By Graeme McMillan
Say what you like about Bill Mantlo — it had better be complimentary, though, because the man made “workmanlike” look good in his lengthy career in the superhero salt mines, and his Micronauts is forgotten genius — but he knows how to start an issue. The splash page of Incredible Hulk #259 sees the Hulk and everyone’s favorite bear-themed superhero Ursa Major getting zapped by someone who looks like the Red Skull in Armored Pope cosplay, while the story so far caption yells, “Confused? We bet!” before launching into what newcomers and amnesiacs need to know before moving forward. Everything you need to know about the comic is right there; if you don’t dig the very first page of Hulk #259, this is not a comic for you, friend.
But is Hulk #259 a comic for you? It depends why you’re tuning in. For those showing up just for the Darkstar of it all, it’s a double-edged sword made of the finest Darkforce — while a pretty major piece of her backstory gets established here, she’s hardly a focus of the issue, and more attention is paid to other members of the Soviet Super-Soldiers for some inexplicable reason. Yes, I know that one of them turns into a bear, but still.
For everyone else, though, comfort can be found in the fact that the story doesn’t let up from that dynamic opening; by just the second page, the Hulk and Ursa Major have been transformed back into their regular human forms against their will by The Presence, the aforementioned Red Skull lookalike, who is, Bruce Banner helpfully explains, “a being with the powers of… a god!” He’s also a fine recap machine, reminding the reader that Ursa Major is just one member of the team known as the Soviet Super-Soldiers alongside Vanguard and, ye editor’s favorite, Darkstar. He also helpfully reveals that there’s someone else in the shadows nearby, who’s quickly revealed to be Professor Phobos, the Charles Xavier of the Soviet superhero set.
I mean that almost literally; Phobos turns out to be a telepath who’s been gathering Russian mutants together to train them as part of the Super-Soldier School, which should be celebrated for being far less egotistical than Professor X naming his school and his super team after himself. Another Xavier-esque tendency displayed by Phobos? Faking his death and disappearing without warning, which he did after training Darkstar and her comrades because he was afraid the government would force him to manipulate his students to work in the service of the state.
Please note: He tells this to his former students, who have since been manipulated into serving the state. So all that his disappearance actually achieved was that he wasn’t the one who personally had to manipulate them. Despite this, the students not only seem happy to see him, they quickly fall back into doing whatever he demands without question. Look, if you’re a mutant in the Marvel Universe and someone comes up and tells you that they’re a professor and you need to do something, you just do it. It’s how things work over there.
As Professor Phobos instructs his former students to help him stop The Presence — his reasons are, in retrospect, oddly prescient: According to Phobos, the Presence and the potentially mind-controlled Red Guardian are attempting to “spread… an inexorable radioactive wave over the entire Soviet Union,” in a story published five years before the accident at Chernobyl that actually sent a radioactive wave over the entire Soviet Union — let’s take a brief second to recognize that this entire story takes place in Russia, with Bruce Banner/The Hulk being the only non-Russian in the story. You’d think that this could cause problems, but thank goodness Bruce explains by the third page of the issue, “I understand Russian — studied it while I was obtaining my doctorate in physics — so I know what you’re saying, Major!”
Before too long, the Soviet Super-Soldiers have found The Presence and the Red Guardian, launching a fight scene that includes Vanguard throwing his weaponized hammer and sickle — he is, he explains, focusing his mutant power “through these overlapping symbols of the Workers’ State” — in a manner that would make Thor jealous, before Darkstar traps the seeming villains in the inexplicable (or, at least, unexplained) Darkforce. By this point, though, it’s clear that The Presence and the Red Guardian aren’t the problem here, with the latter admonishing her scarlet-faced companion for failing to explain that they’re actually the good guys in this story.
(Aside to Steve: See? Darkstar does something! She’s definitely part of this comic!)
While all this has been going on, Bruce Banner and Professor Phobos have constructed a stasis beam to finally defeat The Presence, which proves successful when The Presence and the Red Guardian show up in the lab — only for Phobos to surprise no-one by revealing himself to be a jerk. Not only that, he’s also a “power parasite” who’d only been teaching his students so that he could steal their powers, and who had disappeared years earlier not for fear of manipulating anyone, but because the Red Guardian had discovered that he was a massive fraud all along.
Worse still, he reveals in a truly Scooby Doo-esque monologue, “It is I who have been spreading [the] containimation even as Sergei and the Red Guardian tried to stop me!” It gets even better: The Presence, Phobos goes on, is actually the father of Darkstar and Vanguard, who believed his children to be dead! As far as coincidences go, it’s unlikely — not to mention positively Uncanny. (Ahem.) Mutantkind in the Marvel Universe possesses a collective secondary mutation of overly complicated family histories, it seems.
What’s so great about this reveal is how utterly unexpected it is. Not just that the suspected bad guy is actually the father of two of the guest-stars of the issue — although, really, nobody saw that coming because why would they? — but also that Darkstar and Vanguard are sister and brother, both facts that Darkstar seems to have literally no reaction to beyond “The state lied to us, let’s kick the villain’s ass!” (But in a far more Russian vernacular, of course.) What should be a big deal at least to Darkstar and her newly-revealed brother is just… tossed out there and abandoned.
All seems lost until The Presence lifts the telepathic block that had prevented Bruce Banner from Hulking out — did you forget this was a Hulk comic? — which, in a strange aside, reveals that even though Bruce Banner can speak Russian, the Hulk can’t. “Words in funny language!” Hulk complains. “Hulk hates words! Hulk only wants to smash!” Does this mean that the Hulk… learned English in his own right off-panel? Or that Banner’s language skills are stored in different locations for different languages? I don’t quite get how that works, but that’s okay; there’s a fight going on to distract everyone from any questions at all!
As the Hulk and Ursa Major beat up Professor Phobos — who can’t use his telepathic powers on them because they’re both too beastlike, apparently — Darkstar and newly-discovered bro Vanguard work to rescue their newly-discovered dad and the Red Guardian from the stasis beam before Russia becomes a nuclear wasteland. In the process, Darkstar shakes off the mental control of Phobos, giving her full access to both the Darkforce and her own ego. “I am whole again!” she declares. “The Darkforce and I are one! We are… wondrous!”
Wondrous, yes, but also only partially successful; she and Vanguard do free The Presence and the Red Guardian, but the nuclear build-up is reaching crisis point, necessitating that the Presence and the Red Guardian draw all the radioactivity into their own bodies and then fly into space to “transform it and ourselves into inert matter far from this Earthly sphere!” Some people would do anything to avoid emotional intimacy with family members. They do, indeed, do that very thing even as an unseen commentator who’s either Darkstar or Vanguard asks, “Have we found our rather after all these years — only to lose him for all eternity?”
The answer is no, but they won’t know that until the Quasar series comes along in the early ‘90s. For now, the story ends with our heroes standing over a shocked, helpless Professor Phobos, explaining that he’ll stand trial for his crimes against the Soviet Union, while the Hulk adds, “Everyone talks now — so fight must be done! Good! Hulk was tired of fighting puny humans he could not understand.”
‘Nuff said, as a wise man once put it.
The Incredible Hulk #259: “The Family That Dies Together…!”
Writer: Bill Mantlo
Artist: Sal Buscema
Letterer: Jim Novak
Colorist: Bob Sharen
Editor: Allen Milgrom
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