What does the Hulk want?
A common adage in character design is that their motivation is core to their construction. A clear, believable motivation not only adds justification to their actions, but allows audience engagement and empathy by the clarity of their understanding. To know why someone does something, and what they want to do, not only makes their actions believable, but worthwhile. They come from a genuine place. Perhaps no other archetypes in stories are quite so clearly and purely defined as Superheroes, whose rather vague motivation is neatly catered to in their serialised adventures. Their fantastic origins gives sufficient ability to satisfy their primary drive: To Do Good. Spiderman provides the most digestible mantra to this extent; “With Great Power comes Great Responsibility”, but the “Responsibility” here can be replaced with a range of justifications. Responsibility for Spiderman, Vengeance for Batman, Patriotic Duty for Captain America, Tolerance for The X-Men, plain Altruism for Superman and so on. Regardless of exactly how or why they do what they do, all these heroics are actively compelled towards positive impact. More-so, they are preventative. Heroes go out of their way to stop schemes, foil robberies, jail Super-villains and more. Thereofore, according to the implemented tradition of conventional superheroics, to be a Hero is to protect your community, and save the world, and want to do so. All heroes, despite different methods or ideologies, share this fundamental trait of the Common Good.
The Hulk does not.
Stan Lee’s vision in 1962 to place a Jekyll-and-Hyde duality into a superhero is commendable, but quite fundamentally flawed. Hulk’s first appearance in The Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962) boasts “Is he MAN or MONSTER or… is he BOTH”, without quite realising the flaw that none are an option for a reliable, well-defined protagonist. How can a mortal, weak, “MAN” or a reckless, immoral “MONSTER” lead a storyline? And how could this one character be “BOTH” when each personality is in constant battle against the other? The motivations of Bruce Banner are clear enough, he wishes to cure himself of the beast within. But these goals run strictly counter to the need of the market, for the book to continue, so even as far back as ‘60s audiences would know Banner’s quest would be (as it has been) a continuous and futile one. But as has been stated several times in continuity, the Hulk is not Banner, but his own independent persona, with his own wants, needs, motivations and desires. Originally, straight after his creation from the Gamma Bomb in ’62, this divide was the most obvious, and the most troublesome. At this early stage, Hulk was both his most talkative and most monstrous, openly declaring “Why should I want to be human?!?” and the disconnect from his previous life is demonstrated when he admonishes Rick Jones “Bruce Banner! Why do those words stay in my head?? What is that name to me??”. Hulk has neither knowledge nor interest in his human counter-part. The sulky, sometimes actively threatening Grey Hulk (saying such things as “With my strength, my power – the world is mine!”) clearly violates the obvious definitions of super-heroics.
While the Hulk’s later personification has fluctuated like his skin colour, becoming less outwardly malevolent, while subsequently less intelligent, he is usually completely uncaring towards humanitarian efforts. The majority of his conflicts and villains, added by writers attempting to thrust a traditional, regular comic book structure onto his on-going series, had the Hulk as their subject as well as the main character. Largely they featured those attempting to acquisition Hulk for their own benefit, and Hulk defeating them in instinctual self-defence, the benefit to humanity being an mindless consequence. Hulk’s habit for self-preservation and isolation are themselves anti-heroic, given they are a purely passive response to those around him, lacking the proactive drive to help others shared by other Marvel heroes. Eras of the Hulk which are straightforward and heroic are when the writers are undergoing flailing course-correction on a flawed character, since they grant Banner control of the Hulk’s body. But left to himself, at best the Hulk is a misanthrope whose loner status is constantly disrupted by outside forces he has no agency over, at worst he is a mindless beast whose physical domination of his opponenets comes from instinctual, unadulterated rage. Neither is the motivation of a hero.
The narrative logic of the Hulk’s character and his popularity’s influence on the market place have always strained against each other. As one of Marvel’s most popular characters, logically he would be a founding member of their All-Star team in Avengers #1 (September 1963). But due to his beastly status, he was logically their first opponent, manipulated by Loki into fighting his supposed teammates. Even his application is delivered as a threat, stating “I’d rather be with you than against you! So, whether you like it or not, I’m joining the [Avengers]”. Hulk allies himself with the others out of personal necessity, instead of benevolence. The illogical nature of Hulk’s cooperation is highlighted frankly obviously in the book, as Avengers #2 (November 1963) has him largely disposed of, given the Space-Phantom impersonates him for the majority of the issue, and to round matters off, Hulk quits the team at the end of the issue, stating “I don’t need any of you! I’m still the Hulk!”. Lee and Kirby presumably saw the corner that had written themselves into with the Hulk, and reworked him into an antagonist for the team, instead of the cooperative hero he could not be. Further attempts of putting Hulk into a larger team have also been unsustainable. Although, again due to market popularity, Hulk is a key member of both The Defenders and The Pantheon, he is not their leader. His later docile personality gave Hulk respect and obedience to others, but not enough to assert his own leadership, his own motivations.
Of interest to the Hulk is the chance to prove his strength. Sometimes it seems all he has in the world, a crude sideshow performance of raw physical might. Cheesy and awkward as they may be, Lee’s early words display this pathos of the Hulk. Before his statement of isolation and self-centeredness in Avengers #2, in rare vulnerability the Hulk admits “I never suspected how much each of you hates me, deep down”. A creature born of accident and luck, feared and unwanted by the public and by himself, only awakened by the reactionary emotion of Anger, perhaps showing he is “The strongest one there is!” is all he can prove. If he cannot utilise emotions or intelligence or even humanity to connect with others, perhaps the only resolve is to have no resolve. By isolating himself from others, placing himself above the while simultaneously making sure they place him beneath them, Hulk can truly isolate himself. Perhaps above motivation comes necessity, and what can the Hulk need more than to escape the countless, endless, futile struggle that has consumed his entire history? And do we not convince ourselves we want what we need so that, unlike the Hulk, our character is not split in two? Villified by his supposed friends, Hulk tells the Avengers, and himself, he doesn’t “need any of you”, and if he doesn’t need them, why should he want them? Wrestling with yourself it can often seem easier to not have to wrestle with others too. It is hard to save the world when the world does not want you. So what does the Hulk want? Like many things with him, the Hulk’s vocabulary is malleable, ranging from forced Frankenstein-esque statements of simplicity, to fully articulate proclamations of frustration. But in one of his few, brief, iconic, constant sayings, perhaps the Hulk’s motivation can be unearthed;
“Hulk just wants to be left alone!”
Except that he doesn’t.
Tomorrow, the first arc Planet Hulk: Exile is examined, and it is seen how Grek Pak recognises and addresses these issues, while expanding upon Hulk’s role in society, and his attempts of escaping the system.
A fantastic, more in-depth analysis of the early Hulk issues by Colin Smith of Too Busy Thinking About Comics can be found here
Further ruminations on the Hulk as a character by the appropriately called Film Crit Hulk can be found here
Planet Hulk is written by Greg Pak, with art by Carlo Pagulayan and Aaron Lopresti. It can be purchased here.