Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Presence And The Parasite!


In his tours through Israel, Egypt, and now the Soviet Union, the incredible Hulk seems to have found as much conflict with enemies as he did in the States. Now, after battling the Soviet Super-Soldiers, he finds himself trapped in a deadly radioactive region known as the Forbidden Zone, a place where two Russian exiles hold sway and who now deal with the Hulk and his immediate opponent, Ursa Major:




The plans of Sergei, a/k/a "the Presence," and his companion, Tania Belinsky, the Red Guardian, remain shrouded in mystery, though the Super-Soldiers have been told by their superiors that the two are causing the Zone's radiation to spread for reasons unknown. Whatever their true purpose, they seem intent on putting a halt to any interference, by whatever means necessary:


Yikes! It's not going to be much of a Hulk story without a Hulk, is it?



But there's another mystery here--the figure in shadows that has both Sergei and the Guardian so worried--the same figure that writer Bill Mantlo and artist Sal Buscema so coyly made it seem was none other than Dr. Doom. Now, with the Presence departed, we learn that this man's identity is Professor Phobos, former teacher and mentor to Ursa Major, Darkstar, and Vanguard:



In flashbacks, we see that Phobos is this country's state-sanctioned Professor Xavier--taking charge of mutants brought to him by the KGB to train for later service:



As with his American counterpart, Phobos, too, is a mutant, but operating in a more repressed environment. Fearing how the KGB might exert their will on him, Phobos left his school once his students had graduated, and fled to Siberia; and now, with Sergei an apparent threat, he's entered the Zone to hopefully foil Sergei's plan to spread a wave of radiation over the Soviet Union. As we can see, Phobos's former students are overjoyed to see him again. But ask yourself this: Why has this man been keeping to the shadows until now?

With the Super-Soldiers on board with their former teacher's plan, they seek out Sergei and the Guardian (minus the injured Crimson Dynamo, who's been transported to a hospital) and attempt to keep them occupied, while Phobos enlists the aid of Dr. Banner in constructing a device that will neutralize the pair. The Soldiers fight valiantly--but with Ursa Major's bear-form suppressed, only Vanguard and Darkstar are left to oppose two beings who dispatched both the Hulk and the Soldiers' muscle with a wave of a hand. And there's another factor at work that further hampers their efforts, but that's yet to be revealed.

Beyond his ability to repel an attacker's force back in their direction, Vanguard leaves something to be desired in the super-hero department, despite Mantlo's obvious efforts to have him stand out. There are his ever-present hammer and sickle, of course--symbols of the state which, according to Phobos, are used to focus his repelling power. And he has some measure of strength, as well as a colorful costume. But how excited are you at seeing a hammer and sickle used in a battle?




(When he presented them to Vanguard, Phobos didn't say anything about these tools being "cybernetic"--but, presto, now they are. Otherwise, of course, they'd clank to the floor across the room instead of returning to Vanguard. Mantlo's last-minute tweak may have thus succeeded in turning Vanguard into what Iron Man once called him--a "second-rate Thor.")

When Darkstar attacks, she proves equally helpless to contain the pair--but listening to the interactions of each side, it becomes clear that there's more going on here than either the Soldiers or Banner are aware of:



With the Soldiers down, it doesn't take long for things to come to a head, back at the site of the machinery which seems so crucial to the Presence. But with Banner's assistance, Phobos's plan is ready to be initiated. Thanks to Phobos, events are taking place so quickly that no one has time to explore any of their questions regarding the Presence. In addition, Phobos is able to get quite a lot of mileage out of his relationship with his former students; and the story he's spun of his persecution by the State, as well as Sergei's mad plan to spread the Zone's contamination, have obviously made an impact on Banner. But even Banner senses something amiss when the time comes to activate their device:




With the Presence effectively neutralized, the pretense of Phobos drops like a safe, and the others find a new villain--the real villain--in their midst:



It turns out that Phobos has used his ability to drain the power of others for many years, ever since he became Headmaster Dean of the school for super-soldiers--using his students' energies to supply him with artificial mind powers. But the KGB are no slouches when it comes to investigation--and when Phobos found the wolves closing in on him (including the then-human Red Guardian), he fled the school, though not before giving Darkstar and Vanguard accessories which would, unknown to them, continue to feed their power to him.

Phobos then fled to the Forbidden Zone, and attempted to spread its radiation outward in order to create more mutants whose power he would also siphon. Sergei and the Guardian discovered his plan and, unable to locate their foe, attempted to contain the radiation; but the arrival of both the Hulk and the Super-Soldiers on the scene allowed Phobos to created distractions which, thanks to Sergei's unwitting involvement, gained him the opportunity to enlist Banner's help in trapping the Presence.

Yet Phobos reveals that his ties to not only Sergei but to Darkstar and Vanguard go deeper:




A mind-blast then demonstrates to Banner that he's helpless to prevent Phobos from completing his plans. But a mental communication from another helpless being will soon tip the scales in that respect:



Sergei does the same with Ursa Major--and before you know it, it's a whole new ball game.




I can't say much for Ursa Major's theory that his mind is too bestial to be overpowered by Phobos, given his rather analytical assessment of the situation.  Regardless, this family reunion may be cut short, as Phobos's adjustments to the facility's machinery have increased the instability of the Zone's radiation--and a sacrifice will be necessary in order to avert disaster.




Mantlo and Buscema have done a fair job in creating an entertaining two-part story by weaving together a number of elements to comprise the whole. The interesting notion of a Soviet school for mutants that's existed for nearly two decades, though mainly as a "research project" that would keep pace with the training of mutants in the U.S.; a teacher who both served as a father figure but also took advantage of his charges; catching up with the Presence and the Red Guardian from an earlier Defenders story; the formal gathering of the Soviet Super-Soldiers, appearing in bits and pieces in other titles as just super-powered Soviet agents (one story portraying the Black Widow's friend and confidant, Ivan Petrovitch, as another teacher of Darkstar's); and of course the Hulk, who makes little more than a cameo appearance in this issue but whose arrival in the Forbidden Zone serves as a catalyst for the conflict with Sergei that would eventually reveal the machinations of Phobos. Fortunately, Phobos caves pretty quickly for someone who caused so much trouble:



The Hulk would continue his tour of the region in Japan, where he would finally be tracked down by Colonel Glenn Talbot and have a deadly encounter with the War Wagon; and from there, it would be on to Easter Island and a battle with a paranoid Absorbing Man, before finally ending up in Malibu back in the States. I would have thought Mantlo would have tapped Sunfire for the Japan appearance--but I could see where Talbot's reckoning with the Hulk couldn't really be put off any longer, and Mantlo perhaps also felt that he'd done enough as far as the Hulk meeting up with the heroes of other countries.  (And no doubt the east was ready to be rid of him!)

Incredible Hulk #259

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

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