The Ever-Changin' Hulk

The Hulk s about a man who turns into a monster. As originally conceived, it was the superhero equivalent of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, though it harks back to any number of monstrous transformations, including werewolf legends. It is therefore rather rather appropriate that the comics series has given us an inordinately large number of takes on the Hulk. We might bristle when they change Captain America or Superman, but the Hulk is ABOUT transformation, and constant change seems to be part of the character's DNA. I'd even say that the Incredible Hulk is more about change than it is about anger management, which is at the core of the Bruce Banner character. Because the Hulk hasn't even always been Bruce Banner.

We've had green Hulks and gray Hulks, child-like Hulks and mean Hulks, smart Hulks and dumb Hulks, Hulks who held down jobs and Hulks who ruled alien worlds as barbarian warlords. We've had other people become Hulks and She-Hulks. And the series keeps mutating.

Recently, my Fire & Water cohorts mentioned how, for a while there, the corner box on the covers of Hulk comics would frequently change to keep up with the Hulk's state of mind. I thought it would be cool to pull from those covers to see how the Hulk's "trade dress" changed over time, and tell the story of his many changes (I'm going to forget some) at the same time...

As you probably know, the Hulk's first appearances had him as a not-so-big gray Hyde, who took over Banner's existence at night. The book didn't sell, so Stan Lee reimagined him in green. Green made him a star. And soon enough, the Hulk became bigger and bigger, less and less verbal, and rampaged through hundreds of comics pages fighting army men and other monsters.
I didn't know if I should count Assistant Editors' Month's weird box art, but there ya go. Now here is the fun sequence where, after having accepted that Banner had taken over the Hulk body, he monthly starts to lose his composure:
Silly Bruce, you can't control the Hulk for long! Then came the period where the Hulk was sent through the Nexus of Realities. In another dimension, the green-skinned Empress Jarella gave the Hulk intelligence and they became lovers. Until he was forced to returned, and under John Byrne's pen, Banner separated the Hulk from himself. That left Banner weaker and weaker and the mindless Hulk more and more dangerous. They had to be reintegrated, which led to a resurgence of the Gray Hulk.
The Gray Hulk was nastier and cleverer, and managed to disappear and repress Banner's personality while he took on the life of Vegas leg breaker Joe Fixit. I loved this idea. Eventually, he was rumbled as Banner screamed to be released, and sharing his time between meek scientist, mean Gray Hulk and Savage Green Hulk, Banner managed to integrate his multiple personalities into a whole being. This "merged Hulk" came to be known as the Professor, and had traits from all three. I will spare you the various permutations of the corner box in the 90s. Or rather, spare myself. During this era of the book, the four personalities started sharing their time, and a lizard-like "Devil Hulk" made its presence known, chipping away at Banner's psyche.

The next big change came when the vaunted Illuminati decided the Hulk was too dangerous to have around and sent him into space. His rocket crashes on the planet Sakaar where he becomes a warlord, marries, has kids and everything. His queen is killed and he returns to Earth bent on revenge, which is what we call World War Hulk. After he calms down, Banner works with and against a new Red Hulk, who will turn out to be Thunderbolt Ross (well, that guy had a lot of pent up rage). Within a few years, there'll be a whole team of Red, Green and Blue Hulks.

After Fear Itself, Banner asks Doctor Doom for help separating him from the Hulk, leading to more permutations until Bruce joins SHIELD and uses the Hulk as a "controllable" weapon. When the Hulk suffers some brain damage, Tony Stark uses a version of the Extremis to fix him, but this gives Banner greater brain capacity which he uses to manipulate the Extremis to create a new super-intelligent persona called Doc Green. Yet another persona is unleashed after Original Sin, the bloodthirsty Kluh, but this was quickly dealt with. In any case, Doc Green started to wear off as Extremis did, but he let himself do so lest his increased intelligence lead him to become the evil Maestro. (Tired yet?)

So then the new Secret Wars, and after that, Amadeus Cho became the Hulk, absorbing the gamma radiation from Bruce Banner with nanites and transferring them to himself. As for Banner, he asks Hawkeye to kill him if he ever shows signs of becoming the Hulk, and when the going gets tough, Hawkeye does. Since then, the Hulk hasn't actually stayed dead, appearing dressed as a samurai, raised by the Hand for a short time.

Marvel's Legacy initiative seems to hint at a properly troubled future for Amadeus Cho (in Generations: Banner Hulk and The Totally Awesome Hulk #1, there's a sense that he will carry on as a Hulk more in line with what we think of Banner's), but this is comics; there's absolutely no way Bruce Banner won't be back to undergo some insane new metamorphosis.

That's the very nature of the Hulk.


Anonymous said...

My theory: the perennial problem with the Hulk is that he is cursed. It sounds like a character who actively wants to eliminate his superpowered persona should be a good concept, but it just doesn't work. It doesn't allow for a status quo where their world makes sense.

Siskoid said...

You call it a bug, I call it a feature.

Anonymous said...

It's certainly intended as a feature -- but it also has a lot to do with why Marvel can't land on a truly satisfying version of the Hulk.

Ben Grimm laments his powers too, but I think deep down we readers have a sense that the compensations make it worthwhile to him. He's a freak and the Yancy Street kids hate him, but he also gets to go on adventures with his family, save the day, and make the world a better place. His life is absurd but it's a life he can be proud of.

LiamKav said...

I think the Hulk is one of those great concepts that (like Batman) you can lay lots of extra psychology, reasoning and analysis on, but that also works taken straight at face value. There's enormous flexibility.

Banner is a glasses wearing nerd (like Superman) who is secretely an ultra strong superhero (like Superman).
Banner is a glasses wearing nerd (like Superman), but he's an inversion of the alter-ego idea. While Superman is loved and respected, the Hulk is an out of control monster, full of power that can't be controlled.
The Hulk is wish-fulfilment. Who hasn't gotten so angry they wish they could just smash the place up.
The Hulk represents being careful what you wish for. You can smash the place up, but you have no control over what you'll smash and you have to live with the consequences.
The Hulk represents all what we want to hide. The green "Hulk Smash" version represents a childish tantrum. The grey-skinned version is the nasty, Mr Hyde side of ourselves, reflecting our darkest thoughts. Or he's the teenager form of yourself, a form that hasn't learnt to control his impulses and has the power to just do whatever he wants.

Even the period in the 90s where the merged Hulk reverted to a savage Banner form when he got angry works, as a representation of unchecked emotions bubbling away inside you, ultimately reducing you when they come out.

And then there's the ultimate irony (I want to say Greg Pak first noted it, but I'm not sure)... for all the worry about the threat that the Hulk represents, the damage and destruction he can bring, it's nothing compared to what Bruce Banner - creator of nuclear bombs can do.

Siskoid said...

Liam really gets it!


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