Marvel Comics' Hulk has never been an out right superhero, not really. Even in-universe, he’s treated more as a cautionary tale than he’s respected. He’s the ever-living proof of what happens when you let your rage take over.
Even at his strongest moments of clarity, the fear and fury that he tries to repress are still a prominent feature of the character. There’s a core of terror to him, rooted in his very conception. And it’s when the character embraces that element that the concept really shines. Because at the end of the day, the Hulk is scary.
Is He Man Or Monster… Or Both?
Bruce Banner first appeared in Incredible Hulk #1, dated May of 1962, credited to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. And from those first days, there’s been a core of horror to him. Stan Lee said as much when discussing the creation of the character.
Recounting the creation of the character in the Origins of Marvel Comics, Lee said ‘I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the Frankenstein monster. No one could ever convince me that he was the bad guy. He never wanted to hurt anyone; he merely groped his torturous way through a second life trying to defend himself, trying to come to terms with those who sought to destroy him. I decided I might as well borrow from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well—our protagonist would constantly change from his normal identity to his superhuman alter ego and back again.”
Beyond the psychological changes brought on by his transformation, it’s worth remembering how terrible the actual first moments must be for Banner. When Bruce Banner is first bombarded by gamma rays, it’s not a big bold splash page or crazy transformation like Kirby had done in the past. It’s Bruce Banner, consumed in an eerie light, screaming in pain. It’s not triumphant, even though he just saved Rick Jones. It’s not portrayed as a noble act. It’s treated as an absolutely horrifying moment, recalling Kirby’s earlier monster comics more than his work on Captain America.
From the start, the character had the duality of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll encoded into his creation, a mix of a sad beast and a mad monster. Lee’s comparison to Frankenstein harkens to the 1931 Frankenstein film by Universal Studios. There, a lumbering green giant didn’t want people to mess with him, but he kept being forced to become the monster they all saw him as. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s literally most Hulk stories. Especially when he’s in superhero mode, the Hulk reflects more of this Frankenstein aspect than the classic Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde narrative. Still a character based in horror, but one that embraced that more innocent interpretation over his more frightening roots.