Thursday, June 8, 2023

The John Byrne Might-Have-Been Incredible Hulk, 1985-86


Aside from his other work with the character, artist/writer John Byrne would make two stabs within a thirteen-year timeframe at putting his imprint on titles featuring the incredible Hulk--the first taking place during the mid-1980s in the Vol. 2 series of the same name, and the second during the launch of, simply, Hulk in 1999. If you have difficulty recalling either, you could probably chalk it up to having "blinked and missed" them, as the saying goes when describing something of such brief duration as to be easily overlooked, given that those instances only amounted to six or seven issues, respectively.

Each effort showed promise, with Byrne handling story and art in the first, and teaming with artist Ron Garney in the second--but reportedly, there were intra-office factors in play which prompted Byrne's early exit in both cases. In a segment from a 2000 interview with Byrne conducted by Comic Book Resources' Michael David Thomas, the details regarding each are as sparse as the issues in question:

MDT: One of the shortest runs on a character that you plotted and sub-plotted for in those five [sic] issues [#s 314-319]. What happened?

JB: "Betrayal" would be an excessively strong word for what happened. I took on the Hulk after a discussion with [Editor-In-Chief Jim] Shooter, in which I mentioned some of the things I would like to do with that character, given the chance. He told me to do whatever was necessary to get on the book, he liked my ideas so much. I did, and once installed he immediately changed his mind - "You can't do this!" Six issues was as much as I could take.

MDT: You returned to write the new series [in 1999] and then within the space of 7 issues were cut from the book. Can you talk a little about what happened in that situation?

JB: No.

Having previously touched on the Byrne/Garney collaboration in 1999 as part of a broader look at Byrne's other late-'90s projects, we'll focus here on his earlier Incredible Hulk contribution for the benefit of those of you who may have missed those issues (as well as those who care to revisit them) and feature highlights that showed the direction Byrne was heading in as he assembled and implemented the building blocks of the plots as well as the various characters, fresh or familiar, who would meet and deal with both Bruce Banner and his raging other self.  That storyline stems from a chemical procedure performed by Leonard "Doc" Samson which succeeded in separating Banner from the Hulk (following Samson's capture of the brute), which introduced the possibility of the subsequent blank slate of the Hulk's mind being conditioned for the purpose of the Hulk becoming a benefit to humanity--a hope dashed by S.H.I.E.L.D., which swooped in to take custody of the Hulk as a prelude to destroying him, which prompts Samson, in turn, to raid his transport detail and free him. In the process, however, Samson discovers that the Hulk is now a creature of undiluted, mindless rage, and, holding himself responsible for the destruction and devastation which the Hulk goes on to visit on those innocents in his path, decides to hunt down and recapture him.

Following Byrne's exit, we're provided with a brief flashback of how things spun out of control from there:

A series of developments we'll now examine more closely--along with what Bruce Banner (remember him?) is doing with his new lease on life.

(With a tip of the hat to artist Joe Jusko for his homage framing art above.)
You hit it out of the park, guy!

Our first stop, then, is the hospital where Banner was taken following Samson's separation procedure, where he lies in a catatonic state. At Banner's side are his cousin, Jennifer Walters, and his close friend, Betty Ross, as the former authorizes administration of risky treatment which will hopefully bring him out of his withdrawn state.

With Banner's revival, we soon check in on him thereafter in a para-military installation in the southwest (which, we learn, turns out to be a refit of Gamma Base), where he assembles a team of specialists in order to dust off an old classification that still resonates with some. In doing so, there's no longer any doubt of what has become Banner's priority.

And so it probably goes without saying that news of Samson's involvement in the Hulk's escape--and, more specifically, his reason for facilitating it--infuriates the one person who has taken the exact opposite approach to dealing with the Hulk and would have been the first to condemn Samson's course of action.

As for the Hulkbusters--three of which are scientists--whether they're able to elicit excitement or even anticipation on the part of the reader is a matter of opinion. Those who operate in the field--Saunders, Parmenter, Martel, and LaRoquette--seem no more qualified or capable than any trained army officer or SHIELD agent, and are using land-based and airborne attack equipment on the order of the Murder Module, the HS-1000, or any other operator-run heavy duty equipment dreamed up in the past to tackle the Hulk which proved insufficient for the job. In addition, two of the five 'busters, Parmenter and Martel, are research scientists, while Takata's field would appear to be inapplicable to the goal here (though her reputation for risk-taking would later prove to be beyond reproach). What makes this group of individuals stand out to such a degree to merit such an assignment? And how did Banner come to select them in the first place, aside from the likelihood that they would grasp any lifeline thrown to them? Aren't the Feds, who fund this installation, a little concerned with putting all their eggs in this basket?

It's clear that the group's members are more than pleased at landing a plum assignment in a state-of-the-art facility that, in LaRoquette's words, allows them "the opportunity to pursue our respective disciplines [that] outweighs, or at least balances, the dangers." But while Parmenter seems eager enough to suit up as a Hulkbuster, she and her three fellow field operatives soon meet the reality of their mission statement when their practice session against a Hulk robot has them crossing paths with Samson's own search for their target, and their rash decision to attack him, combined with their inexperience, leads to tragedy.

LaRoquette lets it be known in no uncertain terms that he fully blames Samson for Parmenter's death, and that Samson will be made to pay for it. And that confrontation arrives soon, as Saunders and LaRoquette locate the Hulk and re-engage with the brute. Fortunately for them, when the struggle escalates, Samson shows up to take the heat off them--yet LaRoquette sees his chance to turn his weaponry on Samson, a choice which backfires when the Hulk strikes back.

Meanwhile, however, Betty, with some hesitation at first, has accepted a marriage proposal from Banner--and when Rick Jones shows up to attend the private ceremony, the subject of Betty's father comes up, and we learn of the disgraced old soldier's uncertain fate.

But while the story cleverly flirts with a repeat of the denouement of a prior wedding ceremony between the pair which was ruined by the Leader and the Rhino forcing the reappearance of the Hulk, the real disaster occurs when the former General Ross shows up unexpectedly to demand, at gunpoint, an end to the nuptials--a development which nearly costs Rick his life.

Elsewhere, however, the heated battle with the Hulk shows no signs of abating as Samson chooses to save LaRoquette's life, at the risk of his own. From there, the Hulk and Samson battle savagely, until the Hulk hurls his foe into an empty church and subsequently leaps away, losing interest. In the interim, Samson's selfless gesture has served to open LaRoquette's eyes to the fact that he accused Samson unjustly, a realization that comes too late for the man who rises to begin his hunt again.

Fortunately, in another church, the tidings are happier and joyous for two people who took a long and tortuous time getting to the altar.

At which point, Byrne departed the book and segued to a new project at DC Comics--the relaunch of Superman in The Man Of Steel. An interesting and unexpected addendum to his Hulk work, however, came in the form of what was reportedly scheduled to be his next issue for that title but instead appeared a few months later in the pages of Al Milgrom's Marvel Fanfare series--a story that provided a welcome change of pace to the Samson/Hulkbuster brawls, and nicely demonstrated the nuanced approach Byrne had managed to introduce so well with other books he's helmed. As for the Hulk's fate post-Byrne, Milgrom was tapped to resolve the situation and eventually reintegrate Banner with the Hulk.


Anonymous said...

Thunderbolt Ross might have been mean and in disgrace, Comicsfan, but at least he shot Rick Jones. You can't take that away from him.


charliedogg said...

That is one ugly wedding dress Byrne designed for Betty, it does absolutely nothing for her.

Comicsfan said...

I don't know, Sean--Rick not only lucked out of being incinerated by a gamma bomb explosion, but also survived a shot from Thunderbolt Ross at point-blank range. Either 'ol T-Bolt is a lousy shot for a seasoned military veteran, or Rick has someone watching out for him.

charliedogg, I take it you're not fond of the Lawrence of Arabia look for a bride? (I don't think Thunderbolt likes it either. This just isn't his day.)

Anonymous said...

That new look Byrne designed for Doc Samson doesn't do a whole lot for him either.
What was wrong with his old gear with the lightning flash? And don't get me started on the mullet and ponytail.

Comicsfan, I like the way no-one needs much persuading to leave a shot Rick bleeding out. One minute Betty Ross is saying "You'll bleed to death" and then in the very next panel she's like, ok, fine, forget about a doctor, lets get on with the wedding instead...


Anonymous said...

I was very disappointed when Byrne left Hulk suddenly. I think he was hitting on a lot of the tropes that make the series interesting. Even as a kid, I knew Bruce and the Hulk would not be separated forever, but I thought it was going to be a wild ride. One thing I really liked was the new supporting cast of the Hulkbusters. I thought they had a lot of potential working alongside Bruce on how to eliminate the threat of the Hulk.

Byrne did have one last issue of Hulk written and drawn before he left, but it was published in Marvel Fanfare 29. I believe it was done in all splash pages. Legend has it that Denny O'Neil nixed it for fear Shooter would be angry with him. Shooter had reprimanded Denny for something else, and he was worried the unusual approach would bring Shooter's wrath on him (Denny, in fact, was also fired some time later).

I am generally a big fan of Jim Shooter and the Shooter era of Marvel, but I think various work related stresses around 1986 caused him to make some errors that alienated a lot of people at this time.

Unlike Sean, I actually like this costume for Doc Samson a lot better than his original. I always that his first costume was one of the worst costumes of all time. Boring. It was something my 5 year old self would come up with. Byrne's costume is certainly no classic, but it does have some elements I really like. I think with some minor changes, it could have become something very good. But I think Byrne was the only one who ever made his design look good - whenever somebody else drew it, it looked terrible.


Comicsfan said...

Sean, I agree that a mortally wounded Rick lying crumpled and bleeding on the floor while the wedding resumed is hardly the story that this happy couple would want to be remembering for the rest of their lives (or feel comfortable recounting to their friends in later years). The only saving grace was the Reverend fast-tracking the ceremony to its conclusion (at Betty's urging, from what I gather).

Chris, you and I disagree about the Hulkbusters and their potential, that's for sure. :) Also, that Marvel Fanfare issue was linked above if you're curious to revisit it.

Colin Jones said...

It's curious that both the Hulk and She-Hulk were initially failed characters who got cancelled but got a second chance and became staples of the Marvel Universe.

General Ross later became the Red Hulk and Betty Ross the Red She-Hulk.