Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Daughter Of The Sea

Like Roy Thomas, writer Len Wein offered something more in the pages of Incredible Hulk besides the Hulk smashing for smashing's sake. Wein at times provided the Hulk with character encounters that often made the book a genuine reading experience rather than a panel-by-panel display of the Hulk's might. There are many examples of such stories to choose from, but one that especially comes to mind is a tale which would reintroduce a circus theme into the Hulk's life, though the story's title gives an indication that it has considerably more depth than what we might expect.

Falling to Earth after an encounter with the Bi-Beast, the Hulk is washed ashore and revives to make his way into the forest. The smell of cooked food leads him to a carnival wagon; but before he can investigate further, he's attacked by figures from the shadows--figures who, despite their initial actions, he can't help but be curious about.

It would appear that each side is wary of the other, which, in a misunderstanding, is only natural. But the Hulk's relationship with these people will turn out to be far more meaningful for him--and that would especially hold true for another member of their party he has yet to lay eyes on.

Their introductions already taken care of by Wein by cleverly taking each person's reaction to the Hulk in turn, the Hulk is put at ease by the pleasantries which follow, especially by the use of the one word he perhaps treasures most: "friend." From the sound of things, it appears that these four are on the run from something, or someone--and we can see that it likely has something to do with the circus which, by all appearances, they were a part of until recently.

Once the Hulk meets the fifth member of their group, however, he becomes almost self-conscious. One reason he decided to stay with this group is that he felt as if he fit in with these others who seem to be isolating themselves from other humans who might see them as "different" and less than they are--impressions which, in his hunted existence, he can easily recall falling victim to himself. But the beauty of the one he meets has him fearing rejection once again--until she makes the invitation for him to stay unanimous.

Time passes easily for this group of outcasts, the Hulk proving to be an able companion to his new friends and willing to help them make their way through the forest in whatever ways he can. However, he still doesn't understand why they're running, or from whom--and we learn it has to do with the mystery surrounding Meriam.

Once everyone turns in for the night, the Hulk makes a silent vow to protect his friends if their pursuer threatens their well-being--and, if one were to observe his body language when Meriam later comes to join him, we could assume that his protective resolve goes double for her.

It probably goes without saying that the artwork of Sal Buscema in this story has been taken up a notch by the finishes of inker Ernie Chan, whose work sets the mood of this strange encounter in the woods and does a great deal to enhance the Hulk's expressions in his interactions with his friends and especially with Meriam. Buscema's panels appear to have had quality time spent on them, as well as exhibiting more of the inker's style coming to the forefront, such as work we've seen from Klaus Janson or other finishers whose work you would recognize at a glance. Chan leaves the essentials of Buscema's work intact, while still improving on it considerably--which is the kind of hands-on/hands-off approach a penciller might find ideal.

Thus far, we've seen these two artists establish this story's mood; but as Meriam's state takes a turn for the worse, the opportunity arises for us to see how well Buscema and Chan work with each other in action sequences.

There is indeed mystery surrounding Meriam, made more apparent by this recent episode. Why was she found alone and unconscious on the beach? What is the circus Ringmaster's interest in her? What is the source of her illness? Where is she from? Not even the other members of her group have any answers--but there is one who does, and he has finally tracked her down and made his arrival clear to the others.

Yes, that Ringmaster, who was one of the first to ever cross paths with the Hulk, and whose "circus of crime" Stilts, Rex and the others have been fleeing from with Meriam. The group is corralled in short order--and as for the Hulk, the Ringmaster relies on a tried and true method he's often used to bring super-beings under his control. Afterward, the four former sideshow performers soon find their circus days beckoning to them once again.

One can only wonder why the Ringmaster hasn't made use of his hypnotic abilities to retrieve the information he wants from Meriam. If his rigged hat worked on the likes of Thor and the Hulk, it's certainly got a good chance of succeeding with her. It's an odd omission on Wein's part, even if the Ringmaster might have already tried and failed. Be that as it may, Major Minor has managed to escape, and he immediately attempts to free the Hulk from his stupor. Rex once sarcastically mentioned to the forthright and sometimes grating Major that "Your biggest problem, Major, is that you don't speak your mind!" Fortunately, he again minces no words here as he pushes to get through to the Hulk--though it only takes one word mentioned in earnest to accomplish his goal.

Stilts, Blossom, Rex, and the Major use their skills to take care of Cannonball, Princess Python (and her "precious"), and the Clown--while the Gambonno brothers and the rest of the circus hands are eventually scattered like tenpins by the Hulk. That leaves our friend the Ringmaster, whose tried and true tactic is tried again, and subsequently backfires.

As for Meriam, the Hulk is overjoyed that she is safe--but she has come to terms with the fact that her world is not the Hulk's, nor that of any other of her friends here--and we finally learn just why she has been sought out by the Ringmaster's greed, why she has been so sickly, and why she cannot stay.

What follows is a splendid farewell scene by Wein and Buscema, one which is entirely appropriate in keeping with the general atmosphere of mystery present in this story and with the Hulk's childlike attempt to grasp the reasons for Meriam's departure. We don't really know the origin of Meriam beyond what we've been told through the soft words she's used to appease the Hulk, and that's more than sufficient to close this tale. Rex and the others are equally lacking in details--but, saddened, they accept the situation nonetheless, and watch as the Hulk takes Meriam, as she said, "home."

It's interesting to note the symmetry of the story's beginning and end, with the former providing the most subtle inkling of the special kind of character we'll meet in Meriam and the Hulk tying both beginning and end together. Conceivably, this story could have taken place without the presence of Stilts and the others, with just the Hulk looking after Meriam until the Ringmaster found her again; but Wein made good use of the other four characters, who served to introduce the Hulk to their charge and were present to witness both of them leaving for a fond and heartfelt farewell.

Incredible Hulk #217

Script: Len Wein
Pencils: Sal Buscema
Inks: Ernie Chan
Letterer: John Costanza


Anonymous said...

For me the most poignant ending to a Hulk story was the one when he says farewell to Jarella and a flower springs from her grave. You know that story, CF - the one where the Hulk takes Jarella's body back to her homeworld and he has to defeat the Gardener who has turned the whole planet into a wasteland except for his own private "Garden of Eden" (I think that's how it went, it was a long time ago). Anyway, on seeing the flower everyone declares it a miracle but the Hulk's response is "Not miracle, just Jarella saying goodbye to Hulk one last time"...sob, isn't that beautiful.

dbutler16 said...

Wow, this looks like a beautiful issue. Hopefully I can come across it at an LCD dollar bin one of these days.

Comicsfan said...

It's been quite awhile since I've seen that story, Colin. But I'll take your word that it was a tear-jerker. It sounds like a very nice ending, indeed. *sniff*