The Incredible Hulk is a Marvel comic which has been running for nigh on 50 years in a relatively unchanged format. In this review I will concentrate on liberal and illiberal or authoritarian and libertarian strands which co-exist within it. Most people are dimly aware (if only from Hollywood’s version) of Doctor Bruce Banner’s transformation into a green behemoth and fighting machine as a result of his exposure to gamma radiation from an atomic bomb test.
What interests me here is less the wrap around—the late Major Talbot, Betty Ross and her father, the indefatigable “Thunderbolt” Ross (General), the adolescent and “hip” side-kick Rick, and so on—than a relationship between Banner and his nemesis. This is the eponymous figure known as the Leader. Like the Hulk, the Leader is green and results from the exposure of an intellectually challenged workman to gamma radiation in the work environment.
The original script which introduced the Leader was drawn by the incomparable Steve Ditko—who hardly ever drew anything other than Spiderman and Doctor Strange for Marvel—and features some charming early moments. For, after the explosion at work, the unnamed laborer experiences painful headaches and an endless desire to read. Indeed, one of the panels shows a nurse staggering with the number of textbooks which this new brain-worker requires in order to keep up with the academic times.
Soon enough, however, the transformation sets in, and the worker is transformed into the Leader—whose distinguishing feature is a long, sloping skull within which his enormous new brain has to fit. Perhaps it is a dolicocephalic one, after the fashion of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes?
The Leader soon decides that, due to his “brainiac” impulses, he and no-one else should be running this planet. The Leader’s attempts at world conquest lead to repeated confrontations with Bruce Banner/the Hulk, who thwart him.
Like all Marvel titles, there is a humanist ethos running through the comic, but it can be under-cut by vigilantism, the heroic ideal, and various experiments with tragic characters who defy dualist morals, such as Doctor Doom. The Leader rarely falls under this criterion, but his interest in intellectuality for its own sake raises him above the common ruck of super-hero villains.
The dialectic between the Hulk and the Leader essentially boils down to brain versus brawn. The Leader possesses a relatively puny body and has to rely upon a series of androids (or even better, Super-androids) to make up the difference between himself and the Hulk’s MASS.
To examine this duality I will be making use of the glossy 400th edition of the Incredible Hulk which contains two episodes which feature both main characters in Green. (The origin story of the Leader, drawn by Ditko, was appended at the end of this edition.) In this story the Leader is attempting to tap the spirituality of a genuine evangelical leader. He has promised Rick that he will revive his dead girl-friend. And he runs an underground city which is a sort of testing station. He has also connived at a genuine atrocity involving wiping out 4,000 people in a neighboring test-city.
This is quite unusual. The villains in comics rarely commit destructive acts—they talk a great deal about doing so, but it remains a rhetoric of power that never approaches your Yugoslav warlord, say. Perhaps revealing the Leader as a species of war criminal (so to say) is to add a genuine frisson to the concept of intellectual villainy.
On the Hulk’s side, an enormous transformation has occurred. The monster now exists 24/7 but possesses Bruce Banner’s intelligence and personality. This happens to be a complete reversal of hundreds of issues of the early Hulk in which the man in green, his clothing splitting around him, was presented as semi-moronic. Logically speaking, the Hulk should always trump the Leader, because he possesses brains plus brawn now, but the Leader always has his devices—robots and ’droids—to even up the score.
In this particular comic book, a mysterious soothsayer called Agamemnon reveals the existence of the Leader’s secret city to Banner, who takes leave of Betty to exact vengeance. Unlike in the early issues, Betty and Bruce are now man and wife. She has become blonde rather than brunette and happens to be married to a gigantic Atlas of a creature who’s GREEN. I suppose the retention of Bruce Banner’s personality is the key enabling factor here.
Towards the end of this graphic novel, an enraged and humanist Hulk becomes more and more ferocious, violent, and blood-curdling—just like his old self. This involves him coming perilously close to the mindless Hulk of all of those prior issues. (This comic appeared in 1992 and the series originated thirty years before in 1962). It is noticeable that the Hulk’s rage is enhanced by the possibility of humanist vengeance for the 4,000, something the Leader seems blithely indifferent to.
This final conflict—to use a third positionist term—is made all the more complicated by the presence of some freakish mutants in the Leader’s city, as well as by the intervention of HYDRA. (Note: Hydra—like A.I.M.—are fascistic conspiracies in the Marvel universe whose aim is world-domination. They contrast—as collective entities—with more individualized villainy elsewhere.) Of course, nothing can withstand the brute power of the Hulk—and it is always necessary for the Leader to escape to fight another day, but he must be vanquished.
All super-heroes are elitist and non-humanist figures who fight for Humanist values against elitist figurines (the villains) who fight on behalf of power morality. The villains never refer to themselves as such but instead speak of their power lordship. In the case of the Leader, his desire to rule is fostered by his intellectual superiority to all those around him.
The idea also remains latent that extreme mental ability can lead to moral inferiority—when, in fact, it may be the expression of a different ethical viewpoint. This is made much more evident in equivocal villains such as the post-Golden Age Sub-mariner and Doctor Doom. They often teamed up to express this equivocation of being heroic villains or amoral potentates.
For the Leader to win and establish his dictatorship of the led—however—you would not just need to be reading a distinct comic from a rival firm, no, you would have to be living in a different type of society. But everything can change: I have a very early Hulk in the British Fleetway annual from 1972, and it features a moronic Frankenstein in Green whose bi-polar opposite is Doctor Bruce Banner with whom he alternates.
So, in the annals of fantasy graphics, everything is mutable and subject to change—indeed, the whole Marvel cosmos (now purchased by Disney) is an alternative or parallel universe to begin with. Maybe the Leader’s cult of Mind against Mass is not over yet.