Sal Buscema, one of my favorite comic book artists, celebrates his 85th birthday on January 26th. I’m going to take a look back at how I discovered Buscema’s work as a young comic book fan. (Part of this retrospective is based on a couple of posts I did several years ago. I guess you can consider this a “director’s cut” or something like that.)
Appropriately enough, I first saw Sal Buscema’s artwork in two issues of The Incredible Hulk, one of the series with which he is most closely associated.
On several occasions Sal Buscema has stated that the Hulk was his favorite character to draw. As he related to Jim Amash in the book Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist, published by TwoMorrows in 2010:
“I identified with [the Hulk]. Do you know what I liked about the Hulk? … He’s totally unique. He’s monstrous, lumbering, huge, unbelievably strong, and he gets even stronger when he gets angry. He has the mentality of a child. It’s so completely different from anything that you’ve drawn before. Is there another character as unique? … He’s an anti-hero, and yet because of his unbelievable power… look at all the fantastic things he’s capable of doing and usually does. That’s the fun and the constant stimulation that I had with this character.”
Buscema was the penciler on The Incredible Hulk from issue #194 (Dec 1975) to #309 (July 1985), an astonishing nine and a half year run. During that time Buscema missed only seven issues. I believe his 109 issue run on the series has never been surpassed by any other artist.
The very first issue of The Incredible Hulk that I ever read was #285, cover-dated July 1983. It would have been on sale in early April 1983. I was six and a half years old and my parents bought it for me.
Prior to this, I had watched reruns of The Incredible Hulk cartoon that had originally been broadcast in 1966, as well as the new Saturday morning cartoon that debuted in September 1982. Of course I had also seen at least a few episodes of the television series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. So I was already familiar with Bruce Banner and his gamma-spawned alter ego. But The Incredible Hulk #285 was the first time I had the opportunity to read one of the character’s actual comic book adventures.
The Incredible Hulk #285 was topped off by a fantastic cover drawn by artists Ron Wilson & Joe Sinnott. As a kid, I thought it was an amazing image. The Hulk was fighting this giant orange figure seemingly made out of flames. I hadn’t seen anything like that before. And, oddly, instead of striding around in his usual torn-up pants, on this cover the Hulk was wearing a shirt, tie, jacket and shoes. That said, his pants were still purple, so not everything about him had changed!
Flipping open the comic, I came to the first page of “Today is the First Day of the Rest of My Life.” The creative team was writer Bill Mantlo, penciler Sal Buscema, inker Chic Stone, lettered Jim Novak, colorist Bob Sharen and editor Al Milgrom. This splash page once had the Hulk wearing a jacket & tie, his hair neatly combed. Rather than running around on a destructive rampage, he is seated at a desk, narrating his memoirs into a Dictaphone.
Over the course of the next several pages the Hulk recounts how Dr. Bruce Banner, creator of the Gamma Bomb, while attempting to save the life of teenager Rock Jones, had been caught in the explosion of the weapon he created. The radiation now caused Banner to transform into a savage monster whenever overwhelmed by stress or anger. I distinctly recall that my seven year old self was surprised that in this flashback Banner’s assistant Igor, who set off the Gamma Bomb in an attempt to kill the scientist, was a Soviet spy, rather than an alien robotic infiltrator as he had been depicted in the animated episode “Origin of the Hulk” the year before.
Buscema drew an absolutely savage depiction of the Hulk in this flashback, as Banner transformed into the jade giant for the very first time, on the striking splash page seen at the top of this blog post.
Following this was an amazing two page spread by Buscema & Stone that illustrated 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. Among the numerous characters glimpsed in this flashback montage, my seven year old self recognized from the animated series the villainous Leader and his pink artificial servants, Betty Ross, her father the militant General Ross, and the equally belligerent Major Talbot. Of course I also knew who Captain America was.
I was surprised to find out that Bruce Banner’s identity as the Hulk was public knowledge, since in the cartoons it had only been known to Rick Jones. Years later I learned that the Hulk was probably the earliest major super-powered protagonist to have his secret identity revealed, way back in Tales to Astonish #77, which was cover-dated May 1966.
At the end of this montage, we come to 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, the new 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 (aka the guy guaranteed to always get the very last entry in the Handbook of the Marvel Universe). 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.
Unfortunately the Hulk comes to a realization: In his old savage, 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 The Incredible Hulk #285 was a fantastic issue with an amazing bad guy. Yep, the idea of an intelligent Hulk was unexpected, but I just shrugged and read on. Mantlo’s script was a really good introduction to the character of the Hulk, neatly surmised 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. To the best of my knowledge, this was the very first comic book I ever read that was penciled by him. As I mentioned above, Buscema would eventually become one of my all time favorite comic book artists. A number of years ago when Our Pal Sal appeared at a NYC comic book show I had him autograph this issue. It was actually my second copy, since I read the original one so many times as a kid that the cover eventually fell off.
In regards to Stone’s inking, it is pretty good. 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 aforementioned Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist he admits that he wasn’t overly enthusiastic about Stone’s inking. Looking back 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 of 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 The Incredible Hulk #285, because I was just a few months shy of seven years old I very seldom had a chance to go buy comic books on my own, so I ended up not reading another issue of the series for a couple of years. When I finally did, it was issue #309. And if I thought #285 was a bit odd, well, that next one was downright bizarre!
The Incredible Hulk #309 was cover-dated July 1985, exactly two years since the last issue I had read. And it was quickly obvious that a heck of a lot had changed in those two years!
The cover to issue #309 was by Mike Mignola. It’s 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 had to be the first time that I saw Mignola’s art. It certainly leaped out at me as a distinctive piece.
“The Triad” is written by Bill Mantlo, penciled by Sal Buscema, inked by Gerry Talaoc, lettered by John Workman, colored by Bob Sharon and edited by Carl Potts. The last time I had seen Bruce Banner he was in full control of his bestial alter-ego and had 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.
Within a few pages, Mantlo quickly brought readers up to speed. Buscema renders another of his dramatic flashback montages. I learned that the now-intelligent Hulk was haunted by Doctor Strange’s arch enemy Nightmare, who twisted Banner’s dreams 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 linked up to a myriad of other realities.
And, wow, poor John Workman, a highly skilled letterer, had to try to squeeze all of this information onto a single page! I recall my eight year old self squinting as I read this recap, trying to make out all that tiny lettering.
Now, in the present, after some time wandering 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 he is now accompanied by a trio of unusual figures. The Triad is made up of a blue-skinned demon Goblin, a young orange-skinned girl Guardian, and a shining magenta star Glow. These mysterious figures were somehow linked to the Hulk, their purpose to help restore the Hulk’s 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 was stranded on the other side of reality, fighting not some supervillain or the military, but the very elements, accompanied by an incredibly odd threesome. 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 were the splintered aspects of Bruce Banner’s subconscious mind given form and independent thought. Certainly this was a clever, innovative idea. Reading issue #309 with the benefit of hindsight, I can now 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 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 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 depictions 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.
Buscema stated in the Fast & Furious book that Gerry Talaoc was one of his favorite inkers to work with…
“Gerry Talaoc was a terrific draughtsman and… he drew better than I did. He probably still does. [laughs] And the look of the book was great. I loved what he did. To me the final product was what counted.”
I agree that Buscema and Talaoc went together exceptionally well. Talaoc really enhanced Buscema’s penciling without overpowering it.
Eight years ago I found out that Gerry Talaoc was retired and living in Alaska. I was able to mail a few comic books to him to get signed, and I made certain that The Incredible Hulk #309 was one of them.
On the letters page of The Incredible Hulk #309 editor Carl Potts revealed that this was Sal Buscema’s final regular issue penciling the series, ending his nearly decade-long run. I don’t recall if this meant anything to me back then, since I was just a kid and really wasn’t paying attention to the credits.
Years later, though, I would learn about the behind the scenes circumstances that led to Sal Buscema’s departure from The Incredible Hulk. Buscema and Bill Mantlo, who came on as writer with issue #245, had initially gotten along very well. Regrettably though, as Buscema recounted in Fast & Furious, after several years Mantlo started becoming much more hands-on and demanding in regards to the artwork & storytelling, requesting that Buscema draw pages in certain ways…
“What [Mantlo] was asking for was not good. I didn’t care for it at all, and I have to trust my judgment, because I’m the artist and he’s not. I hate to be this blunt about it, but the fact of the matter is that in many cases where Bill described what he wanted he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was not an artist, because he had no concept – and I do not mean that derogatorily, but simply as a statement of fact – of the relationship of one object to another in a given space. He would ask me to draw things that were impossible to draw.”
Buscema reluctantly asked Marvel Comics to take him off The Incredible Hulk. It’s an unfortunate end to his historic run. Nevertheless, looking at his penciling for issue #309, it is apparent, to me at least, that Buscema was doing high-quality work on the series right up until his departure.
By 1985 it had become a bit easier for me to buy comic books. So fortunately I was able to pick up most the next several issues of the series.
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. After brief stints by John Byrne and Al Milgrom, The Incredible Hulk gained a new writer, Peter David, who had a lengthy, brilliant run that has some of its roots in Mantlo’s work.
Looking back on Mantlo’s run on The Incredible Hulk, it was innovative and exciting. Despite the difficulties he had working with Mantlo towards the end, the artwork by Buscema was superb. In 2012 a good portion of the Mantlo & Buscema run, issues #269 to #313, was collected in, appropriately enough, a triad of trade paperbacks: Pardoned, Regression and Crossroads.
From my recollection, the point at which Sal Buscema’s artwork really began to stand out in my mind was when he became the regular artist on Spectacular Spider-Man in 1988. His work on that series was outstanding. And so, when I later ended up looking back at those two issues of The Incredible Hulk that I had picked up as a kid, I now realized they had been penciled by Our Pal Sal, which only increased my appreciation for them. It’s great to re-examine them and really absorb the incredible skill Buscema displays with his dynamic layouts & storytelling. Just check out the action, energy and drama on display above, on page 20 of The Incredible Hulk #285.
I definitely recommend purchasing Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist. It is still available from TwoMorrows Publishing.
Credit where credit is due: The format of this piece was partly inspired by Alan Stewart’s entertaining and informative blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books. Hey, as the saying goes, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best! You can read Alan’s entries on Sal Buscema, which so far look back at some of his work from the late 1960s and early 70s. And if Alan keeps blogging (and I certainly hope he does) perhaps in another six or so years he’ll be discussing Our Pal Sal’s work on The Incredible Hulk.
In conclusion, I want to wish a very happy 85th birthday to Sal Buscema, and thank him for the many great, enjoyable comic books he’s worked on over the decades.