The story in these four issues has a very simple premise: After being split from Dr. Bruce Banner in issue #315, the Hulk has become a being of pure rage with no moderating intellect or rationality, and as a result is now more uncontrollably violent than ever. Both Avengers teams now have to confront the question: If they can’t stop him, should they kill the Hulk? Believe it or not, Captain America has thoughts on the matter.
In issue #320, the only sign of our hero is a composite scene of both teams watching the news from Jericho, New Mexico, where Dr. Leonard Samson is trying to subdue the Green Goliath but to no avail, leading both teams to decide to join the fight (Tony doing so in much more dramatic fashion than Janet).
The party gets started in issue #321: By the time Cap, Black Knight, and the Wasp catch up with the rest of the Avengers, they find the Hulk using their teammates to practice his juggling. (He can’t be that out of control if he can still do that—it’s hard!)
I’ve always read the last exchange above as hostile, Hawkeye being defensive and provocative and Cap annoyed but ignoring it, but Clint does take his question seriously below, so I may have read too much into it. As is his wont, Cap takes charge…
…to the surprising consternation of the Wasp, who normally accedes to Cap assuming command in the field, where she values his greater experience. (We’ll come back to this later.)
Hawkeye, however, positively swoons over the virtues of Captain America.
While their colleagues take over the fight, Cap and five of his best friends address the big green elephant in the room. Cap starts off the discussion by asking for how they can capture the Hulk, while the others, more or less reticently, lean on the side of killing him to prevent further deaths.
Cap is not completely resistant to the idea, knowing that catastrophic negative consequences must sometimes outweigh important principles (according to threshold deontology, last discussed in the context of Secret Wars II #9, which Cap references later in this story). This issue is further complicated because Cap recognizes that the Hulk is not in control and therefore not responsible for his actions. This could be interpreted as saying either that he’s an unwell person that needs help, or nothing but a vicious beast that needs to be put down—neither of which changes the fact that he represents a threat to many, many lives and must been stopped somehow.
In end, Cap issues the standard team battle cry, with a qualification in small print afterwards. (Who reads the small print, though?)
As the fight continues and the destruction grows, Iron Man states the obvious: The Avengers are holding back while the Hulk is not.
(Oh, Tony’s gonna remember you said that.)
Eventually She-Hulk arrives and tries to reason with her cousin, the Unreasonable Hulk, but after he clocks her, she joins the pro-killing side… as does Cap, reluctantly.
As I write in my book, Cap struggles with tough decisions in moral dilemmas, but once he decides on an action, he stands by it firmly… until there is a sufficiently good reason to change his mind, as we shall soon see.
As issue #322 opens, the heroes have a new rallying cry (though in the form of a question, which seems to defeat the purpose).
While the fight continues, Banner’s wife Betty Ross-Banner and his doctor realize that splitting him and the Hulk resulted in two incomplete beings, and they both may die if not rejoined: Banner lies suffering in bed in the hospital, while the Hulk—believe it or not—is weakening.
Even though he’s resolved to killing the Hulk if necessary, Cap still holds out hope that they can find another way to stop him…
…and Samson, who also realizes Hulk is getting weaker, suggests a way out.
Cap gives some personal perspective to the moral dilemma he finds himself dealing with…
…and calls back to the recent incident with the Beyonder, admitting that he is still torn over what should have been done (as is natural in tragic dilemmas, where no choice seems acceptable). Bur he recognizes a unique aspect of the current problem: that this Hulk is no longer a person in the meaningful sense, more like a zombie, alive in a sense but unthinking and unfeeling.
The battle goes on, as narrated by reporter Dianne Bellamy, who describes what the fight is doing to the heroes involved, both the most powerful…
…and the least, and even the people watching.
All except one, of course, who is taking the deterioration of the situation to hear.
Just as the Hulk weakens enough to be subdued by the heroes—who, whether out of purpose or bloodlust, prepare to dealing the killing blow—Betty arrives on the scene with Rick Jones and pleads to save the Hulk and, in the process, her husband Bruce.
This new fact changes Cap’s mind: He supported killing the Hulk only due to his mindless state and the fact that it would save countless innocent lives without endangering any more, even one, in the process. The rest of the Avengers apparently agree, while Betty, of all people, has second thoughts, because it means the Hulk will live on, and even in his “normal” state, he is a constant danger to those same innocent lives.
As Cap could tell her, one often never knows.
Cap and most of the Avengers appear in just the first few pages of issue #323 to deal with the aftermath. They hand the Hulk over to the military…
…which gives Cap a chance to briefly revisit his old life, an all-too-rare indulgence that will become more frequent in later years.
After the Hulk is taken away, the people of Jericho express their own outrage at the damage done to their lives and homes by the Hulk and the Avengers’ fight with him. Not only is this a rarely heard perspective in superhero comics, especially at the time, but it can be considered a preview of Cap’s surrender at the end of the Civil War for similar reasons.
Before Cap has a chance to respond, Rick steps in and defends the hero and team he served as junior partner so many years ago.
Even though his defense is weak—”You think you’ve got it bad? Think how hard it is to be a superhero!”—it seems to work. (Or else the people are just tired.)
At least it gives Cap and Rick a chance to reconnect and discover something they have in common (which is ironic, coming from a young man who was briefly the new Bucky).
We wrap up this story with the Wasp returning to her gripe against the Sentinel of Liberty…
…which, again, makes little sense in the context of their history since Janet became team leader with the full and constant support of Captain America. Is this a change of heart, or simply a misunderstanding (or disagreement) on the part of the writer of this guest appearance? We may never know!
The Incredible Hulk (vol. 1) #323, September 1986: Al Milgrom (writer and pencils), Del Barras and Danny Bulandi (inks), George Roussos (colors), Rick Parker (letters). (More details at Marvel Database.)
All collected in The Incredible Hulk Epic Collection: Going Gray.
ALSO THESE MONTHS: Captain America #318 (June 1986), New Mutants #40 (June 1986), Avengers #268-269 (June-July 1986), Captain America #319 (July 1986), Captain America #320 (August 1986), Avengers #270 (August 1986), Daredevil #233 (August 1986), Captain America Annual #8 (September 1986), Captain America #321 (September 1986), and Avengers #271, Eternals #12, and Power Man and Iron Fist #125 (September 1986)