The Marvel Age of Comics began in 1961 with the publication of Fantastic Four #1. Transitioning from monster, western, and science fiction comics was a risk at the time, but writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby forged ahead, putting their own twist on the superhero team made popular by rival DC’s Justice League of America, and with self-confidence declared their book “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine.” Had the title not been a success, Stan and Jack built into the story a fallback plan as the presence of Benjamin Grimm (aka The Thing) allowed the title transition to the tried and true monster genre. It certainly helped that The Thing had quickly become the publisher’s most popular character. Over the next year, the rest of Marvel’s new costumed and colorful characters would debut in anthology titles like Tales to Astonish (Ant-Man) or Amazing Fantasy (Spider-Man). But with the success of the Fantastic Four – and especially given the Thing’s popularity – Marvel began hyping up another new character who would be given his very own book, and whose subsequent success would be nothing short of a miracle: the Hulk.
As recounted by Stan Lee in Origins of Marvel Comics (1974), the Hulk’s creation was influenced by both Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. Kirby, as cited in an interview with The Comics Journal, was inspired by the sight of an adrenaline-fueled woman lifting a car to save her child. But as one quickly discovers from reading all six issues of The Incredible Hulk (1962), that is about all that the duo put together in forming the character. Most are aware that the Hulk was originally grey, as Lee and Kirby did not want to evoke any particular ethnicity. While a noble thought, they failed to consider that coloring techniques of the era did not easily accommodate a color as technically sophisticated as grey. The color was immediately changed for the second issue, with the Hulk now donning his iconic green epidermis. Unfortunately, that would be only the beginning for the character’s turbulent inconsistencies and retconning.
Ask any person with a casual awareness how Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk, and you’ll likely receive a smirk and a response akin to “you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” However, asking someone that was reading The Incredible Hulk back in 1962, and the answer would vary from month to month. While the character’s origin – scientist Bruce Banner bathed in gamma rays from an explosion – has remained intact, the manner in which he makes his monstrous transformation was a constant struggle for Lee and Kirby. Initially, the Hulk was strictly a nocturnal force, not too dissimilar from the Wolf Man of 1940s monster movies. Writer Al Ewing has revived this concept to great success in the pages of his acclaimed The Immortal Hulk. However, by Issue #4 a machine brought about the transformation by shooting Banner with gamma rays. It wouldn’t be until the character’s title was cancelled and he was a co-feature in Tales to Astonish that the rage transformation would be established.
The further inconsistencies in the Hulk could be seen in a disconnect between Lee’s scripts and Kirby’s visuals. Often, Kirby would give Hulk the ability to fly, only to have Lee describe the act as leaping. Even when the visual shows the Hulk changing directions or stopping in the air, it’s a leap – not flight. It’s amusing to think about the playground debates this must have caused. Further compounding matters was the overall silliness of the plots. In six issues, the Hulk took on the Soviets (twice), alien invaders, and a circus. One issue also saw the Hulk – not Banner, but the Hulk – don a trenchcoat and fedora (a la Ben Grimm) to be in disguise while flying on a plane. When he’s found out, he bursts through the plane door and flies to safety while the remaining passengers find themselves presumably in a fatal tailspin. This same issue also sees Hulk dress up in an Abominable Snowman costume, as being an unnaturally large and green figure isn’t intimidating enough.
While it can be amusing to look back and have a laugh at the stupidity of these Hulk comics, the character’s current status as a pop culture icon is all the more perplexing given his confounding origins. While Stan and Jack tried throwing everything they could at the wall, nothing seemed to stick, and the series was cancelled. Kirby moved on from the title after five issues, leaving Amazing Spider-Man artist Steve Ditko to pencil The Incredible Hulk #6, the series’ final issue. Ditko, who had inked Issue #2, gave the Hulk a more grotesque appearance than the JFK-esque visage of Kirby’s characters. Ditko had a reputation not only for his more workmanlike approach to comics, but also for his desire to give characters more pathos while adhering to his own art style. In the Marvel bullpen, artists were encouraged to try to emulate Kirby’s style. Ditko was the lone exception to that rule, and he was able to put his own stamp on the Hulk. Regardless of the cosmetic changes Ditko made in this issue, the title was at that point already cancelled.
Had The Incredible Hulk debuted today, this would have been the end of it. Even if the publisher believed in the property, such as the constant praise DC Publisher gave the series Prez back in 2014, the economics of such a poorly selling title could not justify its continuation. Thankfully for the Hulk, it was not a comic of modern times, and it had the full backing of Stan Lee. Once more joined by Steve Ditko, the two would rebuild the Hulk’s mythology in the pages of Tales to Astonish, where Hulk would be a co-feature alongside Ant-Man, beginning with Issue #60. Of course, a bit of revisionist history on Marvel’s part would have readers believe this was the Hulk’s first series, as seen in the above image.
It is during this time that the Hulk’s familiar traits began to take shape. Banner’s transformation because he was angry, and his reversion because he had calmed down, were part of the Lee/Ditko collaboration. Ditko also did away with the leaping/flying debate seen in The Incredible Hulk, firmly establishing that the green behemoth could not fly. The Hulk was also given his own antagonist, the Leader, in Tales to Astonish #62. Ditko would leave the title after Issue #67, but these two changes would be enough to revive the character’s popularity. Kirby would come back to the character for Issues #68-87, embracing the changes that Ditko had made. Eventually, the Hulk would take over as the main feature of Tales to Astonish, and the series would be renamed The Incredible Hulk with 1968’s issue #102. From then on, the character proved to be one of the biggest characters at Marvel, and remains a fan favorite today.
In the end, the Hulk’s success was not a miracle, but given the rocky beginnings it is still surprising in retrospect. Ultimately, the character we love today is the result of Stan Lee’s faith in the concept. And while Jack Kirby deservedly gets credit for his role in the creation, Steve Ditko’s contributions cannot be overlooked. Without “Shy Steve,” there may be no Hulk today, which means we’d have been robbed of some great stories like Planet Hulk or The Immortal Hulk. If nothing else, the Hulk is proof that if a concept and belief are strong, success can be found by those willing to push forward.