Oh snap, it’s the HULK!
March of 1963, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. I just noticed that Hulk has only three fingers and toes in this issue. So weird! I wonder when he got the human hand upgrade? Actually, perusing some of the Hulk art at the time, it looks like Hulk’s fingers are somewhat inconsistent. Sometimes he has four and sometimes he has three.
Our first cross-over! Maybe Marvel’s first cross-over! It’s more of a guest star, since this story is self contained and I guess the editors haven’t figured out how you can boost sales by having a story stretch across to another series. Which is kind of a shame, because the issue of Hulk this very same month (Issue 6) was actually the last issue of Incredible Hulk. The solo series was cancelled and Hulk moved to being a back-up series in Tales to Astonish and didn’t get his own title back until 1968.
So. Where does our big Hulk issue begin? As for many such things, with a nice evening at the symphony.
Alicia got a hair cut! It’s adorable (though her original hair will be recycled whenever they introduce Crystal of the Inhumans). Also that’s definitely Stan Lee on the right there.
Seeing troops march through the streets is certainly cause for alarm, but watch the sunglasses, dude. This little incident attracts the attention of the troops, who aren’t just there for show, but are on the lookout for the Hulk! They mistake Ben for the Hulk, and the situation quickly escalates. They have specially designed weapons to deal with the big green guy, which they briefly turn on Thing before an officer shows up and puts a stop to the whole thing. The weapons don’t work all that well on Ben, so maybe these guys should thank him for showing how little their equipment would do against the real deal. I haven’t read a ton of Hulk, so I’m not sure when they officially get the term “Hulkbuster” but surely this is the precursor to those units.
Ben goes home to discover that the head of this unit, General “Thunderbolt” Ross, has stopped in to visit the Fantastic Four.
General Ross is one of the oldest characters in the Marvel U, and has been chasing the Hulk pretty much the whole time, temporary deaths aside. Originally in charge of a Manhattan Project-style gamma bomb facility that will spawn the Hulk, Ross became obsessed with tracking down the beast, to the point of allying with various Hulk villains and getting himself drummed out of the military. Occasionally he has super powers. Now he’s the Red Hulk or something? I don’t really follow (let’s not get started on his daughter Betty, who thankfully doesn’t appear in this issue).
The Hulk is often stranger than people think.
But here the Hulk is fresh and new. In fact, until they’re shown video and photographic evidence, the Fantastic Four aren’t even convinced that he’s real. General Ross briefs them on how the Hulk has been sabotaging missile bases in the desert (these things always seem to happen in a nameless part of the arid southwest), and the Army could use their help bringing him in.
The team seems awfully eager to help out in a situation they don’t know that much about, and proceed to show off their powers and describe just how they’ll bring the Hulk in if they get the chance. It’s like they’re bidding on it. We get this regrettable exchange about Sue being good for nothing but cheering the boys on, though. This is particularly odd given the stern lecture Reed gave last issue about fans writing in to suggest that Sue was useless.
The team jumps in a new, redesigned Fantasti-car!
I’ve never given the Fantasti-car much thought, but I suppose there are two basic designs: the bathtub model that came first, and then this one. All the ones that come later are more or less variations on those two designs. I remember the FF cartoon from the ’90s featuring a Fantasti-car design very similar to this one. They’re both pretty cool, but there is something very retro basic about the bathtub that appeals to me more. I’ve always wondered why they insist on keeping the modular aspect, constantly seeking to split the team up, but I guess it’s in keeping with the often fractious nature of the team.
They all (including General Ross) hop in the Fantasti-car and soon find themselves at the previously mentioned missile base, where they meet the team they’ll be working with, one of whom you should recognize immediately.
I speak, of course, of Rick Jones, the linchpin of the Marvel Universe. If there’s anyone in this fictional world of heroes and gods and super scientists whose autobiography I’d want to read, it’s his. He’s less prevalent nowadays, but there was a time where Rick Jones was touching every corner of the Marvel world. A teenage runaway, he was responsible for the creation of the Hulk. He was Captain Marvel’s (original dude version)…sidekick, for lack of a better word. Captain America’s sidekick. Time-travel friend to the Avengers. Occasionally he has super powers. Now he changes into a monster or something? I don’t really follow (and let’s not get started on his wife).
Anyway, obviously that guy sitting in front of him is Bruce Banner. Trivia: in the Incredible Hulk TV series, producer Kenneth Johnson changed his name to David, because he thought Bruce sounded gay. Banner isn’t convinced that the Hulk is the problem, but Ross is hell-bent on hunting down the big green guy.
Also present is Banner’s assistant, a Doctor Karl Kort. For all his bluster about how they need to get to work, he excuses himself for…reasons? and then gets scared out of his mind when he runs into Ben in the hallway. I’m sure the name Karl is just some random name they pulled out of a hat and will definitely not have anything to do with political affiliations revealed later.
Johnny gives Rick the wallet to return to Karl, and manages to make this basic request for a favor as smugly jackassian as possible.
Trying to impress Rick Jones with a show of super powers is like trying to impress Bruce Lee with how good you are with a set of foam nunchaku you got on clearance at the Halloween store. It’s pretty funny, though, and it’s totally in character for Johnny. That they’re about the same age (Johnny is maybe a year older at most) adds an extra dimension of amusement to it.
Banner and Jones wander off to Banner’s lab to discuss the problems facing them. Whoever is behind the sabotage, whom Banner has creatively named “The Wrecker,” has set back his work on Project 34, which is an anti-missile magnetic shield. Whoever this Wrecker is, he’s bent on preventing the United States from defending itself in the event of nuclear attack!
Both the United States and the Soviet Union had been working on missile defense systems since the 1940s, inspired by the development of the jet engine, which old fashioned bullets and flak had trouble dealing with. In practical terms it was mostly just radar and early warning systems that would give you a couple hours notice that civilization was about to end, but there were missiles that could successfully intercept other missiles, even the ICBMs that would go on to terrify the entire world just a few years later. Treaties limited their deployment in the 1970s and most of them were shut down. There’s one that was part of the Dallas-Fort Worth Defense Area just a few miles from my house, which was converted for use as the observatory I took astronomy classes at in college.
Banner’s prototype uses an electromagnetic shield to deflect missiles away from entire cities, though where the ricocheted missiles would end up isn’t addressed. Maybe that’s Project 35.
Well, that’s interesting and all, but Rick has an errand to run, returning that wallet.
On this dramatic note, we cut to a scene of the Fantastic Four playing around with a rocket sled on the base. They’ve fixed it up, and Ben wants to test it out.
I think it’s fun that the team, though brought here to fight the Hulk and investigate what I have to assume are considered urgent breaches in base security, takes a break from the hunt to deal with a technical issue. The science is in their blood! Johnny must not have checked the rails too closely, though, because they’ve been damaged, and the rocket sled wrecks.
Our heroes won’t listen to Banner, though. They’ve been told it’s the Hulk, so they stick with that theory. I’m not sure why Reed is so quick to dismiss Banner’s ideas. Maybe his background in the military leads him to trust the general more than he should?
Turns out there is an elaborate series of tunnels sprawling beneath the desert, stretching from the missile base to a nearby ghost town. All three parties involved descend into the tunnels!
You’d think Banner would at least try to find a different solution than caving to Karl’s demands, but he seems awfully eager to get to his Fantastic Four murder business. Heck, he probably could have just convinced them to leave as Banner and avoided this whole fight.
The battle quickly makes its way to the surface. Most of the team doesn’t stand a chance against the big green guy. He repeatedly slaps them down without breaking a sweat.
What’s this? Someone has interrupted the fight and taken Hulk out with a single atom-powered ray!
That’s a super cool robot design, even if it doesn’t last long. It reminds me of the mousers from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (and it’s clearly designed to dig through these tunnels to get to its targets).
Beyond the robot, Thing comes face to face with the true mastermind, Karl Kort, who’s got Rick hostage and is wielding the same atomic ray used to KO the Hulk. Before he can use it on Ben, though, a certain useless someone comes to the rescue. Sue saves Thing from being zapped and also Karl from being Thing-murdered.
As the FF put the commie rat under wrap, the Hulk slips away and transforms back into Bruce Banner, and we get a nice little goodbye exchange.
This early Bruce Banner looks remarkably like Bill Bixby and I have to think the television series drew a lot of inspiration from these early issues of the Hulk. What’s funny about this issue is that we end up getting at least as much Rick Jones panel time as we do of Banner. And it’s cool – Rick is level-headed and brave, and is just a set of powers away from being a pretty remarkable hero in his own right. All that will happen later, of course, though it’s not an easy road for Rick to travel, and he’ll never achieve the fame or recognition of the more traditional super heroes of the Marvel bullpen.
As a guest-star issue, it’s not bad. The mystery is solid, but Reed’s behavior in this issue is odd. There are no scenes of him working with Bruce to try and puzzle out the problem–he just accepts the military’s word as the final say. There’s a distinct lack of proactive actions from the heroes. Ben has to discover the tunnels on his own, and it totally makes sense for the team to investigate them. If Banner knew about them, why didn’t he come forward with that from the beginning?
I used to think that the biggest problem with old comics was too much narration and dialogue, which happens when the writers don’t know how to trust the artists to tell the story. But this issue highlights a bigger problem they often had: prioritizing the wrong parts of the story. We didn’t need four whole pages spent on a case of mistaken monster identity at the beginning, or two pages of the heroes bragging about how they might battle the Hulk. It’s a lot of wasted space that costs us the things that actually would have been interesting, like Reed and Bruce huddled over the wreckage of a missile defense system and waxing philosophic about the dangers and temptations of mutual annihilation, or Karl ranting to Rick about why he’s so bent on his mission of sabotage.
In any event, it sets up a pretty common template for hero versus hero stories. Something pits the heroes against each other, they fight for a bit, and then come together at the end to fight the real foe all along. This one is a little different, in that Hulk is actually unconscious for the final confrontation, but it’s basically the format for so many stories to come.
Next: OMIgosh so much. The Red Ghost! The moon! Psychic apes! The mysterious Watcher! Psychic apes on the moon!