02 October 2009

Flashmob Fridays #002: Incredible Hulk Annual #13

This week, the internet's premier Hulk aficionado Mick Martin called us all at the last minute and told us to weigh in on Incredible Hulk Annual #13, and here we go!

Mick Martin

Incredible Hulk Annual #13, or "Friends," is part of what Hulk fans have come to call the Crossroads Saga. In what was the first of a long series of Hulk personality juggling, Bill Mantlo gave Bruce Banner the ability to change back and forth between himself and the Hulk at will, only to take it away later via the machinations of Doctor Strange's enemy, Nightmare. The battle with Nightmare rendered the Hulk an almost completely mindless brute, even more destructive than before, leaving Doctor Strange with the sad duty of exiling the Hulk to a crossroads with seemingly endless pathways leading to different worlds. The one thing each world shared in common was that their inhabitants were as powerful as, or more powerful than, the Hulk. The Hulk stayed in the Crossroads for nearly a year -- from Incredible Hulk #301 to #313 -- until Alpha Flight unwittingly fished him out, at which point the creative teams of Hulk and Alpha Flight switched chairs.

"Friends" is a fairly typical example of the stories Mantlo produced during the Crossroads era. Usually the Hulk would go to a world and find a damsel in distress or a new friend, and the story tended to end in death, betrayal, or both. I read this comic, along with the rest of the Crossroads Saga, as a child and by that point they were just about the most depressing stories I'd ever come across. By the time he emerged from the Crossroads to a bunch of very surprised (and soon very bruised) Canadians, it felt like finally getting home after the longest, crappiest work day of your life.

Compared to today's comics, "Friends" can feel pretty cheesy. With a Hulk who is -- for most of the story -- unable to even speak in his classic, monosyllabic, third-person caveman-tongue, the bulk of "Friends" reads like a strange nature program. The Hulk scrounges for food on a strange, alien planet while Mantlo narrates like Wild Kingdom's Marlin Perkins stranded on the Klingon homeworld. The narration is melodramatic, and sometimes awkwardly goofy. While it's clear we are meant to take the Hulk's plight seriously, it's difficult when Mantlo gets uncharacteristically silly with lines like "Amidst much guttural growling, the green goliath gorges."

The planet of "Friends" has only toxic food, and we soon learn the only way the Hulk can ingest the food is by being physically connected with the symbiote he calls "Sym." Sym, basically a crawling spine with fangs, attaches itself to the back of Hulk's neck after the Hulk angrily kills its original host. At first, the Hulk thrashes and fights to free himself from Sym. After learning he can finally eat the planet's food with Sym's fangs stuck in his neck, the Hulk accepts the creature's presence. For a while the two enjoy a tranquil life. The Hulk keeps healthy on the planet's food, Sym marvels at the feats the Hulk is capable of, and the two become friends. Unfortunately, when Sym's people learns he has merged with an alien, they demand he leave the Hulk. Sym refuses and the Hulk brings him to the top of the planet's tallest mountain where Sym can be the first of his people to see the stars. While the Hulk sleeps, Sym detaches himself from the Hulk, knowing if he doesn't that the Hulk will die. Distraught by Sym's death, the Hulk returns to the Crossroads.

In many ways, the story is unremarkable. Upon rereading it for this review, though, I realized that, if looked at in the right light, the story of Incredible Hulk Annual #13 could be seen as a highly compressed version of the character's entire history up to that point. As I wrote earlier, "Friends" is typical of the Crossroads stories. In each, the Hulk tends to find a friend who is either dead or an enemy by the end of the story. Where "Friends" differs is that the friend Hulk finds is a symbiote -- a creature who is literally, physically one with Hulk for most of the tale. And the idea of a symbiotic relationship is nothing new to the Hulk. He'd had one with Bruce Banner for years. Like on Earth, when the weaker half's people learned of what had become of him, Sym's race hounded them. Just as the Hulk had, for a time, found peace and unity with Banner, he ultimately accepted the presence of Sym. Eventually, Sym dies and leaves the Hulk alone, just as Banner "died" (the same way all comic book characters die). In fact, while Sym is still attached to Hulk, the green goliath regains his limited "Hulk like SYM!" speech, which he lost after Banner's "death" and loses again after the death of Sym.

The Crossroads stories perplex me and "Friends" is no different. Incredible Hulk Annual #13 is not a story I would automatically think to pluck out and read. In many ways, Mantlo's Crossroad stories are simply not good. But they stay wedged in my mind and I can't help but think there was something desperately important he was trying to say with them.

Alan David Doane

Gerry Talaoc was one hell of an inker, to be able to bring the sort of life to Alan Kupperberg's pencils that he did here. The book is absolutely average for the period in terms of both story and art, but I remember disliking virtually everything Kupperberg ever drew, so the fact that this book looks as atmospheric and professional as it does is a minor miracle, and one I attribute to Talaoc's gifts.

Bill Mantlo wrote a lot of Hulk comics in the 1970s, and I'm sure I read most of them, but nothing really resonates with me in this story, or in trying to evoke my own memories of reading Hulk comics when I was a pre-teen or into my early teens. It lacks the energy and punch Sal Buscema brought to the book during the time I was reading it and liked it (around age 9), not that Buscema's art ever rose much above the level of simple, effective storytelling.

I will say there's a damn lot of words in this issue, most of which I couldn't bring myself to bother to read after the first handful of pages, but that the tone of struggle and loneliness and making a connection with another soul probably would have moved me when I was 8 or 9 years old. It's too bad Marvel can't be bothered to create these sort of entry-level melodramas for young readers today, churning out instead the simplified "Adventures"-style of storytelling that DC has always been better at (in print and on TV), or the faux-mature stylings of Bendis and his colleagues. That this sort of comic isn't attempted -- or probably even possible -- anymore, is probably a major reason why kids aren't attracted to Marvel (or DC) comics in the 21st century.

Johnny Bacardi

Sometimes, one's opinion of any sort of creative endeavor, be it music, film, or even a comic book story can be influenced or informed by nostalgia or one's own experiences at the time of initial exposure; as a case in point, I offer my own example: the mix of the music on the second album by the Electric Light Orchestra, new to me at the time and which I listened to as I first read DC's 1970's Shadow #2 (also, a very early exposure to the art of Mike Kaluta as well) at age 13 have combined to form an unbreakable bond in the murky recesses of what passes for my mind. I'm sure everyone has similar experiences.

This phenomenon was what went through my mind when we were given this week's Flashmob Friday "assignment" of commentary on 1984's Incredible Hulk Annual #13, which came out at a time during which I had pretty much given up on buying Marvel Comics, which had become Shooterized (analogous to Pasteurized) to the point of bland homogeny, the occasional Miller Daredevil, Simonson Thor or Byrne Fantastic Four notwithstanding. I also have never really been much of a Hulk reader, either; I read a few issues here and there as a preteen, and didn't mind seeing him pop up in other comics that I read, but as the '70s wore on the book seemed to devolve into five hundred consecutive issues in which he's constantly hunted and hounded and fighting the super villain of the month and being called "Jade-Jaws", many written by Len Wein, who had just a couple of years before thrilled me with his Swamp Thing, Phantom Stranger and Justice League efforts at DC but had somehow been reduced to another imitation Roy Thomas Marvel hack after crossing the street; and each and every one drawn by consummate pro Sal Buscema, featuring the Hulk with a gaping mouth equal to the length of his head. I wanted none of it, and I never saw anything as the '80s came on that changed my opinion, so it's no wonder that I was completely unfamiliar with this particular issue, and was a bit surprised to see it offered up for our examination.

Oddly enough for an annual, it seems to take place in between issues of the regular title; intended as a supplement I suppose. Apparently the Hulk has completely eliminated all traces of Bruce Banner from his psyche and has been sent "elsewhere" by Dr. Strange (hey, they kinda did the same thing in World War Hulk! Oh the relevance to current events!), to a Ditkoesque (or actually, an approximation of Jim Starlin's version of a Ditko-like otherdimensional realm, but more on that later) realm where he can follow each path to a different destination, ostensibly to find one in which he can find "happiness," just as long as it's not on our Earth apparently. Doc Strange has woven a mighty spell, as it also allows for a failsafe in that if Hulky is unhappy in whatever world he lands in, it will automatically send him back to Ditkoland, presumably for another chance. He's not alone in Ditkoland, either; there are some mysterious floating glowy puffballs that are also striving to make Hulky happy in between travels, guess they're kinda like Motel 6 mysterious floating glowy puffballs. Anyway, after landing in a world full of acidic rain and dinosaurs that he can't beat up, he ends up going to another realm in which all the food is poisonous, but the animal life survives thanks to chalky white wormish parasites, that look like big spinal cords and enable their hosts to eat and survive in exchange for mobility. Of course, one latches on to the Hulk, and they eventually get to know each other and strike up a friendship of convenience. Wormy longs to see the sky and stars, and Hulk is all too happy to help him in this goal, although the results end up tragic, as you knew they would. Then, an abrupt and somewhat downbeat ending, which curiously reminded me of the old children's book Goodnight Moon.

Now what exactly writer Bill Mantlo was striving for here is unclear (to me, anyway)...is he trying to set Wormy up as some sort of muse figure, or perhaps imagination/inspiration, enabling the Hulk to survive in this hostile environment? He's not particularly written as inspiring, nor does he really inspire much sympathy. Perhaps Wormy is intended to represent something more mundane, like a brawn needs brains to be able to glimpse the stars sort of thing. Perhaps it's something that's obvious to everyone but me, who knows. Mantlo's prose is excessively melodramatic, as so many Marvel writers (and to be fair, more than a few DC scribes as well) tended to be back then -- we're a million miles away from the terse dialogue and caption style of your Moores and Ellises. It progresses decently enough, and kept me reading until the end in order to find out what was going to happen, but the payoff wasn't especially memorable to me. Artwise, it was drawn by Alan Kupperberg, who labored anonymously for Marvel during the Shooter regime to little lasting effect; if he had a recognizable style, he used it on his own work because it sure didn't look anything but generic on the few Marvel books I saw with his work. On this issue, he apes Jim Starlin in very convincing fashion; in fact, before I checked the credits I thought it WAS Starlin. So nicely done on that front, Mr. K! Inks were provided by my old pal Gerry Talaoc, whom I always considered an above-average part of the whole Filipino/South American artist movement of the '70s on DC books like Star-Spangled War Stories featuring The Unknown Soldier and Phantom Stranger. Here, he's pretty much subsuming his style to help further Kupperberg's Starlin illusion; I think he succeeds, for what that's worth.

All of which brings me back to my opening paragraph, and our individual, subjective impressions regarding the stuff we put in our heads. I have a feeling that this comic must be one which carried a special meaning or fond memory for the person who suggested it, one which I'll never be able to completely experience for myself. To me, this is just another anonymous, bland mid-'80s Marvel Comic Book, the likes of which left me unwilling to buy any but a handful of fringe Marvel titles for almost two decades until just recently. I don't get the importance. To others, those who also tend to revere the likes of Squadron Supreme and Englehart's Captain America run, this is good comics. Who's to say who's right and who's wrong...I'll leave that up to you, dear reader.

Marc Sobel

1. Well, damn, that was pretty weird!

2. Bill Mantlo basically wrote a love story between the Hulk and a disembodied spinal cord.

3. This comic peddles weirdness for weirdness's sake. I'll give Mantlo credit for breaking out of the villain-of-the-month formula, but the push to concoct outrageous Ditko-like mindscapes for the Hulk to wander through comes with only the thinnest pretense of a plot. Perhaps if read as a chapter within the broader context of the Hulk universe of the early '80s, maybe this issue might have made more sense, but read as a stand-alone, it's a bit of a head-scratcher. Where is the Hulk and why has he been banished by Doctor Strange? What happened to his human side? Why can't he utter a grammatically correct sentence? None of these questions are addressed.

4. Also, whereas Ditko's early Doctor Strange tales felt bold and original, these surreal images, particularly in the first half of the book, feel derivative and labored. The craftsmanship of Alan Kupperberg (with Gerry Talaoc on inks) is indisputable, these guys can certainly draw, but the images feel like tired retreads of earlier visionaries.

5. I will say this, though. There are at least three or four really nice splash pages, especially the double-page spread on the title page with the Hulk pinned under the foot of a huge alien dinosaur.

6. Bill Mantlo's narration quickly becomes tedious, merely describing what is visually depicted. Like a lot of Stan Lee's early Marvel stories, after a while you realize you can just skip over or skim most of it, focusing instead on the images.

7. Is there some kind of contractual requirement that all Hulk writers must use the phrase "Hulk is the strongest one there is" in every story? Same as "with great power..." for Spider-Man? Maybe it wasn't such a cliché back in 1984, but I kind of doubt it.

8. When I reached the climactic final scene, in which the Hulk had ascended the mountain with his spiny new friend so the two could gaze upon the heavens together like young lovers, all I could think about was..."Look at the stars, look how they shine for you, and all the things you do, and they were all yellow..." Maybe Chris Martin was a Hulk fan as a kid?

9. I think the real flaw in this story is that the raging Hulk is just a wholly uninteresting character. What I always loved about the Hulk when Peter David was writing it, and even in the old TV show, was Bruce Banner's struggle to be human and tame the beast within. That's what made the character interesting. Without his human side, the Hulk is one-dimensional, idiotic and frankly, irritating. Who would want to spend time watching this mindless brute stagger around searching for food, no matter how surreal and visually spectacular the locale?

10. The other thing that made David's run on the Hulk so memorable was the great supporting cast. In fact, most great superhero books have a diverse and interesting cast of supporting characters surrounding the lead. This solo Hulk story could benefited from a little Rick Jones humor, Doc Samson psychobabble, Betty Ross anguish, etc.

Matt Springer

"The Hulk ignores the puffball collective."

If that isn't the greatest line I've ever read in a comic book, it's damn close to it. That's a Bill Mantlo original, from Incredible Hulk Annual #13, circa 1984. When Mick volunteered to provide the pick for this week's Flashmob Friday, I encouraged him to "make it weird." He delivered, in spades.

Sometimes I get to thinking about the enormity that is the collected output of the comic book industry over the past seventy-odd years. So very many titles, running for so very many months, each one bringing a new round of issues with stories upon stories upon stories. So, so many plots, characters; villains and schemes; days saved and worlds that were never the same.

And we all know much of it, maybe most of it, is low-grade superhero pablum. That's good stuff, strong stuff, and it satisfies. It scratches an itch.

But we also know that as the writers and artists toiled to churn out all this material over decades spent at typewriters and drawing tables, the urge to flip the script must have occasionally loomed large. Instead of plugging new variables into tried and true superhero comic formulas, there must have been an almost physical need to occasionally create a story that practically defies description.

Incredible Hulk Annual #13 is such a story. I don't mean to overinflate its importance, or even its quality; it's a clever, creative science fiction parable with the Hulk as its protagonist. It's told mostly in narration, with only a handful of characters, and one of them an ignorant brute. It's got a puffball collective and snakes like spines that attach to symbiotes and yearn to see the stars.

Mantlo takes full advantage of the Hulk, who is particularly suited to this type of story -- remove him from the boundaries of the Marvel universe, and he's practically a blank slate onto which you can place any story you want. His fundamental desire for understanding, coupled with a continued inability to supress his rage, means that the ending of these stories may always be the same, even when the journey is new. He can never find true happiness or contentment, and it's the world's fault, and it's his fault too. This story riffs on that theme, in ways both ambitious and mundane; it's set in a pretty whacked-out fantasyscape, but at its heart it's a simple sci-fi story with the Hulk as its star. You could imagine a similar tale minus the Hulk in Weird Tales or Amazing Stories magazine.

Yet here it is, totally native to its chosen form, words and pictures and a pissed-off green guy in torn purple pants, exactly what you want, nothing you expect. Again, not overstating it (I hope), but seriously -- this book is a good single-issue argument for the oddity, the wonder, the idiocy and the greatness of the 20th Century American Superhero Comic Book. Nice choice, Mick.

Christopher Allen

Away, all this asinine alliteration. Mantlo makes a morass of the mother tongue! Actually, while it probably would have been better as a single issue instead of an annual, this isn't too bad. The Kupperberg/Talaoc team present a pretty good Hulk, along with the alien creatures. The Crossroads was a good idea, as it opened things up for almost any kind of Hulk story, although I think a lot of them mainly just gave Hulk a reason to fight aliens. The Symbiont story here led me to believe it would resolve itself with Hulk figuring out how to beat the symbiont and get him off his back, so to speak, so kudos to Mantlo for trying something a little more ambitious. It's overwrought and overwritten, but it has some charm. I may not ever read this story again, but I fear The Puffball Collective is now stuck in my brain forever.

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