Issue(s): Hulk #364, Hulk #365, Hulk #366, Hulk #367
This is Countdown, a highlight of the post-Joe Fixit, pre-Merged Hulk period. Actually, highlight is probably the wrong way to say it, since there really are no lowlights and Peter David's entire Hulk run is an oasis of quality as we go into the 90s. But these issues have a cool high-stakes storyline while allowing for a fun fight with the Abomination, a twist on the normal Hulk/Thing fight, and a confrontation with the Leader and his new minions, all while introducing a new villain. Also some nice Walt Simonson covers (although i have a brief moment where i go, "Oh no, that's not Madcap, is it?!" when i see the cover for issue #367.
At dawn, the Hulk transforms into Bruce Banner, who finds that Reed Richards will be appearing in Phoenix, Arizona as part of a science conference. But he winds up falling asleep, making himself late to work.
Work is the nuclear research facility where the scientist Phil Sterns is also employed, and as Bruce is supposed to be getting ready for work, we see Phil talking to an odd looking villain. If you're not careful you won't notice that the character is actually a reflection in a door-length mirror.
But since i've pointed it out, i'll go ahead and spoil it: Phil Sterns is in fact the new villain, Madman. And i've already noted that he shares a last name with Sam Sterns, the Leader's civilian identity. They are in fact brothers. But these facts won't be formally revealed until the final chapter of this story.
"Madman" wants "Phil" to poison the Hulk, and when Bruce gets to work, we see Phil pat Bruce on the back, and the Countdown begins. The time in the captions will continue to count down as the series progresses, a cool device.
Not long after that, the Abomination shows up.
The Abomination had very specific instructions from the person employing him.
And when he arrives at the facility, the Abomination spots and recognizes Bruce Banner.
This also won't be revealed until later, but this is part of a chess game that the Leader is playing against his brother. He knew that Bruce would be poisoned, and he arranged it so that the Abomination would show up here and recognize Bruce, triggering a transformation into the Hulk that would delay the effects of the poison.
A comment on basic scripting craft: as i mentioned, the above won't be revealed until later, when the Hulk confronts the Abomination. But you can tell that this was planned from the beginning, and enough clues were there for a reader to either make a guess or at least come back and see it on a subsequent read. I can't tell you how many stories i've read where some master planner was supposed to be behind some event, and there's no indication of it from the original sequence. In those cases it feels like the writer was winging it as they went along. A mystery is fine, and of course you have to be careful to not insult the readers intelligence by going too far in the other direction. But i just like the way that these four issues read like there was a plan behind them from the beginning. It sounds like a basic thing, but that's sadly not always the case.
Anyway, the poison is already beginning to take effect, so the mere appearance of the Abomination isn't enough to trigger Banner's transformation, plus his changes are triggered by the change from day to night, not stress. But the Abomination is having none of that.
So the Abomination throws Banner into a gamma tester, triggering the transformation. Meanwhile, the Abomination has to deal with the facilities' guards. Or not.
David's simple, gruff dialogue for these characters is another thing i like about his Hulk run.
Then there's the humor, something i enjoy even though i acknowledge it brings people out of character a bit.
The grey version of the Hulk is not as strong as the Abomination, so he has trouble during the fight. Plus he figures out that he's been poisoned. He tries to get away to think, but the Abomination won't let him.
Good fight, showing the Hulk continuing to weaken.
But you can see the Hulk reaching for that radioactive waste, and you know that the grey Hulk may be weaker, but he's more nasty, so you can see where this is going.
It almost looks like the Abomination has melted away entirely, but we'll see soon enough that he's survived. At this point, though, we're not so sure about the Hulk.
The next issue opens with the Hulk having been passed out for four hours, and he's being lifted by a forklift at the nuclear facility. He then wakes up and jumps away, just as Doc Samson is arriving. Samson takes charge of the investigation, but can't get Phil Sterns to admit anything.
The Hulk, meanwhile, arrives at the conference where Reed Richards is speaking. The Hulk is his usual impolite self, so a Thing challenges him...
...resulting in one of the funniest in-joke lines i've seen in a comic.
This is probably the last time Reed Richards is invited to speak at a conference, too.
The Thing that the Hulk is addressing of course isn't Ben Grimm. It's Sharon Ventura, whose official superhero name is Ms. Marvel. Ms. Marvel punches the Hulk into the street, causing a car to swerve and crash into a comic store (an ongoing joke in PAD's Hulk). The Hulk continues to make disparaging jokes, despite not looking so good.
Sharon actually did call herself She-Thing in Fantastic Four #335, but i'm glad she's still calling herself Ms. Marvel here.
Watching the fight, Ben Grimm starts to have adequacy issues. And, after the fight continues for a bit...
...Ben jumps in.
Ms. Marvel is recovering while that's happening, so she doesn't realize that Ben is on the Hulk's back when she grabs him and throws him. It takes Mr. Fantastic to save Ben from getting crushed.
That gets Reed knocked out, though, so the fight continues, with the Hulk telling Ms. Marvel that now that he knows that she's not really Ben Grimm turned into a girl, she's "less interesting than ever".
That may seem like a knock on Steve Englehart's efforts, but the Hulk does then acknowledge that she is good and may even be great some day.
I like his analysis of her fighting style.
The Hulk had been happy to get into a fight at first, but as it got prolonged and his poison-induced weakness started setting in, he was trying to get Ms. Marvel to stop the fight, but she was convinced that the Hulk was there to finish the job he started when he attacked the Thing the last time they met (Sharon probably doesn't know that the Hulk and the Thing were both among the heroes fighting together during Atlantis Attacks in Avengers annual #18). The Hulk tries to show his good intentions by holding back when the Invisible Woman arrives, even though he can see her thanks to a broken fire hydrant.
But Ms. Marvel still doesn't relent, and the Hulk gets knocked out. Then Mr. Fantastic says that they have to help him anyway.
There's more character in that scene than there is in probably the past year of Fantastic Four comics.
The Hulk wakes up in a hospital bed where Reed and another doctor from the conference are examining him. They've been unable to get a sample of his blood, so the Hulk provides one in a scene
Then, while Hulk is waiting for the results, he goes to a nearby bar to meet up with Ben. Another great scene.
When the analysis is done, Reed tells the Hulk that he's been infected with something like AIDS in the sense that it keeps mutating so that his healing factor can't adapt to it.
At the beginning of issue #366, we find out that the Hulk didn't stick around to see if Mr. Fantastic could find a cure. Instead, he's gone back to the nuclear facility where this all started. But first he lures the soldiers and Doc Samson away by hurling a truck at the facility from a distance.
Samson thinks that it's unusual for the Hulk to attack from a distance, but he goes along with the army general that is now stationed at the facility. It turns out that the Hulk was actually hiding inside the truck. He gets out and finds out from a remaining guard that the Abomination is being transferred to Project Pegasus (not the Vault?).
The Hulk arrives and takes care of the convoy guards, and then interrogates the Abomination about who hired him to attack the nuclear facility.
The Abomination doesn't give up the information and the Hulk is distracted by more soldiers. But we're shown that the Leader has been observing these events (and also watching a scene with Madman killing a soldier back at the facility). And the Leader teleports the Hulk to his current hideout.
Since the Hulk attacks right away, the Leader has his minions fight him. We start with Rock and Redeemer, who we've seen before.
Then we meet the people that got mutated when the Leader detonated the gamma bomb in Middletown. Jailbait and Hotshot...
...and then Ogress.
The Hulk is in no shape to fight all these people, so he's forced to listen to the Leader. I love that Hotshot insists on giving themselves a super-team name ("Riot Squad"), to the Leader's exacerbation.
It's at this point that the Leader reveals that he was behind the Abomination's attack, specifically so that the Hulk wouldn't succumb to the poison while he was still Banner. He also says that he was responsible for putting Emil Blonsky's mind back in the Abomination (he had been mind/body-swapped with Tyrannus in recent appearances). The Leader explains that he wants Madman dead, and offers to give the Hulk Betty's location if he'll kill him. The Leader doesn't yet explain who Madman is.
Pretty big change in the art as we go to Dale Keown for the final issue (compare Jailbait, for example).
Between issues the Hulk has gone into a stupor. But as the Leader and his minions leave the room, he snaps out of it and starts going through the Leader's computer trying to find info on Betty without agreeing to the Leader's demands. But first he has to guess the Leader's password.
I would hope that the Leader knows that his password should be a random combination of letters, numbers, and special characters and not a simple word that someone else could guess. We don't find out, because it's at this point that the Hulk makes the connection between Sam and Phil's last names. The Hulk rather violently confronts the Leader about this.
Even now, the Leader doesn't reveal that Madman is his brother; he instead says that Phil is being forced to work for Madman, and that's why he wants the Hulk to kill Madman for him. As a gesture of good faith (and because the Hulk has him by the throat), the Leader gives the Hulk Betty's location now (Darien, Connecticut).
The Leader does tell the Hulk a little of Phil's background. He was a student that went to the same school as Bruce Banner, but unlike Bruce he was no genius, and just barely managed to graduate. The explanation is that Madman approached him afterwards, when Phil's inability to make enough money to cover his "extravagant" tastes got him in trouble.
A minor quibble: i never love the introduction of long lost relatives, and creating a pre-Hulk connection between the Leader and Bruce Banner seems unnecessary. Phil's subconscious jealousy towards Bruce could have started when Bruce began working at the nuclear facility; we didn't need them to have a retroactive history. I also don't love the idea that Sam Sterns, originally an "ordinary laborer" (the implication being that he was a guy without much intelligence prior to getting gamma irradiated), had a brother who may not have been a genius but was smart enough to get through college with a degree in physics.
Anyway, the Hulk agrees to get teleported to Phil's house to take care of Madman, and it's after he leaves, when Hotshot notes that the Leader's explanation as given seems "pretty lame", that it's revealed that Phil really is Madman. The Leader can't bring himself to attack and kill his brother directly.
As the countdown continues and his body dwindles away, the Hulk is unable to find anything in Phil's house until he finally discovers a hidden trap door leading to a cavern. We're approaching daytime, and the Hulk wonders why he transforms back into Banner and vice versa even when they're not directly in the sun. This seems to indicate that the explanation we got for the Hulk's transformations in Hulk #333 was not correct.
In the cavern, the Hulk finds Madman...
...and instead of fighting him, he begs him for an antidote.
This angers Madman, who tears off his costume, revealing his true form. He also stops talking so eloquently.
In his current state, the Hulk is no match for Madman, but he puts up the best fight he can and vows not to beg any more.
Luckily, Madman transforms back into Phil Sterns, and Hulk figures out that they're the same person. Phil tries to lead the Hulk to the antidote, but he's having trouble keeping his Madman personality in check.
So the Hulk injects him with the poison, and then, with less than a minute on the clock, pretends to get knocked out so that he can see Madman go for the antidote.
Again, dirty tricks win the day.
It's not quite that easy, though, because as established earlier it's hard to get a needle through the Hulk's skin, and that's true even in this weakened state. So he has to wait until the exact moment that he transforms back into Banner to inject the antidote. And that means fighting off Madman again.
But he does manage to do it.
The issue ends with Banner showing a bit of his dark side by not helping Madman inject the antidote.
As it did in realtime, Peter David's Hulk keeps me going during the 90s. In addition to being a cool adventure story with some nice battles, there's a lot of character study going on. The exact nature of the Hulk/Bruce relationship continues to be explored, and there's a contrast with Madman/Phil. The Fantastic Four encounter is an example of how Peter David often comments on what's going on elsewhere in the Marvel universe, but he actually handles the characters really well even while making jokes. So the series is a great blend of adventure, character, and humor. Really fun stuff.
Quality Rating: B+
Chronological Placement Considerations: The MCP list the original Redeemer as appearing in this issue but i believe that the original Redeemer really is dead at this point and it's General 'Thunderbolt' Ross in the Redeemer armor, and that's how i've handled it for the Characters Appearing. The FF's appearance takes place while Ben Grimm is still in human form.
Continuity Insert? N
My Reprint: N/A
Inbound References (5): showAbomination, Betty Ross, Doc Samson, General 'Thunderbolt' Ross, Hotshot, Hulk, Invisible Woman, Jailbait, Leader, Madman, Mr. Fantastic, Ms. Marvel (Sharon Ventura), Ogress, Rock, Thing
The art isn't as clear as one might like, but the scene where the Hulk gets a blood sample for Richards isn't left up to our imagination: he punches himself in the face, hence his bloody nose in the last panel of the scene.
Posted by: Walter Lawson | April 22, 2015 5:59 PM
Oh, thanks, Walter. I never noticed the nose blood and always thought he might be jamming the test tube into his arm or something.
Posted by: fnord12 | April 22, 2015 6:10 PM
Madman represents PAD's idea of how the Hulk really works, which we'll see hinted at in other ways over years to come. The idea is that the Hulk, like Madman, fundamentally has just one disturbed mind and that the Hulk's physical form is his basic state, which he shapeshifts to appear as Banner. Bruce's cruel touch of leaving the antidote just out of Stern's reach is, of course, exactly the kind of thing Fixit would do.
I agree these are great issues, and 1990 is arguably the peak of PAD's Hulk run.
Posted by: Walter Lawson | April 22, 2015 6:14 PM
It IS Ross in this story and not the original Redeemer.
Posted by: Michael | April 22, 2015 8:27 PM
Sharon Ventura is referred to as Sharon Carter above.
Posted by: MikeCheyne | April 22, 2015 9:11 PM
I hadn't read the Hulk since Byrne left although I was aware of the grey Hulk/Fixit angle. Countdown got me back into pciking up the title, and I was so impressed by David's writing (I also liked both the Purves' art and Keown's) that I kept collecting the series.
However, I share your concerns about the connection between Phil and Sam Sterns. Having a genius scientist and dumb laborer as brothers makes no sense. Perhaps if we found out Sam was adopted it and Phil treated him well would've been better.
I also didn't like what happened to the Abomination. In my mind, he should be an A Class villain, but he's been in very long decline. Rather than redress that, David just made him worse.
I was disappointed that Madman ultimately was just another strong guy. Hulk has lots of opponents that are strong. He needs more variety. I had hoped for far more from Madman after a great build up. It should have been the start of a great addition to Hulk's rogue gallery.
Posted by: Chris | April 22, 2015 9:12 PM
The Abomination doing jobs for money seems weird to me. He's insanely powerful, what could he possibly need money for? And if he did need money, why wouldn't he just take it himself from any bank?
Posted by: S | April 22, 2015 11:10 PM
A character called Jailbait? Er...OK.
Posted by: JSfan | April 23, 2015 5:11 AM
@Michael, the Leader's exact words about restoring the Abomination are: I already did my part... when I hired the Abomination to go to the plant at Yucca Flats after I restored his mind." So it could very well (unintentionally, of course) refer to the Abomination's state after Atlantis Attacks. I thought the "hired" line was especially weird in that context (the Leader could have lied to him and said if you don't do what i want the temporary' cure i gave you will automatically revert back), but considering the MSH appearance maybe the Leader restored him, he went and did whatever nonsense he did in MSH, and then the Leader called in his debt. I agree with S that the Abomination shouldn't be a common mercenary, but i can see him working for the Leader and the Leader letting him think it's a business arrangement instead of him being a minion.
@Chris, This was probably my first realtime exposure to the Abomination (aside from a Hostess Fruit Pie ad and the 'all villains fight the Beyonder' issue of Secret Wars II, and i had already read his Bring On The Bad Guy appearances), and i actually thought he came across pretty badass in the initial fight. But this story also sets up a new scenario for the Abomination that i think works pretty well for him considering he's not "allowed" to be the A-list villain he ought to be.
@MikeCheyne, thanks. This was also pointed out in the forum. I consistently mix those two up for some reason.
@JSFan, i think both Hotshot and Jailbait are meant as parodies of teen super-types.
Posted by: fnord12 | April 23, 2015 7:54 AM
@JSfan: there is another Jailbait in the short-lived "Incorruptible" series by Mark Waid, published by Boom! Studios a few years back.
That she was too young was part of the character concept. Then again, so was her being a criminal.
Posted by: Luis Dantas | April 23, 2015 8:31 AM
Countdown was my entry into the Incredible Hulk series. I grew up watching the Bill Bixby series, and now I was reading the comic on which it was based.
Posted by: Steven | April 23, 2015 12:27 PM
I don't know if it's the same in the US as in the UK but jailbait means a girl who is younger than 16 (the legal age for consent in the UK)who looks older and so...how can I put this, getting with her would get you put in jail.
Posted by: JSfan | April 24, 2015 4:36 AM
@JSfan - It's the same here in the US, except it's generally younger than 18 (age of consent in most states). So the name is probably a deliberate joke - it might have been too soon, but given the way Leifeld at this time was drawing the outfits on teen characters, it might have been a jab at him.
Posted by: Erik Beck | April 24, 2015 6:50 AM
I doubt it was a jab at Liefeld- his first issue of New Mutants came out barely a month before Jailbait was named, so PAD almost certainly hadn't seen the art when he wrote this.
Posted by: Michael | April 24, 2015 7:56 AM
Yeah but the "sexy teen drawings for an increasingly adult audience" thing was happening before Liefeld. You can see it in Blevin's New Mutants art, and even as far back as Dagger's costume. Peter David would have known the meaning of the phrase and didn't pick it by accident, which is why i think it is meant as satire.
Posted by: fnord12 | April 24, 2015 8:27 AM
This sounds like a good story. I wish I had read it...
Has it ever been explained why Madman, while a gamma creature, is red instead of green?
BTW. When the Red Hulk debuted a few years ago, I actually had this theory that he was Madman in disguise :)
Posted by: Piotr W | April 30, 2016 8:24 PM
Intense story, totally underrated. Keown/severin crush it, shame they never paired up again.
Posted by: MindlessOne | June 6, 2017 7:08 PM
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