Hey, it’s that time again — time to take a look at another comic published immediately before a famous run.
As you’ll recall, I’ve already taken this approach with the likes of Batman, Supreme, Captain America, Swamp Thing, and even the X-Men. This time around in BEFORE THEY WERE FAMOUS, it’s the ol’ green goliath, that gamma-blasted behemoth, the Incredible Hulk!
I don’t know why I’m so excited. Maybe it’s because the readers demanded this one.
I tossed around some suggestions on Twitter, thinking aloud about what I might write about for some upcoming “When Words Collide” installments, and the responses I received were pretty clear: people wanted to read about “Prophet,” which I tackled last week, and they wanted me to take a look at the issue right before Peter David’s lengthy and impressive “Incredible Hulk” run began.
So here goes. “Incredible Hulk” #330, before the series became the Peter David show for a massive 137 issues.
Unlike the other just-before comics I’ve looked at in the “Before They Were Famous” series of columns, “Incredible Hulk” #330 isn’t an issue that reads like an inventory story or an interim side-tale thrown onto the stands while waiting for the big shots to take over the series, nor is it a quick wrapping-up before a hasty exit. Instead, the issue, written by Al Milgrom, reads like just another issue of an ongoing serial. A pretty good one, too, with a weird and funky villain and some hyper-dramatic emotional moments. Schlocky and melodramatic and fun.
And perhaps that makes it interesting. It’s an exception because it doesn’t lead into a major run in the same kind of quiet or terrible or retreating manner that so many other “Before They Were Famous” qualifiers might. Plus, the run that follows isn’t known for its revisionism or its swift and short impact. No, Peter David’s “Incredible Hulk” run is known for a few highlights and an overall sensibility that made people care about the series in a way they often hadn’t before, but it’s also known for its duration. It’s so impressive because it’s so substantial.
Yet, let’s be honest, “Incredible Hulk” #330 isn’t interesting for any of those reasons. It’s interesting mostly because, while it happens to fall one issue before Peter David’s run begins, it’s actually the beginning of a new era in its own way. It’s the first issue drawn by Todd McFarlane.
Technically, it’s not McFarlane’s Marvel Comics debut — he had drawn “Scorpio Rose” for Epic, and had filled-in on “Spitfire and the Troubleshooters” for Jim Shooter’s New Universe — but “Incredible Hulk” #330 is certainly the comic that marks Todd McFarlane’s grand entrance into the Marvel mainstream. And though writer Al Milgrom provided his own heavy inks over McFarlane’s pencils in the issue, it’s still unmistakably the work of the man who would soon go on to reinvent the look of Spider-Man’s world and then co-found a little company called Image Comics with a few of his pals.
“Incredible Hulk” #330 ends up feeling like a piece of Peter David’s run on the series, because McFarlane’s artwork became so iconic and so bound together with David’s first year on the comic, even though it’s an Al Milgrom story at the end of a tumultuous time for the Hulk.
To provide a bit of context, Milgrom took over the writing of “Incredible Hulk” after John Byrne left — with only a handful of issues completed. Originally, Byrne had come on the book after a creative team switcheroo in which Byrne traded his “Alpha Flight” comic to Bill Mantlo and a young Mike Mignola in exchange for the “Incredible Hulk” series. Mignola didn’t stick around long as the regular penciller of “Alpha Flight,” but Mantlo continued on for nearly five years. Byrne lasted a total of six issues on “Incredible Hulk,” reportedly frustrated by not being able to do what was promised to him by Jim Shooter.
I wouldn’t say the series floundered under Byrne’s aborted run and then Milgrom’s continuation. It was just a relatively bland comic book. The reliable and sturdy Milgrom, never known for being a dynamic penciller, drew most of the issues he wrote, and he told stories about superhero slugfests and a new, longer-haired green goliath who was actually Rick Jones in Hulk drag.
The kinds of stories Milgrom told ended up being not hugely different from the kinds of stories Peter David would tell in his first year — at least, not obviously different on the surface. Both Milgrom and David played with the typical Hulk conceits of beasts on the run, with dangerous forces in pursuit. Both writers made human relationships — and the pathos of being Bruce Banner — a necessary component of the stories. Both writers brought in Marvel guest stars to tie the Hulk’s particular problems into the larger Marvel Universe.
But David immediately — and you can see it in small glimpses in issue #331, and in more abundance soon after — brought in a sense of humor that was almost completely lacking in Milgrom’s run. Milgrom played his stories as grand dramas with cataclysmic conflicts, and while some of the moments might be off-kilter, they weren’t as overtly ironic or the dialogue nearly as lyrically comedic as David’s.
Peter David’s humor was often incredibly corny — but that seemed to fit the characters. They spouted one-liners or rejoinders like television action heroes. Full of guts and sarcasm as they faced potential death from creatures beyond reason. Milgrom didn’t tend to operate that way. His characters seemed more sincere, more overtly conflicted about what had to be done. An oversimplification would be to say that Milgrom told his stories like he was writing a television miniseries from the days what those kinds of things were important events. Peter David wrote his stories like they were zippy action-comedies, with an emphasis on the former, but plenty of edge to the latter. As I said, it’s an oversimplification, but it gives you a sense of the contrast between the two writers.
It’s really Todd McFarlane that makes “Incredible Hulk” #330 completely entertaining and yet difficult to deconstruct as a clear dividing line between where Milgrom’s run ends and David’s begins. Yes, this single issue is Milgrom saying goodbye, and he gives us a final page death of a major character — it’s General Thunderbolt Ross! But don’t worry, he’s alive and more than kicking in the comics of today, as you’ll know if you’ve read any of the quite-good Jeff Parker “Hulk” comics of the past couple of years — and issue #330 concludes with a definitive “The End,” but McFarlane’s unorthodox character drawings and pacing decisions make this one issue more closely resemble the early David issues than the later Milgrom ones.
McFarlane was coming off a decent-length run on DC’s “Infinity Inc.” series where he made himself known for his design-oriented page layouts in which panel borders might be constructed from telephone cords or interlocking vines (depending on what the plot would suggest). His art-deco-meets-Chuck-Jones sensibility took on an austere quality with that Roy Thomas series, but at Marvel he apparently wasn’t allowed to use any of his funky-page-design tricks. He had to rely on traditional page layouts and relatively normal-looking panels. At the Jim Shooter-led company, storytelling was the buzzword and McFarlane’s tendency toward showiness was minimized at first. Still, McFarlane’s work on the Al Milgrom Hulk comic was powerful.
“Incredible Hulk” #330 is funnier than most of Milgrom’s run, but the gags are almost purely visual, and they seem to show McFarlane at work more than they show Milgrom as a prescriptive writer of what-McFarlane-should-have-drawn.
For example: the ongoing plot involves a Hulkbuster team trying to track down the Hulk — a radiated Rick Jones — while a strange dude in a hoodie makes his way closer to Bruce Banner and the Gamma base (or whatever it’s called). The hoodie guy turns out not to be a villain, but merely a host for a kind of brain parasite. The villain in the story is an Alien-style face-hugger with the personality of a midnight movie mad scientist. This slimy pink spider with the face of a withered James Cagney hops on the heads of its victim and then controls that character’s mind. The little creature laments about his horrible past — in almost a parody of villainous pathos — and then marches his way from host to host, taking over increasingly more powerful bodies with every chance.
Doc Samson — jacked-up shrink — becomes his main target, but then he targets Betty Banner, thinking that he can use her to get to the Hulk, and only fails when General Ross dives in front of his daughter and short-circuits the ugly spider mind-monster with residual electric energy from a previous issue. Ross had been Zzzaxxed a little while ago, and that incident, plus this confrontation, leads to his death. (Temporarily.)
It’s a completely silly story — this “Incredible Hulk” #330 — but McFarlane’s drawings of the mind-controlling little monstrous spider guy makes the whole thing hilariously terrifying. He injects the creature with personality, and if Milgrom had drawn the issue I don’t think the odd humor would have come through at all. It would have been stiff and weird in its own way, like a third-rate “Classics Illustrated” adaptation of a “Twilight Zone” episode. But with McFarlane, it’s goofy and deranged and exaggerated and kind of wonderful. He was a great match for the sensibility Peter David would soon bring to the series, but he was also excellent at bringing out the quirkiness of Milgrom’s story and making it seem fresh and grotesquely alive.
When Peter David took over in the following issue, he deftly continued the subplots from Milgrom’s run. Thunderbolt Ross had died a hero. Rick Jones’ hairdo Hulk was still bounding around. The Hulkbusters were looking for direction. But he added something crucial that would define the early part of his series and then lead into a variety of different directions over the next decade: he brought back the “original” Hulk, the gray Hulk. And with the multitude of Hulk personas that would follow, David struck his claim as the guy who would most deeply explore the facets of the Banner/Hulk dynamic. With humor both high and low and plenty of melodrama and irony.
But before that, in “Incredible Hulk” #330, Milgrom and McFarlane told a weird little tale about that one day when a sad and unhappy pink spider monster with mind control powers came to town, and we are all the better for it.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of “Grant Morrison: The Early Years” and editor of “Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes” anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.