The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 127 | The Evolving Psychology of the Incredible Hulk

Leaving Proof 127 | The Evolving Psychology of the Incredible Hulk
Published on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 by

We would use the concept of the Frankenstein monster but update it. Our hero would be a scientist, transformed into a raging behemoth by a nuclear accident. And—since I was willing to borrow from Frankenstein, I decided I might as well borrow from (Strange Case of) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well—our protagonist would constantly change from his normal identity to his superhuman alter-ego and back again.

– Stan Lee, in a Behind the Scenes article on the Incredible Hulk published by Eaglemoss Publications


When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby began work on The Incredible Hulk fifty years ago, it wasn’t their express intent to create another superhero comic book. Instead, The Incredible Hulk initially had more in common thematically and stylistically with the horror comics titles, some written by Lee for Marvel predecessor Atlas Comics, that were popular during the pre-Comics Code Authority 1950s. Stan Lee has been quoted numerous times over the years as saying that his primary inspirations for the character of the Hulk were the 1931 Pre-Code Hollywood adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Gothic horror novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “scientific romance” novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It should be noted that The Incredible Hulk wasn’t Lee and Kirby’s first attempt at creating Atomic Age versions of Frankenstein’s monster and Mr. Hyde. The Hulk shares many features with two earlier Lee-Kirby horror comics creations: Kraa the Unhuman, a man who, like Robert Bruce Banner, was turned into a superhumanly strong brute through accidental exposure to radiation from a nuclear bomb detonation in Tales of Suspense #18 (cover-dated June 1961), and The Midnight Monster, a transparent update of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde who debuted in Journey Into Mystery #79 (cover-dated April 1962) a month before The Incredible Hulk #1 hit newsstands.

Lee and Kirby’s original conception of the Incredible Hulk has been rightfully described by comics and popular culture scholars as “a reaction to the Cold War and the threat of nuclear attack” but the core psychological conceit that informs the character’s fundamental design—man as a creature governed by antagonistic moral poles—is one that antedates the Cold War, the development of nuclear weapons, horror comics, Pre-Code Hollywood horror films, and even the 19th-century Gothic horror and scientific romance works that Lee liberally drew plot and character design ideas from.

Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is often referenced as a work that adumbrated Sigmund Freud‘s influential theories on psychodynamics. This isn’t an entirely accurate assessment: Stevenson might have been somewhat prescient in his depiction of Jekyll’s use of precisely tailored pharmaceutical formulations to deliberately achieve a highly-altered but functional state and gain direct access to his unconscious mind, but the manichean underpinnings of the contrast between the rational and intellectual Dr. Jekyll and the violent and lustful Mr. Hyde are squarely rooted in pre-Victorian metaphysics and a moral dualist perspective that stretches all the way back to antiquity.

Just as the relationship between Jekyll and Hyde was delimited by polar, binary moral opposition, so too was the link between Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk, at least in their earliest incarnations. Perhaps because the more recent rendition of an altruistic and green-skinned Incredible Hulk has proven to be so durably popular over the years (particularly in television and film adaptations of the character), many readers forget that the inaugural The Incredible Hulk series—which was canceled in 1963 after just six issues—featured the normally sedate Banner turning at night into a spiteful, cunning, gray-skinned creature who harbored ambitions of worldly conquest. This quasi-villainous characterization extended to the character’s earliest comics appearances post-cancellation (even as his coloring changed from gray to green): The rampaging behemoth acted as an able super-powered foil to the Fantastic Four as well as an antagonist to the Avengers, a superhero team he co-founded in a most unlikely fashion and would leave under acrimonious circumstances.

The Hulk’s metamorphosis into the slow-witted, childlike, but largely heroic version that emerges when the human Banner is subjected to severe emotional or physical stress happened in the mid-1960s, in a successful attempt by Lee to broaden the character’s appeal as stories featuring the Hulk were installed as a permanent on-going feature in the Tales to Astonish anthology comic beginning with the book’s 60th issue (cover-dated October 1964). The series would be converted to a dedicated Hulk comic and retitled The Incredible Hulk some four years later. Throughout this early transitional period from monster to superhero and well into the early 1980s, Banner’s struggles to rid himself of the Hulk persona were a reflection of a popular, though thoroughly outmoded, pre-Freudian attitude towards mental health contemporaneous with Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that considered whole excision of the offending physical or psychic apparatus as the best means of resolving afflictions of the mind.

Writers Bill Mantlo and John Byrne would attempt deeper exploration of the psychological dynamics of Banner and the Hulk during the late 1970s and early 1980s but it wouldn’t be until Peter David’s tenure on the series (beginning in The Incredible Hulk #331, cover-dated May 1987) that the characters would be examined in an explicitly Freudian context. In a stroke of pop psychology genius, David assigned the three Banner/Hulk variants to the three components of Freud’s structural model of the human psyche. The childlike, naive, and slow-witted green Hulk, according to David’s schema, was Banner’s id, that amoral aspect of the mind concerned simply with the basic drives to avoid pain and to immediately satisfy impulses (including destructive, aggressive impulses directed externally). The early gray Hulk was Banner’s ego, that feature of the psyche that balances the demands of the id with the realities of the external world. The human scientist Bruce Banner represented the character’s super-ego, the perfectly idealized conception of self and the mind’s conscious agency for morality and self-control. David conflated the splintering of the three components with a heretofore undiagnosed dissociative identity disorder that was a result of the abuse Banner received at the hands of his father growing up, with the gamma bomb irradiation only serving as a catalyst for those components/identities to develop into separate physical expressions of Banner’s physiology (this explanation was extensively expounded upon in a case study “written” by superhero psychiatrist Doc Samson and published in May 1992’s The Incredible Hulk #393).

Consistent with the Freudian approach to Banner’s psychology, the strategy adopted by David for the long-running subplot of Banner’s search for relief from the Hulk affliction was also influenced by psychoanalysis. Instead of excising the Hulk components of his mind and body, the “cure” was to ease and reconcile the psychic tensions between Banner’s id, ego, and super-ego. The result was an emotionally stable, mentally fit, psychically integrated composite that readers would label the “smart Hulk,” a character that had the human scientist Banner’s intelligence, the green Hulk’s body, and the gray Hulk’s personality infused with David’s sense of wit and comedic timing. This new take on the Hulk, so divergent from the wildly popular Hulk of the 1970s and early 1980s, received somewhat surprising patronage with readers, serving as the primary incarnation of the character in comics for a span of over seven years from The Incredible Hulk #377 (cover-dated January 1991) to David’s departure from the book with The Incredible Hulk #467 (cover-dated August 1998). The popularity of David’s “smart Hulk” perhaps not coincidentally paralleled a rise in interest in psychoanalysis and dissociative identity disorder in North America—publication of studies on dissociative identity disorder curiously peaked during the mid-1990s, right around the time of David’s “smart Hulk” run.

Subsequent depictions of the Hulk/Banner dynamic in comics have generally reverted to the binary, pre-David characterization. It’s tempting to align this reversion in character with Freudian explanations drastically falling out of favor in psychology and psychiatry circles during the turn of the 21st century—in a 2001 study, a majority of Canadian and American psychiatrists polled expressed doubt over the scientific validity of dissociative identity disorder diagnoses and by 2002, the number of published academic articles on dissociative identity disorder were a quarter of their peak mid-1990s levels. It makes sense that popular interest in these themes in media and entertainment would have declined as well. But the simpler and more likely explanation is that the dissociative identity/multiple personality dynamic in the Hulk comics had simply run its course, and that a return to the earlier status quo was a convenient and proven editorial direction to take in light of David’s departure from the book. Current The Incredible Hulk writer Jason Aaron has instituted an interesting inversion of the Hulk-Banner paradigm: A relatively intelligent and non-volatile Hulk is now Banner’s default, “normal” form and a manic and homicidal version of his genius scientist persona is the deviant aspect that emerges during times of severe duress. It’s too early to ascertain whether this development is a reflection of an apparent contemporary resurgence of Romantic primitivism in popular culture, but what is clear is just how malleable and adaptable the core conceit of the character continues to be, fifty years on from its creation.

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6 Responses
    • One of the reasons I stopped reading The Hulk was because it was the same theme repeated over and over.  How many times can we read “the hulk gets smart” again?

      The new Aaron version is a twist on the old one, but still some of the same and with Aaron leaving soon, have to wonder when Hulk will be back to “normal” again?

      • I dropped the Hulk around the halfway point of Bruce Jones’ run in the early/mid-aughts. It started out with a great “man on the run” plot but as the book went on and on and on without any resolution it sort of dawned on me that Jones had no idea where he was going to take the story. I got back in with Planet Hulk, which I think is the best “Hulk on an alien world” story (yes, better than the ones with Jarella), stuck around for World War Hulk, dropped it again with all the nonsense with the multiple Hulks and Hulk, Jr., and then picked up the recent Aaron-Silvestri-Portacio issues. I probably won’t be sticking around after Aaron leaves the title, though. 

        The thing about the Hulk, I find, is it’s fairly easy to drop and pick up so long as the writers stick to what makes the character tick (the Banner/Hulk conflict, the smashing)… as much as I enjoyed David’s Hulk work, I don’t know if I’d been able to get into it if I wasn’t already in on the ground floor when he started doing the smart Hulk stuff.

    • Hulk 2099 was an interesting take on the Hulk monster book. It built on the psychological struggles of any Hulk story, but it also had Adonis worship. The original Hulk/Banner inspired a cult of body builders. They were trying to willingly recreate the “accident” of Banner to become perfect of specimens. Instead a twerp was given the power—later he of course learned responsibility in true Marvel fashion.

      Timestorm had a monstorous horde of Hulks roaming around aimlessly but nearly everything about Timestorm was aimless and purposeless.

      • I vaguely recall reading a Hulk 2099 story back in the day, but the main thing that stuck with me as a kid was how much he looked like an off-brand version of Sam Kieth’s The Maxx

        •  I wonder if Kieth ever did a cover for 2099 Unlimited because one of the Hulk covers really did have that vibe more than the rest. To me he’s more Pitt than Maxx, maybe with a hint of Badrock.

    • […] takers among Hulk fans who preferred the classic moral dualist interpretation of the character over the Freudian version that was concurrently being written by Peter David in the mainline Incredible Hulk series. The Hulk […]


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