Wednesday, May 10, 2017

This Battle Unending!


There have been many occasions where the mighty Thor has met the incredible Hulk in battle, either in their own respective titles or in stories taking place in other mags. The question of which character is stronger is one that's been raging forever, no doubt to the delight of their company's accountants--and it's not likely to be definitively answered, even if we were to take a crack at it here and look for a smoking gun that would put the matter to rest. Instead, it's sometimes equally interesting to look at it from a different perspective, namely: How does a writer approach the subject if devoting an entire issue to it? What new angle can be used to make it a classic battle in its own right? And how can they avoid adding fuel to the fire as far as declaring a winner?

There are a number of such battles which have these characters squaring off, only to have them interrupted by something or someone before a clear-cut winner can be declared; there are also circumstances which lead to the battle being called a draw in one way or another. As such, it's often a frustrating experience to dive into one of these stories knowing that the reset button is going to be pushed when all is said and done, whether or not one of the fighters walks away with their head held a little higher. So it's often more satisfying to see how well-written the story is--how successful it is at grabbing the reader's attention and holding it with an approach that hasn't quite been seen before, and how much the artwork is able to inspire creative dialog and narrative as well as offer a new and dynamic look at this classic matchup. We have here a Norse god steeped in nobility and a time-tested sense of invincibility vs. a savage brute who's driven by off-the-scale anger and convinced that he's more powerful than anyone, with neither one even thinking about losing, much less surrendering--surely there has to be more than enough there for any writer/artist team to craft one hell of a story, even knowing how it must ultimately end.

To get a reasonably balanced picture of the worth of these two opponents without tilting the scale too much in either direction, let's take a look at two such stories, selecting one from each character's title in the interests of fairness, with the stories published six years apart. Each story's writer will take a different approach than the other--and while many elements of both stories will ring familiar to any reader who's seen their share of Hulk vs. Thor battles, there will be one or two new twists that will serve to keep things interesting.

The earlier of the two stories comes from a 1981 issue of Incredible Hulk, written by Bill Mantlo with art by Sal Buscema--a tale that really doesn't seek to shake up the status quo between these two powerful characters, but acts as a decent placeholder until the next time they come to blows. Admittedly, that doesn't provide much motivation for flipping the pages of this issue--but the experience will depend on how Mantlo handles things and how successful he is at doing so. The first step, of course, is getting Thor and the Hulk in the same place at the same time--and in this case, that translates to Dr. Donald Blake and Bruce Banner, respectively, with one providing pro bono medical services to transients at a YMCA located at a freight yard, while the other has climbed aboard one of the freight cars at another yard in the hopes of leaving New York City behind. As you might have guessed, the former is more successful at keeping a lower profile than the latter.





Oh, sure, Thor--tease us with that old carrot on a stick, why don't you.



Whatever you end up taking away from this story, Mantlo proves to be his typical diligent self in providing as much material and characterization as possible, even in a story where a fierce battle will demand the story's focus. Blake, for instance, is a believable figure as a physician donating his time to a facility that houses those who are shunned; while Banner's presence is a result of the Hulk's arrival in New York, during which he was attacked on sight and found himself befriended by a vagrant. (Blake also makes a fair point about what happened in Central City.)

Unfortunately, the Hulk nearly being run down by an oncoming train for no apparent reason has put the brute in a foul mood, and the calming words of the Thunder God are not enough to alter that mood--nor do they make the Hulk forget that he and this costumed figure have a violent history together, one filled with mistrust and betrayal.






Thor is speaking of their earliest one-on-one battle with each other, taking place off-panel during the Avengers' conflict with the Sub-Mariner while Namor had the Hulk at his side. At any rate, the Hulk grabs the nearest freight car and smashes it over Thor's head, and then leaps off, considering the matter settled. As for Thor, he's unhurt, undamaged, and concerned enough about the Hulk causing further damage in the city that he takes off in immediate pursuit.

And that concern is well-founded, though the Hulk does make an attempt to leave the city by stowing away in a truck. (No, I don't know why he wouldn't simply continue his miles-spanning leaps to head out of town--you'd think that would be a no-brainer for even the Hulk.) A traffic jam, along with a lot of loud honking horns, are enough to annoy the Hulk into assuming that all the noise is being directed at him, and so he becomes angry again, with a lone policeman paying the price of being within arm's reach. Yet for the arriving Thor, the scene only serves to reinforce the common belief that the Hulk's rage is out of control, and innocents will suffer needlessly if the brute is allowed to live.



The Hulk's plight remains the same as it's always been: the desire to simply be left alone, even though his appearances provoke both panic and the intervention of the authorities, resulting in massive damage and likely injury. It makes Thor's initial attempt to open a dialog with the Hulk all the more unfortunate. It was the right thing for him to do--but by that point the Hulk was already enraged and unable to rationally distinguish between a hostile environment and good intentions. The Hulk is not a creature who seeks out victims, thanks to Banner's influence in play, but he's nevertheless a creature of rage--and by now, there is little to no hope of Thor gaining the Hulk's trust in order to rein him in.

Their battle eventually carries Thor and the Hulk to lower Manhattan and the Brooklyn tunnel that runs underneath the East River--and when their conflict results in a crisis that endangers innocents, Mantlo seeks to assign blame to both parties by having the Hulk make an astonishing claim.




Taking this fight through the city's streets is something Thor certainly could have made an effort to avoid, simply by luring the Hulk to a more isolated setting. It's already been made clear that this is a battle that Thor is eager to settle--so his willingness to disregard the safety of bystanders is definitely on him. Yet there's an equally interesting question that Mantlo sidesteps: If the Hulk is observant enough to realize that both he and Thor are terrorizing those who are caught in their crossfire, we can reasonably conclude that the Hulk doesn't care that he's doing so; indeed, during his rampages, he routinely frightens and rages against even those who have made no move to attack him. With that being the case, it's difficult to feel any sympathy for him when he rejects the opinions of those who label him a monster. If it's a matter of the Hulk making the conscious decision to "own" that label, it's something that Mantlo should perhaps address--though I tend to think that, for the Hulk, it's the irrational behavior of humans toward him that forces his hand, no matter how innocents who have made no move against him find themselves paying the price.

With Thor now forced to deal with the tunnel's possible collapse, and with the loss of his hammer throwing his efforts into doubt, the tone of this battle shifts, with the Hulk turning his attention to Thor's hammer rather than taking advantage of the Thunder God's state of vulnerability while preoccupied with the tunnel's damage. Lifting Thor's hammer is a test of strength that the Hulk has failed before--yet for whatever reason, it's always interesting to see him try. Here, he draws the wrong conclusion that it's Thor's strength that allows him to lift and carry the hammer, thus making Thor stronger than himself in his mind; but his attention is diverted to Blake, whose appearance inadvertently causes the Hulk to consider Thor defeated by a savvy decision on his part that incorrectly assumes that Thor has been dealt with for good.




With the Hulk losing interest in Blake's walking stick, Blake is able to change back to Thor and complete his task of supporting the tunnel. (Though let's hope the driver of that truck doesn't need his vehicle anytime soon.) Afterward, Thor tries to take away from the conflict a greater understanding of the Hulk's motivations and rationale--something he arguably should have been aware of from his many prior encounters with the Hulk, but appears to have forgotten all too quickly in the heat of battle.


To heck with lessons learned--
Thor slugs it out with the Hulk, no holds barred!  And hang the consequences!

Incredible Hulk #255

Script: Bill Mantlo
Pencils and Inks: Sal Buscema
Letterer: Joe Rosen

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