"The Wisdom of the Watcher!" — On the far edge of space, the Hulk faces off against the most powerful being in the galaxy (a human-sized lumpy scaly bald person in wrestler's trunks) to retrieve the Ultimate Machine (which looks like a goldfish bowl) so the Leader can use it (by putting it on his head and promptly dying). EH?
Tales to Astonish #73
"Another World, Another Foe!" — It's status quo shakeup time again, as the Leader melts the bullet in the Hulk's brain and (unwittingly) zaps him with enough gamma rays to prevent his ever reverting to Bruce Banner. Next, a backdoor crossover with the Fantastic Four, as the Hulk is teleported across the universe to the Planet of the Watchers and Kirby gets a chance to indulge his weird-imaginary-animal fetish (like for example by inventing a tentacle-y mongoose thing, and a googly-eyed red griffin parrot). And just in case you forgot which comic you're reading, the last two panels might as well have a caption reading, NEXT ISSUE: SLUGFESTS. All GOOD fun.
Tales to Astonish #72
"Within the Monster Dwells a Man!" — It's 1965. The fashion for incredibly shabby supervillain residences continues unabated. Ernst Stavro Blofeld is hard at work building an unwelcoming volcano fortress with little or no access to local amenities. Only the world's smartest megalomaniac, The Leader, has the foresight to buck this trend, which is why this issue finds him standing on the balcony of the secret headquarters he built above an art gallery on the outskirts of Rome. Downstairs, The Hulk smashes machinery, brawls with living statues, looks for something, anything, to stop him making one last, fatal, transformation back to Bruce Banner. Stan and Jack keep it coming. GOOD.
Tales to Astonish #71
"Like a Beast at Bay!"— 'A Bullpen Action Bombshell' proclaims the splash page and sure enough, this issue sees Stan and Jack tossing the warheads around like hacky sacks. First, the US Army drops an A-bomb on the Leader's giant Humanoid (and the Hulk and Rick have to try and out-leap the resulting mushroom cloud); then they chase the Hulk down to a desert cave and get ready to nuke him off the face of the planet. Isolated, cornered and hopelessly overmatched, the Hulk's only chance for survival is to accept the help of his arch-enemy, the Leader. OKAY.
Tales to Astonish #70
"To Live Again!" — You know, I really did try to avoid giving away the ending of the last issue, but that title has just blown the whole affair. Okay, Bruce Banner just got himself shot dead by the US Army, and so Rick Jones immediately sets about hustling the corpse to one of the secret caches of scientific equipment that seemingly riddle the hills around Gamma Base. The result: the Hulk lives again, as big, green and strong as ever, but with Bruce Banner's mind (for now, at least). From there it's straight into action, as the Leader takes a hired-gun job for a foreign power, attempting to destroy the missile base using his all-new, all-massive Humanoid and its nipples of doom. GOOD.
Tales to Astonish #69
"Trapped in the Lair of the Leader!" — Not an especially memorable issue, it's tough to see this story as anything more than more deck-clearing, with Kirby bringing the Hulk back to his conception of what the character is all about. The last page (I'll spoil it for anyone interested) gives him a clean slate to do precisely that. Also worth noting that this issue was produced during the brief period when Kirby's vision of the Hulk involved him being able to suddenly grow very thick chest hair and just as suddenly lose it all again. Mm-hmm. Yup. OKAY.
Tales to Astonish #68
"Back from the Dead!"— For a man who'd been drawing them for over two decades, Jack Kirby's early Marvel Age comics look like the work of a man in the grip of a crisis of confidence. Whether he'd been ground down by years of churning out formulaic monster stories, sexless adolescent romance and forgettables like his failed newspaper golf strip, On the Green with Peter Parr; or whether it was the ignominy of having to return, cap in hand, to a company run by his former office boy Stan Lee, Kirby's first Hulks and Fantastic Fours feel restrained, low in energy and self-belief. Whatever the reason, by 1965 Kirby's comics once again looked like the work of a man who'd had his Weetabix — his figures were bolder, his plots had momentum and his stories had rediscovered their ambition. His Hulk spends much of this first comeback issue leaping across the globe, leaving the stale plots of previous months in the dust. Lee and Kirby might as well have provided a signpost: You are now leaving Ditkoville. GOOD.
Tales to Astonish #67
"Where Strides the Behemoth"— The last few issues really feel to me like Ditko, bless him, was running out of steam on the book. So he makes this last issue of his run an all-action spectacular, with the Hulk destroying a Russian tank force then fleeing the country. Ditko leaves the Hulk much-altered from when he took over the character, three years and nine issues previously: his transformations have become linked to changes in mood, and he's now starting to talk with the speech patterns that launched a thousand Twitter feeds. Ditko also leaves on a literal cliffhanger, with Banner and Major Talbot plunging into a Himalayan abyss in the midst of an avalanche. But the Next Issue blurb promises that Jack Kirby will be back in a month's time — so it's all going to be OKAY.
Tales to Astonish #66
"The Power of Doctor Banner!"— Let me just briefly summarise the pulse-pounding events of this issue for you, True Believers. What happens is:
- The Hulk's new-found friend, his fellow anti-Communist from last issue, is swiftly disposed of (like, in panel five);
- The Hulk changes back to Bruce Banner;
- Cutaways to some monologues from General Ross and the Leader;
- Bruce Banner becomes the Hulk again.
And... that's it. You can make a lot of criticisms of Silver Age comics, but you usually can't say that nothing happened in the stories. Sturdy Steve's plots were treading water at this point, and his pencil art this issue is not exactly improved by the attenuating inks of Vince Colletta either. EH, I say.
Tales to Astonish #65
"On the Rampage Against the Reds!"— Time for another round of Good News/Bad News in Bruce Banner's life. Good news: pardoned last issue by Presidential edict. Bad news: sighted this issue aboard a Soviet submarine while fleeing the site of a sabotaged US weapons test. This story is really helped by Dick Ayers' inks over Steve Ditko's pencil art. He adds some welcome texture to the pages and even manages to give the Humanoids some weight and menace. Unfortunately, when the Hulk ends up behind the Iron Curtain there's an unmistakeable feeling of retreading old ground, and it's the sort of ground that wasn't much more than OKAY to begin with.
Tales to Astonish #64
"The Horde of Humanoids!"— A comic that starts with Thunderbolt Ross standing in the doorway of Bruce Banner's jail cell and tossing him a package of downers can't be all bad, but then again check out that title. One polka-dotted, foam rubber Hulk-bedeviller not enough? Here, have a gross of them! It's a story that also features Rick Jones blagging his way into the Oval Office in search of a Presidential pardon, and an odd final panel that looks like the Hulk is about to hoist a flag on Iwo Jima, and it's OKAY as far as it goes.
Tales to Astonish #63
"A Titan Rides the Train!"— First full appearance of the Leader! You'd think that an introduction to the Hulk's greatest enemy might make for a pretty great comic, except that the criminal mastermind's plan this issue revolves around what the narrative refers to as "his indescribable humanoid." Well, no. It's not indescribable. I can describe it: it's pink, with orange polka dots, and it looks like it's made of foam rubber. Steve Ditko's achievement here is to draw a comic book menace that looks like a bad special effect from a cheap movie. Elsewhere in the book, Bruce Banner is once again found half-naked at the scene of another averted catastrophe. No better than OKAY.
Tales to Astonish #62
"Enter... The Chameleon!"— I happened to read some of the Lee/Kirby X-Men comics recently. Far from being hated and feared by normal humans, in the early run the X-Men get plaudits from the US military, and Professor X uses a special headset to communicate with a friendly G-Man in Washington. But on the basis of this issue, Bruce Banner must have been on the Pentagon's least-trusted list; first he goes missing while the Hulk is held captive, then he's impersonated by a kidnap-crazy Chameleon, plus Major Talbot announces that he's been sent to Gamma Base by whatever is the equivalent of Internal Affairs for government weapons scientists. Plus, first appearance of The Leader, PLUS Rick Jones rejoins the cast. It's all go, and it's all GOOD.
Tales to Astonish #61
"Captured at Last!"— Steve Ditko had a bit of a thing about revealing villains' identities. He loved to build up to a climactic moment when the hero would remove the villain's mask and... have absolutely no idea who he was looking at. So the mysterious robot-stealing traitor from last issue is dealt with here in classic Sturdy Steve style: the Hulk dumps him in a bottomless pit and we never find out who he was. Elsewhere in the book, Major Talbot joins the cast as the third corner of a Bruce-Betty love triangle. Another GOOD 'un.
Tales to Astonish #60
"The Incredible Hulk"— Two years later and the Hulk is back, as a ten-page co-feature with Giant Man in Tales to Astonish. The setup, 1964 style: Banner is still working at Gamma Base, trying to keep his double life secret. Here, for the first time in his own feature, he becomes the Hulk due to a change in mood (although stress rather than anger is the trigger); meanwhile, an anonymous traitor steals Banner's bulky crimson robot. It's a pageturner. GOOD.