Comic book reviews: Marvel Masterworks Incredible Hulk Vol 5

I have to admit to being an old-school Marvel Zombie, and that often extends to my opinions of which artists drew the definitive versions of certain characters.  When it comes to the Hulk, the two names that immediately come to mind are Herb Trimpe and Sal Buscema.  If I had to pick a third artist, I’d go with Dale Keown, who penciled some astonishing issues of Incredible Hulk in the early 1990s.  But “Happy Herby” and “Our Pal Sal,” as they were referred to back in the day, are tied for first place, at least in my mind.  I’ve written about Buscema’s work on Incredible Hulk before.  So here are a few thoughts on Trimpe, who I have always felt is a very talented, underrated artist.

Herb Trimpe had a seven year run penciling Incredible Hulk, from #106 in 1968 to #193 in 1975.  During that period, he missed a mere two issues.  Strange as it is to say, though, I haven’t actually read a large number of the issues that Trimpe worked on.  But there have been certain covers and pin-ups of the character drawn by him that have been repeatedly reprinted over the years.  And, of course, Incredible Hulk #s 180-181, the first Wolverine story, periodically gets the reprint treatment.  So it really seems like I’ve seen a whole lot more of Herb’s Hulk than I actually have.

I set out to rectify that.  I think most of his issues have been collected in black & white Essential volumes.  But I found a copy of Marvel Masterworks: Incredible Hulk Volume 5, which reprints #s 111-121, for sale at half price.  I’d much rather read some of his stories in color.  After all, the Hulk just isn’t the same if he is not colored green.

Incredible Hulk 111 pg 13

The majority of the writing on this volume is by Stan Lee, with Roy Thomas coming in to script #120 before taking over fully with #121.  My favorite story had to be the two-part tale that opens this volume, which sees the Hulk snatched off into outer space, pitted against the menace of the cosmic-powered Galaxy Master and his army of alien pawns.  And once those servants see the Hulk resisting their tyrannical master, they decide to throw of the shackles of slavery, resulting in a huge battle between the Galaxy Master and a fleet of space rockets.  Trimpe must have been really inspired by Lee’s plots, because the artist does phenomenal work.  Trimpe’s layouts & storytelling are absolutely dynamic in these two issues.  This really shows that, even this early in his career, he knew how to draw a riveting story.

Once the Hulk returns to Earth, I think the stories become rather more mundane, with the Hulk settling into a pattern of fighting the military over some misunderstanding, or being tricked into a partnership with various supervillains.  Perhaps Trimpe was somewhat less inspired by the plots on these issues, because his work, while solid and professional, doesn’t really display the dynamic energy of the Galaxy Master story.

In the midst of this is a three-part story featuring the Hulk’s arch-foe, the Leader, who pretends to want to turn over a new leaf and seemingly proves himself by helping General Thunderbolt Ross imprison the Hulk.  Of course the Leader is really just doing this to get his adversary out of the way while simultaneously gaining the trust of the military, enabling him to enact a plan for global domination right out of a James Bond movie.  He’s going to seize control of General Ross’ base and launch a nuclear missile at the Soviet Union, starting World War III, with the intent of ruling over all the survivors.  Of course the Hulk, with an assist from Betty Ross, breaks free and smashes the Leader’s plans.

Incredible Hulk 115 pg 4

I think that before these issues, the Leader had been drawn as having a large but round skull to correspond to his gamma radiation-enlarged brain.  Trimpe seems to be the artist who tweaked the design, giving us the Leader with the now-famous head that shoots straight up, a version that would endure for the next two decades.  While I do wonder how this guy walks around without bumping his head in doorways or on the ceiling, it is an instantly recognizable look.

After splashing down into an aquatic scuffle with Namor the Sub-Mariner, the Hulk encounters Maximus the Mad and his renegade faction of Inhumans.  Maximus manages to manipulate the Hulk into fighting the U.S. armed forces, and we get some more excellent action sequences from Trimpe.  Certainly the stand-out piece is the cover to issue #120, a truly iconic image of the Hulk fighting the military.

Incredible Hulk 120 cover

With the shift to Roy Thomas as writer in #121, we get an interesting, unusual tale, “Within the Swamp, There Stirs… a Glob!”  Amidst the Florida wilderness, the Hulk encounters an eerie muck monster, a dead man resurrected as a shambling monstrosity by radioactive material and, it is implied, some mystical element of the swamp itself.  The Glob, prodded on by the memory of a long-lost love, kidnaps Betty Ross.  Of course the Hulk pursues the creature, intent on rescuing the one human being who has expressed sympathy & understanding for him.

Years later, in the pages of his magazine Alter Ego, Thomas freely admitted that he conceived the Glob in homage to the Golden Age character the Heap.  A self-proclaimed fan of the Heap, Thomas also later was involved in creating the similar Man-Thing.  Thomas even worked in a one-panel cameo by the Heap into an issue of Avengers during the famous “Kree-Skrull War” storyline.  And a few months ago a hardcover volume reprinting some of that character’s earliest appearances, Roy Thomas Presents The Heap, was released.  I wish I’d had a chance to pick that up when it came out.

In any case, Trimpe’s art on #121 is very good.  He does some rather moody, atmospheric work.  The Glob is quite effectively rendered by the artist.  I enjoyed this one so much that I wish it could have been a two part story.

Incredible Hulk 121 pg 17

If you pick up Marvel Masterworks: Incredible Hulk Volume 5, you’ll certainly find some nice art by Herb Trimpe.  In his introduction to this volume, Trimpe is somewhat dismissive of his work on these issues.  They do say artists are their own harshest critics.  Admittedly this was early in his career.  Throughout the 1970s and 80s he would certainly grow & develop as an artist, seeing much improvement.  But there is definite potential in this early work.  Undoubtedly the strongest aspect of his work here is his superb storytelling.  Trimpe really knows how to lay out a page and tell a story.

So, yeah, I’d recommend checking out Trimpe’s amazing run on Incredible Hulk.  If you don’t want to pick up the expensive Marvel Masterworks volumes, the Essential collections are perfect for the reader on a budget.

Comic book reviews: Marvel Masterworks Deathlok

On more than one occasion I have discussed Rich Buckler on this blog.  Each time, I made passing mention of Deathlok, the character he created at Marvel Comics, who debuted as an ongoing feature in Astonishing Tales #25, cover dated August 1974.

There is a reason why I keep citing Deathlok.  He was the first major cyborg character in comic books.  Buckler devised what is undoubtedly one of the most inventive, cutting-edge, influential series to have come out of Marvel in the 1970s.  It has continued to influence numerous other creators, both in and out of the comic book field, to the present day.  You can readily see the inspiration of Rich Buckler’s Deathlok stories in such films as Robocop, Escape from New York, and The Matrix.

Since I was born after Deathlok first made his debut, and I did not begin regularly following comic books until the late 1980s, my first exposure to the character of Deathlok was actually via a later incarnation.  Dwayne McDuffie & Greg Wright introduced a new Deathlok, Michael Collins, in a four issue miniseries published in 1990.  The Collins version of the character then went on to appear in an ongoing book that lasted 34 issues, which I followed on and off.

Unfortunately, at this time Marvel didn’t have any sort of major trade paperback program going, and so they passed up the opportunity to reprint the original Deathlok material.  The only glimpse I got of these stories was in 1993, when Marvel published Deathlok Lives, which reprinted the three issue Captain America story arc that wrapped up the original Deathlok’s storyline a decade before.

Of course, if I could have, I would have purchased the back issues of Astonishing Tales and read those.  But they were both difficult to locate and very expensive.  So eventually I just put it on the back burner.

Fast forward to 2007.  Issue #25 of Michael Eury’s superb magazine Back Issue, published by TwoMorrows, came out.  It contained a fascinating in-depth interview with Rich Buckler about the origins of Deathlok, conducted by regular BI contributor Michael Aushenker.  Reading that, I once again thought to myself that it really was long past time that Marvel reprinted those stories, because I really was interested in reading them.  So, a mere two years later, when Marvel finally published their Marvel Masterworks: Deathlok hardcover, I grabbed it up.  This collection contains the Astonishing Tales issues and a variety of other material, including the Captain America arc.

Rich Buckler's dynamic cover for Astonishing Tales #36
Rich Buckler’s dynamic cover for Astonishing Tales #36

A variety of creators worked on the Deathlok stories.  Rich Buckler is the main creator on the original Astonishing Tales material, turning in the majority of the plotting and pencil artwork.  Doug Moench co-plots and scripts the early chapters, before Buckler takes over penning the dialogue in the middle segments.  The latter issues are then scripted by Bill Mantlo.  A number of talented artists contributed to the finished pencils & inking, among them Klaus Janson, Keith Pollard, Arvell Jones, and Pablo Marcos.  The Captain America issues are by J.M. DeMatteis, Mike Zeck and John Beatty.

Set in the dystopian future year of 1990 (I’m sure that seemed far-off back in 1974) amidst the devastated ruins of Manhattan, the Deathlok series features the anti-hero Luther Manning.  A soldier who violently died five years previously, Manning’s brain and remaining flesh have been bonded to a cyborg body code-named Deathlok.  The undead cyborg Deathlok is a tormented, horrific figure.  Snatched back from the abyss, his body a mix of cold metal and semi-decayed flesh, his consciousness cohabited by a logical computer, Luther Manning’s new existence is a living hell.  Deathlok desperately seeks to break free of the military’s control, and gain revenge on the man who resurrected him as a cyborg, Major Simon Ryker.

The ruthless Ryker is obsessed with control.  In Astonishing Tales #35, when Deathlok and Ryker finally come face to face, the later explains himself.  Seeing the country falling into chaos after the destruction of Manhattan, Ryker now seeks to impose a new order.  In an exchange scripted by Bill Mantlo, Ryker justifies his actions to Deathlok, saying “It was for their own good! People need someone to watch over them!” To which Deathlok shouts back “So you elected yourself! Dictator and God all rolled into one! You’re mad, Riker! You’re insane!”  The Major’s response to this is to say “I merely brought our society to a logical conclusion, along a path it had long ago chosen for itself: benevolent control by an impassionate military-industrial complex.”

It is explicitly stated that no one knows who actually bombed Manhattan.  It could have been foreign terrorists, or a Communist power, or perhaps just some madman.  Deathlok even alludes to the possibility that Ryker himself may have caused the disaster, to give him the opportunity to initiate his fascist policies.

Buckler’s plots are rather prescient, as they mirror real world events of the last twelve years.  One could easily draw parallels to what happened after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.  Certain politicians used the tragedies as an occasion to pass controversial, perhaps even unconstitutional, laws such as The Patriot Act that greatly increased government power while curtailing civil liberties.  And many in the populace were all too ready to embrace these measures, trading in their freedoms for the promise of order & security.

In terms of the quality of the writing, the Astonishing Tales issues do bounce around, with Deathlok wandering up & down devastated Manhattan, running into numerous enemies.  Reading these issues, I get the feeling that Buckler was making it up as he went along.  It doesn’t seem he had a detailed story arc planned out, just a loose idea of where he’d be heading.  While this does lead to something of an unfocused overall story, I suspect that this did allow Buckler to be innovative and go off in new directions as the series progressed.  It probably resulted in more spontaneity than if he had adhered to an iron-clad plot.

The strongest issues are undoubtedly the first few and the last few, namely the chapters that were scripted by Moench and Mantlo.  The middle segments, where Buckler was fully in charge of both the artwork and the writing, do ramble somewhat.  I think Buckler many have been over-extending himself.  I believe that at this point it time he was also the regular penciler on Fantastic Four, so he was probably very busy.  Once Mantlo comes aboard to take over the scripting, things really gain focus, and we get the riveting confrontation between Deathlok and Ryker.

The artwork by Buckler on these stories is incredible.  He is an underrated artist, I think in part due to his drawing Fantastic Four in a very Jack Kirby-influenced style.  This led some to incorrectly conclude that Buckler was incapable of drawing anything other than a Kirby pastiche.  But if you look at Buckler’s art on Deathlok, you see some amazing, dynamic, innovative work.  His layouts and storytelling are dramatic and unusual.  Buckler’s character design for Deathlok was innovative.  Likewise, his conception of Hellinger, the even more insane cyborg brother of Major Ryker, is horrific, with a metallic skull face and exposed brain.

Astonishing Tales #34 page 17: Deathlok battles Ryker in cyberspace
Astonishing Tales #34 page 17: Deathlok battles Ryker in cyberspace

In recent years, Buckler has found acclaim as a surrealist painter.  Looking at the art in this volume, I can definitely see the roots of that.  Especially notable is a surreal battle between Deathlok and Ryker within a computer network.  Keep in mind this was written & drawn more than two decades before The Matrix came out, before the concepts of cyberspace and virtual reality became popular.  In other words, this is experimental work by Buckler.

As I mentioned before, a number of different inkers worked on the Astonishing Tales issues over Buckler’s pencils.  Klaus Janson’s inking probably works best, giving the art a gritty, atmospheric feel entirely appropriate for the grim settings.  It especially suits the bizarre imagery of the cyberspace confrontation seen in issue #s 34 & 35.

The war between Deathlok and Ryker comes to a conclusion towards the end of the Astonishing Tales run.  It is apparent that Buckler was setting up a new direction for the series, with Deathlok on course to come into conflict with Hellinger, and the introduction of Godwulf, a figure that Buckler seems to have intended to be across between Tarzan and Jesus.

Unfortunately, Astonishing Tales was cancelled with issue #36 in July 1976, and the contents of what would have been #37 didn’t see print until nearly a year later in Marvel Spotlight #33.  After that, Deathlok fell into limbo, making only sporadic appearances in Marvel Two-In-One, in stories that did little to advance the character.

In wasn’t until 1983 that Deathlok was finally given proper closure.  DeMatteis penned the arc in Captain America, which has Cap travel with Deathlok to his future.  Along with Godwulf and a motley resistance group, they set out to thwart Hellinger’s plan to wipe out humanity and replace it with a race of logical cyborg beings.  The story is illustrated with incredible flair and drama by Zeck & Beatty, one of my all-time favorite art teams on the Captain America title.

Captain America #288 page 7: Cap helps Deathlok re-discover his humanity
Captain America #288 page 7: Cap helps Deathlok re-discover his humanity

Yes, it would have been great to see how Buckler would have ended the saga of Deathlok.  But at least DeMatteis does a bang-up job at this task.  Aside from him apparently confusing Hellinger with his brother Major Ryker and some fiddling with Godwolf’s characterization, there is little to find fault with.

As Buckler himself charitably writes in his introduction to the Marvel Masterworks collection, “J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck did a fine job wrapping things up.”  (And I’m happy that Buckler was given the opportunity to pen a brand-new introduction for this edition.  It’s a very informative text piece.)

Reading the original stories by Bucker & friends, it seems pretty clear that initially Deathlok was not intended to be part of the regular Marvel universe.  The Buckler-plotted issues are bereft of any references to Marvel continuity.  Marvel Spotlight #33 does feature Devil-Slayer, a character who later joined the Defenders, but this was his first appearance, so that doesn’t prove anything.  (Indeed, Devil-Slayer is actually a reboot of another character Buckler created, Demon Hunter, who had a very short lived existence at Atlas Comics the year before.)

Deathlok’s first proper meeting with “mainstream” Marvel is in Marvel Team-Up #46, written solely by Bill Mantlo, although Buckler did draw the cover.  A time-traveling Spider-Man lands in the apocalyptic 1990.  After the usual misunderstanding and fight, Spidey and Deathlok team up against a horde of eerie mutant children.  That does give Deathlok’s world more of a horrific overtone, adding to the already established bands of roving cannibals populating devastated Manhattan.  Besides, the art is by another underrated artist, the great Sal Buscema, another favorite of mine.

Whatever the case, by the 1980s, Deathlok was firmly entrenched in Marvel continuity.  Various other creators took a crack at the character, with varying degrees of success.  Buckler himself has expressed a desire to return to the original Luther Manning version.  I’d love to see that, as Buckler is an even better artist now than he was in the 1970s.  Regrettably, Marvel does not appear interested in taking Buckler up on his offer.  This is a shame.  Marvel did, however, ask him and Klaus Janson to draw a variant cover for the Deathlok the Demolisher miniseries published in 2010:

Deathlok the Demolisher #1 variant cover
Deathlok the Demolisher #1 variant cover

As you can see from viewing this piece, Buckler still does an incredible work.  It is a real loss that Marvel seems unwilling to hire him to illustrate a full story for them.

At least we do finally have Buckler’s classic Deathlok stories collected together.  The price tag on this volume, $64.99, is a bit steep, but it is definitely worth picking up for some truly distinctive, groundbreaking, and entertaining material.  And hopefully at some point Marvel will print a soft cover black & white Essential Deathlok book.  The material is likely to find a much bigger audience that way.  That and I would like to have a cheaper volume to carry around.  Re-reading the Marvel Masterworks edition at least once a year, it does get kind of beat up!