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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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After appearing gray-skinned in his premiere issue, the Hulk inexplicably turned green in his second. Though the color change had more to do with printing costs than storylines, the gray Hulk had a personality distinctly different from his later version. Marvel writers eventually retconned a distinct and separate character into the premiere issue, turning the gray Hulk into Gray Hulk AKA Joe Fixit.

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When recalling creating the Hulk years later, Lee described the canonical green version: “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.”

But even after The Incredible Hulk #1, the original Hulk was not loveable and was no good guy. He was a barely controlled monster who posed as a much of threat to the world as the supervillains he fought. After his original six-issue run and a few appearances in other titles, the Hulk’s cancelled series was renewed in 1964 as one of two ongoing features beginning in Tales to Astonish #59, with artist Steve Ditko replacing Dick Ayers for pencils beginning #60, and Jack Kirby co-penciling with multiple artists beginning #68. Stan Lee was credited for all writing, but because of the so-called “Marvel Method” much of the uncredited and unpaid co-writing fell on the pencilers.

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The 1964 Bruce Banner no longer uses his Gamma Ray device to transform into the Hulk, and when Giant-Man comes searching, Banner thinks, “So! The Avengers are still seeking the Hulk, eh? Will they never leave him in peace?”, reflecting the early stages of Lee’s revision. The Hulk himself later laments: “There is nothing for Hulk—nothing but running—Fighting! Nothing—” (#67). The character is still antagonistic and can take “off like a missile”, but he saves Giant-Man when both are targeted by an atomic shell, also throwing it to explode far from the nearby town (#59). The Leader, the primary antagonist from #62–75, was “an ordinary laborer” until yet another “one-in-a-million freak accident occurred as an experimental gamma ray cylinder exploded” transforming him into “one of the greatest brains that ever lived” (#63). Also, as earlier, Banner gains control of the Hulk’s body for several episodes, continuing the struggle of the 1962 series.

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After the January 1966 issue, however, the premise changes. When the military fires Banner’s experimental “T-Gun,” the Hulk is sent to “some far distant future,” a “dead world” in which Lincoln’s memorial statue sits in the ancient ruins of Washington, D.C. (#75). A future commander declares: “We cannot allow a destructive, rampaging brute to run amok in our land!” (#76). This “grim, ominous war-torn world of the far future” recalls Kennedy’s 1963 “war makes no sense” refrain, and when the Hulk returns from it to his own time, he settles into a new, toddler-like personality, no longer posing a threat unless attacked.

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Moreover, as with the Thing and his love interest Alicia, Banner’s girlfriend, Betty Ross, views the Hulk in transformative light: “His arms—so huge—and brutal—but yet, so strangely gentle—!” (#82). Although he has brought her to an isolated cave, she adds: “It’s strange! I find I’m not afraid of him any longer! As powerful, and as unpredictable as he is … I can’t help feeling he’s not truly evil!” (#83).

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Even General Ross, who has hated and hunted the Hulk since his debut, changes attitude: “The strongest … most dangerous being on Earth … but my daughter tells me he rescued her … tells me she loves him …! And yet … somehow … I find myself beginning to understand”. When the military test fires another of Banner’s weapons, an “anti-missile proof” missile and so “the greatest weapon of all!” (#85), the Hulk prevents it from destroying New York.

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With the Hulk’s secret identity no longer a secret, Betty declares: “Now there can be no doubt! The Hulk isn’t a monster—he never was! He was always you!” (#87), and her father now asks for Banner’s help in stopping the next menace and praises the Hulk because “he saved us—from our own folly!” President Johnson sends General Ross an executive order: “If, in your opinion, the Hulk is no longer a menace, you are authorized to grant him full and immediate amnesty, clearing him for all guilt, or suspicion of same,” but because a villain tricks the Hulk into a rampage Ross shreds the order (#88).

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Though the Hulk remains an outcast, the ongoing narrative permanently shifted. Like the X-Men who are also distrusted and pursed by government figures, readers understand the government to be definitely wrong. By losing its monstrous ambiguity, the Cold War superhero formula regained its original Golden Age status of misunderstood hero.

 

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