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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.

Sincerely, The Sandman

Sincerely, The Sandman

A new month brings a new Dollar Box column from your humble narrator over at

This month I take a close look at “Sincerely, The Sandman” from Hulk #138. While the plot is little different from the usual rage-of-the-month antics of Silver Age Hulk, creators Herb Trimpe and Roy Thomas really stepped up their game for this largely-forgotten little gem of a story. The tale is filled with literary allusions and artist Herb Trimpe proves he was more than just an inventory artist with page layouts and visual storytelling evocative of the great Will Eisner!

Even if you aren’t a fan of these creators or this character, you owe it to yourself to check out this issue, which I think you will find surprising. Thanks again to for hosting The Dollar Box!

King of the Monsters!

Longbox Graveyard #43

The long and winding road that has been the Longbox Graveyard has taken some unexpected side trips. When I began this blog I intended it only as a means of keeping myself on track as I cataloged and sold off my Accumulation of unwanted comics.

But a funny thing happened on the way to eBay … I started reading my comics again, and found that I kinda sorta still liked them. After decades away from funny books, suddenly I was hip deep in the buggers, not only reviewing favorite books like Conan and Thor, but also looking at newer series like Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America, and even exploring the intersection of comics and technology with books like Operation Ajax and the vintage comics on offer through Marvel’s Digital subscription service.

Surprises all! What I never expected — with so many issues of Master of Kung Fu, Fantastic Four, Batman, Daredevil, and Swamp Thing as yet unexamined — was that I would devote an entire column to Marvel’s Godzilla.

Inspiration comes when you least expect it. There I was, arguing the merits of John Carter with fellow blogger Mars Will Send No More when the conversation turned — as it will among learned men — to the merits of fictional T-Rexes. Before I knew it I was committed not only to reviewing Godzilla, but also to participating in a March Madness T-Rex Beat-Down tournament (for the results of which, mouse over to Mars’ blog).

Mars and I don’t always see eye-to-eye, but I echo his blog comments excluding Godzilla from our tournament, and not merely because Godzilla isn’t a proper T-Rex. As Mars put it, “… Godzilla annihilates everything, everyone, everywhere, always. And any story where he didn’t is a lie.” Godzila is an outsized character who can’t help but dominate any scene he enters, whether he’s sharing the stage with a field of cinematic dinosaurs or the headline characters of the Marvel Universe.

Godzilla annihilates the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier (and the Golden Gate Bridge for good measure)

And so what of Marvel’s Godzilla? Does this big green galoot annihilate everything and everyone, everywhere and always? Or is Marvel’s version of the King of Monsters a big pile of lies?

My plan was to review just those Godzilla books I had in the Accumulation — issues one to six or so — but after the first half dozen books I found myself unaccountably caught up in the admittedly thin story. So rather than dump my Godzillas for pennies on eBay, I instead went into WonderCon determined to fill out my run, but found that the dealers on the convention floor thought their Godzilla back-issues were worth ten bucks a pop.

Hey, I like the book, but there’s a limit. My first impulse was to review what I had and offer the first “incomplete” grade on the Longbox Graveyard report card, but then thirteen bucks and a trip to eBay secured a copy of the black & white Essential Godzilla, and the great Godzilla review project was on once more!

So what was the deal with Godzilla, anyways? The year was 1977, and Marvel would try just about anything, including adding the Godzilla license to the Marvel Universe. What could have been a disaster was instead a workman-like book in the tradition of late 1970s Marvel, where solid editorial standards and dependable mid-list talent ensured a firm floor for the entire comics line. It’s rare to find a truly dreadful Marvel book from the late 70s, and thanks to an energetic effort from the Doug Moench on scripts and a professional job from penciller Herb Trimpe we have two years of Godzilla books that for the most part deliver the goods — neither very good nor very bad, but always entertaining and probably better than the series had any right to be.

A snappy first issue introduces Godzilla to the Marvel Universe (and you can read that issue online, in it’s entirety, over at Mars Will Send No More). It does feel like Marvel was hedging their bets, at least at first. Pitting Godzilla against S.H.I.E.L.D. was an inspired choice, but we get the S.H.I.E.L.D. B-team here, with secondary Helicarriers commanded by Dum Dum Dugan rather than the iconic Nick Fury. When Godzilla stomps Alaska, Seattle, San Francisco, and San Diego in short order, it really should get the attention of the Avengers and Fantastic Four (but we will have to wait until the end of the series for that moment). Rather than scrambling even the B-team Defenders to the rescue, we get the forgettable Champions for a serviceable superhero battle with the Big G most memorable for Hercules taking down Godzilla with a judo flip.

The Marvel Universe has always been New York-centric, but you figure it would get national attention when Godzilla destroys Hoover Dam, stomps Las Vegas, and wrecks Salt Lake City during a battle with bizarre space monsters … but Godzilla is still regarded as a hoax when he finally makes it to Manhattan in issue #20, and only then do Marvel’s most iconic heroes scramble for a pretty decent superhero fight against Godzilla.

(image grabbed from Comic Vine)

But I’m not sure Moench could have handled Godzilla any other way. In contemporary terms, Godzilla attacking the United States would warrant a summer’s worth of Marvel Comics cross-overs, bleeding into every book in the line, but in 1978 Moench and Marvel elected to keep Godzilla partitioned in his own little bubble of the Marvel Universe. The only alternative would have been to go right at it — to deeply integrate Godzilla in the line with increasingly improbable cross-overs every issue, which would have been a hoot with an absurdist writer like Steve Gerber or David Anthony Kraft, but there’s no way it could have been a sustainable premise.

Instead, Moench went to the Marvel monster playbook, adopting the tropes on display in books like Man-Thing, Tomb of Dracula, and even Hulk, where his title character is a remote and sometimes unfathomable anti-hero, while the subplots and characterization revolve around supporting characters trying to help or hinder the star of the book. And this proves one of the weaknesses of Godzilla. Along with the aforementioned S.H.I.E.L.D. back-up squad we have a team of generic Japanese scientists trying to stop Godzilla, including a twelve-year-old boy who (of course) bonds with a giant robot to fight the monster that he is convinced is good at heart.

Godzilla versus obligatory giant robot Red Ronin

In the first year of the book, Moench also gets some play out of examining Godzilla’s motivation. Is he a rampaging monster, or a misunderstood victim? The cast eventually comes down on Godzilla’s side, but Dum Dum Dugan needs some convincing.

The second year of the book is a little more whimsical, and while the plot contrivances of pitting Godzilla against cowboys (in a distant echo of Valley of the Gwangi), or having Godzilla shrunk down by Hank Pym’s reducing gas to fight rats in the sewers of New York will make Godzilla purists apoplectic, I found the less leaden tone of these later tales more entertaining. The last half of the book also gave me a renewed appreciation for Herb Trimpe, about whom I always thought the best I could say is that he wasn’t Sal Buscema. Trimpe struggles with facial expressions — Dum Dum’s cigar pops out his mouth the hundred-odd times he wears his “surprised” face, which is identical to his “angry” face. There are plenty of those recycled Trimpe panels where a character’s foreshortened index finger fills half the frame, as someone points, blank-faced, at something happening beyond our view. But Trimpe has real strengths when it comes to draftsmanship, and the backgrounds of his New York are appropriately detailed and authentic. The two-part western interlude also let Trimpe draw horses — Trimpe got his start doing western comics, and he draws good horses, something that’s not as common among comic book artists as you might think.

And he pulled off the odd inspired Godzilla panel, too.

In all, Godzilla does what you’d expect. Our hero stomps a bunch of cities, and he battles but is never really beaten by S.H.I.E.L.D. and Marvel’s superheroes. He crosses-over with Devil Dinosaur, fights a sewer rat, and he shares a panel with Spider-Man. He’s at the center of some ridiculous story lines (at one point reduced to human-size, led around the New York Bowery in a hat and trench coat!), but it didn’t bother me as I’m one of those ignorant gaijin who finds it hard to parse “Godzilla” and “quality” in the same sentence. No matter these indignities, Godzilla emerges from his weird, twenty-four-issue Marvel odyssey with his reputation intact, clearly still King of the Monsters, and having delivered a solid, entertaining run of comic books.

trench coat Godzilla!

Godzilla in a trench coat! (image via Tars

In all, Marvel’s Godzilla isn’t a bad read. I won’t tumble to the inflated prices those WonderCon guys want for this book, but I’d happily fish an issue or two out of the dollar box, and the out-of-print but readily-available black & white Essential Godzilla is an inexpensive way to experience this series for yourself. Where else where you see Thor bonk Godzilla on the nose with his enchanted hammer?

Yep, that happened. Godzilla really was part of the Marvel Universe! A second-class citizen, sure, and this might seem a second-rate book. But Godzilla is not a second-rate effort. Sometimes comics are art, but most of the time comics are just comics, and as a guy who wrote a lot of inventory assignments himself, I have genuine admiration for the team that turned in such consistent effort along the way to bringing this self-contained run to a satisfactory conclusion. I doubt I’ll go back to this series, but I’m happy to have spent a couple nights with Godzilla, stomping through the Marvel Universe. Hail to the King!

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #44 Superhero Music Top Ten

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