“Between Hammer and Anvil”
THIS REVIEW HAS SPOILERS!
Written by Len Wein. Pencilled & Inked by Herb Trimpe. Lettered by John Costanza. Coloured by Glynis Wein. Edited by Roy Thomas. Published in 1974 by Marvel Comics.
Summary: Stanley Kramer Meets John Steinbeck via the Outer Limits.
Let’s talk about one of my favourite comics. There are a few reasons why this is so: the Hulk was the first comics character I really bonded with, for one thing, and it was by accident. My nan used to buy me random comics when I was a little kid, and one of them was a Marvel UK Hulk book—which I doubt my mom would have ever bought me—and I instantly liked him. I already loved the original King Kong (1933), as well as all the Universal Monsters—I was definitely a Monster Kid. The Hulk was somewhere between Frankenstein’s Monster and Kong… today, I also see a lot of Lennie Small (Of Mice and Men) in him. And I do mean the 1970s Hulk—there are a number of spins on him, but the ’70s one is IMO the best.
Anyhow, early in my reading of these Hulk stories, a reprint of Hulk #182, “Between Hammer and Anvil”, popped up. The story directly followed the actually pretty terrific “Wendigo” tale that introduced none other than Wolverine in #180-181. But #182 is even better, I think. One reason is the artwork. The issues I’d seen to that point, though all pencilled by Herb Trimpe (who will forever by my Hulk artist), were mostly inked by Jack Abel. He was a very competent but terribly ‘clean’ (almost kind of uptight) inker, so although I loved that artwork, seeing Trimpe ink himself in this issue was something else.
Comparatively, it was so dark, rugged, interestingly textured and much, much more organic. Although Trimpe always carried a strong Jack Kirby influence, I also now realise the inking techniques he used during this period were strongly cued by the work of Jack Davis, of EC Comics and MAD Magazine fame. It’s a wonderful and unique look. Trimpe self-inked #182-186 before Joe Staton came on board for the last issues of his long run—#182 came out in 1974; Herb had been drawing the book for six years, and still had another year ahead of him. Staton, a decent artist in his own right, didn’t mesh all that well with Trimpe. It was neither one thing or the other, to my mind, though still easy on the eye.
In any case, I think the short self-inked Hulk run Herb did in 1974-75 is amongst his very best work. I love those issues, but #182 is forever the standout.
Let’s not forget the writing by Len Wein. Len, of course, co-created Swamp Thing at DC Comics with the legendary Bernie Wrightson, before moving to Marvel and writing Hulk for a couple of years. So he had good form with big green monsters. His writing is fine… he isn’t reinventing the wheel or making the earth shake. He’s making solid, readable stories that are accessible to all readers of all ages. (A craft largely forgotten in the current material being published.)
Hulk #182 owes a clear debt to Stanley’s Kramer’s 1958 classic movie The Defiant Ones (see my write-up here). Let’s not overstate it; Kramer’s movie is a brilliant, profound piece of work, and there’s no use in trying to compare this comic to it. But the theme of two escaped convicts, one black (Hammer), one white (Anvil, who happens to have a flat, anvil-shaped head!), fleeing through the swamps with a big chain binding them together, is an obvious homage.
However, the book has its own weird take on the idea. In a truly nutty bit of plotting, the two cons encounter an alien in the woods—and when Hammer fills the confused alien with lead, the alien thanks them for saving his life (lead has high nutirional value to this type of alien or somesuch nonsense)… and as a reward, instead of removing their chain, he turns it into a super-duper cosmic-powered chain that makes them invincible. Well, really powerful, anyhow. They can slice big-ass trees in two with it. Stuff like that. Hammer and Anvil forget that they’re still chained together in their power-craze, and head back to the prison for revenge!
Yup, it’s pretty insane. But it works. It has no pretensions. It is what it is.
And there’s more to it than just that. The real heart of the story is Crackajack Jackson, the old guy Hulk stumbles upon deep in the woods. Jackson is playing the harmonica. When he notices the Hulk, about to depart, he calls out to him and offers him a plate of beans. Later on, he teaches Hulk how to write his own name on the ground using a twig. It’s simple but very charming. The misunderstood, rejected giant and the old man of colour who no doubt has experienced a lot of misunderstanding & rejection of his own… the Hulk has never been more Lennie Small-like than here, the story never more akin to a passage from the Steinbeck story.
I’ve read quibbles about Jackson’s heavily-accented speech, but it seems actually kind of mean to criticise something like that, when the portrayal of Jackson is such a sweet, positive, life-affirming one. His clothes are a bit corny, but his accent is OK. In my opinion. Feel free to disagree.
Of course, it has to end in tragedy. Jackson is heading for the local prison to visit his estranged son, and the Hulk accompanies him; upon arriving, they discover Hammer & Anvil on a murderous rampage… and, of course, Hammer is Crackajack’s son. The latter reaches out to his son and accidentally touches the juiced-up chain, which instantly kills him.
A furious, grief-stricken Hulk tears into the two bad guys, and after an extended fight, rips the chain in two, causing them to collapse into madness. He then takes his friend’s body away, finds a suitable spot to bury him, and etches his name (with his bare fingers) into a makeshift tombstone.
The ending is just about perfect—he uses the new skill his friend taught him to create a lasting monument. I have to say, when I first saw this I was seven years old and it brought tears to my eyes. It was the first time a comic did that (and let’s be honest: it doesn’t happen often). Bear in mind, in the UK the story was split into two. So the first part shows Hulk making a new friend—then the following week, the friend abruptly dies. I thought Crackajack was just about the nicest old guy I’d ever seen, so feeling Hulk’s pain was easy.
I think that is the main reason why it remains one of my fave comics. It has heart & soul; the Hulk is a true protagonist and a real character in his own right—unlike the earlier years, in the ’60s, where he was changing continuously, and the later stuff, ditto, plus all the psycho-babble Peter David introduced, which I think pretty much demolished the character permanently… the ’70s had a lot of good times, and for me, this issue is amongst the peaks.
Sadly, the creative team for this book are longer with us. Len Wein died in September 2017, aged 69, after many years of poor health, only several months after his Swamp Thing collaborator Wrightson died. Herb Trimpe died in April 2015, aged 75, of a heart attack. He attended a comics event just before he passed; his death was very sudden.
Herb and I corresponded a little over the years (I wish it had been more), but we never actually met. My fave memory is a little over ten years ago, when I told him I wanted to commission him to draw me a picture of Orson Welles when I had some spare cash (I had commissioned Gene Colan to do one in 2006; Orson is one of my heroes, of course!).
Herb asked for my address and about ten days later, I received the below, gratis. What a lovely guy. Much missed.
NOTE: Marvel released a “facsimile edition” of this book in 2020, solely due to it featuring Wolverine’s third (very brief) appearance on page 1. Still available cheaply at the time of writing and highly recommended.