Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Is The Hulk a sustainable character?
Before diving into the specifics of The Hulk, I think it’s worth defining what exactly you mean by “sustainable”. Most characters in fiction are never judged by this concept. You don’t look at Taxi Driver and wonder “How many films does this Travis Bickle fella have in him?” You read To Kill A Mockingbird and think “But could Scout carry a 12 more novels?” Most characters have a story and they are judged within the context of this singular or limited set of stories.
That’s not the case with many superheroes, specifically those owned by Marvel and DC Comics. There are some other exceptions as well, like network television and soap operas where the goal is to pump out as many seasons as possible. The connective tissue in all of these cases is that the goal is for the stories to not end, which seems almost antithetical to the nature of storytelling. Yet we have received some incredible works of fiction from these formulas over the years, so perhaps it’s best not to write it off altogether.
So when you ask me if The Hulk is sustainable, I don’t think of whether he is a good or meritable character, I only question if he can be ridden by a train of creators over the course of decades like some sort of dark, sex-tinged metaphor I don’t really want to make right now. It’s a question that lies more on a spectrum than a binary, although there are clear outliers on either side. The obvious yes answers would be characters like Batman or Daredevil who are constantly recreated to both critical and commercial praise. The obvious no answers are much more obvious, you can take literally every recent spinoff from Deadpool and the Mercs for Money for example.
I’m inclined to say that The Hulk lies closer to the “no” end of the spectrum though. He’s not a downright, never should have run loser like Slapstick or Solo, but he’s hardly the five decades and still going juggernaut that is the X-Men or Spider-Man. That’s because the premise at the core of The Hulk is both less flexible and more finite than those of characters who we see as being “sustainable”.
The Hulk’s co-creators, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, were never afraid to discuss their influences with the character. Lee says, “I decided I might as well borrow from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well—our protagonist would constantly change from his normal identity to his superhuman alter ego and back again.” Reading early issues of The Incredible Hulk or just having a glancing knowledge of the character makes that influence obvious. To discuss the sustainability of The Hulk is really to discuss the sustainability of Robert Louis Stevenson’s original creation in Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. While The Hulk is less openly evil than Mr. Hyde, he is every bit as monstrous in appearance and destructive in nature. Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Banner are even more alike in nature as mild-mannered, well-intentioned individuals of intellect destroyed by their own unleashed egos. After all, Kirby and Lee simply decided to take the core concept of this two-sided character and start to stretch it.
That’s where the answer to this question becomes apparent because there’s a damn good reason that Stevenson’s story ends. The split between these two personalities, Jekyll and Hyde, Banner and Hulk, is ultimately irreconcilable. It represents the violent urges and nature of man set against the civil trappings we use to make ourselves civilized. They are not two sides of a coin, but competing elements where one seeks to suppress the other, and the other seeks to consume the one. It’s an internal struggle, one that can be stretched, but not one designed purely for destruction rather than growth.
Peter Parker gets to learn about responsibility. The X-Men get to struggle towards a more just society. But Banner is left to be consumed by his demons. You can rewrite this story and that has been done many times in stories like “Planet Hulk” and “The Stars, Mine Enemy!” (the first appearance of Professor Hulk), but these are not continuations of the same character, they’re an abandonment of that character.
A story needs to deal with its conflict and in order for The Hulk to deal with his the story needs to come to a conclusion. This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I would argue it’s a strength and one that makes Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde and some of the better loved stories of The Hulk standout. Yet as a member of the ongoing cast of the Marvel Universe, it makes The Hulk a weak link. He isn’t a hero and his journey is only interesting as long as it is dealing with a conflict that is inherently fatal. Everything else is either nonsense or an abdication of the character’s core themes.
What’s even worse for The Hulk today is that this is a story that has already been done perfectly in comics. The first two volumes of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen feature a reimagining of Stevenson’s original creation from Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill. This version of Hyde is far more brutal than any of the others I’ve mentioned and is a crisp summary of some of Moore’s most common themes. Throughout these two volumes this incarnation of Hyde explores the savage nature of masculinity and how an individual can subvert their nature in order to do some good. It’s a subversion that works because it is fatal for the character. That’s a point I’d like to dig into more, but it’s beside the point of your question. The point here is simply that the story of The Hulk has already been done perfectly in the comics medium and it was perfect because it lasted no more than 12 issues.
So no, The Hulk is not a sustainable character. That doesn’t make The Hulk a bad character though. It just means that within the intellectual property mill of Marvel Comics he’s bound to be continually misused and misunderstood. Either his central conflicts and themes will be delayed forever or thrown out in favor of a new color or costume. So maybe The Hulk does kind of suck now…