OR: "Runaway Story!"
This Incredible Hulk story arc from late 1986 almost makes you want to reach out to your comics shelf and pull out a few other titles from Marvel's 25th Anniversary celebration--because if they're overflowing with as much out-of-control craziness as these issues, you've got yourself a weekend.
First, a little background:
The incredible Hulk is no more! After the Hulk was maneuvered by trigger-happy S.H.I.E.L.D. agents into a chemical tank of Doc Samson's design, the monster emerged in his original gray form before transforming back to Bruce Banner--who subsequently found that he was seemingly cured of sharing his existence with the Hulk. To be on the safe side, Banner remains under observation at Gamma Base, a facility abandoned by the military and which a SHIELD contingent, headed by Clay Quartermain, is now operating out of.
And those cocky SHIELD agents are keeping busy, having recently taken custody of the electrical killer known as Zzzax and containing him for the time being.
Show of hands: Who thinks this is going to end badly? Good, we're on the same page.
From here, writer Al Milgrom basically proclaims "Anything goes!" as far as what improbable things happen to our cast of characters. First things first: How to make sure Banner is cured of being the Hulk? Well, you could use the vast array of equipment on a base specifically constructed to evaluate, study, and detect the Hulk--OR, you could simply put him in a room with some SHIELD agents and let them beat the crap out of him!
And while we're all probably thinking that the ones really in need of those "psychological tests" are these SHIELD agents rather than Banner, it looks like our beaten-up scientist gets a clean bill of health along with his many bruises. Heck, he's even grateful for the pummeling!
No problem, Doc--SHIELD was happy to oblige!
So--what else can we do to have some reckless fun? Heyyyy--how about taking the ludicrous step of transforming Rick Jones into the Hulk? SHIELD is discovering signs that the Hulk is back in their midst--but their first guess as to how that's possible turns out to be off the mark, when the Hulk crashes out of Gamma Base and kidnaps none other than Bruce Banner! And no one is more surprised at the Hulk's identity than Banner when the sun rises.
We already know from a prior issue that "Thunderbolt" Ross and Rick were in a fight that caused Rick to plummet into the nutrient tank at the same moment when the Hulk stumbled into it--but how the heck could that have led to Rick taking on the curse of the Hulk? To answer that, we'll have to once again wander into the land of
Let's put rationality aside and say for one outrageous, insane moment that being submerged in chemicals indeed affects a person in the same way as a gamma bomb blast, that these two methods of being exposed to gamma radiation aren't entirely different. We're still left to draw the disturbing conclusion that anyone in Rick's place, doused in that nutrient bath, would have become the Hulk--say, Betty, or Quartermain, or any of the base's janitorial staff--because the story has totally disregarded the fact that there's a great deal more to Banner's circumstances that brought about the existence of the Hulk.
But this is a runaway story, after all, so reason be hanged. Let's move on to doing something really off the hook, eh? Let's turn these SHIELD agents loose and have them hook up a very bitter and vengeance-crazed "Thunderbolt" Ross to a bank of equipment and run a completely ghoulish procedure on him that siphons and transfers to his body the power of Zzzax!
Good lord, they're even aware that Ross is unhinged, and they're still going through with this! Unfortunately, things are about to get much worse, because SHIELD has been deceived by Zzzax's apparent helplessness--and now that they've practically handed the creature what it needs, they're bound to be (dare I say) shocked when this experiment erupts out of control, with Ross and Zzzax merging into one crazed being that desires the Hulk's destruction.
We're doing splendidly so far, aren't we? Milgrom is well on his way to dismantling the Hulk's world and cast of characters bit by bit and twisting their lives like pretzels, not to mention making a pretty good case for disbanding SHIELD--and things are just getting started. For instance, Betty, who is already at the point of having a tenuous grip on sanity, receives the pleasant news that her father can now smoke a lot more than just cigars.
But elsewhere, what of the Hulk? Correction: Hulks??
That's right--Banner inexplicably changes to the Hulk, and the reason? Not from being beaten senseless by SHIELD agents, but because Rick-Hulk must go!
And to get these two to fight, which we know they must if we're to believe this issue's cover, Rick has to be mad about something. If one of us was in Rick's place, we'd probably be pretty teed off about the Hulk trying to bash our brains in; but Rick seems to think that he sacrificed his humanity in order to keep Banner from becoming the Hulk again, when the circumstances which led to Rick's transformation were unintentional on his part, having nothing whatsoever to do with Rick taking on the curse of the Hulk so that his friend would be free of it. But try telling that to a young man convinced that he's a martyr.
It looks like things have finally reached a head in this dizzying tale, with the gray Hulk ready to deliver the killing blow and put an end to his rival... Zzzax/Ross waiting in the wings... and Betty probably still giving both Doc Samson and Quartermain a piece of her mind (or what's left of it). But if you think Milgrom has created Zzzax/Ross only to keep him on the sidelines, think again--because Ross is out for blood, and he's willing to adopt a scorched Hulk policy to get it.
Heh heh, talk about a shock ending! We'll have to leave the conclusion of this battle for another time--because, given all we've seen, it falls to Samson and Quartermain to close this post and give voice to what are likely our own thoughts right about now.
Clay, that probably depends on when Mr. Milgrom decides to get off this crazy rollercoaster!