The Hulk

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The 2003 film version of The Hulk was directed by Ang Lee. (Universal/Marvel Entertainment / The Kobal Collection.)
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From Shadows & Light vol. 1, #3 © 1998 Marvel Comics.
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Shadows & Light vol. 1, #3 © 1998 Marvel Comics. (Cover art by John Buscema and Claudio Castellini.)

The Hulk

(pop culture)

During the 1950s, Marvel Comics’ publishing program consisted largely of bizarre monsters with names like Googam Son of Goom, Rommbu, and Fin Fang Foom; the era represents the nadir for the marketing of superheroes. But the immediate success of Marvel’s Fantastic Four (FF) series (which debuted in November 1961) heralded an epochal change in the funny book business, with costumed heroes supplanting monsters in much same the way mammals began to rule the planet after the dinosaurs died out. The FF’s creators (scripter-editor Stan Lee and plotter-artist Jack Kirby) were keen to follow up on their superteam’s success, but did so in a counterintuitive manner by launching a bimonthly series titled The Incredible Hulk, the first issue of which bears a May 1962 cover date. The Hulk, a misunderstood, superstrong creature spawned by atomic science run amok and driven by rage, is uniquely transitional between the fading era of monsters and the nascent age of superheroes.

In developing the Hulk, Lee and Kirby drew upon three principal sources. One was the Thing, the Fantastic Four’s monstrous yet heroic strong man. Another was the laboratory-spawned creature from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (or perhaps more precisely, the conception of him from James Whale’s 1931 film version). Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) was the third. “To me,” Lee explained, “[Frankenstein’s] monster was the good guy. We always saw that mob of idiots with torches chasing Boris Karloff, who played the monster, up and down the hills until he went berserk, remember? He never really wanted to hurt anybody. So I figured some sort of misunderstood monster would be fun to work with.” But unlike the Thing, who was a warmly regarded member of the Fantastic Four’s family, the Hulk’s unrestrained rage made him a permanent outsider, a fearsome creature capable of evoking humankind’s most atavistic nightmares.

In the Hulk’s premiere appearance (The Incredible Hulk [IH] #1), Lee and Kirby introduced the emotionally repressed nuclear scientist Robert Bruce Banner, inventor of the gamma bomb. When teenager Rick Jones sneaks onto the bomb’s test site at New Mexico’s Desert Base, Banner races into harm’s way to push him into a protective trench, only to absorb a vast quantity of gamma rays when the device detonates. The irradiated Banner consequently begins making nightly transformations into a seven-foot, thousand-pound, gray- (later green-) skinned monster, with virtually limitless strength and destructive capability, who embodies the darkest, angriest, and most antisocial aspects of Banner’s personality. Lee saw the Hulk’s ability to change back and forth between his human form and his (initially quite evil) monstrous aspect as key to the character’s success. “Why couldn’t a monster have a secret identity? Never done before, far as I knew. At least not in comics. It was wildly successful when Robert Louis Stevenson did it in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

The most important members of the series’ supporting cast are in place from the very beginning: Air Force General Thaddeus E. “Thunderbolt” Ross, who oversees security at Desert Base and despises Banner, whom he loudly disparages as a gutless “milksop”; Betty Ross, Thunderbolt’s mousy daughter, who (despite being oppressed by her overbearing father) is in love with Banner; and Rick Jones, the only one (at first) to become aware of Banner’s dual nature, who aids the tortured scientist by helping to limit the amount of havoc the Hulk can wreak in a world that fears and hates the creature. All of these characters were destined to endure for decades.

But the Hulk’s first comic book series was somewhat less fortunate; it lasted only six issues before being canceled. Fortunately, audiences were sufficiently intrigued with the title character to justify his continued guest appearances in other Marvel titles. During his early visits to the pages of The Fantastic Four (vol. 1 #12, 1963; vol. 1 #25-#26, 1964) the Hulk invariably fights that group’s almost-as-strong Thing, and also crosses paths with Spider-Man in the wall-crawler’s own title (The Amazing Spider-Man vol. 1 #14, 1964). The Hulk even becomes a charter member of another Lee-Kirby superhero team, the Avengers (The Avengers vol. 1 #1, 1963), alongside Ant-Man, Iron Man, Thor, and the Wasp. Not a “team player” by nature, the Hulk leaves the inchoate organization in the series’ second issue. Thanks to reader reaction to his sporadic guest appearances, the Hulk garnered a regular feature in Tales to Astonish, beginning in issue #60 (1964). After sharing the title, first with Giant-Man and later with the Sub-Mariner, the Hulk eventually took over the magazine completely. With issue #102 (1968), the title was permanently rechristened The Incredible Hulk.

The characterization and appearance of the Hulk have undergone numerous changes since the character’s inception, and these transformations began almost immediately. In his debut appearance (though not in many reprints of the same), the creature has gray skin. “Unfortunately,” Lee recalled, “in our first issue the printer had trouble keeping the shade of gray consistent from page to page. On some pages his skin was light gray, on others it was dark gray, and on some it looked black. Too confusing. So for the next issue I changed his skin color to green, a color the printer had less trouble with. Although it was done on a whim, it turned out to be a fortuitous choice because it gave rise to many memorable nicknames for me to employ, such as the Jolly Green Giant, Ol’ Greenskin, the Green Goliath, etc.”

During the Hulk’s Lee-Kirby run, the mechanics of Banner’s metamorphosis into the Hulk— during which Banner initially retains his intellect, though his personality becomes warped and evil—also changed fairly early in the character’s history. By issue #4 of the first series (November 1962), Jones is helping Banner to trigger his transformations by means of a focused gamma ray beam, which enables the Hulk to fight assorted villains (Tyrannus; General Fang) and invading aliens (Mongu, the gladiator from space; the Metal Master), whenever the need arises. In late 1960s Tales to Astonish stories, Banner begins morphing into the Hulk whenever he is roused to extreme anger rather than because of the arrival of nightfall. Throughout the Hulk’s first series, his speech contains none of the dumbed-down “Hulk Smash!” locutions that distinguish the character’s run in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. Initially his language has more of a blue-collar, almost Archie Bunker-like quality (he even calls an attacking soldier a “meathead” in the first series’ fifth issue).

As his post-Tales to Astonish series progressed, the Hulk’s secret identity became common knowledge, and the Green Goliath was increasingly portrayed (by such scribes as Gary Friedrich, Bill Everett, Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin, and such illustrators as Marie Severin and Herb Trimpe) as a misunderstood, childlike creature of diminished intellectual capacity and limited vocabulary (like Lenny from John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel Of Mice and Men), who turns his prodigious strength to mindless destruction most often when hounded by foes such as “Thunderbolt” Ross, who frequently pits the full fury of the United States military against him. And although he is often given to temper tantrums set off by relatively minor provocations, the Hulk can also be peaceful and gentle when left alone, a status he enjoys only rarely. This characterization strikes a sharp contrast to the Hulk’s first appearances, in which he appears to be evil and remorseless in his desire to attack humanity; the destruction this middle-period Hulk causes is actually more incidental than intentional. Underlying the Hulk’s rage is a theme of mutual emotional repression—with Banner’s personality attempting to hold the Hulk in check, and vice versa—that pervades the series from its beginning. Countless scenes depicting the Hulk methodically pounding his way through impregnable walls relentlessly drive the emotional-repression metaphor home.

An artifact of Cold War-era nuclear anxieties, the gamma rays that created the Hulk also spawned some of the Jade Giant’s most enduring adversaries and allies. Tales to Astonish #90 (1967) served up foreign spy Emil Blonsky, whose exposure to gamma rays transforms him into the Abomination, a green-skinned, superstrong being who resembles a muscle-bound version of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. As criminally oriented as the Hulk is innocent, the Abomination’s subsequent slugfests with the Green Goliath are legion. IH #115 (1969) introduced uneducated janitor Samuel Sterns; thanks to gamma rays, Sterns’ unrequited desire to be a genius manifested in his transformation into the green-skinned, giant-brained, would-be world-conqueror known as the Leader, another one of the Hulk’s long-term foes. Psychologist Leonard Samson subsequently tries to end Banner’s transformations into the Hulk by siphoning off some of his body’s gamma radiation, and uses it to turn himself into a green-haired, superstrong being (IH #141, 1971). For many years, “Doc” Samson continues studying and psychoanalyzing Banner and the Hulk (whom he is sometimes forced to fight) in an unsuccessful effort to find a permanent cure for Banner’s affliction.

In one of the most poignant chapters in the life of Marvel’s misunderstood man-monster, the Hulk enters the subatomic world of K’ai (IH #140, 1971), a realm inhabited by green-skinned humanoids who are ruled by the benevolent Princess Jarella. Here the Hulk finds not only the acceptance he craves (the K’aians regard him as a great hero, not a monster), but also the love of Jarella. Best of all, he manages to retain the intellect and emotions of Banner, while using the Hulk’s prodigious strength to protect Jarella and her people from various cosmic menaces. This storyline, a product of the fertile minds of fantasist Harlan Ellison and veteran comics writer Roy Thomas, ends with the Hulk/Banner mourning Jarella’s death, and inspired later Hulk writers— such as John Byrne in the 1980s and Peter David in the 1990s—to alter the balance between Banner’s and the Hulk’s personalities, often to tremendous dramatic effect.

With the premiere issue of Marvel Feature (December 1971), the Hulk once again tests his misanthropic tendencies by joining a superhero group, the misfit “non-team” known as the Defenders. In addition to the Hulk, the group initially consisted of Doctor Strange and the Sub-Mariner (another outsider who has nearly as antagonistic a relationship with the rest of humanity as does the Hulk). After four issues of Marvel Feature, the supergroup moved into its own bimonthly series (The Defenders vol. 1 #1, 1972). The Hulk drifted in and out of this loose agglomeration of heroes until its dissolution in 1986, and returned to the group when it reformed years later, in 2001.

During the Hulk’s first two decades, all of his writers kept Banner and the Hulk essentially separate from one another, at least in a psychological sense; no serious, sustained attempt was made to explore the deep connections between these two personalities. Then, in stories that began running in the large-format Rampaging Hulk magazine (January 1977-June 1981, known simply as The Hulk from the tenth issue forward), writer Doug Moench posited that Banner suffered from multiple personality disorder. Hulk scribes Roger Stern and Peter B. Gillis bolstered this the ory by contending that the Hulk and Banner are entirely different creatures who happen to occupy the same body (IH #227, 1978). This take on the Hulk changed radically with writer Bill Mantlo’s revelation (IH #312, 1985) that the Hulk’s rage comes not from gamma rays but from the beatings that Banner received from his alcoholic, abusive father during childhood. After Banner’s exposure to the gamma bomb, the authoritarian General Ross naturally becomes a lightning rod for the scientist’s deep well of repressed anger toward his father. This development made possible some of the most affecting and psychologically complex Hulk stories ever penned, and resonated well with the larger culture’s growing interest in the so-called “recovery movement,”usually without venturing too far into maudlin whining or touchy-feely New Age excesses.

One of the highlights of writer-artist John Byrne’s brief stint on the series (beginning in IH #314, 1985) is Banner and the Hulk being split into independent entities in two separate bodies, thereby shining a new light on the original Lee/Kirby Jekyll-and-Hyde concept. Unshackled from Banner’s emotional restraint, the Hulk becomes a complete lunatic, more dangerous than ever before. Freed of the capricious rages of the Hulk, Banner finally marries Betty Ross, despite the attempts of her father (who has become demented by his encounters with the Hulk) to kill him. But Banner’s connubial bliss is short-lived; Byrne’s successor, writer Allen Milgrom, quickly placed both the man and the monster back into a single body, finishing up 1986 with a battle royal between the newly reconstituted green Hulk and the original gray Hulk.

The Hulk arguably received his most riveting portrayals—and underwent some of his most significant changes—during Peter David’s lengthy writing tenure, which began in IH #328 (February 1987) and ended with issue #467 (August 1998). Among the many highlights of David’s run is Banner’s metamorphosis into the gray Hulk, who becomes a Las Vegas mob enforcer known as Joe Fixit, a latter-day Mr. Hyde in an Armani suit. This persona combines Banner’s intelligence with the Hulk’s strength, while freeing Banner from his inhibition against using violence and trickery—the main tools of a gangster’s trade. David (working with such artists as Todd McFarlane, John Ridgway, and Dale McKeown) built upon Mantlo’s multiple-personality concept by exploring three distinct personalities: Banner, who despite his emotional scars is capable of experiencing a loving relationship with Betty; the intelligent, scheming gray Hulk, who represses all of his “softer” emotions; and the raging child represented by the traditional green-skinned Hulk. Doc Samson even succeeds in integrating these three personalities into a single being, a sophisticated, intelligent superhero—neither a rampaging brute nor a geeky scientist—who becomes the leader of a supergroup called the Pantheon (IH #400, 1992). David’s Hulk is also memorable for its clever, incisive dialogue.

In The Incredible Hulk: Future Imperfect (two issues, December 1992 and January 1993), David created a grim, post-apocalyptic future Earth, where the Hulk meets the Maestro, his future self, who is also the ruler of this dystopian world. Like the Leader, the Maestro had used guile and intelligence, rather than brute strength, to conquer the human race; the Hulk sees the Maestro as a cautionary wake-up call, a warning that he might become as hateful as his father unless he is very careful. After returning to the present, the Hulk becomes increasingly fearful of becoming the Maestro; consequently, when he becomes angry he turns into plain, powerless Bruce Banner, whose impotent tantrums symbolize the Hulk’s latest take on emotional repression (IH #426, 1995). No longer an emotionally stable superhero, the Hulk (with Betty, now his wife, at his side) once again becomes a fugitive, hiding out in small towns all over America. During this period, Betty completes a transformation of her own, evolving from a helpless damsel to be rescued, to a young bride mourning Banner’s miscarried child, to an independent, self-actualized woman. Unfortunately, at the end of the 1990s she contracts gamma-radiation poisoning because of years of close proximity to Banner and ultimately dies at the gamma-mutated hands of the Abomination.

Although his long-running series concluded with issue #474 (March 1999), the Jade Giant returned to prominence a month later with a new monthly title (Hulk #1), following the creative vision of John Byrne for the first seven issues. As the series unfolds (with stories from such writers as Paul Jenkins, Fabian Nicieza, Sean McKeever, and Christopher Priest, and the illustrative talents of John Romita Jr., Kyle Hotz, Joe Bennett, and Jon Bogdanove), Banner must contend with a new incarnation of the Hulk that represents his intense guilt over Betty’s death. This soon leads to the emergence of the “Devil Hulk,” a purely evil Hulk who tries to use Banner’s illness to gain control of the scientist’s body; subsequently, Banner learns that each of his transformations into the Hulk creates an entirely new personality, upping the ante on his multiple personality disorder by a factor of thousands. In the 2000s, the series was simplified and revitalized again with an ominous, film noir-ish treatment by writer Bruce Jones.

In the “Planet Hulk” storyline (2006) written by Greg Pak, The Illuminati, a council of leading superheroes including Mr. Fantastic, Iron Man, and others, having decided that the Hulk presents too great a danger to Earth, trap him in a spaceship to send him to a distant planet that is devoid of intelligent life. But their plans go awry, and the spacecraft instead crashes on an inhabited planet, Sakaar. There the Hulk is initially enslaved, but he leads a revolt against the Red King, and becomes Sakaar’s emperor. The Hulk even marries a woman named Caiera, who becomes pregnant.

In the limited series World War Hulk (2007), the spaceship that brought the Hulk to Sakaar blows up, killing Caiera and millions of others. Overcome with rage, the Hulk returns to Earth and attacks Manhattan, seeking revenge on the Illuminati, whom he blames for the disaster. But it turns out that it was the Red King’s followers who caused the spaceship to explode. The Hulk is finally defeated and is imprisoned in his Bruce Banner form.

Thanks to his alien biology, the Hulk’s unborn son Skaar survived Caiera’s death, emerged from a cocoon, and rapidly grew to adulthood, First appearing in World War Hulk #5 (January 2008), Skaar then starred in the limited series Skaar, Son of Hulk (2008–2009).

The Hulk’s perennial nemesis General “Thunderbolt” Ross was recently transformed into a similar monster, the Red Hulk, first appearing in that form in the first issue of a new Hulk Vol. 2 series (January 2008). The Red Hulk joined the Avengers in 2011. Betty Ross was resurrected and underwent a similar transformation, becoming the Red She-Hulk, first appearing in that form in Hulk Vol. 2 #15 (September 2009).

the Hulk

huge, raging, green-skinned strongman into which Dr. Banner is transformed. [Comics: Horn, 324–325]