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).