The very first issue of Incredible Hulk that I ever read was #285, cover-dated July 1983. Prior to this, I had avidly watched the Hulk cartoon that ran on Saturday mornings in the early 1980s, and of course I had seen at least a few episodes of the television series starring Bill Bixby & Lou Ferrigno. But Incredible Hulk #285 was the first time I had the opportunity to read any of the character’s actual comic book adventures. And, I have to say, even at six-and-a-half years old, I knew that it was a bit of a strange issue.
Incredible Hulk #285 is topped off by a fantastic cover drawn by artists Ron Wilson & Joe Sinnott. As a kid, I thought it was an amazing image. But, even so, it wasn’t your typical Hulk scene, to be sure. First off, rather than fighting the military or a supervillain or even some sort of monster, the Hulk’s enemy was this giant orange figure seemingly made out of flames. I hadn’t seen anything like that before. And, even odder, instead of striding around in his usual pair of torn-up pants, on this cover the Hulk was wearing a suit & tie. Very strange. That said, his pants were still purple, so not everything about him had changed!
Flipping open the book, I came to the first page of “Today is the First Day of the Rest of My Life,” written by Bill Mantlo, with artwork by Sal Buscema & Chic Stone. Once again, the Hulk was wearing a well-pressed suit, his hair neatly combed. On top of that, rather than running around on a destructive rampage, there he was seated at a desk, narrating his memoirs into a Dictaphone.
As I read onward, over the course of the next several pages the Hulk recounted to the readers how Dr. Bruce Banner, creator of the Gamma Bomb, had been caught in the explosion of the weapon he created, mutating him into a being who transformed into a savage monster whenever overwhelmed by stress or anger. Following this is an amazing two page spread by Buscema & Stone that illustrates the chaotic life of the Hulk over the next several years, the long and winding road taken by a green goliath who was more often than not hunted by humanity. And, at the end of it, we find the cause of the Hulk’s current status: at long last, after all this time, Bruce Banner has managed to gain control, to retain his human intelligence when transforming into the Hulk.
While the Hulk has been busy recounting his life, a crew of workers from Stark Industries headed up by Scott Lang (Ant-Man) has been constructing Northwind Observatory, a laboratory where Banner can resume his scientific studies. Turning back into his human form, Banner joins Lang to supervise the installation of the laboratory’s power core. At the last minute, Banner discovers that the power core was not designed by Stark Industries, but acquired from a company called Soulstar. Banner immediately recognizes the name, but before he can prevent it, the power core is hooked up, there is “a massive electromagnetic discharge,” and a strange being emerges.
This creature, we are informed, is Zzzax, the Living Dynamo. Looking something like a humanoid lightning bolt, Zzzax is a creature that feeds on the human life force. Before the monster can consume the stunned construction crew, Banner transforms back into the Hulk and tackles this old enemy of his. Unfortunately, the Hulk quickly remembers that, in his old child-like persona, the angrier he got, the stronger he became. But now, guided by Banner’s rational intellect, the Hulk cannot easily become angry, meaning his strength is limited. And so the gamma-spawned giant realizes that, instead of relying on brute force to defeat Zzzax, he must now find a way to out-think his fiery foe.
As a kid, I thought Incredible Hulk #285 was a fantastic issue with an amazing bad guy. Yep, the idea of an intelligent Hulk was a very unexpected change for me, but I just shrugged and read on. Bill Mantlo’s script was a really good introduction to the character of the Hulk, neatly presented through the plot device of Bruce Banner penning his autobiography. The second half, with the Hulk fighting Zzzax, was really exciting.
On the art side of things, the work by Sal Buscema was high quality. This was the very first comic book I ever read that was penciled by him. Buscema would become one of my all time favorite comic book artists. Several years ago, when “Our Pal” Sal appeared at a NYC comic book show, I had him autograph a copy of this issue. It was actually my second copy, since I read the original one so many times as a kid that eventually the cover fell off!
(While I’m on the subject of Sal Buscema and Incredible Hulk, it’s definitely worth mentioning that he pencilled practically every issue of the series from issue #194 in 1975 thru to #309 in 1985. Yep, he had a ten year run drawing the Hulk, and during that time I believe he missed only seven issues. They definitely do not make artists like him anymore!)
In regards to Stone’s inking on #285, it is pretty good. In the last three decades, having subsequently seen a great deal more of Buscema’s work, I have to admit that there were others who did a better job finishing his pencils, among them Joe Sinnott, Gerry Talaoc, and Buscema himself. In the excellent book Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist, published by TwoMorrows, he admits that he wasn’t overly enthusiastic about Stone’s inking. Looking at it as an adult fan, yes, I tend to agree with him. That said, back when I was a little kid completely lacking in any knowledge concerning the subtleties of inking, I thought the artwork by Sal & Chic looked just fine. I guess that’s probably the more important thing.
Even though I really did enjoy Incredible Hulk #285, because I was just a few months shy of seven years old and I very seldom had a chance to buy comic books on my own, I ended up not reading another issue of the series for a couple of years. When I finally did, it was Incredible Hulk #309. And if I thought #285 was odd, well, that next one was downright bizarre! But I’ll be covering that story in a future edition of Strange Comic Books.