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Old Greenskin: The Early Years

Marvel Masterworks: The Incredible Hulk

This piece wound up in a slightly different place than I originally expected it to go.
When I first starting thinking about doing a piece on the recently reissued Marvel Masterworks: Incredible Hulk collection, I pretty much had my opening paragraph mentally written:

With the new Hulk movie about to hit theatres, there’s a whole load of product being marketed around the Jolly Green Giant. Well, forget most of that crap. This book is all you need to know about the Hulk – as handled by the masters who created him: Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

All properly condescending and fannish, right? Only one small problem: I hadn’t read the stories collected in this book in over twenty years. Picking up the hardbound volume, which reprints issues #1 – 6 of the character’s short-lived debut title, I rediscovered what I’d forgotten. The early Lee & Kirby Hulk is far from definitive.
Before Marvel Comics snagged the superhero audience in a big way, they were a middling company whose primary output was monster comics: fright-free stories featuring towering creatures and grotesque alien invaders, scenes of mass destruction and seen-it-before twist endings. Kirby was especially adept at rendering impressive and imaginative creatures, a talent that he’d also put to good use with the line’s first big superhero title, Fantastic Four. To readers who’d been following both the monster titles (Tales to Astonish, Journey into Mystery) and FF, 1962’s The Incredible Hulk seemed to represent an ideal fusion: another Kirby monster and a tortured hero type.
Stan Lee has stated that he initially saw the Hulk as a cross between Frankenstein and Mister Hyde, but he and co-creator Kirby tossed other monster movies into the pot, too. His origin is straight out of an atom age drive-in pic like Bert Gordon’s Amazing Colossal Man, while the earliest stories also took from the Wolfman, as nebbishy hero Bruce Banner only became the Hulk at night. Scripter Lee was not above duplicating himself either, as elements of the Hulk would also appear in Amazing Spider-Man: the cantankerous establishmentarian nemesis who forever vowed to get our hero (in Peter Parker’s case, it was newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson; in Banner’s, Army General “Thunderbolt” Ross), an easily imperiled girlfriend named Betty, the early adolescent sense that the whole world is spiraling against you. The Hulk, at least, had teenager Rick Jones for needed back-up.
It was Jones, after all, who got Dr Banner in the soup to begin with. As presented in Hulk #1, the boy foolishly ventures onto a desert testing area in his jalopy, unaware that the army is about to conduct a gamma bomb test. Banner, who’s overseeing said test, sees the boy driving into danger and tells his shifty assistant Igor to hold the firing. Igor, a jealous type and a commie spy to boot, does no such thing. The bomb goes off after Banner has pushed the boy into the safety of a trench, bathing the scientist in those body altering gamma rays.
It’s an origin that few retellings have bothered to completely replicate, and for good reason: it doesn’t make a helluva lot of sense. Here’s this big secret test being overseen by the military and yet the only guy to spy a big ol’ car driving onto the testing range is Banner. When our hero miraculously survives the explosion, and the Hulk starts appearing immediately afterwards, no one stops to make the connection, even though his first transformation occurs while both Bruce and the boy are supposedly under medical observation. (One creepy unresolved bit from the origin issue: first time that Banner becomes the Hulk, he starts emitting radiation that makes a Geiger counter go wild – yet good old Rick, who’s standing right next to him, is remarkably unaffected.) Small wonder that when Kenneth Johnson produced the live action Hulk TV series, for instance, he moved the transforming accident into Banner’s private lab and did away with Jones altogether.
Some comics characters premiere fully fleshed (Spider-Man, for instance); others take time to develop. The Hulk definitely fits under that latter category. In his first appearances he’s gray (more Frankensteiningly cadaverous), though he changed pigmentation by issue #2 – reportedly so he’d show up better on the pulpy pages. His transformation initially only took place at night, and instead of the half-articulate (“Smoke – goooood!”) creature he would later become, the Version 1.0 Hulk was pretty chatty. He read like a more thuggish version of the Thing, in fact, but where Fantastic Four‘s Ben Grimm went around bemoaning the fact that he’d been turned into a big pile of orange rocks, the Hulk groused every time he had to turn back into puny Banner.
Not the most appealing of monsters, to be honest, and you can see Lee & Kirby struggling through the trial-and-error process throughout the first five issues (#6, which is drawn by Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, mainly serves to point out the characters’ commonalities). At one point, for instance, Rich Jones (who would seem to’ve been modeled after faux teen hipster Ed “Kookie” Byrnes, though later they dropped this aspect of the character) develops a mental connection to the Hulk, which gives him the ability to make the monster do his bidding. This only lasted for a couple of issues. Banner’s nightly transformations were also quickly dropped, and for a time he seemed to control the changes with a big-ass gamma ray machine. This too proved unviable in the long run. The childlike rage-a-holic Hulk that we know and love wouldn’t come into being until after the character’s title was cancelled and he got shunted off to share page space with another Marvel character (Ant/Giant-Man) in Tales to Astonish.
(Years later, a Marvel writer would attempt to explain all the variant Hulks as symptoms of a nascent multiple personality disorder deep within Banner’s psyche: dubious psychologically, but you’ve gotta admire the effort.)
But if neither creators nor character are at their peak in this first Masterwork collection, it still is a load of fun. Kirby’s art has its kinetic pleasures (especially fine in issue #3, where the Hulk takes on a circus of crooks – a two panel scene where old greenskin fells a rampaging elephant and sends a bunch of roustabouts flying shows where the Warchowskis drew part of their multi-Smith fight scene). I’ve gotta tell you, though: I don’t think I ever saw my old man wearing a fedora in the early sixties.
Lee’s scripting is fairly utilitarian (though he sure does love writing about “fate spinning its web”), while most of the plots basically rework standard Cold War kid fantasy conflicts. Three of the villains in the first six issues are communists (a fourth a vague Yellow Peril type); three claim to be from outer space (though one of these is actually a dirty Ruskie pretending to be an alien). Only two villains of note emerge at this time – the hypnotizing Ringmaster with his Circus of Crime, plus the aptly named underground overlord Tyrannus (who, in the manner of tyrannical overlords everywhere, gets a thing for our hero’s girlfriend). The aliens, in particular, (the Toad Men!) read like they wandered in from some half-scripted Amazing Fantasy yarn.
Focus in these early books is as much on Rick Jones as it is the Hulk. Feeling understandable guilt over his role in Banner’s misfortune, he tags along after the behemoth, ineffectually struggling to keep him from rampaging. (If the Hulk didn’t regularly escape, after all, we wouldn’t have much of a story.) Time after time, Lee & Kirby end their tale with either the Hulk and Jones riding off into the sunset, or Jones exhaustedly posed outside a concrete dungeon that is temporarily holding the Hulk. With each transformation, we’re told, the Hulk grows stronger and stronger. One day, that dungeon won’t hold him and . . . what then? What then?
Marvel’s new Masterworks series is the second full-fledged attempt at reprinting the line’s early work in hardback form. The first run, which was initiated in the late eighties, received fannish criticism for its occasional coloring glitches and spotty publishing schedule. Not having copies of the original comics anymore, I can’t tell if the coloring in the new edition is true or not – at least one bit of jaundiced pigmentation occurs in a page from issue #4. But I remember some pretty funky tints appearing in the old pulp pamphlets, too, so in a way any coloring snafus are in keeping with the spirit of the original twelve-cent books.
I was too broke during the first run of Masterworks to buy more than a few titles, so I’m personally glad to see ’em returning. But, revamped color or no revamped color, I’ll probably only be buying volumes I don’t already own. And though it’s not on the current list of impending titles, I know I’d love to see a Hulk: Volume Two, containing the stories that dumbed the monster down and really revved the series. Now that would truly be the ne plus ultra of Hulkishness.
(Note For some reason this book is not currently available at Amazon, though it can be found at one of Amazon’s Z-Shops.)

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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