Reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. Issue #533 offers some Hulk action on one end, and legal action on the other.
We begin outside of Las Vegas, where the Hulk is working alongside some S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, searching for a Hydra weapon of mass destruction. This is a “Professor Hulk” situation, where he has Bruce Banner’s intelligence. The weapon is in some caves out in the desert. The Hulk investigates while the agents hang back. He fights through some automated defenses and then discovers the weapon is a gamma bomb, the same type that originally gave him his powers. Further, the defenses set off a countdown. He tries to shut it down, but he’s not fast enough. A massive green mushroom cloud explodes over the desert.
At the new Baxter Building, there’s some business with the now-wealthy Ben playing the stock market. He loses $2 million, but then he says he can write it off on his taxes. He catches up with Reed, Sue, and Johnny, who have bad news. Simone DeBouvier of the NYC child welfare department is threatening to separate Franklin and Valeria from Reed and Sue until a formal hearing can take place. This goes back to the previous story arc of DeBouvier investigating the Richards family, arguing that FF HQ is not a safe place for the kids. (Our heroes did thwart an alien invasion during that arc, but I guess DeBouvier wasn’t swayed.)
Ben wants to help, but Reed instead assigns Ben to investigate the gamma explosion outside Las Vegas. Johnny is going with him, so his famous hotheadedness doesn’t interfere with Reed and Sue’s efforts to plead on behalf of the kids. Ben and Johnny leave in a Fantasticar, while Sue ponders how her situation isn’t something that can be solved with an old-fashioned superhero brawl.
At the blast site in the desert, a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent says Ben and Johnny aren’t there to investigate the bomb, but the actions of the Hulk, who ran off to an abandoned airfield and then destroyed the place. The agent fears Banner may have regressed from Professor Hulk to a more primitive “Hulk smash” type of Hulk. He says Ben and Johnny are there to neutralize the Hulk. This is followed by some debate between Ben and Johnny as to whether Ben can defeat the Hulk in a fair fight. They fly off into the desert in search of the Hulk.
Back at HQ, Reed and Sue meet with DeBouvier. She says the decision is out her hands, and that it’s the courts who have decided to take the children. Reed finally agrees that the Baxter Building can be dangerous, so he agrees to her demands. But then he adds, “With just… one small request.”
Then we cut back to the desert, where someone throws a giant boulder at Ben and Johnny. They assume it’s from the Hulk, but they don’t see anyone around. They attacked again, with a blow so hard it shakes the ground. Then the Hulk appears, but it’s the grey Hulk, growling at Ben like a monster. Ben asks, “So, Doc… come here often?”
To be continued!
Unstable molecule: During Acts of Vengeance, Reed was opposed to superhero registration, but in the upcoming Civil War, he’ll be in favor of it? What changed? In this issue we see that going up against the government is not something he can use his powers to fight so easily. Also remember that he once told She-Hulk that, despite his great genius, the vagaries of the legal system were something he could never quite master.
Fade out: Sue is strangely silent during the discussion of the children’s future, except to go along with whatever plan Reed has cooking. She says to Johnny, “If we could save them from Doom, and rescue them from the gates of Hell itself… we can do this.”
Clobberin’ time: Ben’s stock market phone conversation is with someone named Stan. Could this be a reference to the time Stan Lee rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange the day that Marvel went public? That was about ten years before this, but it’s not like Marvel to name a character Stan at random.
Flame on: With special asbestos gloves, Johnny is able to lift up Ben and carry him as they fly across the desert. Remember that The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Deluxe Edition states that Ben weighs 500 pounds. Let’s just assume Johnny created a cushion of hot air around Ben to lift him into the air.
SUE-per spy: The 2019 Invisible Woman miniseries revealed that Sue had a double life as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent all along. Does Sue know anything about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s dealings with the Hulk at this time? It doesn’t appear so, yet S.H.I.E.L.D. are the ones who contacted the FF once the Hulk ran off.
Trivia time: Tracking the Hulk’s continuity (Hulk-inuity?) is tough during this time. The Marvel Wiki insists that this story takes place during the “Cure” storyline, in which Bruce somehow negotiated with various aspects of the Hulk, so he could transform at any time between the classic dumb Hulk, the grey Mr. Fixit Hulk, and his own mind as Professor Hulk. However, this issue was on stands the same time as the “Peace in Our Time” storyline, also known as “Prelude to Planet Hulk,” in which Bruce was a fugitive with an animalistic Hulk persona. (Could this FF story arc be part of the change in Hulk’s status quo?)
Fantastic or frightful? Another issue that’s all set-up, with the main storyline happening in the next few issues. The Ben/Johnny banter is maybe a little too jokey, but I do like when we get a superhero story that’s “just another day in the office” for the characters. Mike McKone’s artwork really shines, as he’s mastered how to do great facial expressions for Ben.
Next: Hulks of Future Past.
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