Reading through the opening pages of Incredible Hulk #138 is a little like watching the pieces of a small jigsaw puzzle fall into place in order to create and finally reveal the bigger picture, those pieces being the cast of characters themselves. Thanks to an improbable series of circumstances, all of the principal characters of the book have reason to meet at a private hospital called Happyvale, in a tidy little Hulk story from 1971 that fits quite a lot into twenty pages--including a shock ending. Were Happyvale a sanitarium, there are some us who would declare "It's about time!" in terms of Betty Ross, Gen. "Thunderbolt" Ross (her father), Maj. Talbot, and Bruce Banner finally getting the truckload of therapy that's coming to them; but Happyvale appears to be simply a privately funded medical facility with a reputation that's become well-known to many, including this story's villain.
It's hard to know who to check in with first (heh, "check in," get it?), but we might as well begin with Betty Ross, a character we know will have her fair share of hospital stays in the future, as fragile a character as she often proved to be (until she finally decided enough was enough and gave herself a makeover). At Happyvale, she's been under observation following an emotional breakdown she suffered after learning that the one she loves, Bruce Banner, might be trapped within the body of the Hulk forever after being re-merged with the brute. At this point in time, Banner and the Hulk are presumed dead, and Betty muses on what she'll do with the rest of her life--leading to this puzzle's first two pieces inadvertently connecting to each other.
The sequence of events in the story is well handled by writer Roy Thomas, as those events smoothly proceed from A to B to C in introducing the players. Betty's casual observation of this late-night visitor soon segues to the story's villain, who doesn't believe in waiting rooms.
Yes, the Sandman--turned to glass in a previous battle with the Hulk (thanks to some last-minute treachery by the Mandarin). He's come to see Dr. Marquand, a specialist in total blood transfusions, in order to treat his condition, which, up until now, has only been managed by his partner in crime, the Wizard. With Marquand's treatment technique having garnered a good deal of publicity, Sandman has arrived to force the doctor to replace his irradiated blood, which will hopefully return his skin to normal. I'm no scientist, but I'd think a total transfusion of blood would also return the Sandman to normal--but that doesn't seem to be in the cards, if we're to believe the issue's cover.
Jim Wilson, who became a trusted friend to the Hulk, is also at Happyvale, recovering from being ray-blasted while the Hulk was battling the forces of Hydra. Thanks to Jim being a little restless this evening, another player makes his presence known--a character whose death certificate appears to have been made out prematurely.
Naturally, our furtive figure is none other than Bruce Banner, who enlists Jim's aid in directing him to Betty's hospital room. Soon after, step by step, we begin to see how the goal of the Sandman and the presence of Betty (to say nothing of Banner's) begin to mesh, in a chilling unfolding of the plot that calls into question Marquand's professional ethics, as well as his common sense.
(Artist Herb Trimpe's attention to detail is disarming at times. He even thinks to include the drainpipe in the building's cutaway shot.)
If Marquand is so concerned with endangering someone in order to comply with Sandman, surely this hospital stores emergency blood supplies that he could check for Sandman's blood type--after all, the transfusion doesn't have to come from a hooked-up donor. And to avoid endangering anyone, he could simply inform Sandman that there are no patients in residence who are a match for his blood type. Instead, he makes the jaw-dropping choice of rolling the dice with the life of Betty Ross; worse, if we're to take the phrase "total transfusion" literally, his procedure involves completely replacing Betty's blood with Sandman's (and of course vice versa). Dr. Marquand's Chamber of Horrors, ladies and gentlemen.
Again, the Sandman shouldn't even be the Sandman following the procedure, nor should either of these patients be up on their feet so soon afterward. Thomas brushes aside both concerns in favor of expediting the story--though Marquand has just cause to be concerned about the state of Betty.
And what about Banner? Watching the one he loves forcefully taken at gunpoint by a super-villain and used for a procedure that might very well end up killing her does nothing to increase his stress level and trigger his change into the Hulk, who at the very least could have put a stop to Sandman's plan. But only now, when the transfusion is over and Betty begins to feel the ill effects of Sandman's blood in her, does Banner's state of calm evaporate, for the sole reason of giving Sandman some payback. It's a little late to want to come charging to the rescue now, isn't it, Doc?
The brawl between the Hulk and the Sandman moves outside the hospital, where it becomes a full-fledged battle. The Sandman, as he did in their first meeting, persists in believing he's every bit the Hulk's match and then some, trusting in his unique abilities to overwhelm the brute. That didn't prove to be the case in their previous encounter, and it doesn't prove so here. However, their fight brings into the story our remaining cast, Ross and Talbot, who quickly act to remove both powerhouses from the scene, though they didn't come prepared to deal with two super-powered menaces.
Back at the hospital (how it got the name "Happyvale" with shenanigans like these taking place on the premises is a genuine head-scratcher), Ross returns to check on his daughter. Instead of bringing flowers, though, he might consider stopping off at the store for some Windex--because Marquand's fears have been realized, with Betty reaching a far more fragile state than she ever dreamed.
Coincidentally, the Sandman--wherever he is--can't seem to stop thinking about Bruce Banner.
We skip ahead to--the fate of Betty Ross!
|Incredible Hulk #138 |
Script: Roy Thomas
Pencils: Herb Trimpe
Inks: Sam Grainger
Letterer: Sam Rosen