By Harlan Ellison, Archie Goodwin, Bill Mantlo, Herb Trimpe, and Sal Buscema
Heart of the Atom is a collection of “Incredible Hulk” stories from the seventies all revolving around the tragic love of Hulk's life, Jarella. The Hulk has never had much luck with love. Betty Ross was in love with Bruce Banner but not the Hulk. She was kind to Hulk but was never in love with him. The ever tragic loner, the Hulk finally finds love in these issues.
The story is fairly straight forward. The Hulk is transported to an microscopic world where he defeats a few monsters, saves some lives and the queen of the planet is grateful and wants to make Hulk her king. Things would go well if it weren't for a scheming general. Before the Hulk and his jade skinned queen can be married he is carried off back to the normal world leaving a sad queen and her subjects. Over the next few years Jarella is featured occasionally. She comes to earth, Hulk goes to her world and she come back to earth. This last trip to Earth however is a tragic one. While the hulk is battling a robot, Jarella, ever the selfless queen, throws herself at a child pushing him out of the way of a topping building. This is where this story really shines.
A distraught Hulk turns to General Ross and Gama Base to help save Jarella's life, but when they tell him that there isn't anything they can do for her the Hulk flips out. But rather than destroy the base and attack Ross and his men, he remembers the one other person he can turn to to save Jarella, his friend Doctor Strange. And because this is a Marvel book, when the Hulk finally finds the Defenders they fight over a misunderstanding. The Defenders quickly realize their mistake and talk to the Hulk and do their best to help him. In one of the most emotional scenes I have ever seen in a Hulk book, Doctor Strange tells Hulk that there is nothing he can do for Jarella. She is dead. The Hulk of course gets angry but quickly breaks down crying over his lost love. This is beautifully drawn by Sal Buscema, the rage and subsequent sadness are captured exquisitely. When the Hulk breaks down in front of the Defenders you feel his pain. In one panel the Hulk gets so enraged he begins smashing Doctor Strange's sanctum. Yelling in grief “If magician cannot help, then Hulk will save Jarella! Hulk Can do it! Hulk can do anything! Hulk is the strongest there is!” All Hulk knows is smashing and being the strongest. But once he realizes that his strength can never be enough to bring back the woman he loves he breaks. He falls to pieces. It is such a sad yet beautiful scene.
Jarella was the first person to love the Hulk. All of the Hulk, not just the monster, not just Banner, but both sides of him. She loved him unconditionally. She calmed the Hulk, gave him a purpose. It wasn't just his protection she sought, it was his love and devotion, which she got in spades. When she died it did something that hadn't really been done. It made the hulk vulnerable, it showed that he wasn't the mindless beast or the brainless savage. The Hulk had feelings besides anger.
As with most books of the time it is very exposition heavy, but I wouldn't let that stop you from enjoying what has become one of my favorite Hulk stories. The Hulk has had other loves, but I don't believe any have captured what he and Jarella shared. Caiera from “Planet Hulk” probably comes the closest, but she really only cared for the Hulk, she did meet Banner but it wasn't Banner she loved it was the Hulk. Betty has never really loved the Hulk side of Banner, except maybe when he was smart Hulk. In my mind Jarella stands above all of them.