Loitering in my local Barnes-a- Million, I was thumbing through a Marvel Masterworks book, a hardback reprint of early comic books with horrific digital color. Coming across the section featuring Fantastic Four #25, I had one of those electric jolts of repressed memory that I imagine are becoming more common in this age of repackaged nostalgia. I realized that this issue had been the very first time I had seen the Incredible Hulk.
My brother had shown me the original comic. He would often show off his comic book collection, as well as his vast knowledge thereof, explaining the various characters and their super powers (working through an issue of the Legion of Super Heroes felt like cramming for an exam). He had me convinced then, as I still am today, that everything truly cool had come and gone before I was born - coolness dying off, not coincidentally, around the same time I came home from the hospital. I’m sure I thought that FF comic was a hundred year old relic, but I’d only missed it by a few years.
As plenty of culture commentators have pointed out, the Marvel Comics of the early ‘60s were considered revolutionary because they introduced the “super heroes with problems” formula. Iron Man and his ilk still battled super villains bent on world domination, but they had to pick up milk and mail the rent check on the way home. They had to launder their capes and change the oil in the hovercar, among other pedestrian chores. And oh, the angst. Marvel super heroes were truly a product of post-war America, endlessly neurotic, self-absorbed and always on the verge of succumbing to the futility of our bleak existence (Spider-Man actually visited a psychiatrist in one early issue). No wonder I liked them. Marvel was a total bummer, right down to the brown and grey color scheme on their covers.
But the biggest bummer of all was the Hulk. Alienated and manic depressive, his violent rampages weren’t just mindless destruction, they were primal screams of loneliness and persecution. He was an emotional wreck, like a giant, green toddler, crying out for love and understanding. “Everyone hates Hulk,” he often concluded. And you could see why he’d think so, what with a whole army base devoted entirely to shooting at him (it was actually named Hulkbuster Base). In fact, the Hulk was so paranoid he even suspected his other self, Bruce Banner, was out to destroy him (he was right).
The more I think about it just about every aspect of the Hulk comic was a downer. Bruce Banner had the standard Marvel problem of a girlfriend he could never truly love, but without the upside of having fabulous super powers he could enjoy in secret. Being the Hulk sucked. Banner was infinitely exhausted from the Hulk’s all-night tantrums and was usually under suspicion of being a Commie spy by his military superiors (they had a hard time trusting scientists after the whole Oppenheimer thing). General Ross seemed to hate both Banner and the Hulk with a stalker’s intensity, undoubtedly depressed himself due to his failure to capture the big brute. His daughter, Betty, just couldn’t figure out why Bruce was always so cold to her lately, or why he was always turning up passed out and shirtless. Not to mention all this was taking place in the desert, dry, oppressive and isolated. Ulcers for everyone.
And what of poor, devoted Rick Jones? He was the only real friend the Hulk had, and he got treated like dirt along with the rest of them. Rick seemed the most downtrodden of all, stuck in his dysfunctional, abusive relationship with a noncommittal green dude. He only wanted the Hulk to be safe and happy, and got nothing but heartache for his trouble. Hulk insisted no one could ever love him, and no amount of affection from Rick could change his mind. I can’t imagine couples therapy would’ve done much good.
So why on earth would all of this brutal anguish appeal to a child? I’ve got a vivid recollection of sitting in Al Marchant’s barber shop, around age four, squealing with delight on finding a Hulk comic book among the Newsweeks and Sports Illustrateds. “Look, David,” I yelled to my brother. “It’s the HULK!” I had no idea he had his own comic. I probably assumed my brother had the only magazine in which the Hulk appeared.
“Alright. Don’t get so excited,” David said.
I was always being told to stifle my enthusiasm. And maybe that was part of the psychological makeup that had me predestined for Hulk fandom: I was the youngest. I was awash in immature, emotional turmoil, condemned by teen siblings intent on embracing cool. Everyone wanted to quell my emotional rampages just as they did with Bruce Banner.