Monday, December 26, 2016

The Day Of The Hero!

Many elements of the 1983 Incredible Hulk story, "Hero," written by Bill Mantlo, are adapted from the 1957 short story by Harlan Ellison, "Soldier From Tomorrow"--something you wouldn't have known unless you were a reader of Fantastic Universe in 1957, or had seen the story play out on the screen when Ellison wrote a teleplay for it that was featured in a 1964 episode of "The Outer Limits." If so, you would have noticed the striking similarities in Mantlo's story and, more importantly, how odd it was that the Hulk story failed to acknowledge Ellison's work at the time it was published. Given Ellison's penchant for decrying even a hint of plagiarism of his works, the adaptation by Mantlo clearly would have justified Ellison pursuing the matter further, had he wished, since it leaves no doubt as to where Mantlo derived his inspiration from.

Three issues later, Marvel made a statement in the book's letters page that sought to explain the oversight and smooth any ruffled feathers.

A lot of readers thought that "Hero" in HULK #286 bore a strong--a very strong--resemblance to Harlan Ellison's short story and teleplay "Soldier." They were right. Writer Bill Mantlo did, indeed, adapt Harlan's philosophical thriller to Hulk-use. But because of a last-minute mix-up, Harlan's credit was accidentally omitted from where it should have been, at the top of page one. We're sincerely sorry for the confusion and we're taking this opportunity to apologize to Harlan and his many fans. - The Editors

The notice is followed in small minuscule print by a virtual paper trail of details concerning the original story's bona fides--its evolution, the media it appeared in, copyright dates, production companies, production dates, and just for good measure, the name of Ellison's agent, all of which now appears very prominently on the first page of Marvel's digital copy of the issue.

A "mix-up" covers quite a bit of ground, of course, since in a production sense it could mean practically anything--and a "last-minute" mix-up implies that the omission didn't take place until after all eyes had signed off on it and the book was past the point of being corrected. With the apologia so lacking in details, it's impossible to do anything but speculate on the particulars; but considering that there were at least three sets of eyes on this work as it went through its development stages, including two editors as well as the writer's, it's fair to wonder at just what point Ellison's credit fell off of everyone's radar and failed to be placed on page one. Page one, mind you--the first page everyone would normally see as they review the work in its final form.

All of that said, it's interesting to see what Mantlo is able to do with Ellison's concept, and how he manages to deal in the Hulk as well as another Marvel character who seems made to order for an appearance here. He also chooses an unusual title as this story's foundation, one that seems meant to have the story stand on its own--but how does it apply to a soldier who lives only to wage war?

Ellison's prologue is pretty straightforward in the opening minutes of the Outer Limits show: a future battlefield where two enemy soldiers, receiving terse battle instructions through their helmets, stalk the landscape for their enemy, as heat beams (presumably from opposing sides) intermittently strike the landscape from above while an electrical storm rages. As the two soldiers finally clash, the heat beams and lighting strike them simultaneously and somehow transport them through time to our century, though only one arrives while the other is trapped in transit and fails to materialize. From that point, and until the episode's climax, the story focuses on the soldier who made it through, a character known as Qarlo Clobregnny (played by Michael Ansara), eventually captured and studied by a philologist named Tom Kagan (played by Lloyd Nolan) who attempts to communicate with him.

In contrast, Mantlo prefers to spend more of his story's time in the future setting, while only using the (unnamed) soldier's journey to the past to draw in Bruce Banner, who at this point in time retains his own mind when changing into the Hulk. Initially, the story proceeds just as it does in Ellison's version, though with certain differences--the most obvious one being the addition of the "Hero" posters which honor one soldier each day with a distinction of valiant conduct. Other adjustments are made in the setting, substituting a gamma storm for the electrical activity and gamma-powered weapons for heat rays (both for reasons you hardly need to guess at). Omitted are the heat beams from the sky as well as the second soldier, with Mantlo needing only the one soldier for this tale. We're also told that this story is set in the 41st century, a time period which may ring a bell with many of you.

For several reasons, the hero posters are an odd choice for Mantlo, especially considering that both Ellison and himself establish these soldiers to be single-minded drones who live only to follow their transmitted instructions that continually prod them to engage the enemy and destroy them. They know nothing else, they think nothing else--as far as they're concerned, there's no other purpose in their life; yet somehow we're meant to believe they still care about accolades such as public notices that raise them to a level of prominence above the other soldiers. We can presume that the designation of "hero" here has more to do with drive and how relentlessly the soldier seeks out his targets rather than any sense of self-sacrifice or the urge to protect the innocent, given the soldier's tenacity in following his orders; as Mantlo's narrative makes clear, "he loves it, for he knows no other life. He is only a soldier, and a soldier obeys orders. In war there are casualties. It does not pay to dwell on such things."

Yet it's also made clear that, for whatever reason, the soldiers who fight are mindful of and perhaps covet the Hero Of The Day award. It's possible that the posters dotting the battlefield are used for motivation; to fight a war under strict orders, and yet have no understanding of the stakes or even who or what you're fighting for, even someone who has such a dependency on his helmet receiver barking out commands most likely needs a reason to keep at it again and again, day in and day out. Perhaps the poster provides them with some goal to attain that requires only a basic understanding to grasp. Otherwise, there's simply no point in striving to be a hero if you have no concept of what you've done that merits the honor.

As we've seen, the lone soldier has been caught in the twin discharges of the enemy's gamma weapon and the gamma storm bolt and disappears, unknowingly on his way centuries into the past. And already, a new poster has suppressed his own, so it appears some form of automation is at work, perhaps a result of tallying the day's quota of eliminated targets via the soldiers' battlesuits and "awarding" the man with the most kills. Unfortunately, nothing more than supposition can be used to decipher Mantlo's intent in his preoccupation with the "hero" theme--but as we'll see, he would expand on it once the Hulk arrives on the scene.

And speaking of the Hulk, his alter-ego is busy at his 20th century observatory--using his recent invention, the gammascope, to study a gamma storm that's been raging above the Earth. If it seems that the word "gamma" is receiving rather generous usage in this story, from telescopes to storms to weapons fire (and we haven't even gotten to the Hulk yet), gamma radiation has become Mantlo's choice for how events between the two centuries coalesce--with words like "perhaps" or "somehow" or "in some way" littering the narrative to help facilitate the transitions without needing to go into detail. Yet it also makes conspicuous the fact that there's a lot of gamma radiation in this story, yet this deadly energy is having no ill effects on anyone. Even the Hulk, who's usually affected in some way by the use of gamma rays against him, now appears to be immune. Nevertheless, it's apparent that gamma radiation can now open time portals, as our startled soldier materializes on the gammascope and follows his last instructions to the letter.

In the struggle, the soldier's helmet is dislodged, rendering the man limp and unconscious--another odd development, since the Hulk hasn't injured him. The story implies that the soldier's lapse is due to being deprived of receiving his orders, which makes no sense at all when you "say it out loud" like that. You'd think the same would apply at any time he's waiting for his "battlestructs" to be transmitted. Regardless, the Hulk brings him to a place where he can rest.

The parallels to Ellison's story continue, with Banner clearly taking Kagan's role as he attempts to understand his guest's truncated speech and communicate with him--yet he faces his own Qarlo, as this soldier only knows and relates to the strict voice in his helmet and angrily resists his captivity and his captor. But while Qarlo eventually reined in his hostile behavior to a certain degree, Mantlo's soldier finds his unfamiliar surroundings intolerable, and in his panicked state he follows the only certainty he knows: "Stroy! Stroy!"

Again, the simultaneous impact of different sources of gamma energy opens a time portal--only this time, Banner and his A.I. "recordasphere" are tethered to the convergence and swept up in the effect, and both are transported back with the soldier to his century. Banner discovers almost immediately that the other soldiers present are as driven to obey their orders as the one he arrived here with, all seeking each other's mutual annihilation. It isn't until the Hulk makes the scene and defends himself that his travel companion shifts his stance toward that of an ally, if only instinctively.

On the battlefield, the Hulk and the soldier engage in what you almost might call a dialog, with Banner voicing his observations about the forces he faces and the insanity of this warlike environment (as well as the behavior of the soldier he fights with), while his soldier/companion appears delighted with the fact that this powerful brute fights on his behalf and responds with the only answers he can give. "King says who enemy is!" "War never end! War always was--always will be! War go on and on!" But this is the 41st century, with a society (if you want to call it that) geared for war, and it only makes sense that there would be technology capable of incapacitating even the Hulk.

It's noteworthy how Mantlo deviates from Ellison's story and uses the Hulk's capture to trigger some sense of loyalty in the soldier, despite the man's instincts to continue fighting an endless war that only ourselves are able to accept as pointless. In Ellison's teleplay, Qarlo's turning point arrives when his absent foe finally materializes and attacks the home where Qarlo is staying with Kagan and his family. Qarlo appears to be defending them in the ensuing struggle; yet before the attack, we saw that Qarlo still holds fiercely steadfast to his way of life. The battle is brief, with both combatants finally being incinerated (presumably by the discharge of the attacker's weapon)*--and Ellison leaves the question of Qarlo's motivations to the viewer. "Did the soldier finally come to care for those he protected? Or was it just his instinct to kill?" we're asked. With the soldier's uncertainty here, it's clear that Mantlo intends to take his character's development further.

*Ellison's published story would instead have Qarlo survive, eventually becoming civilized and going on a lecture tour to warn of the coming armageddon. It's a matter for debate whether the combatants in Ellison's teleplay died on the spot or were instead returned to their own time by the same circumstances in which they arrived. Kagan's home is open to the elements due to Qarlo's foe blasting his way inside, leaving the room exposed to a fierce electrical storm raging outside.

As for the Hulk, he finds the answers he seeks at the stronghold of the "king"--though when this figure finally stands revealed, the garbled transmission of his name coming through the soldier's helmet becomes all too clear.

We can only guess at what Kang's intent was here, with this statue of himself broadcasting constant commands to his soldiers in the field to destroy the enemy. Perhaps it's part of a contingency plan for those times when he's absent from his seat of power in this century--almost an afterthought, appearing to give little heed to the welfare of these men, which regrettably holds true for the character as written. When he abandoned his identity as Rama-Tut and sought to return to his own time, he overshot that time period and instead landed in the year 4000*, where "conquering" that era's Earth eventually proved to hold little interest for him.

*Mantlo got it right--the year 4000 would fall within the 41st century, rather than the 40th. Perhaps Kang was just a little dazed from the transition.

Mantlo doesn't fill in many of the blanks regarding Kang's statue, leaving the reader to do so. We know that in this time period, waging war for war's sake was all that was left for these humans, and ruling an all-but-dead world held no interest for Kang other than as a sanctuary to return to when his schemes in other time periods failed to bear fruit. And so, as easy as it was for him to establish himself as their ruler, perhaps he decided to rig a way to have them obey his will even when he was absent--though it would become clear that his statue's operation eventually became the norm. The question remains: Why use this technology at all? Humans of this time, after all, needed little urging to battle each other--was brainwashing really necessary? Apparently Kang wanted to keep his seat warm, so to speak, by having the war and the warriors continue with or without his actual participation; yet as we discover, the statue was kept broadcasting for decades. There really seems very little if anything about this man that's redeemable.

Eventually, the Hulk breaks free--but the soldiers have become so hardened by their conditioning that his words to cease and desist fall on deaf ears (or, rather, ears forever dependent on the words crackling through their helmets and directing them since birth). It's then that the Hero Of The Day lives up to his billing and decides to act to break the cycle.

Mantlo's characters are returned to their own time following the soldier's murder--a scene which, as we've noted above, may or may not mimic how the situation was handled in Ellison's teleplay. On arrival, the Hulk would give the former soldier a burial near the observatory. Mantlo of course has gone further with his own story by having his soldier reject the edicts of the "battlestructs" and even taking the extraordinary step of trying to convince the others to do the same--efforts all the more tragic since the men return to waging war immediately following the group's departure. No doubt Kang would take perverse pride in their subjugation dedication.

Have a look at "Soldier" from its 1964 presentation on "The Outer Limits."
(Isn't it cool that actor Michael Ansara would someday play a character with the name of "Kang"?)

Incredible Hulk #286

Script: Bill Mantlo
Pencils: Sal Buscema
Inks: Kim DeMulder
Letterer: Jim Novak


Anonymous said...

Cool, one of the first (German) Hulk stories that I actively read and remembered. ALso loved Sal B.'s art. Wonderful.
Btw, the guy who uploaded the video (wow!!!) is really ... weird?...
Thank you!
Best wishes,
Mirko (

Comicsfan said...

Mirko, yes, this is definitely in need of one of those disclaimers that contains language such as "the views and opinions expressed in linked articles do not necessarily reflect those of this blog," or wording to that effect. Whew!

Anonymous said...

I had never understood before why Kang's boys all had different armor (or uniforms)and weaponry, unlike most armies, but this kinda explains it. They were all just scavenging what they could find.