Saturday, August 2, 2014

So Close, And Yet So Far

It was always nice when Marvel made the effort to take a title's 50th issue (whether #50, or 150, or 250, etc.) and make it something special--as if tipping its hat to what's come before, and promising more great things for the character to follow. I don't know if that level of dedication was on the minds of writer Bill Mantlo and artist Sal Buscema when they reached this "halfway" point with Incredible Hulk #250, but they nevertheless pulled out all the stops for this double-sized issue and gave readers a heck of a story to hold in their hands.

The prospect of the Silver Surfer being able to cure Bruce Banner of his curse as the Hulk has been raised before; and with their association in the Defenders and in other meetings (such as with the Sub-Mariner's own such group), the Surfer has stood out like a sore thumb in terms of a cure for Banner being within arm's reach. I suppose there was really no reason for the Surfer to make another attempt with the Hulk, with the first experience being something of a rebuff--and Banner never had the opportunity to solicit the Surfer's aid directly (though you'd think Reed Richards might have put in a good word for him). But with continued contact between the Surfer and the Hulk, obviously it becomes more difficult to keep from broaching the subject.

In this story, though, Mantlo puts the issue front and center, for it's Bruce Banner's expertise the Surfer needs--and there's simply no getting around quid pro quo.

When there's a "guest star" in another character's title, it's interesting to see what circumstances a writer will come up with in order to bring the characters together (a concept which surely got a workout in monthly books like Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Two-In-One). Where the Hulk and the Surfer are concerned, it's hard to imagine the two of them finding themselves in the same place at the same time except through coincidence--but for this story, their paths will cross because both of them are seeking the same two things: peace, and escape. For the Hulk, the two terms mean one and the same--and in the farmlands of Liberty, New Mexico, he hopes to find both.

With the quiet surroundings, the Hulk indeed finds peace of a sort--though certainly not in the way he expected:

I suppose it often seems that Banner is an easy and frequent target to be tragically and, at times, brutally dumped on by writers. Take this instance, where any number of ways could exist for Banner to ingratiate himself into the good graces of the people of Liberty--yet, even here, it seems Banner's lot is to suffer, when he spots a little girl being charged by a bull:

Perhaps it's Mantlo's way of putting Banner on the fast track with Clare Mundy and her daughter (as well as with the other townspeople, who are less likely to ask inquisitive questions about what's brought him to their town in such a state). But, cripes, this guy sure seems to get kicked a lot when he's down.

As for the Surfer, he, too, is seeking solitude--nor is escape ever far from his mind, in the sense of putting the Earth far behind him. But, in a strange sense of symmetry with Banner's arrival (or perhaps not so strange if symmetry is Mantlo's intention), the Surfer will find his arrival at a presumably peaceful place almost immediately interrupted by violence. And even in the Arctic, violence involving man is often in the form of brutal, senseless slaughter.

Mantlo here takes on an issue of great controversy, one which infuriates and enrages those on both sides and results only in escalating the violence and impasse between them--which makes it the perfect issue in which to involve the Surfer, an alien who sees the violence and the tragedy and the suffering in such encounters as further evidence of the senselessness and insanity of the race with which he's imprisoned. Nor will this encounter disappoint in that respect:

The problem I've always found with the Surfer is that he often resorts to the same oppressive methods he finds so loathsome in humans in order to express his outrage. The difference, of course, is that he doesn't take lives when he lashes out. But the Surfer's response here belies the message we're meant to infer from his observations, that his is the voice of reason, the voice of sanity--when instead, backed by his superior power, it's simply proven to be the voice with the most might. In effect, he doesn't put a stop to the violence, so much as simply putting it off for the time being:

In his frustration, the Surfer is driven to make another vain attempt at penetrating the barrier which Galactus put in place to keep him imprisoned on Earth. Yet, this time, he's given pause to note all the things that freely pass through the barrier--not just other physical objects, but rays of light and energy, including:

And with that realization comes a new approach the Surfer develops to surpass the barrier, which also puts firmly back on the table the possibility of the Surfer finally rendering his aid to Bruce Banner in the form of a cure:

As for Banner, it appears that farm life is agreeing with him, eh?

The man manages to snag a pair of purple overalls. You just have to admire that.

Jeez, Clare doesn't exactly move at a snail's pace, does she? But there's one last thing we need to find out about Clare and the people of Liberty, something that will end up fitting with this story's plot:

For those of you who were readers of Marvel Premiere and Marvel Team-Up, you'll probably recall that Liberty and Tranquility Base were instrumental in the story of the Mantlo character named Woodgod, as well as a nerve gas disaster which claimed the lives of everyone within a 15-mile radius. Obviously the townsfolk want nothing to do with the base, and are quite alright with letting it rot in an abandoned state--something that Banner, putting his own ruined life back together, can empathize with.

It's odd to see the practical and scientific Bruce Banner draw a conclusion based on nothing but hope--gambling on his peaceful surroundings to help him in suppressing the Hulk for good. It wouldn't be the first time that Banner tried to ignore his Hulk problem through sheer initiative and resolve. Let's just hope he doesn't see a bull bearing down on him anytime soon.

But would he settle for a guy on a surfboard?

Granted, the sight of the Silver Surfer is probably enough to get Banner's pulse racing a little bit--but it's likely the thought of the Hulk being brought back into a life that he's tried so hard to stabilize that brings on a change that Banner was beginning to convince himself would never again come to pass:

The battle, however, would be short-lived, thanks to the Surfer's agenda:

And just like that, the threat of the Hulk is over. Gee, maybe this 250th issue is more special than we were led to believe. But since we've got plenty of story left, let's not jump to conclusions. At least, thanks to Mantlo making sure that Liberty falls in with the Surfer's plans, we'll learn why Tranquility Base has been left to be such an eyesore all this time, when you'd think the residents of Liberty would want to clear this "landmark" off the map before getting on with their lives:

So now the players and pieces are all in place, and Mantlo is free to crank up the action--which is again fast-tracked, thanks to the Surfer's power which not only restores and reactivates the base's ruined equipment, but also probes Banner's mind to create the "gamma infuser" needed to empower the Surfer. But what did we learn last time about Banner being placed in the proximity of dangerous equipment? In this case, the equipment remains intact--but let's just say that he hasn't thought this procedure through:

Meanwhile, all the activity at Tranquility Base has understandably alarmed the people of Liberty, who think that their nightmare is starting all over again. And for Clare, her worries are doubly troubling:

Nor does the Surfer help the situation when, impatient at Banner's suggestion that they proceed slowly, he unleashes his fury on the surrounding countryside--an unprovoked show of rage that Banner well recognizes:

But while the Surfer heads off to vent his anger and new power on the barrier, Banner is beset by angry villagers farmers with torches pitchforks. And you'd be surprised how a pitchfork can not only defeat the plans of a former herald of Galactus, but also return to the Earth its most savage and dangerous occupant:

Fortunately, farmers know when it's time to "git":

As for Clare, right now she could use a sympathetic phone call from Betty Ross on how to handle all your hopes and dreams crashing down in an instant. "Girl," I can almost hear her say, "I'm an old hand at this. Just be glad you don't have to go through it every few months, honey."

As for the Surfer, he remains adamant about completing his plans, even with the reappearance of the Hulk--particularly when the Hulk himself can serve as a source of the power he needs. The Hulk, naturally, begs to differ:

Again, their battle will be short-lived, since the Surfer has something else in mind entirely:

But, on the verge of realizing his dream, the Surfer finds himself with a wrenching choice to make: leave Earth without a backward glance and reconcile his freedom with the sacrifice of an innocent life, or return to save Banner and become trapped once again. If you're wondering why the Surfer couldn't swoop back, save Banner, and burst back out again, join the club. Mantlo would have us think that the residual gamma energy is needed to prevent Banner from dying:

But since the Surfer has also used his own cosmic power to accomplish the same thing with others, his method here works out as more of a plot device.

Still, what's done is done. The Surfer is again a captive of Earth for the foreseeable future, and Banner is again cursed to be the Hulk. So how is Mantlo planning on getting the Surfer off the hook this time as far as Banner's cure is concerned? Is the Surfer just too consumed with despair to think about it? Does he harbor some resentment, however illogical, toward Banner for his predicament? Instead, Mantlo takes a fairly reasonable approach, and has the Surfer blaming himself for forcing his way into Banner's life and ruining what peace the man had:

I'm not quite on board with the Surfer's reasoning, since he's leaving Banner in worse circumstances than when he found him. Still, the Surfer's rationale works well enough here, and Mantlo has also managed to put the issue of the Hulk's cure to rest for future encounters. Yet you can't help but feel for Banner, who's been put through the wringer and wound up alone in the darkness with his life once again in ruins:

I think even Betty Ross would throw in the towel on this one.

Next time, we'll take a look at another instance where Banner was resolved to set his life back on track, even while still living within the looming shadow of the Hulk. If he's going to go that route, the man may want to start thinking about the calming environment of monasteries.

Incredible Hulk #250

Script: Bill Mantlo
Pencils and Inks: Sal Buscema
Letterer: John Costanza


Anonymous said...

The Surfer is desperate to escape from "this madhouse of a world" - this is the same Surfer who thought Humanity was so noble that he was prepared to defy Galactus and sacrifice his own freedom which he'd never done for any other planet. I find it a bit hard to believe that a scientist like Bruce Banner would be satisfied living like a country bumpkin no matter how much he wanted to be free of the Hulk.

Anonymous said...

My question is why did the Silver Surfer have to catch Banner. He moved the seal hunters and their ship without touching them. Was there a limit to his range? He never had to directly touch any of them. Couldn't he have merely directed Banner to a landing?

It seems a bit weak, plot wise, in my opinion, as, you know, a US American, such as.

The Prowler (cannot make a good three minute egg).

Comicsfan said...

Colin, my guess is that it's the contradiction of mankind's perceived nobility and his warlike, unreasoning nature that the Surfer is finding impossible to reconcile. Combined with the fact that humans almost always react to him with hostility and fear, it's probably no wonder the Surfer now sees mankind as a lost cause, as opposed to when he first arrived and had not yet been exposed to man's nature at close quarters. I prefer to think of the Surfer as he was portrayed in the graphic novel story, as far as his outlook towards humanity--children not yet come of age, who have the potential to achieve greatness one day. (Though Ardina surely felt differently!)

As for Banner, he might well have developed cabin fever in time, as far as shelving his scientist roots; but at this point, having suffered so long as the Hulk, he was probably grateful to grasp at the first straw that offered some kind of hope for him to reclaim a normal life, one that didn't involve being on the run. And perhaps Clare was added incentive to swap test tubes for chores.

Prowler, I'd guess that due to the Surfer's acceleration to penetrate the barrier, as well as the unlikelihood that he would cease his breakneck speed in his elation once he'd passed that point, he had probably soared a great distance out into space by the time he noticed Banner's plight (who had already been plunging in freefall). Sound reasonable?