When the villainous quartet known as the U-Foes returned for yet another rematch with the incredible Hulk, they faced a new form of their foe--the "hybrid" Hulk that represents a more complete merging of the Hulk and Bruce Banner following Banner's resolution of his rage issues with his father. So far, the U-Foes' track record with the Hulk hasn't exactly been a stellar one, having been defeated by three different versions of the Hulk on three separate occasions:
- the simple-minded "Hulk smash!" version;
- the Hulk whose persona was suppressed and controlled by Banner's mind;
- the animalistic, savage Hulk who had no trace of Banner's influence
And now, the U-Foes have invaded the Nevada-based headquarters of the organization known as the Pantheon, which the Hulk has become affiliated with--a Hulk who is now Banner in essence but not so in appearance or manner, a blend of man and man-monster who remains rational and brilliant but who embraces and even revels in the Hulk's power. Interestingly, the one version of the Hulk the U-Foes might have stood a chance against was the one they were never allowed to face--the gray Hulk, who demonstrated more ruthlessness and intelligence than that of his jade predecessor but didn't match the sheer power of the Hulk who once stormed about the countryside in ignorance and fury. In certain respects, the U-Foes have never faced a more dangerous Hulk than they do this particular day. Yet they have good reason to feel confident that this encounter will be different--or, rather, reasons--which we'll discover shortly.
We catch up to the Hulk as he and his three associates from the Pantheon--Ulysses, Hector, and Paris--have wrapped up their affairs in Las Vegas and are returning to the Mount, only to find that their stronghold has been breached. And as they investigate, there are familiar indications in the pattern of attack that lead the Hulk to conclude that he may be the target again of four very persistent foes--but he'll find that he's only half right.
Agamemnon is the immortal half-Asgardian/half-human leader and progenitor of the Pantheon, whose descendants comprise the Pantheon's members. (How curious that with the exception of Agamemnon, whose name is Grecian in origin, all of the Pantheon are named from Olympians, rather than Asgardians.) Agamemnon "resides" in the lowest levels of the Mount, appearing to the rest of the Pantheon via projection when assigning them to missions. As to how Vector knew of the Pantheon, or why he specifically wants Agamemnon, those questions remain a mystery for now.
With the Pantheon's defiance, hostilities break out again almost immediately, with the Hulk M.I.A. and the rest of the U-Foes engaging the Pantheon members while Vector attempts to retrieve Agamemnon--a task which his power makes him well-suited for, considering Agamemnon's location. Vapor, the gaseous member of the U-Foes, is quickly dealt with by Hector's swirling energy-mace, causing her to retreat and join Vector. But Vector has good reason not to write off the Hulk just yet.
Both writer Peter David and artist Dale Keown choreograph this battle well, with the U-Foes making a fight of it rather than reacting defensively as they've usually been forced to do against the Hulk. When Vector keeps his head in the game, he actually makes a good leader and coordinates his team well, as he should. But he's also found his power repeatedly stymied by the Hulk, who, in his present form, is both a fair tactician and unquestionably a formidable opponent. So while Vector is no doubt becoming a seasoned leader, the Hulk realizes the man can have his confidence shaken and be thrown off-balance. In this case, even literally.
Thanks to Vapor, the momentum of the battle swings back in the U-Foes' favor long enough for Vector to pursue the true goal of their invasion.
If the Hulk were somehow disabled or even taken out, there's a good chance that the U-Foes might prevail here, as well as they've been adapting to the circumstances of this fight. But the Hulk is still very much in this struggle--and in his new state, his brain is as much of an advantage to him against the U-Foes as his brawn.
Finally, the climax of the battle arrives, as the Hulk confronts both Vector and Ironclad just as they're on the verge of breaking through to Agamemnon's stronghold. It's then that the Hulk learns at least part of the reason for the U-Foes' presence in the Mount--but with the appearance of one of the Hulk's oldest and deadliest foes, the overall mystery only deepens.
Standing with the Leader are Rock and Redeemer--two of the surviving "Hulkbusters" that Banner assembled to take out his savage alter-ego during the time he was briefly separated from him, though their history with both Banner and the Hulk has embittered them and made them susceptible to the Leader's influence. (Redeemer's status at this point is a bit spotty, considering that in a past encounter he was inadvertently killed by Rock due to the Hulk's actions.) Joining their strike team--the "Riot Squad"--are Hotshot, Jailbait, and Ogress, mutated survivors of a gamma bomb explosion caused by the Leader that killed 5,000 people. (You'd think that the Riot Squad would riot against the Leader, wouldn't you.)
With the Hulk still on his feet, and the Leader still intent on getting to Agamemnon, all hell breaks loose as Ironclad joins the Riot Squad in piling on the Hulk--a strategem that, as the Leader notes, could actually give the Hulk an advantage. Nevertheless, the Leader has the time he needs to take advantage of the distraction and get on with his business in the Mount.
While the Leader confers with Agamemnon, the other members of the Pantheon show up to take some of the heat off the Hulk--and just in time, since sheer numbers have given Rock the opportunity to attack from behind and impale the Hulk by shifting his form into deadly spikes. Given a breather by Ulysses, the Hulk's healing factor comes into play and puts him back in the fight, and, enraged, he insists on cleaning house on his own.
Given the level of fighting that a being like the Hulk takes part in, it was perhaps understandable to see David provide him with something of a healing ability that allows him to recover from wounds that would normally be life-threatening--though his transformation back to Banner already seemed to have that base covered, as was the case when he was attacked by Necrodamus. Regrettably, David went overboard, and that ability became a "healing factor," a term I cringe at since it's been pulled out of a hat and given to any number of characters who were forced to cope with the growing severity of attacks that began taking place in Marvel's books in the '80s and '90s. In the Hulk's case, it appeared to be introduced in his clash with Wolverine; yet it didn't take long for it to play a larger role in his stories, just as it does for every other character who has a "healing factor" to some extent.
Unfortunately, a healing factor is often taken to extreme degrees--making the character cocky at knowing they can't be fatally injured, and thus sapping a scene of any dramatic impact it might have otherwise had. We could all argue that the Hulk was already powerful enough, particularly in this hybrid form of his--and a slight healing ability that gradually heals any injuries might have made sense and worked out well. But when Vector attacks him head-on (once again using a method that has never proven effective on the Hulk in past encounters--wake me when it's over, will you?), it becomes vividly clear that, despite the level of injury, the Hulk's healing factor is not only off-the-scale super-charged, but almost laughably fact-acting.
Basically, the next time the Hulk faces certain death--well, just ignore it. He's now Captain Jack Harkness.
As far as the Leader's plans for the U-Foes are concerned, they've served their purpose here--particularly since, elsewhere, the Leader has reached an agreement with Agamemnon for the Pantheon's assistance in battling the hordes of Hydra to save some innocents in his charge. We also discover that Redeemer has another identity this time around--that of General Ross, or, rather, his animated corpse. Perhaps that's a story best side-stepped for now.
In the battle with Hydra, the Leader would be killed battling the Hulk, with the Hulk using him as an improvised shield against the firepower of Redeemer. We'd also find that there were special circumstances to the battle which involved Rick Jones needing the Leader's help, plans which the Hulk ruined by crashing in and settling accounts with his old foe. Back at the Mount, the U-Foes are cooling their heels in a special cell, when the Leader's right-hand servant, Omnibus, arrives to cut them loose from both the Mount and from any promises the Leader might have made to them. The U-Foes are not pleased at being so discarded--while the Hulk is both on edge and disappointed in himself at the way things have ended for Rick. And when Omnibus deposits the U-Foes in the Hulk's proximity, it seems like the perfect storm for one last clash between them.
No doubt Vector wants one of those nifty healing factors before throwing down with the Hulk again.
(This post covers events from Incredible Hulk #s 397-401.)
The U-Foes may have struck out again, but Vapor has mastered a popular villain exclamation!