Bill Mantlo: Best Hulk Writer? Part 2

Continuing my analysis of Hulk writer extraordinaire, Bill Mantlo, we have the following--reposted from the Incredible Hulk Message Board, circa July 11, 2004!

Why I Thought Bill Mantlo Was
The Best Hulk Writer, Period.*

(* as of 2004!)

Part 2: The Incredible Hulk #272-299 & Annual #12

When last we left writer Bill Mantlo and his intrepid cast of characters, the Hulk was off-world after having defeated the Galaxy Master and helped Rocket Raccoon and Uncle Pyko by retrieving Gideon's Bible; Rick Jones was near-death after having exposed himself to gamma radiation in hopes of becoming another Hulk; Betty Ross cautiously stood vigil, all the while wondering if Bruce would ever get his wish of being free of the Hulk; and the alien woman Bereet gave us a new way of looking at the entire tableau, coming in as an unfamiliar observer through whose eyes we could see the old become new again.

It was clear at this point that Bill Mantlo could write the savage Hulk, and could in fact write him quite well; however, a writer does need challenges, and herein Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter gave him free rein to do what had only been attempted in short arcs before. The brain of Bruce Banner would control the body of the behemoth! Thanks to infusions of ever-increasing amounts of gamma radiation--from his own self-treatments, to that generated by the Galaxy Master, to the very beam Uncle Pyko used to transport the beast home, fundamental changes were made to Banner's physiology, which miraculously led to the scientist's ability to suppress his alter-ego's brutish mind and impose his own will as of THE INCREDIBLE HULK #272.

And just in time, too--for the impending battle against the Wendigo would have been old hat without this new wrinkle. Without anger or fear as Banner's trigger to become the monster, we were allowed to see how the change had affected Banner's thought processes over the years. It's true that Banner had, at times, relied heavily on the Hulk to bail him out of impossible situations. Mantlo made us feel, right alongside Banner, just how the scientist felt when he came to the conclusion that he had been exposed to such extremities of emotion (seeing the skeletons in the cabin, encountering the Wendigo, being saved from certain death by Sasquatch) and had yet not changed. Bruce Banner, in this context, is no hero, and takes advantage of the use of the Hulk's form to assist a friend and former colleague. He still does not possess total familiarity with the Hulk's form, however, and often needs help from Sasquatch in subduing the cannibalistic creature. Once, during the encounter, upon being badly hurt, Banner regresses and the Hulk's savage self reasserts himself, however briefly. Nonetheless, Banner's intellect regains control, and the Wendigo is defeated.

With help.

The rest of this run begins soundly, as Banner learns what it means to be a hero, making more than one mistake in misjudging the intentions of those who appear evil (the aliens in #273 want to give Earth unlimited food, essentially eliminating hunger, but their plans are foiled by a smart Hulk, ironically behaving just as the savage version would); and misjudging his own abilities (in #274, feats of strength result in accidental destruction, and Banner-as-Hulk tries his best to redeem himself). At first, he has trouble asserting his full will over the formerly dominant Hulk persona, but soon enough, that vanishes, but Banner's troubles only truly begin.

Witness: Banner, finally sure that his Hulk persona is dormant, if not totally gone, returns to his friends, now at Gamma Base. It is here he triumphs over Jackdaw and her Megalith robot, and makes the observation that, were he the savage Hulk, the battle would have taken much less time than it did here; the Hulk's unbridled savagery and instinct would have won the day. Still, Megalith lies defeated, and Bruce must answer for his current condition in the eyes of his friends, as well as make an astounding introduction in the eyes of Bereet. He cures Rick from the gamma-induced sickness he procured in #270, and Rick is overjoyed that a rational Hulk exists, one who can rise to the world's challenges and react intellectually. However, Betty rejects the change, and ultimately, Bruce, aghast that he would accept such a status quo rather than be totally free of the monster and live a normal life. This is Banner's first personal loss as the Hulk. It can also be construed as his first step to becoming a real hero--sacrificing love so that he may better serve those he intends to help. I chalk it up as a major loss to coincide better with the theme of the run.

The first personal loss in Banner's new existence coincides with his most devastating loss, as the U-Foes return, now in full control of their abilities and on a vendetta against the Hulk. Because of a number of factors--Banner's preoccupation with Betty and her plight, and his inability to channel the pure rage and hence, power that the savage Hulk is capable of, among others--Utrecht and his group are able to subdue the Hulk. It is only because of the intervention of Bereet and her unique alien creatures that the Hulk is able to be freed, and the U-Foes, soundly defeated.

The U-Foes encounter quickly becomes the benchmark for the remainder of this second part of Mantlo's run. Because of the television broadcast the villains made, showing their capture of the Hulk, everyone now is aware that Banner's brain controls the beast, and he is granted amnesty and pardoned for the misdeeds which occurred in years past. Indeed, the entire cosmos seems to welcome the new, more benevolent, less destructive Hulk; everyone, in fact, save Betty Ross, who fades to the background for the nonce, scarcely again to appear during the remainder of Mantlo's tenure. After all, the new Hulk has the adoration of the public; what use has he for the one he loved? As if to prove that the heroic population is now with Banner, they all band together to repel an apparent attack by Krylorian spaceships, an attack started by the Leader. After being soundly defeated by the Leader in space, his non-bestial nature once more a factor, the Hulk seeks assistance from his cousin, She-Hulk (the first such lengthy meeting with Jen Walters in her gamma-empowered form), and the Avengers in finishing what the super-villain started. The Avengers pursue the Leader and his supercomputer Omnivac through time, and it is largely through teamwork with others that Banner triumphs.

After the battle, the Avengers offer a new membership in their team to Banner, but after some time he declines the offer in favor of returning to scientific research, building the Northwind Observatory as he encounters a few lower-tier villains (Zzzax) and a soldier from the future, and embarking on an all-too-brief romantic interlude with Bereet, who departs for Hollywood stardom soon thereafter. Another pyhrric victory occurred in the HULK ANNUAL for 1983, in which Banner's efforts to swing power from red-skinned aliens toward their apparently more peaceful green-skinned counterparts ended in abject failure, with the greens becoming just as bloodthirsty as their red brethren. Finally, MODOK influences "Thunderbolt" Ross to commit treason against his country, freeing the Abomination from a military installation. However, the Abomination suffers from an overwhelming fear of the Hulk from the beating he took in their last encounter. He still manages to kidnap Kate Waynesboro, a SHIELD scientist assigned to keep tabs on Banner at the observatory, and one for whom Banner has begun to develop romantic inclinations. AIM scientists transform Kate into Ms. MODOK, with hopes of controlling her, but MODOK reappears, atomizes the Abomination, and in the ensuing battle, MODOK forces Kate into the machine that birthed Ms. MODOK and she returns to her normal form. Banner-as-Hulk has very little actual presence in this battle.

From here onward, the Hulk is dealt a number of crushing defeats as the villainous Nightmare, villain of Dr. Strange, begins to subconsciously influence the savage Hulk's mind to regain dominance. Banner begins to treat animal and human tissue with gamma rays to foster healing, and meets with dismal failures on both counts (the dog Sirius, and Max Stryker/Hammer). The Hulk's off-world journey leads to an injury that does not immediately heal, noting the near-complete departure of the raging power that made the Hulk so vital in years previous. It is only once Bruce Banner is pushed past the point of rationality in the battle with Max Hammer that two things occur: the savage Hulk personality violently reasserts itself, and the wound suffered during the Secret Wars instantaneously heals itself. This event is no coincidence: it would seem that, just as the savage incarnation's strength increases with anger, so too does his ability to heal from any injury. Banner's will reasserted itself, but this time only with the help of the Spaceknight Rom and his energy analyzer.

Ashamed of his loss of control, Banner again withdrew from his loved ones (Kate, in this case), experiencing an epic series of nightmares wherein his deep-seated fear of losing control of the Hulk gave way to the actual loss of control and a more terrifying, enraged variant of the savage Hulk emerged, one, it seemed, influenced by Nightmare's desire to see the Hulk kill Dr. Strange in an act of revenge. As the Hulk grew more out of control, Banner was pushed to the background, barely able to stay in control when he emerged. He seemed ultimately defeated, perhaps the months of being in control of the Hulk having taxed him more heavily than he let on.

Fearing that he would never again know peace, knowing that none of what he had done to that point had mattered, manipulated to depths of despair by Nightmare, Bruce Banner surrendered to the Hulk totally, committing psychic suicide in Nightmare's realm and leaving Dr. Strange, Nightmare, and the entire world at the nonexistent mercy of the extreme flipside of what we'd endured since #272. Instead of a monster's body tempered by the intellect of a man, now we had the monster devoid of any stabilizing intellect.

To be HULKINUED in my analysis of HULK #300-313 and the next capsule review of the run as a whole.



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