Hulk month continues! This time, we have an origin story on our hands… sort of. It’s about as originy as you can get for a three-hundred and twelfth issue, and reinvents/overlaps with Hulk’s original origin in the very first issue of his series, which I covered back in December for those interested. This time, we delve deeper into the past of the man that would become the Hulk… Bruce Banner, who was thought by someone close to him to be a monster long before that gamma radiation made him big, green, and angry.
First, the when/who of it all. Incredible Hulk #312 dropped in 1985 and was written by Bill Mantlo with artwork by Mike Mignola and – wait, hold on a second. Mike Mignola! Hellboy was one of the first comics I read regularly when I got deep into the medium, so seeing his work on this title was a uniquely fun surprise. While his mastery of the pencil stroke is evident in these pages, he hasn’t yet developed that signature Mignola style that would go on to form the backbone of not only an entire universe of comic book stories, but also perhaps one of the most influential and easily recognizable styles in modern comics. Okay, back to the team. Gerry Talaoc shares art credit with Mignola, and Bob Sharen is on colors with Jim Novak on letters.
This story serves two purposes. Most significantly, it creates an in-depth history for Bruce Banner that starts with his birth and finishes with his first transformation into the Hulk. Second, it ties into the ongoing narrative of a crossover called Secret Wars II. I admit, when that part took over at the end, I was a bit blindsided, but it tied in enough with the rest of the story that I was able to glean most of what was going on, even though it was clear that I was missing puzzle pieces. That portion of the story is a psychedelic trip that reminds me not just a little bit of Alan Moore’s The Saga of the Swamp Thing, which might just be my favorite work of superhero comics ever produced. I might just have to see what the rest of this Secret Wars II business is about.
Anyway, the meat and potatoes: Bruce Banner’s life story. We open with the harrowing scene of Bruce Banner’s birth. The delivery is painful and dangerous, so the doctor tells Bruce’s father that he will have to perform a C-Section to save both mother and child. Bruce makes it clear that he’s not concerned if the child lives or dies, but that his wife’s safety is priority. Now… this stood out to me as an incredibly real, dark, and human moment. As I read on, I was beginning to suspect that we were going to read the story of a man who never wanted kids coping with the idea of raising his son, whose birth killed the love of his life. That’s not what happened though – instead, Bruce’s mother survives the pregnancy, which I did like, because this relationship winds up being very interesting. What I was a little disappointed with, though, is that Bruce’s dad quickly becomes an all out psychopath. He is consumed by his paranoid delusions that the radiation he was regularly exposed to as a scientist had turned his son into a mutant, which leads him to abuse both his son and wife before going on to murder the latter. I was hoping for a bit more nuance after that first scene set up the expectations of this character’s path, but I understand the choices her. The narrative through-line of Bruce’s dad suspecting his son of being a monster only for Bruce to actually become that monster in adulthood is powerful, and is symbolized beautifully in the artwork by a sketch of the Hulk’s silhouette, rendered in green, floating above Bruce in every scene, from childhood leading all the way up to that fateful day.
Incredible Hulk #312 has stellar art and a great script, putting it on par with some of my favorites from this era of comics. There were a few character choices that seemed to paint people in Bruce’s life in broad strokes rather than exploring the chance of a nuanced portrayal, especially when there were ample chances to do so, but the exploration of who the real monsters in Bruce’s life was one of the most powerful concepts I’ve read in a Hulk comic book.
Now I have to go find out what the hell is up with Secret Wars II, because this trippy shit looks right up my alley.