Thursday, June 2, 2016

Destination: Counter-Earth!

Do you get the feeling you've walked into the middle of something here?

If it's any consolation, the Rhino knows just how you feel! Taken control of by the mental might of the Leader, the Rhino was unknowingly battling the Hulk in the closing pages of the incredible one's prior issue, when the Leader decided to bait the Hulk into following his shuttle as he lifted off and headed for the location where Betty Ross was to be married, vowing (heh heh, get it--"vowing"?) to bring about her death--either by his own hand, or from the Hulk's rage in trying to stop him. It was a no-win situation for the Hulk, should the Leader/Rhino make it to his target; but thanks to one of his prodigious leaps, the Hulk caught up with the shuttle, and now seems intent on smashing his way to his foe.

But as we open the next issue, we see that not only has the Leader seemingly abandoned the mind of his horn-headed pawn, but abandoned his plans, as well. Now that the Leader has realized that his shuttle will never reach its destination, he's made an abrupt course change and decided to cut his losses.

Obviously the Leader's brilliance is not to be underestimated, having designed and built a "shuttle" that's piloted and powered by his own mental force, can span the distance from the Earth to the sun in just days, and can survive a battle between its two occupants while still adhering to its flight path. But something even the Leader isn't even aware of is now in that path: the world created by the High Evolutionary in orbit on the far side of the sun, a world known as "Counter-Earth."

Both combatants are unceremoniously evicted from the shuttle--the Rhino by the Hulk's massive fist, and the Hulk when the shuttle strikes a land mass. Now on an alien yet familiar world, both men end up in the midst of a civil war taking place between factions of the High Evolutionary's New Men--the Hulk falling in with those still loyal to the Evolutionary, while the Rhino ends up with those who are out to dominate the human race. Both groups are aware (thanks to an eavesdropping reporter) that the Hulk and the Rhino arrived on a space ship, now in possession of the military (commanded by--who else?--General Ross)--and the Hulk's allies agree to help the Hulk locate it in order for the Hulk to return to his own world, though they also wish to keep the ship out of the hands of their evil brothers.

Again, the story gives us the feeling that we've found ourselves in the middle of events already well underway, a situation now escalated by both groups converging at the hangar where the shuttle is being studied. Aside from the convenient coincidence that the Hulk and the Rhino have separately fallen into the hands of each faction, there's still no reason why the Hulk would have cause to suspect that he's not on the true Earth, and thus wanting to make his way back to the shuttle--nor is there reason for his new allies to broach the subject with him, since they seem unfamiliar with him. The story almost seems geared to be a plug for the new Warlock mag (at this point a brand-new series, in its third issue), with even Warlock himself making a brief cameo--and in addition to cutting a few corners and giving the Hulk a sense of purpose in heading toward the shuttle, it also throws in another surprise appearance to pique our interest in Counter-Earth.

Yes, on this world, Banner remains a scientist who only had a brush with the events that led to the creation of the Hulk; he's even highly regarded by Ross, who considers him the model son-in-law. But of course there's one newcomer who won't exactly be thrilled at the sight of Banner--and we'll find there are other surprises to come from that meeting.

With the incursion of the Rhino and the murderous New Men, it becomes apparent that the Rhino and his group intend to seize the ship--and while he and the Hulk battle in earnest, the two groups of New Men clash as the scene erupts in violence. It's intriguing how such events affect those on Counter-Earth, since their world has until now been bereft of super-beings--and the arrival of the creations of the Evolutionary (to say nothing of the Hulk and the Rhino) is a little overwhelming to them.

Yet for the purpose of this story, the Hulk is virtually a guest-star in his own mag--his stay on Counter-Earth a limited one, since he won't be extending his stay in the pages of Warlock and must out of necessity make an abrupt exit (in spite of the Leader's efforts to deprive him of the means to leave). Banner's engineering team has even repaired the shuttle's damage and restored it to operational readiness to accommodate the Hulk's departure. (Wouldn't you think the team assigned to the shuttle would study it by inspecting its components, rather than attempt to rebuild a craft they know nothing about?) And so the Hulk's departure from Counter-Earth is calm and without incident, compared to his chaotic arrival.

Curiously, another odd development occurs in this story, prompted by the startling meeting between the Hulk and his other self--the fact that the Hulk, who often angrily denies that he and Banner are one and the same, now mentions it as a given, as if he never questioned it in his life. "How can Banner be here--when Banner is part of Hulk..." To be fair, the comic has always had difficulty making up its mind on the subject, going back and forth on it; but with the appearance of "Bobby," the Hulk finds it easier to lay those cards on the table. (Though in this case that's perhaps mostly out of necessity. Until the Rhino makes the scene, the Hulk is the only character on this planet who can demonstrate the surprise necessary for the scene to work--so it's the Hulk who must voice the reason why he hates the man standing before him, when up to now his reasons simply had to do with Banner being a weakling and his "imprisoning" the Hulk in "a dark place.")

Equally strange is that in this story, Banner appears to have no difficulty recalling his time as the Hulk--and clearly, at that. By rights, his last memory should have been just before the Leader taunted him on Earth about heading toward Betty to endanger her life, which angered him sufficiently to turn into the Hulk--yet he clearly remembers the details of his time on Counter-Earth as the Hulk, when he should instead be very concerned about being aboard a shuttle in outer space with Earth apparently receding from view behind him, not to mention wondering if the Leader carried out his plan with Betty.

So we can reasonably chalk this issue up to an unabashed opportunity to plug the Warlock comic by somehow getting a mainstream character over to Counter-Earth, provide the reader with a sense of what's going on there, and then bring that character back again while bending a few rules of logic and characterization in the process to make it happen. For instance, consider:  As hard as it is for the Hulk to think, and yet he's still able to distinguish that there are two planet Earths? It's only a sampling of the nuggets that we're asked to swallow in this story--yet that said, it still shaped up to be reasonably entertaining, though the Leader and the Rhino might beg to differ.

But, what's that, you say? You're wondering how Banner makes it back to Earth, if the Leader controls the shuttle and is dead set against Banner ever returning? Let's take a peek at the following issue and see how that's explained:

Yes, that's right: the residual mental force of the Leader still present in the mind of the Rhino repelled the Leader's efforts to regain control of the craft, allowing Banner to seize manual control and enter Earth's atmosphere. It seems not even the Leader is a match for the suspension of disbelief.

Incredible Hulk #158

Script: Steve Gerber
Pencils: Herb Trimpe
Inks: Sal Trapani
Letterer: John Costanza

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