Friday, September 28, 2018

My Partner--My Friend!

As much as Rick Jones and Betty Ross, two characters who were sympathetic to the tragic circumstances of the incredible Hulk (albeit for very different reasons), Jim Wilson earned his place as one of the book's most memorable classic characters, and a stalwart who contributed to the book's recurring cast. Jim began his friendship with the Hulk in the fall of 1970, in what turned out to be an association with the character that lasted nearly 300 issues--with his loyalty to his big green buddy soon extending to a friendship with Bruce Banner, as well. Unlike Rick, Jim didn't stick with the Hulk out of a sense of obligation, but a sense of trust which the two struck up at their first meeting in a Los Angeles tenement. Both on the run... both looked at as being different... and both with seemingly no prospect for a better future, they were two sides of the same coin. Nor did it take long for Jim to earn the respect and admiration of Gen. "Thunderbolt" Ross, for his bravery as well as his strength of character. Virtually everyone who came into contact with Jim seemed like they were pulling for him--a feeling that likely extended to readers, as well.

In 1994, rather than letting the character fade into obscurity, writer Peter David decided to make Jim the focus of an issue dealing with the subject of AIDS. We don't know how Jim contracted the HIV virus; we first learned that he had developed full-blown AIDS nearly three years earlier, but Banner (who now shared his intellect with the Hulk) dismissed the cause as unimportant after saving Jim's life from an assassin who had targeted the partner of another AIDS patient: "Who cares? If he had measles, it wouldn't matter where he got it. He's a friend who needed help." It was probably the appropriate way for David to settle the matter in that particular issue--though it would make for a curious line of dialog in this later issue from David that obviously seeks to raise AIDS awareness, where an effort is made to list the various ways in which the virus can be transmitted. That seems sufficient to fulfill the responsibility inherent in the story; as for Jim, it's his passing, as well as the exit of a long-standing character of the book, which seems meant to resonate more with the reader.

Whether David pulls off that aspect of the story is debatable; but to my own surprise, I found that the more riveting part of this tale was the interspersed segment where Betty Ross-Banner, who works a Help Line in Reno, struggles to keep a caller who's developed AIDS from committing suicide. The depth of the call takes Betty a little by surprise, and well out of her comfort zone--and it becomes an examination of her strength of character as well as her ability to adjust to the situation and stick with the call for as long as it takes to help the caller; whereas David doesn't devote all that much to Jim's scenes aside from a disconcerting propensity to have the character grasp at straws for treatment options and throw guilt in the direction of Banner/the Hulk at any sign of reticence. It's not exactly having Jim go out on a high note; yet the moment he does pass still sends a ripple through the book, and through the years.

As for how Jim winds up in "the Mount," the headquarters of Banner's benefactors and partners, the Pantheon, we know from a prior story that Jim runs an AIDS clinic in L.A. for those whose families have cut ties with them and who need a haven where they can spend their last days. By extension, he's also active in demonstrations concerning AIDS-related issues, and becomes involved in a rally that centers on Joey Harris, an AIDS-infected student being forced to leave his school due to the concerns raised by other parents. While both sides meet with school officials, violence breaks out between the protesters and those who are in favor of Joey being kept out of the school--and Jim becomes caught in the crossfire.

Meanwhile, Betty, at her office, is through for the day and headed for the door when her phone rings--and she finds herself in a situation where her training on referring callers in need of information to trained professionals isn't one-size-fits-all.

Back in L.A., Jim of course has the benefit of having one hell of a guardian angel--one who arrives in the nick of time and pulls off a rescue that few think to stand in the way of.

Banner takes Jim to perhaps the only place of care which might offer some measure of hope for his condition--the Mount in Nevada, a facility where the Pantheon members map out relief and rescue missions while researching cutting-edge technology and science. Banner, a progressive scientist in his own right, is certainly in his element in such an environment, and he's probably made the right call with Jim; unfortunately, while the Mount is a notch above conventional hospitals, the Pantheon is not hoarding cures--and Jim's condition has reached the point where he can be made comfortable, but little else. It leads to an uncomfortable exchange that puts Banner in an awkward position, where he must refuse a dying request (and more than one) from one of his closest friends.

However, Betty, back in Reno, is trying every option available to dissuade her caller, Chet, from going with the final option--and so she begins a tense vigil at her desk, trying to keep him on the line, staying alert for openings that will hopefully let her make headway with him. What you don't see in these snippets of panels selected for display in this post is the full extent of the remarkable story that artist Gary Frank tells as this encounter plays out, particularly Betty's expressions as Chet's words throw her one curve after another--a mix of reactions you'd see from any Help Line operator who has suddenly found themself in such a situation. Without expecting it, Betty becomes involved in this young man's struggle to... to die, to live, she's not quite sure yet.

Those closing words in the scene are a peculiar declaration from Betty on David's part, since it would seem to be presumption of the highest order for the story to put that out there at this point. We can see that Betty has stepped up here--all we really need to know right now is that she's committed to hanging onto this lifeline, which is enough to keep its momentum going and our interest piqued. It's likely that David added those particular words in order to set up the final scene, though I would argue that they're unnecessary no matter which way Chet goes here.

Returning to the Mount, it appears Banner has made his decision regarding a transfusion of his blood to Jim, an option which seems ill-conceived on several levels since the procedure has the potential of transforming Jim into something far deadlier than his affliction--and, for that matter, possibly not even including the Hulk's healing factor at all. As Banner stresses, Jim coming out of this healed and whole is a long shot; but the upside at least for now is that Jim's attitude improves at the thought of even a chance of success.

Yet Jim's optimism is (forgive the term) short-lived, assuming it was ever on the level at all. (More on that in a moment.)  But the circumstances allow Jim Wilson to exit his life peacefully, and in the company of friends--bringing a dignified end to a character whose history with the Hulk spanned twenty-four years. Only Banner is left to deal with any regrets hanging in the air, and a profound sense of loss.

And as Betty's situation reaches its conclusion, David should be credited for not being tempted to resolve her segment in a way where something meaningful balanced the tragedy of Jim's death. There were many unhappy endings during the AIDS crisis, with any number of Chets overwhelmed by their despair at their lives being cut short along with thoughts of a lingering death. David's ending, then, reflects the reality of those years and those lives--while Betty, through it all, stays on that phone, doing her job to the best of her ability and trying to fulfill her responsibility to those left behind. It's a powerful scene that speaks for itself so well--and, like any good story, leaves any lesson(s) learned to the reader's discretion.

Incredible Hulk #420

Script: Peter David
Pencils: Gary Frank
Inks: Cam Smith
Letterer: Joe Rosen


Jared said...

I reread this a couple of years ago. It has not aged well. However, it is hard to take our level of social consciousness in 2018 and apply it to what reality was like in 1994. I am a pretty big fan of the two and a half year Pantheon saga. If they were going to do an AIDS awareness issue, it probably made sense to tie it to the saving the world aspect of the Pantheon than any of the other titles of the time. It would have been too much to put it in X-Men at the time they already had the Legacy Virus allegory for AIDS going.

Comicsfan said...

Jared, you make some excellent points all around, particularly in regard to the nearly 25-year timespan between the story's publication and today. I was having similar thoughts as I was looking at the issue's opening pages, taking me back to the demonstrations and the clinics that were so prevalent at the time but which seem to be in our rear-view mirror now. It seems that demonstrations are truly products of their time, even if the issues they sought to raise awareness of remain well after the picket signs have been scrapped.

Big Murr said...

I don't know why comics get away with this sort of thing.

First off, this is no criticism of the quality of the writing or artwork. A fine depiction of a grim scenario, a no-win moment of life..

BUT, it's not a "Hulk" comic.

Let's compare it to, I dunno, buying a ticket to a KISS concert in 1994. I get my makeup on. I go the stadium, find my seat, ready to rock and roll! Then the MC comes out and explains that instead of hard-driving rock, we're going to have the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing quiet hymns because it will broaden our minds and educate us.

Would you stand for it? Would you write blog reviews the next day, or 25 years later, on the deep experience and enjoyment the hymns provided over of the rock concert you originally anticipated (and paid money for)? Or would the blog be about the riot that spontaneously broke out that night?

Skip to another go into your favourite Italian eatery, your mouth watering for a steaming, tangy dish of baked lasagna. And the waiter brings you won ton soup. Now, I like a good bowl of won ton as much as anyone, but I paid for lasagna and I'm craving lasagna.

In comics, this "bait and switch" is done all the time. And fans, who I can only surmise are secretly really embarrassed about buying superhero comics, accept it without a murmur.

That's my opinion, anyhow.

Anonymous said...

Why does the Hulk look like Jon Hamm?
This bothers me.


Comicsfan said...

M.P., let's hope he doesn't become a chain smoker!

Murray, I suppose the reader's disappointment, as well as your own, would depend on what you consider a "Hulk comic" to be (which is something I'd like to know, as well). For instance, there are no doubt readers who were sick of seeing Betty Ross crying her eyes out over the fate of Bruce Banner, or disappointed by a long stretch of issues that have Banner's mind keeping the Hulk's savagery suppressed; or there may be those who think the Hulk shouldn't battle bizarre foes like the Glob, or the Galaxy Master, or the Missing Link, and stick instead to stories where he tears into Thunderbolt Ross and the troops. And then, on the other side of the coin, there are those who were bowled over by the change of pace of stories such as "The Circus of Lost Souls!", or "None Are So Blind...!", or "Heaven Is A Very Small Place!", where in each case the rage of the Hulk is held in check by the calming words and friendship of a young girl. Lots of people no doubt have a Hulk story (or a type of Hulk) they prefer; but Hulk readers didn't become regular readers because of a character who never changes his m.o. I suppose I'd argue that, unlike a niche restaurant or a concert bill, Incredible Hulk deals with a character in flux--whereas Kiss isn't likely to toss out their set list in mid-concert and perform a few numbers by Grand Funk Railroad. (Though I would have roared my approval--I'm a big fan of spontaneity!)

Also, you're quite correct in noting the "bait and switch" method of promoting a story--that falls within the nature of comics covers, which must somehow comprise nearly everything happening in the story and represent it all in one compelling image, even when at times it doesn't accurately reflect the story's direction. But from what I see, there's no baiting being done by the Hulk cover here--the image actually represented the entire tenor of the issue. The same can be said for the Hulk's encounter with Rocket Raccoon (which I imagine probably disappointed anyone expecting a "Hulk comic"), as well as many, many other covers from this title and others which were true to their respective stories. That said, I suspect that there would be a number of readers who have more than a handful of examples of stories where they felt the writer missed the mark and got it wrong regarding the poor fit a story had for its title character; in fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised if there were a few such examples to be found in the PPC. It's a valid topic for a comics forum.

Big Murr said...

I'm only a moderate Hulk fan. I only focused on "not a Hulk comic" since that is the character/comic we're springboarding from. My desires for a "proper" Hulk comic are not so fine-tuned as you enumerate. To me, a proper Hulk comic addresses his core essence: a big (green) monster who is "the strongest one there is!!". Whether it's a savage Hulk, a wise-ass Hulk, a Banner-Hulk, etc, etc is mere detail, as is the antagonist.

The bigger frame is super-duper comics in general, not the Hulk. When I purchase a superhero comic, it is to enjoy a flamboyant, colourful, larger-than-life adventure. They need to have action (and that most certainly is not a synonym for "fighting"). They can be giddy and silly, they can be grimly dark, they can be fiendishly complicated or wham-bam direct. But there has to be action, and action employing abilities beyond those of mortal humans. That is a superhero comic. That is what I meant with "bait & switch"...not this specific cover and issue, but that I picked up a superhero comic, on this occasion featuring the Hulk. Instead of getting a dose of over-the-top imagination, they've given me a story better suited for an issue of "Heartbreaking Romance" or "Tragic Hospital Stories".

This leads back into comic history. Of course you know, and I suspect remember, there used to be many genres of comics. Comics for kids, comics for laughs, war comics, wild west comics, horror comics and etc. If a fan of comic books was sent to the store to buy some reading material for a family vacation, he might buy a western for his brother, some funny animal comics for his little sister and a few sappy romance books for his older sister. For himself, he favoured some two-fisted superhero action.

But those halcyon days of genre choice faded and withered. All that survived were superhero comics. And, for the most part, the writers of said comics stuck to the inherent implausibility of people with impossible abilities fighting equally nonsensical villains or saving lives from natural disasters. But a lot of those writers were torn. On the one hand, they wanted a job and a pay cheque and this comic-writing was a great gig. On the other hand, they get enormously frustrated at being stuck writing superhero stories. They yearn to do some other type of story and so they do. They manage to convince their editor that it is "significant" and "mature" and because comic book editors are absolutely without spine or standards, the story is passed. Like my previous analogy, a pizza cook somehow convinces the boss that wonton soup should be served tonight.

In the end I say if a writer no longer finds him/herself capable of writing inane battles between gamma monsters and animate piles of mud, they need to leave superhero comics for new ventures. Likewise, if any consumer/reader of superhero comics yearns for "serious, meaningful" stories instead of super antics, they need to go on a quest to find the comics or prose that satisfies that need.

And...that's enough for now.

Big thanks for the mental stimulus! Great blog!

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