.

Incredible Hulk 201-210. (mostly by Len Wein, Sal Buscema, and Joe Staton) The run starts with a continuation of a previous plotline, that the Hulk had been shrunk to microscopic size to fight a tumor in the head of Glenn Talbot (Talbot being the man who wooed Betty Ross from Bruce, and Ross' second-in-command in the military fight against the Hulk) and was continually shrinking. Eventually, he winds up in the microscopic world ruled by Jarella, a green-skinned alien who happens to have fallen in love with the Hulk (and vice versa) during his last trip into tiny world. When the Hulk is returned to his regular size, Jarella comes with him, only to die almost immediately after saving a child from the debris of a Hulk fight. The grief-stricken Hulk searches for Dr Strange to heal her, fighting off Army attacks in downtown New York. After attacking the Hulk with his own superhero team, the Defenders (because comics), the doctor decides to actually listen to the Hulk, and unfortunately confirms that Jarella is dead. A grieving Hulk fights a bunch of criminals with a tank, who accidentally drove it into the Hulk in the middle of a spree, making them the most unlucky criminals ever. Penniless, jobless and ID-less, Banner decides to start a new life in New York, bolstered by the support of his new landlady, April Sommers. He then suffers initial setbacks, as the Absorbing Man--directed by a mysterious trio--attacks Meanwhile, back in the desert base, Team Hulkbuster (which includes assorted scientists devoted to gamma-related matters, Glenn Talbot, Betty Banner, gamma-irradiated psychiatrist Leonard Samson, all run by General Thaddeus Thunderbolt Ross) wring their collective hands on what to do about the Hulk. Glenn and Betty's marriage falls apart and Glenn decides to take a leave of absence away from her; a strange, amnesiac man shows up on the base. And speaking of subplot, teenage sidekick Jim Wilson heads north to New York, looking for the Hulk. This set ends with Banner's plans to live a Hulk-free life once again disrupted, as mystic hero type Dr Druid recruits him to fight evil wizard Maha Yogi and his henchman Mongu. (And yes, those are racially inappropriate villain names.)

A lot happens, in other words. Hopefully, you can see my earlier point: rather than progressing to some conclusion, events just seem to happen. There are some notable highlights:
--Wein and Buscema wring a surprising amount of pathos out of Jarella's tragedy, both in the Hulk's grief and Jarella's fear during the fight. The moment Hulk admits to himself that she's dead--a moment that has been considerably delayed by almost two issues at this point--is well done.
--Banner gets so distraught over the course of his life that he contemplates suicide, up to the point of going to the... gun store?... and looking for guns and bullets.
--Landlady April Sommers' judgment is extremely questionable. She is willing to take Bruce on as a tenant with no ID, no references, and with the knowledge that he is unemployed. Granted, her last tenant was a deadbeat magician, so I suppose she figured any change was an improvement.
--I like that Betty and Glenn's marriage is on the rocks not because of the Hulk, but because Glenn can't figure out how to deal with what amounts to PTSD after being mind-controlled by one of the Hulk's enemies. It feels like a realistic touch, and it gives them a life beyond just reacting to Hulk.
--At one point during his battle to Dr Strange's front step, Hulk rips the arm off the Statue of Liberty to throw it at a jet.

 Thank you, comics. Thank you.

Incredible Hulk 211-220 is still by the same set, though Roger Stern joins for scripting, and Chan replaces Staton. And it's a pretty random bunch of comics. Hulk and Dr Druid overcome Maha Yogi; Jim Wilson reaches Banner, but has to be rescued from the Constrictor by Hulk. And this starts a set of Hulk battling random guys in New York, including the Quintronic Man, a giant robot piloted by five operators inside it, each controlling a different limb, and Jack of Hearts. SHIELD Agent Quartermain and General Ross are brought to the New York SHIELD Helicarrier to examine a gamma-radiated capsule. It turns out to contain the Bi-Beast, who takes over the ship with the intent to destroy the world, only to be stopped by the Hulk, whom Ross beams aboard the ship. The Hulk disarms the nuclear device, and he and the Bi-Beast are thrown off the ship into the ocean below, presumed dead. The Hulk then washes up on shore, and has a series of adventures: he helps good circus folk rescue a mermaid from the Circus of Crime, and tries to rescue a crazy scientist from pirates. (He fails, and the scientist transforms the pirates and himself into ape-creatures that then go down with the underwater base.) There's also an issue starring Doc Samson, where he fights off the Rhino, but not before the Rhino successfully steals something from a train. Developing subplots include Betty leaving the base to get her groove back; Summers becoming increasingly frustrated with her tenant and his habit of dropping off young teenage boys for days at a time; Kroptkin the Great returning for his stuff in Bruce's apartment; and the amnesiac at the Hulk Buster base mysteriously disappears.

Stray thoughts:
--There's a sharp increase of the Hulk mourning his lot in life, especially how the ones he love seem to have to leave him--nice to see Jarella isn't forgotten immediately.
--When the Maha Yogi's jewel is destroyed by a Hulk crush, he's instantly aged into a decrepit old man. His henchman stops the fight, and vows to devote his life to caring for the invalid, in repayment for how Yogi saved him. It's nice to see that kind of loyalty in a henchman.
--The Constrictor is basically treated as a low level D-grade villain these days. He's not as dumb as some, but he's generally shown as an average guy with a villainous, occasionally murderous slant.Here, he's portrayed as much more intelligent, and high-minded. I suppose that makes a good contrast with the Hulk's less-than-intelligent approach.
--a lot of drama in the early issues of this bunch comes out of Bruce's attempts to live a Hulk-free life, and refusing to turn into the Hulk for as long as possible.
--The Quintronic Man is piloted by five scientists who keep bickering with each other--the four operating the limbs think the guy in the head is crazy--which is good comedic fodder.
--The Bi-Beast's plan is destroy the world using the supply of nuclear missiles in the SHIELD Heli-Carrier. This may be a good argument for why a SHIELD Heli-Carrier *shouldn't* have enough nuclear armaments to destroy the planet in one go.
--This may be me reading too much into things, but for me, one of the iconic Hulk moments comes from Avengers 1, where he's tricked by Loki into damaging a train bridge, then has to hold the rails up so the train can make it across. In Samson's issue, there's a variation of that, wherein he has to hold up the rails after the Rhino smashes the bridge to rob the train.

I meant to do this all in one go, but things are turning out longer than I planned. So we'll continue on next time.

Later Days.

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