RETRO REVIEW: HULK! Magazine #23 (October 1980)

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Or – “Bruce Banner’s Very Own After-School Special…”

Relevance came hard for comics, and even the efforts of Denny O’Neil, Jim Starlin and their their ilk didn’t immediately translate into more adult storytelling.  The argument could be made that we still haven’t completed that transition, but no can argue one fact:  The missteps made along the way are completely ridiculous and faintly hilarious.  Faithful Spoilerites, I give you HULK! #23,

HULK! #23
Scripter: James Shooter/Roger Stern/Denny O’Neil
Pencils: John Buscema/Brent Anderson/Howard Chaykin
Inks: Alfredo Alcala/John Tartaglione/Howard Chaykin
Colors: Steve Oliff/John Tartaglione/Uncredited
Letters: Uncredited Throughout
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Cover Price: $1.50 (Current Near-Mint Price: $10.00)

Previously, on HULK!: If you watched TV in the late ’70’s, you know the drill: Doctor David Banner: physician; scientist.  “Searching for a way to tap into the hidden strengths that all humans have.  Then, an accidental overdose of gamma radiation alters his body chemistry.  And now when David Banner grows angry or outraged, a startling metamorphosis occurs.  The creature is driven by rage and pursued by an investigative reporter.  “Mr. McGee, don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”  The creature is wanted for a murder he didn’t commit.  David Banner is believed to be dead, and he must let the world think that he is dead, until he can find a way to control the raging spirit that dwells within him. Dah da DAH DAAAAAHHH!!”

HULK! started its life as ‘Rampaging Hulk’ during Marvel’s black-and-white magazine renaissance of 1970-something, telling retconned tales of the Hulk’s early adventures (all now long since re-retconned away due to continuity snarls.)  As it progressed, the book got a name change, went full-color, and began telling stories in a more adult nighttime drama sort of vein, presumably to capture the audience that watched the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno TV series.  To that end, we begin this issue with a very TV-Hulk sequence, as Bruce Banner is caught in a university library trying to escape with several volumes on nuclear medicine…

This sequence (and pretty much this whole SERIES) focuses on Banner’s wanderings, without any of the supporting cast from his comic series, making this for all intents and purposes an adventure of TV’s David Banner.  Barely escaping (without his books) but leaving an intrigued young lady behind, Bruce considers whether there’s a place he can go, even though he’s short on his dough, and ends up crashing at the local YMCA.   (Yes, it’s THAT issue…)

Much discussion has been had over the year regarding exactly what in the holy hell editor-in-chief Jim Shooter was thinking when he wrote this sequence, but there’s one clear truth that has to be said:  Whatever your gender, orientation, or politics, that’s just plain bad writing.  Banner’s response to his predators is particularly laughable…

The dialogue in particular is horrifyingly ham-handed, especially referencing the Hulk’s ability to “crush steel balls,” followed with a threat to “tear your (ominous pause) HEAD off.”  Gyaah…  If the events at the Y were the only thing wrong with this issue, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with the full review, but the story continues onward into ‘Manos: The Hands of Fate’ territory, careening towards Plan 9-ville.  Like every protagonist of every After-School Special, Bruce’s life spirals further and further out of control.  Panic and rage at his aggressors transform him into the Hulk, and the childlike monster only remembers that someone tried to hurt him, setting of on  a destructive random rampage.  Fleeing the police, he crashes down a short stairway into someone’s apartment, and begins the drug abuse portion of our PSA…

I’m not sure why “Clear” seems to be a hippie burnout a decade late, but she’s high as a kite, and doesn’t even realize that she’s faced with a radioactive mutant creature driven by rage.  Of course, her boyfriend isn’t amused to find her with another (sort of) man, and threatens to beat her (Domestic Violence brings our relevant issue count up to 3) and Hulk responds the only way he knows how: Swift and blinding violence.

Hulk relaxes in his opium den, and eventually Bruce Banner awakens, commenting on the “smell of dope” in the air, bringing up the question of what in the world this girl is on.  (Apparently, in the Marvel Universe, you “smoke tabs” to get really high.)  Clingy crackhead Clear is a pretty sad little character, as well, immediately embracing the first brute strong enough to drive away her tormentor/boyfriend and promising to reward him with sex.  But this story’s dark and disturbing nightmare New York has to have SOME positive characters in it, right?  Well, let’s see what happens when Bruce takes a lead on a job…I suppose that a happy ending is a kind of “job,” isn’t it?  Things turn out okay for Bruce, though, as Alice-the smitten-girl-from-the-library helps him out with a recommendation for a new part-time job.  With that kind of connections, Alice has got to be a stronger character than Clear the hippie burnout, right?

Yeeeeaaaaaah….  No.  No, our little Alice is an emotional trainwreck as well, also desperately searching for someone to save her, but from her abusive mother rather than abusive boyfriend.  For all the trouble heaped on the writing for the insensitive portrayal of Dewey and Luellen the serial rapists, their portrayals of these two women are nearly as bad.  Alice takes the complete stranger she met robbing the library home, and proceeds to tell him her entire life story…

You have to kind of appreciate what was going on here, on some level, in trying to make both Hulk and Bruce grown-ups with potential sex lives, but neither character is really suitable for the role as written.  Bruce ends up staying the night with Alice, but his presence makes things worse between Alice and her mother.  Mom confronts Alice and calls her an unfit mother, enraging Bruce and causing him to rush out into the night to hide his terrible secret, leaving poor Alice all alone with her grief and fragility.  Once he hulks out, though, his situation doesn’t change, and the Hulk remembers his own girlfriend in the filthy basement.  Sadly, her old man returned before Hulk did…

Let’s see…  where are we on our News Hostility Scoreboard?  Drug Abuse, Attempted Suicide, Sexual Assault, Divorce, Prostitution, Domestic Abuse, and now, finally, Arson.  Take THAT, Kristy MacNicol!  Of course, with a building on fire, the Hulk’s childish intellect panics and the monster smashes the burning structure down around their ears, and possibly killing an innocent firefighter.  (His status after the building collapse is never addressed.)  Back in his human form, Banner checks on both their girlfriends, only to find a bad scene in both cases…

The plot hammer falls, right on our sensitive little metaphorical reader toes.  Alice leaves him a note and some cash, explaining that he is strong and she is weak and blah blah blah fishcakes.  She also figured out his secret, though the part where he ran screaming, swelling and turning green from her apartment was probably a pretty big clue.  Being a selfless kind of guy, Bruce doesn’t keep the money for himself…

You can almost hear the tinkly piano theme as he walks away into the streets of the big, bad city.  John Buscema does a lovely job with the art on the first story, but the brain-meltingly bad plot makes even that enjoyment a limited success.  The second story in the issue is a bit shorter, dealing with Bruce waking up after a Hulk adventure and trying to find himself a new outfit.  His ruined traveler’s checks get him the Julia Roberts treatment at the local boutique, while an attempt to steal a shirt gets him a near-beating with a broom.  Luckily, the Banner luck kicks in, and he finds himself once again depending on the kindness of a stranger…

As with the lead story, though, an angry husband comes home to find him with his lady, slapping Bruce around and grabbing his wallet to see who the intruder in his bedroom is…

It’s fascinating how two themes from the first story recur here, but are played for laughs rather than bathos.  In my opinion, it’s a more successful story because of it, and the second bit even features art by a young Brent Anderson of future Astro City fame.  Our third story is a Dominic Fortune tale by Howard Chaykin, which doesn’t really have anything to do with the Hulk, but mercifully manages not to touch on rape or suicide.

It’s also interesting to see the germination of Howie’s current art style in this 30 year old tale, especially interesting given his recent return to Dominic Fortune in the pages of New Avengers.  The story is also given an interesting sepia-tone wash to the pages, and a subtle coloring job that makes it both skillful and fun, two things that this book sorely needs.  Three decades after the fact, this book is still talked about when Jim Shooter’s name comes up, and the complete lack of subtlety in the novel-length lead story has brought up questions of bias against homosexuals.  Fact is, NOBODY in the story is well-handled, with Banner moralizing prudishly before falling into bed with a woman whose divorce isn’t entirely complete, with hippies, hookers, and weak-willed milquetoasts vying to see who could be a more unpleasant one-note character.  Sadly, this title achieved most of its notoriety thanks to the hubbub over this atypical and abysmal issue.  Three stories worth of lovely art and two strong backups can’t completely overcome the shortcomings of the lead tale, causing HULK! #23 to earn a distasteful and queasy 1.5 out of 5 stars overall.

Rating: ★½☆☆☆

Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day: Some books are so bad they’re good, some books are so bad, they’re worse.  What terrible stories still hold a place in your heart?