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Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to one of my favorite Hulk stories – The Incredible Hulk Annual #13

July 11, 2010

The title of this post says it all.  This one is one of my most-loved Hulk stories of all time, if not the most-loved.  It stuck in my head for many, many years, long after the copy that I had as a child vanished into a box in an attic.  I was ecstatic when I found my current copy in a longbox about a year and a half ago, and now maybe I can share it with some folks who might not be familiar with it.

The story, “Friends,” written by Bill Mantlo with pencils from Alan Kupperberg, begins with a savage Banner-less Hulk banished from Earth by a spell from Dr. Strange.  What’s that you say?  This whole “Too-dangerous Hulk sent into exile” sounds a little familiar?  It should.  For those of you who might be unaware, this was a long arc in the Hulk books in the 80’s, as Hulk travelled from reality to reality (through a place called “The Crossroads”) with alien companions, all the while trying to find a place where he’d fit in.  It’s a nice saga.  While “Planet Hulk” certainly wasn’t what I’d call a ripoff, as Mark Twain once said, “The past may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.”

Anyway, Hulk is bopping around realities and comes to a world that seems pretty normal.  He’s hungry, so he decides to have a delicious piece of fruit:

Unfortunately for him, all the food on this world is poisonous to his constitution, and he’s left with scalded insides.  Hulk’s hunger eventually overcomes his caution, and he kills an animal for food (this is a savage Hulk, remember, not the kinder and gentler version).  D’oh!  It’s poison, too:

Hulk feels the horrible pain returning, but then it vanishes.  His happiness at this turn of events melts away when he sees what just latched onto his back:

I’ve had huge bugs land on me before (a ginormous praying mantis at a ballgame once gave me a hell of a case of the heebie jeebies) but I have to imagine a spine-monster digging into your neck would take the cake.

The creature communicates with Hulk telepathically and explains that he means him no harm, but since Hulk has killed his former host, he needed a new one, and ol’ greenskin fit the bill.  Hulk calms down when he learns that this thing will allow him to eat, and he names the symbiont “Sym.”  Not the most creative name, but Sym doesn’t seem to mind this new appellation.

In fact, Sym is thrilled to be with Hulk, because Hulk is unlike anything alive on this world.  He can leap in the air and attain heights unreachable by any other animal.  And, since it turns out that Sym is a pretty nice companion, Hulk is enjoying himself, too:

Then society has to go and ruin it for the big green guy.  It’s the story of Hulk’s life.

All of the symbionts and their hosts are called to a big town meeting, and a craggly old elder symbiont reveals that, for rather odd reasons , Sym’s melding with the Hulk has to be terminated:

Neither Sym nor Hulk want this, so they hightail it out of there.

Sym guides Hulk to a mountainous region.  This world is covered by clouds, and no symbiont has ever seen the stars that lay beyond that shroud.  Sym has always dreamed of glimpsing that hidden sight, and Hulk, to make his friend happy, ascends the tallest mountain on this world, one that penetrates the clouds.  It’s a difficult climb, even for Hulk.  He has to take a break when they reach a snow-swept height, and ignores Sym’s pleas to give up the attempt (he even gets in his trademark “strongest one there is” line):

When Hulk awakes he finds that the storm has broken and is enchanted by the revealed night sky, and is doubly thrilled that he could give this gift to Sym.  But he discovers to his horror that Sym is no longer hooked into him.   There’s a sad end to his brief search:

And now we have the emotional crescendo of the piece — ready your handkerchiefs:

Poor little fella.  At this moment there isn’t a dry eye in the Blog into Mystery headquarters.  I’m not ashamed to say it.

A heartbroken Hulk is mercifully returned by Dr. Strange’s spell to the Crossroads, and we can only hope that his next world won’t torture him emotionally as this one did.

Mantlo, who wrote some wonderful Rom stories that I’ve covered here on this blog, really knocked the ball out of the park with this one, and hit all the right notes that make for a successful Hulk story (outcast, lonely, hunted).  Sym is a scary, sinister, and disgusting looking creature, but we quickly learn that there’s more to him than his outward appearance.  He’s kind to Hulk and becomes a true friend to him, and some genuine emotion is kindled when we see his shrivelled little body after he’s given up his final host.  Hulk’s loneliness is palpable in this tale.

Something has to be said for the artistic design of Sym — Kupperberg’s pencils sealed the deal, giving life to a character that could be frightening at first sight and almost, well, cute by the end.  That one panel with a dying Sym in Hulk’s big green paws gets me every time.  Every…single…time.  It reminds me of my old dog when he was nearing the end — he was still the puppy I had raised, but he got really thin and gray before he died.  He could barely get off the ground, and our friendly neighborhood dying symbiont kindles a similar sad reaction inside of me.

There’s about a 0.000000003% chance that I’ll ever write a Hulk story, but I’d love to do one with Sym.  There’s something about the guy I really dig.  He’s like an ugly E.T., but the ugliness only adds to his appeal.

And that, friends, is a great Hulk story.

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