"When Monsters Meet!"
Written by Archie Goodwin.
Drawn by Herb Trimpe and John Severin.
Lettering by Artie Simek.
One of the things that strikes you when you read issue after issue of The Incredible Hulk is just how amorphous the strip is. One issue it's science fiction, the next it's fantasy, the next it's super-heroics. One month the Hulk's a hero, then he's a villain, next he's a catalyst and then he's just plain irrelevant.
To some degree this is true of all super-hero strips as - faced with deadlines - writers and artists filch from any source they can find but, perhaps because the Hulk as a character concept originally drew on strands from the worlds of Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Fable, Fairy Tale and Super-Heroics, this approach seems to fit him better than any other. And, given this amorphous nature, it's perhaps appropriate that one of his strongest and most memorable tales features a truly amorphous foe, because it's time for The Incredible Hulk, the Horror Movie.
Exactly which horror movie's pretty obvious. It's The Quatermass Xperiment, the one based on the BBC Nigel Kneale TV shows of the 1950s. In that, an astronaut, upon returning to Earth, finds himself transforming into a shapeless mass, along the way losing all vestige of humanity. In The Incredible Hulk #151, it's the turn of congressman Morton Clegstead to do the same after trying to cure his illness by injecting himself with some of the Hulk's blood.
This really is a special tale, mostly for the mood Trimpe and Severin create as the events unfold in a Washington that can never have been so rain-swept. In panel after panel, rain pounds at characters and buildings alike, as though trying to wash them and the nightmare events of the night away, and the Hulk finds himself facing a foe that even he's completely out of his depth against.
Something that leaps out at you for a story of this era is the nature of Clegstead's illness. For once in a comic book, he doesn't have some vague unspecified malady that's never existed outside the pages of four-color land. You're told straight up he has cancer. I don't think I've seen a Marvel comic from this era or before that even acknowledges the existence of cancer let alone makes it a central feature, as the Congressman literally becomes a malevolent mass of Gamma powered cancer cells with the ability to eat away at the flesh of even the normally indestructible Hulk. The taboos and fears that still surround the disease all these years later make the bluntness of all this genuinely unsettling, as we're forced to face up to something that doesn't sit at all comfortably in the normally escapist realms of a comic book. The Hulk's vulnerability too is unsettling. I'm also fairly certain this is the first time we've ever seen him bleed.
The resolution's something of a cop-out, as the wounded Hulk rams a flagpole into the thing in a last ditch attempt to save himself and, at that moment, lightning just happens to strike the pole and destroy the creature Clegstead's become. That aside it's a great tale. I'd say that, thanks to its literally creeping horror, blunt intrusion of real-life illness into a comic strip, and the genuine helplessness of the Hulk, one of the best that Trimpe ever worked on.
It's also good to see Thunderbolt Ross getting more or less centre stage in this story as he goes to Washington to defend his activities at Project Greenskin and we get to see his willingness to sacrifice his career to save the project and also his motives for doing so. I hate to admit it but I'm starting to grow quite fond of the old warhorse. Whoever would've thought we'd be saying that one day?