Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Your Wish Is Hulk's Command

In the Hulk's original blinked-and-you-missed-it bi-monthly series from 1962, it appeared that writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby were taking the character in the direction of the bizarre. An unassuming physicist, transformed by science into a lumbering, raging monster whose strength was off the scale, encountering ancient civilizations beneath the Earth's surface, or offbeat criminals, or off-world invaders such as the Toad Men, the Metal Master, or even a communist posing as an alien gladiator. At times it felt like Tales Of Suspense had been adapted to include a headliner.

The Hulk's third issue was perhaps the most down-to-Earth issue of the series, in that it featured a major development in the Hulk, while also focusing on a gaudy but otherwise ordinary group of criminals who were ransacking the towns they visited while posing as circus performers. It would be our first exposure to the Ringmaster and his cohorts, who would go on to become one of Marvel's mainstay criminal groups while engaging with some of the company's heaviest hitters. (With the Hulk, they certainly started at the top.)

As for the major development that takes place, at first glance you might think it's related to the startled soldier's observation on the issue's cover:

Instead, it's the issue's splash page which would pave the way to the first change we'd witness in the Hulk's makeup (if you're not counting the adjustment of his skin pigmentation).

In the prior issue, Bruce Banner had created a containment cell for the Hulk within an underground cave, which Banner would enter at dusk and be released from at dawn. (Originally, in true eerie fashion, the transformations between Banner and the Hulk would occur at sundown and sunrise.)

While on the surface, the soldiers under the command of "Thunderbolt" Ross continued to scour the area for signs of the Hulk. Ross has suspected that Rick Jones, the boy who had wandered onto the test site of the gamma bomb, knows more about the Hulk than he's letting on--and in a ploy that was conceived decades before a similar plan put into effect by the Illuminati, Ross plays on Rick's sense of patriotism (a strong theme in these early '60s Marvel stories) to covertly secure his aid in ridding the Earth of the Hulk forever.

As the rocket capsule ascends into space, its trajectory exposes the Hulk to the sun, thereby transforming him back into Banner. But before he can get his bearings, the capsule heads into a radiation belt, which saturates Banner with rays which, in a Marvel book, can and often do lead to unexpected results.

Yet whatever effect the rays have had on Banner will be moot if he continues to head out into space. Fortunately, back on Earth, Rick has overheard Ross crowing about the successful execution of his real plan to trap the Hulk--and when no one is looking, Rick accesses the missile control panel and arranges for the capsule to plummet back to Earth. (Vocational school is really all they say it is--obviously Rick has attended and boned up on the basics of rocket control.) But during his contact with the panel, a radiation surge from the capsule jolts Rick, in an effect which the narrative tells us will link Rick and the Hulk even more closely.

As a result, Rick is in for a few surprises when the capsule crashes (conveniently within running distance of its launch point, at that--Rick must have made an "A" in that voc-ed class):

And so not only has the Hulk survived, but the effects of the sun no longer trigger his transformation back to Banner (assuming Banner is still alive). In addition, Rick's new link with the Hulk allows him to control the brute. The bad news is also two-fold. First, there is now no way to know if or when the Hulk will be able to transform back to Banner; and second, as Rick finds out after turning in for the night, is that the Hulk is free of Rick's control when Rick falls asleep or is otherwise unconscious.

But when Rick rushes off to corral the Hulk, we're introduced to a new aspect to the Hulk which has been inspired off-panel by Lee and Kirby rather than by anything occurring within the story--and we get our first look at the Hulk taking one of his mile-spanning leaps.

Of course, the fact that the Hulk is imprisoned in his underground cell would normally alleviate the conundrum of whether Rick can ever fall asleep again, though this time the story chooses to ignore the prior success of the cell--to say nothing of the fact that the noise of the Hulk crashing out of the cell would jolt Rick awake and allow him to instantly re-establish his control.

The story breaks at this point and retells the details of the origin of the Hulk, as the book would do for as many as four of its six-issues of the series. That would ordinarily seem like too many retellings; but since a new issue of Incredible Hulk took two months to hit the stands, and since it's fair to assume by its limited run that the comic had trouble catching on, it stands to reason that Lee perhaps wanted to keep the Hulk's origin in circulation, to keep current readers from losing perspective on the character as well as to hopefully generate interest in new readers.

After the "intermission" of the Hulk's origin, Lee and Kirby stack the deck by presenting a new story following the prior one, a "more for your money" approach--and we see the first appearance of the Ringmaster, who, naturally, is a threat to the entire world.

The Ringmaster, while joined here by a few of his accomplices in the circus, does not yet have a "Circus of Crime" in the formal sense. Later whittling down the Ringmaster's henchmen/women to a more tight-knit core group of fellow criminals would make sense, as it would be difficult to impossible to attempt to form a criminal group made up of every circus employee on the payroll and still ensure that no one would ever tip off the law, without the Ringmaster having to make use of his hypnotic ability on every single person. In the beginning, though, the entire roster of circus performers was on board with pulling a heist on not only audiences, but on the town where the show was held.

Unfortunately, the Ringmaster was a bit sloppy in covering his tracks--and eventually, the F.B.I. was on his tail.

Wow. "Plainville." That's bound to draw the tourist crowds.

As to how the Hulk fits into this scheme, one of the attendees at the Ringmaster's travelling circus happens to be Rick Jones, who's spent who knows how many hours trying to stay awake and welcomes the distraction of a circus performance. Wouldn't you know he chooses the one circus whose ringmaster who will put him under as part of a crime spree. But as long as Rick's mind remains at least semi-conscious, the Ringmaster and his roustabouts have the Hulk to contend with.

It seems to have been a good move to make the Hulk more mobile; a lumbering Hulk not only makes for an easy target to close in on but also limits him to one area, while the Hulk going "into action" by leaping to his target makes the panels more exciting to the eye. Be that as it may, the Hulk nevertheless falls captive to the Ringmaster (presumably when Rick falls fully under the hypnotic spell), and subsequently joins the lineup of the circus sideshow attractions.

But, again, the Ringmaster has failed to anticipate the efforts of law enforcement, and the F.B.I. has been able to reanimate his victims and close in on him before he's able to bring more crowds under his sway. Which includes Rick, who sics the Hulk on these circus hoodlums before they can escape.

The circus henchmen again attempt to take the Hulk down, though this time the monster remains fully lucid and eliminates their interference easily enough. It's the Ringmaster who's the big fish here, though, as Rick sends the Hulk in his direction:

To end the story, it seems that Ross has a military presence just about everywhere, even though it probably isn't often you and I recall seeing armed troops storm into a circus big top. On the other hand, we get to witness Ross doing his best Captain Ahab impersonation:

While Ross's subordinates ponder submitting his name for a Section 8, it looks like Kirby has the Hulk actually flying here, more than merely leaping. That style would be maintained for the remainder of Kirby's run on the series, while Lee's narrative counters by clearly describing the Hulk's movements as "prodigious leaps." The Hulk's apparent ability to change course was perhaps symbolic of his comic's attempts to do the same, though of course that's reaching a bit; though it's fair to say these early issues are rather unremarkable in both content and scope, and a change in direction was warranted.

With a bi-monthly schedule, combined with pulling the plug on the series after just six issues, it's difficult to speculate as to why Lee abandoned Incredible Hulk and yet gave a mag like Daredevil every chance to pull itself up. His recollection on that period only brushes with the Hulk comic, and somewhat inaccurately:

"Suddenly, with The Fantastic Four, we really started getting mail... 'We like this... We don't like that... We want to see more of this.' That was exciting! So I didn't quit. Then we did The Hulk, and that did pretty well... And then the rest is history."

Roy Thomas provides a little more insight on the issue:

"I always think that most of the things that went wrong at Marvel were Martin Goodman's failures of judgment because he was so eager always to cancel anything when it had even a little bit of a problem. The Hulk was never unpopular; he just wasn’t the Fantastic Four. Stan knew he was a good character so he kept bringing him back.

"I'm sure it was mostly sales, but the Comics Code Authority gave them more trouble than usual, too. If they had been selling well, they would've gotten past that. But the Code for some reason wanted a lot more changes on that book than they did, say, with the Thing--maybe because he was scarier looking and looked more human, or because that was the main character. It was very close to having a villain be the hero, which was something that was a real problem. Still, if the books had been selling, they wouldn't have cancelled it. What people were interested in was superheroes. So with Spider Man and Ant Man and Thor, they went back to your straight superhero. You couldn’t get a straighter superhero concept than Thor."

Neither Thomas nor Lee elaborate on why additional steps weren't taken with the Hulk in order to improve sales--for instance, bringing the Hulk more into the mainstream Marvel universe and featuring him with guest stars, a common step taken with other titles. Yet in the Hulk's case, that was only done after the fact, by featuring him in the Fantastic Four title and then folding him into Tales To Astonish as a co-feature.

Before the Hulk, er, leaped to the FF and then to TTA, the mental link between Rick and the Hulk had been severed, while Banner resorted to stepping in front of a gamma ray machine to transform himself in those times when the Hulk was needed, though this time with the Hulk retaining a modicum of Banner's thoughts and control. As for Rick, we can assume he headed off for some serious shut-eye.

Incredible Hulk #3

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
Letterer: Art Simek


Kid said...

I suppose it was the Ringmaster's first appearance in the official Marvel Universe, but an extremely similar character (of the same name if I rightly recall) had appeared in a Captain America comic in the '40s. Great post.

Comicsfan said...

Excellent observation, Kid--it seems the Ringmaster from that wartime period preferred a swastika on his hat (at least behind the scenes) rather than a hypnotic disc.

Anonymous said...

The stark simplicity of the art, with little detail the dark colors, always struck me as being quite creepy, even scary. The image of the mindless, murderous Hulk pounding endlessly against his concrete prison in the darkness is one disturbing image.
I'll never forget that image from the first issue with the Hulk lumbering off into the dark emptiness.
Maybe that scene was borrowed from the end of the Frankenstein novel.
Great review.