Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Is he superhero or monster — or is he both?

When I started my Silver Age reread, I didn’t pay much attention to Marvel because I didn’t have any Marvel stuff from the 1950s. As you can see here, most of its output when Flash debuted in Showcase #4 fell into these categories:

  • War books such as Devil Dog Dugan, Battle, Battlefront and Battleground (if you think that’s bad, next month’s comics include both Combat Casey and Combat Kelly).
  • Westerns, including the Outlaw Kid and Kid Colt.
  • Patsy Walker and Millie the Model, plus Shanna the She-Devil forerunners Lorna the Jungle Girl and Jann of the Jungle.
  • Journey Into Mystery, Strange Tales and other weird anthologies.

The month Fantastic Four #1 hit the stands (cover date November, 1961), the company’s old-school war books were dead and gone (Sgt. Fury was still a year and a half in the future). Accompanying the FF we had two Westerns, two romance comics, Millie the Model, Linda Carter Student Nurse and five monster/suspense anthology books.

Astonishingly, despite the clear star potential shown by the monstrous Sserpo, it was the Fantastic Four that proved the month’s breakout hit. By March 1965, the month DC gave the Sea Devils their superheroic makeover, Marvel has undergone a similar transformation to the changes DC has experienced. Eight superhero books. Books such as Tales to Astonish that used to be anthologies have transitioned first to “superhero with SF backup stories” and then “superheroes with superhero backup stories.” Marvel still has Westerns, Millie the Model, Patsy Walker (though she doesn’t appear this month) and Sgt. Fury but superheroes are clearly running the show.

Just as the Sea Devils had to pivot to keep up with the new environment, so did the Hulk, though more successfully. When he first debuted, he was very much a monster character. As Tom Brevoort says, if you stop the story in Hulk #1 on page 14, it’s a perfect finish for a serialized monster story.

The fourteen pages give the Hulk his origin and his name, let him rampage and leave Bruce Banner waiting for his return. It’s only with the battle against the equally monstrous Gargoyle that he becomes anything close to a superhero. In the second issue the Hulk is just as happy attacking the U.S. Army as the invading Toad Men. It’s Banner, not the Hulk, who saves the day by blasting the Toad Men with gamma rays on the Hail Mary principle that anything as powerful as gamma radiation must be strong enough to stop them, maybe. In subsequent stories, the Hulk is largely a vicious thug who happens to beat up the right people; as he tells Rick at the end of one issue, the human race will never be safe while the Hulk is around.

The series lasted six issues (Brevoort thinks it almost died with #3) and it’s easy to see why it didn’t make the cut. It straddles the border between monster and super(anti)hero awkwardly and the Hulk/Banner relationship constantly shifts. Banner changes at night. No, he changes using a ray machine. No, he’s a mindless creature obedient to Rick Jones’ commands. Not that I think sticking any of these would have been the magic success solution, but constantly changing the rules doesn’t help.

When the Hulk battles the Metal Master in his final issue (Stan Lee and Steve Ditko), it’s the closest he’s come to being a superhero, though a grumpy one in the style of the Thing. When the Hulk returns in Tales to Astonish #60, with  Ditko doing the art and (I assume) most of the plotting the Hulk shifts solidly and successfully into antihero mode.

First, Ditko settles on emotion as the key to the transformations. When Bruce gets excited, he hulks out; when Hulk gets excited, he changed back. Obviously that changed but it was still more effective than the muddled mess of the first season. In some ways it’s more limiting than having Hulk change back when he calms down: in #64, battling the Leader’s humanoids, the risk of Hulk turning to puny Banner the harder he struggles raises the threat level.

Second, there’s the Leader. I wouldn’t say he’s a great villain—as John Byrne put it, anyone who is to brains what Hulk is to muscle shouldn’t be beatable—but he’s much more of a supervillain than most of Hulk’s foes from the first book.

Third, the Hulk’s less monstrous. He’s much more reactive than aggressive: if he attacks, it’s because they (whoever they might be) attacked him first.

Fourth, Banner’s personal life becomes a much bigger part of the series. After inventing the gamma bomb in the first issue, Bruce’s military research career is almost irrelevant to the story. He never shows up at work except to hear General Ross berate him as a weakling and a probable traitor. In TTA, by contrast, he’s constantly working on new inventions — a super-robot in the first story, the Absorbatron a few issues later.

Bruce’s supporting cast expands with the addition of Major Glenn Talbot. The Major serves both as romantic rival — he falls for Betty Ross at first sight — and a threat, as he’s determined to figure out Banner’s mysterious disappearances. Lee and Ditko present Talbot as a patriotic idealist determined to thwart Banner’s presumed skullduggery; however as his thought balloons run along the lines of “if I can prove Banner is a traitor, Betty will be mine!” I find him less than principled. Still, Talbot’s presence does nudge the series towards the kind of personal melodrama that was making Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four so successful.

Unfortunately, it’s only a nudge because the book’s plotting is still a rambling mess. #64 ends on a terrific cliffhanger. The Hulk is fighting the Leader’s Humanoids and losing (their synthetic bodies shrug off even Hulk punches); he’s close to over-exerting himself and turning back to Banner; if he does, he loses the fight and the Leader learns his identity. And the Humanoids keep coming and coming and coming …

So what happens in #65? The military fire a missile at the melee, blasting Hulk into the ocean where he turns back to Banner. He’s then picked up by a Soviet submarine, taken to the Soviet gulag and ends up “On a Rampage Against the Reds.” It’s a very unsatisfactory payoff, the first of several awkward twists and turns I’ll get to in later posts. Still, these early issues did rework the Hulk into someone better suited to the mid-1960s Marvel Universe. Obviously retooling for superheroics worked better for Jade Jaws than the Sea Devils.

The reboot of Giant-Man in #65 to the new Giant-Man? Not so successful; the story by Lee and Bob Powell is emphatically not a “fabulous Marvel First!” It has Hank figure out how he can use his power to make other living things grow or shrink, which isn’t a bad idea. However the story is 12 pages of filler. Hank keeps accidentally turning creatures in his labs into giants and having to deal with them while Jan whips up the spanking new uniform shown on the cover. Because what else is a Silver Age Marvel girlfriend going to do when her boyfriend gets new powers?

It didn’t save his strip—Hank and Jan wrapped up their TTA runn with #69—and I’m not sure anyone ever remembered his new power. In the next issue, villainous Madame Macabre mentions he can control the size of living things but as he never uses it (e.g., “If I enlarge that mouse, I have a chance to escape this trap!”) I assumed when I read it as a kid that she meant his ability to grow himself. Roy Thomas didn’t remember it when Hank returned as Goliath; even Steve Englehart didn’t bring it up when giving Hank similar powers in his Dr. Pym phase.

The Sea Devils’ reboot looks brilliant by comparison.

#SFWApro. Art top to bottom by John Severin, Bill Everett, then Kirby.



  1. Le Messor

    Patsy Kelly and Millie the Model

    Is that a typo for Patsy Walker, or did they have two Patsy model characters? Or was Kelly her maiden name?

    two romance comics, Millie the Model, Linda Carter Student Nurse
    Was that Lynda Carter, Wonder Woman, or… wait…

    I’ve only read the first issue of that original Hulk run, but I keep hearing about the history of the book. SF Debris did a ‘History of Hulk’ series once. Someday I might read it.

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