A few thoughts on The Essential Hulk Vol. 1

The Essential Hulk, Volume 1. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko et al. Marvel, 1999. $14.95, 528 pages.

One of the minor pleasures in this golden age of reprints is seeing how uncertain things were at the start. The Essential Hulk Vol 1. offers that pleasure in two ways. First, the book itself — the copy I’m (re)reading is an old one, from 1999 and it’s interesting to see how Marvel’s reprinting strategy has changed since then. For one thing, the covers of those early Essentials featured new cover art; the cover to my copy of The Essential Hulk is by Bruce Timm. For another, the big drawcard of the volume, to judge from the cover, is its inclusion of OVER 30 ISSUES OF CONTINUITY!

In other words, these early Essential volumes weren’t sold on the strength of their art by Jack Kirby, or Steve Ditko — likewise, the early editions of Essential Avengers, Fantastic Four et al. featured new cover art by various artists. What was being sold was valuable continuity, essential reading for the True Believers.

Since then Marvel — and DC, for that matter — have figured out that Kirby has just as much as allure as their decades-old continuity (if not more). The covers of newer editions of the Essentials generally feature original art from the interior; while DC includes the great man’s name itself in the title of its reprints: Jack Kirby’s The Losers, Jack Kirby’s OMAC, Jack Kirby’s The Demon.

So this old reprint volume as a reprint volume shows a degree of uncertainty in those distant early days of Marvel’s reprinting program. And then there’s what’s inside the volume. There, you can practically see the gears turning as Kirby and Lee try a dozen — all right, three or four — different frameworks for the Hulk.

Which is surprising, really. You’d have thought the basic concept solid enough to require little revision: it’s Jekyll and Hyde meets Frankenstein. What more do you need?

Well, to judge by the first couple of issues, you need more — and it’s one thing or another. In issue 1, Bruce Banner turns into a savage Hulk whenever it’s night. By issue 3, he’s no longer bound to the diurnal cycle but now he’s under the hypnotic control of Rick Jones. By issue 4, Jones has lost his control and the Hulk, while still brutish, retains Banner’s intellect. Three issues later, we finally get the set-up familiar from later comics, not to mention the film and TV adaptations: Banner turns into the Hulk whenever he gets too stressed. Except that even then, it’s still not quite the familiar set-up — Banner turns into the Hulk when he’s stressed, sure, but it goes the other way too. That’s right, whenever the Hulk gets too stressed, he turns back into “the weak, powerless Bruce Banner”. Kind of puts a dampener on big fight scenes; in practice, all it means is that the Hulk turns back into Banner at the convenience of the plot.

This state of flux is echoed by the art. We start out with Jack Kirby, in a typical early 60s Kirby mode. That means doughy figures, and little to none of the baroque machinery, architecture or costumery that would flourish in his work a few years later. Then we get one issue of Ditko over Kirby’s pencils — although, let’s face it, with those inks they might as well be Ditko’s pencils. Then another couple of issues of Kirby, then Ditko for a couple of issues, then a few more of Kirby, then Kirby on layouts only and a cast of thousands on pencils.

It’s the switch to Ditko that has the greatest impact. He’s the one who sets up the (more or less) familiar status quo of the stress-induced-transformation. More importantly, he amps up the soap opera and turns the strip into a cliffhanger-based serial. He also introduces two parallel nemeses with high foreheads, widow’s peaks and pencil moustaches: Major Glenn Talbot and the Leader. Yet, although parallel in appearance, they cut contrasting figures. For Talbot is nemesis to the intellectual Banner, beset by anxiety; thus he is an upright instance of masculine militarism. Whereas the Leader is nemesis to the brutish Hulk, and so he represents Brains to the Hulk’s Brawn. At any rate, it’s a nice bit of doubling, subtly done.

That said, no one would mistake the material in here for the best of the Kirby-Lee or Ditko-Lee collaborations. Kirby stopped pencilling well before he could build up any real momentum, and Ditko left after a mere hundred pages or so. Still, afficionados of either artist will find this volume interesting for its first half, where Kirby’s and Ditko’s pencils appear. It’s a rare opportunity to see Ditko and Kirby working on the same character for any sustained period  — Machine Man in the 70s is the only other example I can think of.

Recommended? For Kirby/Ditko die-hards only.

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