I think I bought this issue of INCREDIBLE HULK during that same trip to Heroes World with my grandparents. As I’ve related previously, I wasn’t really all that interested in the character to start with, but my brother had begun picking up the book, spurred on by the live action television series that was then running. And when he stopped, I kept going with it. And I have to say, this is a better Ernie Chan cover than most of what he did on the DC super hero books years before. Growing up, Ernie Chan (often credited as Ernie Chua thanks to a foul-up in immigration) was the regular super hero cover artist during the last year or so of Carmine Infantino’s time as publisher, and his work could be found on almost everything. But it was often doughy, ill-proportioned, weird–like Chan didn’t quite have a grasp on super hero dynamics. Here, I would guess that he was working from a cover sketch by Dave Cockrum, and those difficulties aren’t in evidence.
Having cleared the decks by finishing up the Leader epic that had been set into motion by his predecessor as writer, Len Wein, this was the issue in which Roger Stern began to truly chart his own course for the Green Goliath. The Hulk had simply been a fact of life before this, but Stern was interested in working out just what exactly he was. His conclusion was that the Hulk was a completely separate personality and entity from Bruce Banner, a status quo that stayed that way for a decade until Peter David (following up on a Bill Mantlo story) redefined the Hulk as effectively a split personality on the part of Banner due to his childhood trauma. These were relatively deep waters for a uper hero monster comic book to be delving into, but Stern made sure that each issue had the requisite amount of punching and smashing and rage as well.
Backing Stern up on the visuals was the always-reliable Sal Buscema, then just at the start of his long association with the character. In later years, Sal has revealed that of all his Marvel assignments, he enjoyed working on INCREDIBLE HULK the best, that he could relate to the childlike beast who just wanted to be left alone. His bombastic style defined the look of the title for many, many years. In this issue, he’s inked by the slick Joe Sinnott. I think I liked this combination at the time because it softened some of the rougher edges of Buscema’s work, but looking back at it today, I don’t love it as much. It’s a bit too slick, too pristine for the savage Man-Child.
In the last issue, in order to rile the Hulk up so that he could break free of the Leader’s trap and bring about the evil mastermind’s downfall, Doc Samson insulted the Hulk, calling him dumb. With the immediate crisis now over, though, the Hulk hasn’t forgotten this slight, and this issue opens with him smacking the holy hell out of Doc Samson in retaliation for the insult. Nothing that Samson or General Thunderbolt Ross or the troops under his command can do will quiet the Hulk’s rage, but once he gets a few good licks in, the emerald-hued beast decides that he’s had enough and leaps away into the distance. Samson, though, is intent on psychoanalyzing the Hulk, a journey he began with the creature in earlier issues, and so he’s not content to let the Hulk go.
In his flight, the Hulk winds up zeroing in on Desert State University, whose campus is hastily evacuated once his approach becomes known. The Hulk had previously battled Captain Mar-Vell on this campus, but even more meaningfully, Bruce Banner had studied here as well. The Hulk experiences some of Banner’s memories filtered through his own persona which bring him some anguish before he’s confronted by the Dean of the campus, who irritates the man-brute even further by calling him Bruce. It’s only the arrival of the Hulk’s buddy Jim Wilson that saves the Dean’s life, but the older man still suffers a heart episode as a result, and the Hulk is genuinely anguished by the manner in which his friend Jim admonishes him for his actions. For all of his strength, this incarnation of the Hulk really is just a big kid at heart, and he can’t quite wrap his head around the nuances of what is happening to him.
As the Hulk wails and pounds futilely on the ground in pain and anger, his attention is drawn by a large figure standing off in the darkness. Hungry for something to vent his rage on, the Hulk closes with the shadowy figure–and we see that it isn’t a living being at all, but rather a statue of Socrates, the father of modern thought. When Bruce Banner studied on this campus, this was a favorite location of his, and Socrates’ motto–“Know Thyself”–rings through the Hulk’s psyche as a result. But the Hulk doesn’t want to know himself, he’s filled with self-loathing thanks to the tongue-lashing he got from Jim and his understanding that he hurt the Dean in a way he hadn’t intended to. In an attempt to make the voice in his head cease, the Hulk demolishes the statue with a series of brutal blows.
But no matter how many times the Hulk strikes the statue, reducing it to rubble, the voice will not cease. Eventually, his rage spend for the moment, he transforms back into Bruce Banner, who is similarly anguished. But Doc Samson is suddenly there, and he offers to help Bruce in understanding what his relationship with the Hulk truly is. And that’s where this issue is To Be Continued. No villain to speak of, no adventure to be had, really just a lot of introspection, albeit couched in very visual terms. This all seems a little trite maybe from the vantage point of the 21st century, but at the time, it signaled a higher degree of intelligence and sophistication being applied to the Hulk’s exploits. And for a series that had been so often predicated on the fight-of-the-month style storytelling, this was a big improvement.