Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Hulk: Stalker From The Stars

Stalker From The Stars, by Lein Wein, Marv Woflman, and Joseph Silva 
November, 1978 Pocket Books 

In the late ‘70s Marvel Comics attempted to branch out into the general fiction market, releasing several tie-in novels through Pocket Books. I picked up a few of them many years ago, but just couldn’t get into them. Recently I came across this sole Hulk novel and decided to read it, particularly given its sort of Lovecratian alien menace, a space squid with mind-control powers. 

Stan Lee provides a brief intro in his customary style, where he curiously only mentions authors Len Wein and Marv Wolfman; Joseph Silva, supposedly a pseudonym of prolific writer Ron Goulart, isn’t mentioned at all. Lee states that this could just be the first in a long line of Hulk novels, though it turned out there were only three of them. He also clarifies for readers that Stalker From The Stars takes place in the world of the comics, thus it features two characters who didn’t exist in the TV show (which was going strong at the time of the book’s publication): the Hulk’s archenemy, General Thunderbolt Ross, and Bruce Banner’s best friend, young sort-of hippie Rick Jones. (Ross’s daughter Betty is not mentioned.) Lee drums up a lot of enthusiasm for the novel, but to tell the truth I felt it was so straighjacketed to the confines of the comic world that this “novelistic” approach was ultimately a failure. 

I was a little surprised at the amount of hardcore sex and violence in the book. Just kidding – there’s none of either, though the authors seemed to have fallen in love with the word “damned.” Rick Jones says it so many times in the book that you could make a drinking game out of it. Usually it comes off as arbitrary as can be, but it is another reminder of those Bronze Age Marvel comics, where “damned” was about the extent of cursing that was allowed. The Hulk does appear to kill someone, though; early on in the book he’s walking along the countryside and witnesses a car about to run over some random kid. The Hulk jumps to the kid’s aid, putting his body in the path of the car – which basically pretzels around Hulk’s body. Absolutely no further mention is made of the driver, though it’s clear he had to have been killed, given the destroyed condition of the car. To make it all the more clear, later when Hulk crashes Army tanks or helicopters or whatnot, the authors are sure to mention the pilots and drivers jumping out of them. 

The book opens with Rick Jones walking into the small town of Crater Falls, North Dakota, having hitchhiked across the country to get here; the authors insert all kinds of goofy foreshadowing that something bad’s about to go down here. Otherwise it’s an idyllic little town, filled with the cliched slackjawed yokels you usually find in such fictional places. Rick is here to search out Dr. Rudy Stern, a nuclear scientist with specialty in gamma radiation, ie the special radiation that turned Bruce Banner into the Hulk. The authors insert a long flashback to how Banner became the Hulk, taken directly from the comics; dumbass Rick Jones somehow got on the testing grounds, and Banner rushed out there to save him, thus taking on a heroic dose of gamma radiation. Now Rick of course blames himself, venturing around the country in the hopes of finding someone who can cure Bruce Banner so he won’t be plagued with the Hulk anymore. 

Thus he has come to Crater Falls, as Dr. Stern not only knows Banner but worked with him in gamma research. But Stern apparently had a falling out with the government and left to do his own research up in this small North Dakota town; its name comes from the large crater in the center of the town’s forest, courtesy a meteor impact many centuries ago. Rick walks around the small town, asking the slackjawed local yokels where Dr. Stern lives. He finally ends up outside a boarding house, where he doesn’t meet Stern, but the pretty young woman who works as Stern’s assistant: Linda Connolly. Here we get some unintentionally humorous stuff, in light of our modern emasculated era: the book is clearly written for boys or young men, thus Linda is often exploited for us: “her slim figure showed to advantage,” and the like. I also loved the random observation from Rick that Linda’s probably in her early or mid-20s, and so “still in range” for him, should he try to pursue her (not that he does). 

Linda explains to Rick that she hasn’t seen Dr. Stern in a while, leading to the goofy development of Rick moving into the boarding house (which Linda manages) and taking on a handyman job! Meanwhile the authors inject a little Hulk action into the narrative; we meet Bruce Banner as he rides in a boxcar in the midwest, mulling over the incidents “some time ago” which turned him into the Hulk. Now he’s chased everywhere by the army, with General Ross personally in charge of bringing down the green giant. This leads straight to an action scene, with helicopters attacking the train Banner’s on; he turns into the Hulk, and the authors don’t much describe the transformation or what the Hulk looks like, clearly aware that the majority of their readers would be familiar with the comics. The action is handled pretty off-handedly, with Hulk just throwing things around and charging across the countryside. The authors also try to retain the “sound effects” of the comics, which really gives the book a juvenile tone: “smash,” “kerplop,” and my favorite, “kaslam!” 

General Ross has “Operation Pea Pod” in effect (gotta love the name), in which plastic pods are dropped on the rampaging Hulk. These actually work and the big freak is finally captured, taken to a special containment area. The authors here also introduce a character from the comics: Quatermain, a rugged SHIELD agent who quickly got on my nerves with his comic-booky smart ass asides, none of which were very funny. We also here get a lot more background on how Banner became the Hulk, how he’s been running all these years, and whatnot. While Banner’s plight is well-captured, his insistence that “it’s not me, it’s the Hulk!” who is doing the damage comes off as incredibly petulant, like a temper-tantruming little girl. As for General Ross, no effort at all has been made to make him seem realisitic; he’s a walking, talking cliché, angry at everything and even yelling at broken-down cars. Again, fine for a comic, but the reader of a novel expects a little more. 

Meanwhile in Crater Falls, Rick discovers some weird shit is going down. Namely, the entire populace turns into zombies at night, including Linda…they stumble around the town in a daze, at some strange mental command. Rick tries to follow, only to get knocked out. Next morning he pretends like nothing happened, and Linda is oblivious to any strangeness, as is everyone else in the town. We finally get back to the Dr. Stern subplot: Rick and Linda find his green-glowing corpse out in the forest, right by the crater. That night Rick again is subjected to the zombified locals, who again get out of bed and stumble around town; we never learn what happens here, but Rick calls a special number Banner gave him – which connects directly to General Ross – and gets knocked out (again) during the call. This scene is relayed from Ross’s perspective, and what’s happened to Rick is a mystery. 

Banner himself doesn’t do much in the novel, other than fool Quartermain and Ross into thinking that he’s calm and peaceful, to the point that they let him out of his special Hulk cell. He overhears Ross on the phone with Rick Jones, and when Ross won’t tell Banner what’s going on, Banner knocks out Quartermain and steals his helicopter, to fly to Crater Falls on his own. Again, all very comic-booky, with not much concern over realism. Banner’s threatened with such bad vibes upon entering Crater Falls at night that he turns into the Hulk; to the authors’s credit, they don’t skimp on the Hulk action in this novel. Here he finds the entire townsfolk under a strange mental command – and by now we readers know it’s courtesy an ancient Lovecratian alien, which is buried in the crater. Indeed, the alien, Sh’mballah, caused the crater when his spaceship crashed here eons ago. 

The Hulk can never catch a break; the townspeople attack him, under the alien’s control, and then General Ross shows up on the scene with those damn “pea pods” again. This part features the great line, “You will not gas Hulk!” Kind of reminded me of that ancient Saturday Night Live skit with John Belushi as the Hulk, coming out of the bathroom. But anyway, they do “gas Hulk,” those pea pods having a knockout gas in them, so Hulk is captured yet again – it seems he’s constantly passing out and turning into Banner, or vice versa. But ultimately we do get what we’re here for: Hulk versus Sh’mballah, which turns out to be a monstrous squid-like thing, with its glowing organs visible through patches of its hide. It’s a straight-up comic book style fight, with green monster and space monster slugging it out – but it’s like the authors were afraid it would be too comic booky, thus Hulk kicks Sh’mballah’s ass much too soon, tossing the space squid into a burning garage and killing it. Like just a handful of pages after we finally got to see the creature! 

Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from here. For Sh’mballah isn’t dead – it’s just possessed the corpse of Dr. Stern. There follows an unintentionally humorous part where Banner (changed from the Hulk again), Rick Jones, General Ross, and Linda stand in the town and watch a figure walking toward them…and it just keeps going on. “Is that Dr. Stern?” “It sure looks like him!” Just on and on, like something that would be a couple panels in a comic but it goes on for like a couple pages here. In fact this last quarter features a lot of padding like this, with the heroes standing in the burning chaos of Crater Falls and trading expository dialog or arguing. General Ross particularly wears out his welcome here. But it’s a drawn out affair in which Stern’s corpse is a “gamma bomb,” and the group must figure out how to dispose of it without destroying the entire town. 

The novel ends on a mystery note – of course, the Hulk rampages off with Stern/Sh’mballah so that it can explode elsewhere, but by book’s end Rick Jones, General Ross, and everyone else are under the impression that the Hulk was killed in the blast as well. As if! The book ends in true “Bill Bixby starring in” fashion, with Bruce Banner ambling along into some new shitkicking town and wondering if he’ll ever be free of the Hulk. There were two more books featuring the Hulk: Cry Of The Beast and Hulk and Spider-Man: Murdermoon, but that was it. Doubtless the books just failed to resonate with the general readership Pocket no doubt aimed for – the comic readers probably even found these novelizations unsatisfying. ‘Nuff said!

4 comments:

Grant said...

Since it's the late '70s, I'm a little surprised they didn't go in for Jim Wilson instead of Rick Jones. Not that Jim Wilson is some all-out black stereotype in the issues that I know, he's still a hip black kid, so I wonder if they considered him for the book.

Pork Chop Sandwich said...

They really missed a trick by not calling this one Hulk: On the road to Sh'mballa.

(Aaah-aah-ooh-eee-ooh)

Grant said...

Exactly.

Bryan W. Frazier said...

Are you going to read / critique the remaining 10 books in the series ??