When we think of the great monsters of history, the ones who every person on Earth can tell you about, we tend to stick to the old school – the gang who was introduced to the world from the end of the nineteenth century into the early days of the twentieth, with special dispensation for the Wolf Man and the Gill-Man. As a big old nerd, this kind of makes me a saddy. Some of the greatest monsters in literature came into being just over fifty years ago. One of them will be our focus today. Let me tell you all about Doctor Bruce Banner and how he went from a take on werewolves to something more akin to Jekyll and Hyde, all the while being his own unique monster.
Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, locking down the inspiration for the Hulk is difficult. Kirby was never big on discussing where his ideas came from, and Lee loves to tell stories about how he came up with characters, the problem being that Lee often changes those stories. I don’t think Lee does it just for kicks, I think that when you create some of the best known comic book characters in the course of two years (from 1962 to 1963 Stan Lee would take part in creating and writing the stories of, to name a few, Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, Ant Man, Hulk, Thor, and Avengers) you may misremember a few things. For example, since they first showed up, Stan Lee has claimed that the X-Men were meant as an allegory for African Americans and homosexuals, all depending on the decade asked and who is asking at the time. In reality, the X-Men were an allegory for teenagers – anyone who felt out of place, different. Heck, even at the time, Lee had trouble keeping the origins of his characters straight. Bruce Banner was, from time to time, called Bob Banner in the early comics. Speaking of puny Banner…..
Making his debut in The Incredible Hulk #1 in 1962, readers are introduced to smartypants Bruce Banner, a scientist for the military getting ready to try out his latest creation of destruction, the gamma bomb. As Banner gets ready to detonate his bomb in the Nevada desert, a dumb beatnick kid, Rick Jones, was getting ready to win a bet that he was too scared to sneak onto the base. Banner saves Rick from the blast of the gamma bomb, but is unable to protect himself.
Amazingly, Banner survives the blast seemingly unharmed, aside from any mental issues he may face later. Banner and Rick are held overnight by the military just to be sure that there are no ill effects from the seriously insane amount of gamma radiation they were exposed to. Rick Jones, the coolest kid in Nevada, is totally fine. Bruce Banner… not so much.
As the sun lowers and the moon rises, Banner begins to feel odd and is convinced he is dying. The Geiger Counter in the room starts going nutso. Bruce starts to freak out more and more as his body expands, ripping through his clothes. He grows to an immense size, his skin turning grey, and he is confused as hell. This new, giant, grey Bruce Banner has no idea where he is or why he’s locked up with a goofy kid. He smashes through the wall and vanishes into the night.
For the next few hours, the monstrous Banner causes havoc all over the military base, destroying tanks, beating the crap out of guards, inadvertently foiling the plans of a spy trying to steal the blueprints for the gamma bomb, and smashing through every wall he can find. He finally comes across his own office and finds a framed photo of himself on the desk (something that seems really egotistical, right?) and begins to remember who he is. At the same moment, the sun rises, and Banner turns back to normal. Banner figures all he needs is some sleep and he’ll be fine.
Sure enough, when the moon rises the next night, Bruce turns into Hulk again. Looks like a few hours of shut-eye doesn’t get rid of gamma radiation poisoning. Now we know.
In this first appearance of the character, a lot of the things we know about Hulk aren’t there. For one thing, he is grey instead of green. For another, he talks in full sentences, though he does refer to himself in the third person as Hulk. It would be nearly a decade before the monosyllabic version of Hulk most people know would come around. As for the skin color, it was changed to green by the second issue of the series. Grey was too hard for the printer to pull off well.
The concept of Banner becoming Hulk at night was dropped with the fourth issue. Bruce is cured and no longer becomes the Hulk, but then decided the Hulk was needed and recreated the effects of the gamma bomb. At first, Banner was able to control when he would change, but overuse of the machine caused Banner to change seemingly at random.
The Incredible Hulk was cancelled six issues in, and Hulk was used, for a time, as more of a baddie, showing up in other comics to fight the heroes like Giant Man and The Thing. It was only when Jack Kirby learned that Hulk was a big hit with college kids that Marvel started his own series up again.
Stan Lee would claim that Frankenstein was the inspiration for Hulk. He would also say it was the Golem from Jewish myth. There is, clearly in the early stages of Hulk, a definite connection to the werewolf mythology as well. Banner originally changing into Hulk when the moon rises is surely inspired by The Wolf Man. I don’t want to go too deep into werewolves, since I want to cover at least one werewolf comic character in the future, and will certainly touch on the history of lycanthropy then. For this piece, I’d like to dig into what I think is the most obvious inspiration for Hulk, Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic character(s) Jekyll and Hyde.
Lloyd Osbourne, the stepson of Robert Louis Stevenson, would claim that Stevenson came up with The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a dream, one Lloyd would disturb when he woke Stevenson. As Lloyd told it, Stevenson was screaming in his sleep, and so the boy woke him. This pissed off Stevenson but good, who proclaimed “Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale!” Stevenson would write The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in three days while bedridden (and according to some biographers, on a coke binge), basing his story in part on the life of Louis Vivet.
Vivet, born in Paris in 1863. His mother, a prostitute, did not know who Vivet’s father was. According to Vivet and his doctors, his mother was both mentally and physically abusive to her son, leading to Louis being afflicted with attacks of hysteria and temporal paralysis from a young age. At age seventeen, Vivet was paralyzed from the waist down after a viper wrapped itself around his hand, and Vivet was sent to live in the asylum of Bonneval where he would be taught the trade of a tailor. A month into his stay at the asylum, Vivet began to suffer from violent convulsions and epileptic fitsm often leaving him unconscious. A year and a half into his stay at the asylum, Vivet woke from one of his fits, stood up and demanded his clothes so that he could go to work in the fields. He did not recognize any of the hospital staff or the other patients and was very confrontational – unlike the Vivet everyone at the asylum knew. Vivet became a troublesome patient, starting fights, and trying to escape on multiple occasions. He also stopped having his seizures. After a few months, Vivet was pronounced “cured” and released from the hospital. Coincidentally, this happened just as he turned eighteen and the asylum would no longer get paid for Vivet’s care by the government.
Upon release, Vivet went to see his mother and got himself a job. He became ill again and spent eighteen months in an asylum at St. George. While there, Vivet once again began to have epileptic fits accompanied by paralysis. The hospital staff found that, when paralyzed, Vivet was calm and genteel, but when able to walk he was a dick, becoming a thief as well as being angry and confrontational. When he was once again able to walk, Vivet believed it was January 1884. In fact, it was April 1884. Walking Vivet had no memory of the three months he spent paralyzed. When paralyzed, Vivet had no interest in wine and would eat sparingly, often giving his food to other patients. When able to walk, Vivet loved wine and would regularly steal food from others. Neither version of Vivet had memories of the other.
Vivet spent years in and out of asylums and jails and would become one of the first people diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder. At the time, the doctors who studied Vivet believed that he had as many as ten identities. Today it is believed that he had no more than two, with the other personalities being a direct result from hypnosis by his therapists. It would be a hundred years before anyone started to put together Vivet’s tortured childhood with the causes of his DID. There is a school of thought that says Vivet never had DID, but suffered from a Dissociative Fugue. I’m not smart enough to say either way.
The history or Louis Vivet ends on October 20th, 1886 – the last mention of Vivet as a patient at Bicetre Hospital in Paris, the former home of the Marquis de Sade. It is unknown when or how Vivet died.
Obviously, Robert Louis Stevenson took Vivet’s story to the next level, what with the murdering and all. Stevenson’s story of Jekyll and Hyde was, according to Stevenson’s wife, Fanny, an allegory about man’s need to control his urges, and his inability to do so. For Doctor Jekyll, his repression explodes out as Mister Hyde. For Bruce Banner, the repression of emotion comes out as Hulk. While this aspect of Hulk, the transformation coming from stress or anger, was brought in fairly early, just two years after Hulk’s creation, his reason for repressing his feelings wouldn’t be revealed for decades. Much like Vivet, Bruce Banner was abused as a child, in this case by his father who blamed Bruce for his wife’s death – she died while giving birth to Bruce. Bruce held in his anger, fear, and depression, hiding it from the world and using it to push himself forward, away from his father and into the military. The gamma bomb released all of this pent up rage in Bruce as the Hulk.
One aspect of Hulk that I don’t think exists in either Robert Louis Stevenson’s creation, or in Louis Vivet himself, is a never ending innocence. Hulk is, when he is written at the most primal, a child. He is controlled by emotion without knowing how to properly express what he feels. He has wild mood swings, and his tantrums end only when he completely exhausts himself and falls asleep. He lives in a world that is strange to him, filled with people who think they are smarter than he is, people who talk down to him. Even in the form of Bruce Banner, or during the times that Hulk has Banner’s smarts, he feels inferior to those around him and lashes out. Hulk is, at his core, an insecure kid who wants his mommy and, not being able to find her, lashes out at those around him, crying out for understanding while looking for something to smash.
It is this aspect that, to me, makes Hulk one of the great literary monsters. He can stand tall next to other misunderstood ghouls and beasts like Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man, and King Kong. He does not harm because he is vindictive, like Hyde, he harms because he doesn’t know how to do anything else. It is no mistake that Hulk’s co-creator, Jack Kirby, drew the monster with sadness in his eyes. Kirby was an artist who worked more in expression than in reality – his art showing action and emotion above all else. He gave to Hulk a sense of loneliness that defines the character to this day.
Art Sources (In order of use)
JK Snyder III
*Photos: Marvel Comics