Propp's Morphology and Comics: "The Incredible Hulk #1"
For over 50 years, a mighty green behemoth has been smashing his way across the Marvel Comics landscape. Once a puny scientist, the Incredible Hulk is the monstrous alter ego of Dr. Bruce Banner. Created in 1962 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby shortly before the arrival of Spider-Man, this Frankenstein-like individual poses a dramatic question for readers, nowhere near as nicely captured as in the first issue's cover: "Is he man or monster... or both?" Let's explore that rabbit hole together, shall we, as we dive into the first appearance of this gamma-irradiated hero.
Absentation: The Gamma Bomb Test
While Propp's "absentation" usually denotes that someone in a story literally becomes absent—i.e., skipped town or died or left the premises in some fashion—this doesn't always have to be the case. A stretch this may be, but one could argue that this issue begins with Bruce Banner at the edge of a different type of absence: until this moment, Bruce has been developing a gamma bomb, a theoretical weapon. Now, the scientist plans to leave theory behind and embrace the reality of whether or not his gamma bomb actually works.
Lee also takes the time to introduce us to our supporting cast: Igor, Banner's Russian assistant who doubts the man's work; General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross, a military man overseeing the gamma bomb test; and Betty Ross, the general's daughter and soon-to-be girlfriend of Dr. Banner. Unknowingly, all of these characters' lives will be altered once Banner and his bomb leave normalcy behind.
Interdiction: Banner's Warnings
Taking one last look out at the test area, Banner sees a young man driving onto the range. Abandoning caution, he commands Igor to "delay the countdown" while he alerts this impetuous fellow. Igor's nonchalant "Sure..." gives the reader every indication that he'll do as Banner says, right? While the hero in classic stories tends to receive warnings or instructions from others, here's a tale where the hero gives the instruction. A young man's life is at stake, and Banner takes it upon himself to save his life... and, y'know, not die in the process.
Banner continues his commanding streak by rushing the young man and demanding him to "Get out of there!" What's fascinating here is that the young man, Rick Jones, might normally be the protagonist of this kind of story. An arrogant boy who ignores warnings and signs and drives into the middle of a bomb test site, only to perhaps suffer the consequences of that decision? That seems more like your typical main character material. But, no, it's the scientist who becomes the hero, one indication of how Lee likes to play with tropes a little in his writing.
Violation: The Gamma Bomb Goes Off
Naturally, Igor fails to keep his word, and the bomb is detonated with Banner right in the path of the radiation. Again, we're used to seeing the hero break his or her word in some instance and pay the price for that decision, like Spider-Man failing to catch a thief who later murders his Uncle Ben. But Banner is instead the victim of others' folly—that of Rick Jones and Igor—not doomed but any foolishness on his part but rather the unthinking attitude of a child and the intentional machinations of a sinister man.
Readers may find it unfair, then, the first time Banner turns into the Hulk. This monosyllabic slab of gray beast is the unfortunate "side effect" of the radiation coursing through Banner's cells. Again, Banner's condition is not of his own making—though one can certainly fault him for the construction of the gamma bomb, he himself had no idea the repercussions it would cause him—making his monstrous transformation all the more tragic.
Reconnaissance: The Hulk First Appears
While the "reconnaissance" aspect may typically be on the part of the antagonist as they try to ascertain whatever they can about the hero, a different kind of information gathering is done here. In a few pages, the Hulk himself does some learning: the Army is currently hunting him, and Igor is sifting through Banner's gamma bomb research. Likewise, the reader gets to learn about our shambling protagonist as well: he crushes a jeep, smashes a wall, obliterates a gun, and knocks Igor unconscious. Lee packs several sequences in just a few pages, allowing us a decent glimpse at this new hero. It's not the "reconnaissance" as Propp defined it, but Lee still takes the time to fill the reader's head with new knowledge.
Even Igor contributes—though his contribution relies more on relaying information than gathering. Through coded messages while in prison, he alerts his bosses in Russia as to the development of the Hulk and this new being's incredible power. This information proves vital to an operative known only as "The Gargoyle," the man who will become the Hulk's first supervillain foe. This way, it seems, follows Propp's definition a bit more closely: it's through Igor's involvement that the Gargoyle learns of a creature whose power, in his words, rivals his own.
Villainy: Capturing the Hulk
Journeying to America via rocket, this devious Soviet supervillain approaches the gray-skinned behemoth and his young friend Rick Jones. Shooting both men with a "pellet of [his] own invention," the Gargoyle gathers Rick and the Hulk into a rocket, where he and his henchmen transport the two to an unnamed communist country. During the trip, as evening gives way to day, the Hulk transforms back into Bruce Banner. Though perhaps not as devastating as the burglar killing Uncle Ben, the Gargoyle kidnapping Banner and Rick off American soil is still a criminal act cementing the guy as our issue's villain.
But any reader thinking Gargoyle is your typical bargain bin villain may be surprised when the villain begins crying after learning the Hulk has become a puny human. Gone are the aspirations of Soviet dominance by using the Hulk's genetics; Gargoyle's ambitions are suddenly made personal when he realizes someone as monstrous as the Hulk can become normal. "I'd give anything to be normal!" he cries. Suddenly, your typical Cold War-era baddie is given a surprisingly human core, courtesy of Lee. The twist may be a bit abrupt, but it's a welcome transformation.
Mediation: The Gargoyle Becomes a Man
For a character who so often goes around yelling "Hulk smash!" and does just that to anyone standing in his way, it's amusing to think Lee and Kirby create the climax of the Hulk's first issue around Banner. Deciding to help the disfigured Gargoyle, Banner uses his scientific know-how (in a rather glossed-over manner by Lee) to assist the man. Though the Hulk's been around to batter some soldiers, he's not really presented as a hero quite yet. The Hulk doesn't plan or prepare; that's Banner's job.
Banner's plan is successful. "Doc! It's working!" Rick yells as the radiation transforms the Gargoyle from a monster to a man. As opposed to other types of heroes, who usually plan the best way to invade the enemy fortress or defeat their arch-foe, Banner doesn't fight or even outwit the Gargoyle. Some may see a cultural subtext on Lee's part, his opinion of the Cold War rivalry between America and the Soviet Union. Much like the two nations, Banner and Gargoyle should be enemies. But by willingly helping his opponent, Banner comes to a better understanding of the man. Though perhaps it's a bit too coincidental that the Gargoyle loses all interest in his previous plan of using the Hulk, one can still see Lee trying to insert a moral into his story here.
Punishment: The End of the Gargoyle
Once the Gargoyle is cured, he turns upon his Soviet overlords. After allowing Rick and Banner to escape, the Gargoyle faces his comrades, not as a disfigured creature, but as a man made whole. He claims to no longer be brilliant, but he can still defy the Soviets and destroy those in his presence. Carrying on from my last segment, I still struggle somewhat with the Gargoyle's intentions here. While I can't disagree that Lee humanizes the character in perhaps a timely "Not all Russians are evil" message for his reader, and it certainly adds depth to the character. However, considering all the man does is get angry at his Russian masters (who he holds accountable for his disfigurement), shakes his fist a portrait at Nikita Krushchev, and detonates a bomb, the Gargoyle's potentially interesting character development isn't given time to, y'know, develop.
Wedding: Escape From Russia
Banner and Rick escape from the Gargoyle aboard his rocket headed for America. It's not much of a "reward" for the two, escaping with their lives. At least, it isn't like Rick and Banner earn anything from their encounter with the Gargoyle. A caption box at the bottom of the issue's last page offers an ominous undertone to the ending: "In a few hours, it will be nightfall again, and the Hulk will again appear!" If anything, Banner's last words in the issue, about "the end of the Red Tyranny," may be this story's biggest dollop of hope. Again, we see Lee making an attempt to relate to the real world issues of the day, the hope of America winning out in the Cold War. Perhaps it isn't much of a reward, but the sentiment is a promising one that modern readers know eventually came to fruition.
© 2019 Nathan Kiehn