So, I read an article the other day that got me thinking…about the Hulk. You guys know the Hulk: big, green, angry, varying degrees of shagginess in haircut?
What I was thinking about, specifically, is what the Hulk says about us, about human beings, our capacities, our loves, and our passions. I mean, seriously, why does a character who’s main forms of interaction involve hitting things, punching things, and attempting to kill things with poor grammar captivate us so?
I think the answer to that, my friends, is pathos.
Pathos is a mode of persuasion that appeals to a person’s emotions. When we talk about it in literary criticism, we’re often talking about how we’re made to empathize with the struggles a character is facing and then start to like them more. It’s where we get the word “pathetic.”
The Hulk, unlike a lot of super heroes and especially unlike most from the Marvel universe, is basically cursed. The Fantastic Four went into space, there was an accident, and they came out heroes (though arguments can be made for the pathos evoked by The Thing). The X-men suffer bigotry and cruelty for who they are, but they’re also able to largely insulate themselves at Xavier’s when they’re not out saving the people who hate and fear them. Iron Man’s pathos is self-inflicted. Captain America’s is existential. Spider-man’s is based on the realities of life that lots of people face.
Our Big Green Man, however, is experiencing something that none of them can really understand: the totally involuntary loss of control, spurred by something he can later blame himself for. He can’t afford to let his emotions get the best of him or he’ll do terrible things. The tiniest slip in his thoughts and whole towns can be leveled. And it’ll be his fault because he let some jackass irritate him.
What I find interesting about this is that the Hulk wasn’t always triggered by anger. For the first two issues of The Incredible Hulk, Bruce Banner turned into the Hulk at night and back to Bruce by day. It wasn’t until issue three that the Hulk rode a rocket into space and was bombarded with cosmic rays, presumably the same ones who transformed the Fantastic Four, that anger became the trigger for his change. Part of the reason most people don’t know about this is that it’s simply not as interesting, it takes away the element of volition from the Hulk’s story. If he can’t blame himself for the things he’s done, we can’t feel as bad for him, we can’t see our own mistakes in his.
And that’s the other thing I wanted to discuss: the fluid origin story.
There are two origin stories for the Hulk, or at least two basic ones with a lot of spinoffs of them. Like with the day/night change, we tend to gravitate and remember better the one that makes the character more fallible, that reveals the bigger mistake.
The first origin was the original one, started in Incredible Hulk #1 in May of 1962. In it we have Dr. Bruce Banner, renowned scientist and foremost expert in gamma radiation. He has been working for the US government on a project to create a “gamma bomb,” a weapon that would make uranium and plutonium bombs seem like firecrackers by comparison. While testing a bomb, he notices teenager Rick Jones on the testing field completing a dare from his friends and runs out to save him. A colleague trying to kill Banner doesn’t stop the test, bomb goes off as Banner pushes the kid into a ditch, and now we have a gamma-irradiated scientist.
I never really clicked with this particular origin story. It’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but I feel like it put Banner too much at the whims of fate. Again, try and think of this as a curse: he was saving a kid’s life and for no particular reason he now has to suffer for the rest of what might be an eternal life. That may be how the real world works, but I can’t get past the unfairness of it all, the sort of “no good deed goes unpunished” nature of the whole thing.
The second origin story is usually associated with the Ultimates line of books, Marvel’s alternate-universe comics designed to create a much more cohesive meta-plot and update character origins. However, the seeds of this origin story actually were planted years earlier in the Incredible Hulk television show starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno as Banner and the Hulk respectively, so I’ll focus on that plot.
In this show we meet Dr. David Banner (LGBT history moment: his name was changed from “Bruce” because the network thought it sounded “too homosexual”), a behavioral scientist studying a phenomenon where ordinary people experience superhuman amounts of strength for brief periods. After some research, he discovers that these events tend to occur when people are 1) angry, and 2) experiencing a flood of gamma radiation caused by solar activity. Attempting to test his hypothesis in the lab, Banner irradiates himself with gamma energy, creating the Incredible Hulk. After a lab accident, he fakes his own death, but in doing so attracts the attention of intrepid reporter Jack McGee, a perpetual antagonist of the show who follows Hulk sightings around the country because he thinks the Hulk murdered Banner and wants to expose the monster in the press. McGee gets a passing mention in the Ed Norton Hulk movie, along with a number of references to what is still an amazing TV show.
Ultimate Hulk is basically a variation on that theme only Banner is instead back to working on weapons for the government, this time trying to recreate the super soldier serum that made Captain America, and the recent movie versions are based on this idea as well.
The thing is, I like this idea a lot better than the gamma bomb. On one hand, you could argue that Bruce brought this on himself. He was arrogant, he was self-centered, he wanted to be the next super soldier, etc. But that’s why I like it.
Let me explain.
In the original origin, you have a man who is screwed over by fate. The stars aligned and now he has to deal with this. I have nothing to grasp on to there, nothing really to empathize with except for a vague sense of “life’s tough, get a radiation suit.”
The second origin we see a man who made a mistake, one mistake, and now his life is irrevocably changed. I don’t know about you guys, but I make mistakes. I make a lot of mistakes, like all the time. There are probably mistakes in this post. It’s difficult to imagine that any one of them might lead to untold pain and suffering and loss. I see Bruce Banner and I don’t see somebody who had a terrible thing happen to them, I see somebody like me, somebody I want to forgive.
I mentioned above that the difference between these two origin stories is “volition,” but I wasn’t just talking about Dr. Banner’s. I’m talking about ours, as readers. We have no control over gamma bombs hurting good people, but we absolutely have the ability to forgive somebody who’s made a mistake. It makes the Hulk’s suffering more noble and our hearts more likely to go out to him because we know no matter how often we say “it’s ok,” it won’t change things for him, yet he continues on trying to forgive himself as his sins continue to pile up. We are equally powerless to help him, but we can at least try, and that makes all the difference.