In the hands of Stan Lee and the great Jack Kirby, Bruce Banner, a mild-mannered scientist, gets blasted by an ass-load of Gamma Rays. As a result, when he gets pissed off, he turns into The Incredible Hulk -- a gargantuan, green, knotty-muscled terror who runs amok and stomps the holy dog-shit out of everything in sight.
The Hulk is a hunk of human nihilism right out of Nietzsche, a human destruction machine that cannot control itself or its furies. Of course, the source of his injury/super power is something that the military was fucking around with. At the beginning of the Vietnam War, it suddenly dawned on the Creative Community that when Eisenhower warned us of the Military Industrial Complex in his Farewell Address, he wasn't talking smack.
There began in America a deep distrust of this partnership. As parents watched the escalation of the war at dinnertime every night -- many of their sons came home in body-bags -- a war was fully visible to the American public in all of its bestial horror, for the first time. It entreated the dormant subversive in a great many otherwise patriotic Americans; this was reflected in the comics, and the depiction of the military as a secretive, conspiratorial presence constructing doomsday devices, became a familiar plot-line.
With its combination of elements from Frankenstein as well as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Hulk was drawn by two of the luminaries of American comic-book history: both the great Jack Kirby and the mysterious and equally great Steve Ditko were the comic’s original artists. There is no small amount of The Fugitive in The Hulk, too, as he is perpetually pursued by the military and the civilian authorities because of the torrential destruction he causes when pissed off.
The Hulk has been canceled, re-introduced and re-launched a number of times; there have been bastardizations, too -- from a jive TV show with Bill Bixby who turned into Lou Ferrigno wearing a porcupine wig when mad, to two less than successful films -- but nothing was ever as cool or as desperately paranoid as the comic book.
This begs a certain question, since most of the films made from comics are jive: Green Lantern just opened, and the word is that it sucks the big blue vein. Thor was just okay. The Green Hornet blew goats, Dare Devil was shitty, and The Fantastic Four? The Thing looked like he was cobbled together out of orange turds. In other words, the movie adaptations are mostly awful.
Which tells us something about what comics can do that movies cannot: they cast their own kind of spell. No CGI, no Michael Bay-like pyrotechnics, just a glossy cover over newsprint with your basic four-color separation process. But comics have their own private voodoo, these stories you can enjoy by yourself -- and the world you voluntarily enter when you love comics and they speak to you is a private one. It is not a communal experience, a comic book: it is an intimate and personal one.
I spent every dime I had as a kid on comic books; I read the Sunday Comics and I worshipped MAD Magazine as well. This was the world my parents were not privvy to and did not understand; the comics were where I went to be left the fuck alone. I was happy there and everything was possible, and in the Marvel Comics, good didn't always trump evil. It was a more complicated and believable world. Life wasn't fair, and the guys who were “different” were Heroes. Special abilities were the property of the “other.” Special powers were gifted to the suffering, alienated child, and via conferring special gifts to those who were different, the mutants, geeks and outcasts became powerful. It was a compelling message for me as a child.
It seems the American appetite for Superheroes has always been there, from our formative years as a Republic onward. Wild West shows with butchers like Buffalo Bill Cody and George Armstrong Custer, with their tales of slaughtering Indians and buffalo, were all the rage in New York in the 1800s. Later, these tales of derring-do were recorded in dime novels -- also referred to as the “Pulps.” The Tom Mix franchise gave America its first Cowboy Superhero, and Flash Gordon appeared soon after, to be followed by other dime-store mythologies that would eventually blossom into the comics we now know.
When I was about 25, Alan Moore’s masterpiece, Watchmen, appeared; it is a tale of the dystopian future in which Richard Nixon is still President (apparently, Watergate never happened) and society has unraveled. There exists a cadre of monumentally fucked-up Superheroes, who've failed to save us from ourselves -- they are a group of Psychos, Sluts, and Sexual Deviants, and they are honestly the Superheroes that most clearly mirrored reality during that myopic decade. Watchmen is basically a novel-length exercise in black humor and penny-dreadful moralizing -- but it certainly fit the America of the 1980s.
The unspoken lesson in Moore's great book is that most societies get dosed with exactly as much evil as they deserve.
This etching is called Bazooka Hulk; his power is that when he gets pissed off, he smells like bubblegum -- thus enhancing the experience for everyone.
TONY FITZPATRICK is an artist from Chicago. For his blog, click here.