Marvel Comics’ second groundbreaking title, The Incredible Hulk, was very much a work in progress.
In fact, it’s interesting to consider the several contradictory ways in which this character — conceived by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Frankenstein — might have evolved.
For the first two issues, the Hulk is definitely a monster, while his alter ego Bruce Banner is the protagonist (a relationship DC Comics would echo with Eclipso). The Hulk muses about seizing an alien spaceship and using it to rain terror on humanity, and there’s a dark hint that Betty Ross might be threatened with rape, a possibility that always loomed in the monster movies that the Hulk echoed.
Of course, Banner was almost as much antihero as hero. Although he risked his life and destroyed his future happiness to save a teenage stranger from a bomb blast, he was also cold and haughty scientist. And Banner had, after all, invented a gamma bomb that could potentially wipe out human civilization in a nuclear war. Seen in perspective, that made Banner far more dangerous than the Hulk.
Was the curse of the Hulk, somehow, his fated punishment?
Ah, those poignant, haunting Kirby scenes — his teenage pal Rick Jones, slumped and exhausted, keeping a lonely all-night vigil in an underground chamber as the caged, angry Hulk pounded relentlessly on the thick metal vault door behind him.
In the third issue, the Hulk discovered he had the power of virtual flight, and Jones discovered he had the power to telepathically control the Hulk when the military’s attempt to exile the monster into space went awry.
Putting Jones in the driver’s seat increased possibilities for reader identification — readers could now imagine that they commanded the strongest being on Earth. And the monster was now a robot-like force for good who corralled the Ringmaster’s Circus of Crime.
The character’s course seemed set — and was immediately changed with the fourth issue (Nov. 1962). Marvel certainly kept readers on their toes.
Now the Hulk regained his free will and some of Banner’s intelligence, although his personality remained aggressive. Using a gamma ray to transform at will, the Hulk was free to act as a full-fledged superhero, fighting the commie space robot Mongu and even becoming a founding member of the Avengers.
In his next, penultimate issue (Jan. 1963), the Hulk thwarted an invasion by the underground overlord Tyrannus, then bounced off to battle the Asian despot Gen. Fang while disguised as the Abominable Snowman.
The character would continue to evolve, and even relapse into villainy. When his title ended with the sixth issue, the Hulk shifted from reluctant protagonist in his own feature to formidable antagonist in other superheroes’ titles. The Marvel universe wasn’t about to let him go to waste.