Monday, September 23, 2019

The Power of the Hulk!

Whenever I lay eyes on the classic two-part Fantastic Four tale from 1964 which features the rematch between the Thing and the incredible Hulk (while also dealing in the Avengers), I've found myself thinking how artist Jack Kirby might have handled this story had it been released three years later in 1967, when his style of artistry had hit its stride--panels filled with background which gave the setting more depth, room to let the letterer run wild with explosive sound effects, and pacing which the reader thrilled to with each turn of the page. A Thing/Hulk rematch deserved no less; a battle which saw the Hulk more than hold his own against both the FF and the Avengers practically demanded it.

And in my mind's eye I could see more than Kirby unleashed--I could also easily envision a two-part story expanded to four issues, this time with none other than inker Joe Sinnott joining forces with Kirby:

  • The end of Part 1 would have the Torch on the losing end of a battle with the Hulk after making an attempt to put a stop to his rampage following his arrival in New York, while the rest of the FF deal with the emergency of Reed falling victim to a dangerous virus;
  • Part 2 sees the Thing begin his struggle against the Hulk, with Johnny hospitalized and Sue sidelined while trying to save him--the last page having the Thing finally taken down, with the Hulk shouting his defiance to the city and vowing to destroy the Avengers next;
  • In Part 3, the Thing re-engages the Hulk, near exhaustion but rallying to give the Hulk a continued fight that even the green goliath in his rage can't bring himself to believe, with the Torch racing to his side to briefly join forces before the Hulk at last deals with them--the issue ending as the Hulk at last confronts the Avengers;
  • And finally, in Part 4, the Avengers make a fierce but futile effort to prevent the Hulk from taking Rick Jones captive-while elsewhere, an antidote to the dangerous chemicals which he came into contact with allows Reed to recover enough to join his partners in the city and make plans to tackle the Hulk, regardless of how the Avengers feel about it.

And as long as we're indulging in a make-believe scenario: After reader reaction to this revised tale has buried the Marvel offices under an avalanche of mail filled with praise for both story and art, and sales of Fantastic Four have defied all expectations, Kirby sits down with Stan Lee and publisher Martin Goodman and renegotiates both his pay and the rights to his material--perfect timing, as it turned out, with everyone signing on the dotted line a little over a year before Goodman would sell his Magazine Management Company (Marvel's parent company) to what would become Cadence Industries.  The deal leaves Kirby sitting pretty in a new ten-year contract, Marvel's only condition of the deal and adding up to a win-win for the artist.

Such was not to be, of course--except for possibly the mail filled with praise part, though even with a two-page letters section it wasn't even a deluge, much less burying, since roughly 60% of the mail printed dealt with other, unrelated subjects. But we won't let that stop us from diving into this ambitious tale which would pit the incredible Hulk against not only members of the Fantastic Four, but the Avengers, as well. But come on, it's the billing on the marquee that captures the reader's attention on this one.

With the Hulk being the clear and present danger to all involved in this story, any news that our heroes (on both super-teams) get wind of is met with concern. For the FF, they learn from a newspaper story of the Avengers' pursuit of the Hulk following their battle with him and the Sub-Mariner at Gibraltar; and when the Hulk is subsequently reported in New Mexico following his hijack of a freight truck, the Avengers arrive on the scene after the fact.

As it happens, the Hulk decides to do a little pursuing of his own, when he returns to the secret desert lab of Bob Banner (remember him?) and learns from a news clipping that he's been replaced in the Avengers by Captain America; but he's really miffed by the thought that Rick Jones has deserted him for his former partners, which seems quite a leap to make (even for the Hulk) on the spur of the moment.

Perhaps the more sensible way for the story to have instigated the Hulk's anger toward the Avengers would be if he suspected that Rick had deserted him to be with Cap; after all, what would the Hulk care about being replaced on the team, given the irate circumstances of his departure? But how to make that work? The problem remains how the Hulk would even know about Rick falling under Cap's wing--it's not likely a newspaper column would report on it (assuming the reporter would even bother making note of Rick's status). Only later would we learn that the Hulk feels that Rick deserted him for Cap--but again, why would he come to that conclusion?

Given that we're all gearing up for a Hulk/FF fight, the fast-tracked provocation provided for the Hulk is hardly a sticking point, of course. And once the Hulk reaches New York, the reasons for the FF's involvement in attempting to stop him become clear, as the situation quickly spirals out of control.

(For the record, Reed has just sent Sue into battle without reservation--and against the Hulk, mind you. With apologies to the Thing, that alone might have been worth the 12¢ price tag of the mag.)

As the battle begins to rage, in a way it's encouraging to see this kind of fight take its toll on the combatants--for instance, the Torch, who, like any normal human, cannot just brush himself off after a shock wave hurls him into the wrecked street. We'll later see him hospitalized for his injuries--but in the meantime, the ruthless Hulk has further plans for him.

And so the way has been swiftly cleared for the Thing's solo bout with the Hulk:  Reed completely debilitated from the effects of the virus... Sue passed out... the Torch on his way to an ambulance off panel. There have been instances where the powers of the FF as a team have proven more effective against the Hulk's brutality--but fans of the entire team as a unit have already been informed going in that they won't be getting the kind of story they might have wanted to see here.

It also may be fair to speculate whether Thing fans could claim the same.

Unlike their later fight, where the battle-savvy Thing is able to better compensate for the Hulk's bull-in-a-china-shop approach, it's clear that the Hulk we see here has more of a handle on the situation and can think on his feet, putting the Thing on the defensive and mostly directing how the battle goes; so while Reed may have a point concerning the Thing needing to outsmart his opponent, the Thing is so busy extricating himself from the Hulk's brawling style of fighting that it's all he can do to try to regain the momentum.

However, a certain street gang, whose reputation for unexpected high jinks precedes them, has a thought or two on that--though their plan doesn't give the Thing the breather they'd hoped for.

It's quite an admission on the Thing's part, setting up as it does the climax of this story. Failing to go the distance with the Hulk, who remains every bit as powerful as when he started (and, incredibly, even more so), what happens next for the Thing is indicative of how dismally the rest of the FF have fared against this threat without Reed Richards spearheading their response. The only high note to be sounded can only be heard in the Thing's shaky resolve--but against the power of the Hulk, will it be even close to enough?

The Thing battles on! And then...

Fantastic Four #25

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: George Bell
Letterer: Sam Rosen


dangermash said...

I agree with your point about how much better this would have been a couple of years later.

But even 1964 Kirby with Joe Sinnott (and I'm going to say or Chic Stone- Sue me if you don't like it) rather than George Bell on inks would have taken these two issues up to stratospheric levels.

Anonymous said...

Bob Banner??? On the TV series Bruce was re-named David Banner but perhaps Bob Banner would have been better :)

The most striking thing about that FF cover is the Hulk's size - he's twice as big as the Thing!

Comicsfan said...

Frankly, dangermash, I would have liked to have seen Frank Giacoia's work on this story behind Kirby; but while I think Kirby paced a good story, he didn't seem to be at the point yet of injecting the touches and polished technique he would later come to develop that would make a story jump off the page, things that a finisher wouldn't necessarily have been able to compensate for.

I agree about the size difference on the cover, Colin--I always find myself giving Kirby a considerable amount license for that shot, perhaps meant to achieve a looming effect for the Hulk. If that was indeed his intent, mission accomplished, I'd say! :)

Rick said...

Maybe it's because I first read these issues as a kid, but frankly I don't see that this could be improved had Kirby drawn it a few years later. His pacing and placement of events in the story is perfect. The Hulk's fist rising out of the water, the battle on the bridge, Reed's valiant and yet pitiful attempt to engage in the action are flawless and help to tell an absolutely engaging story. True, a different inker would have helped (Giacoia), but I will always look back on these books as some of the most thrilling I've ever read.

Comicsfan said...

His pacing and placement of events in the story is perfect. Yes, Rick, I quite agree on that point.

Anonymous said...

Great post! cool to see this old classic in vibrant colors.
I think the reason the art is so rough is that Kirby was drawing a lot of titles back then, and he was rushed. He was handing in rough drafts. He was always fast, but definitely overworked. The Marvel Bullpen didn't have a lot of artists back then. Marvel was going through growing pains.
After seeing the Avengers survey damage on the ground, and after a recent freak storm in my town, I wonder how much the Hulk is blamed for climate change and vice versa.
They said it was three tornados but I wonder. There were empty cans of baked beans all over the place...


Comicsfan said...

M.P., an interesting comparison between Kirby's work here and another issue he worked on, published in the same month, can be found in Journey Into Mystery #103, which Chic Stone inked--a striking difference in quality (though, granted, we're talking about a battle with the Hulk vs. a battle between gods). I may owe dangermash an apology (and maybe a free comic thrown in) about how much of a contribution a different inker could have made in this story. :)

dangermash said...

No apology or free comic necessary CF. I agree with your point about how Kirby later improved in what Pierre Comtois calls the grandiose years. And I agree that Giacoia would also have been an improvement on Bell.