Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Mission: Stop The Hulk!

During March of 1963, the first Incredible Hulk series was ending its run of just six issues--though judging by the Fantastic Four issue of the same month, where the character was making a guest appearance, you'd find it hard to believe that the Hulk's days on the comics rack were numbered.

As it turned out, not even this "hail Mary" pass for the Hulk could save his title from folding--but his inclusion here helps to make this issue of Fantastic Four a true classic. Not to mention helping it fetch a pretty penny on ebay.

So why is the FF going after the Hulk? And why is the Hulk out to destroy them? For now, we'll just have to be tempted by one of the story's chapter titles which heralds the drama to come, as we begin to flip through pages that were created 55 years ago to the month.

Whether you're a Hulk fan or not, perhaps the main reason you may end up finding that this story stands out for you is that it's a textbook example of the characterization that added so much to these early issues of Fantastic Four, as these individuals began to work together and, in the process, become something more than a team of heroes. And since this is after all the FF's mag, their activities carry the bulk of the issue, as they're drawn into the mystery of the Hulk and his possible link to sabotage. None of the FF as yet are convinced the Hulk even exists--but that will change shortly after the events of the issue's opening pages.

It's there that we find Ben Grimm, the Thing, escorting his girlfriend Alicia from a symphony concert--a venue which elicits a comment from him that he much prefers "low-down New Orleans jazz," a piece of trivia that still comes as news to me. It's the Thing who practically steals this issue from his three partners, with artist Jack Kirby and writer Stan Lee having steadily evolved him into one of the team's most popular characters after overcoming his initial hostility and belligerence and who, by now, know a good "thing" when they see it. We know it will be the Thing's clash with the Hulk that's meant to draw in readers, as Kirby's less-than-subtle cover makes crystal clear; but at this point the Thing could well be doing that on his own, as far along as Lee and Kirby have brought him. But even though the Hulk has yet to appear, trouble has found the Thing, as usual.  In this case, it's U.S. Army troops that he has to contend with, thanks to a concert patron, er, pointing them out to him.

Unlike the Hulk, who at this point in time was not the rampaging monster of the '80s but would still have reacted more brutally to these troops closing in on him, the Thing does his level best not to inflict harm without knowing what the score is. Even so, his patience has its limit, and he eventually reaches it; but fortunately, there's a simple explanation for what amounts to a misunderstanding on the Army's part, though for the Thing it can only add insult to injury.

Sulking in a huff back at the Baxter Building (ye gods, look at that pose), the Thing is present when General "Thunderbolt" Ross arrives to enlist the FF's help in seeking out and destroying the Hulk, presently a suspect in the sabotage of the Army's desert missile installations. Ross, who's anticipated the FF's doubts, also provides them with film footage of the Hulk that proves his existence; nevertheless, the team members are confident in their abilities to deal with their foe. (Curiously, none of them take issue with Ross's condition that the Hulk be fatally dealt with, which the story as a whole also ignores.)

Ross is also on hand to witness the unveiling of the modified Fantasti-Car, another bit of goodness that serves to connect this mag closely to its readership, inserted in direct response to feedback from FF fans on the subject. And Ross is the first to hitch a ride in it, as the team uses it to travel to the southwest. There, the FF meet Bruce Banner, who differs with Ross in blaming the Hulk for the sabotage by pointing out that the damage inflicted doesn't conform to the Hulk's methods--protests which Ross turns a deaf ear to.

Banner and Reed Richards are quite cordial with each other at their first meeting, with each not hesitating to heap laurels upon the other. It's only Banner's assistant, Karl Kort, who doesn't really hit it off with the FF--and given the Thing's behavior, Ross isn't far behind him in that respect.

If I were you, Ross, I'd be more upset at the fact that you've not only amassed a library of telephone books, but that you also went to the expense of having them bound. As an Army general, can't you pick up your phone and have your aide reach anyone you want, anywhere in the world?

In the interim, Banner and his young friend, Rick Jones, conduct their own investigation of the saboteur, whom they've named the Wrecker--having assumed that he's out to destroy "Project 34," Banner's new missile defense technology. But it's Rick who later discovers the Wrecker's identity*--and in the process, falls right into his hands.

*None other than Karl Kort, a card-carrying "Red"--with Rick finding that card in his wallet, no less. Spies were so accommodating in those days.

Elsewhere, Ross hasn't quite cooled down when he again encounters the Thing, buckling up to test the Army's new rocket sled. The scene is another excellent touch that Lee provides to the Thing's character, even as it gives the Wrecker an opportunity to strike.

Both the Torch and Mr. Fantastic arrange for the Thing to land safely--but when Banner arrives on the scene, he's adamant about insisting that the Hulk had nothing to do with the incident, a claim that Banner can't offer evidence of without revealing himself as the very creature the FF seek. Banner also discloses his suspicion that the Wrecker has taken Rick hostage, another claim that he can't back up for much the same reason--and so for the sake of his friend, he decides he must take action himself to save him. Because the Wrecker's condition for Rick's continued safety is unfortunately very specific:

The ramification of Kort's letter is a part of Lee's plot that we simply have to overlook, since there's really no reason Banner couldn't have shown it to the FF and thus avoided having the Hulk escalate the situation. What harm would it have done Banner, after all? It's a letter addressed to the Hulk that Banner simply found at the scene, containing nothing that would implicate Banner as the Hulk--so what if the FF sees it? It could have not only cast doubt on the Hulk's guilt, but also spurred the FF to turn their efforts toward helping to track down the Wrecker.

But now, there's no stopping what's to come, as the Fantastic Four and the Hulk come face to face at last.

During their meeting with Ross at the Baxter Building, Ben, Reed, and Johnny were expecting to have no trouble whatsoever with the Hulk--even going so far as describing how they'd each deal with him. To make things interesting, let's have a look at those conversations in comparison to how things actually turn out in the battle itself. For instance, Ben believes his match-up with the Hulk will be over and done with fairly quickly:

But the blows they trade indicate that this fight may well go the distance.

Mr. Fantastic was also sure of an easy victory--provided the Hulk put himself in the position of being led into a trap.

Yet even if that were the case, Reed finds out that trapping the Hulk and holding the Hulk are two separate matters.

Nor was the Torch expecting the Hulk to be a tough customer--easily handled by confusion and misdirection:

But it seems Johnny is as ill-equipped as the others in handling a foe they completely underestimated.

Yet the momentum shifts to the FF again when a ray fired from beneath the surface renders the Hulk unconscious--and the furious Thing, locked in a final clash with his foe only to have the fight taken out of his hands, pursues its source. You don't have to be Bruce Banner to guess who the culprit is; but along the way, the Thing and Sue discover the Wrecker's giant metal automaton and conclude that Banner was right in his assessment that the Hulk was blameless in the acts of sabotage. And after the Thing demolishes the robot, you couldn't ask for a neater wrap-up.

No, I have no earthly idea why Kort took out the Hulk with his ray weapon. His note made it clear that he wanted to force the Hulk to drive the FF away from the area, didn't it? Wasn't that exactly what the Hulk was trying to do?

With everyone occupied below, the Hulk recovers from Kort's weapon and departs, only to return as Banner to reunite with Rick, just as Ross arrives on the scene to discover that Banner was correct about both the Hulk and "the Wrecker." The Hulk would go on to clash with the FF at later dates, either in his much more successful second series or in the FF's title(s), meetings which you can find featured elsewhere in the PPC (along with any other nasty spies, which we'll be sure to card).

Fantastic Four #12

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
Letterer: Art Simek


dbutler16 said...

Though you rightly point out some flaws in this story, this was one of the better of the first 43 issues of the FF, before the series really took off. However, the rematch with the Hulk in FF#25 is even better. In fact, I think it's the best of the first 43 issues of the FF.

dbutler16 said...

Oh, by the way, it's been a few years since I've read this. I'd forgotten all about the Hulk's secret superpower to spin around superfast like a human tornado, ala Superman or the Flash.

Comicsfan said...

Right you are, dbutler--in fact, that superpower seems to be so secret, apparently even the Hulk no longer realizes he's capable of it! :)

Jared said...

I like this issue. It probably has more to do with what Hulk eventually became than the six issues of his own story. It also is pretty important overall in establishing the Marvel Universe as opposed to individual titles.

Rick said...

Even back in the day, I thought it was funny that Ross had his phone books bound. And that Reed offered to reimburse. Glad you pointed it out.