Monday, May 1, 2017

The Mastermind Of The Master Mold!

Around the time that the Hulk began undergoing psychoanalysis with Leonard "Doc" Samson, the monster was briefly borrowed from Gamma Base by writer Roger Stern to take part in the 1978 Hulk Annual--and it looks like he had some company along for the duration!

The issue is a bit of harmless fun for the reader, with no real impact on or consequences for the heroes involved in the story, as its conclusion makes perfectly clear. Stern also chooses two unusual co-stars for the issue: the Iceman and the Angel, former X-Men who are under the radar as far as characters you'd want to plunk down 60¢ for to see in their own story, to say nothing of an odd fit for a conflict involving the Hulk. But Stern crafts more of an adventure here that isn't meant to be heavy reading by any measure, a fine story for the Hulk fan who's picked up the mag wanting to see the rampaging Hulk beat the holy crap out of his foe.

And that beating may well start with his analyst.

But while the doctor-patient relationship here takes a possible turn for the worse, let's turn our attention to how Angel and Iceman are brought into the story--an important detour, since the villain of the tale has deadly business with both of them.

You've probably taken notice of the cameo appearance of this issue's real-life guest star, a mainstay in American homes at the time--Walter Cronkite, who was winding down his position of 19 years as anchor of the CBS Evening News and would retire in less than three years following this story's publication. Cronkite reported on a number of historic events in his nearly 45-year history as a journalist, with Stern giving us a glimpse of his famous professional detachment in his just-the-facts announcement of Bruce Banner's current status. By the time the issue concludes, he may have more to report to his viewers the following evening on what the Hulk has been up to, instead.

Speaking of whom, the Hulk's analyst is learning the hard way that the precautions he's taken to keep his patient docile weren't as comprehensive as he'd hoped.

Fortunately, thanks to the Hulk's close friend, Jim Wilson, who's present on the base as well, Samson is able to regain control of the situation for now.

As for our two X-Men, the running joke during Bobby Drake's visit to the Angel's aerie is that Bobby's new girlfriend, Terri, appears to be more interested in Warren Worthington than in his friend. Though a trivial aspect of the story that may play out longer than it should, it's a nice touch by Stern that keeps in character these two friends who, along with the Beast, often lightened the mood in the X-Men title. But as the story shifts into gear, Bobby and Warren push their suddenly unimportant concerns about Terri aside and snap into action when the one who stalks these mutants finally makes his presence known--an all-too-familiar figure to these former X-Men, on a familiar mission that might well lead to their deaths.

The Master Mold makes things relatively easy in this annual for Stern and artist John Byrne, since the Sentinel's huge bulk can be used to full effect in oversized panels that make 47 pages of work more manageable. (And having a man-monster who loves trashing the scenery doesn't hurt, either.) Once the Master Mold gets to where he's headed, he's mostly involved in one long running fight with the Hulk, with no real purpose other than as an outlet to the Hulk's rage. We never do learn specifically what the Master Mold is after, beyond the Sentinels' standing mission to eliminate all mutants--though his agenda will become more clear once we experience yet another revelation as to his identity.

(And before you ask--no, I don't know where Warren is getting his super-strength from, either. Having a strong pair of wings may allow him to lift a diving board, but they probably wouldn't give him the ability to wield it as a weapon--much less break one in half. And on a sour note for Bobby, this kind of stunt is only going to send Terri into orbit.)

The time has come when the story must gather all the main players together--and it looks like Iceman and Angel are going to be gathered very much against their will. With Iceman quickly subdued, the Angel soars for his life--but thanks in part to Mr. Cronkite, he has a good idea of who might be able to even the odds in this struggle.

Ahead, alarm klaxons soon sound at Gamma Base when interceptors meet and veer off from the mammoth form of the approaching Master Mold. Meanwhile, Samson races onto the field to meet the exhausted Angel--yet there is no time to mobilize any forces on the base before the Master Mold arrives to strike. Conventional forces, that is.

It would seem the Master Mold's getaway is successful, though he hasn't noticed the now limp hitchhiker wedged into his boot. There's really nothing in Stern's narrative to explain why the Hulk doesn't die of suffocation here, since he isn't conscious to hold his breath--nor is there even any residual air in his lungs. Nevertheless, he not only survives the journey in space to the asteroid which the Master Mold has outfitted as a base, but awakes in tip-top shape to wage what will become a raging battle against his metal foe.

(Bobby's exclamation at Warren's instructions is probably a response any of us would give in his place!)

The Angel's sweep through the base reveals an advanced setup that suggests the Master Mold has constructed this base for long-term operations, an indication that he indeed plans to carry on the Sentinels' standing mission to eliminate mutants from Earth. Elsewhere, Iceman discovers similar evidence, when he and the Hulk come across the Master Mold gathering data from what appears to be a mutant tracking system similar to the Cerebro device which the X-Men make use of. There's still no answer as to why the Master Mold operates and relates to others with such human characteristics--though as you might imagine, the Hulk couldn't care less, his single-minded goal being the destruction of his enemy.

After the Hulk is dealt with (at least temporarily), we finally discover there's more to the Master Mold than meets the eye--a fact that only the Master Mold appears to believe.

Yes, Steven Lang, who was head of the ill-fated Project: Armageddon and who apparently found rebirth as one of the Sentinels he redesigned from the specifications of Bolivar Trask. It's not clear why the Angel refuses to accept that Lang's mental essence is now housed in this Sentinel; the fact that the real Lang is a mental vegetable in a hospital would seem to bear out the Master Mold's claim. The only other way to interpret the Angel's reaction is that he believes the Master Mold is lying--but aside from the Master Mold wishing to toy with his captives, what would be the point?

But, once again, there's one participant in this conflict who really has no interest in anything the Master Mold has to say, true or false--and with the mystery of his origin revealed, perhaps what follows at the Hulk's hand is just as well.

As far as the Hulk's concerned, he's made his point, so he's indeed ready to call it a day and leave with Angel and Iceman. We're left to presume that the two X-Men are going to immediately report this installation and its payload to their former teammates, since to just abandon the asteroid with its mutant-hunting equipment intact seems short-sighted in the extreme. Yet that observation becomes moot, when the Master Mold (even in a state of bits and pieces--what a trouper) plays his last hand and consigns the installation and all aboard to oblivion. The Master Mold's words of doom are exactly the wrong words for the Hulk to hear, with the behemoth possibly being the last hope for Iceman and Angel to evacuate--but the moment leads to another example of the excellent chemistry between the two, as they treat their harrowing experience here as more of an adventure than a crisis.

Indeed, what would they have done if Iceman had succeeded in provoking the Hulk to enter the confined space of that capsule with no way out? Collected a lot of bruises for their little stunt, that's what. Wasn't it a nice touch by Stern to have the Hulk see right through it.

The die cast, the Hulk fights to stay aboard as the airlock (or what used to be the airlock) decompresses from the Hulk's blow, while the escape capsule hurtles Earthward. Should the installation detonate, it seems certain death for the Hulk, even if he miraculously survives the explosion--but the Hulk seems to make a habit of turning up alive, even through the incineration effect of re-entry.

All in all, a splendid effort by Stern, Byrne, and certainly inker Bob Layton--all turning in fine work and a decent cap to 1978 for the Incredible Hulk book, while also dealing in two underused X-Men and having them make a solid contribution.


Interestingly enough, Byrne wasn't so much a fan of Layton's inks on this issue, as we learn in a later interview in 1980:

"It's kind of difficult to put into words why I don't like Bob Layton's inking. This is going to sound really silly, but I actually feel physically ill when I look at Bob's stuff. I really do. It's like everything is greasy and slimy. You know those things you can buy that hang from your rear-view mirror that are made out of rubber and you touch them and they feel greasy? That's how Bob's stuff looks to me. And all his men are queer. They have these bouffant hairdos and heavy eye make-up and an upper lip with a little shadow in the corner which to me says lipstick. Even the Hulk. I will never forgive him for what he did to the Hulk's face in the annual that we did together. A lot [of] the other stuff I liked, but the Hulk face, the Angel's face--the Angel, God! I remember my father looking at the Angel standing there with his hands on his hips saying hello to somebody and my father said, 'Well, thus guy's queer.' 'No, he didn't look queer in the pencils, Dad.' "

To which Mr. Cronkite might well have replied, "And that's the way it is."

Incredible Hulk Annual #7

Script: Roger Stern
Pencils: John Byrne
Inks: Bob Layton
Letterer: Jim Novak


Anonymous said...

Great post!
I'm not a big X-men fan, and when I bought this comic I had no idea who Master Mold is, but I enjoyed the offbeat story. Imagine being trapped in a satellite with an angry Hulk! I thought the art was great, particularly the rendition of ol' Greenskin, so I'm surprised about Byrne's reaction to the inking.


Comicsfan said...

M.P., you can see a little more of the Master Mold when he reconstitutes himself and inadvertently merges with the advanced Sentinel known as Nimrod. (By this point, MM has become a sort of bits-'n-pieces Sentinel, rebuilding his essence from whatever materials he happens to end up near. If nothing else, we should applaud his commitment to recycling.)

B Smith said...

I was going to raise a question about the Master Mold's colouring - weren't Sentinels generally that blue/gray and purple? - until I went back to the Sentinels' first X-Men appearance, where they had blue torsos and red arms and legs. I had no idea they hired colour co-ordinators to advise them on this year's look...