Recently, I’ve been going through a Hulk phase. I thought it would be interesting to compare five different manifestations of the Hulk: the original run of comics starting in the 1960s, the 1970s TV series, the 2003 Ang Lee film, the 2008 proto-MCU film, and the fully developed MCU Hulk. I’ll post each one separately. First, the comics.
The Hulk debuted in May 1962, and it took Marvel quite a while to get him right. Most famously, he was originally grey in the first issue before quietly becoming green. But there’s much more: this, for example, from issue 2 (The Terror of the TOAD MEN!):
Has the Hulk ever fired a hand-gun again since then? It certainly jars with how we perceive him, and the dialogue (“Now YOU taste the sting of your weapon!”) doesn’t fit the character at all. It’s more like something Doctor Doom would say.
More generally, the great weakness of Stan Lee’s writing is that nearly all his characters to speak the same way, in boastful wisecracks and portentous announcements of what their next move will be. The Hulk is an admirable exception to this, and it’s strange to see that in his earliest appearances even he spoke in the Standard Lee Voice.
Here’s another example, from the very first Banner-to-Hulk tranformation (in issue 1, of course):
In fact, the opening half-dozen issues of The Incredible Hulk — which shut down after those six issues, presumably because they were poorly received — now read like a missive from a parallel universe with a completely different Hulk mythology. he’s grey, he speaks fairly coherently, he uses guns, he changes into Hulk at sundown and back into Banner at sunrise, and the whole thing gives the impression that Lee and co. were making it all up as they went along.
That is, of course, exactly what they were doing. Yet they were also making up Spider-Man as they went along, yet he appears more or less fully formed in Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962), instantly and obviously the same character as would be portrated by Tobey Maguire in 2002, Andrew Garfield in 2012 and Tom Holland in 2016. Similarly, the Fantastic Four seem to leap fully formed from Lee’s pen in their first outing (November 1961): Ben is grumpy, Reed is superior and sometimes insensitive, Johnny is an impetuous show-off and Sue is wet. Yet Hulk seems adrift in these early stories.
(By the way, has there ever have been a more fertile creative period in any of the arts than the ten months in which Lee and his collaborators came up with the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and Hulk, plus numerous classic villains? Oh, and Ant-Man in January 1962. And Thor in August 1962, the same month as Spider-Man. It’s just astonishing.)
After the Hulk’s own comic shut down in March 1963, the character started to pop up as a guest in other Marvel comics (notably The Fantastic Four, where he would inevitably be matched up with The Thing). These appearances were popular enough that in October 1964 he became one of the two strips that shared the anthology magazine Tales to Astonish, alongside Giant Man (later replaced by the Sub-Mariner).
It was in this run that the character really began to settle down into the version we know: bestial but not unkind, nomadic, always hunted by the military despite not seeking to cause them any trouble, despising Bruce Banner without realising that he and Banner are the same person. Even so, the mechanics of the Hulk-Banner transition took a long while to work out. For a while, the transition (in both directions) was triggered by a gamma-ray machine which Hulk as well as Banner was smart enough to operate. A few issues later, we found that Banner spontaneously transformed into the Hulk when he became stressed or angry, but — bizarrely — the Hulk transformed back when he became stressed or angry. Only rather later did the Marvel crew land on the rather obvious variant that the Hulk becomes Banner when he stops being angry. No comment was made on these changing mechanics: they just went ahead and wrote what seemed to make sense to them at the time.
Almost equally bizarre are the enemies that early Hulk is pitted against. Aside from the ubiquitous military, led by General “Thunderbolt” Ross and Major Glenn Talbot, most of the first issue is concerned with Russian spies and their own mutated agent The Gargoyle — who is neatly dead and buried by the end of the issue. “It’s the end of the Gargoyle!”, comments Banner in the final panel — “And perhaps … the beginning of the end of the red tyranny, too!”
In issue 2, it’s the Toad Men (alien invaders); in issue 3, a ringmaster who hypnotizes circus guests to steal their valuables. We get an Asian warlord whose superpower seems to be that he has an army. There’s very little sense that anyone’s really figured out who the Hulk is good for in these early stages.
My own first encounter with the Hulk came with an April 1978 story titled “Feeding Billy”, in Incredible Hulk Volume 1 #222. (That comic was a renamed Tales to Astonish — comic naming can get almost as complicated as in-universe continuity sometimes!) By then, a decade and a half into his existence, the Hulk was much better established. The story itself was genuinely haunting and has stayed with me to this day: two small children live in a cave with their monstrous mutated brother, who despite having killed their parents and being a cannibal, functions as their protector of sorts, until he picks Banner to be his next meal. (More detail here.) I re-read it a few years ago, and it stands up much much better than the early stories do.
More recently, continuity has got snarled up with all sorts of reboots and ultimates and offshoots and whatnot. I don’t think Marvel has made life as complicated for itself as DC has, with all its twisty little crises, all different, but it’s complicated enough for me not to bother wrapping my head around it. To me, the classic era of Hulk comics is in this middle period, once the writers had figured out who he was but before they’d disappeared up their own orifices.