It Ain’t Easy Bein’ Green: A Look at The Incredible Hulk

By Arthur Smith

As the Paley Center unveils the new Planet Hulk animated film with screenings in New York and Los Angeles (presented in conjunction with Lionsgate Entertainment and Marvel; sponsored in part by and New York Comic Con), researcher Arthur Smith takes a look at the character and the phenomenon across the media spectrum. 

A Look at The Incredible Hulk Continues...

Marvel Comics’s Incredible Hulk was an unusual creation even by the standards of the wildly innovative early 1960s partnership of writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, a period of incandescent creative ferment that produced the freaky Fantastic Four, the scuttling Spider-Man, and the uncanny X-Men. A decade earlier, Marvel had specialized in monster-themed books (superheroes were out of vogue, due to an infamous Senate crackdown on comics as a gateway to juvenile delinquency), and, at first blush, the Hulk seemed a throwback to the likes of such unlamented critters as Googam and Fin Fang Foom.

But there was something more interesting at play. Lee had ushered in an era of complex, neurotic heroes—the above mentioned FF were a dysfunctional family, Spider-Man was a marginalized nerdy teenager, the X-Men were scorned as freaks—and the Hulk, from his debut in 1962, would take these themes of otherness and alienation to the extreme, redefining the notion of a “superhero” as a victim of outlandish circumstance struggling against insurmountable obstacles to do the right thing. 

The Hulk was created when timid military scientist Bruce Banner was accidentally bathed with dangerous “gamma rays” in an explosion. The standard superhero script would have Banner reveling in his new abilities and immediately pledging to fight crime and protect the innocent. No such luck for Banner: the radiation triggered a monstrous change, occurring nightly, in which the hapless egghead transformed into an impossibly strong, rampaging beast; it was a split between superego and id writ in primary colors and hysterical dialogue. Lee admitted a debt to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, but managed the neat trick of engendering reader sympathy for the monster. The Hulk was violent and irrational, but not evil. He was misunderstood and wanted to be left alone…an attitude presumably familiar to his teenaged readership. 

The Hulk has undergone myriad changes over the decades, with Banner occasionally gaining dominance over his wilder half, but the smashing remains a constant. As does the question: what’s up with the purple pants? How do they stay on? Are they spandex, or what? 


The Original Hulk

Big. Mean. Gray. Yes, ol’ Greenskin was originally a ghastly gray pallor, until vagaries in the printing process occasioned the change to the now classic green. Hulk’s appearance owed much to Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the Frankenstein monster in the classic cycle of Universal films, but the halting locution would come later—Hulk was originally quite articulate. His supporting cast of teenager Rick Jones (who was responsible for Banner’s accident in the first place), love interest Betty Ross, and her father, Hulk-hunting General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, were all introduced in this period and have endured for decades.

Classic Green Hulk

The icon. Hulk briefly joined Marvel’s superhero A team the Avengers, but never played well with others and soon left to pursue other interests, including leaping across the desert and smashing mountains. His foes tended to be fellow gamma victims, such as the grotesque Abomination and mutated super-genius the Leader, underscoring another key theme in the Hulk’s makeup: Cold War nuclear anxiety.

Hulk on TV

On CBS from 1978 to 1982, Bill Bixby essayed a classic TV turn as tortured scientist David Banner (the original name Bruce deemed “too gay” by network execs) in The Incredible Hulk, forever on the run from investigative reporter Jack McGee in a series that structurally echoed Les Miserables. Lou Ferrigno, a former Mr. Universe, slathered on green paint to play the Hulk in the show’s signature scenes of slo-mo mayhem. The series added two indelible elements to Hulk lore: Banner’s terse mantra, “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry,” and his forlorn walk down the highway after another rampage, scored to plangent piano music.


After receiving a blood transfusion from her cousin, good old Bruce Banner, attorney Jennifer Walters becomes the Savage She-Hulk.  Her transformation was a little different, though; she retained her personality and, instead of becoming monstrous, the mousy lawyer changed into an extremely bodacious big green knockout.  John Byrne used the character to break comics conventions during his innovative run on the book, having the Jade Giantess regularly breaking the fourth wall to comment on the absurdity of her situation.  Like her cousin, She-Hulk isn’t big on clothing, a trait much appreciated by her male fans.

Hulk on Film

In 2003, auteur Ang Lee, famed for his sensitive period dramas (The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain), brought Hulk to the big screen. Literalizing the “wounded inner child” aspect of the creature, Lee’s Hulk was an odd duck, a glum, psychologically dense film that, despite some eye-popping visuals (including a completely CGI Hulk), disappointed fans and underperformed at the box office.

The Incredible Hulk returned to cinemas in 2008, with Edward Norton in the title role and the Abomination on deck as the villain. This reboot hewed much closer to the classic Hulk of the comics, eschewing an origin story to drop the audience into the middle of a rousing adventure that nodded to the angsty aspects of Banner’s curse without sacrificing narrative momentum; the film was a massive success with audiences.

Planet Hulk

Marvel’s new animated film lifts a celebrated story line from the pages of Hulk comics: tired of the wanton destruction left in the Hulk’s wake, the powers that be decide to blast the unjolly green giant into space. Needless to say, Hulk does not go quiet into that good night, instead distinguishing himself as an interplanetary gladiator. Nice work if you can get it! 


All contents ™ and © 2010 Marvel Characters, Inc., unless otherwise noted herein. All rights reserved.

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