Thanos vs. Hulk was originally intended to be Savage Hulk #7-10. As I’ve mentioned before, Jim Starlin has done three previous Hulk stories. Only one of those were a solo Hulk story (Rampaging Hulk #4), while the other two were a Hulk/Thing story (Incredible Hulk and the Thing: The Big Change) and a Hulk/Thing/Dr. Strange story (Marvel Fanfare #20-21). (He also acted as the artist on Incredible Hulk #222, but I’m sticking to writer credits, though I should really track that issue down to see if it’s one where his influence is strong throughout as I’ve seen plenty of comics that Starlin ‘only’ drew that you could argue were, at minimum, co-plotted given how strong his influence seems on the story. He’s also written the character in non-Hulk specific comics, but those are guest appearances where the focus isn’t on him and Starlin usually made a strong effort to depict the character in line with how he was appearing in his comic at the time.) Starlin’s small bit of Hulk work is one of the little secrets of his career (along with his Dr. Strange work) and it’s nice to see it pop up again in 2014/2015. It also fits into a pattern for his Hulk work by taking place largely outside of strict continuity and featuring a version of the character that suits Starlin’s purposes.
In the past, what Starlin has seemed to like most about the Hulk was his relationship with the Thing. The contrast of these two monstrous-looking beings that pound the living shit out of one another is a favourite of many and it’s no surprise, then, that two of his Hulk stories have featured the Thing. Their relationship in both alternated between fighting and working together. One of the best moments in The Big Change has to be the alien that’s been surgically altered to look like a Hulk/Thing hybrid. The sole Hulk solo story was in the pages of the Rampaging Hulk magazine, which was quasi-out-of-continuity, I believe. If I recall correctly, Starlin used a temporarily intelligent Hulk in that story. Here, he opts for a classic dumb brute Hulk for the limited time that he’s on panel.
The most interesting thing that Starlin does with the Hulk here involves taking the relationship of Hulk and Bruce Banner, and making it more explicitly into a similar relationship to that of Mar-Vell and Rick Jones, or Captain Marvel and Billy Batson. It’s not a simple transformation with another personality taking primacy, Starlin presents the shift between Banner and Hulk to be more of a replacement where Banner is banished to another dimension while Hulk is in control. It’s another way of visually expressing the same idea, but Starlin’s history with characters that switch places with the odd man out existing in another dimension/plane of existence makes this stand out a bit more for me. While his Captain Marvel (DC) book was never released, pages have come out, and the confrontation shown between Captain Marvel and Billy isn’t too dissimilar from what we see here.
It’s not just that Banner is ‘banished to another dimension,’ it’s that we also get to see Banner and Hulk interact in that space. Immediately, Starlin puts the Hulk in an area of contrast with another character; instead of the Thing, it’s Bruce Banner, his other half. It’s an exercise in taking what’s usually implicit and only talked about, and making it explicit. Their interaction is short, but revealing: Banner mostly mocks the Hulk. Normally, there’s a sense of fear in Banner when it comes to the Hulk, while the Hulk disdains Banner. That disdain remains in the Hulk, while Banner seems somehow above their usual relationship. They’re in Banner’s space, which means something is wrong with the Hulk, not Banner. Moreover, it’s a non-physical realm, so the Hulk’s power is relatively useless. It’s a realm of the mind where Banner knows on some level he is the true powerhouse. Their conversation at the end of the issue also gives a good reason why Banner doesn’t seem afraid or even put out by the Hulk being there: the Hulk dying may kill him, too, but that isn’t necessarily something he would hate. We’ve read numerous stories where Banner is either suicidal or, at least, willing to die to stop the Hulk. Usually, his fear of the Hulk is not fear for his own safety, it’s fear on the behalf of others. The Hulk is primal instinct, wanting to survive at all costs; that he’s both part of Banner and distinct from him would partially explain why survival is not necessarily a primary goal of Banner.
One thing that Starlin picks up from both the time that this story takes place and some other past stories is the idea of using the Hulk as a weapon. When this story takes place, the Hulk is Banner’s weapon that he’s loaned out to SHIELD. When Pip kidnaps the Hulk for Blastaar and Annihilus, he isn’t really taking a person, he’s stealing a weapon. That’s all that SHIELD really saw (and really why they care), and it’s all that Annihilus wants. The Gamma Bomb wasn’t unsuccessful, it was transformed into another method of application that doesn’t run out. Banner sits in that mental space, knowing that an end to the Hulk (and himself) is an end to a weapon that never gets used up. He’s created one of the most potent killing machines ever, so why wouldn’t he welcome death on some level? In his previous Hulk stories, Starlin didn’t focus too much on Banner at all, so this one stands out, thus far, for how much it says about Banner and his relationship to the Hulk. It’s a bleak one, not quite the quasi-fun love/hate one of the Hulk and the Thing.