Another book that I picked up on that first post-5th Grade trip down to my local 7-11 was this issue of INCREDIBLE HULK, a series that I kinda fell backwards into reading–though, if I hadn’t been a regular consumer of the book at this point, this cover’s appearance of the original Avengers likely would have prompted me to buy it anyway. Such gambits still worked on me as they were meant to when I was young. It’s a strong cover by former HULK mainstay Herb Trimpe, here given some more modern polish by inker Joe Rubinstein.
As the new writer, Roger Stern was now at the point where he was really delving in on his interpretation of the character, which meant having resident gamma-powered psychiatrist in residence Doc Samson delve into the Hulk’s psyche to determine just what exactly it is. Is the Hulk just a part of Banner or is he a separate entity? Earlier comics had played things both ways (and future comics would definitely come down on one side of this argument) but the matter had never been settled, or indeed even deeply looked into. The appeal of the Hulk was in seeing a big green behemoth lay waste to stuff, so there’s not a whole lot of room for introspection, or so you would think. This issue also saw a level-up on the art side as Klaus Janson came on board to ink/finish the pencils/breakdowns of Sal Buscema. Even before his tenure alongside Frank Miller on DAREDEVIL mad him a well-known name in fandom, Klaus was an inker of some renown, whose texture-filled and impressionistic approach to the work had previously made pencilers such as Gil Kane look completely different in a positive fashion. Here, he does the same to Sal, maintaining Buscema’s rock-solid storytelling while adding nuance and atmospherics in the linework. It’s a great combination.
So, having been forced to turn Bruce Banner back into the Hulk a few issues earlier in order to cope with the threat of the Leader, Doc Samson is interested in getting to the root of just what the Hulk is, and what’s responsible for the constant rage that drives him into destructive rampages. So he wires the big guy up to one of those omnipresent super-scientific machines that are hanging around and enters the Hulk’s mind, intending on analyzing the brute. This takes the form of following the Hulk as he revisits moments from Banner’s childhood and upbringing–no abusive father here yet, that came later. But every time the young Banner experiences pain, the Hulk reacts likewise, and lashes out at the tableau before him.
Eventually, this tour of Banner’s upbringing, as sparse as it is (one visit to his childhood home, with no adults present and one drop-in when Banner is in school and screws up an experiment, only to be admonished by his instructor Mr. Woodman–a funny name-drop for WELCOME BACK KOTTER fans by Stern) we of course come down to the main event: the gamma bomb accident and the creation of the Hulk. Or the liberation of the Hulk, if the big goliath is to be believed. Events play out as we know them, with Samson interacting a bit with the Hulk’s memory of Rick Jones in-between Jones parroting lines from INCREDIBLE HULK #1. Then the bomb goes off–and when the dust clears, the Hulk is there, ready to smash Bruce Banner, who is manifested as a separate person than him.
But this is a Marvel comic, of course, and that means that we’ve already had too much talking–it’s time for some fighting. So as the Hulk moves to crush Banner into paste, he’s challenged by a cry from out of frame–and as promised on the cover, the original Avengers are there to stop him, including two separate versions of Iron Man, apparently because the Hulk remembers both of them, as well as both Ant-Man and Giant-Man, same reason. What follows is a slobberknocker in which the Hulk bats his way through the Avengers without slowing down, even as they taunt and belittle him about his lack of intellect and his savage nature. They’re just mean. Maybe one of the most fun moments in this fight is when the Hulk smashes the two Iron Men together and they shatter into empty suits of armor, as though he had no understanding that there was somebody insides those metal shells.
This fight is confusing to Samson, who tries to delve into what it means even as it’s carrying out. He tells the Hulk that he’s wrong, that the Avengers were–or could have been–his friends, to which the Hulk replies that he hates having friends. And why? Because his friends always wind up dying, and leaving the poor Hulk alone again. To prove the point, we see a bevy of older characters who fit the bill, everyone from Crackajack Jackson to Mogol to of course Jarella. The Hulk’s sorrow is made manifest here, and as the figures of his once-friends fade away into fog, the Hulk’s true tormentor appears. It is, of course, Bruce Banner, who speaks of opposing the Hulk through logic, thought and order. Before Samson can stop them, the Hulk and Banner collide in a spectacular display of pyrotechnics, and then…
…Samson finds himself having been expelled from the Hulk’s mind. What’s more, he now has a prognosis. In his opinion, the Hulk and Banner aren’t two parts of the same persona, but rather two completely separate entities in a single body. (Later stories would make this diagnosis incorrect, but at the time of this story, this is the table Roger was setting, so we need to go with it.) Samson needs time to process this new understanding, but he’s not likely to get it. You see, he and the scientists fouled up on the amount of gamma-epinephrine they gave to the Hulk in order to manifest him in an otherwise-calm setting. And it turns out that the dose he received is enough to prevent him from returning to Bruce Banner’s form for at least a week. Uh-oh. And here, we are To Be Continued!