Friday, January 30, 2015

No Peace In The Promised Land

In 1981, writer Bill Mantlo decided to yank the incredible Hulk out of the States and send him on a tour of "Eurasia" and the Middle East, while taking the opportunity to introduce new super-heroes indigenous to the region. To get the Hulk to his first stop was simple enough: Bruce Banner falls asleep in a freighter bound for Tel Aviv. But when the ship arrives and the cargo hold is being unloaded, Banner fears discovery--and with an elevated pulse rate, the dock workers are greeted by another stowaway altogether.

The military is quick to respond, and the soldiers immediately fire on the Hulk. That works about as well as you'd expect--because while the Hulk doesn't understand the language these men are speaking, he understands all too well the language of weaponry being deployed against him for no apparent reason, and he decimates the Israeli platoon and equipment. But policewoman Ruth Ben-Sera is also on the scene, and shifts to an identity that might better deal with the Hulk.

Other than her dramatic appearance, Mantlo and artist Sal Buscema provide this Israeli super-agent with little that distinguishes her. We could quibble about where she could possibly pack all of that gear beneath the minimal buttoned shirt and skirt she wears on the job; regardless, aside from the power of flight, and the paralyzing energy quills she fires, Sabra doesn't appear to have any super-abilities to speak of.  (Indeed, the platoon that attacked the Hulk appeared more capable to engage in a battle.) Does Sabra have enhanced strength? How does she deal with bullets from armed foes? And why dress so heavily in an arid climate? Her energy quills are supplied by the Israeli super-agent program--but what specifically does Sabra herself bring to the table to make her an asset to that program?

The story, however, does a great deal to make up for what Sabra seems to lack as a person of interest. After the Hulk shifts to Banner again and thus evades Sabra's pursuit, Banner happens to run into a young Arab boy named Sahad, a street thief who befriends him. But when terrorists bomb a nearby cafe, Sahad is tragically killed--and the attackers who remain to slay any survivors suddenly find their own survival in doubt.

Sabra then arrives and assesses the situation, but jumps to the wrong conclusion regarding the Hulk's involvement and attacks him as well as the terrorists. It's clear that Mantlo has given Sabra a shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later mindset where she offers only minimal judgment of the situation and seeks to first secure the area so that proper authorities can arrive and sort everything out--perhaps in part to set up the story's ending and her closing panels (which we'll get to in a minute), and perhaps partly to bring attention to the often-tense security situation in Israel. Consequently, she bases her conclusions of the Hulk on simple association--a monster among other monsters.

Yet despite the disorientation and weakness Sabra's quills are causing him, the Hulk cares little for dealing with her in light of what has happened to his young friend--and seeing Sahad's broken body in the rubble drives the quills' effects from his system and reignites his anger. Sabra is fortunate that the Hulk has other priorities than to focus that anger on her.

In all fairness to Sabra, the story had established early on that Israelis had heard of the Hulk but were doubtful that such a creature actually existed--and Sabra (in her policewoman status) simply received a brief intelligence update from the arriving military forces that only made note of the Hulk's savagery. That violent behavior is all that Sabra has seen in the Hulk--and as the fierce nationalist that Mantlo has depicted her to be, Sabra is perhaps understandably single-minded in her intention to respond to the Hulk with force.

So when she tracks the Hulk to the desert, Sabra takes a by-the-book approach in confronting him. And to make matters worse, she compiles the Hulk's rap sheet on the spot, listing the "charges" against him put together by a mixture of observation and speculation.

You've probably heard it said before, about one's sense of duty clouding their judgment. It's a description that fits Sabra to the core. Standing before her is a creature who has demonstrated beyond any doubt that Sabra is no match for him--yet she insists on strong-arming him into submission, rather than even attempting other methods to resolve the situation. It's only Sabra's outrageous reference to Sahad that jolts the Hulk from his sadness, to deliver his own accusations. Unlike Sabra, the Hulk's angry but simple words seek to bluntly illuminate, rather than escalate.

Mantlo uses the Hulk's anguish to cut through the issues of this incident and bring a sense of tragedy to Sabra, despite her stern resolve to take the Hulk into custody. It's a bit of a reach to imply that a few emotional words from what she sees as a rampaging monster are enough to make Sabra put aside all of her training and bring her sinking to the ground in reflection. But the spirit of Mantlo's story is clear--and if Sabra's realization occurring because she's "a woman" feels somewhat forced and fast-tracked, it's likely that spirit resonated much more with the story's reader.

From Israel we leap with the Hulk to Egypt, where we'll find--the Arabian Knight!

Incredible Hulk #256

Script: Bill Mantlo
Pencils and Inks: Sal Buscema
Letterer: Jim Novak


dbutler16 said...

All of these international heroes appeared in Contest of the Champions. In fact, I almost get the impression that they were created for CotC, but I doubt it.
Sabra's quills actually penetrated Hulk's skin? I am impressed!
Nice little speech by the Hulk at the end. Not subtle, but still good...and true.

Anonymous said...

Would the Israelis really have thought the Hulk didn't exist - a creature like the Hulk would be world-famous and there'd surely be a mass of photos and news footage. But Marvel stories did tend to treat the world beyond America as if it hadn't caught up with modernity (Europeans would usually be shown holding flaming torches a la Frankenstein) so maybe the Israelis didn't yet have newfangled things like newspapers and televisions. I still write letters with a quill pen - by candlelight of course as electricity is witchcraft.

Comicsfan said...

You tell 'em, Colin!

dbutler16, I raised an eyebrow at those quills penetrating the Hulk's skin, myself. It seems the wildest stroke of luck that Sabra's superiors would happen to create a weapon that was designed to penetrate even the Hulk's skin, given that their intelligence on the Hulk seemed cursory at best.