By May, 1969, I’d been reading Marvel comics regularly for about a year and a half, and had sampled at least one issue of most of their superhero-fronted titles — most, but not quite all. This month, I finally got around to checking out The Incredible Hulk.
At this time, my knowledge of the Hulk was pretty much limited to what I’d been able to glean from his guest appearances in comics I had read, the most substantial of which had been in Avengers Annual #2 (Sept.,1968) and Captain America #110 (Feb., 1969). From those, I’d learned at least some of the basics regarding the character — I knew, for instance, that the Hulk was the super-strong alter ego of Dr. Bruce Banner, an otherwise “ordinary” human being. I even knew a bit about his past history with a teenager named Rick Jones. But I also knew that he was belligerent, dangerously uncontrollable, and — at least sometimes (especially as depicted by artist Jim Steranko in CA #110) — rather frightening. Based on what I’d seen so far, I didn’t quite understand what made the Hulk a superhero.
But Marvel certainly seemed to be positioning him as a superhero, as best as I could tell; and I liked Marvel superhero comics. Thus, it was inevitable that I’d give the Hulk’s series a shot sooner and later; and when Hulk #118 came along, it probably seemed like an ideal opportunity to take the plunge, if only because the issue guest-starred the one other Marvel heroic headliner whose title I still hadn’t sampled: Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner.
I probably knew somewhat less about the Sub-Mariner than I did the Hulk, having seen him in fewer, shorter guest appearances, such as his one panel cameo in the aforementioned Avengers Annual #2 — unless, that is, I’d already read Marvel Collectors’ Item Classics #19, published in November, 1968, which reprinted Subby’s battle against the Fantastic Four from issue #27 of that team’s series. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, however, though I know that I owned a copy of that book fairly early in my Marvel-reading career, I’m not completely sure I bought it new off the stands. Still — even if I hadn’t read a full-length Sub-Mariner tale yet, I had a pretty good idea that this seeming Marvel analogue of DC’s Aquaman was, like the Hulk, on the less prosocial end of the superhuman scale, and that his standing as a superhero — at least as I understood the term in 1969 — was a little dubious.
Of course, I mustn’t neglect to mention the one other exposure I’d had to both the Hulk and Sub-Mariner — in the same story, together, even! (Well, sort of, anyway.) That had come by way of my one and only issue of Marvel’s humor title Not Brand Echh, purchased a year prior to Hulk #118, which had led off with a story featuring “the Inedible Bulk” in battle against “Prince No-More, the Sunk-Mariner”. These were parody versions of the characters, for sure; but the 8-page feature, itself a satiric riff on the “real” Hulk and Sub-Mariner’s book-length throwdown in Tales to Astonish #100, wasn’t at all a bad briefer on the two combatants’ powers, their respective shticks, and even their personalities.
All of which is to say, I suppose, that I didn’t come in on Hulk #118’s opening splash page feeling completely green (if you’ll pardon the expression):
Writer-editor Stan Lee’s caption succinctly lets us know how Bruce Banner came to be floating in the middle of the ocean at the beginning of the current story. It’s all the recap of Hulk #117 that we readers got over the course of this issue, back in 1969 — and I’m afraid it’s also all the recap that you’ll be getting from me over the course of this blog post, as I still to this day haven’t read #117’s “World’s End?” and have no idea what happens in it. (I know, I know… I do own the relevant Marvel Masterworks volume, though, and I’m sure I’ll get around to reading the whole thing through one of these days.) But since the story at hand makes no further reference to its events, I figure we’ll all be OK.
This story was my introduction to the work of artist Herb Trimpe, a relatively new addition to the Marvel Bullpen. Trimpe had joined Marvel’s production staff in early 1967 or thereabouts, and had been the regular artist on Hulk since #106 (Aug., 1968), initially pencilling over rough layouts by his predecessor on the strip, Marie Severin. (Issue #118 was the second for which he’d done the entire art job, contributing inks as well as full pencils.) He’d ultimately go on to have an extensive, nearly-unbroken seven-year run on the series, becoming the definitive Hulk artist for a generation of fans.
In his 2008 introduction to Marvel Masterworks – The Incredible Hulk, Vol. 5, a collection of his first Hulk stories (including the one currently under discussion), Trimpe looked back on this early work rather ruefully, expressing the wish that he could somehow go back and redraw these issues. He also noted certain artistic influences, Jim Steranko’s Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. among them — and to my eye, the second tier of panels on page 2 of this issue, depicting Lady Dorma’s arrival and rescue of Bruce Banner in a series of quick “cuts”, definitely bears Steranko’s stamp. Another influence was John Severin; in the artist’s words, in both #117 and #118 he employed a “scratchy pen technique trying to emulate John Severin’s style”. The results were very appealing (to me, at least); and though Trimpe moved away from this approach as early as the next issue, in favor of emulating the rendering of yet another EC Comics alumnus (namely Jack Davis), I can’t help but kind of wish he’d kept up with it.
Lady Dorma was, of course, a well-established character in the Sub-Mariner’s mythos — in fact, her debut was more-or-less concurrent with Namor’s own, as both Bill Everett-created characters made their first published appearances in Marvel Comics #1 (Oct., 1939).* In 1969, however, my eleven-year-old self was unaware of Dorma’s distinguished provenance; and so, for all I knew at the time, Mistress Fara was an equally well-established member of the Sub-Mariner’s supporting cast. She was not, of course; this was, in fact, her first (and only) appearance, and as we’ll soon see, in the story she serves the single, plot-necessitated purpose of setting the stage for the Hulk and his regal guest star to come to blows. Her role here can thus be considered analogous to that which Loki plays in the then-recent Silver Surfer #4 (also written by Stan Lee), where the God of Mischief contrives a rationale for the Surfer to attack Loki’s step-brother Thor. As will soon become evident, however, Jade-Jaws and Fish-Face both need considerably less prodding before resorting to violent action than did either of the noble worthies in that earlier story.
Namor’s vizier, Lord Vashti, was, like Dorma, a longtime member of Namor’s supporting cast, although he’d been around a considerably shorter period of time (only since 1965, when he debuted in Tales to Astonish #71). In May, 1969, I would have seen him, not unreasonably, as the Marvel counterpart to Dr. Vulko, Aquaman’s venerable adviser over at DC (though Vashti had preceded Vulko, just as Prince Namor had of course preceded King Arthur Curry).
Lord Vashti tries once more to calm his liege, but to little avail; and so, Namor rages off to Lady Dorma’s domicile, while Mistress Fara follows behind at a leisurely pace, delighted with how well her wicked plan is already working.
Can you guess what’s going to happen on the very next page, dear readers? Yeah, I thought you could.
As noted earlier — once the Hulk and Namor are brought together, no further instigation to violence is really required.
The Hulk’s clap brings down the house (literally) — right on top of the Hulk, the Sub-Mariner, and the Lady Dorma:
Namor hoists up a huge chunk of wall, and prepares to wallop the Hulk with it:
“With each passing second, the very air is drawn from your lungs — until, at last, you breathe no longer!” Namor gloats. Um, isn’t the Hulk already supposed to be breathing water, rather than air, thanks to Lady Dorma’s pill? Oh, well, never mind.
It’s not clear whether Mistress Fara has been on the scene long enough to realize that her original ploy to make Namor believe Dorma has committed treason has failed; but it hardly matters, because she’s got a deadly follow-up action already primed and ready to go:
Back in May, 1969, I don’t think that my eleven-year-old self found Fara’s death particularly shocking. Moreover, I probably considered it to be 1) an accident, and 2) the character’s just deserts for attempting to kill Dorma. A half-century later, however, it’s hard not to consider it in the context of the seemingly eternal question of whether or not the Hulk has ever killed anyone, intentionally or not (a question, incidentally, that’s obviously quite relevant to the broader issue I touched on early in this post, regarding whether or not the Hulk can or should be considered a “superhero”). Such debates often revolve around the question of the probability of ol’ Greenskin being able to hurl around armored tanks, punch through skyscrapers, etc., without there being at least a few fatalities. Here, though, it’s pretty obvious that the Hulk’s action of punching Namor into a stone wall than then falls upon Mistress Fara is the direct cause of the latter’s death. No, it wasn’t intentional, and one could argue that the Hulk’s co-combatant, Namor, should also share in the blame, but I don’t think there’s any way the Hulk escapes having some culpability for Fara’s violent demise.
Here we have still more destruction and damage resulting from our two super-powered antagonists’ conflict, but now wrought on a much grander scale. Does anyone below, on, or beyond the waves actually die? Lee and Trimpe neither show nor tell us, one way or the other — so we can’t ever really know. It’s “Choose Your Own Casualty Rate” time, I suppose.
And that, as we say, is that. The Sub-Mariner swims off into the sunset, while an unconscious Bruce Banner lies in a thicket on some unknown seashore. If Lee had tossed in a caption at the beginning of the next issue suggesting that Banner, left floating in the ocean at the end of #112, had somehow washed up on said seashore, readers would have been none the wiser, and #113 might just as well not have happened. “A Clash of Titans” is, in the end, an entirely inconsequential done-in-one story.
Which is probably one reason I didn’t pick up the next issue — or, indeed, any other issue of Hulk for the next couple of years. There weren’t any loose ends left to tie up — nothing to hook me into wanting to see what would happen next.** Nothing, that is, save the appeal of the lead character himself — and there, the Incredible Hulk/Bruce Banner didn’t quite seal the deal for the younger me. That question that I mentioned near the beginning of this post — what makes the Hulk a superhero? — had not yet been answered to my satisfaction by the time I finished Hulk #118.
As far as I could see, the closest thing that the Hulk had to a heroic motivation was the sentiment he expressed on page 10: “I only fight those who attack me — those who are my enemies!” Understandable enough, and probably the best one could expect from a character with the Hulk’s apparent level of intelligence — but not exactly inspiring. As for Bruce Banner — well, he was hardly conscious in this issue long enough to make much of an impression, though it was of course easy to sympathize with his plight. Maybe if any of the members of his supporting cast — Betty Ross, or her dad, “Thunderbolt”, or Major Glenn Talbot — had shown up in this story, I’d have become more interested in Bruce. But then again — maybe not.
Over the years, and even the decades, my impression of the Hulk wouldn’t change all that much. The particular iteration of the character that was extant in 1969, and which largely remained the status quo for most of the next decade — the “Hulk smash!” version — always seemed too limited to me to ever rouse much enthusiasm for following his solo adventures; though I enjoyed him very much in the Defenders, where he had other characters to play off of, and where he was also frequently played for laughs. (The fact that his “non-teammates” in that series were generally able to keep him from going on the destructive rampages likely to lead to such “collateral damage” as the death of Mistress Fara was doubtless also a plus.) Afterwards, as writers like Peter David developed the idea that “Hulk smash” was only one of Bruce/Hulk’s multiple personalities, the character became more interesting to me; but even then, and indeed on up to the present day, I’ve tended to check in with the big guy only at times when Marvel’s creators have managed to find a way to make him work as a for-real straight-up superhero, or when — as in writer Al Ewing’s superlative current run on The Immortal Hulk, which embraces the “monster” aspect of the character to horrific effect — they’ve utilized the Hulk to explore themes which make the question of his “heroism” all but irrelevant.
As for Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner — well, he didn’t quite clinch the sale via his guest-shot in Hulk #118, either. I thought he was interesting, but at this point I still found his analogue over at the Distinguished Competition more to my tastes (especially in this era, when Aquaman’s adventures were being chronicled by Steve Skeates and Jim Aparo. Maybe DC’s King of the Seven Seas wasn’t as strong as Namor, but he was definitely more congenial — less imperious, if you will — and hey, he could talk to fish!
Nevertheless, I did eventually give the Sub-Mariner’s own title a shot — though not for another few months, and not until he was going up against my single favorite Marvel super-villain. But to learn more about how that tryout fared, you’ll have to check back here in September. I hope I’ll see you then.
*As is evident in the panel from Marvel Comics #1 shown above, Dorma was originally identified as Namor’s cousin, though this aspect of their relationship was generally ignored by Lee and other writers following Subby’s Silver Age revival. Presumably the two were distant relations; but as I’m not exactly what you’d call an expert on Atlantean social mores, you’d best not take my word for it.