Monday, June 12, 2017

Comically Bad: Incredible Hulk #141, The Origin of Doc Samson!

Comically Bad: the Origin of Doc Samson

Yet again, we dig into the highs and lows of Marvel Comics circa 1980.
Now, if you’ve never been embarrassed by a comic book, are you a true comics fan?
That mixture of eye-widening wonder and face palming shame is the hallmark of championing old comic books. Sure as Thor is the prince of Asgard, it’s your birthright! Face front, True Believer!

Some of the dissonance, this time, can be attributed to Marvel Super-Heroes #92 being a relic of a decade before. This is a reprint from 1971- where the Silver Age meets the Bronze Age, the times when new writers and approaches outside of the Stan Lee script were only beginning, as in the hands of Marvel Universe architect Roy Thomas. Roy did so much to make the story world of Marvel coherent (and yes, sometimes incoherent), connected, gave it rules and editorially guidance to help enthusiastic young writers and artists. His efforts on Conan The Barbarian gave Marvel a new Top Five book around this time; adapting properties was his forte. He even incorporated an erudite usage of literature and some youth pop culture savvy, updating the characters in ways that were definitive of the new decade as well as occasionally awkward.

But when he created the first new, enduring Hulk supporting character (Jim Wilson had quite a run, too, and that’s no jive, dig it?) at the time, the Rascally One reached back to an ancient source of inspiration, one whose stories make the most-referenced touchstone in Western World Literature. He added a healthy dash of Golden Age comics love, in an era where collectors were first gathering to discuss such things as the apparent golden-ness of 1940’s comics and their pulp predecessors.

Then, he characterized everyone in the story as an idiot --in a uniquely Thomas style!

With Mort-of-the-Month aplomb, may I present Hulk’s newest frenemy?

“His Name Is...Samson!”

In this editorial time of transition, Lee-style bombast is still the order of the day. There’s a trope where the writer seems to talk to the character, who can’t hear him. Wait...the cover. Back up from the splash page, begin at the top. OK, there’s some story-telling set up here: a woman, who Hulk readers might recognize as Betty Ross, cowers in the back, shouting “No, Hulk---Don’t Hurt Him---Please--!” Centered, we have the imposing figure, the green haired-hippie, gripping Hulk by the wrist like a child about to have his ass whipped for stealing candy in a K-Mart. “Foolish Female!!” (I see some other Stan Lee-style stuff’s still hanging ‘round.) The Victory shall belong to---Doc Samson!” And who says comics are for kids? Well...the banner across the top, ‘Win a Toys R Us shopping Spree! Grand Prize Minimum Value $3000! Details Inside.’ Take that into consideration, and everything that follows is either much more understandable, or perhaps, by today’s standards, even more offensive. But I’m not here to get political. I’m here to get silly. And it looks like I’ve come to the right place.

Now, back to tropes, and the splash page. Narrative openings, like thought balloons, have virtually bit the dust in modern comics, which open more cinematically overall now. Hey, TV shows used to end in frozen characters, with credits rolling and studio audience applause. Conventions fall away in every medium.

There’s another trope, hammier than breakfast at Denny’s, where the narrator shouts the melodrama inside the depicted character’s head, with a burning, repetitive word. In this case, author Thomas shouts at us: ‘The Hulk is an unfeeling monster!’ Now he’s going to defy that contradiction, while, in true early ‘70’s socially-conscious fashion, indict the “predigested news—predigested views” of television. Can you dig it, blood?
He continues: “Why, then, does a single word resound noiselessly thru his clouded brain! Jarella! Jarella! Jarella!” Artie Simek’s lettered the word, increasing in size, for maximum melodramatic effect. I’ve read the previous issue before, and Hulk’s going to quickly cover why Jarella mattered so to him (but not Banner, interestingly)- so in his psyche, this is dramatic stuff.

That’s an intriguing development in the character- but it’s not going anywhere for a long, long time. This is the era where Thomas penned the fairly-clever “radical chic” issue of the Hulk, where he’s adopted as a celebrity for a posh Manhattan fund raiser, so for the first time in a while, the character who Marvel seemed to have the hardest time initially defining, who has then been stuck in a recurrent sort of storytelling engine, is having some different stories. And this one will prove no, er, different.

Betty Ross- daughter of General Thunderbolt Ross (what IS his first name, do you recall?), avowed military enemy of the Hulk- has been turned by the Sandman into a crystalline statue. Desperate for help, Ross listens to the theories of pipe-puffing psychiatrist Leonard Samson, who snootily talks down to him about a cockamamie theory. Before Betty’s permanently stuck this way, perhaps bombardment by a high energy force can reverse her condition.

Conveniently, that force will turn out to be “the Hulk’s libidinal energy.” I’m aware Freudian psychology had not fallen out of fashion yet, and sexual libido was common element of diagnosis. Slinging science terms in pseudo-scientific style is a hallmark of classic Marvel. In true “each scientist is talented in many unrelated fields” manner, Doctor Samson, in his first appearance, has also created a machine capable of siphoning and shooting weird story-driving energies.

Now if they can just capture the Hulk, this machine will enlist his libido in a Comics Code Approved way- and possibly, cure Bruce Banner of being the Hulk! If you’ve followed the character much at all, it’s a central conceit: Banner’s tormented by his helpless transformations, which leave his life, and purple pants, in tatters, usually leaving him stranded in gamma-powered blackout drunk fashion after devastating another location and/or menace.

So Air Force Lieutenant Major Talbot- another Betty Ross suitor- walks up the Hulk on the street and tries talking to him. With a handy hologram projector, Hulk’s manipulated emotionally by the waving, smiling, crystallized form of “friend Betty” and calms down enough to change to Banner. This works, to Thunderbolt’s amazement, because of what our smug psychiatrist calls “a matter of proper timing---psychological discipline.” There could be a fatal risk attached to this attempt to cure Betty, but Banner’s willing to risk his life for her. And it better work, or T-bolt will “shove those sugar-coated words” down Samson’s throat!

Thanks to Trimpe and Severin on art, we’re treated to the dramatic scientific experiment that changes Bruce to Hulk and back, before using the siphoned libidinal energy to make Betty flesh-and-blood. The machine- the Psychotron?- still contains the Hulkiness, and Samson dispassionately observes: “There is ---much that may be learned from the residues of the Hulk’s gamma-ray power. Oh, by the way—you may come out as well, Dr. Banner.” Kudos to Simek for lettering Thomas’ script to specs so that Samson’s snotty contempt drips from each italicization.

Tired of being thought of as an effete intellectual, despised by emotionally-imposing types like Major Talbot, Doctor Leonard Samson sneaks back to the machine later to give himself a controlled bombardment of the Hulk energies. One broken set of glasses, and suddenly Samson’s a buff dude with flowing green hair. Unconscious of the concept of narcissism, Len enjoys his sweet new bod in the mirror. His flexing’s interrupted by Betty Ross, who stopped in to thank Len at this odd hour. She’s been told Bruce is asleep. Doctor Lennie then spirits her away in his convertible- which would’ve been a nice enough chick magnet to get him a date, I’d think, but-- he’s ready to celebrate!

Honestly? Yes, this is a brand new character dropped in, characterized, and set up to be the issue’s Hulk nemesis. Nothing to this point is not par for the course: you either like this sort of story or not. Ridiculous science and melodrama comes with the territory.

And then we have Bruce, freshly sneaked out of the hospital, standing forlornly as Ross hops in Samson’s car. Just like that, because he’s now, by comparison, a “98 pound weakling,” Bruce just decides the woman for whom he risked his life automatically belongs to the newly-empowered suitor. It’s just accepted as a matter of fact that Samson must be using the Hulk energies, and apparently, that Betty was really into Bruce’s hunky muscles he didn’t have when he wasn’t the Hulk, anyway. Yeah, “huh?” is right!

Here, we’ve run into the deadline-driven problems that smushed dramatic developments that might’ve made decent soap opera into comically compressed proportions. It’s not clear how long Betty and Len go out, because we get a montage of him also buying his own union suit from the costume shop- an apparent homage to Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, complete with Shazam! Bolt. He then trains himself to be agile. That suit: I asked my wife what she thought of it, without any preface. She immediately saw the open, tight t-shirt, covered her mouth, and giggled. It’s all certainly quite snug. She recommended some black boots and a silver belt might’ve toned it down a bit, but, you know old comics.

So Betty’s seeing Len as “gentle, kind” and not as a raving egomaniac, while wondering all the way through dinner why Bruce, who she loves, doesn’t call. I guess she’s lost Bruce’s number? As we get Doc Samson’s feature page, complete with his wishes he had the Hulk to try to slap around, we have Banner fuming at the bottom, how his power (remember, his long-lamented curse?) has been usurped by Samson to woo Betty. My wife asked: is that Bruce? “He looks like a newscaster!” Well, he’s got a news flash cooking for our Johnny-come-lately psychiatrist.

After an entire series, on and off for nine years at this point, of Banner desperately wishing he could be cured of the Hulk, our somewhat unstable physicist decides it’s worth ruining his life again and endangering society to go use the Psychotron to bombard himself again. Wrecking the machine and the building, the explosion reveals- the Hulk!

Fresh off apparently rejecting a marriage proposal (!),Betty wonders why he’d do that, too. And our ever-astute psychiatrist suggests they both know why. Not that he’s a masochistic maniac. Doc Samson tries to dress this up with some nobility, cleaning up his responsibility, but we know he’s been itching to go toe-to-toe with the Hulk, so that’s what he rushes out to do.

There’s something a little weird about the art in the battle that follows. For one, Samson is knocked ugly in one of those staggering punches. Nevermind that the caption tells us Doc Samson strikes first AFTER he’s already punched the Hulk, dodged the Hulk, and “squared off.” That may well be a hasty addition to the reprint, which I think cuts at least a page or two somewhere. If Samson’s arm’s not tragically dislocated by their hand-squeezing stand-off, he must be double-jointed.

Now, Bruce has behaved most baffingly of everyone, with Samson revealing himself to be something of a idiot by using his new-found power to try to impress the one woman around who’s been entangled in this, while neglecting the one guy who can turn into the Hulk. Maybe he thought he was cashing in on her gratitude? But now it’s Betty’s turn to be awful and off-putting. She runs up to the battle scene, not for Hulk/ Banner, but to declare her love for Len! She coddles the newly-humbled would-be superhero, leaving Green Jeans standing stupefied in the streets for our ending and emotional cliffhanger.

It’s not impossible to see something kind of cool in the Doc Samson design and general concept- at least it’s not another generic monster this month. We’re going to see a lot of Doc, on and off, over the years. You can laugh at overwrought Thomas characters all you want, but it’s hard to think of another person who did more to translate newly-number-one Marvel Comics Group into its 1970s incarnation, as he gathered eager, idea-filled, off-the-wall scripters to carry the torch after Stan Lee left for Hollywood. It was a tough decade sales-wise, but this was also because Marvel was trying out so many ideas, so many titles!
There’s something to be said for working out an idea a bit before committing it to the page. Just ask my artistic collaborator Joe Phillips, who will probably take a year to go from off-the-cuff pitch to published first issue (with the next two or so in the can).
It might be, the key ingredient to making The Incredible Hulk #141 Comically Bad was making it Comically Rushed. But that was the business in 1971. Is it terrible of me to give it the business in 2017?

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