Incredible Hulk Epic Collection: Man or Monster?

By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Dick Ayers & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-9600-6

Chronologically collecting the Jade Juggernaut’s earliest appearances, this titanic tome (available as a hefty paperback and relatively weightless digital edition) gathers Incredible Hulk #1-6, Fantastic Four #2 and 25-26, Avengers #1-3 and 5, Amazing Spider-Man #14, Tales to Astonish #59 and a memorable clash with Thor from Journey into Mystery #112: cumulatively spanning early 1962 to the end of 1964.

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

The Hulk smashed right into his own bi-monthly comic and, after some classic romps by Young Marvel’s finest creators, crashed right out again. After six issues the series was cancelled and Lee retrenched, making the Gruff Green Giant a perennial guest-star in other Marvel titles 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 sees 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 timer 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 everyone, 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 prepares to join him The Bomb detonates…

Somehow 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 good doctor 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, 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 grey tones caused all manner of problems for 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 long, chaptered epics 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, with the story thus far reprised in 3-page vignette ‘The Origin of the Hulk’ after which 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’ before aliens and Commies combine in the second escapade ‘The Gladiator from Outer Space!’

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

Lee grasped early on the commercial impact of cross-pollination and – presumably aware of disappointing sales – inserted the Jade Juggernaut into his top selling title next.

Fantastic Four #12 (March 1963) featured an early crossover as the team were asked to help the US army capture ‘The Incredible Hulk’: a tale from Lee, Kirby & Ayers packed with intrigue, action and bitter irony as  series of spectacularly destructive sabotage incidents puts the heroes on the trail of a monster when they should have been looking at spies…

Despite the sheer verve and bravura of these simplistic classics – some of the greatest, most rewarding comics nonsense ever produced – the Hulk 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 astounding action, sly and subtle sub-plots and a thinking man’s resolution, but nonetheless the title died with the issue, also dated March.

Another comic debuted that month and offered a life line to the floundering Emerald Outcast.  ‘The Coming of the Avengers’ is one of the cannier origin tales in comics. Instead of starting at a zero point and acting as if the reader knew nothing, creators Lee, Kirby & Ayers assumed that interested parties had at least a passing familiarity with Marvel’s other titles, and wasted very little time or energy on introductions in the premiere issue.

In Asgard Loki, god of evil, is imprisoned on a dank islet but still craves vengeance on his step-brother mighty Thor. Observing Earth the villain finds the monstrous Hulk and engineers a situation wherein the man-brute goes on a rampage, hoping to trick the Thunder God into battling the bludgeoning brute. When sidekick Rick Jones radios the Fantastic Four for assistance, Loki diverts the transmission so they cannot hear it and expects his mischief to quickly blossom. However. other heroes pick up the SOS – namely Iron Man, Ant Man and the Wasp.

As the costumed champions on the desert converge to search for the Hulk, they realize something’s amiss…

This terse and compelling yarn is Lee & Kirby at their bombastic best, and one of the greatest stories of the Silver Age (it’s certainly high in my own top ten Marvel Tales of all time!) and is promptly followed by ‘the Space Phantom’ (Lee, Kirby & Reinman), another unforgettable epic, in which an alien shape-stealer almost destroys the group from within.

Ever-changing, the tale ends with the volatile Hulk quitting the team only to return in #3 as a villain in partnership with ‘Sub-Mariner!’ This globe-trotting romp delivered high energy thrills and one of the best battle scenes in comics history.

Three months later Fantastic Four #25 featured a cataclysmic clash that had young heads spinning in 1964 and pretty much ever since. Inked by George Roussos, ‘The Hulk Vs The Thing’ and concluding tale ‘The Avengers Take Over!’ in FF #26 offered a fast-paced, all-out Battle Royale as the disgruntled man-monster comes to New York in search of sidekick Rick with only an injury-wracked FF in the way of his destructive rampage.

A definitive moment in the character development of the Thing, the action amplifies when a rather stiff-necked and officious Avengers team horns in claiming jurisdictional rights on “Bob” Banner (this tale is plagued with pesky continuity errors which would haunt Lee for decades) and his Jaded Alter Ego.

Notwithstanding the bloopers, this is one of Marvel’s key moments and still a visceral, vital read.

Over in Avengers #5, ‘The Invasion of the Lava Men!’ (Lee, Kirby & Reinman) revealed another incredible romp as Earth’s Mightiest battled superhuman subterraneans and a lethally radioactive mutating mountain with the unwilling assistance of the Hulk… his last appearance there for many months…

The next cameo came in Amazing Spider-Man #14 (July 1964): an absolute milestone as a hidden criminal mastermind debuted by manipulating a Hollywood studio into making a movie about the wall-crawler. Even with guest-star opponents such as the Enforcers the Incredible Hulk steals all the limelight in ‘The Grotesque Adventure of the Green Goblin’ (by Lee & Ditko) which is only otherwise notable for introducing Spider-Man’s most perfidious and flamboyant enemy (sarcasm alert!).

The second chapter of the man-monster’s career was about to take off and Tales to Astonish #59 (September) offered a bombastic prologue as ‘Enter: The Hulk!’ (Lee, Ayers & Reinman) sees the Avengers inadvertently inspiring Giant-Man to hunt down the Green Goliath.

Although the Human Top devilishly engineered that blockbusting battle, Lee was the real mastermind, as with the next issue The Hulk began starring in his own series and on the covers whilst Giant-Man’s adventures shrank back to a dozen or so pages.

This wonderfully economical compendium of wonders closes with the lead story from Journey into Mystery #112 (January 1965). ‘The Mighty Thor Battles the Incredible Hulk!’ is a glorious gift to all those fans who perpetually ask “Who’s stronger…?” Possibly Kirby and Chic Stone’s finest artistic moment, it details a private duel between the two super-humans that occurred during that free-for-all between Earth’s Mightiest, Sub-Mariner and Ol’ Greenskin in Avengers #3. The raw power of that tale is a perfect exemplar of what makes the Hulk work and would an ideal place to close proceedings but fans and art lovers can enjoy further treats in the form of assorted House Ads, original artwork by Kirby and Ditko, a gallery of classic Kirby covers modified by painter Dean White (originally seen on assorted Marvel Masterworks editions), plus reproduced Essentials collection and Omnibus covers by Bruce Timm and Alex Ross…

Hulk Smash! He always was and with material like this he always will be.
© 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 2016 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.