Here’s another new book that I picked up during my first trip to the Batcave comic book shop in the South Shore Mall, and it represents, I believe, the first issue of INCREDIBLE HULK that I bought for myself. My brother Ken had been following the series prior to this, but was beginning to drift away from it–though this didn’t stop him from eventually buying his own copy of tis issue when it reached our local outlets. But having read his copies for the past few months and having gotten fully onto the Marvel bandwagon, I took the plunge and started following the title regularly–a condition that would endure for many years, until that moment at the start of 1983 when I was forced to prune away 80% or so of my buying list, including virtually all of the Marvel titles. But that was still in the future.
I suspect that the element that made me finally take the plunge on reading INCREDIBLE HULK regularly was the addition of writer Roger Stern. Stern was one of those craftsmen whose work was always rock-solid but who wasn’t particularly flashy or ostentatious. As such, he tended to fly a bit under the radar in terms of being a key Marvel creator of the period. But because his work was always entertaining, he drew readers into his titles–and I believe that I was one of them. on HULK, Roger was just beginning his writing career–he had written a few other things before this, but HULK was his first major Marvel assignment. And he set off to reconceptualize the character and the title by building on the foundation that prior author Len Wein had set down. In these endeavors, he was ably assisted by workhorse Sal Buscema, who would remain on the book for close to a decade himself. The Hulk was Sal’s favorite Marvel character, particularly this iteration, and Sal’s personal interpretation of the Green Goliath with its exaggerated action and over-the-top acting was a hand-in-glove fit.
Last month, the long-suffering bruce Banner had been finally and permanently cured of his transformations into the Hulk! Hooray! Unfortunately, this coincided with his old enemy the Leader resurfacing and taking control of Gamma Base. Without the power of the Hulk to stop him, the Leader had little difficulty in capturing Banner, Thunderbolt Ross and Doc Samson, and now his bid to subjugate the world can continue unabated. After the Leader recaps the past couple of issues for his captives and the audience, Doc Samson manages to break free from his oversized steel restraints–but try as he might, he can’t lay a finger on the Leader–the latter has implanted mental blocks within his prisoners’ minds that keep them from attacking him.
The Leader heads off to confront the just-arriving Clay Quartermain, utterly unconcerned that Samson is still himself free and can release his other two captives, Banner and Ross. And why should he be worried? The best plan that Samson and Ross can come up with to stymie the Leader is to change Banner back into the Hulk again. Which is a bit of a head-scratcher–the notion that the Hulk was the Leader’s nemesis always made him feel to me alike a cut-rate criminal super-genius. The Hulk was hardly a worthy adversary in the smarts department, and all you had to do was not involve him in your plans and he was unlikely to interfere. But I digress. Banner isn’t really on board with this idea, naturally–so he proposes an alternative, one the trio moves to set up.
Clay Quartermain lands his plane, only to find himself surrounded by the base’s mesmerized soldiers. Like Ross and company before him, he’s easily disarmed and apprehended. But as the Leader gloats, and starts to outline his plans one more time for teh newly-arrived Quartermain, there’s a sudden pounding–and then the Hulk smashes through a wall, totally on the attack! And this version of the Hulk seems more bestial than ever before–more like the television version, to be precise, in that he doesn’t speak. What he does do is destroy, and the Leader is immediately on the run, hurling his mind-controlled military at the unrelenting behemoth. But nothing that the soldiers can throw at the Hulk seems to slow him down or deter him from his dogged pursuit of the melon-domed bad guy.
But they do manage to provide the Leader with some cover long enough for him to scramble into the improved version of the tripod-style Murder Module he’d employed against the Hulk a hundred issues earlier. Back inside the base, Ross and Samson take in this development with worry–but a voice from off-panel tells them that he’s got it under control. And undaunted by the size and deadliness of his quarry’s ride, the Hulk continues his assault, fighting his way up the Murder Module to its domed control center where the Leader is piloting the thing. In doing so, though, the Hulk gives the game away to the Leader, as he is forced to fire jets built into his feet in order to make the necessary leap to the top of the craft. So this isn’t the Hulk that we know.
Rather, it’s a robot version of the Hulk that had been used in previous issues for training purposes. It’s being guided remotely by Banner, who is plugged into it remotely from back inside the base. As soon as he realizes that his foe is nothing more than a robot in a familiar shape, the Leader gets his cool back, and he effortlessly blasts the Hulk robot into scrap. The resulting feedback, however, fries Banner’s brain completely, and he passes out, fatally stricken. Samson’s on-the-sopt diagnosis is that Banner is dying. And as the Leader crows, the next issue banner asks the rhetorical question: Is There Hulk After Death? To Be Continued!