Friday, 23 August 2013

Essential Hulk volume 1

Essential Hulk volume 1 contains, in the original edition, all six issues of the original Incredible Hulk series and then the Hulk strips from issues #60-91 of Tales to Astonish (the anthology series that also starred Ant-Man/Giant Man and which later featured Namor the Sub-Mariner). Everything in the volume is written by Stan Lee. Jack Kirby draws the first five issues before being succeeded by Steve Ditko who carries on into the early Tales to Astonish stories. Kirby then returns for a few issues before switching to do layouts which are finished by a mix of "Mickey Demeo" (Mike Esposito moonlighting whilst at DC), Bob Powell, Scott Edward, John Romita and Bill Everett, then issue #84 is credited to "Almost the whole blamed Bullpen". After this (and probably not coincidentally) we get full pencils from John Buscema and Gil Kane. Later editions have added the Hulk's guest appearance in the Giant-Man strip in Tales to Astonish #59 (written by Stan Lee and drawn by Dick Ayers) which served as a trailer for the Hulk's own strip. (This strip can also be found in Essential Ant-Man volume 1.)

This is literally a volume of two halves albeit unequal ones. The first consists of the original Incredible Hulk series that lasted just six issues back in 1962-1963. Reports are divided as to whether it actually a poor seller or if it was just a victim of Marvel's limited number of titles due to its distribution deal and displaced by Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos. But either way the result was that the Hulk soon lost his own title and was relegated to wandering through the pages of other books such as the Fantastic Four, the Avengers and even the Amazing Spider-Man. Then after about a year and a half without his own feature, he was given a slot in Tales to Astonish.

This disjoint in the early years has often affected how they've been viewed. The original six issues have been reprinted many times - a pocketbook reprint lent to me by a friend many yeas ago was the first time I read any Silver Age Marvel stories (but I honestly can't remember what colour the Hulk was in the first issue) - but there's been much less attention given to the Tales to Astonish strips. Indeed a note at the start of the original edition of this volume specifically states that many of them hadn't been reprinted "since... well, even Stan Lee can't remember when!" (The Masterworks didn't start on them until a few years later.) It's apologising for the variation in reprint quality due to the nature of the archival material, but it's also a reminder that the Hulk entered his first forgotten era earlier than almost any of his contemporaries.

(The reprint quality is more than passable though. Indeed the worst looking page in my edition is actually one with 1990s artwork! It's a divider page between the two series with the front and back cover art on either side. Unfortunately one side seems to have the images overlaid on each other, like a double exposure. Later editions have better reproduction and lack the note.)

The Hulk's origin story is mostly timeless but there's one element that has bcome dated. Scientist Bruce Banner develops a powerful bomb emitting a special kind of radiation but gets caught in the blast of an undelayed test whilst saving a teenager who has wandered onto the site for a bet, and the resulting energy causes him to change into a monster - that's pretty easy to map to any era. Yes there's a bit of silly science about the effect of the rays. The arms race may have been a more prominent factor of the Cold War but even today nuclear weapons are a live and argued issue and it doesn't matter if it fits current US weapons testing policies. It's the presence of a Communist agent amongst the test staff and the interest of the Soviets that makes the first issue a little dated, though one could reasonably airbrush Igor into being a generic foreign spy of an unnamed or fictitious country. (Making him an alien infiltrator in disguise might be simultaneously timeless and also true to the spirit of some of the era's science fiction but... well... "Yeeesh!") The origin is retold in issue #3, for no real purpose (unless it was to fill up the page count), but with all the spy elements removed.

There are some other aspects to the series that show the silliness of the time, most obviously the way that Bruce is able to obtain a lot of scientific equipment on the sly and easily assemble everything from a gamma machine to the door to the Hulk's underground prison, with a ten foot thick concrete slab held in place by a steel rod. Later on Rick Jones is able to obtain and install a replacement rod with no-one noticing. And there's one issue where Rick is able to charter a private plane at only a few minutes' notice to fly him and the Hulk to confront the latest villain.

One thing rapidly becomes clear that there didn't seem to be a strong sense of direction for the series. At first we get the tale of a man who transforms into a brutish monster at night - a latter day take on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or at least the popular impression of it. But this doesn't last and soon we shift towards the scenario of the Hulk being a mistrusted hero and Bruce controlling the transformation through a gamma ray machine. However issue #6 shows signs that the control is beginning to break down with delayed and incomplete transformations and then signs that the change can be brought on by extreme aggression. Issue #6 also sees the Hulk granted a Presidential pardon, suggesting a further shift in direction but the run ends before we can see where it goes. The Hulk's personality is initially that of a simple giant but midway through Bruce gains control of the monstrous form. However there are signs that either Bruce is losing control to the Hulk's personality or else he is changing with the power, as the Hulk becomes ever more brutish.

We also see the debut of the most prominent of the Hulk's supporting cast, with all of them introduced on the first few pages of the original issue. Rick Jones is a carefree orphaned teenager who sneaked onto the test site for a bet, but he rapidly becomes loyal to Bruce for saving his life. Rick is about the only teen sidekick in the early Silver Age Marvels - teenagers are otherwise the stars, full members of teams or absent altogether. But unlike many DC sidekicks, Rick largely helps away from fights, looking after Banner/the Hulk, obtaining equipment for him and so forth. At one stage a second accident temporarily results in the Hulk being under Rick's control, a very different arrangement from the norm. At the end of the series Rick and friends form the "Teen Brigade" (well it was 1963) of amateur radio operators across the country to help when needed. The slang was probably dated even at the time but it's good to see some independent organisational initiative. However the main romantic interest is a bit of a washout. Betty Ross at this stage is a rather weak Daddy's Girl who has fallen for Bruce and will defend him against her father's criticisms but otherwise seems to spend most of her time pining for Bruce, being scared by the Hulk or serving as a damsel in distress to be rescued. It's only in the very last few panels that she and Bruce step out together.

Betty's father becomes the Hulk's main foe. General "Thunderbolt" Ross rapidly decides the Hulk is a menace, in part because of Betty's fear of him. Most issues see him trying to capture or destroy the Hulk and sometimes the former is achieved but not for long. Although other military officers are shown with a sceptical view of the Hulk's attempts to do good, Ross believes the worst at all times and thinks others are tricked. The result is a tense backdrop as the Hulk is often on the run and in hiding.

The Hulk battles several other foes in these tales but it's surprising how obscure most of them have remained. The first issue features the Gargoyle, a man deformed by bomb tests who is now a genius working for the Soviets but wishing only to be normal again. He gets his wish in the issue and dies at the end. Death isn't normally an obstacle for a Marvel villain but as far as I'm aware he's never returned outside flashbacks. Issue #2 has that traditional type of enemy, an alien race seeking to invade Earth, though with the Toad Men we actually get an entire invasion armada, rather than just an advanced scoutship as is more normally the case. Issue #3 sees the first big name villains in the form of the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime. And at this stage it's amazing they can get away with their trick - they turn up in a small town, hold a circus performance where they hypnotise the audience and make them hand over all their valuables before going round the rest of the town to do the same to the handful of inhabitants who didn't come. Then they leave for another. It's little surprise that the FBI soon spot the connection. Issue #4 sees an attack by Mongu "the Gladiator from Outer Space!" but he's just a Soviet agent in a giant suit trying to catch the Hulk and I don't think he's been seen since. The following issue introduces General Fang, a Chinese warlord, and Tyrannus, another underground ruler. Finally issue #6 sees the debut of the Metal Master, an alien with the power to control and change the atoms of all metal. Oddly, despite the tendency of Marvel to leave few ideas unmined, very few of these foes have made many return appearances. The Ringmaster and the Circus of Crime and Tyrannus are about the only ones who've popped up a lot but the rest have made few to none.

These early issues show a series in flux, not really sure whether it wants to be a monster saga or a superhero series. Elements of both genres are present but without a firm sense of direction and at some points such as issue #3 it feels as though the intention is to start again, retelling the origin and transforming the Hulk. Whereas later eras of the Hulk would make a virtue out of constant change, here it feels more like uncertainty. The result is a weak series that deserved a break and a chance to try again later.

Tales to Astonish #59 has been added to later editions and at the time it would have served as a mini recap of the Hulk's status quo. Giant-Man and the Wasp head to New Mexico in the hope of convincing the Hulk to rejoin the Avengers but interference by the Human Top results in Giant-Man and the Hulk battling it out. It's interesting to see some minor changes in the Hulk from his portrayal in his original series - now Bruce Banner changes when he gets stressed and the Hulk doesn't seem to have any of Bruce's mind in control (although he retains the memory that Giant-Man is after him). We're on the Hulk's initial stomping ground and both Betty and Thunderbolt Ross are reintroduced (Rick, however, is now hanging out with the Avengers and Captain America). It's a fairly straightforward tale that could be forgotten.

The revived series in Tales to Astonish picks up largely where things were left off, although Rick is initially away with the Avengers. Early on, we're introduced to the military base's new security chief Major Glenn Talbot, a further antagonist for both the Hulk and Bruce, and a rival for Betty's affections. Talbot is rather unlikeable for much of the run but towards the end he has temptation dropped in his lap when he takes a call clearing the Hulk and could delay relaying the news until it's too late, thus giving him a chance with Betty, but instead realises his duty is to pass on the message immediately.

Once the strip is restored, it rapidly establishes that Bruce transforms into the Hulk at moments of extreme stress and anger, the best known cause of change between the characters. Curiously it's also used to change him back to Bruce until issue #67 when calmness and rest now achieve this. Up until issue #66 the Hulk talks fluently, albeit in a slightly "gangster" manner, but then he starts speaking in the more primitive "Hulk smash!" speech pattern best associated with the character. Issue #70 sees Bruce's mind once more controlling the Hulk but steadily the latter's brutish nature takes over.

Issue #64 sees Rick confessing Bruce's secret to the President (not shown, either because the issue came out near election time or nobody wanted to repeat a notorious mistake Action Comics made when an issue went on sale featuring John F. Kennedy just after his assassination), feeling he will never betray it and can give help. From a modern perspective it's odd to see such reverence given to a mere elected politician. From at least Richard Nixon onwards the phrase "If you can't trust the President of the United States, who can you trust?" has had a very different meaning. The President makes a few further appearances with less reluctance to show him as Lyndon Johnson, but an executive order giving Ross the power to grant the Hulk an amnesty comes too late. Later on when the Hulk is believed to have been destroyed, Rick confesses the secret to Talbot in the hope of clearing Bruce of charges of being a traitor to his country. This has the effect of changing the long term dynamics of the series as Bruce will be ever more a fugitive, though at this stage he's able to hold off the army and prove his worth.

One reason why many of the stories appear to have had few reprints is the continuous serial nature of them. With only ten pages an issue the strip opted to tell an ongoing epic with each issue flowing into the next from issues #60 through to #79. This suits a continuous reprint format series perfectly, but isn't so good for pick 'n mix collections which is probably half the reason why so few had had recent reprints when this volume first came out. The early issues focus on an epic story involving the Leader, another human exposed to gamma rays but on this occasion his brain has been enhanced instead of his strength. The Leader has developed much technology, including his "Humanoid" minions, an artificial lifeform especially grown, and he is seeking to steal various forms of further technology to advance his goals and spots the potential for using the Hulk. This ultimately leads to his sending the Hulk to the home of the Watcher to obtain the "Ultimate Machine" - something that looks like a goldfish bowl but contains all the knowledge of the universe. Here the Leader's intelligence is his own downfall as the machine overloads his mind and kills him.

The Leader is by far the biggest foe introduced in these issues, though in the last few issues we also see the debut of the Abomination. Otherwise the new foes introduced are comparatively minor players for the Hulk, though some have played bigger parts elsewhere - the Amphibian, the Secret Empire and the Boomerang. We also get a handful of foes from other series including the Chameleon, the Executioner, the Mole Man and the Stranger. It's interesting to see a number of themes that would appear again during Peter David's epic run on the character. As well as a Hulk who seemingly fuses both his and Bruce's personalities, there's a trip to a dystopian future, and conflict between different sub-surface rulers (also a step towards tidying up some of the duplication in the early Marvel universe). In a way it suggests the Hulk was taken back to his roots, even if those roots were pretty obscure.

Towards the end of the volume there appear to be signs of the series meandering with some abrupt changes of direction. Issue #81 introduces the Secret Empire, a shadowy criminal organisation, and over the next few issues there's considerable build-up as we see the start of a power struggle. But then the Secret Empire abruptly disappears from the strip and the only acknowledgement comes a few issues later when Boomerang comments on how they've now been "smashed". Possibly this is a consequence of the art chaos as the crucial issue would have presumably been #84 which is drawn by "Almost the whole blamed Bullpen", suggesting a rush job to get the issue to the presses in which key plot points were lost. (Actually the Secret Empire was picked up in the other half of Tales to Astonish in the Sub-Mariner strip but there's nothing here to actually tell the reader of this.) Later on there's a report of an attempt on Betty's life but we never see it. The art situation also results in the last four issues here being some of the worst art in the entire volume. Gil Kane drew many great comics in his career but all artists can have their off moments and this is one of his. The art is far too cartoony, with both the Hulk and the Abomination looking especially silly, and it detracts from a crucial moment as for the first time the Hulk battles a super strong foe that is the product of gamma rays. Often the best foes for a hero are those who offer a dark reflection of them and the Abomination is the obvious candidate to serve that role with the Hulk. Unfortunately we get a rather limited clash here before the Stranger takes the Abomination away, and the art just lets it down completely.

In general the Tales to Astonish strips aren't really anything spectacular. When read together they flow quite quickly, but readers at the time must have found the ongoing stories took forever to complete. Although we get a couple of new foes with strong potential, one is killed off in his first storyline and the other taken away from Earth. Neither of these necessarily restrict a villain's use in the future but they can leave the series in a weakened state in the meantime. The chaos surrounding the Secret Empire is a real let down, especially as all the issues have the same scripter. Add in the repeated pursuit and conflict with the military, which can eventually tire, and it's all a bit of a letdown. Consequently this era of the Hulk somewhat deserves its obscurity.

Overall this volume shows that the Hulk is a great idea on paper but very difficult to realise in practice. The original series shows a complete uncertainty about what to do with the character and when revived later on he's let down by very long storylines, repetition with the military and some artistic confusion. Perhaps the original series had a mercy killing and there's not a great deal in the rest of the volume to suggest the best direction for the Hulk had yet been found.


  1. Even so, it was my favourite period for the Hulk. It's just a pity that they couldn't have included the Hulk vs. the Matador ( from SMASH! ) between TIH and TTA. Being black & white it could have been slipped in, as there will be many American buyers who havn't seen this story.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...