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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, May 16, 2011


"But there is a Hulk! And don't you ever forget it!"-- Hulk to Betty, HULK #1.

PLOT-SUMMARY: At a U.S. military installation, Dr. Bruce Banner supervises the Army’s test of his new weapon, the gamma bomb, but two specters haunt his endeavor. One is General Ross, an old-school officer who expresses contempt for technological warfare and who disapproves of his daughter Betty’s interest in Banner. The other is Banner’s subordinate Igor, first seen attempting to bully Banner due to Igor’s greater size. Banner, spotting a teen boy’s car parked on the test site, tells Igor to delay the test. Igor then displays the true colors suggested by his Russian name, allowing the test to go through in order to knock off a prominent American scientist. Banner gets teenager Rick Jones to safety but is himself bombarded by gamma radiation. Banner seems unharmed but that night Jones is the sole witness when Banner changed into the monstrous Hulk. The monster fights with a handful of base soldiers and then makes a beeline for Banner’s lab, with Jones following. The Hulk finds Igor ransacking Banner’s lab for secrets and knocks him out. Moments later the sun rises and Jones sees the Hulk change back to Banner, just moments before soldiers break in.

Igor is jailed for espionage but still sends a message to his master behind the Iron Curtain: the Gargoyle, formerly an ordinary man but mutated by radiation into a big-brained, hideous-faced super-genius. The Gargoyle journeys to the U.S. to capture the Hulk, hoping to use him as a template for an army of super-warriors. He arrives on the second night Banner transforms, somehow finding his way to the Hulk just as the monster (tailed by Jones as always) encounters Betty Ross, who duly faints at the sight of the creature. The Gargoyle subdues both the Hulk and Jones and transports them back to the USSR. However, once there the monster has reverted to Banner, and suddenly the Gargoyle becomes torn, remembering the human being he used to be. Banner uses his scientific knowledge to cure the Gargoyle’s deformity, transforming him back to an ordinary man. In gratitude the Gargoyle gives the two Americans a plane to take them back home, and then, eager to revenge himself on the Communists who mutated him, he blows up the Russian installation.

MYTH-ANALYSIS: The basic schema for the HULK concept is best framed as “Jekyll and Hyde for the Atomic Age.” However, the Jekyll-story upon which Stan Lee and Jack Kirby base their myth is not that of originator Robert Louis Stevenson, but of adaptations produced for stage and screen. In some of these, Jekyll’s reason for unleashing his Hyde-id is sexual: he has a fiancĂ©e but can’t marry her until he receives consent from her disapproving father. Obviously the Banner-Betty relationship is not that far along, but it’s significant that General Ross’s main reason for disliking Banner is that Banner is not a tough military man as Ross himself is.

This constellation—damsel, damsel’s suitor and damsel’s father—is rife with Freudian potential, though only one scene touches on such currents. As noted above, on the occasion of Banner’s second transformation, the Hulk realizes he’s near the house of Betty and her father, and he goes there, though one never knows just why. Betty, who has not seen the Hulk before, is musing out loud that she hopes there is no such creature, and when he appears before her, the Hulk may be seen as the recrudescent Hyde-id, asserting his supremacy. Moreover, though the Hulk and Jones are taken away by the Gargoyle before General Ross finds his daughter, his rage at the monster’s encroachment becomes personal. Betty, for her part, has an ambivalent reaction, feeling terrified by the Hulk’s appearance but able to intuit the “sadness” in his face.

Still, power, not sex, is the subject of the Hulk myth, particularly as it reflects the pissing contests between America and the USSR during the early “Atomic Age.” It’s no coincidence that even though Ross denigrates Banner for being less than a red-blooded he-man, Banner’s science confers on him insuperable strength, with which he can routinely humiliate Ross by defeating his forces. Yet HULK #1 doesn’t glory in these victories as much as do later stories. The first version of the Hulk lusts after power: “With my strength, my power—the world is mine!” He contemplates killing Jones to silence the boy, and scorns Betty for her weakness when she faints. This Hulk is a funhouse-mirror reflection of both military “he-man” Ross and bullying Igor.

A ratiocentrist interpretation of HULK #1 might jump to the conclusion that because the Hulk fights the American military, he might be some sort of Sartrean “other” that criticizes the accepted order. That’s only partly true. Ross’s simplistic chauvinism is not presented favorably, but the Hulk is no beleaguered innocent here. To a reader of anti-Communist comic books of the period, the Hulk’s aspirations for conquest sound much like the mission statement of Communism. The Gargoyle himself speaks of conquest in the same avaricious terms, and even speaks of his subordinates as “weaklings” the same way the Hulk despises weakness.

Plainly in this story, Lee and Kirby are not glorying in the “rule of the strong,” and that may explain the unusual twist in the story’s last quarter, where the day is saved not by the title character, but by his alter ego Bruce Banner. The Hulk and the Gargoyle seem set up for a mythic conflict between Brawn and Brain, but the Hulk is subdued rather easily and doesn’t appear thereafter. Instead, once the Gargoyle learns Banner’s secret, the conflict becomes that of two “brains,” one guided by soulless Communism and one by soulful democracy. Banner wins against Communism by making it possible for the Gargoyle to regain his humanity, and thus gains not only his own freedom but converts one of Communism’s adherents. It’s rather convenient that the very first thing the Gargoyle wants to do with his regained humanity is to sacrifice his life in a Pyrrhic victory over his government (represented by a picture of Kruschev on the wall). As the former villain’s base explodes, Banner wonders if the Gargoyle’s conversion may signal “the beginning of the end of the Red tyranny.” But since the Reds are not responsible for Banner’s transformation, it may be that the real symbolic kernel of HULK #1 is the renunciation of power itself—though that theme naturally did not survive future adventures of a green-skinned muscleman superhero.

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