Friday, May 12, 2017

This Rage Unyielding!

Compared to the prior story profiled here at the PPC from Incredible Hulk #255 which featured the jade giant trading blows once again with Thor, the God of Thunder, its unofficial sequel in the Mighty Thor title is nothing less than a knock-down drag-out slugfest--a blockbuster battle from cover to cover, where both opponents bring their A-game and each intends to leave no doubt as to which of them is the stronger. By the time it's over, we as readers may be prepared to make that call ourselves, which in itself is something of a milestone in a string of titanic battles which has always left that in doubt.

Plotted by Jim Shooter and published in 1987 (the same issue that announced he was stepping down as Editor in Chief), with Stan Lee (at 65 years young) tapped to script, and art by Erik Larsen and Vince Colletta (reportedly Larsen's first work for Marvel, while also contributing to the plot), "Be Thou God, Or Monster!" arguably has the makings of one of the most memorable Thor vs. Hulk clashes to date. The man of the hour, however, is unquestionably Larsen, who turns in impressive work here for a first effort with the company, working out the plot with Shooter two years earlier at the Chicago Comic Con and then drawing and submitting the story, which finally saw publication as a fill-in Thor story in '87.

You might find yourself having the opinion that Larsen's fighting style for Thor is far from ideal, though perhaps that's the point. For the first time, Thor finds himself having to adapt to and counter with the type of ruthless brawling that the Hulk excels at, and at the Hulk's pace--and he comes off as ill-equipped to fight as savagely as his foe. As an Asgardian whose immortal, adult life has been filled with war, and death, and bloody, vicious battle against wave upon wave of deadly enemies and having fought his way through all of them, Thor finds himself on the receiving end for far too much of this battle. That said, Larsen is choreographing this fight with a specific ending in mind; but more on this train of thought when the time comes.

There's also Lee's rather dated scripting style to consider, which in this story resembles his style of writing as it was 15 years in the past while in the closing days of his time on Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and Thor--sparse and lacking in any meaningful characterization or dialog beyond the basic actions and reactions expected of his characters. In addition, Thor himself is often too above-it-all here, deciding on his course of action as if he's not really in a battle for his life, as well as often acting like he's a rookie at this. Is this the God of Thunder duking it out with the Hulk, or the God of Uncertainty and Introspection? To be fair, with a mouthful of the Hulk's fist during much of this struggle, acting and reacting are perhaps all that Thor can do; but visually, it's very disconcerting to see Thor unable to seize the initiative and hold it against a foe whose fighting style he knows so well.

To give you an idea of the kind of Thunder God waiting for us as scripted by Lee, let's catch up to him just after he's captured a gang of bank robbers and receives word that there's a much more serious challenge that needs his attention.

It may read like it, but no--this story is not a flashback to 1972.

Once the Hulk is found and engaged, this battle starts with a bang, as the Hulk attacks Thor on sight. The scenes are textbook Thor as scripted by Lee--a prince of Asgard battling a mortal, whatever this brute's power. Normally, there would immediately be cause for concern by the reader that this story will be no different from previous ones where these two have confronted and fought each other, trading bluster and blows that give no clear advantage to either of them and offering little that we haven't seen before. It's only when the Hulk touches on a nerve in implying that Thor relies on his hammer for his might that the tone of this battle shifts slightly.

And that shift reaches shocking proportions when the Hulk resorts to a tactic that to my knowledge he's never attempted before.

I suppose the message being sent here by both Lee and Larsen is that it's naïve to think that a raging creature such as the Hulk will draw the line at using an innocent to force his foe to comply with what he wants. But I suspect this development has hit Team Hulk fans like a bludgeon to the head. For what it's worth, the Hulk that appeared in the World War Hulk series would have had no problem with committing this kind of act, though his reasons would be founded on grief and revenge. Here, however, it's hard to dispute Thor's characterization of the kind of creature he's dealing with. No, strike that--it's impossible to dispute it.

And it only gets worse.

One could argue that, to the Hulk's way of thinking, he's really done nothing wrong--only what's necessary. If that happens to be the case and he indeed regards his actions in that way, more's the pity.

Thor's decision to withdraw from the battle is a sensible one for Thor the Avenger to make--but Thor is of two worlds, one of them far, far more a part of him than his ties to Earth, the part that cries out to punish the aggressor and assert his own might. It's also possible that he's had enough of the Hulk implying that he's unable to match this creature on a strength vs. strength basis (an issue he raised himself, long ago), an assertion that more than a few of us might find ourselves agreeing with. And it's that Thor who rises from the ground and throws himself into this battle without another look back.

It's here that Lee finally steps up and commits to this fight perhaps just as much as Thor does, with his skill at narrative compensating for the forceful words he might have given Thor if this were still the late 1960s, where he once called Thor "the prince of battle" and provided the character with words and will to match his rage. But at the very least, Lee at last establishes the seriousness of this clash with both of these characters, and it's gratifying to see Larsen take off the gloves.

As for the Hulk, there's simply no denying his raw power, or the kind of opponent he is for anyone who dares to face him. He's ruthless and relentless, a threat of the highest order, his anger capable of maintaining both his strength and his stamina while also increasing his power, making him virtually undefeatable in hand-to-hand combat. As we've seen with the Executioner and with Loki, Thor's own power as an Asgardian makes him virtually invincible against mortal foes and allows him to stay in a fight against all odds; but he faces a foe unlike any other, one who resists his power and counters with strength he's convinced is superior to this so-called god he's up against, a foe that Thor feels he should be able to crush without question. Will he continue to try?

Yes, for perhaps the most worthless reason of all: pride.

No doubt an awkward and conspicuous moment for Thor to have such profound thoughts, when he's clearly on the losing end of this fight--while the Hulk remains a tireless juggernaut, prepared and more than willing to continue until Thor either surrenders or the Hulk finally manages to drop him. There's nothing in the Hulk's posture or appearance that even remotely suggests he's in danger of being defeated; the same cannot be said for Thor, bloodied and seemingly unsteady on his feet. But the return of Thor's hammer is a deal-breaker for the Hulk, who now knows what he needed to know to be able to call this fight--though perhaps it's more accurate to say that he's satisfied with how things turned out here.

Once again we see an example of how Lee treats a scene that the artist appears to have interpreted differently. Thor obviously isn't hurling his hammer away again, but directly at the Hulk, who leaps out of its way and departs. Visually, the scene shows the Hulk taking a victory lap: "In all the time you were without your hammer, you did your best to take me out, and you couldn't. Face it: I'm stronger. I proved it without a doubt, and you need that hammer to offset my might." At that point, Thor instinctively hurls his hammer at the Hulk in a mixture of rage and frustration, to which the Hulk replies: "See what I mean? I'm outta here. You know where you stand with me now."

Larsen's final panel of Thor is steeped in resignation, and we can take a fair guess at the words that Larsen would have him admitting... er, saying to himself. But Lee takes the high road with the character, and instead has Thor regarding this battle as a personal failure on his part in fighting without true purpose, and with disregard for those whose lives and property were endangered.

Finally, it may be moot at this point, but the Hulk's reasoning as far as who is the stronger of the two has no real foundation, given that the return of Thor's hammer is of no significance in terms of Thor's ability to continue the fight. Thor remains on his feet, with the battle as yet undecided; the Hulk has simply jumped to a conclusion and used the hammer's return as an excuse to declare victory and leave, so to speak, even though Thor has no problem with discarding it again. Satisfied in his own mind, the Hulk is being honest when he says he "doesn't care" what Thor does with the hammer--the matter's been settled as far as he's concerned.

In any event, the story moves us much closer to witnessing the kind of battle between Thor and the Hulk which has been long awaited; in fact, it may for all intents and purposes indeed settle the issue, as an earlier clash in the pages of The Defenders sought to do when it all but concluded that a stalemate was all these two could hope to achieve.

(But it's sure tempting to call a T.K.O. here in the Hulk's favor, isn't it.)

As mentioned earlier, the formal announcement of the editorial changing of the guard.

Mighty Thor #385

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Eric Larsen
Inks: Vince Colletta
Letterer: Rick Parker


Anonymous said...

I could do without the purple swim trunks. Give him some pants!
Apparently the Hulk and Fin Fang Foom were shopping at the same store.


Justin said...

I usually take it with a grain of salt when people rave about the "slugfest" in any particular comic...but time, I gotta admit: that. was. epic.

Unknown said...

No it wasn't. It was bunk. It was never intended to make the Hulk out to be the winner- but the Hulk fanboys- and subsequent writers (erroneously) took it as such.