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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

So what color is the Hulk?

Short answer: green. Even though he’s gray-white in the above black and white reprint of The Defenders #25 (June 1974).

The long answer starts with a detour. This is the second two-panel row on page three of The Defenders #15 (September 1974), the first comic book I ever read:

In the left panel, millionaire Kyle Richmond, AKA Nighthawk, is phoning his employee, Pennysworth, to purchase a well-secluded riding academy so his teammate Valkyrie has a place to keep her winged horse Aragorn. This is the first appearance of Pennysworth, and though his name will be expanded to J.C. Pennysworth by other writers in 1991, scripter Len Wein presumably had Batman’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth, in mind here. Penciller Sal Buscema draws him mostly in the shadow of his massive desk chair, with only an arm visible.

I presume Len Wein’s script indicated that Pennysworth’s face should not be drawn, though I’m not sure why. The trope creates an expectation of a later reveal, but it’s also possible that Wein was only extending the joke, thinking viewers would imagine Batman’s Pennyworth in the absence of visual information. He and Buscema may also have been avoiding editor Roy Thomas nixing the nominally-disguised allusion entirely if Buscema drew anything even remotely resembling the DC-copyrighted character. Wein never uses Pennysworth again.

Steve Gerber took over scripting on The Defenders #20 (February 1975), while Buscema remained penciller. Their #22-25 (April-June 1975) story arc features the White supremacist supervillain organization the Sons of the Serpent. I thought they were a Gerber invention, but after a little googling I find they were created by Stan Lee and Don Heck in 1966 (more on that another time).

After trying to burn down a mostly Black apartment building, they declare: “Tonight the great White race begins its march to dominance once again! Tonight begins the return to rule of the majority — with death the fate of any who oppose us! For two decades this nation has felt the tyranny of the non-White minority — but no more! White and only White is beautiful!”

Some quick context: “two decades” ago would mean1955 and so the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the “Black is Beautiful” movement began in 1962 with the fashion show “Naturally ’62”; and according to the 1970 census, 87.7% of the population was White, and 11.1% Black.

Gerber’s response for Hulk is more to the point: “Only … White? Hulk is not … White … The snake-men also hate Hulk! Snake-men are Hulk’s enemies! And Hulk will SMASH them!”

So what color is Hulk?

For his premiere issue The Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962), his skin was gray, which matched Jack Kirby’s Boris Karloff Frankenstein monster rendering. Stan Lee reportedly selected gray because he did not want to suggest any ethnic group. While the motive is possible, Lee is notorious for revising events. When recalling creating the Hulk years later, Lee claimed: “I just wanted to create a loveable monster—almost like the Thing but more so … I figured why don’t we create a monster whom the whole human race is always trying to hunt and destroy but he’s really a good guy” (95). But neither the Thing nor the Hulk of their original eight- and six-issue runs were good guys, let alone loveable ones. The Hulk was a barely controlled monster threatening the world as much as the villains he battled.

As far as his skin, colorist Stan Goldberg explained to Jim Amash in a 2003 interview in Alter Ego #18: “I steered away from the gray on the inside, because anything could happen once the silver prints were out of my hands… The colors would come through from the other side of the page, and the paper wasn’t white, either. We couldn’t get a white background on the page. The colors would sometimes be way off from what we wanted. That’s one reason why the gray didn’t work on The Hulk… we kicked around the idea of making him green, but Stan wanted to try gray. I fought him on that. I told him why it wouldn’t work, and it didn’t work, because we couldn’t keep the color consistent throughout the book. Sometimes The Hulk was different shades of gray, and even green in one panel. If we hadn’t already made The Thing orange, that’d have been the perfect color for The Hulk… We could do more with gray and brown on covers. That’s why I used them more on covers rather than the interiors, because gray was more unpredictable on that inside paper.” (16-17)

According to “How a Printing Error Gave Us a Green Incredible Hulk” at the Holland Litho printing services website: “It is easy to imagine how this printing error occurred. If one wanted grey and instead got green, the density on press was either light on magenta or heavy on some combination of cyan and yellow. After seeing the first published issue with the sometimes-greenish skin, Lee changed the Hulk’s skin tone to green…”

Though later writers retconned explanations, the change for The Incredible Hulk #2 (July 1962) was not referenced within the story and so the character was treated as though his skin had always been green.

So the Hulk is green, but what Color is? He presumably isn’t Green. As discussed in previous blogs, capitalizing could imply that the Hulk belongs to a group of Green people who “share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color.”

His alter ego Bruce Banner is White. Alter egos typically share a race, but most transformations involve disguises not cellular mutation. Stan Lee initially had Jekyll and Hyde in mind, and Hyde codes a range of ethnic and/or racial crossing. Banner also originally transformed at sunset, a nod to werewolves, which would seem to be a species transformation well beyond race.

Does the Hulk even have a race? Or at least a color identified one? Because comics lettering norms capitalize all letters, when he shouts at the Sons of the Serpent, there’s no way for readers to distinguish between “white” and “White.” Which did he mean? The Hulk became toddler-minded (not connected to the color change as later implied and loosely retconned) upon returning from a time-travel adventure in Tales to Astonish #78 (April 1966). Perhaps he’s not capable of differentiating between color and Color, and so green and Green?

Nighthawk calls him by the apparently affectionate nickname “Greenskin,” and they had fought alongside Luke Cage starting in issue #19 (January 1975). Their antagonists include the Black supervillain Thunderball, who Len Wein’s plot reveals in a sympathetic flashback had been working for Richmond Enterprises when he developed a hand-held gamma bomb ten times as powerful as Bruce Banner’s but “Richmond’s righthand man, Pennysworth,” patented it for the company giving him no credit or compensation.

Whatever Len Wein may have intended in #15, Gerber reveals in #25 that Pennysworth, profitably investing Nighthawk’s millions, is the financial mastermind behind the Sons of the Serpent. After tracking him down and confronting him, Nighthawk shouts: “how could you do what you did — — to your own people?!?”

Pennysworth explains: “Do you think me despicable, sir — for turning on my “brothers” and “sisters”? Before you answer, ask yourself — is every White man your “brother”? Do you feel kinship with him — because your skins are the same color? Of course, you don’t! Why should you? Why should I?”

Nighthawk: “B-but I don’t go out and murder people because they’re White, either!”

Pennysworth: “Ah. But you hold stocks in companies which gouge the public of millions each year — and in firms that pollute the air and water — and in –but need I go on, sir? You never objected to those investments. Never even asked where the money was. On that basis, I assumed —

Nighthawk: “That I wouldn’t object to plunging the nation into civil war?!?”

Pennysworth: “Yessir — if it would help increase your fortune.”

This isn’t the first or last time Marvel implicated a non-White character in a story about White supremacists (much more on that later). For right now I want to take a closer look at the words themselves.

All of the letters in Pennysworth’s and Nighthawk’s above dialogue were rendered by Ray Holloway. He lettered all of The Defenders #25 . Holloway had worked at Marvel since the early 40s when Martin Goodman’s company was still called Timely. Artist Allen Bellman said in a 2016 comics panel: “We had one black artist, Ray Holloway. He was a freelancer and he did a comic strip Scorchy Smith for the Associated Press. There was no animosity against color. I never heard anybody say or use the N-word. Some guys were nasty, but, eh….” (The Monomythic blogger adds in passive voice: “And with that, the subject changed.”)

Judging from a staff photo printed in Alter Ego #18, Holloway was still the only Black employee in the 50s. Stan Goldberg is in the photo too. He had started at Marvel, then called Atlas, as a color artist in 1949: “You know, all those years that Stan put credits on the book, he never mentioned the colorists. The writers, pencilers, inkers, and letterers got credit, but not the colorists. I thought about saying something about it once because it bothered me, but I didn’t. If the letterer got credit, so should the colorist. I personally thought the colorist was more important than the letterer.”

Goldberg left Marvel in 1969 to work for DC and Archie. In 1975, when Defenders #25 was on stands, he was drawing the Archie Sunday newspaper comic strip. Early 70s Marvel includes work by Black artists Billy Graham, Ron Wilson, Wayne Howard, Keith Pollard, and Arvell Jones. I’m having trouble finding any credits for Ray Holloway other than his Marvel lettering (which sometimes appeared on covers). He’s not listed for Scorchy Smith, which ran in newspapers from 1930 to 1961, but that could just mean his work was uncredited. A prominent Black artist, Alvin Hollingsworth, drew the strip in the 50s, but I’ll treat that as coincidence.

These are definitely Holloway’s letters though:

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