As I mentioned on my February 14th blog post, when I was seven years old the very first issue of Incredible Hulk that I read was #285. While I really liked that comic book, I did not have an opportunity to pick up another issue of that series until exactly two years later. That was #309, which was published in 1985. And, as I commented before, if I thought #285 was odd, well, this new issue was simply bizarre!
The cover to Incredible Hulk #309 is by Mike Mignola. It is a pretty early piece of work by the future creator of Hellboy. But you can certainly see his potential as an artist in this unusual cover image. This has to have been the very first time that I ever saw Mignola’s art. It certainly leaped out at me as a distinctive piece.
Inside the comic, it quickly becomes apparent that things had changed dramatically in the two years that I was away from the title. Formerly, Bruce Banner gained full control of his bestial alter-ego, and been accepted as a hero by the people of Earth. Now, though, the Hulk appears to be somewhere far, far from home, struggling to string together a simple coherent thought.
“The Triad” is written by Bill Mantlo, with artwork by Sal Buscema and Gerry Talaoc. Within a few pages, Mantlo quickly brings the reader up to speed, in a dramatic splash page montage drawn by Buscema & Talaoc. The now-intelligent Hulk was haunted by Doctor Strange’s old foe Nightmare, his dreams twisted to re-awaken the green goliath’s bestial alter ego. Nightmare hoped to use the Hulk as weapon against the Sorcerer Supreme. However, Strange was able to help the remaining spark of Banner’s consciousness strike back at the demon. Unfortunately the Hulk was left with no mitigating human influence, and became an uncontrollable monster. Rather than have to destroy his old friend, Strange exiled the Hulk to the extra-dimensional Crossroads, which links up to a myriad of other realities.
Now, after some time in the Crossroads, traveling from one strange world to another, the Hulk’s sentience is very gradually awakening. And with this renewed awareness, the Hulk discovers that he is accompanied by a trio of unusual figures. The Triad is made up of a blue-skinned demon named Goblin, a young orange-skinned girl called Guardian, and a shining magenta star known as Glow. These mysterious figures are somehow linked to the Hulk, their purpose to help fully restore his psyche.
Walking through one of the Crossroads portals, the Hulk and the Triad are transported into the middle of a vast alien desert. Although the desolate sands stretch as far as the eye can see, and the harsh sun beats endlessly down, the Hulk refuses to activate the “fail-safe spell” cast by Doctor Strange that would return him to the Crossroads when he feels discontented. As a massive sandstorm sweeps in, the Triad attempt in vain to convince the Hulk to wish himself off this planet before they all perish.
Finally, having survived the brutal elements, the Hulk at last finds that which his inhuman senses had detected from far off: a lush oasis. The Triad realizes that the Hulk was not on a mission of suicide, but was driven by the will to find this oasis, meaning his mind is continuing to heal and come back together.
This was a really odd story to read as a kid. The Hulk stranded on the other side of reality, fighting not some supervillain or the military, but the very elements, accompanied by an incredibly odd threesome. Bill Mantlo really crafted an unusual story, having the Hulk’s struggle against nature juxtaposed against the Triad’s examination of and insights into his mental state. It is a very introspective tale.
At the time, I had no clue who the Triad was supposed to be. Within the next few issues, Mantlo would reveal that they are the splintered aspects of Bruce Banner’s subconscious mind given form and independent thought. Certainly this was a very clever, innovative idea. Looking back on #309, I can see that Mantlo sprinkled the dialogue with a number of hints as to the true identity of the Triad.
Mantlo really broke a lot of ground with his run on Incredible Hulk. Having already given us an intelligent Hulk, he has now exiled the jade giant from Earth and begun to embark on an examination of Bruce Banner’s psychological background. A cursory glance at the Hulk stories that have been written in the decades since readily demonstrates just how much all of this influenced subsequent writers.
This issue’s artwork was absolutely incredible. The thing that really struck me was the depiction of the Hulk by Buscema & Talaoc. Obviously in other comic books and in television cartoons, the Hulk had always been a big, strong creature. But this was the first time I had ever seen him drawn as such a huge, bestial, imposing figure.
The illustrations of the Crossroads and the desert planet that the Hulk and his strange companions visited were very vivid and detailed. Buscema did a great job on the pencils, crafting these alien environments. And the inking by Talaoc was absolutely superb. He created a tangible atmosphere of oddness for the Crossroads. On the desolate world, his embellishments bring to life a harsh landscape that alternates between cutting winds and a brutal sun.
In the book Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist, “Our Pal” Sal states that Gerry Talaoc was one of his favorite inkers to work with. I can certainly see why. They went together exceptionally well. Talaoc really enhances Buscema’s penciling without overpowering it.
Incredible Hulk #309 was Sal Buscema’s final regular issue penciling the series, ending a decade-long run. Mike Mignola came onboard as the new penciler. A few issues later, the entire team of Mantlo, Mignola & Talaoc relocated to the pages of Alpha Flight. Mignola departed that book after only a handful of issues, but both Mantlo and Talaoc stuck around longer, at one point even reuniting with Sal Buscema on pencils for a couple of issues. Meanwhile, the Incredible Hulk book, after brief stints by first John Byrne and then Al Milgrom, had Peter David come onboard for a lengthy, brilliant run that, as I said before, has some of its roots in Mantlo previous work.
By the time Incredible Hulk #309 came along, it had become a bit easier for me to follow comic book titles. So I was fortunately able to pick up most of the next several issues of the series, plus follow Mantlo and friends onto Alpha Flight. And those issues I did miss I eventually bought as back issues.
Looking back on Bill Mantlo’s run writing Incredible Hulk, yep, it was really strange, but also innovate and exciting. The artwork by Sal Buscema was superb, and for the later part he was paired up with the excellent inking of Gerry Talaoc. Fortunately, after all these years, a good portion of the Mantlo issues, #s 269 to 313, is finally being collected in, appropriately enough, a triad of trade paperbacks. The first two, Pardoned and Regression, are already out, with the third, Crossroads, due in May. I highly recommend picking them up. They remain some of the best Hulk stories ever written.