Monday, June 11, 2018

To The Hidden Land Comes... The Hulk!

Jim Steranko's eye-catching 1968 cover to the first Incredible Hulk Annual no doubt contributed a great deal to selling the issue to not only readers of the character's regular series but likely just about anyone browsing the comics racks. To this day, it remains a stunning work of art--though judging by its original mock-up, it received a few additional touches from artist Marie Severin, who went on to pencil the story.

Yet with Incredible Hulk having only seven issues under its belt at the time, Steranko's cover might well have had a lot more riding on it in terms of promoting the Hulk's nascent series so that it wouldn't follow in the footsteps of its 1962-63 bi-monthly predecessor, which collapsed after a run of only six issues. In that sense, the image of the Hulk, struggling to hold up his own crumbling masthead, is disturbingly symbolic, to say the least.

In addition, a decision has apparently been made behind the scenes to rely almost entirely on the Hulk's dramatic image to entice current and new readers, with the cover being a bit deceptive in dropping the name of the story's antagonists--the uncanny Inhumans, whom we would expect to be represented by Black Bolt, Karnak, Gorgon, Medusa, Crystal, and Triton. Instead, only two of that group would be featured, taking a back seat to a collection of seditionists who would later fall under the sway of Black Bolt's unstable brother, Maximus. Only when you turn the page does the issue drop a hint that the Inhumans featured in the tale might not be the characters you were expecting--something that would have been crystal clear had the choice been made to go with Severin's proposed cover.

In a way it's almost unfortunate that our "substitute" Inhumans weren't deemed marketable enough to score placement on this issue's cover, since the entire story revolves around them as much as it does the Hulk, and they receive a generous amount of exposure throughout. As villainous Inhumans, they'll remind you a bit of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, with Maximus eventually stepping in as their Magneto. When we meet them, they're being called on the carpet for inciting rebellion against Black Bolt's rule--and when one of their own, Stallior, attempts to save his own skin, the savage response by his fellow dissenters is immediate.

Soon enough, Black Bolt orders through his telepathic "oracle" that the conflict end so that he may pass judgment on the lot of them. With nothing to lose, another of the group, Leonus, appeals once more to the assembled crowd to reject Black Bolt's rule--and naturally, any such attempt to incite rebellion against Black Bolt will gain the attention of Maximus, who sees the opportunity to turn the group's misfortune to his own advantage.  It's a rare glimpse into Inhuman politics, such as they are in a monarchy, with the scene almost hinting that the discontent with Black Bolt's rule may not be limited to these six (seven, if you count Maximus, though his hunger for power puts him in his own category)--nor can the subtext of the story's title, "A Refuge Divided!", be ignored.

Unfortunately for Maximus, Black Bolt's presence carries more weight with the crowd, and Maximus' words end up largely ignored. As for the accused, Black Bolt's judgment is swift and, all things considered, merciful. Their lives spared, they're instead banished to the dreaded "Un-Place," a dimensional land of exile which won't win any awards for its unimaginative name but is fated to serve as the location which brings our Inhuman convicts together with the incredible Hulk--thanks to the Inhumans' teleporting hound, Lockjaw, who delivers his charges to their prison but returns to encounter the Hulk wandering the land a few miles from the Great Refuge. Following his training to prevent strangers from discovering the Refuge, Lockjaw attacks; but as you might imagine, the Hulk proves a formidable adversary, and the beast instead uses its power to teleport the Hulk to the one place of captivity where even his strength will be useless.

And three guesses what place... er, un-place Lockjaw has in mind.

As belligerent as the imprisoned Inhumans are, it wouldn't have been at all surprising if they attacked the Hulk on sight (or vice versa, if the Hulk somehow thought they were responsible for trapping him); but even they have to be curious as to what circumstances brought the Hulk to them, aside from the fact that Lockjaw was responsible. And for these condemned prisoners, it appears good fortune has dropped the Hulk into their midst--for his might and his will could be their key to freedom.

The field surrounding their "cell" is indeed powerful--but through perseverance and stubbornness, fueled by his anger, the Hulk succeeds in bringing it down. But while free of their containment cell, none of them are out of the woods yet--and our Inhumans are savvy enough to realize what an ally the Hulk would make in gaining their true objective, assuming they find their way back to Earth.

This time, however, hostilities erupt when the Inhumans, their offer of friendship refused, attempt to intimidate the Hulk into siding with them. As you can guess, that doesn't work out well for the Inhumans. Fortunately, Maximus has not only been monitoring the situation, but was also able to somehow assist the Hulk in winning their freedom, due to his own plans for the rebels--and now the time is ripe for him to step in and cement his status with these Inhumans, for they of course share the same objective in regard to Black Bolt. But Maximus bargains their freedom with the condition that they achieve that objective through allegiance to himself.

From here, this story becomes somewhat convoluted, which for a normal-sized issue might not be a problem in the long run; but when only twenty pages into a 51-page story, it's the long run we're indeed talking about, with Severin and scripter Gary Friedrich beginning to take a winding path to its resolution while trying to hold the reader's attention throughout. Essentially, the pieces being put in place break down as follows:

  • Arriving back at Maximus's lab, the Hulk isn't at all happy at being brought there without his assent, and attacks. At the same time, Attilan's elite guard blast their way in to arrest Maximus, only to see the Hulk turn his attention to them in response. During the confusion, Maximus, Leonus, Aireo, and the others escape into the lower levels of the complex.
  • Attilan's security forces begin an all-out attack on the Hulk, despite his efforts to simply leap away. Trapped, the Hulk responds in kind, and the conflict quickly escalates.
  • Maximus brings his group to a containment area built by their Inhuman ancestors to imprison a dangerous glowing substance created by the scientist, Romnar, centuries ago--a devouring energy field which took thousands of lives before it was brought under control and sealed away. It's Maximus's intent to once more unleash this power and use it against Black Bolt.
  • To breach the containment barrier, Maximus needs the power of the Hulk--and so he sends Nebulo, the so-called "shadow" Inhuman, to convince the behemoth somehow to return to help him. The deed is accomplished more easily than expected, when Nebulo opens fire on the enforcement forces still attempting to take down the Hulk and promises that he'll help the Hulk escape if he accompanies Nebulo.
  • Maximus, delighted that Nebulo has succeeded, coaxes the Hulk into a state of trust by professing friendship for him, while asking of him a favor: to smash through the wall which, unknown to the monster, serves to contain the "weapon" that Maximus covets. Once done, the Hulk retrieves the glowing container within and returns with it to Maximus' lab.
  • Meanwhile, Gorgon arrives at the command center to assess the situation regarding the Hulk, when Maximus transmits an ultimatum from a nearby arena to surrender the throne--otherwise, the forbidden substance of Romnar will be released, with Maximus having adapted it to a wrist device for easy deployment. Shortly afterward, Maximus implores the crowds that have gathered to acknowledge him as King, in return for which he will spare their lives. Unfortunately, Leonus and the others fear that Maximus is now crazed with power and might destroy them, as well.

It's not surprising that the Hulk just wanted to leap away from all of this.  Wouldn't you?

Before this dizzying series of events occurred, it would have been fair to presume that the Hulk would in some way be the focal point for a running fight with the other Inhumans that would in time involve a conflict with Black Bolt and Gorgon, with our insurrectionists eventually teaming with the Hulk to prove their sympathies for him while, naturally, using his might against their mutual foes. Instead, no one seems to know what to do with these rebels, their loyalties shifting back and forth depending on who has the upper hand at the moment--though to be fair to Friedrich, none of them have proven to be trustworthy, even when they'd attempted to entreat the Hulk to join them.

And so, taking Maximus by surprise, his erstwhile allies seize the weapon and quickly come to the conclusion that they no longer need either Maximus or the Hulk to fulfill their own plans.

Yet even with the Hulk temporarily dealt with, they've reckoned without Black Bolt, who returns and confiscates the weapon--then issues orders for Maximus and his allies to be arrested and imprisoned to await resentencing. It's an impressive reckoning: In just moments, Black Bolt has taken control of the situation and subdued the offending parties, while recovering the ancient weapon of Romnar which could have destroyed them all. Nor does he need his oracle's help to decipher his mood when he follows up by dealing with his mad brother with a left cross.

But haven't we forgotten a certain man-monster, who hasn't quite settled his own score with those who lied to him?

Elsewhere, Black Bolt has personally taken custody of Maximus, returning to his brother's lab with the intent of destroying Romnar's substance. But while they argue and Black Bolt is distracted, Nebulo, who has followed them, slips in and takes the weapon for himself and heads for the site of the Hulk's battle with the others. Nebulo obviously is more than pure "shadow," using his power to solidify himself in much the same way as the Vision--though unlike the Vision, Nebulo appears to be completely incorporeal, even as he's able to (in this case) grasp the wrist-weapon and attach its power belt. Nebulo thinks of himself as a "non-being," which may be an accurate description.

Searching for the missing weapon, Black Bolt soon runs into Falcona's handiwork--but ending her threat is a small matter compared to the one he must face afterward.

It's at this moment, however, when Nebulo chooses to make his move--while the Hulk regains consciousness just in time to realize who his true enemy is in this struggle.

Friedrich's narrative makes it clear that the Hulk's blow has felled Nebulo; though if we're still under the assumption that Nebulo can't be touched, I'm more inclined to go with Severin's depiction of the scene, which makes it appear that the Hulk's strike has dislodged the weapon, rather than impacting with Nebulo directly.* And since the weapon subsequently goes off and fells the Hulk, it was likely caused by the Hulk knocking it from its wearer.

*Of course this is all speculation--without Severin's input, or a detailed description of Nebulo's power, the scene remains open to debate.

When things settle down, Black Bolt is willing to cut the Hulk some slack for his selfless act in stopping Nebulo--though, lashing out with his own power, Gorgon maintains that the Hulk remains a deadly menace. Fortunately, Black Bolt has managed to reach the Hulk on some level, and even extends an offer to him to make a home for himself in the Refuge--but the offer is declined, since it's obvious to the Hulk that not all the Inhumans feel so charitably toward him.

And so the Hulk's departure in peace brings this hefty annual and all of its twists and turns to a close. But Maximus and those who would again fall under his banner would be showing up again in just a year's time in the Hulk's monthly series, this time setting up shop in Central America in order to build a power base that would ultimately help them gain control of the entire world.  It seems a far cry from their original goal of deposing Black Bolt, and certainly more ambitious--maybe this crew has been spending time hanging around the Brotherhood.

Preceded by Gil Kane's work for this annual's reprint in Giant-Size Hulk #1,
enjoy a sampling of artists who paid homage to Steranko's classic cover.

Incredible Hulk Annual #1

Script: Gary Friedrich
Pencils: Marie Severin
Inks: Syd Shores et al.
Letterer: Irving Watanabe


Anonymous said...

That cover is much more familiar to me as the cover of Mighty World Of Marvel No.129, dated March 22nd 1975 - but the UK cover said "...BATTLES THE INHERITOR" not the Inhumans. I just looked on Google images and the UK cover used the original Steranko design on the right.

Soon afterwards Marvel UK were selling the cover in the form of a large patch for sewing on to a T-shirt...but I didn't buy it.

Comicsfan said...

Interesting that they settled on the Inheritor to apply that image, Colin; but then I suppose they could have chosen practically any antagonist to use it for.

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