Feb 21, 2016

The 40 Years of Comics Project - Day 362: The Incredible Hulk v.1 #222, April 1978

I've never really got the Hulk. Or, at least, I've never really got the version of the Hulk that is predominant in the comics he inhabits. The premise is fine, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that there's a really interesting re-telling of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein going on in this comic. What I don't get is how this character has managed to be one of the most recognizable, iconic characters that Marvel has ever produced. I just wouldn't have thought that there were that many stories you could tell about this creature.

That, of course, is a supremely arrogant stance to take. A character is a character - it's all up to the writer(s) who handle such a creation what kind of stories can be told. That's why I added the caveat up there about the predominant mode of the Hulk. The mindless, raging beast is just not interesting to me. But then you have someone like Bruce Jones and John Romita Jr come along in the early 2000s, and give us a story about Bruce Banner, instead. And the heroic thing he does is to keep the Hulk in check until the last possible moment, until there are no other solutions that present themselves. In Cold War-speak, Hulk is the nuclear solution that should only be deployed in the direst of circumstances. He's a character who is best utilized, I think, when he's mostly absent from the stories about him.

But if there's one thing I've learned from my seemingly-interminable years at school, it's that we can't think in essentials. Today's comic is a perfect example. The creative team is one of the finest pairings of the 1970s, with Len Wein scripting and Jim Starlin plotting and penciling. It doesn't get a whole lot better for teams from this era. Starlin's pencils and layouts are, unsurprisingly, amazing. Not to take anything away from Ernie Chan's excellent cover, but look at this first shot of the Hulk from page 1:

There's a reason Starlin is lauded for his work. I'm trying to imagine this page without all of the caption boxes and indicia, as simply a portrait of slavering human rage, framed by blue sky and desert. But the beautiful pencils are not all. As I noted in an earlier post on a Superman comic from this era, there' some oddly gothic storytelling going on in superhero comics at the time. Wein has a pedigree for this kind of storytelling, of course, with his earlier Swamp Thing tales, but even here, in a different fictional universe, and 5 years later, he's telling tales of cannibalism, degenerate lineages, and the confusion of the protagonists who find themselves pulled into these bizarre family dramas. Much as Lovecraft uses these ideas to present his cosmic notions, Wein and Starlin here show us that, even in a universe with unstable molecule costumes and purple pants that never split at the crotch, there are strange, tragic, disturbing stories that can only be glimpsed in the half-light of a dank cave, human bones littering the floor, two adorable children innocently accepting the macabre scene. Why does the gothic lend itself to the superheroic...or more properly, to this era of the superheroic? Is the Silver Age of comics a degenerate ancestor of the Golden Age? Probably a question for another time.

A high rating for this one. As I say, I'm not a huge fan of the Hulk, but Wein and Starlin tell an interesting and thought-provoking tale here.

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