Monday, March 20, 2017

The Summons of Psyklop!

In previously taking a brief look at a couple of Harlan Ellison plots that writer Roy Thomas had adapted and scripted to feature in The Avengers, we touched on one which many of you might recall from mid-1971--a two-part story that began in The Avengers and concluded in The Incredible Hulk. It's a pleasure to revisit that tale and give it the full PPC treatment--each segment a fine read in its own right, with Thomas tailoring the main thread of Ellison's plot to the different styles of both titles and using the Hulk to bind the two together.

It would be the fate of the Hulk at the end of Part 1 that cuts loose the Avengers portion of the story and allows Part 2 to proceed on its own--a transition that doesn't quite bear up to scrutiny, though we'll get to that shortly.

With Thomas's story built around an eight-page synopsis by Ellison, it's intriguing to attempt to decipher Ellison's plot before some of the comic book elements are dealt in. I'm assuming it boiled down to something like this:

The investigation of a missing person leads to a voodoo ceremony in a Louisiana bayou which prepares to sacrifice a human life to the Dark Gods--beings who were worshipped eons ago by a technologically-advanced insect-like race that lived beneath the Earth's surface. At some point, that race offended their gods and were put into a hibernated state; yet one of them is eventually awakened in our century and instructed to secure a living source of power for the dark ones to feed off of. Once these gods were sated, they would in turn awaken the rest of the insect race, who would then take over the world they'd inherited. In essence, the entire human race is in danger.

The missing person is discovered to be among those involved in the voodoo ceremony, in a trance state--and in his delirium, he spouts latitude and longitude coordinates that lead to an atoll in the Pacific, where an ancient image is found that resembles the mask of the voodoo priest from the bayou. The investigation leads to the lair beneath the Earth where the lone member of the insect race has secured and is preparing the living power source that will feed his masters. Before he can proceed, he's discovered and his plans foiled--and in their anger, the Dark Gods turn on him.

It's unclear whether or not Ellison had injected any of Thomas's characters in his story proposal, though it's likely since the plot as it stands isn't enough to justify the page count that Thomas received from him. At any rate, we can reasonably plug in the players here, at least some of them. The living power source that will feed the Dark Gods would be the Hulk; the ones who investigate and eventually confront their servant are the Avengers. Things begin when Captain America, as a favor to the Falcon, helps him look into the disappearance of a friend who has failed to arrive for a scheduled visit--and the leads they follow take them into the bayou and subsequently have them breaking up a voodoo ceremony where they find Ralph (the Falcon's friend) in a mindless state but pointing the way to another part of this mystery. At that point, Cap deals in the Avengers.

But how does the Hulk become a pawn in this drama? To get the ball rolling, it seems a few prominent figures have put their heads together to capture the brute and finally begin working on a way to end Bruce Banner's nightmare forever--providing nothing goes wrong, that is.

Elsewhere, we join Cap and Falc, who with the help of the police have broken up the voodoo ceremony and discovered Ralph, who is definitely not himself--and on a hunch, Cap decides it would be wise to involve the Avengers in the next step of the investigation.

It's around this point that we're introduced to this two-part story's antagonist--the deadly Psyklop, who does the bidding of the Dark Gods and now moves to snatch the Hulk from the special team that had hoped to cure him.

Meanwhile, the Avengers have reached the Pacific atoll where Ralph's mutterings have led them, and are making their way through the jungle in search of they know not what.* It would seem prudent for Iron Man and Thor to take to the air so as to cover more of the area and possibly shorten their search, rather than trudge through miles of dense foliage at a snail's pace, but what do I know. (Maybe Goliath can at least grow to tree height? Under the circumstances, why wouldn't the Avengers make use of the best lookout they could hope to have?)

What no one realizes, however, is that Psyklop has become aware of their approach, and prepares to deal with them accordingly.

*If some of these scenes appear out of sequence to those of you familiar with the original tale, bear in mind that you're getting the condensed version of events here, so as to cut to the chase yet also include noteworthy scenes important to the story.

It wouldn't do for the Avengers to be taken out by a slug--even one so large, since the team compensates for it in that respect with Goliath in their ranks. But since this appears to be no ordinary slug, the Avengers have their hands full, and artist Sal Buscema makes the sequence an exciting and action-packed one to watch. He remains a master storyteller, building steadily to a finish that clearly demonstrates the power assembled in this particular Avengers grouping.

The Avengers don't have to look much further for their foe, since the slug's destruction has revealed the way to Psyklop's lair. It's now when Thomas will begin making preparations to bring an end to the Avengers' involvement in Psyklop's plans, as well as putting in place the method by which the Hulk will be inadvertently sent to a fantastic adventure of his own in Part 2. The steps that Psyklop takes toward the Hulk's study will set the stage for what happens to him--but consider how necessary those steps are in order to advance the plot, vs. the necessity of Psyklop taking them at all.

In other words--and, certainly, at the risk of picking nits--if the goal is to scrutinize your subject's makeup, does it make a great deal of sense to reduce the size of that subject to a microscopic level, a size that makes your examination more difficult? Given the Hulk's journey to come, however, the circumstances make for a conveniently arranged transition to Part 2--and for the sake of argument, let's assume that Psyklop's grid-like eyesight would have no trouble focusing on the Hulk at such a size, providing that the Hulk's reduction is indeed as "carefully controlled" as he states.

Yet thanks to the Avengers, who burst in and fear the worst for the Hulk, those words serve as warning that this procedure will be interrupted, as any measure of control that Psyklop hoped for in his experiment is lost amidst a charge of onrushing heroes--their arrival and identity apparently taking Psyklop completely by surprise, even though he had been monitoring them. But the Avengers are destined to fail in their rescue mission--though for them, the mission itself will have never existed.

For all intents and purposes, whatever shock the Avengers exhibit as they rematerialize is dropped by the wayside as far as the loose ends of their experience being followed up on at some point. For the matter to be ignored, we have to believe that, astonished expressions aside, none of these five people will be curious as to why they're gathered together, out of nowhere, on a New York City subway platform, completely clueless as to how they ended up there. Just how absurd that situation is for the reader to swallow would depend on how far back the group's collective memory goes; but at the very least, are none of them interested in learning the cause of the gaps in their memories? All of them are willing to just let the matter drop? What about the Falcon's missing friend? What about the others at the meeting at Avengers Mansion, who were present when Cap made his appeal and who knew why Thor's group joined Cap and Falc, as well as the specific latitude/longitude of where they were headed? Surely they're going to want to know how all of that turned out?

Whatever comes of this (or doesn't) will have to take place behind the scenes, as Thomas, who at the time was also the regular scripter on Incredible Hulk, now hands the baton of this story to the green goliath (with artist Herb Trimpe on pencils), as the Hulk continues to shrink until he reaches the subatomic level and finds himself standing on a new world, even if he doesn't yet recognize it as such.

As the story begins, you almost feel a tinge of pity for the Hulk, whose history has often had him being attacked on sight and who now discovers that his lot is just as cursed in this unfamiliar environment--immediately attacked by and having to fight off a gargantuan warthog (called "warthos" on this world). The Hulk, as he reminds us verbally, is still the Hulk, and proves to be more than a match for the agitated, vicious creature; but as he begins leaping across the countryside in order to get his bearings, he comes across a city whose inhabitants are trying to fend off a group of attacking warthos using primitive means, and adds his might to their efforts.

How curious (and surprisingly interesting) that this world would not only have giant species that menace the populace, but also to find that it's the people who are not the dominant life form. It seems rather dangerous and even pointless to spend the time and effort in building cities, given how likely the risk that they could be trampled on or otherwise seriously damaged at any time.  (Though it looks like these people had Troy in mind when doing their wall construction.)

After dealing with the warthos in short order, the Hulk turns to see the city's dwellers swarming toward him, screaming--but girding himself for their expected attack, the Hulk is astonished to find instead that these people have a much different and completely unexpected emotion to express to him: gratitude.

Longtime readers have no doubt surmised by now that this is the Hulk's first exposure to the subatomic world of Jarella, the empress of these people and, it turns out, the whole planet. (Which means that she's either far more assertive than she lets on, or this world's population amounts to a closely-linked collection of regional settlements.) As the Hulk is brought inside the city's walls, he's pleased to find that he's made welcome, and of course pleased at the gentle manner of Jarella herself.

Thomas adds a nice touch to the story when, for once, the Hulk encounters an alien species that doesn't speak English and who must devise a means to give him knowledge of their language. In so doing, we learn that Jarella's people are versed in mysticism to an extent, with a triad of sorcerers on retainer in the palace who can come in handy in cases like this one.

(Whoever this Hannah character is, they benefited from generous exposure in Marvel's Silver and Bronze Age stories over the years, if only through exclamation.)

And so Bruce Banner, seemingly stranded on this world, begins to make his peace with this new situation and adjust to this new world, as well as his new relationship by way of Jarella's choice and decree.

It seems strange that Banner, whose memories precede the Hulk's encounter with Psyklop and have left him ignorant of it, isn't even trying to figure out where he is or how he got here, to say nothing of accepting the fact that he's now on an alien world without a thought as to who or what is responsible for it. Where's this contentment coming from? Why should he think his troubles are over? That whatever caused his relocation has run its course? Instead, he prepares to become Jarella's consort, as well as this realm's prince, as if all the important questions to be asked were insignificant and unimportant.

But his tormentor hasn't forgotten the Hulk--and despite Banner's illogical complacency, Psyklop has not been idle in tracking down the creature who must appease those the alien worships, the creature that will mean salvation for those who sleep beneath the Earth and wait to be awakened.

Now how would Bruce Banner have knowledge of Psyklop? (If he did, you'd think he'd be looking over his shoulder for this threat to reappear, instead of making future plans with Jarella, wouldn't you.) And how could he know that this being had the Hulk trapped on a lab table? Fortunately, the raging Hulk isn't the type to ask such questions--nor, it seems, are the Dark Gods, whose patience with Psyklop has run out.

Unlike the Avengers, the Hulk will spend considerable effort not only trying to recall the vague impression he has of Jarella, but also to think of a way to return to her world--concerns which are swiftly swept under the rug when Banner reappears and is enlisted to assist in a treatment by Leonard Samson to free Betty Ross from a state she was trapped in thanks to the sinister Sandman. Banner, strangely enough, appears to have no yearning whatsoever to return to Jarella; in fact, when Betty is restored to health and Samson begins to move in on her, Banner becomes jealous and sacrifices his cure of being the Hulk in order to wipe the floor with Samson.  Man or man-monster, it seems Bruce Banner is just as vulnerable to love's quirks as the rest of us.

On a closing note, have a look at a missive from the letters page covering this story, where the writer takes Thomas to task for littering this entire tale with numerous references to Ellison's works. (Roy Thomas, inserting needless pop culture references in his characters' dialog? Now there's a shocker...) The response departs from Marvel's standard good-natured boilerplate reply, even bordering on terse--but the letter writer, all of 23 at the time, will end up having the last laugh, going on to become one of Marvel's most talented writers in his own right.

Avengers #88; Incredible Hulk #140

Script: Roy Thomas
Pencils: Sal Buscema; Herb Trimpe
Inks: Jim Mooney; Sam Grainger
Letterers: Shelly Leferman; Artie Simek


Rick said...

Love the offhanded reference to "rampaging Visigoths."

Anonymous said...

Reed Richards: "Good lord! The Hulk is surrounded by Kirby Krackle! That could mean anything from him being transformed into a higher state of cosmic evolution to being shunted down into a micro-universe!"

M.P., science expert