THE INCREDIBLE HULK: People Liked Him When He Was Angry


"I remember... feeling incredibly strong... It was me... and it wasn't me." -- Dr. David Banner

This month's issue of Wizard magazine is great, and I'm not just talking about the terrific cover story, "The 100 Greatest Graphic Novels of Our Lifetime." The highlight for me was the article by Jake Rossen, "Sci-High," listing the 25 greatest science-fiction/fantasy shows of all time. Number 22 was The Incredible Hulk which aired on CBS from 1978 to 1982.

Despite its campy premise and cliched storylines, it managed to take its comic book roots to new dramatic levels, mixing thought provoking ideas and, dare I say it, near Shakespearean tragedy, with the two-dimensional pillars of good vs. evil that were staples of the popular superhero myths.

The best superheroes, the ones who have lasted for decades and become household names, are characters with depth -- Batman's near psychotic quest for healing after witnessing his parents brutal murders, Iron Man's alcoholism, Spider-man's inferiority complex, the family dynamics of the Fantastic Four, the X-Men's struggles against xenophobia and prejudice. Even Superman, whom some might consider to be a bland cardboard caricature of wish-fulfilling escapism, has survived for generations not just because he was lucky enough to arguably have been the first of many, but because he too was a complex character, the last of his kind, trying to redeem himself in the face of survivor guilt among many other psychological issues (but that's an essay for another day.)

You can't get more dysfunctional than the Hulk. He wasn't the first anti-hero, and he wasn't even that original. Obviously inspired by Frankenstein's Monster and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, the creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby struck a nerve by dealing in an era that was still in the midst of the Cold War but also in the decade of the 1960s that would see a growing counterculture movement and people addressing the question of duality in themselves, their government, their military, and more.

The television show starring the excellent Bill Bixby and the perfectly cast Lou Ferrigno was rather simple by all measures. It strayed from its four-color origins in many ways -- no gamma bomb, no General Thunderbolt Ross, no supernatural villain-of-the-week like the Leader or the Abomination or others from the comic book. The show followed the style of The Fugitive, an innocent man on the run, accused of murders he didn't commit. It was pathos at its finest, as Dr. David Banner, one of the most brilliant minds of all time, travelled the country in various aliases, taking menial jobs, trying to find a cure for the inner demon that tormented him, while helping people he came across as he himself sought redemption and healing.

Some of the better episodes were the multi-part stories -- Banner's discovery of "the first" Hulk, or the episodes where the reporter Jack McGee discovers during a raging forest fire that the creature he's pursuing is actually a man transforming into the beast, or the stellar episode in which a radioactive meteor causes Banner to get stuck in mid-metamorphosis.

The movies and cartoon versions of the Hulk never did the character justice. (The big flaw with the motion pictures is the computer-generated alter ego -- it just never reaches the level of believability that I managed to get from watching Lou Ferrigno in his "green-painted, prosthetic-make-up and white contact-lenses wearing" glory.) Even the comic book has often struggled to find satisfying storylines for the Hulk, making the character a seemingly schizophrenic personality, until writer Peter David embraced those multiple personalities in a brilliant saga, the highlight of the series.

So I have fond memories of the show The Incredible Hulk. It managed to spawn a few movie specials that attempted to expand into the wider Marvel Universe before the current heyday of costumed superheroes in the cinema. Sadly, Bill Bixby's death ended the series even though another TV movie was allegedly in the works.

As a bashful kid who found escape in the labyrinth of imagination, I related to that lonely man hitchhiking his way across America. Sure, it was a cheesy show, but it had moments of greatness that other shows, and even remakes, have often failed to recapture.

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