Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Monsters United!

There are a number of Hulk vs. Thing stories on the books, but one of the more interesting twists on the concept came down the pipe in a two-part tale from 1976, where even the cover to Part One makes sure to tell you that, despite appearances, you're in for something a little different this time around.

You're also in for two, count 'em, two SHOCK ENDINGS, one for each segment--so all in all, you're getting a pretty sweet deal for your 50¢.

The story is written by... well, you've already caught a glimpse of the credits on the splash page, but it's a fair bet that one look at the story's title brought his name to mind in an instant--Roy Thomas, of course, who drops pop culture references into his stories often enough to warrant changing his Marvel handle from "Rascally" to "Reliable." In this case, his inspiration likely comes from a 1969 film titled "If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium," which boasts a large cast (and notable cameo appearances by a few others) that arrives in Europe for sightseeing tours and assorted hijinks. How that theme possibly relates to a battle between the Fantastic Four and the Hulk is anyone's guess, but for whatever reason it made perfect sense to Thomas, depending on whatever he was thinking about at the time and what unfathomable logic he used to connect those dots. It seems a head-scratcher even if it was meant as a play on words.

You might find more amusement in tracing the phrase back to its original context:  a 1957 cartoon by Leonard Dove that was meant to poke fun at the whirlwind nature of European tour schedules.

As for the FF, they're flying to Nebraska (Commercial passage? Something wrong with the Pogo Plane?) at the request of the military, due to reports of the Hulk rampaging in the area--but mostly in an effort to address the Hulk problem once and for all, by using technology we've seen before.

It's unclear why miniaturizing the psi-amplifier was the key to perfecting it, if that's what Thomas is implying. It was pretty apparent in its previous use that its size wasn't really the problem with its operation. Regardless, Sue's question is a likely cue for the Hulk's entrance--and, it goes without saying, for a near-disaster.

No, I don't know why the Hulk would make such an effort to save a train-load of people in the first issue of The Avengers, yet give the virtual finger to air-transit passengers. Thomas made quite a habit of giving the Hulk a casual disregard for humans' safety, which now has these unlucky passengers fearing for their lives.

Fortunately, the panicking people on board this flight have the resources of the Fantastic Four to help them--or, rather, three of them, since Reed has no current use for Ben in their efforts to save the plane. It turns out to be one of several methods in this plot that Thomas uses to move the Thing in the direction of Part One's SHOCK ENDING!--instead using the force field of the Invisible Girl to seal the breach in the plane's hull, while Reed and the Torch head outside to make use of their talents there.

(Come on, Reed, you're in a hurry! Why not just say "Flight attendants!" instead of fumbling for a way to distinguish them by gender?)

Even before the dust has settled on the ground, the military has taken the FF aboard transport to one of several underground bases constructed to withstand atomic attack, where they're briefed on the Hulk's movements by Col. Sellers, a young go-getter who's supervising this operation and has knowledge of the FF's intentions for the Hulk following the brute's capture. We also learn that the base's equipment can track the Hulk due to his intermittent emission of gamma radiation--a bit of information which the Avengers, Rick Jones, et al. might find somewhat alarming given their exposure to the Hulk for extended periods of time, but which Thomas plays down here. (With one exception, though we'll have to wait for Part Two and its SHOCK ENDING! for that development.)

Unfortunately, it's the Hulk who finds the FF first, thanks to his instincts for coming under attack being honed by the recognition of aircraft of military design, and so he makes the first strike in this skirmish; but the FF attack with precision teamwork, and even the Hulk finds himself outnumbered.

As we can see, Thomas is taking more steps toward making Ben more sympathetic to the Hulk--a strange turn for this story to take, since Ben knows full well what Reed has planned and that their assault on the Hulk is for the good of Bruce Banner. Ben also has the safety of his teammates to consider, something that he's always given the highest priority. Why would he start having misgivings about his role here now? "Yeah--after all, it's only four against one!" It was also four against Blastaar... four against the Thinker... four against the Sub-Mariner... four against the Molecule Man... so?

More disgruntlement awaits back at the base, where Reed prepares his procedure with the psi-amplifier (which honestly doesn't appear to have been miniaturized a fraction of its former size) while the Thing continues to object to... what, exactly? The capture of the Hulk? The one who was responsible for nearly killing over 400 passengers? The one whose existence traps Bruce Banner? The one whom the Thing has previously struck blow after blow against in the past? There's more than sufficient cause for Ben to feel sympathetic toward Banner's plight, certainly, especially in light of Sellers' grandstand play once Reed's procedure has done its work--but watch how this plays out, from one extreme:

To the next:

If we wanted to give Ben the benefit of the doubt, we could presume (as Reed points out) that he really didn't realize what he was doing--but despite Thomas's narrative about Ben not understanding the machine's "intricacies," Thomas is intransigent in using this scene to move the Thing toward a set course, so we have no choice but to wonder otherwise. But how does Ben get there? It was obvious that he felt enraged at Sellers' treatment of Banner, which would have played fine on its own; but Thomas combines that reaction with the Thing's confusing (and manufactured) sympathies toward the Hulk in order to enact a development that doesn't make sense. Despite his reaction to Sellers' actions, the Thing should be pleased at Banner's freedom from his transformation, and it would take only a moment's work for Ben to free him from his shackles; instead, Ben wrecks the device that made Banner's cure possible. What exactly is Ben trying to accomplish by, of all things, bringing the Hulk back? And why?

Don't expect the SHOCK ENDING! to do anything but muddy the waters at this point.

Ben deals the Hulk's reappearance right into his current mood--only now we have the added complication of the Thing switching sides, turning against the human race, and threatening the entire world with retaliation if he and his new partner are attacked. Ben's new enthusiasm aside, not even Cap'n Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy could sort out this mess.

Battleground: St. Louis! PLUS: The changes keep on coming!

Fantastic Four #166

Script: Roy Thomas
Pencils: George Perez
Inks: Vince Colletta
Letterer: Joe Rosen


johnlindwall said...

This story is new to me since I didn't start reading FF until #171.

If FF had been on my radar then I'm sure I would have bought this given the cover's promise of an all-out fist fight vs the Hulk! I also think that young me would have been disappointed with this issue, partly because of the inker and partly because of the nature of the Hulk takedown. I was not a fan of Mr. Colletta and it just makes me sad to think what the pages would look like with another inker. I adored the Perez art in later issues, where I wanna say that Joe Sinnott was inking! Now that was some sweet drawing!! The Impossible Man story stands out as a favorite.

Reading this now, it does seem like Ben's actions are implausible but I doubt that would have registered in my mind if I read this 40 years ago.

Would I have bought the NEXT issue? OF COURSE! That looks like a big knock-down drag-out that I did not get in this issue!

Comicsfan said...

John, you get your wish with the return of Joltin' Joe next issue. As for the knock-down drag-out, the conclusion to this story may not be what you were expecting in that department. But the Thing and the Hulk do have it out in force in a separate post, one of my all-time favorites of their clashes (if not the favorite).

Anonymous said...

Ben' comparison of a Hulk-Thing team-up to the musical partnership of Elton John and Bernie Taupin might indicate some temporary mental derangement on his part. But ya gotta stick those references to contemporary culture in somewhere, to show the kids you're hip and that you can dig it!
I can understand Ben's sympathy for Banner, but he's never liked the Hulk, who's always been stronger. It does seem a bit out of character, this alliance.