You always remember your first.
(Your first Hulk vs. Thing slugfest, that is. Why, what did you think I meant?)
Technically, I suppose FF #112’s “Battle of the Behemoths!”, crafted by the regular Fantastic Four creative team of scripter Stan Lee, penciller John Buscema, and inker Joe Sinnott, wasn’t really my first experience seeing these two Marvel Comics heavy hitters go at it. Rather, that would have come several months earlier, courtesy of Marvel’s Greatest Comics #29 (Dec., 1970), which reprinted the characters’ very first meeting from FF #12 (Mar., 1963); the problem there, however, was that that story (a production of Lee, Jack Kirby, and Dick Ayers) was actually a bit of a bust, at least as far as Thing-Hulk dust-ups went. The two bruisers didn’t actually encounter each other until page 17 of a 23-page story, and in the three page fight scene that followed, ol’ Jade Jaws took on the entire Fantastic Four, not just Bashful Benjy Grimm. While both big guys got in some licks, the scene ultimately wasn’t very satisfying as a one-on-one match.
Also contributing to making this story less than a slam-dunk for my thirteen-year-old self was its age — or, more accurately, what its age signified in terms of the development of the characters, both visually and personality-wise. This was a decidedly different Hulk than the one I was familiar with — among other things, this guy spoke in the first person, and he wore purple trunks, rather than the tastefully torn trousers of the same hue that I was used to seeing him in — while this Thing was a lumpier and more belligerent fellow than the hero I was accustomed to, as well.
I should note here that Kirby and Lee had followed up the Hulk’s first guest-shot in Fantastic Four with a second one, just thirteen months later, In issue #25 (Apr., 1964), This time, the focus was firmly on “The Incredible Hulk versus the Thing!” — a clash of titans ballyhooed on the cover as “The Battle of the Century!” It was in fact such a whopper of a battle that it spilled over into the next issue, #26, which also guest-starred the Avengers, making for Marvel’s biggest crossover to date. Like FF #12, this classic two-parter had also been reprinted, in 1966’s FF Annual #4 — but as that comic had come out a full year before my younger self first dipped a tentative toe in the Marvel waters, it was as inaccessible to me as the issues in which the tale had originally appeared. (UPDATE 4/28/21, 1:00 pm: In the thirteen hours since this post first went live, I’ve been clued in by several kind souls that I originally failed to mention another Hulk-Thing encounter that occurred between FF #26 and #112. This one took place in Hulk #122 [Dec., 1969] — a comic that came out well after I’d become a regular Marvel reader, so I’m not quite sure how I could have missed and/or forgotten about it [though, obviously, I did]. The meeting here falls into the same general category as FF #12’s — i.e., towards the end of the issue, there’s a short battle between the Hulk and the whole team in which the two strong guys exchange a few licks. Still, it deserved at least a brief note; so, mea culpa.)
In any event, the Thing-Hulk fight in FF #112 was the first one I’d experienced as a new story, at the same time as everyone else. And it was probably the first for a lot of other late-arriving Marvelites as well, considering that the tussle in FF #25-26, published more than seven years earlier, had been the last time they’d met in a major one-on-one bout — which also meant that even old-time first-generation Marvel fans were probably more than ready to see the two heavyweights mix it up again.
A few of those well-primed fans — new and old alike — may even have jumped right in to issue #112 without having read the several issues of Fantastic Four immediately preceding it. After all, the stark, simple, but still highly effective cover by Buscema and Frank Giacoia does proclaim “Hulk vs. Thing — Nuff Said!”, as though that really is all you need to know to enjoy the story.
And maybe it is, if all you care about is seeing the big green guy and the rocky orange dude punch each other a bunch of times, But we like to think we serve a more discriminating breed of graphic narrative enthusiast here at “Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books” (though, admittedly, you’d never be able to tell that by our name) — and so we’re going to take some time to recap the events leading up to the “Battle of the Behemoths!”
Actually, we’ve covered quite a bit of this ground already, in our FF #108 post from back in December. But in case you missed that one, or would simply appreciate a refresher (it has been four months) — as well as to allow us to close the gap between #110 and #112 (issue #111 not having been covered in that earlier post) — here’s a somewhat abridged account of What Has Gone Before:
In Fantastic Four #107, Reed (Mister Fantastic) Richards’ latest attempt to “cure” his best friend and teammate, Ben Grimm, of being the Thing appeared at first to be a great success. Not only was Ben no longer forever cursed to be a creature made of orange rocks (or what looked like them, anyway), but he was even able to change from Ben to the Thing, and back again, at will — allowing him to retain his status on the superhero team. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that Reed’s process had affected Ben psychologically as well as physically — making him more callous, cruel, and selfish. The Thing’s demeanor, and behavior, grew steadily worse over the course of the next three issues, although he managed to keep his new, darker impulses in check for long enough to help the team successfully conclude the “Nega-Man” adventure, which ran through #110. Immediately thereafter, however, Ben brutally broke up with his longtime girlfriend, the blind sculptress Alicia Masters, and then stormed out of the FF’s Baxter Building HQ, leaving Reed to ponder just how bad things might get if the Thing chose to return as an enemy.
As FF #111 begins, however, Ben doesn’t show much ambition towards becoming New York’s newest supervillain — at least not initially. Rather, he seems content with wrecking a car or two, and then harassing some construction workers. Things escalate somewhat when the police arrive, and then get exponentially worse when Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, tries to intervene. The Thing lobs a lamppost at the Torch, who melts it, but then fails to notice when the remains almost strike a bystander. Ben next tries throwing a truck at his estranged buddy, not caring that there’s a driver still inside; and while Johnny is able to save the man from death or injury, the latter is still quite understandably upset — as is everyone else on the scene:
The angry reaction of the ordinary people on the street to the mayhem being wreaked by their so-called “protectors” is one of the most interesting aspects of this storyline; perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also one of the most “Marvel” things about it (coming in right after the “superheroes fighting each other” trope). But even though it complicates matters for our story’s protagonists, the public’s anger comes across (to me, anyway) as a realistic, even justifiable response to a dangerous and frightening situation. Perhaps J. Jonah Jameson is overreacting somewhat in the scene above — we’re obviously meant to take “Robbie” Robertson’s side in the newspapermen’s dispute — but you can’t say the man doesn’t have a point.
Someone else who may be deemed to have a valid point is the the FF’s landlord — the owner of the Baxter Building, the skyscraper whose top floors which house their headquarters. This is despite the fact that the landlord is obviously less concerned about anyone’s safety than he is about the possible decrease in the value of his property that may result from the public’s growing anger towards the FF — an anger which is currently being demonstrated by sign-wielding protestors who’ve gathered on the sidewalks outside. (As is rather subtly shown in the two panels below, this burgeoning anti-FF sentiment cuts across the normal societal and ideological fault lines of the day.)
Reed manages to get rid of the landlord, at least for now, but in the meantime, Ben decides to kick things up a notch by attempting to rob a bank. Again, the intervention of the Torch, as well as that of the police, is able to temporarily stymie the Thing, though they can’t prevent him from getting away.
And where is Sue (Invisible Girl) Richards through all of this? Well, she’s decamped to Whisper Hill, along with her son Franklin and the child’s regular caretaker, the witch Agatha Harkness — for no good reason, really, save that Lee and co. seemed hell-bent on sidelining Sue at every opportunity during this era.
Finally, Reed comes up with a plan… sort-of…
So… Reed asks Johnny to try to contact Bruce Banner, a brilliant scientist with an unfortunate tendency to turn big, green, and mean, because he needs “help — in the lab.” Fortunately (?), Bruce is not only in town, but also happens to be looking out a window just at the right time to see the Torch’s skywriting. He promptly hops in a taxi to travel to the Baxter Building, but wouldn’t you know it, the cabbie’s route takes them right by the location where the Thing is presently running amok, which immediately causes Bruce to Hulk out. Within a single page of story, the situation just got 1000% worse.
I’m going to go out on a limb, here, and say that Reed’s plan didn’t work out so well.
I’d also be inclined to say that editor-scripter Stan Lee’s plan — by which I mean his plan to use this storyline to set up an all-new, greatest-ever Hulk-Thing battle — didn’t work out so well, either; except that that would imply that he actually had a plan, a notion for which the story as published provides scant evidence. Rather, issue #111 appears to have been mostly pencilled, and perhaps even mostly dialogued, before Lee got the brilliant idea to shoehorn the Hulk in at nearly the last minute.
If there’d been the least amount of foreshadowing earlier in the issue — if we’d had even a single panel of, say, Reed musing about some paper he’d once read by Bruce Banner that might provide a clue for helping Ben — Lee and Buscema might have gotten away with it. As it is, the whole thing comes out of left field, and one can only wonder why Reed Richards, allegedly one of the smartest men in the world, didn’t try to contact some other “test-tube jockey” (to borrow Johnny’s phrase) before fixating on the highly unpredictable, and potentially extremely dangerous, Bruce Banner. (Yes, according to concurrent issues of Avengers, Dr. Henry Pym is presently working in the Arctic, but surely there’s somebody else in the New York metro area who’s competent enough to give Mister Fantastic a little help in the lab.)
That’s how my present-day, 63-year-old self sees things, anyway. Like so much else in these 50-year-old comic books, however, I’m pretty certain that the younger me took it all in stride.
In any case, we have at last arrived at the Main Event:
Before we jump right in to the bludgeoning, however, I’d like to take a moment to address a question that my thirteen-year-old self definitely did not expect this story to settle: Who’s stronger, the Thing or the Hulk?
Because I already knew the answer to that question, and it was: the Hulk, of course.
I can’t tell you exactly how I knew this to be true in 1971; this was long before the days of Official Handbooks, Marvel Encyclopedias, or any of the other later resources that would attempt to clarify and codify such weighty matters. Nevertheless, a consensus of sorts had emerged over the years between the fans who wrote in to Marvel’s letters columns and the staffers who replied to them, and that consensus had managed to worm its way into my consciousness: all else being equal, in a “fair fight” the Hulk was bound to win.
Still, knowing the outcome in advance didn’t mean it wouldn’t be fun to watch the two titans whale at each other for 20 pages. And the extra wrinkle that Lee and Buscema had come up with for this latest iteration of the classic Marvel match-up — the element of Ben Grimm’s mental impairment, which made him simultaneously both as much of a menace as was the uncontrollable Hulk, and also an unfortunate victim of circumstance — provided further interest to the proceedings, and gave even those veteran fans who’d been around for FF #12, 25, and 26 something they hadn’t seen before.
So, yeah — I was stoked to be at ringside.
(Notice anything funny about those captions and word balloons? If you’re wondering why Marvel was so stingy with the punctuation marks this month, you can find an explanation [of sorts] here.)
Back at the Baxter Building, Reed and Johnny have discovered just how badly the former’s plan has gone awry. (“It’s my fault, Johnny”, Reed admits unnecessarily, as well as uselessly.) Adding to their misery, J. Jonah Jameson has now taken his rant from the Daily Bugle‘s editorial section onto the television airwaves:
As before, Johnny can’t stand to stand idly by in a crisis, and flies off towards the scene of the battle to do… something. This time, Reed stops the Torch cold — first dousing his flame with chemical.foam, then stretching an arm to haul him back in through the open window:
John Buscema may have been more successful than any other artist at following Jack Kirby on a Marvel Comics feature — something he accomplished by incorporating Kirby’s dynamics and sense of excitement into his own approach to storytelling, without attempting to ape the particulars of the King’s graphic style. And, of course, here on Fantastic Four his efforts were enhanced by the polished inking of Joe Sinnott, whose work helped the series maintain a consistent visual identity for well over a decade.
As our story proceeds, the Hulk and Thing continue to go at it until those howitzers mentioned by the police officers back on page 2 finally show up. Ol’ Greenskin’s been in this kind of situation before, however, and he opts to avoid the impending shelling by leaping to the rooftop of a nearby building, aware that the police won’t fire in that direction for fear of injuring civilians. Ben decides to follow him — “I gotta finish ‘im off — so I don’t haveta worry about ‘im no more” — and though he doesn’t have his opponent’s ability to leap tall buildings at a single bound, he figures out another way:
Sue acts here as though she’s still unclear about Miss Harkness’ nature and abilities — which, after the events of issue #110, is fairly absurd. Unfortunately, it’s also pretty much in line with how the Invisible Girl was regularly written back in the day.
Sue decides that it’s about time to return home to see if she can help. Good call, but even in her snazzy little jet car, it’ll take her at least half an hour to reach the city — and by then it may be too late.
It seems rather uncharacteristic of Alicia Masters, who’s usually portrayed as level-headed and self-reliant, to behave this recklessly — she’s distraught, of course, but still…
Rather than wait for an elevator, Ben rip off the doors of the shaft and slides down the cables. But as soon as he emerges from the building onto the now Hulk-shattered street…
As the battle continues, Alicia — who’s finding her way by consistently moving in the opposite direction from the fleeing crowd — grows ever closer to the scene, until…
And so it ends — Marvel’s third Hulk vs. Thing battle. How does it stack up against all the others, before or since? I’m probably not the best person to try to answer that question, to be honest; because, while I’ve read a number of these stories over the decades, I know there are several I’ve missed. All I can really tell you is that this one is my favorite. Not the best, mind you — the story has too many flaws to even be in the running for that distinction — but my favorite, nonetheless. Why? Because I read it when I was thirteen years old; and also because, well… it was my first. And that’s all I have to say about that.
Wait, what? You want to know what happens to Ben after the last page? Well, why didn’t you say so.
FF #113 picks up in the immediate “awful aftermath” of #112, naturally, as things get even worse for our heroes…
Reed attempts to escape from the police, but he’s so distraught that he only manages to contort himself into a ball, and then go “bouncing aimlessly — in panic“, as one of the cops puts it, before smashing into a wall and stunning himself.
Luckily, Sue has made it back at last, arriving just in time to rescue Reed with her force field, With the NYPD now held at bay, Reed and Johnny quickly load Ben’s inert form into the jet car. “To the lab, Sue — at attack speed“, Mister Fantastic commands. “Ben’s life depends on it”. Ah, so that’s why he was so frantic before; Ben’s not actually dead… yet.
Taking Alicia along with them, the FF zoom back to the Baxter Building…
While Reed works desperately against the clock, the Torch, in his typical hot-headed fashion, allows himself to be distracted by the angry protestors still milling about outside. He sends a “harmless” smoke attack their way before Reed and Sue convince him to knock it off; the electricity is still off at the Baxter Building, and they need his flame to power Reed’s equipment:
Not only has Reed managed to resuscitate the Thing — there’s more, even better news:
And that, at last, is that. Not only have Lee and Buscema wrapped up this latest variation on the familiar “Reed attempts to cure Ben, fails” storyline — they’ve also put that whole plot element to bed, for good. Obviously, since Ben has now decided that he’s just fine with being the Thing, Reed can relax, and it’s happy endings all around.
At least, that’s how I interpreted this development as a young reader, back in April, 1971 — as a permanent change in the FF’s status quo. Of course, as most of you reading this will already be aware, that turned out not to be true. But for more on how this particular episode fits into the whole, nearly six-decades-long history of Ben Grimm’s quest for “normalcy”, I invite you to check out my Fantastic Four #78 post of a few years back.
Still and all, even if we haven’t seen the last of Reed Richards’ attempt to de-Thingify his best buddy Ben, we’ve definitely come to the end of this particular attempt. Of course, there are still some loose ends left to tie up. Not only is most of New York City still mad at the FF, the team is also still wanted by local law enforcement. And then there’s that mysterious light in the sky everyone was so excited about back on page 6.
But the resolutions to these matters will have to wait for the next major FF storyline, which, in the classic Marvel fashion, begins right here in issue #113 — first overlapping with the finale of the previous adventure, and then taking center stage for the remaining 9 1/2 pages, as well as the next three issues to come. So, while I hate to leave you in suspense, I’m afraid that’s what I’m gonna have to do. We definitely will be diving into this multi-parter, but probably not until around the time it winds up, in issue #116.
Until August, then, I’ll leave you to ponder this (hopefully) intriguing question: Who in the hell is the Over-Mind?