Retro Review: Incredible Hulk #380 (April 1991)

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As Major Spoilers resident old guy, I remember when this issue of Incredible Hulk first hit the stands, with its front-cover warning that the main character doesn’t appear anywhere in the pages.  I wondered if the issue could be any good, and picked it up out of curiostiy.  The results were… unexpected.  Your Major Spoilers (retro) review of Incredible Hulk #380 awaits!

Hulk380CoverINCREDIBLE HULK #380
Writer: Peter David
Penciller: Bill Jaaska
Inker: Jeff Albrecht
Colorist: Glynis Oliver
Letterer: Joe Rosen
Editor: Bobbie Chase
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Cover Price: $1.00
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $3.00

Previously in The Incredible Hulk:  In the years immediately after the Fantastic Four returned from space, young nuclear physicist Robert Bruce Banner was experimenting with gamma radiation, when a random teenager ended up in his testing range.  One thermonuclear explosion later, and Bruce found himself infused with radiation, and in moments of stress began transforming into a massive green engine of destruction.  For many years, he continued rampaging across the country, until psychiatrist Leonard Samson re-integrated his personalities into one, unified mind.  That new Hulk was captured and carried away by a mysterious group of superhumans, leaving Doc Samson to clean up the mess left behind, but the good Doctor has problems of his own as Nick Fury, Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. makes the scene…

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Explaining to Fury the process by which he reintegrated the Hulk’s personality, Samson also explains what happened immediately afterward, as the strange men and women wielding energized versions of ancient conventional weapons attacked and spirited the Hulk away.  Fury, as always, knows the players even without a scorecard, identifying them as “The Pantheon…”

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I’ve heard this issue referred to as a “filler” issue, thanks to the lack of Hulk, but it’s clear that Peter David had this one locked down as an integral part of the chronology he has been building, with important plot-related information being given to the readers through the interactions of Fury and the Doc.  As for the matter of Crazy Eight, Doc Samson relates to Nick that he was brought in as an expert to give testimony about the psychological state of a convicted superhuman murderer…

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As an aside, I love Doc’s Miami Vice awesome white suit here.  As for the interview with Crazy Eight, it doesn’t go particularly well, with the woman first attempting to seduce him, then smashing a chair over his head in a rage.  Luckily, Doc Samson is squarely within her superhuman weight class (Crazy Eight was apparently able to hold her own in one-on-on combat with Wonder Man during one of his lower-powered phases), and even he seems a bit unsure as to whether the woman is actually psychologically unfit for trial or not.

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Crazy Eight takes a moment to explain her theory that “nothing ever ends”, explaining that her murders were marked with an infinity symbol, one that a particularly dull-witted police officer dubbed ‘some kinda crazy eight’.  At the trial, Len gives the court his professional opinion…

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…which leads to her conviction of murder, and placement on Death Row.  Doc Samson again meets with Crazy Eight, this time mere minutes before she is to be executed, and once again tries to discover what makes the woman tick.  She refuses to play along, implying that she wants to die, but when she is being led to the electric chair, she panics and rampages.  Samson is able to subdue her (which begs the question of what would have happened had he NOT been the only other super-strong person in the room) long enough to get her into the chair.  Reading this story the first time, I expected a discretion shot would end the story, but the creators surprised me…

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Even years later, it’s a pretty powerful moment, and one that makes it clear where the writer stands on the issue of capital punishment.  That moment led to a lot of discussion and controversy around this issue back in ’91, especially when Doc Samson discovers that the widow of the murdered Senator that started the whole mess was a childhood friend of Leslie “Crazy Eight” Shappe, and that he was physically abusive to Mrs. Senator Hartwell, to the point where the wife spoke to her old friend, begging for help.  Samson is devastated to learn the context of the last murder, and when he steps out of the death chamber, he is confronted by a cheering rabble-rouser who asks “Did she dance good?  Did she squeal at the end?”

It’s more than Samson can take…

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In retrospect, it’s clear why David and Jaaska chose to tell this story with the secondary character of Doc Samson rather than the titular hero of the book, as there couldn’t really be lasting repercussions for the Hulk the way there could be for Samson.  Moreover, it is a tale that takes a very strong political stance against capital punishment, and often, political issues in comic books get seriously short shrift in the world of “punch it because it’s bad.”  This issue manages remarkable subtlety, presenting us with a character who COULD be seriously disturbed, but might be just faking, and crafts a lovely story around it all.  Certainly, if you disagree with David’s stance against executing criminals, this is a divisive story, but I maintain even 25 years after the fact that it makes its point well and stands behind it.  The Incredible Hulk #380 is an off-beat story, then and now, but has strong art and a very strong script that makes it a must-read for people who want to see nuance in their comics, and while the final reveal does stack the cards in favor of the writer’s stance on the central issue, it does so in a way that makes for a good read and a rare downbeat ending from 90s Marvel, earning 3.5 out of 5 stars overall.  After so many years, I realize now that ponytailed leather-jumpsuit Doc Samson is exactly how I remember the late 80s being…