Sunday, January 20, 2013

Heaven Help Me

While it's true that the Hulk's original "stomping grounds" were in the southwest desert, I never really understood why Marvel would have any reason to keep him there--particularly when it became clear how mobile he was, with his miles-spanning leaping ability. My general impression was that the military detachment where Bruce Banner was on staff was only in the desert in order to coordinate Banner's work on the gamma bomb, where the isolation of a desert environment would be ideally suited for testing it. But when the bomb project was abandoned, General Ross's unit became based there, with Banner even staying on in an official capacity and working on other projects (which I'm assuming were classified):

Yet then the question becomes: why is the Hulk "based" in the desert? Maybe Banner had a reason to stay there, at least as long as his connection to the Hulk remained unknown--but since the desert has proven to be a hostile environment for the Hulk, especially with the military dogging his every step, why would the Hulk be content lumbering among the lizards and scorpions? I mean, a picture is worth a thousand words:

Ross even later lobbies for funding to build a permanent base there, assuming that the Hulk is going to remain in the general area. There's also the problem of how to explain why the foes he comes up against are so keen to make the desert their base of operations, with its near-nonexistent resources.

So while the Hulk occasionally globe-trots and meets up with the likes of Ka-Zar, the Gremlin, SHIELD, Dr. Doom, and the Mandarin, and even adventures in outer space, he'd usually find his way back to the desert, where the military was waiting for him with open arms and "Open fire!" for much of his publication history in the 1970s and '80s. I mostly mention this observation because the desert itself happens to be the focus of another of those tucked-away stories that seemed to pop up in a few Marvel titles in the wake of the large format/new pricing experiment that Marvel quickly abandoned in late 1971. And the tale's writer, Roy Thomas, gives us his own interpretation of why the Hulk considers the desert peaceful:

And if you're thinking that a "small place" is perhaps incompatible with a being called the Hulk, you've caught this story's drift.

Thomas takes liberties with the concept of an "inferior mirage" and broadens it into more of an examination of what the simple mind of the Hulk longs for in his existence. While our quick answer to that has usually been that the Hulk just wants to be left alone and stop being hounded, he makes an encounter under the broiling sun that will give us some added perspective to that:

The Hulk is, in a word, mystified. Mystified by this idealistic setting in the middle of the desert--mystified by the appearance of normalcy and lack of reaction at his approach--but mostly mystified at how friendly everyone is being toward him, as if no other behavior would ever occur to them. He seems part of their community--part of their lives:

It's probably one of the most detailed mirages you've ever heard of, true. But look how cleverly Thomas skirts around the issue by playing on one of the Hulk's lesser-known abilities:

Yet, amidst all of this friendliness and unprompted acceptance, and bustle of constant activity, one thing is still missing: friends, to interact with and idly spend time with. And no sooner does the thought occur to the Hulk than the wish comes true, in the form of a little girl--in a wheelchair, perhaps to accommodate the Hulk's wish that at least one of these friendly people would be still long enough to become his friend:

But a mirage usually ends when the physical attempts to merge with the illusion. And when the Hulk attempts to take the girl's hand, his own illusion begins to come to an end:

Any of us who might come across an oasis in the desert, only to draw closer and find out that the sun has been playing tricks on us, would understandably slump in disappointment and possibly despair at the revelation. But the Hulk isn't the slumping type, and reacts a little differently than you or I:

Thomas's story-within-a-story was an interesting diversion from the Hulk's continuity, as well as offering an intriguing look at how this creature of rage views a life free of anger and conflict, even in an environment which has arguably done the most to sustain those very things. With this latest "betrayal" of his trust, which would seem to put the nail in the coffin of just how inhospitable the desert is to the Hulk, you'd think it would be enough to make him start leaping away from the southwest without a backward glance.

Yet that's probably asking too much of this stand-alone story, which seems confined to its singular focus of exploring the Hulk's idea of happiness and contentment. Also, when you think about it, the desert probably offers the Hulk his best option for both isolation and avoiding pursuit. It's not like he has the ability to run down a mental checklist of locations on the planet where he could successfully lie low; in his case, it's strictly potluck, where he has to make the best of wherever he ends up. So where does he go, if he leaves the desert? Where would he not be hunted--where would he be accepted? As this story may have demonstrated, perhaps the Hulk himself doesn't really believe such a place exists.


Kid said...

A great little story. Thomas is a good writer, 'though I was less impressed by his Thor stories inspired by Operas and what-not.

Comicsfan said...

There are certainly writers who at times go too far off the beaten path when they roll up their sleeves and decide to write an "epic" story, and that Thor tale you mention is an excellent example of Thomas going way off track (with other scripters having the dubious honor of having to connect all the dots at the end and pull--or rather squeeze--the whole thing together). The Kree/Skrull war story that he authored is the best example I can think of as far as the ideal length of such an involved story. Eight issues is more than enough room to tell a dramatic story on that scale, IMO.

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