I've mentioned before that I'm not huge on comic books; I don't have anything against them, I just don't read them and get most of my knowledge of them from other sources like adaptations and writings at other sites. But since I've found myself writing up full articles on every comic series I actually have read (all three of them!), it seems that when I find a comic that piques my interest enough to pick it up, it really piques my interest.
This time we turn our attention to the Incredible Hulk of the early- to mid-90s, called the Merged Hulk. Bruce, the Savage Hulk, and the Gray Hulk started fighting for dominance, forcing Bruce's psychologist friend Leonard Samson to intervene with an experimental psychiatry session. Inside Bruce's mind the three personalities find themselves up against a monstrous interpretation of Bruce's father that easily overpowers the two Hulks. Ultimately it's Bruce who's able to beat the demon, whereupon a vision of his mother convinces the Savage and Gray Hulks to recombine into Bruce, turning him into an even more powerful Hulk with his own consciousness. Cracked listed this as one of the most WTF superhero reinventions alongside a demon-hunting phantom Punisher, and various Hulk fans say it completely misses the point of the character. Okay, I'm no stranger to getting pissy when people fuck around with characters I'm attached to. But as well as hardly being the stupidest thing done to the Hulk mythos, if you treat it as its own thing there's a lot to like about it.
I haven't been able to figure out what the relationship between the Merged Hulk and the Professor is supposed to be. Some sources say that Bruce's psyche was never put back together and the Merged Hulk was the Professor and another split personality from the start. Others say they're two different characters based on the Professor being left-handed and having a ridiculous ponytail, and it was the original intention that the Merged Hulk was really Bruce. I subscribe to the latter belief. I'm willing to accept that the Professor is a fragment of the Merged Hulk that remained when Bruce's psyche was shattered again after he took a grenade to the face at the behest of the Marvel overlords, but far as I'm concerned and for the sake of this writeup, the Merged Hulk is a merged Hulk.
Afterwards, Bruce and Samson hit a bar to celebrate Samson's accomplishment, where some characters in suits sit down to have a drink with them and start jabbering to Bruce about world peace. At first Bruce is merely skeptical of them, but when one of them starts messing with one of Bruce's friends they incur the wratch of the Hulk, and when a big guy in golden armor out of nowhere loses his shit over the Hulk tossing one of his friends on their bum, it turns into an all-out shitstorm. After the battle wrecks a city block, Bruce allows himself to get captured so he can take the fight to their home base.
Samson himself has to go psychoanalyze this ripped female assassin accused of murdering a senator and beating the hell out of his wife. After his testimony gets her the electric chair he accidentally discovers something about the wife and her injuries that he really wishes he'd learned sooner (Hint: it wasn't the assassin who beat the senator's wife), then disappears from the book for a while.
Y'know, it just occurred to me that in that getup, Samson looks like he's doing a bad Fist of the North Star cosplay.
Aaaanyway, the strangers from the bar fly Bruce to their base hidden within a mesa in the middle of nowhere, and after crashing thanks to a dumbassed stunt somebody pulls with the bay doors, Bruce breaks his restraints like crackers and resumes the fight. Just as his already stressed pants are getting dangerously close to being torn off completely, a giant calling himself Agamemnon breaks it up.
But Bruce isn't impressed, and calls Agamemnon out as a hologram when he notices he isn't casting a shadow. Then the hologram shrinks down to a normal size, and properly introduces himself. Agamemnon is the immortal son of a human woman and an Asgardian (one of Thor's people), and the leader of the Pantheon. He's finally able to get Bruce settled down so he can explain that the fight has been a big misunderstanding and they actually want to give him a chance to atone for the destruction he caused as the Savage Hulk.
The Pantheon is made up of Agamemon's children or descendants, whatever they are, that's he's sired, lost, and relocated over the years. Atalanta is the sole woman on the fighting team, and she has enhanced strength and is a master archer. Then there's Ulysses who can create a magic sword and shield and has a kicking Robin Hood beard and mustache, and Hector who wields a magic mace and has no awesome facial hair. Achilles like his namesake is completely invincible, unless (conveniently) he's in the presence of Gamma radiation, which kind of makes me wonder why they want the Incredible Hulk around. Ajax is the guy in the gold suit, and he's big, strong, and dumb as a sack of hammers. The one called Prometheus communicates with the others through a radio, but spends all his time in a vehicle suped up with weapons and gadgets like the Batmobile (the Prometheusmobile?). And finally there's Paris, whose power appears to be being a colossal wanker and calling Bruce "Bobby" because his first name is actually Robert, and "Bruce" is his middle name. Um... is that news to anyone else? I feel like I'm in that episode of Futurama where everyone's hearing each other's first names for the first time.
I'm going to say right now that the Pantheon strikes me as something Marvel came up with independently, then decided to link to one of their existing properties because they weren't sure it would hold up on its own, and when they reimagined the Hulk he seemed as good a candidate as any. They do have their moments together, but a lot of the time the Hulk just feels completely out of place around them.
Marvel still has its share of bugs to work out of this new Hulk. First and foremost, he displays a lot more of the Gray Hulk's dickisness in the early books, but gradually chills out as the series goes on. His head is a bit misshapen, and then there's the question of what to make him wear; do they put a brilliant scientist in tattered purple pants, try to squeeze a giant into a suit, or go for something in between? First they drop him into a brown jumpsuit he couldn't get all the way zipped up, which I guess was supposed to emphasize his size but just looks kind of stupid.
After Bruce gets suited up, Ulysses takes him to a burn ward to show him why they brought him in.
Ulysses says this is Bruce's chance to both right some of the wrongs and get back at the government that hunted him for so many years. Bruce agrees to come on as an intern, and Ulysses thinks it would be great to have him along.
The oracle Delphi doesn't seem to think so.
While all this is going on, Rick and Marlo are trying to ease Betty's mind over what's happened to her husband.
For the uninitiated, Rick is the kid Bruce saved from the Gamma bomb test that turned him into the Hulk, and Marlo is the girlfriend of the Gray Hulk when he was parading around Las Vegas as Joe Fixit. Betty has no idea what she's going to do now or where she's going to go, and Marlo hits upon the world-beating idea for them to be roommates. Betty isn't sure she likes the idea of rooming with her husband's split-personality's persona's ex-girlfriend, and Rick agrees it's a bit weird. But Marlo says to give her a chance, that they'll have a girl's night out, and she'll even give Betty a makeover. But the two get totally smashed and Marlo accidentally colors Betty's hair green with drain cleaner, much to Bruce's delight when he unexpectedly shows up at the apartment the next morning.
Bruce tells everyone the good news about the Pantheon, and that they've invited him and Betty to live with them at the Mount. Betty objects to holing herself up under a giant rock after spending enough of her life in military bases and convents. As Bruce reaches out to Betty she flinches and pulls away from him, and reality comes crashing back down for Bruce.
Bruce sulks out of the building and Rick follows after, trying to calm him down, when the Pantheon shows up with an emergency mission for Bruce. Over in New York they're having a show of Metamorphosis, and the leading actress, Nadia, is being stalked by somebody or something massive. When Bruce asks what this has to do with him, Ulysses informs him that Nadia is the widow of one Emil Blonsky. Except Emil isn't really dead, it's just that these days he goes by "the Abomination".
Now, here we get the Infinity Gauntlet event, a "major" story where the entire Marvel universe is jeopardized after a character named Thanos gets ahold of all six Infinity Gems (jewels that grant the bearer control over one the six forces that control the universe), gains omnipotence, and tries to impress Death herself by throwing the entire universe into disarray. I put "major" in quotes like that because it amounts to fuck all when Thanos' overambition leads to somebody else getting the Gauntlet and undoing everything.
But anyway, somewhere off in space Thanos snaps his fingers, eradicating half of all life in the universe. People all through the theater start blinking out of existence, and the survivors lose their shit.
Nadia is pushed out onto the street outside about to be trampled, when the Abomination pops out of a manhole to save her, praising God for practically dumping her in his lap. Nadia isn't quite as thrilled about the situation, as she takes one look at him and faints.
Thinking the mass of screams are in response to the Abomination, Bruce breaks into the theater just in time to see Rick join the half of the population Thanos eradicates.
From a vantage point at the top of the theater, Bruce is able to catch the Abomination taking Nadia back into the sewer. Although he goes right after Abomination here, the actual Infinity Gauntlet books depict him stopping to muse in a bar first for some reason, which is just the first in a long line of discrepancies.
By the way, everyone on the Internet says the Merged Hulk doesn't get stronger as he gets angrier. This is not true. Maybe the Professor doesn't, but the Merged Hulk absolutely does. Not only does he make a couple references to it...
... but when the Hulk catches up to the Abomination, he totally trashes him.
While the Merged Hulk is stronger than the Savage Hulk, the Abomination is supposed to be twice as strong as the Savage Hulk at base strength. So either the Merged Hulk is hideously stronger than the Savage, or he can get stronger with rage and was able to pin the Abomination because he thought Emil had done something to Rick and was fucking livid.
I'd also like to quickly address one of the more common complaints in the fanmail sections, where people keep calling Betty whiny.
Now, I remember back when I read Prime there was a line that bugged me a bit, but in retrospect it's actually pretty reasonable. That was when Russ said something about not wanting to get on Kevin too much because if angered, Kevin could rip him in half. As the reader who knows what's going on in Kevin's head I knew he never would do that, but for another character in the book the idea that he could do that has to be pretty intimidating.
So here's Betty, now married to a man who is built like a tank, could snap his fingers and pulverize her with the shockwave like a giant pistol shrimp, has a history of punching down entire buildings or simply flattening a stranger's car when he gets upset, and is saying stuff like this:
Emphasis on the second panel. I mean, give her a break.
Anyway, a magic portal from Doctor Strange pries the Hulk from his fight with Abomination to join the battle against Thanos (though the Infinity Gauntlet books fuck up again by showing the Hulk willfully entering the portal from somewhere outside). But as soon as he lands one punch in Thanos' face, Thanos shrinks him down to less than an inch tall* and banishes him back to the sewer Doctor Strange ripped him from.
* The books themselves keep saying "six inches" but bloody hell guys, get a ruler and look at how tall six inches is. Six millimeters, maybe, but if the Hulk is six inches tall, how fucking big is this rat?
When Bruce reawakens he finds Emil trying to win Nadia back, but Nadia just calls him an insane monster that she'll never love. Bruce uses Thanos' "gift" to reason with Emil by making him think he's hearing the voice of God. (scans increased in size to make the Hulk's small text legible)
Yes, even when reduced to half an inch tall, Bruce could still slap the Abomination around. Let that sink in for a second, then imagine the difference between a full-sized Hulk and a human, and see if you can still blame Betty for being terrified of him.
And again, if the Hulk is six inches tall, how big is Emil's head?
Emil smashes some pipes in frustration and obscures the area in steam. Nadia tries to escape, but knocks herself unconscious by running face first into a wall. Emil catches her, and Bruce convinces him to take her back to the surface and leave her to her life by delving into some pretty heavy shit for a superhero comic, and the Incredible Hulk especially.
Sappy Observation: Both the Hulk and Abomination call themselves "monsters", but the Hulk is really just a big, green man. Nadia was terrified of Emil's appearance on a physical level because... well, he's an abomination. But Bruce is actually pretty good looking, and Betty is terrified of his appearance on an emotional level because he's, like, seven times her size and can bench press a blue whale. At the risk of sounding incredibly cheesy I'd suggest Betty's problem isn't so much that she's rejecting Bruce as a monster, but that she feels rejected as an insect.
After leaving the Abomination, the Hulk gets warped back to the fight with Thanos. The next issue opens with him getting reteleported back to Earth, only returned to full size with his clothes in shreds.
I want to draw your attention to the box in the lower left. To clarify, "Bobbie" is actually the book's editor, and is not to be confused with "Bobby", Paris' nickname for Bruce. But more importantly, I have read the Infinity Gauntlet miniseries and have no idea what happened between these two issues. I don't think the people at Marvel were communicating very well, and the events of the Infinity Gauntlet and the individual characters' crossover issues are completely buggered. I think the intent was that his clothes got destroyed when he and a bunch of other heroes dogpiled Thanos to keep him from regaining the Gauntlet, but that doesn't happen until after Nebula undoes all of Thanos' damage, including bringing all the people Thanos erased back to life. But Rick isn't revived until the very end of this Hulk issue, and Bruce starts to say that Thanos was still in power when he got sent back, which means this issue takes place around the time Nebula got the Gauntlet. But then when did the Hulk's clothes get trashed? What, did Doctor Strange repair them before sending him back to fight Thanos?
Bruce leaves the alley and finds civilization has gone to shit. Suddenly the thought occurs to him that Betty might be one of the people Thanos killed off, and as he stands there fretting a maniac tries to run him down with a limo, which works out for the driver about as well as you expect.
Bruce observes the blood of the driver's other, less Gamma-powered victims on the front of the car and decides he doesn't give a shit about the thug cracking his head on the steering wheel. But then he notices the limo has a mobile phone, so he tries to call Marlo to check on Betty but can't get through. See, back when Rick got phased out, the camera recording Nadia's play happened to be focused on him at the moment, and Marlo just happened to be watching, and she fainted while on the phone with her mother. But Betty is safely working her new job at a help hotline, which has been ringing off the hook in the wake of half the world just blinking out of existence.
But I must say, I'm sort of impressed Bruce could dial the numbers when his fingers are probably as big as the entire keypad.
It's then that he discovers a mob attempting to burn a priest alive at the behest of Gestalt, who looks a bit like a weasely, long-haired man but is in fact a creature born from everyone abandoning all rationality and individuality to mindlessly attack everything outside of themselves. He calls himself "The City" but I like to call him "The Internet Hivemind".
Bruce saves the priest and confronts Gestalt, demanding that he release the humans from whatever spell he has them under. Gestalt says Bruce has it all wrong, that the Apocalypse has simply released the inheret evil of humans, and they called for him.
Bruce manages to get the advantage and starts clubbing Gestalt's face in. At the same time, Thanos is finishing his fight with all the gods and entities of the universe and assuming the position of the Universe itself. This has the unforeseen side effect of him losing control of his body, along with the Infinity Gauntlet that's on its hand. His granddaughter Nebula swiftly snatches it up, banishes Thanos to a void Adam Warlock has to rescue him from, and reverses all of Thanos' damage. The Earth is restored, and Gestalt is wiped out by the light of a new day. As the members of his mob come to their senses and slink off in shame, Rick phases in beside Bruce. Although the Infinity Gauntlet books fuck up yet again by having Bruce trapped in magic rock at Thanos' shrine to Lady Death when Nebula restores the Universe. So much for not being confused, Bobbie.
But don't get Nebula wrong, she's totally evil and only undid Thanos' work to spite him. So Adam Warlock works out a plan to get the Gauntlet from her, which is when the Hulk and some others have to dogpile Thanos and Nebula to keep either of them from reclaiming it. In the end it's Warlock who ends up with the Gauntlet, and what he does with it is covered in another miniseries I don't care to read.
I don't want to dwell on the issues with Sabra and "little Hitler" too much. Not only does the writing completely bulldoze all subtlety, but the whole thing is a waste of two issues. Long story short, Delphi has a vision that some boy will flip Godwin's Law the finger and grow up to be Hitler 2.0. Achilles, having faced the Holocaust, wants to kill him, but Bruce can't bring himself to stand idly by while Achilles kills a child. The boy has mind control powers, which Achilles throws back in his face by getting him trampled by a crowd he hypnotized. The boy ends up in a coma, where it's revealed that he was just a puppet of the real villain all along. Well done, Achilles, you let a kid get brain damaged for nothing.
Quite a few things kick off in issue #388. Somebody named Jim Wilson make his comeback, and while I don't know much about him I think he worked alongside the Hulk when Rick was absent at some point. He's also the nephew of another Marvel superhero, The Falcon. And since his last appearance in the book, he's somehow contracted HIV.
We're also introduced to Speedfreek - yes with four E's - who comes off as a one-shot villain but does come back later in the series. I also keep wanting to call him "Turbocharge" even though they're not even from the same comic brand and Speedfreek is, you know, a villain. I dunno, maybe it's because they're both normal people with technologically enhanced super speed, the way Bruce dispatches Speedfreek reminds me of how Turbocharge saved Prime from that power absorbing character whose name I forget, and Turbocharge was gay and this issue touches on homosexuality. This is also the start of an important subplot involving Jackie Shorr, a woman who phones in to Betty's hotline claiming to be Rick's mother after reading the book he wrote about working with the Hulk and other superheroes. And lastly, somebody finally realized that jumpsuit with the undone zipper wasn't working and put Bruce in a more respectable muscle shirt/blue jeans combo.
Quick question: why are Betty's eyebrows blonde? I've never dyed my hair, but is it customary (or even safe) to dye your eyebrows as well? Or did somebody just forget she's actually brunette?
Jim runs a clinic for other people with AIDS, and one of his patients, Tyler, is the homosexual son of a powerful crime boss who's tried go get the boy who gave him AIDS whacked, a plot point that inspired this lovely letter to the editors that I really hope is just a really sick attempt at trolling. Or else Mr. Daniels feels that letter is something he thought he'd be proud to show his offspring. Anyway, before Tyler's father just sent some ordinary goons who were swiftly taken care of by The Falcon, but Jim thinks there's something worse coming. Sure enough, Speedfreek crashes the party, and there's not much anyone can do about it.
... wait, whose feet are those in the third panel? Rick's? Stop and think for a minute how he has to have the rest of his body for that to work. I'll give you a minute to twist your face around and/or scream.
Finished? Right. Jim tries his luck with Speedfreek, but gets slashed across the chest. Bruce comes crashing through a window before Speedfreek can cut anyone else, but can't exactly hit what he can't catch. Speedfreek harpoons Bruce with an adamantium-tipped barb and hauls him outside to resume their fight in the middle of traffic. Jim begs Rick for help, which puts Rick and the open wounds on his hands in a difficult position.
Speedfreek has his adamantium cable wrapped around Bruce's throat and is poised to decapitate him. But Bruce dodges and because Speedfreek acts faster than he thinks, he accidentally slices open a fire hydrant, gets caught in its blast, and helped on by a punch from the Hulk goes flying off into the sky, Team Rocket style.
Rick is trying to work up the guts to get a towel on Jim's wound when Bruce comes up behind him and asks him what the hell he's waiting for. Rick tells Bruce that Jim has AIDS, which Bruce's system is apparently immune to, so he scoops Jim up and gets him to a hospital. Jefferson tells Tyler that Speedfreek is gone, but Tyler is dead in his wheelchair.
After making sure Tyler's father doesn't pull anything else on Jefferson, Bruce and Rick rejoin Marlo and Betty in Reno, where Marlo tries to ease Rick about Jim and Bruce is able to actually speak to Betty for the first time since the merger.
As you can guess, the next issue is a filler issue by a different artist concerning Man-Thing, a tentacle-faced Swamp Thing... thing who's crossed paths with the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and even fucking Howard the Duck. I've already shown you the most important part of the issue, where Bruce was tearing a different Man-Thing a new one. Moving on.
And now we reach the reason the Pantheon brought Bruce on in the first place; the war in Trans-Sabal, a middle eastern country run by a tyrant who slaughters his people for laughs, but gets US military backup with promises of oil and turning his government into a democracy. Or as I like to call it, the bit with Totally-Not-Saddam-Hussein.
At first, things aren't going too well, as a bunch of resistance soldiers are getting the piss beaten out of them by giant robots. One of them is pinned under a giant cannon that got blown off its base, and when the entire group of soldiers can't so much as budge the canon they all go into hysterics about the Pantheon abandoning them, when reinforcements finally show up.
"Reinforcements? I am the reinforcements!"
Gold star to anyone who knows what that line's from.
The giant cannon soon runs out of ammo but Bruce is actually able to do more damage bare-handed, especially after some of the pilots piss him off by saying he's "helpless" and "weakening". After Bruce annihilates the robots, Rick comes through wondering how he got roped into this mess when all he came to do was give Bruce a gift from Betty and ask about a book that I'm pretty sure Bruce was reading for advice on banging a woman a fraction his size.
Rick takes a closer look at the wreckage, and discovers the robots are actually SHIELD-issued Mandroids. Rick salvages a piece of armor with the SHIELD logo on it and shows it to Bruce, who doesn't exactly like Rick's implication that he's on the wrong side.
After taking a few breaths, Bruce explains more calmly to Rick that he understands what he's getting at, and he too realizes they're in a gray area legally, but are in the right morally. Ulysses and Hector need to plan their next move with Bruce, so Rick goes off to fraternize with the other soldiers. He meets Shurk, a Sabalian who joined the Pantheon's resistance to get back at Dahn for killing his father over some newspaper editorials and driving his mother to suicide.
Realizing how useless SHIELD's current weapons are against the Hulk, Dahn demands SHIELD agent Galvin get something that can deal with him. So Galvin puts in a call for X-Factor, a government sanctioned team of mutants that Dahn makes a stellar first impression on.
When I initially read these books I couldn't figure out if X-Factor was supposed to be a B-rate X-Men knockoff, or a B-rate Brotherhood of Mutants knockoff. The only two of them I'd even heard of before generally hang out with the latter, those being Havok who's the brother of Cyclops, and Quicksilver who's the son of Magneto. Yes, that Magneto. But at the same time, Havok speaks up against the Brotherhood in X-Men Legends, and Quicksilver has apparently spent some times with the Avengers. I eventually figured they had to be good guys later on in the series, when Scarlet Witch (Magneto's daughter and Quicksilver's sister) is seen working with Henry Pym, and Quicksilver comes to Rick's bachelor party and oggles the human girl in the nudie clip. The 90s were a mighty strange time for comics.
Funnily enough, though, these comics were the only reason I knew what the hell Kevin Murphy was talking about in the RiffTrax commentary for The Avengers when he said "Oh great, he's dead! Hulk, we're replacing you with Strong Guy!"
After Dahn struts off, Galvin gives X-Factor a rundown on the new Hulk.
Elsewhere the Pantheon is are working out how to cut off a supply line, but to do it they have to get through an outpost of 50,000 soldiers with aerial backup. Hector and Ulysses get into a fight as to whose units gets to deal with it, but Bruce comes up with a better idea. I don't have to tell you who's soon popping out of the ground right in front the army and not giving two fucks about all the guns pointed at him.
Bruce tries to subdue the soldiers with knockout gas, but the aerial support kind of fucks up when they fire on the Hulk and end up blowing up the people Bruce was trying to be merciful with. Infuriated, Bruce starts swatting the jets out of the sky like flies until he's knocked down by a plasma blast from Havok.
But the Hulk would rather throw down. The werewolf named Wolfsbane (because obviously) is almost immediately hurled off into the distance and Quicksilver takes off to go find her while Strong Guy and some guy who can duplicate himself try to dogpile Bruce, and the green-haired girl with magnetic powers called Polaris tries to wrap his head in metal so he can't see. But all they're really accomplishing is getting the Hulk mad.
Elsewhere, Rick is kind of regretting letting Bruce talk him into joining the fight.
When the other X-Factor members have been swatted off, Havok tries to absorb the Gamma radiation from Bruce's body and throw it back at him. But it turns out to be too much and his plan literally blows up in his face.
The X-Factor crossover comic isn't required reading, and you can probably guess the most important event from the end of the next Hulk book, but what the hell, I bought and read the book so here we go. After the Hulk tossed her away, Wolfsbane is found by a Trans-Sabalian strawman and his sister, who tie her up so they can contact Farnoq-Dahn about what to do with her. After this incredibly forced conversation...
... the sister frees her, the brother stabs his sister through the heart while saying "It's your fault! You made me angry!" like an abusive husband, and an infuriated Wolfsbane goes into her full wolf form and tears his throat out.
You've also got to wonder why the brother needed to wait to call Farnoq-Dahn to ask what to do with Wolfsbane if he was already "everywhere", but I guess if Wolfsbane brought it up he would have just knifed her right then for her heresy. And what the hell is with the motion lines in that last panel? What is he, playing an air violin?
The next issue of Hulk opens with Havok bolted into a restraining device X-Factor had originally planned to contain the Hulk with, but Dahn decided to repurpose after seeing Havok's power in action. Dahn plans to use him as a WMD, as his deal with the Americans prohibits him from having nuclear armaments because fuck subtlety.
Dahn has also drugged X-Factor's manager, who might actually be human, into his sex slave. He then stations a couple guards by Havok, and leaves to go assassinate Galvin for speaking up about the treatment of X-Factor. It isn't long before the guards are dispatched by a large figure Havok thinks is Strong Guy, but is not surprisingly the Hulk. Havok's attack did batter the Hulk a bit, but he quickly shrugging it off and snuck into Dahn's base by hitching a ride under the truck they brought Havok in with.
Interesting. Not just the conflict of Neutral Good against Lawful Neutral sided with Lawful Evil, but here we have a man transformed into a powerful giant to whom humans are practically gnats, fighting for human life against a man using it as fodder for his God complex.
Back with the fight between X-Factor and the Pantheon, a mortar shell hits Strong Man who apparently has the power to absorb and redirect kinetic energy, which I think is a mistake because that would basically make him invincible; any time somebody so much as punches him he could just absorb it and return the attack. Anyway, he has to quickly get rid of what he absorbed from the mortar, so he trashes Prometheus' vehicle and shows us why he likes to hide in it all the time.
Dahn finally loses his patience and plays his trump card, revealing an array of missiles with people attached to them. It's also revealed that Havok is connected to one, a reveal that's undermined somewhat by the fact that it's shown on the cover of the fucking book.
He orders the Pantheon to cease and desist, and to make his point he launches two of them with a mother tied to one and her son tied to the other. The Pantheon and X-Factor cast aside their differences, and the Hulk saves the boy while Quicksilver and Polaris save the mother. This enrages Dahn who "declared their lives forfeit", but then the Hulk smashes into his room and captures him.
Dahn tells the Pantheon where they can put their allegations of crimes against humanity by reminding them that he's the vessel of God. Rick tells Dahn where he can put his allegations of being the vessel of God by shooting him into hamburger with one of the SHIELD Mandroids.
Suddenly, we find ourselves at the ruins of the Gamma Base with a man in a trenchcoat blubbering to himself on the floor about "that day". This is Igor Drenkov, the Russian spy who came on as Bruce's assistant to get the secrets of the G-bomb, and let the bomb go off on Bruce with the intent of killing him. But when it turned him into the Hulk instead, Igor spent the next few years slowly going mad. He's stirred from his stupor by his boss telling him to stop loafing around, and he wakes up to one baffling sight.
You can probably guess what's going on, but Igor can't because he's drugged out of his mind; Bruce kidnapped him while he was in the States for some meeting, and Bruce is now forcing him to to relive the G-bomb test. Again, a teenager ends up on the field during the countdown. And again Bruce runs out and tells Igor to delay the timer until he gets back. And again, Igor lets the bomb go off and rushes to Bruce's office to get the plans. Only this time Igor's pilfering of Bruce's notes is interrupted by Bruce barging in to tear him a new one.
Of course, Bruce answers his own question on the very next page.
Rick pleads with Bruce to back off, but Bruce continues to throw Igor around, for turning Bruce into a monster, for laying a guilt trip on Rick, and for all the mayhem the Hulk wreaked on who knows how many innocents. Finally a group of Russian super-types show up to save Igor, and things turn into another mass bitchslap with the Pantheon.
The Russians get beaten down, and Bruce returns to rub Igor's nose in what he's done, but instead of begging for mercy Igor starts laughing... then begs for mercy. He concludes that if he must take responsibility for all the wrong the Hulk has done, then he must get credit for all the good the Hulk has done as well. But then in possibly the weirdest moment in this section of the series, he has a fourth-wall breaking meltdown and starts begging for forgiveness from the reader.
...huh, is it just me, or does Rick look like somebody else in that first panel?
I have a feeling this book was written outside the main storyline, then held for the 30-year anniversary of the first Hulk comic. Mainly because Rick behaves pretty normal, when he's having some serious PTSD in the next book (another issue by a one-shot artist that doesn't become important until later in the series).
At the end of the 30th Anniversary book is a series summary framed as a report from Doc Samson. And I'm sorry, but as well as being a perfect example of why I avoid long-running comics with their completely screwed up continuities and stories that aren't so much arcs as wavelengths, if you can read this thing and its attempts to take those cornball Silver Age stories where the Hulk wears a Hulk mask because Bruce hulked out and kept his own face, Betty gets crystallized by a blood transfusion from Sandman, and Bruce gets "cured" of the Hulk only to end up back with him either through another dose of Gamma radiation or having to recombine with the Hulk after being separated at least five fucking times seriously and still think the Merged Hulk is the dumbest thing done to the Hulk mythos, then... well, I have no idea what to tell you.
And now we travel to Las Vegas, where the Punisher is investigating the murder of Michael Berengetti, the man the Gray Hulk worked for under the Joe Fixit persona. After the funeral, Berengetti's widow is confronted by her husband's rival, Striker, his thugs, and a huge man named Frost. As things look bleak for Mrs. Berengetti, Bruce shows up in his old disguise assisted by Ulysses, Hector, and... uh, Paris, for some reason.
Bruce wastes all of Striker's men, except Frost who's able to grapple the Hulk to a standstill. Striker calls him off and they take their leave. After making sure Mrs. Berengetti is safe, Bruce and the others take their own leave via a limo that can somehow support a thousand-pound passenger. We also finally learn that Paris' power is that he has empathetic telepathy, and he's convinced Stiker is the killer after reading his smug self-satisfaction. But now he's picking up on somebody else's burning hostility.
Rick, meanwhile, isn't taking too kindly to Jackie, either because of what happened in Trans-Sabal or something smells wrong to him. She has papers and a photo of him as a child, but the former doesn't convince Rick and the latter just makes him angry.
But enough of that, enjoy this scene of the Punisher driving an ice cream truck.
The Punisher busts out of the truck and empties a couple of machine guns into the Hulk, which works out really well for him.
Fortunately for Castle, Bruce is in a far more forgiving mood than he was with the whackjob in the limo. He merely knocks the Punisher unconscious with one fingertap, then drags him to a hotel where he gives Castle a chance to explain himself. Once they discover they're on the same side, they work out a plan to catch Striker and Frost.
But then Doctor Octopus comes out of fucking nowhere, trashes some slot machines, and gets his ass handed to him by the Hulk.
At first this looks like Peter David scribbled out the most random thing he could think of to fill a few pages because the script came up a little short, but there's actually a hilarious explanation to it; it's a great big "Fuck you" from David to Erik Larsen for writing and drawing an issue of Spider-Man where the Hulk was effortlessly beaten by Doc Oc, because Larsen decided that the Hulk not being able to crush adamantium was the same as not being able to overpower something made out of it, and that being thrown through fucking crates would be enough to waste the Hulk.
Back in Reno, Rick is starting to feel a bit guilty over his hostility to Jackie, who drops some not-so subtle hints that she might be unhinged.
Bruce and Castle's plan is for the latter to disguise himself as a drug dealer named Frank Tower because shut up, and have Paris make use of his douchiness by luring Striker and Frost into a sting operation where they use a bag of coffee creamer to trick Striker into admitting he hired Frost to assassinate Berengetti in front of a bunch of hiding cops. When they realize they've been had, Striker's grunts waste their ammo on Bruce while Frost tries to escape. Punisher manages to get some shots into Frost, but it merely punches some holes through his torso. No, not fleshy holes, just... holes. When it becomes clear Punisher's in over his head, Bruce takes over.
We never learn who or what Frost is or what he wanted, because after the Hulk breaks his head off he explodes into a pile of ice. I thought he was supposed to be a lump of ice given sentience and human form, what with his ice-based powers and the chunky holes the Punisher's bullets left in him. But I looked him up, and it turns out he got Gamma poisoning and sought help from the Leader, only to be decapitated and put on an android body. Somehow that makes even less sense.
Back at the docks, the cops are carting Striker and his goons off to the pokey. After getting the story on Frost from Bruce, the detective in charge comments to Tower that he looks familiar and starts to walk off. When she realizes he's actually the Punisher she turns back around to arrest him, but Bruce and Ulysses buy him some time to get away.
On their way back to the Mount, Bruce thanks the other three for their help. Hector says he was happy to do it after Bruce helped them in Trans-Sabal, and Ulysses says he thought it was actually kind of fun. But when they get back to the Mount they find it under attack by the U-Foes, who I guess the Hulk has tangled with before in previous books. One can change herself into any gas, X-Ray shoots beams of just guess, there's this big metal guy wearing a metal skirt, and finally there's Vector who looks his dog ate his geometry homework, textbook, and class notes then puked all over him. At first the fight seems to be in favor of the Pantheon, who demand to know why they've come to the Mount. The Hulk's arch-nemesis the Leader shows up to answer and drop off some reinforcements.
Oh, and Rick and Jackie? The stories he tells her about his adventures fighting Skrulls alongside Captain America horrify her, and to make sure she doesn't lose her baby boy against she takes Rick somewhere he'll always be safe. Meaning, she drugs his tea, drives him over to her place, and shackles him up in her basement, where it's confirmed that she is indeed a goddamned psychopath.
Fortunately for Rick he's not down there long. Betty and Marlo caught Jackie driving off with him, and soon arrive at her house. Despite Jackie's efforts to drown out the smell of dead bodies with Lysol and Rick's screams for help with an episode of Lost in Space turned up to full blast, Marlo finds out what's going on. And well, Jackie doesn't take too kindly to that.
Jackie then comes after Betty, saying she's no good for Rick either. Now, considering Jackie learned about Rick from the book he wrote about being the Hulk's sidekick, you'd think she'd know Betty's already married and that her husband really isn't the kind of person you want to make angry by, say, killing his wife, but I can understand why Betty doesn't feel it's a good time to remind her of that. After getting knifed across the face and nearly strangled with a lamp cord, Betty is able to beat Jackie unconscious with a fireplace poker.
Bruce, meanwhile, is off getting most of his flesh torn off...
... and only suffering the loss of his pants in a scene that Keown probably had a lot of fun drawing.
The next issue is one big angst-fest. After an ambulance takes Marlo's body to the morgue and the police haul Jackie off to jail, Betty calls Marlo's mother to tell her the bad news. Outraged that Agamemnon agreed to help the Leader, Bruce fled to the ruins of the Gamma Base, where he settled down to have a great big sulk and argue with himself.
Meanwhile, Rick is seeking the help of Doctor Strange, the Fantastic Four, and Henry Pym in bringing Marlo back to life, but they all tell him there's nothing they can do for him or Marlo.
He finally retreats to his apartment having lost all hope of getting Marlo back, blaming it on himself provoking the Karma Police by assassinating Farnoq-Dahn, when who should show up but the Leader. In a pre-Merger issue a transference of gamma radiation from Rick to Sterns formed an empathic bond between the two, and the Leader was picking up on Rick's agony. When it got to be too much for Sterns, he decided to stop by and share something with Rick; he can and would be glad to bring Marlo back to life.
And if this sounds familiar to you, that's because years later Marvel would cannibalize this plot for the Spider-Man "One More Day" arc, only doing it a lot more stupid. Damn, Doctor Strange must get really sick of people asking him to revive their dead loved ones all the time.
Spoiler: Redeemer is actually General Ross... who I guess had been killed in a previous issue?
I don't know how much time passes between the two issues. #400 opens with Betty in her pajamas rinsing her mouth out in the bathroom sink, and I think she's getting ready for bed on the same day, but the gash in her cheek is completely healed. But who knows, maybe the doctors in the Marvel universe have insta-healing salve or something. Agamemnon warps in through her bathroom mirror, scaring the utter shit out of her in the process, to ask for her help in reasoning with Bruce. After sassing Agamemnon a bit she agrees, and gets a ride from Prometheus to the Gamma Base where her veeeerrrry pissed off husband awaits.
If you've noticed the artwork in the last few images looks different, that's because after drawing the Hulk pantless Dale Keown quit the book, and they brought in Jan Duursema to fill in between him and Gary Frank. It's unfortunate that an issue as important as #400 didn't have better artwork. I don't want to be too hard on Duursema because I've seen worse comic artists, but she makes some baffling mistakes (earlier it looked like she drew Redeemer's right hand on his left arm, and instead of going back and redrawing it she just tacked on a thumb) and her artwork is a bit... what's the word I'm looking for... literal? It's like Peter David writes "Betty hugs Bruce crying" so she draws just that and thinks "done".
I don't want to get too deep into Duursema's technical problems, like how scrawny Bruce's arms are in that panel where Betty's slapping him, or that he appears to be ten feet tall, or that she doesn't seem to understand how people put their fists on their hips, or how Betty's sad face is almost comical... okay, I guess I am getting a bit into her technical problems. But my real gripe here is that she has the notes, but not the music. Is Bruce simply grieving and trying to comfort Betty? Or is he feeling guilty for vomiting all his pent up frustration on her after failing to keep his promise to her? Did that scene from the end of the Speedfreek issue even cross Duursema's mind? And what about Betty? This is the moment where she looks Bruce straight in the eyes for the first time since the merger and sees the man she married looking back at her, realizes how wrong she's been about him, and discovers that with three words she can do what a speeding limo, machine guns, grenades, SHIELD Mandroids, all of X-Factor, and Vector's matter-repelling powers all couldn't and hurt the Hulk, but it's just not coming through in the art. I also think it's a little cheesy that she drops the "you hate me" line when it's clear by Bruce's actions that he doesn't and that his outburst was brought on by displaced anger and not hatred. It's like David wrote that line with the intention of Betty not just crying but having a total meltdown and/or Bruce standing there in shock for a minute before reacting to her.
I really wish Keown had stayed on for just two more books, not just because he was a better artist overall and I look back at moments like this page from the tiny Hulk book and realize how much more this scene could have been, but because his Hulk was fucking scary and seeing that Hulk chewing Betty out then being brought to tears would have been impressive. Alternatively Gary Frank could have come on sooner, but while Frank's Hulk is powerful he's also mellower and not as terrifying as Keown's Hulk was.
Although I do love how resentful Prometheus looks when Bruce calls him a "Pantheon goon". And wait, did he light up another cigarette during the trip? Why did he even bother to spit the first one out? Or maybe he picked it up off the floor of the car after Betty got out. "Welp, no sense letting this go to waste! *puff puff*"
But yes, a fairy tale did come true for Bruce, and the woman he loves finally ran into his arms, reaffirming her love to a monster.
And all it took was one of their friends getting brutally murdered by a basket case.