Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Ties That Kill

Since the incredible Hulk was an outcast who roamed the world, if only to find his place in it, his stories in the 1970s allowed readers to sample characters and antagonists whose lives and motivations could potentially offer greater latitude for a writer to build a good story around. Many Hulk stories fit that description--even, on occasion, introducing a character sympathetic to the Hulk's plight and who touches his heart in some way. On rare occasion, a story even managed to add to the Hulk's small circle of close friends--those whom he trusts and will struggle to recall if and when their paths again cross.

Usually, those individuals will also go on to become friends to Bruce Banner, as was the case with Jarella, Rick Jones, and Jim Wilson--yet a story involving the Hulk and friendship conveys more meaning for the character when the Hulk's choice of a friend is based on more than association with his alter ego. And just as the story with Jim began with Jim and the Hulk establishing a bond all on their own, one special tale involved the Hulk finding such a friend in the northern countryside after escaping military pursuit following his encounter with the Wolverine. And the strands of a harmonica have a sound far more inviting than the blades of an attack chopper.

This story by Len Wein and Herb Trimpe introduces a character who may not be familiar to most readers, for reasons which will later become clear--but, just as with Jim, the Hulk comes across someone down on his luck, and Wein will have a great deal to work with as a result. Because as both of these outcasts would likely agree, misery loves company.

That phrase about misery loving company, however, does not apply to Johnny Anvil and "Hammer" Jackson, two recent prison escapees who have successfully evaded recapture but whose prison chain binding them together at the wrist prevents their evading each other. Each shares an intense dislike for the other, though they have no choice but to cooperate in order to remain free. But they're about to find that the countryside they travel through has more than the law roaming it--in this case, an extraterrestrial who will owe these two unlikely benefactors a debt of survival.

As you can imagine, "Hammer and Anvil" are less than pleased with what appears to be a refurbishment of the chain that had previously prevented their putting distance between each other. But with the alien's encouragement, they discover powerful means to dispense their own punishment on the authorities who had incarcerated them:

But, how does the Hulk figure into this story that's taken such a violent turn? As the brute continues to bond with his unusual and congenial new friend, their interaction is far removed from the rampage that Hammer and Anvil have embarked on. And the Hulk finds in Crackajack someone who is both trustworthy companion and welcome tutor:

An interesting scene, indeed. Any other time, the Hulk would have shown impatience and likely even anger at the frustrations involved in learning to read and write, even wondering aloud what purpose it served. But in Crackajack's company, he feels no pressure, no mockery--only encouragement and gentle persuasion, from a kindred spirit. We see Wein's story of friendship take shape before our eyes, even as further developments involving Hammer and Anvil loom.

Eventually, Crackajack, with the Hulk by his side, arrives at his destination--the place where his son, Leroy, serves his time, a detail he has not shared with his new friend. But to the Hulk, the details matter not--all that he wants is to help Crackajack reach his son. Prison walls, of course, pose no challenge to the Hulk--yet, as Wein finally ties the elements of this story together, we discover the challenge to the Hulk lies on the other side, where Leroy "Hammer" Jackson and his father reunite in the middle of a bloodbath.

And if Crackajack's tragic death hits us like a ton of bricks, imagine its effect on his half-ton friend, whose rage now reasserts itself with a vengeance. And you might well think that vengeance is what is foremost on the Hulk's mind at this moment--but, despite appearances, is it really?

Clearly, the Hulk wants to put a stop to Hammer and Anvil's two-man riot in this place where his friend has fallen; but we begin to see that, to his mind, these two men are keeping him from caring for Crackajack and removing him from a place that offers no peace for him, and he now seeks to end the battle on that note. It's a choice I wouldn't have expected a Hulk writer to make during a fit of such justified rage, but one that works so much better for the story. Hammer and Anvil, after all, can be dealt with--but it's the Hulk's grief and regret that will take us to this story's conclusion.

It's clear that the Hulk won't be penning any letters to the editors of news media anytime soon--but if you were a reader of The Defenders as well as further Hulk stories which featured him having meals, you probably now realize that the Hulk's preference for beans in those tales was part of Crackerjack's legacy to him. But as for here and now, and this story's closing moments, I might have made a humble suggestion to Mr. Trimpe to have the Hulk place his friend's harmonica at the base of his tombstone.

Incredible Hulk #182

Script: Len Wein
Pencils and Inks: Herb Trimpe
Letterer: John Costanza


Anonymous said...

This was actually the first issue of The Incredible Hulk that I ever owned, so I guess I started the series with a great issue, if a bit of a melancholy one.
Trimpe was at the top of his game, here, I think.
Also, I remember the issue started off with some weird little runt I had never heard of, who had claws sticking out of his hands. The Marmot, Squirrel Boy, or something like that.
I would be nervous hanging around the Hulk after he's been chugging baked beans. I can't imagine a pleasant outcome to that scenario.

Comicsfan said...

Even more cause for concern, M.P., had to be the thought of the Hulk coming back for seconds!