Saturday, January 08, 2011

Comics! A Clash of Titans!

There's something primordially satisfying about superheroes fighting other superheroes - it's always far more compelling than superheroes fighting anybody else. I don't know why that is, but I've been enjoying it for eons just the same. And some superhero fights are just undeniably more enjoyable than others - and that part I do indeed understand: it's all about iconic value. If you take two superheroes with no iconic value and have them fight, absolutely nobody is going to care who wins (well, fanboys will care, but since nobody cares about them, we're in the clear). Daredevil verus Power Man? A mere statistical blip. Captain America versus Wolverine? A classic waiting to happen (and I do mean waiting! despite the fact that these two should make a riveting rumble-epic - two perfect fighting machines, neither of whom gets tired, one armed with an unbreakable defensive weapon and one armed with unbreakable offensive weapons - they've never had a satisfying fight, despite having had a very satisfying Mike Zeck fight cover. Go figure).

And the greater the iconic value, the greater the power of the imagery involved, the better the fight - or so it used to be. In terms of power-specifics, no fight in the DC universe should be more enjoyable than Superman versus Wonder Woman, but although just such a fight was done very well a few years ago, DC can actually field an even more iconic confrontation: Superman versus Batman. Despite the fact that Batman has no super-powers and should therefore lose in about a tenth of a second, the staggering iconic weight of comics' two most recognizable figures carries the day - as was perfectly illustrated (literally, in this case) at the climax of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns, when a grizzled old Batman fights a stronger-than-ever Superman - and comics readers everywhere held their breath (it's my hope that we'll someday see a live-action special effects extravaganza version of that very scene - with Bruce Willis playing Batman, of course).

It's trickier over at Marvel, since their most iconic character, Spider-Man, is also something so rare he has almost no parallel in comics: a totally non-aggressive hero. It just doesn't feel right to have him showing up in the books of other characters, throwing punches at them - he's a sweet-faced good-natured young guy who'd rather talk and joke than establish a alpha-male dominance. It's true that Wolverine has quite a bit of iconic value nowadays too, and there were satisfying moments to that storyline a few years ago where he felt compelled to take on the entire Marvel lineup of heroes one by one.

But for me, the real Marvel kicker has always been Thor versus the Hulk. Not just because of the power involved, although it was always neat wondering what would happen if Marvel's two most powerful characters duked it out (that's the one thing that stopped fights between the Hulk and the Thing from being equally compelling - no matter how well-done the confrontation was, the reader always knew the Thing was going to lose), but also because the nature of the iconic value here was completely polarized: Thor was an intelligent, refined, quasi-Shakespeare-spouting god from a shining city, and the Hulk was a near-bestial pea-eyed creature of incoherent rage. That always added a zest to their rare confrontations.

Or at least, as mentioned, it used to. Nowadays, their confrontations aren't rare anymore, and writers who were children in the 1970s are now comic creator's united in one solid belief: that Thor is some ponce who's totally dependent on his magic hammer to last even five seconds against the super-cool Hulk. Sigh.

A perfect case in point came out to comic stores this week: the third issue of "Earth's Mightiest Heroes: The Avengers," the comics-companion to the new cartoon series on Disney. Don't get me wrong: the issue is really well done, written with deceptive wit by Chris Yost and drawn with nifty vigor by Scott Wegener. In it, two celestial bad guys - the Stranger and the Collector - place a wager on who would win in a fight, Thor or the Hulk (most Marvel super-villains are in fact just this kind of barely-disguised fanboy). They brainwash Thor into attacking the Hulk, and the show is on.

Wegener does something that's by now very familiar in such fights: he gives Thor a great opening out of the gate specifically because he knows Thor's going to get his Asgardian ass handed to him in short order - and that's just what happens here. Thor gets in precisely one good shot and then spends the rest of the abortive fight getting punched around by the Hulk. The Stranger and the Collector (I forget who bet on whom, but it doesn't matter - they're both windbags) keep commenting on how Thor, despite his power, is probably going to lose because, as the decades-old Marvel tagline goes, "the madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets." And if you fight an opponent who keeps getting stronger the more angry he gets, and you aren't similarly blessed, you're certainly going to lose eventually.

So Thor blasts the Hulk with a lightning-bolt smack from his mystic hammer (no explanation as to why it doesn't seem to hurt the Hulk - writers hardly ever bother to explain that, although I'd really like to know), and then the Hulk starts knocking him around until the fight is interrupted by Thor coming to his senses. Inconclusive, you might say, and hardly unprecedented for being so. A few years ago, in issue #5 of Mark Millar's epic first run on "Ultimates," we get the same thing. In that story line, Thor is a seedy hippie with an enormous glowing hammer and the Hulk is a snarling gray-skinned cannibal with an attitude problem. Millar's approach to this retooled Avengers fiddles with virtually every established tenet of that super-group - but he leaves the familiar Thor-Hulk rope-a-dope untouched: his Thor is given an impressive initial success against the Hulk specifically because it's going to count for nothing - the Hulk's going to shrug it off and knock Thor into the middle of next Tuesday. Millar's Thor arrives on the scene in an impressive burst of lightning and smugly enumerates to the fallen Hulk specifically what damage has been done to his body ("you've got three broken ribs, a punctured lung, a shattered spine, an enlarged gall bladder," etc.) - then the Hulk swats him across midtown Manhattan like last year's graffiti. Sigh.

It all prompts me to recall the good old days, when 'equal' meant 'equal' and when, at Marvel anyway, house policy forbade iconic fights from having clear-cut winners. I specifically recall, of course, the halcyon summer of 1973 when Marvel ran its very first cross-title storyline, a six-issue event dreamed up by Roy Thomas and written by Steve Englehart, in which the company's two most powerful super-teams at the time, the Avengers and the Defenders, were tricked into fighting each other. The plot involved Loki and Dormammu and a quest to assemble some sort of mystic do-hickey and enslave all of reality, but like most fans at the time, I didn't care about the plot - I just loved the prospect of seeing so many superheroes square off against each other.

And square off they did! Some of the match-ups were interesting, and quite a few were absurd (and at least one turned out to be awkward, in light of Marvel's later continuity: Captain America fought the Sub-Mariner, and neither acted like they knew each other or had been comrades during WWII - mainly because it would be a couple more years before Roy Thomas himself thought up the Invaders, the super-team to which Cap and the Sub-Mariner belonged, so in 1973 it didn't exist yet) - the Silver Surfer fought the Vision, the sad-sack Swordsman fought the Valkyrie, Iron Man fought Hawkeye, Doctor Strange fought Mantis and the Black Panther (he just puts them to sleep, rather than turn them both into caterpillars), but all of that was mere prelude to the climax of the whole event: Defenders #10 - Thor versus the Hulk.

Oh, I can't tell you how I lived for that issue! How my beagles and I trooped dutifully to the corner variety store to see if that longed-for delivery had come (this was in the days before the Internet, when corner stores allowed dogs inside and nobody had posted shipping schedules for comics). These two characters had only fought once before, in a maddeningly off-scene two-panel encounter years ago in the Avengers, nine long years before, but this issue promised a full-length showdown.

I wasn't disappointed: with Englehart writing and the underappreciated Sal Buscema drawing, Thor and the Hulk square off in L.A. and duke it out for seven glorious pages ... it had everything any fan could ever hope for - except a winner. Instead, after he's had them trade blows for a while, Englehart has his two characters lock up in a straining match, each trying to move the other without success, until finally their two teams show up and convince them to stand down.

Defenders #10 was blissful for me, but looking back on my callow younger days, I realize that instead of being pleased I should have fired off an angry letter to Roy Thomas, taking him to task for placating mindless Hulk-fans with what amounted to a stalemate. Of course, back in 1973, I didn't have access to the Good Book that now rules my life, the Holy Text that I now consult for guidance on every one of life's most important questions.

I refer, of course, to the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, expanded edition.

In that mighty tome, the facts are clearly laid out. Thor has 'class 100' strength, meaning he can lift (press) over 100 tons. The Hulk, the Handbook notes, also has 'class 100' strength - but only when he's enraged. In his 'normal' state, he can only lift (press) about 70 tons. In other words, he needs to get mad and stay mad to approach Thor's level of strength. And even when he's there, he's only there - where Thor is too. The Handbook is silent on how much more than 100 tons Thor can lift - it's possible that the Hulk would be significantly weaker than Thor even after he himself reached the 100-ton range. If I were to write that irate letter to Roy Thomas today (much as it grieves me to say so, I don't believe he's a reader of Stevereads), the point I'd make would be very simple: if, when the fight starts, the Hulk is only two-thirds as strong as Thor, the fight would never last long enough for the Hulk to win. Added to which Thor's vast centuries of combat experience fighting monsters just like the Hulk - there's just no way things would result in a stalemate, let alone a loss for Thor.

And yet lose he does, time and again. Even if we don't talk about the recent animated movie that features a Hulk-beating-Thor sequence so long and detailed it practically qualifies as S&M porn, there are still plenty of comic book fights between the two in which the Hulk wasn't even inconvenienced - just take the nancy-boy's croquet mallet away from him and slap him around like a Girl Scout until you get bored.

The moral of the story? Everything was better in 1973.


Adam Golaski said...

I'm sure you'll be able to help me here with my memory: Spider Man fought the Hulk back in the late 80s... two issues of The Incredible Hulk penciled by the not-yet-a-star Todd McFarlane. Question a) was it the gray Hulk he fought and b) did he beat the Hulk because of the black suit or was it during Marvel's Inferno days?

One of your recent comic book posts, in which you praise the very effective use of reflection--Captain America's shield in Iron Man's face--reminded me of another effective use of reflection: do you recall the cover that showed (I think) the Hulk reflected in Wolverine's blades? A very exciting image.

Maybe you could clear up these fuzzy recollections?

Kevin said...

I think you're thinking of Amazing Spider-Man 328, from 1990. McFarlane was indeed already a star, and it was the grey hulk he fights. He wins, but only because he had the cosmic 'Captain Universe' powers - giving him the strength to punch Hulk into orbit.

Unless you were just doing a geek-check, in which case I'm busted.