Essential Hulk

Essential Hulk
Essential Hulk

By various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2374-3

The Incredible Hulk was Marvel’s second new superhero title, although technically Henry Pym debuted earlier in a one-off yarn in Tales to Astonish #27 (January 1962), but he didn’t become a costumed hero until the autumn, by which time Ol’ Greenskin was not-so-firmly established.

The Hulk crashed right into his own bi-monthly comic and after some classic romps by Young Marvel’s finest creators, crashed right out again. After six bi-monthly issues the series was cancelled and Lee retrenched, making the character a perennial guest-star in other Marvel titles (Fantastic Four #12, Amazing Spider-Man #14, The Mighty Avengers from #1 and so forth) until such time as they could restart the drama in their new “Split-Book” format in Tales To Astonish where Ant/Giant-Man was rapidly proving to be a character who had outlived his time.

Cover-dated May 1962 the Incredible Hulk #1 saw puny atomic scientist Bruce Banner, sequestered on a secret military base in the desert, perpetually bullied by the bombastic commander General “Thunderbolt” Ross as the clock counts down to the World’s first Gamma Bomb test. Besotted by Ross’s daughter Betty, Banner endures the General’s constant jibes as the clock ticks on and tension increases.

At the final moment Banner sees a teenager lollygagging at Ground Zero and frantically rushes to the site to drag the boy away. Unknown to him the assistant he’s entrusted to delay the countdown has an agenda of his own…

Rick Jones is a wayward but good-hearted kid. After initial resistance he lets himself be pushed into a safety trench, but just as Banner is about to join him The Bomb detonates…

Miraculously surviving the blast Banner and the boy are secured by soldiers, but that evening as the sun sets the scientist undergoes a monstrous transformation. He grows larger; his skin turns a stony grey…

In six simple pages that’s how it all starts, and no matter what any number of TV or movie reworkings or comicbook retcons and psycho-babble re-evaluations would have you believe that’s still the best and most primal take on the origin. A good man, an unobtainable girl, a foolish kid, an unknown enemy and the horrible power of destructive science unchecked…

Written by Stan Lee, drawn by Jack Kirby with inking by Paul Reinman, ‘The Coming of the Hulk’ barrels along as the man-monster and Jones are kidnapped by Banner’s Soviet counterpart the Gargoyle for a rousing round of espionage and Commie-busting. In the second issue the plot concerns invading aliens, and the Banner/Jones relationship settles into a traumatic nightly ordeal as the scientist transforms and is locked into an escape-proof cell whilst the boy stands watch helplessly. Neither ever considers telling the government of their predicament…

‘The Terror of the Toad Men’ is formulaic but viscerally and visually captivating as Steve Ditko inks Kirby, imparting a genuinely eerie sense of unease to the artwork. Incidentally, although you won’t see it in this black and white edition, this is the story where the Hulk inexplicably changed to his more accustomed Green persona.

Although back-written years later as a continuing mutation, the plain truth is that the grey tones used to cause all manner of problems for the production colourists so it was arbitrarily changed to the simple and more traditional colour of monsters.

The third issue presented a departure in format as the longer, chaptered epic gave way to complete short stories. Dick Ayers inked Kirby in the transitional ‘Banished to Outer Space’ which radically altered the relationship of Jones and the monster, the story thus far is reprised in the three page vignette ‘The Origin of the Hulk’ and that Marvel mainstay of villainy the Circus of Crime debuts in ‘The Ringmaster’. The Hulk goes on an urban rampage in #4’s first tale ‘The Monster and the Machine’ and aliens and Commies combine with the second adventure ‘The Gladiator from Outer Space!’

The Incredible Hulk #5 is a joyous classic of Kirby action, introducing the immortal Tyrannus and his underworld empire in ‘The Beauty and the Beast!’ whilst those pesky commies are in for another drubbing when our Jolly Green freedom-fighter prevents the invasion of Lhasa in ‘The Hordes of General Fang!’

Despite the sheer verve and bravura of these simplistic classics – some of the greatest, most rewarding comics nonsense ever produced – the series was not doing well, and Kirby moved on to more appreciated arenas. Steve Ditko handled all the art chores for #6, another full-length epic and an extremely engaging one. ‘The Incredible Hulk Vs the Metal Master’ has superb action, sly and subtle sub-plots and a thinking man’s resolution, but nonetheless the title died with this issue.

After shambling around the nascent Marvel universe for a year or so, usually as a misunderstood villain-cum-monster, the Emerald Behemoth got another shot. Following a reprinting of his origin in the giant collection Marvel Tales Annual #1 (the beginning of the company’s brilliant policy of keeping early tales in circulation and which did so much to make new fans out of latecomers) he was given a back-up strip in a failing title.

Giant-Man was the star feature of Tales to Astonish but by mid-1964 the strip was floundering. In issue #59 the Master of Many Sizes was tricked by an old foe into battling the man-monster in ‘Enter: The Hulk’ by Lee, Ayers and Reinman; a great big punch-up that set the scene for the next issue wherein his second series began.

‘The Incredible Hulk’ found Banner still working for General Ross, and still afflicted with uncontrollable transformations into a rampaging, if well-intentioned, engine of destruction. The ten page instalments were uncharacteristically set in the Arizona/New Mexico deserts, not New York and espionage and military themes were the narrative backdrop of these adventures.

Lee scripted, Ditko drew and comics veteran George Roussos – under the pseudonym George Bell – provided the ink art. The first tale concerned a spy who stole an unstoppable suit of armour, concluding in the next episode ‘Captured at Last’. The cliffhanger endings such as the Hulk’s imprisonment by Ross’s military units would be instrumental in keeping readers onboard and enthralled. The next tale (Tales to Astonish #62) ‘Enter… the Chameleon’ has plenty of action and suspense but the real stinger is the final panel that hints at the mastermind behind all the spying and skulduggery – the enigmatic Leader – who would become the Hulk’s ultimate and antithetical nemesis.

The Spider-Man villain worked well as a returning foe, his disguise abilities an obvious threat in a series based on a weapons scientist working for the US military during the Cold War. Even the Leader himself had dubious connections to the sinister Soviets – when he wasn’t trying to conquer the world for himself. ‘A Titan Rides the Train!’ provides an origin for the super-intellectual menace as well as setting up a plotline where new cast member Major Glen Talbot begins to suspect Banner of being a traitor. The action comes when the Leader tries to steal Banner’s new anti-H-bomb device from a moving train.

Number #64 ‘the Horde of Humanoids!’ features the return of Rick Jones who obtains a pardon for the incarcerated Banner by letting the President in on the secret of the Hulk! Ah, simpler times!

Free again, Banner joins Talbot on a remote Island to test his device only to be attacked by the Leader’s artificial warriors – providing a fine example of Ditko’s unique manner of staging a super-tussle. The battle continues into the next issue when Dick Ayers assumes the inks and Banner is taken prisoner by those darn commies. ‘On the Rampage against the Reds!’ sees the Hulk go wild behind the Iron Curtain, a satisfyingly gratuitous crusade that spans #66 (‘the Power of Doctor Banner’ inked by Vince Colletta) and #67 (‘Where Strides the Behemoth’ inked by Frank Giacoia) before reverting to human form and being captured by Mongolian bandits.

Jack Kirby returned, supplemented by Mike (“Mickey Demeo”) Esposito in Tales to Astonish #68. ‘Back from the Dead!’ returned the tragic scientist to America, military custody and his Atomic Absorbatron for one last test, once again interrupted by the Leader’s Humanoids. This time the villain succeeds and the Hulk is ‘Trapped in the Lair of the Leader!’ but only until the Army bursts in…

Issue #70 saw Giant-Man replaced by the Sub-Mariner, making Astonish a comicbook of brutal anti-heroes, and increasingly the Hulk stories reflected this shift. ‘To Live Again!’ had the furious Leader launch a giant Humanoid against the local US missile base, with the Jade Giant caught in the middle.

Kirby reduced his input to layouts with #71’s ‘Like a Beast at Bay’, a minor turning point as the Hulk actually joined forces with the Leader. The next episode ‘Within the Monster Dwells a Man!’ saw Major Talbot getting closer to uncovering Banner’s dark secret, whilst ‘Another World, Another Foe!’ (with the great Bob Powell pencilling over Kirby’s layouts) had the Hulk dispatched to the Watcher’s world to steal an ultimate weapon, just as an intergalactic rival arrives.

‘The Wisdom of the Watcher’ was all-out, brutal action with a shocking climax, followed by #75’s return to Earth and to basics as the rampaging Hulk falls victims to one of Banner’s most bizarre atomic devices. ‘Not all my Power Can Save Me!’ hurls the man-monster into a dystopian future, and in #76’s ‘I, Against a World!’ (featuring pencils by Gil Kane moonlighting as “Scott Edward”) the devastation is compounded in a fierce duel with the Asgardian Executioner.

A true milestone occurred in Tales to Astonish #77 when the dread secret was revealed. Magnificently illustrated by John Romita (the elder, and still over Kirby roughs) ‘Bruce Banner is the Hulk!’ concluded the time-lost tale and exposed the tragic horror of the scientist’s condition. It didn’t make him any less hunted or haunted, but at least the military were in an emotional tizzy as they tried to destroy him.

Bill Everett began a short but lovely run as art-man (Kirby remained as layout artist throughout) with #78. The insane scientist Zaxon tried to tap the beast’s bio-energy in ‘The Hulk Must Die!’ and the follow-up ‘The Titan and the Torment!’ featured a bombastic battle with the man-god Hercules. Not-so-immortal Tyrannus returned in ‘They Dwell in the Depths!’, losing a desperate war with fellow subterranean despot the Mole Man and seeing the Hulk as a weapon of last resort, before new villains Boomerang and the insidious Secret Empire debuted in #81’s ‘The Stage is Set!’, a convoluted mini-epic that spread into a number of other Marvel series, especially Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Sub-Mariner.

‘The Battle Cry of the Boomerang’, ‘Less then Monster, More than Man!’, and ‘Rampage in the City!’ wove lots of sub-plots into a gripping whole which indicated to the evolving reader just how close-knit the Marvel Universe was, but obviously such tight coordination between series caused a few problems as art for the final episode is credited to “almost the whole blamed Bullpen” (which looks to my jaded eyes as mostly Kirby, Everett and Jerry Grandinetti). At the climax the Hulk is marauding through the streets of New York City in what I can’t help but feel is a padded, unplanned conclusion…

Everything’s back on track with #85 as John Buscema and John Tartaglione step in to illustrate ‘The Missile and the Monster!’ as yet another spy diverts an experimental rocket onto the city. The obvious discomfort the realism-heavy Buscema experienced with the Hulk’s appearance has mostly faded by the second part, ‘The Birth of the Hulk-Killer!’, and the return of veteran inker Mike Esposito to the strip also helps.

As General Ross releases a weapon designed by the Leader to capture the Grim Green Giant he has no inkling what his rash act will lead to, but by #87’s concluding part ‘The Humanoid and the Hero!’ he’s certainly regretting it… Gil Kane returns for #88 and ‘Boomerang and the Brute’ shows both his and the Hulk’s savage power.

Tales to Astonish #89 once more sees the Hulk become an unwilling weapon as a near-omnipotent alien sets him to purging humanity from the Earth. ‘…Then, There Shall Come a Stranger!’, ‘The Abomination!’ and ‘Whosoever Harms the Hulk…!’ is a taut and evocative thriller which also includes the origin of a malevolent Hulk counterpart who would play such a large part in later tales of the ill-fated Bruce Banner.

This first volume of Hulk adventures is rather hit-and-miss with visceral thrillers and plain dumb nonsense running together, but the enthusiasm and sheer quality of the artistic endeavour should go a long way to mitigating most of the downside. These tales, in raw and gritty black and white, are key to the later, more cohesive adventures, and even at their worst the work of Kirby, Ditko, Everett, Kane, Buscema and the rest in butt-kicking, “breaking-stuff” mode is a thrill to delight the destructive eight-year-old in everyone. Hulk Smash(ing)!

© 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 2006 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.