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BRONZE-AGE FLASHBACK: Incredible Hulk 290 (December 1983)

May 5, 2002

Okay, so there is this female scientist who is also a SHIELD agent named Katherine (Kate, for short) Waynesboro who has been working with Bruce Banner and who is abducted by the gamma-spawned monster lovingly known as the Abomination who, himself, is but a servant of large-brained would-be AIM (and world) leader MODOK who, seeking revenge on the Hulk (who now is controlled by and has the mind of Banner and who has been granted a pardon for everything that was smashed when the Hulk would shout, “Hulk smash!”[during which time any number of buildings, tanks, cars, bridges, etc., would be, um, smashed]), has ordered the Abomination to bring Waynesboro to him knowing that Banner as the Hulk will follow the Abomination in search of his scientist friend. As if that wasn’t enough, MODOK was given the services of the Abomination from the Hulk’s long-time military adversary General “Thunderbolt” Ross (who, has been facing a variety of personal and professional crises) as part of a deal more secret than the ingredients in McDonald’s “Special Sauce” (which we all know is merely a combination of Thousand Island dressing, mayonnaise, and rat droppings—but don’t tell anyone [it’s a secret]). Here’s the deal: Ross turns over the Abomination to MODOK who will use the Abomination to kill the Hulk. Afterward, MODOK is free to use Abomie to help “subdue AIM.”

Is it any wonder that I consider Bill Mantlo’s run on the Hulk to be one of the finest comic achievements of the 1980s? Mantlo had an impressive 69-issue run on Incredible Hulk (that began with issue 245 and ended with issue 313 [when he moved to John Byrne’s Alpha Flight and Byrne moved to the Incredible Hulk title [for an all-too brief stay, but that’s another matter]). Mantlo’s run on Incredible Hulk was filled with innovative stories, situations, characters, and multi-tiered plotting. When Bill introduced the intelligent Hulk, he did not drop the premise after one or two issues, but rather sustained it over the course of many issues. When the story arc ended, Bill did not return the Hulk series to its former status quo, but took it a step further, introducing a savage, nonspeaking Hulk alive on an alien world. Although that particular saga was considered by some fans to be too much of a radical departure, it was, I believe, Bill’s way of breathing new life into the character, rather than returning to the typical Hulk-on-the-run-from-army plots and subplots that had been so much a part of the Hulk’s (then 20 year) history. Thus, if the introductory paragraph seems a bit much to digest, realize that the events described occurred over the course of several issues of the series. Although I wish to address issue 290 specifically, I felt it important, if not essential, to convey and explain the “what has gone before” aspect of this story arc.

When the Abomination arrives at AIM headquarters he expects to be greeted by MODOK. (Long-time Marvel readers will no doubt recall many stories that showcased MODOK’s hospitality and overall warm-heartedness to his fellow man [and in this case, monster]. I recall an issue of Captain America [the specific number escapes me at present] in which MODOK prepared a tasty meal of stuffed pork chops, mashed potatoes, and lima beans for the star-spangled Avenger, not realizing Cap’s aversion to pork products, his preference of stuffing over potatoes, and his personal prejudices against goods imported from Lima. But I digress.) The Abomination is met not by MODOK but by agents of AIM who plan to kill him; however, at Abomie’s urgent plea, the AIM agents agree to allow him to live. They discover that his captive, Waynesboro, is a SHIELD agent, probably because she is wearing a blue wrist band that reads “Yes, it’s true, I, Kate Waynesboro am an agent of SHIELD, the secret government agency whose purpose is to thwart crime and stop fanatical organizations such as HYDRA and AIM from gaining domination over the world.” The AIM agents, fearing that the deposed MODOK will return, decide to place Waynesboro into an Alteration Chamber to transform her into “the second MODOK!” whom they will use to battle MODOK.

Meanwhile, the Hulk is but one mile distant—he’s been using a portable Gamma Tracker to follow the Abomination (I won’t question why the tracker is not going off its scale seeing how the Hulk himself is a gamma-infused being.) He locates the AIM headquarters but is confronted by MODOK. Using his patented brain beam (patent-pending, actually) he brings the Hulk up to speed with regard to Waynesboro and the two form a strange alliance. Inside AIM HQ Kate--who now sports a fashionable gold one-piece bathing suit with matching boots, armbands, and headband (needed for use of her own soon-to-be-developed patent-pending Brain-Beam)--is brought into a room by several AIM agents and thrown atop an electronic platform. The transformation commences. The Hulk-MODOK express arrives and disposes of several AIM agents in seconds. The duo bursts into the Alteration Chamber (we know it’s the Alteration Chamber because the words “ALTERATION CHAMBER” are printed on the door itself in large black letters) but just like little Karen who opens the greenhouse door in “Frosty the Snowman,” they arrive is too late and, unfortunately, there is no Santa Claus present to undo the damage that has been done.

Visually, this is one of “Our Pal” Sal Buscema’s finest pages in his Hulk run (and I believe he drew close to or possibly more than 100 issues of the green-skinned goliath’s adventures). Sal renders not a splash page, but a double-splash depicting the newly transformed Kate Waynesboro surrounded by dozens of AIM agents who shout in unison, “All hail…Ms. MODOK!” The first narrative box states “Yes, gentle reader, look…if you dare!” Visually, Ms. MODOK looks quite like MODOK (who I suppose, in fairness, should heretofore be referred to as Mr. MODOK to avoid sexism) except that her hair is decidedly more female (long and flowing) and she is wearing bright read lipstick.

Right about here things take a weird twist that I can only described as something out of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet or Fire Walk With Me. The dual MODOKs sense each other’s giant minds. The AIM agents had previously placed a hypnotic suggestion in Kate’s mind (an order to kill MODOK, natch). However, when the command is given that would trigger this suggestion, it is ignored by Ms. MODOK who states that she is no longer Kate but is, instead, a “new entity…[who] does as she desires.” And what is it she desires? Ask, gentle reader…if you dare!

Well, you know how the mind has been said to be the most powerful aphrodisiac? That’s right, Mr. MODOK and Ms. MODOK are gonna have themselves a little mind-meld, a little stroking of the lobes as it were. Yes, the couple becomes cerebral and medieval; or, as the Abomination puts it, Mr. MODOK’s found “his mate!” Yet, strange as this is, it becomes even more surreal. The Hulk is mortified at the thought of Kate being a mate to Mr. MODOK (and, not to sound superficial, but ya really can’t blame him). The Hulk objects to the proposed union of the two minds, but Ms. MODOK states, “I wish to wed MODOK,” a statement so profound it opens an entire floodgate of questions and observations:

For example, assuming the wedding is to occur straight away, who is going to act the best man, bridesmaid, flower girl, ring bearer, etc.? What about guests? Religious beliefs? A photographer? Wedding cake and caterer? DJ? Limousine to the hotel? Honeymoon plans? Plus, by rushing into the marriage, Mr. MODOK has missed out on the possibility of a kick-ass bachelor party (i.e., strippers!) to say nothing of the many engagement and wedding presents that will be missed. Also, how well does this couple really know one another? Sure, they read each other’s minds, but how much can that really tell you about a person? As for long-term consequences consider these two words: Baby MODOK. How long do you think the child could use his or her Brain-Beam before getting into trouble with the staff at Kinder-Care? (While this does seem to have all the elements needed for a classic What If…? story, as far as I know, it was never published as such.)

Displeased by the Hulk’s repeated protests, Mr. MODOK cuts loose with his Brain-Beam on both the Hulk and the Abomination (in fact, he, um, kills the Abomination which, in itself, should serve as a valuable lesson—never piss off a guy whose head is larger than your body, particularly if he’s sporting a DuPont Brian-Beam). Ms. MODOK is repulsed by her intended spouse’s disregard for life (ah, their first lover’s quarrel). They strike at each other. Although Bill did not clutter page 20 with narrative (there is only dialogue and a few thought balloons) I think the narration might have gone something like this and I encourage you to read the story page with this additional information:

Ms. MODOK, a woman scorned, blasts at the man she thought—knew—she loved. Her Brain-Beam strikes not merely for her, but for women—all women—who have ever been wronged by a big-brained male who would sooner run down an innocent squirrel than change a burnt-out closet light bulb. Her soon-to-be ex-lover strikes back in a maddening frenzy of masturbatory frustration and heartbreak. “She could have been mine—those lips, those legs—mine for spanking,” he thinks. The Hulk bounces into the fray like a green and purple Super Ball tossed wildly across a tight enclosure by an angry 5-year-old child. He leaps atop MODOK’s giant cranium and begins pounding, pounding, pounding as if the gooey center of the AIM-created madman was filled with a delicious mixture of peanut butter and chocolate. As the MODOKian creatures fire wildly at one another, their final words of declaration are made—she, knowing she’ll never be like him; he, knowing she must die by his brain. Knowing he’ll never find another piece of tail nearly as high caliber as this, his fury overwhelms MODOK as his final assault is launched like a rabbit out of dog race starting gate!

MODOK’s assault hurls Kate back onto the transformation platform. The Hulk and MODOK square off and the Hulk is buried in a pile of rubble. MODOK leaves even though he clearly could have finished off his adversary. The Hulk realizes that MODOK did not attempt to kill Kate so much as push her back toward the alteration rays to reverse the process by which she’d been transformed into Ms. MODOK. The Hulk ponders MODOK’s reasons—perhaps he’d learned the concept of mercy from having loved Kate. Perhaps, rather than destroy her, MODOK sent her back to be with the Hulk. The Hulk carries the now unconscious Kate away, swearing never to let her go. (Again, this is but one issue of a larger saga and developing relationship between Kate and Banner.)

Despite (or perhaps due to) the absurdity of two MODOKs actually “hooking up,” I really dug this story (and the story arc as a whole). The science is oversimplified, but the motivations, fears, triumphs, and failures of the cast is quite real and extremely believable. Scoot over to a comic shop that sells back issues and give it a try.

Hulk on!

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