Armagideon Time

What the Heart wants

June 30th, 2016

After referencing the story in last week’s Q&A session,it dawned on me that I’ve never done a proper write-up about the Jack of Hearts guest appearance in Incredible Hulk #213-214 (July/August 1977). Today I’m going to rectify that, as it is one of my favorite Bronze Age Marvel moments and helped trigger the Great Back Issue Buying Spree.

I picked up the second half of the story in a quarter bin back when local comicons were rummage sale affairs staged in hotel function rooms. I was there looking for a couple of issues of the X-branded reprints of the early Moore/Davis Captain Britain stories, while Lil Bro sought out bargains to fill out his Silver Age Marvel checklist. As he made one last sweep of the dealers’ room, I killed time by flipping though a battered longbox of acid-browned excess inventory from the Me Decade.

While the bin would be considered a treasure trove of offbeat oddities (including lots of Kirby’s 1970s Marvel work), the issue of the Hulk was the only thing that caught my eye, and only because of the Jack of Hearts appearance on the cover. I had a weird affection for the character since my grade school days, and twenty-five cents was a reasonable asking price for a mold-scented hit of childhood nostalgia. When I came across the first part of the story in a similar bin at a later con, I plucked down some loose change for it, too.

The main plot (or rough-seamed joining of two plots, to be more accurate) of the story was draped over a host of ongoing subplots and set-ups that were utterly lost on me. Bruce Banner was living in a seedy NYC rooming house and hanging with his streetwise teen pal Jim Wilson, which gave the gamma-damaged scientist the opportunity to indulge in rage-fueled rampages and 70s sitcom-style interludes.

The destructive antics of Banner’s jade-jawed alter ego brought the attention of the understandable worried authorities, who engaged in a public-private partnership with Stark International to bring the Hulk to heel. Unwilling or unable to offer up Iron Man’s services, the Stark folks send over the seventeeth next best thing…

…the Quintronic Man, a team-piloted mech along the lines of Voltron….if Voltron debuted in the Disco Era and was designed by an Ideal Toys intern. I’m not really sure why a robot designed to explore alien planets required a glowering humanoid kisser, but I’m assuming Tony Stark came up with the concept during one of his wilder weekend benders.

Quintronic Man meets Hulk. Hulk attempts to smash Quintronic Man. Quintronic Man gasses Hulk. Hulk gets taken into custody. Hulk’s teen friend causes the police transport carrying the Hulk to crash. Hulk escapes. Quintronic Man’s crew fights among itself. Hulk trashes Quintronic Man.

It was solid but predictable fun, but the best parts (from my perspective) were the in-between sequences where a pissed-off Jack of Hearts goes sickhouse on a bunch of mobsters. As fate would have it, the radio in the goons’ lair was tuned to the All-Exposition Hour’s coverage of the Hulk’s rampage. Jack, being the sensible, stable youth he was, decided it would be really cool if he tried to take down the Emerald Behemoth.

So he did, by sucker-punching the not-so-savage beast during his evening constitutional. That Jack is a hero after my own Heart.

The battle started off well for Jack, but rapidly turned after Hulk’s rage-boosted second wind kicked in and Jack came to realize that a soon-to-explode freighter was not an ideal spot for throwing down with a angry man-monster.

After courteously waiting for Hulk to deliver his lesson in humility, the ship explodes. No sooner did the onlookers utter “NO ONE COULD’VE SURVIVED THAT” than a broody, waterlogged Jack pulled himself out of the murk in time to genuflect on his mistakes.

I never picked up the following issues, so I can only assume that Hulk has been dead ever since.

The two-part story is Bronze Age Marvel boilerplate in its purest, most unrefined form. It’s jammed packed with confusing subplots, mandated fight scenes, corny melodrama. The full-to-bursting captions, thought bubbles, and dialogue balloons suggest a profound mistrust in leaving any parts of the visual narrative open to reader interpretation. It is disposable trash of the most playground-lurid order imaginable — the type of stuff that ivory tower highbrows refer to when they use “comic book” as a pejorative.

I absolutely adore it.

It’s formulaic but it’s a formula that delivers of its suggested promise, like the feeling you get when you pop open an ice cold bottle of Coke and take a swig — something familiar yet comforting no matter how awful you know product actually is. I’d call it Proustian, but it less about actual memories than memories those memories. I was a fairly jaded dude in his mid-twenties when I first read it, yet it still managed to evoke visions of being a wide-eyed five year old sitting on my grandma’s stoop with a stack of well-thumbed funnybooks by my side.

(panels from Incredible Hulk #213-214, July/August 1977; by Len Wein, Sal Buscema, Tom Palmer and Ernie Chan)

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