We all have gaps in our pop culture knowledge, those omissions that elicit gasps from our fellow funnybook connoisseurs. For me, those gaps are vast and constitute anything outside of DC Comics proper. I’m on a mission to rectify my comics knowledge shortcomings and to provide a fresh take on classic stories that others have known for years. The comics may be old but my mind is still pure, wrapped in plastic and sitting on the shelf, waiting to be opened. Welcome to Mint Condition!
This time: HULK SMASH!!
The skinny: You know this one. “Caught in the heart of a gamma bomb explosion, Dr. Bruce Banner now finds himself transformed into a powerful, dark, and distorted reflection of himself.” Yep, it’s the jade giant himself, the incredible Hulk! Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Bruce Banner has been hulking out in various forms for over fifty years now. One of the most defining runs in the series was writer Peter David’s TWELVE years (!!) on the book. If you were reading Hulk in the 1990’s, you were reading David’s Goliath.
Issues read: The Incredible Hulk #331-425, plus the annuals #16-18 and assorted tie-ins — about a hundred comics altogether. It’s not quite all of Peter David’s issues on the series (he wrote it all the way through #467), but I managed to devour a good seven years’ worth of Hulked-out goodness before my puny brain gave out on me.
Published by: Marvel Comics, available on Marvel Unlimited.
Publication dates: Peter David took over writing duties on The Incredible Hulk from Al Milgrom in 1987, and wrote it pretty much straight through until 1999. He’s easily written over a hundred issues featuring the Green Meanie, which is really impressive. Talk about leaving your mark on something.
Creators: Obviously David had a lot of co-creators over the dozen years he was behind the desk, but not as many as you’d think. The longevity of these creative teams is pretty respectable. The first year featured art by a young Todd McFarlane, inked by Jim Sanders III. The next two years were pencilled by Jeff Purves and inked by Sanders, Marie Severin, and others. Then Dale Keown settled in for a couple of years of art duties, inked mostly by Mark Farmer and Bob McLeod. Gary Frank and Cam Smith had a good two-year run after that. Each of these creative teams switched out at important inflection points in the story, giving the impression of “seasons” of Incredible Hulk. Speaking of incredible, almost every one of those issues across the years was colored by either Glynis Oliver or Petra Scotese, and the lettering was almost completely handled by Joe Rosen (with about a dozen by Rick Parker). That’s a level of consistency you don’t often find.
My previous experience: The Hulk has always been one of my favorite Marvel superheroes, but sadly I had never read a Hulk comic. I watched the Lou Ferrigno show as a kid and I’ve seen the recent movies, but my in-comic knowledge is limited to guest appearances in event books. Time to pop that green cherry.
Significance: I know enough from browsing covers over the years to understand that the Hulk is a character who goes through a lot of changes, as creative teams explore the different facets of the Jeckyll/Hyde relationship between Banner and the dark thing that lives inside him. Choosing a jumping-on point for such a long running series isn’t easy, but I wanted to make sure the sampling I read included a few significant paradigm shifts. I was not disappointed.
Story: At the outset of Peter David’s tenure on The Incredible Hulk, it appears that Bruce Banner has just been “cured” of his Hulk affliction. Like a nasty cold, he has passed on the condition to one of his closest friends; young Rick Jones, who now switches from dopey hipster to angry green giant. As Rick’s story plays out (he eventually gets better), Bruce finds himself bombarded once again by gamma rays and becomes a different entity altogether — a grey-skinned Hulk. This new Grey Hulk is a bit smaller and a lot smarter than the Green Hulk was, but still really hates Banner’s guts. His rational mind is more developed, so the dialogue is less “Hulk SMASH!” and more “Man, that guy really hacks me off.”
Another fun twist that I wasn’t expecting is that the Hulk’s transformations at this point are governed by the sun. During the day, Bruce Banner looks for ways to stop the monster, but at sunset each evening he inevitably becomes the grey-skinned behemoth and remains that way until sunrise. It’s like he’s got a bit of the Wolfman mixed in with his Jeckyll and Hyde schtick. Bruce is constantly checking the position of the sun, aware that he’s on a countdown until his life erupts into chaos and destruction again. Sometimes Bruce chains himself up as night falls in an effort to protect innocents. Sometimes Grey Hulk climbs to the very top of a radio tower at sunrise, just to piss Banner off.
Probably the highlight of the series is when Grey Hulk manages to “cure” himself of Banner (what a twist!) and builds the perfect life for himself as a Las Vegas casino enforcer, taking on the name Joe Fixit. He manages to live for months like this, sleeping by day in a luxurious penthouse suite on the Strip and, when called upon, breaking legs that need to be broken. Mr. Fixit is a huge grey-skinned bruiser with a Moe Howard bowl cut, wearing a pinstripe suit and white gloves. No shirt, no shoes, no problem. He’s just living his best life. Even has a little girlfriend of his own. Eventually the spell wears off (as it usually does in Vegas) and Bruce returns. But not before Joe Fixit makes some memories.
The Incredible Hulk is an extremely emotional story. It takes the time to show regular Americans; what makes them suffer, what causes them joy. Haunted by childhood abuse, Banner is very empathetic. He can understand people’s darker sides and what it takes to keep those demons in check. His own inner demons come bubbling up during times of stress, with the different aspects of the Hulk showcasing various repressed emotions in Bruce. The Green Hulk is a bratty kid who just wants to be left alone, the Grey Hulk is a perverted teenager looking for hedonistic kicks. Later in the story, all of these personalities merge (including Bruce’s) and the result is an arrogant meathead who lives to kick butt and take names. Each of his incarnations evokes sympathy from the reader. There’s a little Hulk in all of us.
The psychological aspects of the story are profound and intricately woven. Bruce suffers from multiple personality disorder. It’s not just that his skin turns green and he starts to get belligerent — another person entirely takes over his body. Grey Hulk, Green Hulk, Merged Hulk, and Bruce Banner are each a completely separate character and they have unique relationships amongst themselves. Like incompatible roommates, they are forced to share a headspace and generally despise the situation. While they are usually oblivious to each other, Bruce and the Hulk do have brief conversations in passing during transformations. They aren’t pleasant. I’d be lying if I said this all didn’t resonate deeply with me. There are parts of myself that I’d love to disown, and yet there they are, drinking all the beer and leaving messes for me to clean up in the morning.
Marriage looms large in this story as well. Just as Banner and Hulk have to learn to live together, newlyweds Bruce and Betty circle around each other, unable to get past the big green(gray) issue in their lives. When Bruce is “healed” (merged with both hulks in issue #378) Betty has a difficult time getting used to her new husband. He has changed so much, he’s not the reserved, sweet man she married. And now she’s just supposed to accept him and move on? Like all relationships, theirs has its ups and downs and it’s refreshing to see how seriously Betty needs to think about what she wants. In some ways she has it even rougher than he does.
It’s also a really fun comic. Lots of one-shots and guest stars. A large part of this story is throwing an endless parade of Marvel tough guys up against the Hulk and watching him punch his way through them. There’s barely a page without a crumbling building or a gaping hole through a brick wall. Who doesn’t want to see the big guy do some major damage? It’s smash porn, in the best possible way.
Art: Most of this story takes place in the Nevada desert, Las Vegas to Reno and the vast nothingness in between. Being a Nevada resident, I really appreciated the nighttime vistas with the moon rising over the barren mountains, the pink clouds at sunrise. It really is one of the most beautiful places on Earth and somewhere that the Hulk could go to be alone and let out his aggressions. Bruce Banner sometimes visits the site of his original gamma bomb test to reflect on his life, and then heads out to Yucca Flats to oversee the disposal of nuclear waste products. The backgrounds are appropriately sparse for the vastness of the desert and convincingly glitzzy and garish on the Las Vegas Strip.
There are some really silly visual gags thrown into the series. At a Las Vegas convention, Hulk smashes past Pee-wee Herman, Siskel & Ebert, posters of Keaton’s (upcoming) Batman movie. Very Marvel-ish humor.
The facial expressions throughout The Incredible Hulk are over-exaggerated or cartoonishly warped during especially intense emotional outbursts. Chins too long, eyes too wide. I was repeatedly distracted by how big Bruce’s glasses were on his face. It’s an effect that works well once you’re used to it, especially on the so-called monster’s face. The Hulk is not just angry. People who look in his eyes see rage, hurt, pain, fear. Sadness. The emotional resonance of this book is high.
I mentioned above that Glynis Oliver and Petra Scotese were complete rock stars on this book, coloring a ridiculous number of issues as artists and inkers came and went. It bears repeating. There were at least five different versions of Hulk in the hundred or so issues I read, each with his own unique shade of green, easily recognizable. My favorite panels are close-ups of Hulk’s grinning face: green hair atop a green face with green eyes and green gums. Beautiful.
New reader accessibility: Issue #331 drops you right into a whole mess of action. Rather than starting there, at the beginning of Peter David’s continuous run, I suggest going back a few issues to see how Al Milgrom set things up. Issue #324 is a good onboarding point. It marks the beginning of Joe Fixit and the Rick Jones “Savage” Hulk.
Desire to read more: For sure. I hear the current Hulk books are fantastic, and I know there are some big-name stories still out there like Planet Hulk and World War Hulk. Color me curious.
Final Thoughts: The Incredible Hulk was even better than I expected. Far from being just one long slugfest, it is a genuine and touching dive into the human psyche. The supporting cast really shines — not just the various personalities inside of Banner’s head, but Rick, Betty, Marlo, and all of the others that stand by Bruce and love him through his struggles. Some people aren’t easy to be close to and sometimes our monsters come out in the dark.
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