Whenever we Brits want to moan about the state of TV today, a common mantra is to bemoan schedules that are packed with “cheap American imports”. The funny thing is that this is hardly something new. Back in the 70s and 80s, the schedules were always stuffed with American imports: Buck Rogers, The A-Team, Knight Rider, (and they never looked as cheap as British TV did).
There was even a superhero show: The Incredible Hulk starring Bill Bixby as David Banner and bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno as his alter-ego, the Hulk. It’s surprising that we got this show at all, because superheroes were hardly ever seen on our screens, with the exception of the camp classic Batman.
The Hulk’s catchphrase in the opening credits was always, “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” Oh, but we did. We loved the Hulk. In fact, whenever I find myself on some remote dusty highway here in Spain, it always brings that show back to me. I think of poor old David Banner having to find his way home after a night of mayhem. (In the comics, the character is known as Bruce Banner, but the name was changed for TV to sound more ‘serious’.)
So why has the Hulk been so successful, where so many other superheroes have failed? The show shouldn’t have been a hit at all because the character is so one-dimensional, just a big angry creature that bounds about screaming such bon mots as ‘Hulk smash!”
In creating the Hulk, comic writer Stan Lee plugged into one of our great subconscious fears, that people who are perfectly normal can suddenly become frightening, scary lunatics. The Hulk is basically a werewolf. Originally, Bruce Banner would be a man by day and the Hulk by night. At that time, the comics code prohibited comics from featuring occult monsters like werewolves and vampires, following a series of scandals regarding inappropriate material for young readers. The Hulk‘s first appearance in 1962 was partly a way around that restriction.
This nocturnal transformation means that Bruce Banner’s life is like an alcoholic’s. By day, he’s perfectly normal, but at night, he disappears into another twilight world, only to wake up barely conscious of what has gone before.
Later, and in the TV series, the transformation became triggered by anger and this is the heart of the Hulk’s success. There’s a Hulk inside all of us, which also means that the Hulk is believable in the way that other superheroes are not. The Hulk gets angry and suddenly grows to enormous size whereupon he becomes capable of superhuman feats of strength. We all know the stories of the ordinary mothers who suddenly get the power to lift up a car to save their children in moments of great fear.
The developers of the 1970s TV series realised this, and so they eschewed a superhero run-around where the Hulk grappled with other costumed characters. The Incredible Hulk TV series follows the simple rule of Star Trek, that you only expect your audience to believe one outlandish idea per episode: in this case, the Hulk himself.
The producers of the TV series did avoid one mistake. At one time, they wanted to change the Hulk’s colour, and make him red. Stan Lee put his foot down there. Funnily enough, a similar idea had cropped up in Star Trek. Originally, there were plans to give Spock red skin. It’s hard to imagine Leonard Nimoy lending much dignity to the role if he had been smeared in crimson make-up.
Interestingly, in the early comics, the Hulk wasn’t green at all: he was grey. The Hulk first appeared in 1962 in the second superhero comic in Marvel’s Silver Age, following on the heels of The Fantastic Four. Unfortunately, the series was cancelled after just six issues.
Which brings us to another part of the unusual success story of the Hulk. The character has had numerous false starts and yet it has still survived to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. The first comic series was cancelled and the first major Hulk movie in 2003, directed by Ang Lee, also failed to set the world alight. In both cases, the producers almost immediately gave the character another go, with a new comic launch and a second movie with new director and lead actor. The Incredible Hulk followed just five years after the Hulk bombed.
Despite poor sales or box office performance, the creators clearly truly believed in the character. It’s not hard to see why from a story-telling point of view. The Hulk is both hero and villain, monster and victim all at the same time, rather like The Phantom of the Opera. The fact that the Hulk/Bruce Banner has little control over what happens to him, makes him someone that you sympathise with.
Back when the Hulk first appeared in the 1960s, everyday anger and rage wasn’t so much a part of people’s lives like it is today. In his first incarnation, people related more to how Banner’s predicament mirrored their own fear of radiation and its effects. As we have become more angry, so the Hulk’s uncontrollable rages have become a greater reflection of our own lives. With road rage and trolley rage filling the headlines and everyone on the couch suffering from stress and existential angst, we are all Hulks now.