HULK SMASH! Which is a lot of fun, but not a lot to fill fifty years of stories.
His recent movies reveal the problem he’s suffered under for decades: he’s amazing in The Avengers, but no matter how many times he tries to go it alone it just never works. He’s a fantastic foil for every other hero in the Marvel universe, an immense straight man who can’t be ignored, or an indestructible firing range for every one of their powers. He can take down a Norse god for a joke …
… or not a joke …
… and unexpectedly delight certain swathes of the internet by powerfully yet tenderly gripping Hawkeye.
Despite being able to lift tanks, he has a hard time carrying a story by himself.
He’s Marvel’s most powerful double-act when teamed up with anything else…
… but he’s had to spend most of his comics playing with himself. And that’s not nearly as much fun to watch. This problem was almost parodied by his own TV show, with wimpy Bruce Banner’s weekly visits to places where muscly jerks try to bully a smart person, then the opposite happens. A perfect fantasy for many of the school kids watching the show, but when your hero automatically wins the very instant the bad guys force him to do so, it’s hard to keep the story interesting.
The comics contended with this problem for far longer, and came up with a great way to spice up his super-strength struggle: child abuse! An odd choice for an action comic, but he had already punched every other character in the Marvel universe by then.
The next narrative innovation was to explain that Bruce Banner, the Incredible Hulk, suffered from multiple personalities. The amount of “No s**t!” reactions this provoked caused an entire generation of sewage workers to lose their jobs.
Other personalities included Joe Fixit, a grey Hulk who worked as a low-level mob enforcer who could only come out at night and was weakened by the full moon. We’re not sure how little you care about your comic when you turn your hero into the sort of thug he’s meant to beat up, but you’re clearly throwing darts at a dictionary when your new character direction is “monochrome reverse-werewolf bouncer”.
Hulk was unstoppable against the Avengers. Taking him up against the Vegas mob was like taking a monster truck to a go-karting track: fun for the first few minutes, but when people realize you’re going to stay the course you’re just boringly bullying people.
Splitting your main character into multiple personalities is how you wring out some extra juice without creating anything new. Re-merging those personalities is how you refocus the series on its core principles and get on with the action. Unless you’re Marvel, in which case you later reveal that the newly merged personality was yet another multiple personality made out of bits of all the others, all of whom are still there, a retcon which leaves the comic with even more multiple personalities than it started with and ahahhaha people are still buying this, that’s amazing. Let’s see how stupid we can make this!
There was Devil Hulk, Guilt Hulk, Professor Hulk, by this point they were gamma-irradiating random nouns to give themselves another issue. Hulks were breeding faster than rabbits, and about as interesting to watch fighting.
That’s not counting Banner’s attempts to commit psychic suicide, or the fact that he’s the only man who can crybaby so hard it kills half a city.
Things got so bad that Hulk’s most mortal enemy, General Ross, turned himself into the Red Hulk. He claimed it was to finally gain the power required to take down the original – it only took this military mastermind half a century to work out that continually bouncing troops off of gamma-fists didn’t work – but it was more likely because even he wanted at least one Hulk to get back to kicking ass.
And lo, we now live in a golden age of Hulkery. First they fired Hulk at an entire new planet, which he beat up, and then he brought everyone who survived back to beat up Earth as well.
The latest series is the most interesting yet. The Indestructible Hulk sees genius Bruce Banner finally stop bashing his head off the Hulk’s unkillabililty, realizing that he lives in the Marvel universe: an ecosystem where “Bad guys who need punching” is a more abundant resource than sunlight. Instead of trying to minimize civilian casualties by wandering aimlessly from defenseless small town to defenseless small town–a plan which really cast doubt on the whole “genius” thing–he signs up for S.H.I.E.L.D. duty. When he’s cool he works as an inventor. When he’s not cool, they drop him on bad guys and he becomes even greater.
You’ve finally got both halves of the Hulk doing what they do best. And when you do that, they add up to a much more interesting character.
Luke McKinney writes about games, drink, science, and everything else that makes life amazing. He’s a columnist on Cracked and writes for several beer magazines. He’s also available for hire. Follow him on Tumblr and Twitter @lukemckinney.