Superhero Makeovers: The Incredible Hulk, part two
Well, if your liver has recovered from part one, we can continue our drinking game/history lesson on the Hulk.
As of 1964, the Hulk was a popular character without a home. Moreover, he had obviously gone through some changes off-panel. When last readers saw him in his own series, his transformations through the use of Bruce Banner’s gamma gun were becoming more unstable. His appearances in Fantastic Four and Avengers gave no indication that he was still using the gamma gun to transform, yet at the same time he was wandering about during the day, suggesting that his day/night transformation cycle was still a thing of the past. When he popped up in Amazing Spider-Man, he was hiding out in a cave, not Banner’s secret lab where he had been during his own series. The truth of the matter was that the Hulk was still being written by Stan Lee, and Lee still didn’t know what he wanted to do with the character – in fact, you could make a pretty good argument that Stan never did figure out how to handle the Hulk. But one thing was for sure: with the character’s popularity still strong, the Hulk needed a book of his own.
Tales to Astonish:
The Hulk made one more guest appearance, facing off against Giant Man in Tales to Astonish #59. The next issue, the Hulk gained second billing in a book that had previously been pretty much about Giant Man and his girlfriend, the Wasp. In the pages of Tales to Astonish, we got more development of the Hulk, including some of his most iconic attributes.
For starters, Banner no longer transformed into the Hulk at night, but instead transformed when he got angry (take a shot, plus a bonus shot for there being no explanation as to this change). However, the same thing that caused his transformations was also a weakness to the Hulk, as he would turn back into Banner if he got too angry. A few issues in, this weakness would quietly get dropped (take a shot) without any explanation (take a shot), and the Hulk would no longer have a limit to his rage.
While the Hulk’s look of green skin and torn pants remained the same, his personality took a major turn in Tales to Astonish #66. Right in the middle of a story, with no explanation at all (take a shot), the Hulk went from being somewhat intelligent and speaking in the first person to referring to himself in the third person and having the IQ of Lenny from Of Mice and Men (take a shot). This “savage Hulk” would remain for quite a while, becoming the iconic version that shouts “Hulk smash!” and is still identified as the Hulk today, even though in comics the Hulk hasn’t been like that for a while. The change was probably a good one, as it defiitively ended the quasi-villainous Hulk and made him more child-like and sympathetic, which was a major element to the Hulk’s continued popularity. And the Hulk would remain child-like and simple for…four issues.
Tales to Astonish #69 saw the Hulk seemingly killed when Bruce Banner took a bullet to the head. Rick Jones, who had returned to the Hulk’s side, helped out by dosing Banner’s lifeless body with gamma rays, turning him back into the Hulk. The transformation this time left Banner in control of the Hulk’s mind again (take a shot) but unable to transform back into human form lest he die (take a shot). As before, the Hulk’s rage clouded Banner’s judgment, resulting in a temporary return of the mean-spirited Hulk from the original series. Two issues later, though, the Hulk’s foe the Leader removed the shrapnel from the Hulk’s brain (take a shot) in order to force the Hulk to ally with him thanks to Bruce Banner’s sense of honor. So the Hulk was the Leader’s lackey for a couple of issues, until the Leader himself died. Don’t worry, he got better. We’re not going to start a drinking game for the number of times the Leader comes back to life, though, because that would drain this world’s precious supply of hard liquor.
Eventually, Giant Man got dropped from Tales to Astonish and replaced by Namor the Sub-Mariner. The Hulk chugged along as the second part of the series for a while longer, gathering up some long-term foes. The biggest change remaining in Tales to Astonish was in issue #77, when the Hulk had seemingly been killed and Rick Jones wound up spilling the beans as to his secret identity. That’s military intelligence at work for you – they spent years hounding the Hulk while not noticing that Bruce Banner, the guy who was working for them, would occasionally disappear and show up in torn purple pants after the Hulk’s rampage had ended. It took a teenager to spell things out for the Army.
After 42 issues as a regular in Tales to Astonish (plus his one guest appearance), Marvel decided to change the book’s direction. Issue #101 was the last issue of Tales to Astonish, but the book itself didn’t get canceled. Instead, it got a title change. Starting with #102, the Sub-Mariner got the boot and the book became The Incredible Hulk, volume 2.
A Period of Stability:
What was billed on the cover as the Hulk’s “big premier issue” is something of an oddity. For starters, Tales to Astonish #101 ended on a cliffhanger, and the Hulk’s new title picks up mid-story. The tale has very little to do with the Hulk itself, as the Hulk finds himself drawn into an attack on Asgard – a story more suited to Thor than to the Hulk. In fact, the Hulk is off-handedly killed in his premier issue, zapped to death with a spell from the Enchantress. He gets revived by the intervention of Odin, but all in all the story is a very, very bizarre way to start a “new” series.
Despite the odd start to the Hulk’s second volume, things finally started to settle down for the jade giant. The Hulk’s savage nature eventually took back over, returning us to the child-like Hulk (take a shot – no bonus shot, since we can extrapolate a reason for the change even if it’s not mentioned in the text). As Stan Lee left the book, future writers managed to get some consistency to the character at long last. Aside from a brief period of time when a magic spell gave Banner control of the Hulk again (take a shot), the Hulk remained more or less the same through the 1970s and got some very influential writers and artists. A series of strong writers including Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Gerry Conway, and Roger Stern brought consistently good stories. Herb Trimpe did the pencils for a long stint, giving some consistency to the comic’s look. Trimpe would eventually be replaced by the extremely talented Sal Buscema, who would team down the road with Bill Mantlo, making one of the best duos that comics has ever had. I’m serious – anything Mantlo and Buscema put down on paper was pretty much gold. They were so good that tin heir run on Rom the Spaceknight, they took a cheap toy tie-in comic and turned it into a critically acclaimed epic.
The big reason that the child-like savage Hulk is seen as the most iconic Hulk is that he is the one who was around for the longest run at one given time. From the time that Stan Lee left the book until the early 1980s, with only an exception here or there, the Hulk finally had some definition: he was a simple, child-like creature with a heart full of rage and a tendency to smash the right person, sometimes out of seemingly blind luck. This theme got driven home further when the Hulk made the jump from comics to live action television.
The Lonely Man:
Despite having a nearly 50-year old comic book series, two feature films, and a number of animated TV shows, most people seem to know the Hulk from the TV show that ran in the late 1970s and early 1980s:
To be fair, it was a very good show…to a degree. Its success is odd because, while based on a comic book character, the show took great lengths to differentiate itself from the comics. It even changed the protagonist’s name, moving from Bruce Banner to David Banner. (According to producer Kenneth Johnson, the move was to avoid using the alliterative names from kids’ comics. According to everybody else, it was because someone on the creative staff thought that “Bruce” was a “gay” name…which is dumb for many, many reasons.)
The show focused around David Banner, who lost his wife Laura in a car wreck. The car flipped over, trapping her inside and leaving David incapable of freeing her as she burned alive. Flash forward a bit and David is working at the Culver Institute researching ways to tap into the hidden strength many people have – such as one woman’s story where her son was trapped in a car crash the same way as Laura Banner was, except that the woman managed to actually lift the car and free her son. David eventually finds that the incidences of great strength all coincide with excess gamma radiation caused by solar flares. As a test, he exposes himself to gamma radiation, but the lab equipment is in mid-adjustment, resulting in David getting an overdose of gamma radiation. Everything else can be learned from the clip above: in times of rage, he turns into the Hulk, he’s blamed for the death of a colleague who was trying to cure him, and is pursued by an investigative reporter named Jack McGee (who, unknown to even himself, was really the reason Banner’s colleague died).
The show followed the type of format made popular by the TV series The Fugitive, in which Banner is a man on the run who wanders into an area, solves people’s problems, and then leaves by episode’s end. The show was carried almost entirely by the incredible acting of Bill Bixby, who basically stole every single scene he was in. Lou Ferrigno, playing the Hulk, also managed to turn in a good performance with limited screen time per episode, portraying a character very similar to the Universal Studios version of the Frankenstein monster: mute, angry, but still quite childish and only dangerous to those who deserved some smashing.
Aside from some solid acting and a good soundtrack, the TV series didn’t really have that much going for it, but managed to thrive by focusing on the Hulk at his simplest: a kind scientist who was cursed with his monstrous rage, surrounded by loneliness and tragedy. The show’s formula did wear thin in later seasons, and it ended on a terrible note with three very bad TV movies, including two where the show that wanted to avoid being seen as a comic book adaptation decided to have the Hulk fight Thor and Daredevil. Most folks forget those painful parts of the series, instead focusing on the solid gold first couple of seasons and the one-man tour de force that was Bill Bixby.
Naturally, the comics tried to cash in on the popularity of the TV series, but largely failed due to the fact that they couldn’t duplicate Bixby’s acting or the series moody soundtrack on a comic book page. As the comic moved into the 1980s, most of the stories used one of two recycled plots: either the comic would try to draw from the TV series’ Fugitive-style formula, or it would be a “monster of the month” kind of story where the Hulk has to take on some new foe and ultimately win because, well, he’s the Hulk. Ultimately, the comic started to stagnate, and writer Bill Mantlo decided that he had done everything he could with the savage Hulk. So he mixed things up with the character a bit, resulting in some pretty good stories but also a continuation of our drinking game.
Mantlo began his change-up by going back to an old standard: Bruce Banner gaining control of the Hulk (take a shot). Unlike the previous times that Banner took over, however, this time he didn’t find his intellect clouded by the Hulk’s rage – the savage Hulk was completely suppressed. For the next two years or so, Bruce Banner could transform into the Hulk at will and utilize all his strength. In short order the heroes of the Marvel Universe stopped seeing him as a menace and accepted him as a hero. The President gave the Hulk a pardon for all previous crimes, bringing the Hulk’s Presidential pardon total to 2.
The downside to Banner controlling the Hulk was that, as the emotionally repressed Banner, he couldn’t utilize the Hulk’s greatest asset, which was the ability to get stronger as he got madder. As a result, this version of the Hulk got his butt kicked a lot. Additionally, Betty wound up leaving Bruce for a time due to the fact that he was no longer interested in curing himself of becoming the Hulk, since he now believed he had the monster totally under control. Banner wound up hooking up with his lab assistant, Kate Waynesboro, who was actually a government agent spying on him to make sure he wouldn’t transform back into the Hulk. The only guy unable to get a quick victory against this weaker version of the Hulk was the Abomination, a villain who had begun his career by beating the Hulk nearly to death and who had become increasingly less of a threat due to the retaliatory beatings he had received. The Abomination wound up taking on the Hulk just after Banner learned of Kate’s status as a government agent, meaning it was one of the few times the Banner-Hulk was actually angry and capable of tearing apart a foe of similar power.
Despite his romantic troubles and the fact that he wasn’t quite what he used to be in the strength department, Banner seemed to have everything while in control of the Hulk’s body. He acted as a superhero, he was no longer seen as a threat, and he was even given his own observatory to conduct research in. In reality, what was happening was that Mantlo was establishing a pattern that would be used by many future writers down the line: give Bruce Banner happiness, and then take it all away from him.
The Mindless Hulk:
Due to the intervention of the villain Nightmare, the savage Hulk did eventually return (take a shot). This time, he was more dangerous than ever. Banner, unable to deal with the trauma anymore, committed “psychic suicide,” basically disappearing altogether and leaving nothing but the bestial Hulk in charge. Without Banner’s influence, though, the Hulk was more or less a mindless engine of destruction. This version of the Hulk had an ape-like face and could not talk or even think – all he did was smash. (Take a shot as we meet the newest incarnation of the Hulk.) Eventually, the heroes of the Marvel Universe took the Hulk on, and Doctor Strange cast a spell that banished the Hulk to another dimension, forcing him to travel a bizarre place called the Crossroads where he would find himself in many different worlds where he could cause no harm. As a result, the Hulk spent quite a while getting his butt kicked in worlds where wooden weapons could pierce his skin or where his strength was a non-factor.
Despite the fact that the Hulk’s power was meaningless in these stories and that his personality was basically that of a mute ape, the Crossroads stories actually have quite a lot to offer, thanks in large part to the trippy art from Sal Buscema and, very briefly, Mike Mignola (yes, the Hellboy guy). Just as Mantlo built Banner up only to tear him down, he wasn’t about to leave the Hulk in the doldrums for too long. The Crossroads were about Banner’s recovery, as he slowly emerged from his psychic stasis and eventually helped restore the Hulk to his more rational child-like self (take a shot).
Notable in the Crossroads stories is the first time that we saw an in-story acknowledgement of the fact that the Hulk’s skin was originally gray. More notable than that is The Incredible Hulk #312, which is probably the single biggest influence on modern Hulk tales out there. In that story, we get an exploration of Bruce Banner’s past, learning that his father was an abuser who hated Bruce for his advanced intellect. Bruce saw his father kill his mother in front of him, thus planting the seeds of the repressed rage that would eventually manifest as the Hulk. Without that single issue, half of the next decades of stories probably wouldn’t exist.
Eventually, Mantlo left the book because he believed he had told all the stories he could with the character. He jumped ship and headed to Alpha Flight, Marvel’s team of Canadian superheroes. The previous writer of Alpha Flight, John Byrne, hopped over to the Hulk, effectively making a trade between himself and Mantlo. Byrne was the guy who had helped turn the X-Men from second-stringers to headliners, and who would later reboot Superman after Crisis on Infinite Earths. Writing and drawing the Hulk’s book, what revolutionary take did he have on the jade giant?
Well, uh…he basically went back and redid the story that Mantlo had just done, minus all of the interesting parts.
The Mindless Hulk (again):
John Byrne had some big plans for the Hulk, a decent summary of which can be found at Gary Miller’s Delusional Honesty blog. Personally, I think his big plans underscore a problem that a lot of comic writers have, in that they feel the need to redefine a character or spend a lot of time explaining away old continuity to go “back to basics.” At his core, the Hulk is a nerdy scientist who turns into a big green monster when he gets angry. That’s what he was when Byrne came onto the book, and it looked like Byrne’s plan was to spend a lot of time trying to get him to a nerdy scientist who turned into a big green monster with a slightly different personality. But rather than meander about what might have been, let’s focus on what actually was.
Byrne’s run got cut short when his big ego clashed with the big ego of editor Jim Shooter, and all told he was on the book for less than a year. The biggest accomplishment of his short run is that he finally got Bruce and Betty married, which was a plus. On the downside, the rest of the time he was on the book was essentially one big fight with a bunch of superheroes and the mindless Hulk.
The mindless Hulk? As in that guy who was around only a few issues ago at the end of Mantlo’s run? Yeah, that guy. Right of the bat, the Hulk and Banner were split, this time physically. The result was that Bruce Banner got to marry Betty, while the Hulk became a mindless threat to all life again. (Take a shot.) Ultimately, though, the separation became a problem when both Bruce and the Hulk started dying. Byrne actually left before the story was even over, and Al Milgrom stepped in to finish it off in all of its mediocre glory. The Avengers helped re-merge them, resulting in the almost-villainous Hulk from the old days to resurface (take a shot, but note that he is still green at this point, not gray). I do have to say that I love the way this story ends – Vision, the android on the Avengers responsible for re-merging the Hulk and Banner, flies away stating that he doesn’t think that the troubles with the Hulk are over. No shit, Vision! You just merged Banner and the Hulk together again! Androids are dumbasses sometimes.
Anyway, Banner later underwent an attempt to be cured once and for all, resulting in the temporary return of the gray Hulk (take a sip, not a shot, since the return doesn’t last very long). Rick Jones winds up accidentally getting caught in the process, but I’m sure nothing bad will come from that. By issue #324, Bruce Banner was seemingly cured of being the Hulk, and all was well again.
Of course, since that happened over 20 years ago, we know that the solution didn’t take. But let’s give poor old Banner a bit of a break as I go off to nurse another hangover and prepare for an unprecedented part three of a Superhero makeover rant.