By Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, John Romita, Bill Everett, Gil Kane, Bob Powell & various (Marvel)
Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Epic Evergreen Entertainment… 9/10
Bruce Banner was a military scientist who was caught in a gamma bomb blast. As a result of ongoing mutation, stress and other factors can cause him to transform into a giant green monster of unstoppable strength and fury.
After an initially troubled few years the gamma-irradiated gargantuan finally found his size 700 feet and a format that worked, becoming one of young Marvel’s most popular features. After his first solo-title folded, The Hulk shambled around the slowly-coalescing Marvel Universe as guest star and/or villain du jour until a new home was found for him and this second trade paperback (or eBook) volume covers his first few years as co-star of Tales to Astonish; specifically issues #59-79, spanning September 1964 to May 1966.
Way back then, the trigger for the Hulk’s second chance was a reprinting of his origin in the giant collection Marvel Tales Annual #1 (the beginning of the company’s inspired policy of keeping early tales in circulation and which did so much to make fervent fans out of casual latecomers). Thanks to reader response, Greenskin was awarded a back-up strip in a failing title…
Giant-Man was the star turn in Tales to Astonish, but by mid-1964 the strip was visibly floundering. In issue #59 – and kicking off the all-out action here with absolutely no preamble – the Master of Many Sizes is tricked by old foe the Human Top into battling the still-at-large man-monster in ‘Enter: The Hulk’.
Crafted by Stan Lee, Dick Ayers & Paul Reinman the clash is little more than a colossal punch-up, setting the scene for the next issue wherein the Green Goliath’s own feature began.
Following a full-page house ad for the debuting solo feature,‘The Incredible Hulk’ (TtA #60, October 1964)) opens with Bruce Banner still working for General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, despite the military martinet’s deep disgust and distrust of the puny milksop who had won his daughter’s heart. Banner is still aloof and standoffish, keeping secret his astounding condition: an affliction which subjects him to uncontrollable transformations into a rampaging, if well-intentioned, engine of destruction.
The 10-page instalments were uncharacteristically set in the Arizona/New Mexico deserts, not New York, and espionage and military themes were the narrative backdrop of these adventures.
Lee scripted, Ditko drew and comics veteran George Roussos – under the pseudonym George Bell – provided the ink art. The first tale details how an anonymous spy steals an unstoppable suit of robotic armour built by the radiation-obsessed Banner, which concludes with a shattering battle in the next episode ‘Captured at Last!’
Cliffhanger endings such as the exhausted Hulk’s imprisonment by Ross’s military units at the end of the yarn would be instrumental in keeping readers onboard and enthralled. The next chapter ‘Enter… the Chameleon’ has plenty of action and suspense as the spy infiltrates Ross’ command, but the real stinger is the final panel that hints at the mastermind behind all the spying and skulduggery – the enigmatic Leader – who would become the Hulk’s ultimate and antithetical nemesis.
The minor Spider-Man villain works well as a returning foe, his disguise abilities an obvious threat in a series based on a weapons scientist working for the US military during the Cold War. Even the Leader himself has dubious connections to the sinister Soviets – when he wasn’t trying to conquer the world for himself.
Preceded by a titanic Jack Kirby Marvel Masterwork Pin-up of the Green Goliath, ‘A Titan Rides the Train!’ (Astonish #63, January 1965) provides an origin for the super-intellectual menace whilst setting up a fresh subplot wherein new cast addition Major Glen Talbot begins to suspect Banner of being a traitor. The action comes when the Leader tries to steal Banner’s new anti-H-bomb device from a moving train….
The next episode ‘The Horde of Humanoids!’ features the return of guilt-stricken sidekick Rick Jones who uses his Avengers connections to obtain a pardon for the incarcerated Banner just by letting the American President in on the secret of the Hulk! Ah, simpler times!
Free again, Banner joins Talbot on a remote island to test his hotly sought-after atomic device only to be attacked by the Leader’s artificial warriors – providing a fine example of Ditko’s unique manner of staging a super-tussle.
The battle continues into the next issue when Ayers assumes the inks and Banner is taken prisoner by those darn Commies. ‘On the Rampage against the Reds!’ sees the Hulk go wild behind the Iron Curtain: a satisfyingly gratuitous crusade that spans #66 – ‘The Power of Doctor Banner’ inked by Vince Colletta – and ‘Where Strides the Behemoth’ (#67, and inked by Frank Giacoia).
His Commie-Busting fury finally expended the Hulk reverts to human form and is captured by Mongolian bandits who see a chance to make lots of ransom money…
Jack Kirby returned as illustrator – supplemented by Mike (“Mickey Demeo”) Esposito – in Tales to Astonish #68. ‘Back from the Dead!’ sees plucky Glen Talbot help extricate the tragic scientist – although he loses him again on the way back to America. Even so, Banner falls again into military custody and is ordered to activate his Atomic Absorbatron for one last test.
Yet again the process is interrupted by the Leader’s attacking Humanoids, but this time the Veridian Villain succeeds and the Hulk is ‘Trapped in the Lair of the Leader!’ …but only until the US Army bursts in…
Issue #70 saw Giant-Man replaced by the Sub-Mariner, making Tales to Astonish a title typified by aggressive, savage anti-heroes. Increasingly the Hulk stories reflected this shift, and ‘To Live Again!’ sees the furious Leader launch a 500-foot tall Humanoid against the local US missile base, with the Jade Giant caught in the middle.
Kirby reduced his input to layouts and Esposito handles the lion’s share of the art with #71’s ‘Like a Beast at Bay’: a minor turning point with the Hulk actually joining forces with the Leader. Next episode ‘Within the Monster Dwells a Man!’ then has Major Talbot getting ever-closer to uncovering Banner’s dark secret.
‘Another World, Another Foe!’ (with the great Bob Powell pencilling over Kirby’s layouts) details how the Leader dispatches Hulk to The Watcher’s homeworld to steal an ultimate weapon, just as an “unbeatable” intergalactic rival arrives. ‘The Wisdom of the Watcher’ resorts to all-out, brutal action with a shocking climax, and is followed by TtA #75’s return to Earth and to basics as the rampaging Hulk falls victims to one of Banner’s most bizarre atomic devices…
‘Not all my Power Can Save Me!’ sees the man-monster helplessly hurled into a devastated dystopian future, and in ‘I, ‘Against a World!’ (featuring pencils by Gil Kane moonlighting as “Scott Edward”) the devastation is compounded by a fierce duel with the time-lost Asgardian immortal The Executioner.
A true milestone occurred in Tales to Astonish #77 when the tragic physicist’s dread secret is finally exposed. Magnificently illustrated by John Romita (the elder, and still over Kirby layouts) ‘Bruce Banner is the Hulk!’ concluded the time-travel tale and revealed the tragic horror of the scientist’s condition to the military and the general public.
It didn’t make him any less hunted or haunted, but at least now the soldiery were in an emotional tizzy when they tried to destroy him.
With #78, Bill Everett began a short but lovely run as art-man (Kirby remaining on layouts throughout). To his very swift and last regrets, megalomaniacal scientist Dr. Zaxon tries to steal and tap the Gamma Monsters’s bio-energy in ‘The Hulk Must Die!’ and before his body is even cold, follow-up ‘The Titan and the Torment!’ conclude proceedings here with a bombastic battle against recently Earth-exiled Olympian man-god Hercules.
Although some of these adventures might seem a bit hit-and-miss, with visceral suspenseful thrillers and plain dumb nonsense running together, the enthusiasm and sheer quality of the artistic endeavour should go a long way to mitigating most of the downside. These tales are key to the later, more cohesive, adventures, and even at their worst – or most anonymised – the magic of Kirby, Ditko, Everett, Kane, Powell and the rest in full butt-kicking, “breaking-stuff” mode is an unadorned thrill to delight the destructive 8-year-old in everyone.
© 1964, 1965, 1966, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.