Thursday, November 07, 2013

Marvels: Incredible Hulk #6

"The Incredible Hulk vs. The Metal Master!" by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko & Dick Ayers
(March 1963)

I don't know how popular this opinion will be, but here goes: Incredible Hulk had the wrong artist.

Jack Kirby draws much more kinetic action, but after reading this final issue of Incredible Hulk, I feel like Steve Ditko would've been better for the title all along. Not to knock Kirby, though Kirby's never drawn my favorite Hulk (probably Ernie Chan's is my favorite). But Steve Ditko's art in this issue better conveys--with the same inker Kirby was using--much more pathos and emotional range. This is, in some ways, the beginning of the tortured, hunted, haunted Hulk that is one of my favorite fictional characters.

It could be argued, really, that Stan Lee is using this issue as an attempt to re-tool the book. It is, after all, the final issue and Stan's got nothing to lose. There's nothing in the story that seems like a final story--it doesn't end with the Hulk dying, or anything--but I wonder if Stan intended to simply abandon the character. The Hulk won't appear again for six months, until Avengers #1. I have no idea if that was the plan, or if Stan simply didn't put a final note on it in order to leave the possibility of a return open.

But what he does in this issue, assisted by Ditko, is finally strengthen the character of the Hulk so that he's something more than a two-dimensional wrecking machine who alternately hates humans and saves Himalayan villages from communists. I think they've been realizing the last few issues that Hulk is a much more interesting, potentially rich character than his host, Bruce Banner. The original idea seemed to be basically a science fiction spin on the werewolf story--at night, Banner was cursed to become this hulking thing that destroyed. The catalyst for the change is now a pad that Banner uses to bathe himself in gamma radiation, but one that is getting harder and harder to control, giving the Hulk more and more power.

In this issue, the Hulk saves the Earth from an alien menace calling himself the Metal Master. For the most part, Ditko handles it like it's another science fiction short story from any of the other anthology books, with sparse, even nonexistent backgrounds.

Hulk and the Metal Master tangle a couple of times, and Stan takes the threat to the planet seriously, but he's fairly easy to defeat. (The Hulk creates a gun that the Metal Master somehow can't manipulate, so the Metal Master agrees to put everything right and leave Earth rather than get beaten to a pulp by the emerald giant; it turns out the gun was just cardboard, plastic and paint all along.)

Most of the space in this issue is instead devoted to exploring the character dynamics in the comic. We're shown repeatedly that the gamma machine that changes Bruce into the Hulk is becoming less and less reliable. It's leaving Bruce weaker for longer periods of time; it's taking longer for the transformations (in either direction) to be truly complete; the lines between the two personalities are becoming blurrier and blurrier. In one instance, the Hulk has to wear a mask of his own face because he's still got Banner's mug. It's kind of silly, but I get the point Stan's trying to make: soon enough, there could be no distinction between the two.

A lot of moments throw the future of the two characters as separate entities into doubt. The Hulk is weakened enough for the Army to (briefly) capture him; Hulk blames Rick Jones for it, leading to a rift between the two. But when Banner takes over again, we see that he relies on Rick to help him. Later, after the Hulk actually receives a presidential pardon for having saved Earth from the Metal Master, there's finally the moment I've been waiting for: when the transformation is too prolonged, Hulk finally wonders if exposing himself to gamma radiation repeatedly actually isn't very good for the body. It's the only time we've ever seen the Hulk truly scared. Sure, he hates Banner and hates humans, but even the Hulk is cowed by the prospect of never being able to change back into Bruce Banner again.

It's a surprisingly human moment that adds a dimension the character has been sorely lacking for the year this comic's been published. It's a shame, but right here, at the end of the character's initial run, Stan finally finds the missing ingredient in a troubled book that he's never had a handle on: we need to care about what happens to the Hulk. He can't just be a force; he has to be a character with wants, needs, and even fears. And even though the Hulk does turn back into Banner, this moment leaves the door open for what will eventually be the premise we know: the struggle for control.

The other big development in this issue is the formation of the Teen Brigade. After being screamed at by the Hulk and rejected by the Army (he's just 16, after all), Rick and his ham radio loving friends decide to get together and form a countrywide network that will aid the police and the military. There's been a subplot at work about Rick feeling powerless and wanting to help, so he's able to put his talents to good use. The Teen Brigade becomes a factor in the Hulk's victory over the Metal Master. It's a nice message to the teenage reader, too: you have the power to help even when adults think you should stay out of the way.

The issue ends with a recapitulation of the status quo, but attitudes have changed. General Ross still thinks Bruce is a milksop, but now we know for sure that Betty and Bruce have mutual feelings for one another. And though Bruce tells Betty he hopes the Hulk is gone forever, Rick wonders aloud just how much longer Bruce will be able to keep bathing himself in radiation and surviving it. The door is open. The Hulk will walk through it again.

Stray observations:

:: These are my favorite two panels in this issue. I just wanted to share them.

The Hulk is that short-tempered friend you have whose anger is totally unpredictable. This is why I relate to the Hulk... I've been that friend, that son, and that husband too many times.

:: When the Metal Master first fights the Hulk to a standstill, he tells the Hulk they should be allies instead and conquer the Earth together. The Hulk concludes that he could probably do it on his own, and seems like he's about to before being knocked unconscious.

:: Stan Lee's so tired of answering letters about how the Hulk is leaping, not flying, that he actually has the Hulk basically explain how it works to settle the matter once and for all. ("I can't fly like the Human Torch, but...")

Well, that's all from the Hulk for another six months, but other heroes will step into the space left by him soon enough. I wonder what Stan and Steve could have done together on this title for a while. Ditko just seems to have much more of an affinity for the Hulk than Kirby--he knows how to show us the heart of a monster--and I would've loved to see more of this. Like Star Trek: Enterprise, this book is canceled just as it's getting good.

Next time: Thor against the Carbon Copy Man.


bliss_infinte said...

I grew to have a great appreciation for Ditko as I read through the original Dr. Strange stories and art. Even more so than in Spider-man his art was instantly dynamic and dramatic. Though Kriby did have quite a knack for giving his characters human emotions in a panel or two, Ditko had more finesse for drawing it out from panel to panel and even from page to page. It's interesting that after the Hulk is brought back with Kirby in Tales to Astonish, they bounce it back to Ditko for a very interesting run.

SamuraiFrog said...

I'm interested to get to those
Tales to Astonish issues. I read them a few years ago in black and white, so I'm looking forward to seeing them colored.