Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Appendix: You wouldn't like me when I'm angry

Peter David wrote a spirited defence of Stan Lee (before the current wave of biographies, and while Lee was still alive) in which he says that it had become "stylish to trash Stan Lee". 

He makes the following interesting comment: 

I’ll never forget when Jack Kirby stated in Comics Journal that he had gotten the idea for the Hulk by watching a news report about a frantic mother who, because she was so upset, had enough strength to lift a car that was pinning her struggling child to the ground. And Jack thought, “What if we did a hero who, when he got really angry, changed into a super strong monster!” Great idea…except in the Hulk’s origin the transition was brought about by the rise of the moon, like a werewolf. Anger had nothing to do with it and wasn’t established until years later. I’m not saying Kirby knowingly lied. I’m just saying memories can be problematic and claiming that all credit should be taken away after the fact based on differing memories is a slippery slope. 


In the original comic book (May 1962) Banner's transformation into the Hulk was triggered by the fall of night; by a machine which gives him a dose of radiation; and by body-swapping with Rick Jones. The idea that the transformation is triggered by stress only comes in when the character is rebooted in October 1964.  (This is twenty seven months after the comic's original launch, which arguably qualifies as "years".) At that point stress would turn Banner to Hulk, but stress would also turn Hulk back to Banner. The reboot was drawn and therefore plotted by Steve Ditko without Kirby's direct involvement. When Lee talks about how he made up the Hulk out of his head without any help from anyone else, he says that he wanted to create a follow up to the Thing, and that he wanted to create a sympathetic monster in the mould of Karloff's Frankenstein. I am not sure when "the madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets" first became a slogan: but "don't make me angry" became the unique selling point in the Bill Bixby TV series -- a reworking of the Fugitive which had very little in common with any of the comic book versions of the character. 

So: Kirby is guilty of the same thing which Stan Lee is often accused of: looking at what the character eventually evolved into, and claiming that that was how it was always inevitably going to turn out. 

Except, if we turn up Kirby's infamous Comics Journal interview, we find that what he actually said was as follows: 

The Hulk I created when I saw a woman lift a car. Her baby was caught under the running board of this car. The little child was playing in the gutter and he was crawling from the gutter onto the sidewalk under the running board of this car — he was playing in the gutter. His mother was horrified. She looked from the rear window of the car, and this woman in desperation lifted the rear end of the car. It suddenly came to me that in desperation we can all do that — we can knock down walls, we can go berserk, which we do. You know what happens when we’re in a rage — you can tear a house down. I created a character who did all that and called him the Hulk. I inserted him in a lot of the stories I was doing. Whatever the Hulk was at the beginning I got from that incident. A character to me can’t be contrived. I don’t like to contrive characters. They have to have an element of truth. This woman proved to me that the ordinary person in desperate circumstances can transcend himself and do things that he wouldn’t ordinarily do. I’ve done it myself. I’ve bent steel....The child wasn’t caught. He was playing under the running board in the gutter. His head was sticking out, and then he decided he wanted to get back on the sidewalk again. But being under the car frightened his mother. He was having difficulty crawling out from under the running board, so his mother looked like she was going to scream, and she looked very desperate. She didn’t scream, but she ran over to the car and, very determined, she lifted up the entire rear of that car. I’m not saying she was a slender woman. She was a short, firm, well-built woman — and the Hulk was there. I didn’t know what it was. It began to form. 

This is rather different from Peter David's quote. Kirby says that the woman's burst of strength was brought on by desperation. He says that desperation could make anyone that strong. He adds that in desperate circumstances people can transcend their normal limits, and that the woman looked very desperate when the child was trapped. To back up this claim, he says that people can also perform feats of strength when they are beserk or in a rage. 

It would have been unreasonable for Kirby (or, indeed, Lee) to claim that the foresaw, at the time of Incredible Hulk #1, what the character would turn into in Tales to Astonish #60. It would be much less unreasonable to say that the original Hulk was about a weak person turning into a strong person, or even that the character had a strong element of the beserker in him.

But in fact, in this case, Lee's pitch, as described in Origins of Marvel Comics, pretty much covers the first run of the Incredible Hulk. It boils down to: "I thought we could do a rip-off of the Frankenstien movies, and maybe chuck in some Jekyll and Hyde for good measure."

If we accept Stan Lee's "divine spark" theory of creation, then it is understandable that Kirby would want to create an origin myth for the Hulk that establishes that the singular flash of inspiration was his, and not Stan's. But we don't need an origin myth to explain why a company that was already producing monster comics would have come up with the idea of a scientist who gets turned into a monster by radiation and fights the commies. 

But there is surely a bigger problem with Kirby's story which neither Peter David nor Abrahan Reisman points out. 

Kirby's Comic's Journal interview was given in 1989 and published in 1990. The story of the mother drawing on unknown reserves of strength to rescue her trapped child is part of the origin of the Hulk in the TV series. Which debuted in 1977 -- 15 years after Kirby co-created the Hulk, but 22 years before he gave this interview. 

1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

If you don't mind my popping in here to advertise, I just (last night) finished my five-part blog series on the Hulk, which your readers should they wish can find here:

One of the most striking things when re-reading the collected volumes of early Hulk comics is that It's clear Lee and Kirby didn't have a clue what they new character was about. The stimulus that switches him between Banner and Hulk changes almost week by week. In an issue, he pilots a plane! While a great deal of what Spider-Man would become can be seen in his first story, the same is not at all true of the Hulk.