Hulks (five different ones). Part 1: the original comics

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!):

What’s the matter, Hulk? Haven’t you heard of SMASH?

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):

The Hulk’s first words: “Get out of my way, insect”. It’s the kind of sentiment the classic Hulk might express, but the actual words are all wrong.

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.)

The classic cover of the very first issue of The Incredible Hulk (“The strangest man of all time”), showing his original grey coloration.

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.

NEXT TIME: the terrible late-1970s TV series!

19 responses to “Hulks (five different ones). Part 1: the original comics

  1. The recent “Immortal Hulk” by Al Ewing is really worth reading. Reminds me most of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing for being a solid horror title which revitalises a character.

    (And also brings back the day/night effect. Sometimes. For a particularly cool effect.)

  2. Rats, rats, this is just what I hoped wouldn’t happen :-) There seems to be an awful lot of it — five collected volumes, at least. But I’ve ordered the first, and we’ll see what happens.

  3. Only three out so far. Be really interesting to see what you think.

    Enjoyed this post a lot btw!

  4. Thanks, Andrew! Four more posts to come.

    I see five on Amazon (though it’s true that parts 4 and 5 are only available for pre-order.)

  5. With the early Hulk they were clearly riffing off Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. He’s Banner’s id and is often found doing the things Banner doesn’t dare do. Naturally, he’s intelligent and scheming throughout this. When that doesn’t really work out they swap for Frankenstein and the creature. My theory is that he’s not really the Hulk until the first time he calls himself “Hulk”.

  6. Interesting. And when is the first time he calls himself “Hulk”? (I didn’t register that event in my recent re-reading of the early issues.)

    I’m not sure I’m really seeing the Jekyll and Hyde thing, beyond two people sharing a single corporeal existence. I don’t see any sense that Hulk is doing what Banner would like to do but doesn’t dare. Admittedly it’s a while since I read Jekyll and Hyde, but as I recall it’s open to the interpretation that there is really no such person as Hyde, and it’s just Jekyll unmoored from him moral sense. You certainly can’t read the Hulk that way!

  7. Symbolically you can, if not literally, In, for example, the very first issue the Hulk goes to find Betty Ross. The implication is that both he and Banner have a thing for her, but only he’s wilful enough to act on those impulses. Also remember this early on Banner becomes the Hulk when it gets dark, so he’s ever much an id figure.

    But this doesn’t really work with the plot requirement that he act like a (sort of) superhero, and take on the villain of the week each time. In fact I think Marvel’s unique recipe was shifting from (mostly) monster comics to (mostly) superhero comics. It makes their characters more unique, less blandly ‘good’, but could also screw with generic comic-book plots. And that’s most clear with the Hulk. When The Avengers started, they definitely tried to use his ‘google ball’ status to their advantage, actively using him as a plot disruptor.

    Alas there is no flash-of-lightning moment where he ups and says “Hulk will call Hulk Hulk!” The early issues featured rotating writers and artists and kind of jump around all over the place, often orphaning plot lines. There’s an early line I like though, where someone offers him help and he says “Don’t need nothin’! I’m the Hulk!”

  8. Interesting thought on Betty.

    Some time I will try to figure out a good way to read those early Hulk-as-an-Avenger comics. I’ve never read them, and can’t really imagine how they could make any sense.

    Rotating writers, really? I always naively trusted the credits cards which always, always say written by Stan Lee.

  9. My favourite Hulk comics were the quite long time Peter David was writing it, late 80s-mid 90s.

    He recovered the first Hulk (grey Hulk) as an intelligent, meaner, antihero version, changing at night as well. This mutated into a more general interpretation as split personality, and at some point the different Banner personas (green angry Hulk, grey mean Hulk and cerebral Banner) gets joined into a more “traditional superhero” (green Hulk with the Banner personality, though a different Banner personality, though)
    The great thing about this run was the mixture of different elements, which I think is a fantastic characteristic of serialised superhero comic books, and when it works out it turns to be great. It moved genres quite often, from horror, to sci-fi, to action comics, to fantasy, to occasional social commentary…
    On one end, you have quite serious discussion about how Banner has different personalities, created after him being abused as child. How that affects him and his relationship with Betty (which is also established as a strong character in the series)
    But it’s always mixed with great entertainment, both in the shape of superheros punching each other, and with the great talent for Peter David in writing fantastic dialogs, both funny and witty and emotive and deep when required.

    It’s interesting that the psychological approach to the character was quite influential for the Ang Lee movie, though the tone of the movie is never relieved through humour like the comics are…

    Another element quite interesting of those comics books, which now has became more common that it was, was the intention of trying to unify somehow the different early treatments of the character through “retcon”. Now I feel it has been overused by having constantly to refer to an obscure comic 40 years ago to bring back something related to the present. But when was done with taste, it was amazing to feel like there was really some idea behind all those changes in the character… (well, there was not, but the writer made it look like there was)

    He wrote the character for 11 years, obviously with ups and downs, but those comic books are some of my favourite.

  10. Essentially they’re about saying “of course this doesn’t make any sense. it has the Hulk in it!” And they make it work!

    They are all officially scripted by Stan Lee. But there’s points where, for example, Ditko’s highly idiosyncratic dialogue style takes over. So I think he must have been creating those with no input from Lee.

  11. Gavin, I have no patience with “of course this doesn’t make any sense. it has the Hulk in it!” To my mind, anything science-fictiony has to meet a higher bar for consistency in areas other than its counterfactual hypothesis. Hulk done well asks “Given that a gamma-bomb can make someone transform into a super-strong green giant, what follows?” Now obviously that never holds 100%, not least because we always hypothesize supervillains as well. But as a principle, I think it’s rock solid. The moment you say “anything goes”, then everything has gone.

    Interesting on Ditko: I had no idea at all that he ever wrote actual words. (I knew that Kirby and he both wrote a lot of plots, but I think Lee always put the words in.)

  12. Jaime, thanks for these thoughts on Grey Hulk. I’d be interested to read those some time, I don’t know if there is a financially efficient way to do that? A collected volume or something?

    I suppose that, although what you describe is really interesting, it’s far enough away from what I think of as Classic Hulk that it almost counts as a different comic. If I were already familiar with it, I’d probably be doing a separate post on that Hulk, making this a six-part series.

  13. Oh, yes, it absolutely is a different comic. It’s 25 years later, and by then comic books had changed a lot. I only brought it up because there’s no more comics in your planned series, only TV and cinema :-P

    There is a collection that summarises Peter David’s run (in 8 TBP), I think all is available in Marvel Unlimited (if you have it and like the digital form, though I find old comics to get a weird “texture” when show in digital)

  14. Hmm … eight trade paperbacks at £15 each mounts up pretty quick :-) Still, I may take a punt on the first volume and see where that takes me. Thanks for the pointer!

  15. Ah, but you’re going off on a tangent there Mike! By “makes sense” I mean a story formula gets established. That doesn’t happen straight away with the Avengers, up until Captain America arrives they’re the very definition of kids who don’t play well together. And the Hulk is used both as an excuse for and a reason to ramp up that volatility. It’s like they know they have it, so they might as well play into it. Generally, the equation of genre fiction is “too much formula, too predictable” vs. “too much volatility, no consistency or feeling you’re reading the same thing from issue to issue.”

    Lee generally wrote the dialogue, but Ditko wrote his own dialogue both before and after his Marvel era, so there’s plenty of examples of his… um, idiosyncratic… writing style.

  16. Ditko was the Randian, right?

  17. Pingback: Hulks (five different ones). Part 3: the 2003 Ang Lee movie | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  18. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 34 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  19. Pingback: Hulks (five different ones). Part 5: the MCU | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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