As The Incredible Hulk hits theaters today across the country, Marvel is hoping movie fans find out what comic book readers have known for years: There's something special about that big green guy.
In an era in Hollywood when many new movies are adapted from other media, comic book characters and stories like Hellboy, Wanted and Batman are seen as tested stories, already proven with audiences before they hit the big screen. And The Hulk is no different. Introduced to readers more than 45 years ago by comic legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Hulk character has retained his popularity through various comic book incarnations, movies, cartoons and a live action TV show. And for Marvel Comics, The Hulk is still well-liked enough to have just been the headliner of the publisher's blockbuster event last year, World War Hulk.
So in a fictional landscape filled with monstrous creatures, what is it about The Hulk that resonates with fans and gives him such lasting appeal? We talked to a few of the comic book creators who have written and drawn his stories over the years to find out.
"The beauty of the Hulk is his simplicity: Banner gets angry, Banner turns into the Hulk, and the Hulk smashes," says Greg Pak, the award-winning screenwriter who penned both Planet Hulk and World War Hulk for Marvel. "That's unbelievably fun on a sheer, visceral level. But what makes the character truly great is that once you scratch the surface, that ongoing theme of the price of anger becomes endlessly compelling on a deeper emotional level."
Peter David, one of the writers who is indelibly linked to The Hulk after years of writing the character during the '80s and '90s, said the character also appeals to that part in all of us that hides a darker side. "Because everyone has an inner monster," the writer said. "Most people aren't Gods, or supergeniuses, or independently wealthy. But everyone has a dark side, whether they want to admit to it or not.
Comics creator Jerry Ordway, who has both written and drawn the character, said The Hulk originally stood out because he was created as a cross-breed of the monster comics that were popular in the 1950's and superhero comics. "It was like King Kong versus Godzilla, because The Hulk faced off against the Toad-Men, Mongu and the Metal Master, all alien beings, while still being hunted like an escaped wild animal by the military," Ordway explained. "Those first six issues stand as a blueprint for what the Hulk is about -- a man with a curse, unable to control it, much like the old Universal Studios Wolf Man, or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. You'd be as uneasy standing next to the Hulk as you would a grizzly bear -- you had no idea whether he's going to take you head off with a casual swing of the arm. How cool is that?"
Yet since that beginning, the character has evolved into a more complicated persona as writers have delved into the psychology of the character's battle between his two sides. It's that duality, David said, that resonates with readers -- not the monster side, but the conflict between it and the Bruce Banner part of the character. "I don't identify with a big green monster. I identify with the notion of duality because it's so very much a part of the human condition. And I focus my stories on that, thus making it accessible to readers, beyond the limiting notion of simply having the Hulk smash stuff," the writer explained.
Mike Deodato Jr., a Brazilian artist who has drawn The Hulk in several different comics, said readers also identify with the "good guy" side of the character, who lashes out at those things he sees as wrong. "All the rage, all the torment, all the bureaucracy, all the anything and everything that just drags their lives down -- The Hulk is symbolically their way of breaking out, breaking free, of fighting back against all the things that knocked them down," Deodato said. "Who doesn't want to roar at someone who has done you wrong and just start smashing things -- and have it mean something?"
Pak agreed that everyone wishes they could attack when they see something wrong, but the writer said he also tries to show the consequences of lashing out. "Folks may call the Hulk a monster, but almost invariably, the people he smashes have clocked some major overtime in the jerk department," he said. "But then the critical next step is to remember that no matter how justified that smashing was, uncontrolled anger has a price. And one way or another, the Hulk always has to pay it.
"That may seem like a contradiction -- if the Hulk on some level is a wish fulfillment character, letting us vicariously enjoy the rage we sometimes wish we could unleash ourselves, why would we want to see him punished?" Pak added. "I think the answer is that the Hulk is much more than just an escape fantasy or release valve; at his best, the character can be a means for us to deal with, understand, and maybe even begin to transcend our own all-too-human anger. And that means exploring the emotional and spiritual cost of untrammeled rage."
But if The Hulk represents the darker, rage-filled side of human beings, would there ever be a time when such a violent character is no longer relevant? Is there a place for The Incredible Hulk in a future that many idealistically imagine being less violent?
"I think the human animal hasn't fundamentally changed in thousands of years," David said. "That's why it amuses me when I see parents groups railing against comic books or R-rated films claiming that they're instigating violence. As if youngsters were never violent before comic books. As if adults were never violent before watching R-rated movies. I think for as long as people are what they are, there will always be an audience for The Hulk."
"Some day every last person on the planet may transfer his or her consciousness to a digital, bodiless form and assume an existence of pure calculation and reason, stripped of all emotion," Pak said. "But until that happens, the Hulk will continue to be deeply compelling to us puny humans."