“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” goes a relatively recent saying (honest, 1977). The obvious other side of the coin is if it is broke. fix it. In an era when every change any comic book publisher makes is somehow apocalyptic in scope, conspiratorial in nature, and incompetant in execution, perhaps we should remind ourselves things do change and popular characters were once very different. In this case, let’s look at the Hulk.
Originally, Dr. Bruce Banner turned into the Hulk at sundown and back into Dr. Banner at dawn. The Hulk was a kind of werewolf creature. He changed personality and only existed at night. This didn’t work, it made the stories limited and repetitive.
In fact it forced the stories into a mold of a horror story such as Marvel had been doing for years.
In the same way, it was all set-up for Dr Banner but gave him no pay-off. That sort of thing just doesn’t sell for long. So they fixed it.
They also fixed Banner a few times. In the first issue he wore magenta pants (pink and purple), a blue tie, a lab coat and glasses. Classes means intellectual, but breaking them as you turn into the Hulk means you buy a lot of pairs of glasses which no one found suspicious.
The first telling of the origin was steeped in the Cold War and the development of atomic weapons. Dr Banner was developing the gamma bomb. Over time every single aspect of this origin was broken or was broken by time and it was fixed.
First, the Cold War is over and many people receive their living trying to enforce the idea that America was on the wrong side of the Cold War. In terms of Dr Banner, no one’s trying to develop nuclear weapons – we have those and they’re much more effective than you think they are.
Second, the blast wasn’t very strong. Banner caught it full force and was left intact. A nuclear bomb which could catch Dr Banner in that much radiation would also hit him with a heat wall and tear him into little pieces. Clearly, it was radiation which was the issue.
Rick Jones drove his car out there and Banner tossed him into a ditch. Jones did not become the Hulk, was not even injured by the radiation. By a ditch. A nuclear explosion that was foiled by a shallow ditch and no more than that.
During the Cold War, the United States government issued films that were played in schools. These films recommended that if you saw a nuclear explosion you should duck and cover. Throw yourself into a gutter, put yourself under a table, get into a ditch. That works?
With all that it seems to have been a mere gamma radiation grenade.
Of course, by 1962, the United States was no longer conducting open air nuclear tests on its mainland soil. Except in this comic book case.
This was a big broken bit. It was fixed by just wiping it from the history. Sure, we all know about that bomb, but how often is it referenced in, say, Marvel movies? Compare that to how often the super soldier serum is referenced? Both are dangerous but one gets used over and over as a plot device and the other gets ignored.
In the television series it wasn’t a bomb, it was a machine designed to increase strength. This totally destroys the tragedy of the original. This is Bruce Banner trying something and failing. The original has Bruce Banner saving Rick Jones who created the problem. The Hulk was imposed on Dr. Banner while he was trying to do the right thing. In the original movie, it’s still a lab accident. Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) protects Betty Ross from a lab accident.
In the first issue, that Hulk was meant to be gray. However, the printer couldn’t keep the gray consistent. Sometimes the Hulk was dark gray and in the next panel he was light gray, and then he’d be middling gray, then back to dark and so on. In one panel he was red and near the end, there was a panel where he turned out green. To this day, no one know why the printer couldn’t print a consistent gray.
Stan Lee described how, confronted with this thing which clearly didn’t work, he paced his office trying to figure out what color the Hulk should be. He decided on green, and I’m not sure if he mentions it like this, but I take it the Hulk would be green because the printer could at least do that.
There as a problem and he fixed it. In later years when Marvel got a better printer, the Hulk was again done in a consistent gray tone. His Mr. Fixit personality is gray.
The red panel was also brought back with the Red Hulk and the Red She-Hulk.
So the printing mistake was fixed and then it was fixed again. Marvel didn’t simply run away from the mistake, they fixed it like fixing it was a kind of vengeance. Perhaps it was.
Originally the Hulk was based on Frankenstein’s monster. He is described in the first story both like that and like a bear. If you look at the cover of his first issue you will see the similarities. Note the squared top of his head, which is a dead giveaway.
The original 1931 film of course showed Frankenstein’s monster as gray. In fact it showed everything as gray. When Bride of Frankenstein came out in 1935 it was in color and the monster was green. A parallel to the comic some thirty years later.
This was slightly broken and so it go slightly fixed in that the Hulk was made a very different hue of green, a brighter green with much less shadow like that used in the first issue.
Also, they changed what the Hulk wore. Originally the shirt was torn to a sleeveless bit of cloth but was still there. The pants were still long, frayed but just above the feet. That looked too much like Frankenstein’s monster and even if it didn’t, it was still broken. The Hulk was much bigger than Bruce Banner but his pants were still loose.
Remember all the jokes made about how the Hulk still had pants after Banner turned into him? These pants were loose and the waist was still intact. This was literally so broken it’s still a joke.
This was fixed when the pants were made tight and torn up to the knee. It not only made the Hulk look different from the Paramount version of Frankenstein’s monster, it did make a human being who changed shape, mass, and personality a little more realistic.
Like a werewolf and their human form, the Hulk has a different personality to Dr Banner. Initially, this personality was barely formed. It was less than an animal. There was anger and destruction and also a desire to get away and be left alone. So the Hulk was out in the darkness, lurking, hulking in fact. I think it is this aspect of the story that raises the debate whether the Hulk is one of Marvel’s first superheroes or one of the last of its monsters.
Such a personality could sustain one or two stories, not a lot. Like Groot, if the character was to remain it would have to change its personality. So they made the Hulk intelligent, and they made Bruce Banner build a gamma radiation emitter that would turn him from Bruce Banner to a grumpy, intelligent Hulk who was fully aware he was the Hulk and the Hulk was a secondary personality. The Hulk would voluntarily cease to exist at the end of the story.
They’d fixed a broke with another broke.
The personality of the Hulk is critical to the story. Although that personality changes from time to time to freshen up the story, Marvel knows (or knew) that if you don’t engage with the personality of the Hulk, the story won’t resonate and the comics won’t sell.
So it’s never that when Banner turns into the Hulk it’s one of a catalog of several personalities the Hulk has taken at random. The personalities may change but each will be given its run. When it becomes broke, then it needs to be fixed.
And it needed to be fixed right at the start and again just after that. The Hulk was aggressive and spoke in slang. He was too close to the Thing who was a partial inspiration in the first place. If you get closer to your inspiration you’re in trouble. Only so many people in a comic company at a time can get away with saying, “shaddup.”
But the Hulk was smart and in the Avengers issue 2 he left. Reading it you might not understand why. There is subtext.
In this intelligent phase, the Hulk wore purple wrestling trunks. As soon as he leaves the Avengers he goes back to the knee length purple pants.
“Quiet, you brainless gargoyle, the Wasp senses danger. Don’t you know she’s hypersensitive to certain stimuli?”
So in the end of the comic Hulk says he knows the other Avengers hate him. He mentions the remarks they made. The one above was directed at him by Iron Man.
There was an arc in which the Hulk fought the Avengers showing intelligence that would soon vanish.
It was also during this that Stan Lee broke the story, himself. He spent an entire issue of the Avengers having Bruce Banner refer to himself as Bob Banner. Stan Lee did not issue a press release saying it was due to him being abused as a child or say it was a conspiracy against him by communists or communist sympathizers (don’t look at me like that, they both happened). Stan Lee owned what he did and made amends and said the full name was Robert Bruce Banner.
I can understand people going by a middle name. But the fact Stan Lee took it on the chin should be remembered by Stan Lee haters.
Increasingly the Hulk was stupid and child-like and increasingly isolated. Though he saved people constantly, he was still feared. Dr Banner was increasingly on the run. He couch surfed.
The Hulk started giving people nicknames. The Collector he called ‘man with cape.’ Iron Man was Tin Man. Valkyrie was Sword Girl. And so on. It became part of a distinguishing characteristic, that the Hulk was not very bright. He had returned to the unintelligent model he began with, but not quite the same. He was no longer a mysterious figure others didn’t know. He was famous, a known quantity. But to get this to work they had to add something else.
Since the Hulk could no longer think through a problem he had to have some other method of ramping up when needed. The mechanism emerged that the madder Hulk gets the stronger Hulk gets. Whenever he has a problem he gets frustrated and grows stronger so that the writer can always have him break through.
In the eighties this was reversed from an advantage to a disability. It was revealed that Bruce Banner always had psychological problems, like a man who would wear magenta pants. He was severely abused as a child and the suppressed anger is connected with the personality of the Hulk. Once this started it became the guiding force of Hulk’s mini-gamma universe.
Over time other gamma radiation characters showed up. The Leader who was a janitor and gamma radiation made him a superhuman genius. The Abomination was turned into a green skinned monster stronger than the Hulk. Flux, who was also hit with a gamma bomb by General Ryker, who was doing what the American military always does in comics, have nefarious plots. There are others: Doc Sampson, Griffin, Halflife, Max Hammer…
The Hulk was originally a lone figure. The only one to survive such a high a dosage of gamma radiation. But, like being the last survivor of Krypton, being the only one never lasts long. There’s a reason for this, if you have a unique event you don’t get the parallelism that such stories thriveon. What do people do with the power of the Hulk? You don’t really know if the Hulk is the only one.
Doc Sampson is not the Leader, who is not the Abomination. The Hulk wants to be left alone, the Leader wants to rule, and Doc Sampson takes it in his stride and wants to do good in a community. That last one would be duplicated by She-Hulk. And the Abomination would be duplicated in the Red Hulk.
If there is a truly unique event creating a character in a continuing story, it’s broken. If Superman is the only survivor of Krypton the reader can assume everybody from Krypton, everybody with those powers, would behave the same. Over time it makes that character seem less and less special. People will lose interest in the character because the story will seem to be complete.
In the case of the Hulk, other people with gamma-radiation based powers provide the kind of contrast essential to this kind of story. Doc Sampson is someone Dr Banner could wish he’d become. The Abomination is someone who the Hulk would not want to be like.
A big broken thing people forget is that the Hulk once had a secret identity. People did not know Banner turned into the Hulk. This ended when the Hulk turned into Bruce Banner in front of everyone. Unlike the revelations of identity of Captain America and Spider-Man, which are always reversed and repeated, the Hulk’s identity as Bruce Banner has never become secret again. It’s hard to gasp the enormity of this, since it is in terms of secret identity it’s for real and we’re not going to have it back.
These days Marvel would have a company-wide crossover event which affects every title they publishes. Then he did it because it was the only way to defeat the villain. And the most significant thing of it was a line by Betty Ross.
“So Rick Jones was right, Bruce is the Hulk.”
Never mind. You will never hear about that again. Well, no one has so far, unless I missed it. That’s possible.
This child-like Hulk ran out of steam. So we have had further changes. Most of them, though long-lasting, are actually transitory in that they come in, they are used, and they are phased out.
The Hulk becomes intelligent again. He turns gray. He becomes green. He loses his intelligence. He gets a cousin who he sees about as often as Superman sees with Kara. Betty Ross leaves, she comes back, she dies but comic characters sometimes die even less permanently than Jesus Christ, since they don’t ascend to heaven after forty days.
The Hulk continues to evolve as a character. Early on he did a lost race story where he went to an underground kingdom of Tyrannus. This was broken because the Mole Man was already down there, but later they were made enemies in the same underground world.
But while the Hulk was there he was forced to fight in a gladiatorial contest. Sound familiar? It was done in a bigger, badder, and badasser story removed from mere underground Earth with Planet Hulk. This notion of Hulk-as-gladiator has made it into the movies.
In the comics this enters into a new phase. When the Hulk was temporarily gray he was angry and nasty. Increasingly, the Hulk is always angry, always wanting to fight and get revenge or to conquer. It is a fictional part of society becoming less civil.
This is a new thing. It may be that the Hulk began as a dumb monster, became an all-powerful child, and wound up an angry adult.
So a gray, stupid alternate personality with a sidekick who existed only at night but who in the day was a glasses and magenta pants wearing nerd who was caught in the softest explosion known got fixed over time. If it’s broke, fix it. The comic would have never sold for long. If it’s broke, fix it.