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Sincerely, The Sandman

This month The Dollar Box looks at The Incredible Hulk #138 (April 1971) — a lost classic from Herb Trimpe and Roy Thomas!

I have a confession to make. The Hulk is one of those Marvel heroes that I dearly love … but I’ve never been a fan of his Silver and Bronze Age comics. While I dutifully collected The Incredible Hulk for years, most of the time I preferred the Hulk’s guest appearances in other books to the monster-of-the-month/Hulk SMASH fare on offer in the Hulk’s own book. To be honest, most issues of The Incredible Hulk are forgettable.

Incredible Hulk #138 is not one of those issues.

Herb Trimpe isn’t my favorite Marvel artist (and I gave him short shrift when I reviewed his later Godzilla work over at Longbox Graveyard), but when revisiting Trimpe’s work it is important to place it in context. For much of his Marvel career, Trimpe was an inventory artist, paid a salary to draw a certain number of pages a month, sometimes as the regular penciler on a book, and other times pitching in wherever needed — and much of Trimpe’s work from this era is of an assembly-line quality. But that doesn’t mean Trimpe wasn’t a fine artist, and when he had the inclination (or possibly just had the time!) he could produce some stand-out storytelling.

With Incredible Hulk #138, we’re served notice the moment we look at the cover that “Sincerely, The Sandman,” won’t be another disposable Hulk story. With the name of the story embedded on the side of the building where Hulk and Sandman square off, this cover reminds a bit of a Will Eisner Spirit splash page, and the scene even bears a passing resemblance to a climactic panel from Eisner’s 1948 Spirit tale, The Story of Gerhard Shnobble.”

“Sincerely, The Sandman” is a slight tale, aspiring to little of the theme or allegory of Einser’s work, but both Trimpe and Thomas bring something extra to what on paper sounds a by-the-numbers superhero tale. The plot is simple enough to summarize in a sentence: the Sandman terrorizes a hospital, threatens Bruce Banner’s girl Betty Ross, and then Banner Hulks out and fights the Sandman. Aside from the “fearful fate” promised to Betty Ross on the cover, the story isn’t especially memorable …

spoiler — Betty gets turned into a glass statue!

… but it is the style in which this story is told which makes it worth revisiting, all these decades later.

Trimpe follows-up his cover with a full-page sequence showing a mournful Hulk changing back into Bruce Banner.

Writer Roy Thomas must have been inspired to stretch himself a bit, as well, juxtaposing The Sorrow of Love by William Butler Yeats with Trimpe’s panels (similar to the way he disposed of Ultron by way of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias at the conclusion of Avengers #58).

Thomas’ literary bent continues in the way he handles The Sandman. Our villain is familiar enough at first, though readers expecting the striped-shirt Sandman of Amazing Spider-Man fame may need a moment to recognize the disguised Sandman, who is sporting his Frightful Four costume.

Thomas’ characterization of Sandman is especially good. Our bad guy is desperate for a blood transfusion to get rid of that glass hand that he’s sporting, and he’s not afraid to hurt people to get what he wants.

But no sooner is Sandman getting his transfusion (which in the fashion of a convenient Silver Age coincidence, is coerced out of Bruce Banner’s gal, Betty Ross) than Sandman is quoting … The Charge of the Light Brigade from Alfred Lord Tennyson?

This sequence also shows a subtle bit of comics artistry by Trimpe & Thomas — though it is impossible to judge if it was intentional or just a byproduct of ballooning the page — as the story manages a seamless, tension-building cutaway by overlapping the Sandman’s monologue with a stressed-out Bruce Banner silently watching the scene unfold from hiding.

What is certainly not an accident is the way Trimpe uses color and full-page composition to show Betty tortured by a nightmare of the Hulk …

… or the full-page shot which follows (in which I detect further Eisner influence) using the geometry of the hospital and juxtaposed images of our characters to advance parallel storylines.

This is good stuff by any standard, and shows a real mastery of the style of storytelling that comics (and only comics) does so well. The first half of Incredible Hulk #138 is good enough that we can forgive the conclusion, which is about what you’d expect, as the Sandman’s boorish ways finally push Banner into Hulking out …

… with the usual fist-opera consequences.

Hey, this is the Hulk we’re talking about, after all. Sandman manages a Francis Bacon reference in the fight that follows but it’s otherwise the kind of thing we’ve seen before.

Which shouldn’t obscure the quality of this exceptional issue, which bore a fifteen-cent cover price when it was published in 1971, but will today run you around ten bucks in “Fine” condition. That price is too rich for a book you’re likely to find in a genuine “dollar box,” but it is a steal for a superior story from this era — and it is a small price to pay for a renewed appreciation of Herb Trimpe’s talents, who deserves greater respect than I had given him (and definitely deserved better than he got from Marvel).

This article originally appeared at Stash My Comics.

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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978, published once a month or so at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on December 3, 2014, in The Dollar Box and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. My heart always sank a bit when I saw Herb Trimpe was the penciler on a comic, but you’re dead right about this one. That page with the drainpipe is superb. I wonder who the inker was?

    Liked by 1 person

    • According to the Grand Comics database, the inker on this issue is Sam Grainger…

      http://www.comics.org/issue/24167/

      Herb Trimpe may not be my favorite artist, but I definitely like his work. He reminds me somewhat of Sal Buscema (although I like Sal more) in that both were good, solid storytellers who could always be counted upon to turn in a more-than-acceptable job while always meeting the monthly deadline. Not everyone can be Jack Kirby, who was both fast *and* amazing. I would certainly take Happy Herbie Trimpe or Our Pal Sal Buscema over most of the hot artists who have come to prominence throughout the past quarter century, the ones with insanely-detailed over-rendered styles who are constanly blowing deadlines.

      Trimpe definitely has his admirers, among them Savage Dragon creator Erik Larsen. Trimpe actually collaborated with Larsen on two of the stories that are going to appear in the upcoming SD #200.

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      • Nice to hear from you, Ben!

        This is not the first time you’ve come to the defense of Our Pal Sal … and while I may not be on Team Sal with you, I think you might eventually walk me over to Trimpe’s side of the aisle. I need to give him another look.

        Liked by 1 person

        • There’s a fascinating moment in Sean Howe’s book Marvel Comics: the untold Story where he records a time when Sal Buscema’s work was criticised for being old-fashioned and he responds by producing a blistering issue of the Hulk. These guys could turn plenty of pages around fast so we shouldn’t criticise them too much. You have to be an incredibly good artist to get a gig like this in the first place!

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          • Yes, it is usually quality art, or on-time art, but rarely both — the best comics artists develop a sort of shorthand that guides them through their 24 pages while saving a day or two to do that second or third book of the month. And to be fair, the work of someone like Sal Buscema or Herb Trimpe looks better when reading their book once a month, rather than one right after another in a long continuous run, where the seams (and the repetition!) begins to show. As artists for a serial monthly medium where quality wasn’t always a selling point, they were superior craftsmen (and could sometimes be quite brilliant, as in this issue).

            Liked by 1 person

            • Absolutely. It’s no mean feat to crank out, in one month, a complete visual universe full of character design, clothing, three-point perspective, architecture, and portraiture – all in a commercially viable style under intense deadlines. It’s why we refuse to criticize even the artists that don’t float our boat so much. If only we had half of Trimpe’s skills, we’d be cranking out comics, too!

              And that nine-page panel set to poetry – great find, Paul! To the argument that these comics were aimed at adolescent male readers, we agree. But at the same time, how many of us developed an early love for literature, poetry, and fine art thanks to moments like this in our favorite pulp entertainments? If we were just a bunch of kids reading pulps, then Roy Thomas and writers of his caliber were storytellers who, instead of talking down to us, dared to expand our horizons.

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              • The best comics creators never really think of themselves as comic creators. I am convinced of it. They are making comics, and are acutely aware of it, but they don’t use that as an excuse to reach for something more. Even if no one else believes, they do.

                Happy Holidays, Mars, always great when you stop by!

                Like

    • Yes, I’ve generally avoided Trimpe but he is in very fine form in this issue … and the brilliance is all in the layouts. The inks are fine but the artistry is coming from the pencils. I really think it was just an issue of time with Trimpe. He was grinding so many pages a month that he couldn’t help but cut corners some of the time — all comic artists do the same. For whatever reason, Trimpe really cut loose with this issue, and the results are magic.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I mostly missed out on the Hulk back in the day, but one thing I love about Bronze Age Hulk is that he’s plentiful in the dollar bins/

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I hate to be one of “those guys” but the Sandman’s costume is from his Frightful Four era, not Masters of Evil, right?

    Liked by 1 person

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