Sunday 28 August 2022

Incredible Hulk #1.

Thanks to Charlie Horse 47 and Killdumpster for their sponsorship of this post, via the magic of Patreon

Incredible Hulk #1, 1962
Holy smoke! What is this? I could have sworn I'd reviewed the first appearance of every great Silver Age Marvel Hero - and Ant-Man - but I've suddenly realised I've never cast a critical eye over the arrival of the Hulk.

Does my having forgotten to tackle it say something about the quality of the comic?

Or does it just say something about the quality of me?

Here's where we find out!

It's a great day for US atomic scientist Bruce Banner who's due to detonate his Gamma Bomb, a weapon that could destroy a continent and whose other possible effects he's not really too sure about. But, whatever, they are, he's about to find out.

Fortunately, his assistant - a communist saboteur cunningly hiding behind the name "Igor" - is there to try and talk him out of it, on the grounds that he could kill everybody.

Bruce, however, is having none of it. He's got a bomb to detonate and, by George, he's going to do it. He even points out to the Russian saboteur he's hired as his assistant that he doesn't make mistakes.

Incredible Hulk #1, Thunderbolt Ross
Fortunately, Bruce isn't the only one in an explodey mood because that's when his boss General Thunderbolt Ross barges in and demands he sets the thing off immediately because he's bored with waiting! 

It's a strange thing when a Red Menace story forces you to start siding with the communist.

But, sadly, for Bruce, there's something even worse than socialism on the loose.

And that's a teenager!

It's true. Rick Jones has decided it'll be top lulz to park his car in the middle of the test site and start playing his mouth organ.

Clearly no lover of music, Banner rushes to the scene to get Rick out of there but, just as he's doing so, Igor decides it's the perfect moment to set off the bomb and kill his superior.

Incredible Hulk #1, Bruce gets blasted
And that's the end for Bruce Banner.

Except it isn't - because, somehow, he survives and, that night, as he chats in his hospital cell, with Rick, he turns into a creature called the Hulk and starts to knock down walls before turning back into Bruce, the moment the sun returns.

But such a rampage cannot go unnoticed.

Incredible Hulk #1, The Hulk and Rick Jones
And so it is that, in an unnamed communist country, news of the Hulk has reached the ears of a huge-headed radiation-mutated genius called the Gargoyle who decides to fly to America to kidnap the brute.

By some unknown means, he lands his plane where the Hulk just happens to be and abducts both the monster and Rick Jones, taking them back to his homeland.

But, there, he starts crying and declares that he wishes he could be a normal man again.

Bruce responds by promising to use his knowledge of radiation to cure him and, having done so, flees the country, in a stolen rocket, while the man who'd been the Gargoyle blows up the facility where he works, to gain revenge upon his employers.

Incredible Hulk #1, The Gargoyle and Bruce Banner
And, with that, the first adventure of the Hulk is over!

Except it's not really, because the Hulk doesn't actually have an adventure. He's barely in the story and it's Bruce Banner who saves the day.

The thing that most leaps out at me is that this origin doesn't have the moral element of many of Marvel's Silver Age debuts. Bruce has been the architect of his own downfall - and completely irresponsible in creating a possibly continent-destroying bomb - but, at the tale's end, he doesn't show any indication of having learnt anything from it. There are no signs of him being a reformed character, of him grasping that his fate is his own fault, or even of him having decided he must use his powers for good.

When it comes to the bad guy, the Gargoyle's a fairly undeveloped villain who also barely appears and is quickly disposed of. Clearly, though, Stan and Jack liked his basic concept enough to return to it with the far more motivated Leader.

Incredible Hulk #1, The Gargoyle shall die as a man
However, despite the Gargoyle's throwaway nature, the basic theme of two men transformed by nuclear tests - one through his own foolishness, and the other through that of his government - where one gains release and the other's doomed to be trapped forever in his nightmare, displays a pleasing symmetry. Or at least it would if the Gargoyle featured more prominently in the tale.

But, of course, we can't ignore the elephant in the room. And that's skin colour. Famously, the jade giant isn't green in this story. He's grey.

Except on the splash page, where he's purple.

And page eight where he's flesh-coloured.

And page nine where he's red.

And page ten where he's yellow.

And page eighteen where he's green.

In fairness, he's not the only character who keeps changing colour. So does the Gargoyle which, I suppose, does serve to further highlight the parallels between the two characters.

It's easy to talk about 1960s Marvel as a creative whirlwind, flinging innovation at us from all directions but the truth is Lee and Kirby were beating deadlines by mostly recycling well-worn tropes and, here, the roots of the strip are clear, drawing heavily on such familiar characters as the Wolfman, Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll. The Hulk also has a clear debt to Marvel's own Thing whose early appearances in the Fantastic Four had him displaying similar anti-social tendencies. 

Incredible Hulk #1, Bruce Banner and Igor
Did we all see what Stan and Jack did there?
Banner is doomed to become the very thing he detests most.   
But the strongest influence is, surely, 1950s radiation movies. With its atom bombs, reckless scientists, lovestruck heroines, hip teenagers, Cold War politics, spies and blustering military types, it genuinely does feel like an adaptation of a 1950s movie that was never made. It really only deviates from that mode in its very final act where it suddenly moves off in its own direction entirely.

So, the exciting core concept of a scientist who turns into a destructive brute is set up.

But, then again, just how exciting is it?

As mentioned earlier, the Hulk barely appears in the tale, the human drama of Bruce Banner's torment and his conflicts and interactions with those around him clearly being of more interest to Lee and Kirby than the limited spectacle of a muscleman walking around bending things.

And, when it comes to resolutions, Banner solving things with his intellect is always going to be more compelling than the Hulk just smashing things.

At least, that's how it seems at this stage. Later stories would demonstrate just how much fun the Hulk solving problems by smashing them could be. But that would come later. Exactly how to handle the Hulk's strip is a thing the title's various writers and artists would struggle with for years to come.

Rather more promisingly, the concept of a teenage boy, a tortured scientist and a monster bound together by fate is a potentially compelling one, even if it rarely proved compelling in practice.

Incredible Hulk #1, Rick Jones is going with you


Anonymous said...

Yeah, the tortured scientist and monster bound together was a promising concept Steve, but I'm not convinced that the addition of the teenage boy was potentially compelling.
Were the Rick Jones lulz really worth a second appearance? I'm not sure they were enough for a first...

Personally I don't find siding with communists in old comics strange at all - especially when they're sabotaging the imperialist military/industrial war machine - but otherwise I find myself in agreement with you.
There isn't much of a real critical standard you can use with those very early Marvels, and the main point of interest is in how they relate to what came later - otherwise the first Hulk is basically a late Atlas monster comic - and you covered all that well.
Thanks for the review.


Anonymous said...

Reading Stan’s intros in the first ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS way back when, I was startled to learn that the original Hulk series had been a flop, cancelled after just five issues, and the character only gradually became popular over time. In retrospect, I think it’s somewhat remarkable that the series EVER became popular.

I love the character on a basic ‘conceptual’ level — a big, shirtless and barefoot Frankenstein, good-hearted but short-tempered, the whole ‘Misunderstood Monster’ schtick. And a great visual. But I’ve always found him a bit one-note as the Star of a continuing series. Fairly early on in my Collector years, I realized the Hulk storylines were even more formulaic and repetitive than most of the other Marvel series. When my first rush of Comics Nerd Puppy Love began to wane, The Hulk comic was one of the first on-going titles that I stopped buying.


Colin Jones said...

The Incredible Hulk was cancelled after six issues so one of Marvel's most iconic characters might have been written off as a failure and ditched altogether!

dangermash aka The Artistic Actuary said...

I've just looked in my Hulk Marvel Masterwork at the pages where Steve says the hulk's not grey. They’ve all been recoloured grey but I can tell which panels Steve's talking about because it's as if someone's put grey over the top of the original colour and the original's still shining through.

Anonymous said...

Nice review, Steve.

I'd always assumed the Hulk's origin story was just what I'd read in Hulk Annual 1978, so the Gargoyle's new to me.

Young Marvelites - aged 8 or so - were very sympathetic with the child-like Hulk, him being one of their top characters. For older Marvelites - less so.

I don't remember the Hulk being grey at all, in Hulk Annual 1978's origin bit - but maybe there was the odd panel I've forgotten about.


Charlie Horse 47 said...

Steve this is totally awesome! I had totally forgotten about the Gargoyle shtuff! My brain really only recalls Rick "Dumb Ass" Jones needing rescuing and -voila- The Hulk."

I actually appreciated the Hulk for his "one note" type of stories... I mean, sometimes you just need a "Hulk smash" moment to cheer you up! But I get it.

Also as SDC plows through "50 years ago," many of the stories we are seeing like "Hulk on Trial" and "Hulk Fight Doctor Doom" were sufficiently intellectual to flesh out the "Hulk Smash" nature for an 11 year old.

But yes, "Hulk Smash" is rather one tone and thus it was fun to see guys like Peter David mix it up 30 years ago with an intelligent Hulk. (I mean Rick Jones fiancee starring in the porn movie that they were all watching at Rick's Bachelor Party was a classic!)

Steve W. said...

Thanks, Charlie, and thanks to all of you.

For me, the Hulk's strip, following its 1968 relaunch was one of Marvel's strongest comics but up until that point - its original series and its subsequent slot in Tales to Astonish - it was easily Marvel's weakest property of the 1960s. No one really seemed to be able to figure out how to make it work.

Anonymous said...

Weaker than Ant-Man, Steve?
I wouldn't quite go that far.


Steve W. said...

Ant-Man's strip was bad, Sean but it did have the advantage of being totally weird.

dangermash aka The Artistic Actuary said...

And wasn't there someone similar to the Gargoyle later on on those early Hulk days called the Gremlin? Most remembered for being one of only three or four cards in the first Marvel top trumps set that nobody had ever heard of. I'm thinking somewhere around 1976or 1977 for when those top trumps came out.

Ah, found them!

McSCOTTY said...

Wasn't the Gremlin the Gargoyles son?

I always liked the Hulk even from the earliest stories but for me the Roy Thomas, Herb Trimpe and John Severin period were the best.

Anonymous said...

You're right Paul - I looked it up, and the Gremlin was the Gargoyle's son.
Thats some impressively obscure comic book knowledge there, well done.

The wiki quotes Gremlin co-creator Steve Englehart on the character - "I thought it would be fun to connect to [the first issue] but I had to make something interesting for my time, not just wave at the past. I thought, Gargoyle + Kremlin = Gremlin".
Brilliant. Clearly comic book writing had grown up and become more sophisticated since the days of Hulk #1.


Anonymous said...

Nice review Steve.

My earliest exposure to the Hulk was in Treasury edition #5, in which they reprinted the short origin recap from #3, rather than the full #1, and so I didn't read this until years later. I think they did a similar thing in the 1978 UK annual (as Phillip mentioned) along with some great early Ditko stories from Tales to Astonish.


Charlie Horse 47 said...

I just realized what was missing... Steve's list of Top Pop Hits from 1964! I've grown accustomed to the Pop charts and Movie charts...

I've been groomed! Oh my!

Colin Jones said...

Charlie, Steve only includes the pop hits in his regular features not one-off items like this one.

Anonymous said...

My first brush with Ol’ Greenskin was the Marvel Super Heroes cartoons, and my first Hulk comics were 158, 160 and 161, acquired from that Neighborhood Pal Who Didn’t Want ‘Em Anymore. I quickly picked up the broad strokes of the series template — Hulk causing havoc in a new location every few issues, constantly being hounded by Thunderbolt Ross and his team trying to capture or destroy him .

About a year later, when I started actively buying and collecting comics, INCREDIBLE HULK 171 was the first issue I bought hot off the spinner rack at Smith’s Food King. The Rhino and The Abomination teamed-up to take down Hulk and tried to blow up the Hulkbuster Base at the same time. The issue ended with General Ross actually shaking Hulk’s hand, thanking him for saving everyone, and for a split-second there it seemed like there was gonna be a genuine shift in their relationship going forward. But of course the truce didn’t last more than a few panels. By the very next issue they were fully back to their Status Quo adversarial roles, as if that handshake had never happened.

I did still buy the book pretty regularly after that, but if I occasionally missed an issue, I didn’t lose much sleep over it.


Anonymous said...

I’ll say this for the Hulk — he made an excellent foil for other Marvel characters. I always liked him as an essential part of the Defenders ensemble, and any time he and Ben Grimm duked it out was a blast. One of my favorite comics of that first year as a hardcore Nerd was GIANT-SIZE SUPER- STARS #1, with Rich Buckler bringing his Xerox Kirby A-Game and Gerry Conway pulling a clever switcheroo on the standard Thing / Hulk donnybrook scenario.

Also, he’s so much fun in the first issue of THE AVENGERS, it’s almost a shame Stan and Jack didn’t keep him on as a regular part of the team (tho, understandable).