Sunday, October 19, 2014

Marvels: Fantastic Four #25

"The Hulk vs. the Thing" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & George Roussos
(April 1964)

This anniversary issue of Fantastic Four has some epic worldbuilding, tying the continuity of the Marvel Universe closer together and continuing the story of the Hulk. So far, this is the most interesting I've found the Hulk, perhaps because he doesn't have his own book and mostly exists as this sort of force that the Marvel characters have to take into account. Like Namor, he's not exactly a hero and not exactly a villain, but he does have a sense of tragedy to him.

This issue pits the Hulk and the Thing against one another for the second time (the first being the great Fantastic Four #12), but it also ties in heavily to what's going on in The Avengers. The last time we saw the Hulk was in Avengers #3, where he and Namor briefly teamed up to fight (and lose) against Earth's Mightiest Heroes. The Hulk turned back into Bruce Banner unexpectedly and fled. Namor's story continued into Avengers #4, in which he fought against a team that now included Captain America. It was also in that issue that Rick Jones and Captain America became friends, and Rick worried that the Hulk would feel betrayed by his disloyalty and come for him.

Well, turns out that's exactly how the Hulk feels. Wandering the desert after his defeat, the lonely Hulk makes his way back to his old underground lab. Wondering where Rick is, the Hulk lashes out in anger, destroying his lab, including that old machine he had where he could bathe himself in gamma radiation to turn himself into the Hulk at will. After discovering a newspaper that talks about the Avengers and Captain America, the Hulk vows revenge on Rick and the Avengers, and heads to New York City.

The Fantastic Four are immediately called into action, but to up the suspense, their leader has been sidelined by a potentially deadly virus. Most issues open with some kind of tense argument, and this one is no different: Reed is still trying to devise a chemical solution that will "cure" the Thing and turn him human again. Ben doesn't want to be human again, because Alicia loves him the way he is and, deep down, he's afraid she won't love him if he's not the Thing. He says, if anything, he'd rather be able to become the Thing at will, switching back and forth. Reed is actually pretty hurt and angry that Ben doesn't want a cure, but he continues to work at it, accidentally exposing himself to a virus that weakens him and puts his life in danger just as the Hulk comes rampaging through.

The Human Torch is no match for the inexhaustible Hulk. Neither is the Invisible Girl; she tries to create a force field, but Hulk stretches it to the limit with one of his mighty leaps. It's really up to the Thing to slow the Hulk down, and that makes up the bulk of the issue. I won't go into too many details here, but it's incredibly exciting and suspenseful, watching two of the strongest beings in the Marvel Universe fight. The Thing wisecracks his way through, but it soon becomes clear that the Hulk is much stronger and won't give up.

As their fight becomes more and more desperate, the Thing trying not to give in to exhaustion, Reed is falling in and out of consciousness as a doctor tries to revive him. Sue, who has been torn between her love for Reed and her attraction to Namor, confesses that she never realized until now just how deep her love for Reed really is.

The Thing finally collapses on the George Washington Bridge after a failed last ditch effort to capture the Hulk. With the Army deployed in New York City, the Hulk making his way towards Tony Stark's mansion, Johnny in the hospital and Reed at death's door, Benjamin J. Grimm decides that the only way he's going to stop fighting is if the Hulk kills him...

To be continued!

Stray observations:

:: Stan Lee accidentally calls Bruce Banner "Bob" once again. I assume this confusion is why his official name is Robert Bruce Banner.

:: "I feel sorry for ya now, Hulk... because you mad me mad! Me, who's never been known to lose his temper before!"

:: "Where are your wise-cracks now, Thing?? Your insulting remarks?? Where is the strength you always brag about?" "Maybe I left 'em in my other suit! Hey... leggo! That's the hand I eat pizza with!"

:: At one point, the Hulk throws the Thing onto the roof of a condemned building. The Hulk literally grabs the building and shakes it back and forth to dislodge the Thing.

:: Even the Yancy Street Gang tries to help the Thing by pulling the brake on a truck and sending it careening downhill into the Hulk.

:: This month's letters page teases the next Fantastic Four Annual, promising an appearance by Doctor Doom. Jimmy Edelstein of Stoughton, MA, wants fewer fights with commie agents in the Marvel Universe; Marc Bailey of Lomita, CA, is the first person I've seen call Iron Man "shell-head"; and only a few of the letters point out errors in the other books. Bill Dubay of San Francisco is given a no-prize for being the reader with the largest comic collection--11,221 issues!

I think this issue of Fantastic Four came along at exactly the right time. I've talked a little bit about how routine the book was becoming--still well-executed, but a little formulaic--and by addressing the larger Marvel Universe and amping up the drama, Stan & Jack made this issue a vital tour-de-force, a keystone issue of this world they've been constructing. The suspense of Reed's illness and the limits of Ben's strength (but not his resolve) elevate this issue from something done just for the sake of tying continuities together.

In the next issue, the Avengers become a part of this whole thing, too. They're still looking for the Hulk, and this is all going to come to a head...

But first, next time: the Executioner and the Enchantress!

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