Friday, 18 April 2014

Essential Hulk volume 5

Essential Hulk volume 5 contains the Incredible Hulk #171-200 & Annual #5. The first eight issues are written by a mixture of Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway and Tony Isabella, before Len Wein begins a lengthy run, also plotting the annual with Chris Claremont scripting. The art covers the end of Herb Trimpe's long run and the start of Sal Buscema's, with the latter drawing the annual. Bonus materal includes the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entry for Hammer and Anvil, and an early version of issue #174's cover.

The series has by now settled into a clear pattern for the long run with a string of generally rather flat adventures as the Hulk wanders from location to location, with occasional exceptions either because of a particularly strong situation or antagonist, or else because of a good ongoing storyline, usually involving Thunderbolt Ross and/or Betty. This volume features some spectacular highs but also some more turgid moments. It also shows an ever greater use of the wider Marvel universe.

There are quite a number of guest appearances by both heroes and foes from other series, as well as some big developments for a few of them. Early on, the Hulk briefly teams up with the Juggernaut and crosses path with Professor X, Cyclops and Marvel Girl as they search for the missing X-Men. Then in an story actually entitled "Anybody Out There Remember... The Cobalt Man?" a long forgotten X-Men foe reappears before the series moves on to another encounter with the Inhumans. Following that, issues #176-178 are the conclusion to the first Warlock saga, another example of using the Hulk's series to resolve storylines from cancelled titles, but one consequence is that the Hulk himself feels like a guest star in his own series, a situation not really changed by a few pages showing the continuation of one of his subplots or by issue #175 setting up his return trip to Counter-Earth. However, it does contain a surprising moment when, in a storyline culminating in an issue cover dated August 1974, two intrepid individuals investigate corruption in the White House. At the end an unassuming man finds himself President, an office he did not seek and having to both prove himself and bring hope to the nation. Soon life imitated art. Meanwhile the Hulk returns to our Earth and soon has probably the best known encounter in this volume.

Issues #180-181 see the Hulk in the Canadian wilderness, once more fighting the Wendigo at a time when it had not yet become a cliché that this is all that ever seems to happen in the Canadian wilderness. But then at the end of issue #180 comes a new combatant, Canada's first superhero - Wolverine. Reading his appearance here I'm amazed that he went on to such fame as there's not much sign of the character traits that would make him so popular. Rather he's just a plucky little fighter who holds his own with his skills and agility against two giant forces of nature.

The Hulk goes on to encounter some of the foes from Marvel's pre-Silver Age "Atlas" monster era, beginning with Kaa, a warlord from a parallel dimension previously seen in Strange Tales who now briefly possesses the Hulk's shadow. Later on the annual sees duplicates of Diablo (from Tales of Suspense), an alien made of smoke, Taboo (from Strange Tales), a monster made of muck and mud, Groot (from Tales to Astonish), a being comprised of living wood, Goom (also from Tales of Suspense), a renegade alien from Planet X, and Blip (also from Tales to Astonish), a being comprised of electricity. Also present is the real Xemnu, first seen in Journey into Mystery. Between the regular series and the annual we get one of the first clear incorporations of the Atlas monster era into the regular Marvel canon. Meanwhile S.H.I.E.L.D. make increasingly frequent appearances in the series, culminating in the assignment of Agent Clay Quartermain as a permanent liaison to the Hulkbuster Base. Elsewhere the Hulk encounters the angelic Glorian from the Fantastic Four, the Locust, another forgotten foe from the early days of the X-Men, then meets both the old Avengers foe the Collector and the Man-Thing.

New foes are slighter on the ground but include Hammer and Anvil, two escaped convicts bound together by an alien, with the added tension that one is a racist white and the other a black man. Then there's the Devastator, a Soviet agent of the renegade Gremlin, but he gets killed off in his first full appearance. The Gremlin has a less human agent in the form of Droog, his pet monster. On a smaller scale is Jaimie Macawber, a Scottish laird trying to protect a beast in the local loch because of the tourist income it brings, but in the end both he and the monster are turned to stone and continue to generate the income.

Issues #184 to #186 are partially familiar to me from an aborted reprint run in Marvel UK's The Incredible Hulk Presents back in 1989. This weekly series was a courageous attempt at an anthology and combined 1970s Hulk stories (as well as these, #133 & #134 were also reprinted) with an adaptation of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade then Indy's Marvel US series, Action Force/G.I. Joe the Action Force reprints from G.I. Joe Special Missions, and brand new adventures of Doctor Who. I guess the series must have made sense to someone at the time but looking back it was a very odd combination of strips, coming out as Doctor Who was about to go off the air for an extended period (and rather than trying to lure in the Doctor Who Magazine readership, the plan was instead to reprint the Hulk adventures there until the DWM editor vetoed this as he felt the stories were the wrong tone and would interfere with attempts to give the DWM strip its own direction), whilst Marvel UK seemed to run Action Force in so many different places it was as if they'd were stuck with a licence that was either so over-expensive that they needed every chance to recoup their money or else on that mandated a quantity of toy promoting appearances that the market just couldn't support. The adaptation of a hit adventure movie should have been a strong selling point for the series but it was given rather less publicity than one might expect, leaving the title with a rather limited appeal and poor publicity drive. It only lasted twelve issues, ending partway through the reprint of #186. Consequently readers were left with a cliffhanger of the Devastator about to go into action, and it took over two decades to see the resolution.

The main storyline the issues show part of is rather long winded, starting back in the previous volume and not being fully resolved until the final issue in this one. Major Glenn Talbot had been lost in the Soviet Union when on a mission to rescue Thunderbolt Ross, but subsequently escapes and makes it back to the States. Everything seems fine except Colonel Armbruster thinks something is wrong and eventually discovers the truth - Talbot is a living bomb sent to assassinate the visiting President. Armbruster dies and Hulkbuster Base is subsequently destroyed by the Devastator, but then it's discovered that Talbot's body was an impostor with a mind transfer. The real Talbot is recovered in a further mission into the Soviet Union but has the mind of the Soviet agent whose body was used for the aborted assassination. The Gremlin destroy the mind and so Talbot returns home catatonic, his mind seemingly lost forever. Eventually it's restored by probing his brain to destroy a mental block in one of the silliest issues of all in the volume.

Issue #200 starts with the encephalo-helmet, which is one of the biggest plot conveniences imaginable. It simply appears in the series as a way for Bruce's mind to control the Hulk, with no prior mention. As it gets destroyed midway through its first appearance it cannot disguise its purpose as a narrative shortcut rather than an actual plot development that will allow for Bruce to control the Hulk. The issue is a very weak ending to the volume as the Hulk is sent into Glenn Talbot's brain to remove a mental block and restore his mind. By this point the saga of Talbot has well and truly worn out its welcome and it's a relief just to see it finally resolved in any way at all, but the ideas involved seem ludicrous. The mental block is manifested as a physical creature inside Talbot's brain, with antibodies forming themselves as copies of various past foes and tense allies. Being both the 200th issue (even though it's in number only) and the fourteenth anniversary of the Hulk's debut, there's an attempted celebration of the whole run, also shown by the cover which is used for this volume as a whole. But the pseudo-appearances are so fleeting that they become little more than name checks. This issue came out a couple of years before Marvel began the practice of increasing the size of anniversary and/or special issues, and so there are just eighteen pages to accommodate everything. Perhaps it was simply too ambitious in trying to pack so much into such a small amount of space, but the result is deeply unsatisfactory.

Despite the dragged out and poor ending, the main parts of the storyline are amongst the best issues in the volume, showing how to do the Hulk well and they were a worthy choice for The Incredible Hulk Presents all those years later, regardless of that title's wider problems. Elsewhere there are less successful showcases for the series. The annual comes from 1976, a year that saw Marvel restore both the format and original material after some years of reprints and/or Giant-Size quarterlies. Unfortunately it shows all too well why many are critical of them. The story is completely inconsequential and forgettable, simply pitching the Hulk against a succession of five duplicates of Atlas era monsters before a showdown with the real Xemnu, also from the Atlas era but previously revived in the pages of Defenders. We get not much more than a series of fights in which each monster's weakness is quickly exposed. Both plotter Len Wein and scripter Chris Claremont have produced some fantastic material in their time but here is evidence that every great creator has some off days. Even Sal Buscema's art feels under par, despite normally producing magic no matter how pressing the deadline; this is perhaps a consequence of Jack Abel inking rather than the regular series's Joe Staton.

The Hulk himself has slightly evolved by this volume, retaining his classic childlike persona but showing a greater degree of innocence and willing to help those who have never threatened him. Throughout these issues he is shown to befriend and help a number of non-threatening individuals, either when he stumbles across them or else because they actively ask his help. This shows some signs of the character developing but at the same time he is restricted by his poor memory, having problems remembering in detail his past encounters with foes such as Xemnu or the Abomination. At the same time there's a sight softening of Thunderbolt Ross's attitude to the Hulk, realising that the monster has at times been of help and yet the military are still hostile to him, particularly Armbruster. However this only goes so far and Ross often finds himself in situations where there is no option but to take action.

All in all this is yet another middling volume, with occasional flashes of greatness amidst a more general continued run. I've said so many times what I think the core problem is so I won't repeat it, but it does show itself once more here. The main excitement comes in the middle of the volume and coincides with the early part of Len Wein's run, but the volume sinks back as that run continues, suggesting all the good ideas were used at once. The result is a rather average Hulk run.

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