Comic Book Review: Essential Hulk Vol. 1 Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Mild-mannered nuclear scientist Bruce Banner worked in America’s weapons program, and developed their latest improvement on the atomic bomb, the gamma bomb. As it was about to be tested, Dr. Banner spotted a teenager named Rick Jones, who’d wandered into the blast zone on a dare. Banner saved Rick from the bomb, but was directly exposed to a massive dose of gamma rays. That evening, as the sun set, Dr. Banner transformed into the rampaging monster soon to be known as–the Hulk!
Created in 1962 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, old Jade-Jaws had a short run in The Incredible Hulk, only lasting six issues. Sales were not good, but the character was too awesome not to use, so he was in the first few issues of The Avengers, and was later brought back for solo stories in Tales to Astonish, first sharing that book with Giant-Man and then with Namor the Sub-Mariner. This omnibus volume collects the Hulk issues, and TtA #59-91.
In the first issue, we are introduced to Bruce Banner, a mild-mannered scientist who abhors physical violence, yet has no ethical qualms with creating enormously destructive weapons for the American military. (Communism was an existential threat to all that was good and American.) He’s developed the most powerful nuclear weapon yet, the gamma bomb, and it’s about to be tested at an Army base somewhere in the American Southwest.
He clashes with the military officer in charge of the base and weapons testing program, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross. General Ross is a blustering bully who despises Dr. Banner for being a physical weakling, but is covetous of the neat weapons the scientist has produced. He drags along his daughter Betty, who naturally has the hots for Bruce and vice versa. In this first installment, Betty is very much the damsel in distress type, whose positive qualities are beauty and compassion.
And then there’s Dr. Banner’s colleague Igor. Igor is worried that some important details of the gamma bomb’s construction have never been shared with the rest of the research team. If anything were to…happen…to Bruce, how would they carry on? Dr. Banner assures Igor that the plans are safely tucked away in his quarters.
As everyone hunkers down for the bomb test, Dr. Banner suddenly sees a young man in a jalopy who has somehow gotten past the security perimeter and into the blast zone. Bruce tells Igor to stop the countdown while he removes the teenager personally, not trusting the military police not to just shoot the kid. Igor decides not to stop the countdown in the hope that Dr. Banner will die.
Bruce manages to reach the boy, Rick Jones, in time to throw the lad into a protective trench, but is himself directly in the path of a massive dose of gamma rays. He’s surprised to wake up a few hours later, not only not dead, but not dying or even sick from radiation poisoning. Rick, an orphan, expresses his gratitude to the scientist. But all is not ending happily, as the sun sets and Dr. Bruce Banner transforms into a monster.
The monster rampages across Gamma Base, and is swiftly nicknamed “the Hulk” by the hapless soldiers it encounters. Rick Jones attempts to reason with the Hulk, or at least mitigate the damage it’s causing. General Ross develops a personal enmity towards the Hulk that will drive his characterization for decades. Near dawn, the Hulk realizes it needs to get to Dr. Banner’s cabin, arriving just in time to find Igor ransacking the place to find the gamma bomb formula.
Igor is knocked out, and the sun rises, turning the Hulk into Bruce Banner. Now the soldiers arrive, and arrest Igor as they found out off-panel that he was a Communist spy. Rick Jones points out that the Hulk looks nothing like Bruce, and the soldiers don’t press the matter. Betty shows up to be nice to Bruce, but is pushed out the door so that Dr. Banner can rest. Bruce moodily reflects that he doesn’t know it’s over. Nightfall may again bring forth–the Hulk!
That was an awesome first issue–wait, there’s more? Turns out that the imprisoned Igor has a secret communicator hidden in his thumbnail, and alerts his Soviet masters to the existence of the Hulk. This message comes to the attention of the Gargoyle, a hideously deformed Communist scientist.
The brilliant mind of the Gargoyle puts together a plan to capture the Hulk, which works. The monster and Rick Jones are then rocketed back to the Gargoyle’s lair behind the Iron Curtain. Except that by the time they land, the sun has come up and Dr. Banner returned.
The Gargoyle, who is very smart, figures out the truth, and has a bit of a breakdown. Why would Dr. Banner do that to himself? Why would anyone want to turn into a twisted monster? A hideously deformed thing like the Gargoyle? Bruce explains that it was an accident, but more importantly, he knows how to cure the Gargoyle. It seems that the Gargoyle was once relatively normal, but working on the inferior Communist atomic bombs exposed him to deforming radiation. Bruce can’t fix himself, but he can fix this!
Sure enough, Dr. Banner is able to rig a device that erases the Gargoyle’s deformities (at the cost of his genius.) The former Gargoyle rails against a picture of Nikita Khrushchev, rockets Bruce and Rick back to America, and blows up his lair with all the evil Communists still in it. Now that’s an ending!
In this first issue, the Hulk was supposed to have gray skin, but the printing process of the time couldn’t quite make that shade of gray work, so his skin tone was all over the place, including a panel where it’s outright green. Stan Lee liked that color best, so it stayed green from then on.
Stan kept tinkering with the concept in these first six issues. How smart is the Hulk? What triggers the transformation? What’s the relationship between the Hulk and Rick Jones? Is the Hulk just Dr. Banner with his rage issues on the outside, or a completely separate personality? It all changed issue to issue. One important plot thread that did start here is suspicion that Dr. Banner is a traitor to the United States as he keeps disappearing at odd moments and turning up behind the Iron Curtain.
Tales to Astonish #59 picks up after the Hulk’s brief time with the Avengers, as Hank Pym, aka Giant-Man, decides to go in search of the green giant. This is a showcase issue for both characters, as they’re tricked into battle by the Human Top (later known as the Whirlwind), a mutant with the power of super-spinning. It’s established here that the Human Top is so nondescript out of costume that even people who have seen him unmasked before don’t recognize him. (This became a long-running plot point.)
#60 starts the new solo series for the Hulk. It’s now settled that the trigger for Bruce Banner to transform is over-excitement–any stressful or anger-inducing situation may cause him to Hulk out. Also, the Hulk is now not very bright and believes Banner to be a separate person. The latest thing Dr. Banner is working on for the military is a robotic war suit (really more in Tony Stark’s line) which is promptly stolen by a spy. The Hulk fights it in a two-parter.
#61 introduces Major Glen(n) Talbot, the new head of security for Gamma Base. He quickly develops the hots for Betty Ross (which her father encourages) and a deep suspicion of Bruce Banner.
#62 has the first glimpse of the Hulk’s first truly iconic enemy, the Leader. At this point, he’s a mysterious figure who sends the Chameleon to infiltrate Gamma Base and find out what happened to the spy who was supposed to steal the robot war suit. (The Chameleon never does complete that mission, but is otherwise a huge hassle.)
#63 reveals the origin of the Leader. He used to be an ordinary laborer disposing of chemical waste when exposed to gamma radiation. The rays turned him green and gave him super-intelligence. Unlike the Gargoyle, the Leader likes his new look, and wants to recruit the Hulk, the only other gamma being on Earth (at that time) to work for him. The Leader is working for the Communists so he can have resources to build his army of humanoids, but plans to betray them when convenient.
The Leader plotline ends in #74 when he is undone by his own quest for ultimate knowledge, and #75 sends the Hulk to the future for a few issues. While the Hulk’s away and presumed dead, Rick Jones finally reveals that Bruce Banner and the Hulk are the same person.
In #81, the Secret Empire storyline begins, with a mysterious group planning to take over the world, and wanting to use the Hulk as a weapon. They enlist former star baseball pitcher Boomerang (suspended from the league for “accidentally” killing a hitter with a baseball) as their agent. Infighting collapses the Empire before they get much of anywhere (they’d return with Richard Nixon as their leader) but Boomerang is a recurring problem for several issues.
In #90, a Communist spy named Emil Blonsky uses a gamma ray device Bruce Banner had invented to try to control his transformations to give himself gamma powers. The Abomination was stronger than the Hulk, in full possession of his senses, and permanently transformed, which made him a good prize for the Stranger, a powerful alien who’d intended to enslave the Hulk. Naturally, the Abomination would eventually escape to become a recurring Hulk foe.
This is classic early Marvel; Jack Kirby, John Buscema and Gil Kane create dynamic art, and Stan clearly loved writing ol’ Jade-Jaws. There’s not a lot of subtlety or character development here, with Hulk’s personality ebbing and flowing as the plot demands. Betty is barely there as Bruce’s love interest and a target for Major Talbot’s courtship.
Overall, this omnibus volume is excellent value for money if you are a Hulk fanatic, and well worth reading at the library for other Marvel fans.
Let’s enjoy the cartoon opening!