Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Incredible Hulk - Man Or Monster!


Marvel caught lightning in a bottle with the debut of Fantastic Four in 1961. And the Timely/Atlas/Marvel model had been for all of its existence to recognize a success and capitalize on that success. The result would be some new heroes in the following year, but it also included one monster. Like so much of what erupted from Marvel at the time, after a few years of decent success with giant space monsters and enormous radioactive beasts went to its hole card and produced a book which deftly married the monster concept to the emerging superhero wave.

(Thing's roams the streets in debut Fab 4 issue.)
It's notable that the Fantastic Four itself emerged from that same synthesis to some extent with the addition of the monstrous Thing to a group of weirdos who forged themselves into publicly admired heroes. The Thing was a gruff misanthropic creature isolated from his fellow man by his looks and his manner which fueled a self-loathing which in itself seemed to connect with the young baby boomer readership hungry for heroes which spoke to their circumstances.


The Incredible Hulk number one is very like the myriad movies of that day which showcased how radiation was a potent but also terrifying force which could wreak havoc on people and society. We meet a civilized Doctor and witness as his Gamma Bomb is about to be tested. When pressed by his colleague that there might danger he responds with pompous hubris. He says "I don't make errors..."


This blind and careless confidence results in a horrific accident when a careless teenager parks in the test area on a dare. Banner to his credit bravely tries to save the boy and does but finds himself exposed to the full power he has unleashed so recklessly. That dosage of radiation seems at first to have no effect but then night comes and he begins to change.


The Hulk is presented in his debut as a gray-skinned creature of the night, a lumbering monster straight from the cinema of the day and decades before, calling up memories of Frankenstein's Creature.


He is perceived as a threat from the first moment and his attitude is pugnacious at the least. Rick Jones, the teenager who Banner saved is there to see the change and becomes for a long time the only other human being who knows of the dual nature of his friend. Day comes and the Hulk disappears for a time, at this early moment it remains unclear if he/it will return.


The story turns its attention to the distant land of the Soviet Union where we meet the Gargoyle, a creature not unlike the Hulk in that he has been transformed by radiation into a grotesque creature of great mental power. He turns his attention to the Hulk and travels to the United States.


There the two encounter one another and the Gargoyle we learn regrets his evil nature and seeks to change. He is able to regain his humanity and turns on his foreign masters. The story ends with the fate of Banner and the Hulk unknown, but there is much suggested for the next issue. 


The Incredible Hulk is a monster who erupts from the bowels of an atomic blast, bristling with a dangerous power he was a brutish and dangerous creature who seemed the antithesis of the reasonable scientist Doctor Bruce Banner, who was his servile alter ego. He encapsulates the fear of the age, the looming nigh instantaneous death which was on the minds of almost everyone in that time. And also he is the monster of the night, the beast which lurks in all men who responds with violence and in the Hulk's case is empowered with an impossible strength to make that violence truly disastrous.


The debut story is a powerful emotional tale, which loses its unity a bit when it shifts its focus to Russia, but does complete its thematic focus by introducing the similar but different Gargoyle. His self sacrifice to fight against his totalitarian masters shows the potential for good still invested in humanity.


To Be Hulkinued!

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4 comments:

  1. "Is he man or monster - or is he both?"

    Easy one - he's both! Hey, this is easier than I thought.

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    Replies
    1. The weakness in the Marvel Universe is that so much weirdness has accumulated over the decades that strange things feel weirdly normal. In these early tales the scary nature of the changes seem more evident.

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    2. Very true, Rip, but I was referring to the fact that he literally is BOTH man AND monster - Bruce Banner AND the Hulk. Although to be fair, the cover blurb was specifically referring to the Hulk, not Bruce Banner. And, of course, Hulkie was a bit more 'handsome' in #1 and not quite so monstrous-looking as he became in subsequent issues.

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  2. Interesting how the coda involving the Gargoyle parallels the end of FF #1 with the Mole Man, also an ugly outcast who struck back because of his physical deformity.

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