This next book is something of a forgotten classic, a really strong and memorable single issue story hidden in the middle of a run. It was bought for my brother Ken, who was still a big Hulk fan based mostly on the television show (and the fact that he was more of a “monster” kid in general than me, having affection for Godzilla movies and King Kong and the like.) It was a major influence on my thinking when developing the current IMMORTAL HULK series, actually, so it had an impact beyond its era. For the time, it’s quite strong, though most of the horrific stuff is left in your imagination, where it can be as bad as you can stand.
It had a different look than any recent issues as well, though still in keeping with the more textured black and white magazine flavor that the series had adopted in recent months. The person truly behind this story was Jim Starlin, who plotted and laid it out. Alfredo Alcala produced the finished art, which explains why the Hulk looked more monstrous than usual. It was Alcala’s manner to put in tons of detail and texture everywhere, and he came from a background where he wasn’t especially familiar with super hero idioms. So he approached most jobs as being genre stories. Editor Len Wein added his polished dialogue to the mix, and his ability to create emotional resonance with his characters. It was the skill that he was perhaps best at.
This issue seems as though it was commissioned to be an evergreen fill-in, and so it opens with the Hulk out in the desert mixing it up with the military as he was wont to do in those days. After trashing a bevy of tanks and guns, the Hulk is caught flat-footed when the last few soldiers bombard him not with ordinance but rather gas grenades. The Hulk is smart enough to leap away from this attack, but he’s already breathed in a dangerous quantity of the fumes, and so he passes out in mid-leap, crashing back down to the desert floor miles away, right near where a pair of small children (comically named Donny and Marie) happen to be playing. They decide to save the Hulk by calling Billy–who or what Billy is isn’t clear, but the little glimpse we get of Billy’s shadowed leg shows him to be huge and powerful.
After the army has come and gone, failing to locate the Hulk, we cut to the inside of a cave deep in the side of teh Adirondack Mountains, where Bruce Banner jolts back to awareness. His hosts, Donny and Marie, introduce themselves, and tell Banner that they and their little brother Billy found him and dragged him here for safety. Banner is incredulous, given that the Hulk weighs half a ton, and the kids tell him that Billy really did most of the work. Banner can tell that something is truly wrong here, and as his eyes adjust to the dim lighting and he begins to get a better look at his surroundings, he spies a colossal cooking pot with human remains scattered around it.
Banner questions the kids, who tell him what they know about how they got here. Seems that years ago, they had lived on a farm, and one day their baby brother Billy found a leaking drum of toxic waste and drank from it. Government men came to hush it all up, but the damage was done. Billy began to kill and eat the livestock, and even an old drifter who’d wandered onto the property. The kids’ parents didn’t want to believe it at first, but eventually they were forced to confront the situation–and Billy killed and ate them, too, telling Donny and Marie that they had run away. Since then, the three kids had run away into the desert to elude the Sheriff, and Donny and Marie go out every day to bring back food for the ravenous Billy. As they have done in this case as well.
A gong rings, the children take this as a signal to leave and go to bed, and Banner knows that he’s being stalked by the shadowy Billy. But this is, of course, a terrible idea, as Banner’s heart rate begins to increase, his breathing becomes more labored, and in seconds he has transformed into the Hulk. But even the Hulk’s power isn’t enough to claim an easy victory over the mutated cannibal. This is a Marvel book, so we get a number of pages of all-out carnage as the Hulk and his attacker karoom around the caverns, causing massive structural damage to them.
And eventually, the whole place comes down around them, burying both the Hulk and Billy alive. Outside, Donny and Marie wait for their brother to emerge from the wreckage–but it is instead the Hulk who is able to dig himself to freedom. Not understanding the situation he was in, the Hulk is friendly towards the two children, but he tells them that their wasn’t any Billy in that cave with him, just a big, ugly monster that the Hulk smashed. And Len goes out on a poetic note when he has the Hulk muse that if Billy had been in the cave, he must have been lost a very long time ago.