I was quite happy to find this issue of INCREDIBLE HULK, in one of those plastic-wrapped bundles of coverless comics my local drug store had been selling–in fact, it may even have been the reason why I bought the bundle in question. Because I already owned issues #206 and #208, and #206 had ended with a terrific cliffhanger: driven into a rampage by his grief over the death of his girlfriend Jarella, the Hulk was paused in his tracks by the arrival of his friends, the Defenders. And this portended a massive fight to come–one that was long resolved by the opening to issue #208. So I was hungry to see what had gone down. Additionally, there was always something intangibly satisfying about filling in a hole in my collection, even a single-issue hole such as this one. Buying these slightly-older Marvel titles at the time felt like filling in the pieces on some elaborate jigsaw puzzle that had been going on since 1961. So every additional piece added just a little bit more to the overall picture and my sense of it.
INCREDIBLE HULK at this moment was being written by Len Wein. reportedly, the Hulk was Wein’s favorite Marvel character, and he brought a certain sensitivity and schmaltz to his run. He was paired up with Sal Buscema, who would also long be associated with the Green Goliath. Sal was just beginning his over-100 issue stint on the series at this time, but it was already clear how much of an affinity he had for the character–in particular the more cuddly version that Wein was writing. Embellishment was handled by Joe Staton, whose cartoony style appealingly served to trim down some of the rougher edges in Buscema’s work. It was a good combination, but Staton didn’t remain at Marvel for long–he preferred working over at DC where they would let him pencil as well as ink.
As promised on the cover, the issue is virtually a book-long fight scene, broken up with some subplot moments. But it’s still got some good heart to it. As they are unaware of the pain and grief that is driving the Hulk’s path of destruction, the Defenders are harsh when they first appear, swiftly resorting to force to hold their erstwhile ally at bay rather than trying to reason with him. And using force against the Hulk is never a winning strategy. And so despite the fact that Doctor Strange envelops the gamma-powered brute within the crimson Bands of Cyttorak, the Hulk manages to break free anyway and elude his supposed friends. And that’s the end of act one.
Given his childlike nature, the Hulk had been hoping that his friend Doctor Strange might be able to cure Jarella of being dead–which sounds silly, but this notion is put over with earnestness. But now that Strange and the Defenders have seemingly spat in his face, the Hulk is a bomb looking for a place to explode. Events hit a critical point when the man-child sees a blond woman on the street, and mistakes her for a second for Jarella. When it turns out she isn’t his stricken love, the Hulk goes berserk–and it’s at this moment that the Defenders turn up again. Timing is not one of their super-attributes, it seems. Doctor Strange tries to de-escalate the situation with the Hulk, but the green behemoth has had it.
Unfortunately, the Hulk’s attach damages the supports to an elevated highway, and Strange is forced to employ the Ruby Rays of Raggador to support the structure until a more permanent fix can be cobbled together. But it’s enough to take him out of the fight. And as capable as they may be, Valkyrie, the Red Guardian and Nighthawk are no match for the Hulk, and incapable of even materially slowing him down. He goes through the Defenders like they were wet paper, and it’s only a last-second appeal from Nighthawk that prevents the Hulk from taking the bird-nosed crusader’s head off his shoulders. And with that, the Hulk’s anger has run its course, and he accepts that Nighthawk and the others are truly his friends, and that they want to help him.
After the Defenders, with the Hulk’s help, repair the damage t the elevated highway, they retire to dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum, where the Master of the Mystic Arts hears the Hulk’s pleas for help. Agreeing to do all he can, Strange separates his ectoplasmic self from his body, dispatching it to where Jarella’s lifeless body is being kept. While a brooding Hulk waits as patiently as he is capable of doing, Doctor Strange examines the body of the alien sub-atomic woman as best he can, both as a medical practitioner and a sorcerer, and determines that he soul, her essence, is gone from this vessel. Regrettably, he must return to his Sanctum in failure and try to make the Hulk understand what has become of Jarella.
And this is really the heart of the story in question–and it works wonderfully as depicted by Wein and Buscema. The Hulk works his way through the stages of grief as the Defenders watch, offering what emotional support they can. You truly get a feeling for the Hulk as a wayward child in this sequence–he’s not lamenting the loss of a friend or a lover per se so much as something akin to a parent. Ultimately, the issue ends with a now-calmed Hulk quietly taking his leave, uncertain once more of his place in the world and with none to stand beside him. It’s a pretty good example of the strengths that Wein brought to his interpretation of the character.