As a kid, I was always reading and re-reading The Incredible Hulk. In fact, I have one comic box from my youth entirely filled with nothing but Hulk comics. There was just something about this monstrous hero that I found exciting! However, reading about the Hulk also made me sad. So often he’s the epitome of isolation, feared and rejected by the world, unable to be with those he loves. It’s an odd experience to love a superhero who always makes you feel like you should give them a hug and tell them it’s going to be alright. But the Hulk also fascinates me as a metaphorical example of our anger’s devastative potential. And when I read the Hulk now I wonder…what do I unleash when I get angry?
My final issue of The Incredible Hulk from my youth of comic collecting was issue # 467 (Vol. 1). It was released in August of 1996 and it also marked the end of Peter David’s twelve year run writing the title. It’s accurate to say that, with the exception of a few odd back issues here or there, Peter David shaped my entire understanding of the Hulk. Issue #467 is set ten years after the events of #466 – Betty Banner’s death from radiation poisoning. Rick Jones is talking to a reporter from the Daily Bugle, describing what happened to Bruce after his wife died. Naturally, Bruce didn’t take it well, losing himself first to delusions and then a lengthy quest to kill himself…with the Hulk always preventing it. Ultimately the Hulk disappears until, years later, Bruce surprises Rick by appearing in his apartment in the middle of the night. Bruce tells Rick he’s come to realize life is without point or purpose – and the only meaningful power is the ability to help someone when you can. It would be the final time Rick ever sees Bruce.
The whole issue is heavy – a nihilistic, somber, melancholic tale with slight rays of light and hope scattered throughout. And really, that’s what I think of when I think of the Hulk in general. I loved the Hulk as a kid…but he always made me feel so sad. My favorite Hulk was the Grey Hulk – Joe Fixit. I liked him for two reasons, First, the poor Green Hulk was always being emotionally neglected and abused and that made me sad but the Grey Hulk didn’t take shit from anyone. Second, he wasn’t mindless. He was trying to make a life for himself (even if, you know, he was occasionally a mob enforcer (and always a huge tool)). My second favorite was the Professor Hulk – where Doc Samson managed to combine the Green Hulk’s size/color/power with the Grey Hulk’s look/style and Bruce Banner’s mind in control. I loved this Hulk because Bruce had the Hulk’s power but he also had a real shot at a normal life with Betty, Rick, and Marlo alongside him. That made me happy and helped sooth my Hulk-generated angst. My least favorite Hulk was always the classic Green Hulk, the “monster,” because he was always so sad.
I like a happily-ever-after for my characters so it’s a bit of a conundrum that I so loved the Hulk as a kid. The poor Green Hulk was always being hunted and rejected, hated and feared, misunderstood and persecuted. Even with Betty and Rick – who loved and understood him – the Hulk could find no lasting peace. That made me so, so sad. I loved the characters, action, and quality of the stories in the comic…but I always felt bad for the Hulk. No one wants to be alone! We all crave communion. We’re not built, psychologically, biologically, or spiritually for isolation. But the poor Hulk was always alone. Everyone’s inability to love and connect with him – especially the other superheroes – always hurt my heart. Hell, after I stopped reading comics Marvel did the now classic “Planet Hulk” storyline where the Avengers launched the Hulk into space because they thought he was too dangerous to stay on Earth. Really?!? C’mon! The poor Hulk! Yeah, that was a total dick move Avengers :/.
So the Hulk was always a favorite superhero of mine when I was a kid. I loved him and my heart ached for him. And I wished I could give him a hug. And…maybe…that’s part of the reason I loved him? Maybe, at some unconscious little kid level, I loved him because he needed to be loved. I don’t know. I have no academic/psychological/personal grounding to back that up at the moment. But I do think sometimes we, as human beings, are drawn to that which is broken because we want to help heal it. At least I hope that’s the case.
My youthful fascination with the Hulk continues to intrigue me but, as an adult, I’m also captivated by what the Hulk represents. The Hulk as a character illustrates how we control (or don’t control) our anger…and what it can do to us. When Bruce gets angry, he loses control and the Hulk takes over. The Hulk is anger unleashed and anger is thusly personified in the series as a monster. It’s a brilliant analogy. And the fact that we’ve had so many different Hulks over the years seems to imply that our anger is far from a static force. Rather how we respond to our anger – and what we let it do to us – are creative forces shaping both ourselves and our experience of the world in the moment.
Since the character’s introduction in 1962, Bruce Banner’s anger has manifested itself in different ways. We see the classic, “mindless,” Hulk – speaking in grunts, growls, and broken grammar at best, smashing his way through everything that surrounds him. Depending on the circumstances, this Hulk alternates between a sad, isolated child and an unstoppable force of rage and destruction. The angrier he gets, the stronger he gets. The Green Hulk has no known upper limit to his power – a dangerous idea when we look at him as a metaphor for anger. This is the potential destruction our anger can create. The angrier we get the more we destroy. Then there’s the Grey Hulk, Joe Fixit, who (as I alluded to above) is mean. This Hulk carries the scars of the rejection the Green Hulk’s always endured, turning him into a reluctant hero when he’s heroic at all. Joe lived in Vegas as an enforcer and would happily stand aside as the world comes unglued. He looks out for himself alone and resents Banner’s time in control and all the humans (and super humans) who have messed with him. He’s angry, manipulative, and cruel. This is the isolation anger can cause, robbing Hulk of any sense of empathy and completely hardening him to the outside world.
As His Holiness the Dalia Lama writes in his Ethics for the New Millennium, “And not only does anger destroy our critical faculties, it tends towards rage, spite, hatred, and malice – each of which is always negative because it is a direct cause of harm for others. Anger causes suffering…” (95). We see this vividly in the Grey Hulk and often in the Green Hulk too. This is why the Hulk looks so monstrous – anger turns us into monsters. It’s a brilliant metaphor. We don’t always see the truth of this however. We often think our anger can be righteous, helpful, or even honorable. Again the Dalai Lama can clarify; we think anger, “often comes as a protector, comes as a friend that would help our battle or in taking revenge against the person who has inflicted harm on us. So the anger or hateful thought that arises appears to come as a shield or protector. But in reality, that is an illusion. It is a very delusory state of mind” (Healing Anger, 9). This is something Bruce has struggled with through the entire series.
Conversely, in the pages of The Totally Awesome Hulk, Amadeus Cho has now become the Hulk. Seeing how the Hulk has only ever been a burden to Bruce Banner and understanding the Avengers and co. have never seen the Hulk for the hero he truly is, this nineteen year old super genius decided to fix things himself. He figured out a way to cure Bruce Banner, pulling the gamma radiation from Bruce’s body and storing it in his own. Amadeus now travels the world with his (also super genius) sixteen year old sister Maddy, changing into the Hulk when the world needs him using that thing Ben Tennyson had on Cartoon Network’s Ben 10 a device he keeps on his wrist to control his transformations. However, Amadeus (to a large degree) maintains control of the Hulk during his transformations. His strength increases, his form changes, there’s clearly a more primal/instinctual drive, but he is in control. It’s a point that has been stressed again and again through the first nine issues of this comic – Amadeus’ Hulk is different than Bruce’s Hulk because Amadeus is different from Bruce. We all respond to (and handle) our anger in different ways. Amadeus has been a really clever way of not just injecting a new, youthful Hulk into the Marvel Universe but of illustrating this vitally important point.
Amadeus controls his anger and, as such, he can do great things. Bruce (more often than not) let his anger control him and became an unstoppable destructive force (the classic Green Hulk) or a total self-centered dick (the Grey Hulk). Yes, Bruce’s Hulk was still a superhero (more often than not) but he lived in fear of the monster within and resented its control. Bruce also lived wracked with guilt over what happened when he lost control and the Hulk took over. While heroic at times, Bruce was never at peace with who he was. His anger controlled him. Amadeus is showing us, while not always as easy as we may hope, controlling our anger is possible and we can do great things when we do so. So the question this calls readers to contemplate is who do we want to be when our anger rises?
I’ve really been enjoying the fun and the action in The Totally Awesome Hulk but I also appreciate the metaphorical model author Greg Pak has allowed Amadeus to become. There’s so much greatness possible when we transcend fear and learn to control our anger. Amadeus is also a model of compassionate understanding. Where so many saw something to fear, he saw who Bruce really was and loved him for it. Most important of all, approaching Bruce’s Hulk with empathy instead of fear, he was able to heal him. How beautiful an analogy is that?? When we approach another in compassionate understanding, leaving aside our judgment and fear, we can heal others. Amadeus cured Bruce – physically and emotionally – giving him what he wanted more than anything else in the world. Since his first appearance in 1962, Bruce has traditionally illustrated a massive warning of the destruction and isolation our anger can create in the form of the Green and the Grey Hulk. Now it’s Amadeus’ turn to show us the beautiful power of authentic human connection. It’s an exciting new era for a hero I’ve always loved and the metaphorical lessons he’s able to teach!
As a kid, I used to pretend to be a lot of different Hulks when we’d play superheroes. But now, as an adult, I want to be the totally awesome Hulk. I’ve written before that I can struggle with my anger…and the rage at the end of my (thankfully often) long fuse is something I’m not proud of. I pray. I meditate. I take deep breaths. It’s still there…but I like to think my control is always on the rise too. Returning to issue #467, Rick speculates that the Hulk wasn’t the manifestation of Bruce’s anger so much as he was, at least in part, the manifestation of Bruce’s survival instinct. That certainly holds with the Hulk we’ve often seen in the comics (as well as the Hulk they’ve been developing in the MCU). But, framing the Hulk as a character, myth, and metaphor as a whole, I think that may ring with even more truth. The Hulk’s journey – first in Bruce and now in Amadeus – has the ability to shed a little light on how we are to survive as human beings.
Maybe the Hulk does give us lessons for surviving our human existence – and not just surviving but thriving. Our anger will always be a part of us; that’s only human. So we must learn to control our anger, managing it in a way that allows us to retain our humanity. We also need to be able to accept and understand our own darkness as well as everyone else’s. This allows us to live more peacefully in community but also welcome more people into communion with us. How can we hope to live let alone excel if we can’t tame the monsters within us or compassionately connect to those around us? These are all important lessons. Maybe, even though he’s always made me so sad when I think of his loneliness, this is why I always come back to the Hulk. These are lessons I need to learn. These are lessons we all need to learn. And, as I strive to learn them, I hope and pray my inner Hulk is always, if slowly, becoming less incredible and more totally awesome.