Editor and writer: Stan Lee Art: Jack Kirby (pencils), George Bell (inks)
My original title for this Deck Log entry was “The Battles of the Century”. I had intended to cover the notable clashes of the Silver Age. First on my list of one-on-one battles to review was the epic contest between the Thing and the Hulk, one which stretched across two issues and climaxed with the Emerald Behemoth squaring off against the combined might of the Fantastic Four and the Avengers.
But when I dug out my copies of Fantastic Four # 25 and 26 and re-read that classic combo, for the first time in some thirty-five years, it rapidly became clear that this was a tale that deserved a column of its own, as a true gem, indeed. Perhaps not as forgotten as some of the other stories I’ve discussed under this heading, but it most definitely should be taken out of storage and dusted off.
Fighting is the crux of all comic-book stories. Hero against villain. Americans against the Nazis. Earthlings versus aliens. You can dress the plots up with elabourate twists or sharp characterisation, but it still boils down to a fight. The fans know this. Take a look at any comics-related forum and see how many threads there are marked “__________ vs. __________”. Perhaps the purest comic-book story consists of a single brawl between two super-powered heavyweights. For fans of this kind of story, you won’t find any tale better done than “The Hulk Vs. the Thing”.
Ben Grimm tangled with the Hulk many times over the years, both before and after, but none of those stories came close to the gripping, edge-of-your-seat drama of Fantastic Four # 25-6.
The nuts and bolts of the tale are simple enough to describe. It opens with a short scene at the FF’s headquarters in the Baxter Building, as the Thing rejects an attempt by Reed Richards to return him to his human form. It’s a quick bit to establish the fact that the Thing is afraid that Alicia Masters will lose her love for him if he is plain Ben Grimm. Primarily though, it sets up the transition to the events which will eventually land the Thing in the fight of his life. In an obvious bit of foreshadowing, the Invisible Girl reads to the others a newspaper account of the Avengers’ battle with the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner (which took place in The Avengers # 3 [Jan., 1964]).
Dissolve to New Mexico, where the Avengers are hot on the trail of the Hulk, following his damage-strewn path. Ol’ Jade-jaws, after a brief reversion to Bruce Banner (mistakenly called “Bob Banner” by Stan throughout), takes refuge in his secret underground lab. At this early stage, he is still the brutish, thug-like Hulk, rather than the simple-minded, childlike-unless-angered version which became the standard. Determined to remain the Hulk permanently, he destroys the intricate gamma-powered equipment with which Banner had been able to change between his two personæ at will.
Seeking to rid himself of every trace of his human alter ego, the Hulk empties the pockets of his trousers. Among the articles, he finds a newspaper clipping announcing that Captain America has taken his place with the Avengers. Noting Rick Jones’s absence, the Hulk concludes that both the boy and the Avengers have deserted him. Enraged at their “betrayal”, the Green Goliath launches himself toward New York, in hundred-mile leaps, to destroy the Avengers.
A day later, at the Baxter Building, the eternally-researching Reed Richards is experimenting with some rare viruses. One “oops” later, he accidentally infects himself with the virulent germs and lapses into a coma. Johnny Storm zooms off in the Fantasti-Car in search of a doctor, just as the Hulk arrives in the Big Apple and starts tearing up everything in sight. Johnny attempts to stop the rampaging monster, but fails, as the Hulk viciously retaliates.
The city is in panic. The police begin an evacuation of Manhattan and news cameras broadcast the Hulk’s battering of the Human Torch. Seeing the Torch’s peril on television, Ben and Sue rush to his aid. Sue’s force field protects Johnny from further injury, but the staggering pressure the Hulk applies to her force field places so much strain on the Invisible Girl that she passes out.
With Reed comatose, Johnny severely injured, Sue unconscious---and apparently every other Marvel hero out of town---it is up to the Thing to stop the raging Hulk.
Like charging bulls, they slam into each other. The Hulk’s juggernaut might pitted against the Thing’s lesser strength, but keener reflexes and agility. At first, their relative strengths and weaknesses balance out, as their battle wages back and forth. Ben’s wisecracks needle the Hulk, making him even angrier, and gradually, the Green Goliath gains the advantage. This is one of the earliest indications---I’m guessing, the first---that the madder the Hulk gets, the stronger he gets. One caption, more or less, makes it clear: “His incredible strength seems to increase during the strain of combat!”
Their mighty clash turns Manhattan into a war zone. Streets are reduced to shattered pavement. Sewer lines are torn loose. A bus is torn in half. The Hulk shakes a tenement off its foundation to get to the Thing. Ben rips out an underground electrical cable to zap the Hulk with a million volts of juice.
Through superior tactics, Ben manages to stave off the more-powerful Hulk. With super-human effort, he ensnares his green-skinned opponent by wrapping him in a suspension cable torn from the George Washington Bridge. Ben’s great strength is rapidly fading, while the enraged Hulk is getting stronger by the minute. With a tremendous flex of his emerald muscles, the Hulk shatters the cable and wades into the Thing with a terrible fury. Ben caves under the withering attack and the Hulk furiously turns to face the terrified citizens of New York.
The Army blasts the Hulk with rifle fire and rockets from hand-held launchers. The enraged man-monster shrugs it off and bears down on the troops. On nothing more than determination, the Thing throws himself into the Hulk before the brutish behemoth can annihilate the soldiers.
“It’s amazing!” cries one G.I. “The Thing must be fighting on sheer courage alone!”
Just when it looks like it is all over for Ben, the rest of the Fantastic Four have recovered enough to come to his aid. Their wobbly efforts manage, barely, to drive the Hulk off.
Cunningly, Ol’ Jade-jaws has ducked into New York’s subway system and makes his way, underground, to the Avengers Mansion. Bursting through the floor of the townhouse, he catches the Avengers and Rick Jones looking. The Hulk focuses his anger on Rick and before the super-heroes can get their act together, he seizes the boy and crashes through a wall.
Both the Avengers and the regrouped Fantastic Four corner the Hulk with his captive. Both groups claim jurisdiction over the threat of the green-skinned brute. But neither team bows out and they wind up inadvertently fouling their respective efforts against the Hulk. Mocking their ineptness, the Hulk leaps to the top of a partially completed skyscraper, with Rick in tow.
The FF and the Avengers come to an understanding and coördinate an attack on the Hulk before he can harm the youngster. Despite the combined efforts of nine super-heroes, the best they can manage against the Hulk is a stalemate.
It’s a gripping climax to a battle lasting forty-some pages---and an odd one, as far as the Fantastic Four is concerned. Once the Hulk makes his last stand atop the skyscraper's skeleton, the F.F. seems to drop off the scope. For the last five pages, the Avengers carry the action.
At last, the Hulk angrily confronts his “replacement”, Captain America. But the agile Cap easily evades being pounded into jelly. Unable to land a single blow on the Star-Spangled Avenger, the Hulk’s frustration mounts. His mood doesn’t get any better when Giant-Man intercedes, alternately rabbit-punching the jade giant, then shrinking out of harm’s way.
The Hulk is totally pissed now, which is never a good thing.
Fortunately, the cavalry has arrived, in the form of the Wasp leading a large column of ants to the fray. In his Ant-Man form, Hank Pym orders the insects to swarm over their foe. While the Hulk is plagued by the stinging ants, Rick Jones thrusts a gamma-ray treated capsule into Ol’ Greenskin’s gaping mouth.
To get the ants off of him, the Hulk dives into the near-by Hudson River. The exhausted super-heroes give up the fight. What they don’t see is the unconscious figure of Bruce Banner floating to the surface and drifting away with the current.
Still, it’s a curious ending, with the stars of the title taking a back seat to the Special Guest Heroes. Especially in light of the build-up of the previous issue and a half, pitting the monstrous Hulk against a desperately outmatched Ben Grimm, while the other FFers, sick and injured, try to get it together.
Instead, it reads like the last few pages of an Avengers tale got tacked on by mistake.
At its forefront, “The Hulk Vs. the Thing” is one long brawl, marked by violence, trickery, grit, and humour. (Think John Wayne and Victor McLaughlin’s donnybrook in The Quiet Man, taken to the super-human degree.) But what’s back of it elevates this tale into a true gem.
One of the aspects rarely seen in a Hulk story is the effects of one of his rampages on the public at large. Outside of including a few panels showing some fleeing bystanders, the Hulk’s battles always seemed to take place in a vacuum. But here, we see the full force and effect on a city terrorised by the Hulk. Citizens react in varying degrees of horror, some scattering in wild panic, others rooted to the spot by fear. We see city authorities responding---marshalling forces, setting up barricades, directing an evacuation, establishing first-aid stations. The military, when called in, are shown as more than just gun-crazy soldiers. We witness the planning, the weighing of options, the discussion of how much force can be brought to bear against the Hulk without causing more death and destruction than the menace they have been called to defeat.
And there is damage aplenty. No desolate countrysides or remote locales here. The battle between the Thing and the Hulk rages through downtown Manhattan, leaving a swathe of demolished structures and twisted wreckage in its wake. A dozen city blocks are left without electrical power.
The effect of these interludes is a cinematic one. It gives “The Hulk Vs. the Thing” the feeling of a superior B-movie from the 1950’s, not that far removed from a minor classic like Them! Stan Lee’s script accurately portrayed a city as it would respond if such a menace as the Hulk and such heroes as the Thing existed. Nothing is incidental. The television coverage not only keeps the public informed, but it alerts the other members of the Fantastic Four to Ben’s dire situation.
Another huge plus was the tight unification of the various sub-plots that had been running through several Marvel titles at the time. This was the benefit of having Stan Lee write virtually all of Marvel’s output.
DC’s titles were collected into minor fiefdoms: Weisinger’s Superman family titles. Kanigher's war books. Schwartz’s almost everything else. While each editor’s titles showed consistency to varying degrees, there was very little continuity across editorial boundaries.
But over at Marvel, Stan’s personal hand in everything created the strong sense of a connected universe. Sub-plots in one hero’s series carried over if the hero appeared in another’s title. And so many of those threads wended through “The Hulk Vs. the Thing”. The impetus for the Hulk’s rampage on New York came from his discovery of the events that took place in The Avengers # 4, which themselves were a continuation of The Avengers # 3. The Hulk’s destruction of Bruce Banner’s secret underground lab wrapped up a loose end left over from his first, cancelled series.
Another dangling plot element from the first Hulk series was the character of Rick Jones. Lee neatly segued Jones over to the Avengers title, where the newly revived Captain America took the teen-ager under his wing. Rather than having no impact on the mythos of the Hulk, we see the Green Goliath actually reacting to such a thing, even if he misinterpreted it. And it gave a chance for Rick to display his conflicted loyalties, between those to the Hulk and those to the Avengers. Rick’s presence in the story even afforded Stan the opportunity to make a reference to Bucky Barnes, thereby tickling a Fantastic Four reader’s interest in Captain America and his upcoming series in Tales of Suspense.
The Hulk’s precipitous departure from the ranks of the Avengers in issue # 2 of its series makes it easy to dismiss his Avengers membership as a mere technicality. But, as FF # 25-6 shows, the Hulk had an emotional investment in his rôle as an Avenger; he is angered that the team replaced him with Captain America and looks on it as an abandonment. His dialogue with Cap during the battle at the top of the skyscraper makes it clear that Jade-Jaws resents the Star-Spangled Avenger taking his place.
It was a very natural thing, this resentment. It implied that, though the Hulk quit the team, he was secretly gratified by the notion that he couldn’t be replaced. That he was replaced so quickly and by a "glorified acrobat”, no less, rankled the Hulk’s impenetrable green hide.
All of this contributed to the feeling that Marvel’s characters resided in a self-contained universe. Even the individual titles didn’t matter so much. A running thread started in one series could continue, or even evolve, in another. This was a novel idea for comics at the time, and---as Stan Lee was cannily aware---it was the best kind of self-promotion for the Marvel line. Fans of, say, the Sub-Mariner had to follow more than just Fantastic Four, if they wanted to keep up with what was going on with Namor’s war against the surface world.
One of Stan Lee’s strengths as a writer was his ear for humourous dialogue. Offhand, his only equal in writing truly funny lines was Arnold Drake. Ben Grimm’s wisecracks during the battle not only hit that right note necessary for comics-dialogue humour, but it underscored the Thing’s courage. It invests Ben with a true sense of valour. His determination and refusal to quit come across as genuine human qualities, rather than just because it’s in the script. As a character, it is Ben Grimm’s finest hour.
As for the art, I am not as big a Jack Kirby booster as most; I’ve always found his depiction of human anatomy as, shall we say, too stylised. But there is no denying the raw dynamism and punch in his renderings. For this kind of story, no-one could present it visually better than Kirby. Every panel of the fight has movement, power, impact.
Kirby’s prodigious output during Marvel’s early years was virtually the house style for the line. This bolstered the unified Marvel mythos, in some ways, even more so than Stan Lee’s cross-title plotlines. Kirby’s art provided a visual continuity that was reassuring to fans as they put down one Marvel comic and picked up another.
If someone were to ask me what the big deal was about the early Marvel Age of Comics, these are the two issues I would show him.