Saturday, July 20, 2013

Marvels: Incredible Hulk #1

"The Hulk" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Paul Reinman
(May 1962)

A major new player arrives in the Marvel Universe, but it will be a few years, I think, before they really figure this guy out: the Hulk!

Unlike Fantastic Four #1, which gave us a glimpse of the characters before delving into who they were, Incredible Hulk #1 is a more straightforward origin issue.

We start with Dr. Bruce Banner, a scientist working for the military on experimental weapons (a very common job at this point in the Marvel Universe; geniuses are the people who make weapons). The first thing the issue wants to hammer home about Bruce is that he's a weakling with no guts who is afraid to act. And then he immediately saves the life of an innocent bystander, like cowards do.

Okay, seriously, Stan. This is how it goes down: page 1, Bruce has created an experimental gamma bomb with the potential for a massive amount of destruction, but he has qualms about testing it because of a possible miscalculation, and according to his CO, General "Thunderbolt" Ross (whose daughter Betty is hanging around for literally no reason), this makes him a milksop. Page 2: Bruce notices a car parked in the testing area with a person inside. Page 3: Bruce runs to the occupant, pulls him out the car, shoves him in a ditch, and then takes a gamma blast full on in the face. So, just to get this straight: one of the things we're going to keep hearing about Bruce Banner is that he's a cowardly wimp, and literally the first action we see him take is to throw himself on a bomb in order to save a stranger. Doesn't really hold up.

The teenage boy in the car is, of course, Rick Jones, the Snapper Carr of the Marvel Universe. He becomes Banner's stalwart sidekick; he owes Banner his life. He's the guy that shares in Banner's secret: that, after the sun goes down, Banner changes into the Hulk! At least in this issue.

In this issue, the Hulk is gray (coloring error) and he only takes over Banner's body at night. The first few years of this character are all over the place, with various writers and artists trying to come up with something that makes the character work. One minute, he's only the Hulk at night. The next, he's using a machine to make the transformation. Then, they decide it's anger or basically just whenever the hell the plot requires it to be. There's no consistency.

One thing they establish here and don't deviate from, though, is that the Hulk hates Bruce Banner and doesn't want to give up control. He, too, thinks teenager-rescuing Bruce Banner is a puny weakling. The Hulk is the part of Banner who wants to be powerful and assertive enough to be in control of the situation, but with all of that comes a compulsion to destroy. The Hulk is pure emotion that manifests itself as a dangerous rage, while Banner is meant to be the opposite pole: the intellect that can be overly cautious. It's a mix that should be really interesting (it's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, after all), but which Stan Lee and Jack Kirby seem to have a hard time finding.

As for the rest of the issue, Banner's scientist colleague turns out to be a commie spy--the guy named Ivan, go figure--and then a deformed Soviet scientist called the Gargoyle kidnaps the Hulk to use as a weapon, only to discover he's really Bruce Banner, and then Banner cures the Gargoyle and makes him normal, so in gratitude the Gargoyle helps Banner escape the Iron Curtain, sacrificing himself to do so. It is an interesting switch to turn a stereotypical red villain into a complex personality who turns on his government after experiencing kindness (Bruce offers to help the Gargoyle instead of having to be forced into it; so once again, we see that Bruce is just a good man, not some weakling). It's a nice ending. But overall, it's kind of a mediocre story. The first of many for this character.

Some stray observations:

:: Was the Hulk's design actually based on Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's Monster? Because he really looks like it.

:: I understand they do this to make Bruce Banner look even more like a man of inaction, but General "Thunderbolt" Ross is such a stereotype of war-grizzled manliness, screaming at the top of his lungs and saying yelling things like "Keep out of this, Betty! THIS IS MAN TALK!"

:: At this point, the Hulk speaks normally. I'm not sure when he becomes a dope. Right now, he's just a brute with a nasty, abusive personality.

:: The Soviets refer to Bruce Banner as America's top atomic scientist. But to General Ross, he's just a coward. What the hell, guys?

:: Also, the gamma bomb explosion that turns Bruce Banner into the Hulk only happens because Igor doesn't delay the countdown. It's a move to get Banner out of the picture. Pretty cold, bro.

Like I said, it's kind of a mediocre issue, pretty standard origin stuff, which is a shame because it introduces a character who is basically my favorite in Marvel Comics. I don't know why it's so hard to tell great stories about him, but it will be for a while. A long while.

Stick around. There are five more tedious issues to come.

Next time: DOOM.


Roger Owen Green said...

You are right about the Hulk. I have a lot of the Marvel Masterworks and the origin stories are SO widely varied in terms of quality...

SamuraiFrog said...

The art varies, too. Ditko really made the Hulk creepy.