Here’s another issue of INCREDIBLE HULK that I bought new from my regular 7-11 supplier, now that I had gotten on board with following the series. I seem to recall that my younger brother Ken eventually bought his own copy as well, possibly the last issue of INCREDIBLE HULK he picked up. But what was important here, really, is that I read it. This was the climax to a three-part storyline that wrapped up most of outgoing writer Len Wein’s running plot lines and cleared the way for new writer Roger Stern to take the character in his own direction. Stern is one of those guys who was a better-than-average craftsman, somebody who tended to elevate the bar for whatever series he happened to be on through a combination of a familiarity with the source material and new and interesting insights into the series and what made it tick. He was the first to begin truly exploring the relationship between Bruce Banner and his gamma-powered alter ego as individual beings, a line of thought that would be milked, in one direction or another, ever since. Stern somehow operated below the radar a little bit. His work was always respected but he never quite distinguished himself from the pack in the manner of 1970s writers such as Steve Englehart or Jim Starlin. Possibly, he was too often in the shadow of his friend and occasional collaborator John Byrne, who was doing similar things in his stories while having the added benefit of being a popular artist who was drawing them. Anyway, Stern is underappreciated, is what I’m saying.
Similarly undervalued is artist Sal Buscema, who was a mainstay of the Marvel Bullpen from the later 1960s all the way through the end of the 1990s. Sal’s style was always meat-and-potatoes, very straightforward, very grid-oriented. He wasn’t as flashy as some or as pretty as others. But what he could do well is something his older brother John was often called upon to do as well: he could break down a story from a basic plot into storytelling units that were dynamic and exciting and which captured the emotions involved. Because he was so often doing breakdowns, the final look of Sal’s work was often at the mercy of his inkers. Here, Joe Rubinstein does a nice, solid job of making the final pages seem complete and slick, albeit a little bit open to color. Sal didn’t often spot a lot of blacks in his work, as he was typically doing breakdowns, and many of the inkers who finished his work similarly kept things relatively linear, often giving a Sal job just a little bit of a coloring book feel to it.
So, story-wise, where were we? Bruce Banner has finally been cured of the curse of being the Hulk, but this change comes at the worst possible moment, as his old foe the Leader has taken over Gamma Base and intends to use the network connections to take over all of the computer systems in the world. From there, backed by the power of his artificial Humanoid army, he’ll be able to take over the world. In an attempt to halt the Leader’s plans, last issue Bruce piloted a Hulk robot created for training exercises against the Leader–but when the deception was uncovered and the robot was destroyed, the feedback was apparently fatal. In the opening pages, Doc Samson and Thunderbolt Ross, the only two soldiers still possessing free will on the base, attempt to save banner’s life by bombarding him once again with gamma radiation. You’d think they’d know better by this point, but the question is moot: ultimately, Bruce Banner dies on the table, unresponsive.
But once again, this would be a pretty short comic if that spelled the end for Bruce Banner’s rampaging alter ego. And so, moments later, like a scene out of the current IMMORTAL HULK series, the dead Banner transforms into the Hulk and is alive again. (It’s likely the seeds for that series were planted right here, something else that can be traced back to Stern.) The Hulk, of course, is pissed, and Samson sees an opportunity. He and Ross are confined to this are by a powerful mental suggestion from the Leader. So Samson goads the Hulk into smashing him through the wall and out of the room–thus overcoming his own inability to leave. Now liberated, Samson hastily attempts to tell the Hulk about the threat posed by the Leader–a situation that grows more convincing once teh Leader notices that the pair are ambulatory and projects his oversized cranium to them in order to taunt them.
The Leader isn’t worried of course, he’s got a whole army of his rubber-skinned Humanoids just ready to throw at a problem like these two. Unfortunately for his big-domed plans, an army of Humanoids has never been a match for an enraged Hulk, and especially not when he’s backed up by Doc Samson’s own gamma-strength. But it makes for a well-told battle sequence, as the pair rolls up the Humanoid army in the tarmac of the base before switching their attention to the main control suite where the Leader awaits. In order to get the Hulk to do what he needs him to do, Samson continues to goad him, calling him stupid and prompting his limited intellect in order to get the emotional responses that he needs. But given teh threat posed to the world by the Leader’s plans, this is perhaps forgivable, seen as a necessity in the heat of battle. But it doesn’t make teh Hulk happy.
Unfortunately for Samson, once the pair gets to the room where the Leader stands waiting, he learns that he’s still bound by the arch-criminal’s mental control, and cannot raise a hand against him. The Hulk, however, is under no such restriction–but the leader has armed himself with a pair of cybernetic gloves that reflect kinetic energy, causing the Hulk to strike himself whenever he throws a blow at the Leader in the world’s strangest game of “Why are you hitting yourself?” But we all knows how this goes, right? As the Hulk continues to get pummeled, he continues to get madder. And as he gets madder, he also gets stronger–until he’s strong enough to force his way through the Leader’s kinetic field and crush his cyber-gloves to nothing.
The Leader at this moment chooses the better part of valor; it’s been a fine three-issue campaign, but a smart general knows when to quit the battlefield. He contacts his quasi-living satellite Omnivac for teleportation away from the Hulk and Gamma Base. Unfortunately for him, the power-pack for the kinetic energy gloves is still sparking, and it causes a disruption of the teleportation process that completely disintegrates the Leader . (Or seems to–this is a super-villain experiencing a super-villain death, so even when first reading it, I felt certain that he’d be back again, as in fact he was.) And so the day is saved, and Samson moves to congratulate his erstwhile ally. But the Hulk isn’t quite as dumb or as short of memory as Samson had thought, and as the issue comes to a close, the Green Goliath hurls himself at he hapless psychiatrist, intending to kick the crap out of him for his rude comments earlier. To Be Continued!
The letters page this time out was once again truncated in order to fit an ad for the upcoming Beatles magazine. But it included a fun letter from future comics superstar Erik Larsen. Erik is admittedly a massive Hulk fan (you can see traces of this within the pages of his decades-running Image series SAVAGE DRAGON) and here he asks about the possibility of a Pocket Books collection of the first six issues of the series–a request whose fulfillment I already possessed, and wrote about a few weeks back. But his question gave the editor the opportunity to plug not only that book but the HULK color magazine and the upcoming Annual, which was no doubt the reason why Erik’s letter was selected for print in teh first place.