I got this issue of INCREDIBLE HULK, with its very nice Jim Starlin-drawn cover, in one of those 3-Bags sold in department stores and toy stores. The books in those bags were always about nine months old, so this was a way, at least during the first year of my starting to read Marvel books, for me to catch up on some recent stuff that I had missed. It was always a thrill when a new batch of these 3-Bags would turn up at one of these venues–you never knew quite what you were going to find, but all of it was unexpected to some degree.
This issue was right towards the end of Len Wein’s time as writer and editor on the series. The Hulk was his favorite Marvel character, and he infused the title with a lot of pathos. Len’s specialty was the tear-jerker, where the Green Goliath would find and lose somebody he cared about. Artist Sal Buscema, on the other hand, was just getting started with his run. I always liked the look of Ernie Chan’s inks over Sal on this book. Part of that is no doubt the fact that this was the combo in place when I first started reading it. But Sal’s work varied based on the skill of his inkers and the way they approached his work. Guys like Mike Esposito often used too light a touch, making the end result look more like a coloring book. But Chan added a lot of texture work to the pages, more along the lines of what he might have done if the strip had been appearing in black and white. For a monster comic–and that’s what INCREDIBLE HULK was, after all–it was a good look.
The story this time out was smack-dab in Len’s sweet spot. Wandering the countryside after having survived his fall from the SHIELD Helicarrier at the climax of his battle with the Bi-Beast, the Hulk stumbles across a family of circus performers. They’re on the run from their ringmaster, who was intent on using one of their number, the willowy Meriam, for his own ends. But they welcome the Hulk as a fellow outsider, and without anywhere else to go, the Green Goliath joins their company, creating a makeshift bridge out of a destroyed tree so their wagon can cross an otherwise-impassable ravine. And the childlike Hulk is once again happy to have made some new friends.
The circus performers had found Meriam alone and unconscious on a beach, and adopted her into their company much as they had now done for the Hulk. But she suffers from life-threatening fainting spells, and the Hulk (who only recently had lost his true love Jarella) is distraught at the notion that she might die. Things take a turn for the worse when the group’s pursuers catch up with them. The Hulk finds himself ensnared in the coils of a gigantic python as the Ringmaster appears along with the rest of his Circus of Crime. The snake is no match for the Hulk’s strength, but the Ringmaster wastes no time in mesmerizing the emerald behemoth with his mesmeric abilities.
The Ringmaster is obsessed with information that he believes Meriam possesses as a denizen of the deep, and he threatens to torture the captive performers in order to get her to divulge what he wants to know. Speaking of the performers, they’ve been locked up in a cage wagon separate from the Hulk. But little person Major Minor is able to squeeze through the bars and make his way over to the nearby wagon that holds the Hulk. His cries for help are enough to rouse the Hulk out of his hypnotic slumber, and he annihilates the cage he was locked in and begins to rampage in the hopes of locating and saving Meriam.
I wouldn’t bet on the Circus of Crime standing up to the Hulk on a good day, and in this instance, he’s backed up by the family of performers, who spend a few pages going one-on-one with members of the Circus of Crime and coming out on top. But the Hulk is out of patience, and he sends pretty much all of the opposition flying with terrifying ease. The Ringmaster attempts to play his trump card once more, attempting to overwhelm the Hulk’s dim mind with his hypnotic abilities. But this time, the Hulk is simply too angry to by hypnotized, and the Ringmaster strains his brain in attempting to do so.
So all’s well that ends well, right? Well, not quite. You see, this experience has shown Meriam that the reason for her declining health is her separation from her native realm, the sea, and she asks the Hulk to take her back there. The Hulk is saddened at the thought of being parted from his newfound friend, but he does as she asks, carrying her to the shoreline. Then, as a wave crests, she is gone–and the Hulk is left to wander off on his own with sadness in his heart, alone again. It’s a very straightforward story in the way that it runs the bases, but it’s produced with craft and genuine heart, and so it works.