There are a few moments in the Marvel 616 universe that are pivotal moments. These moments change the world. One such moment is when four individuals attempted to explore space but flew threw cosmic rays and became four of the most fantastic people on the planet. Another is when a teenage science student attends a science lecture and is bitten by a radioactive spider. There is also an incident in which a young boy will save someone’s life by pushing a stranger out of the way of being hit by a car. This will make the young boy go blind but will also give him heightened senses that allow him to do the most death-defying daredevil stunts ever seen.
A key moment in 616 continuity that is constantly revisited is the moment when Bruce Banner tests a Gamma Bomb for the first time.
On May 1st, 1962, while the country is still worried about nuclear attacks from the Russians, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby unleash a man/monster upon the world who will go on to become one of the most popular Marvel characters of all time.
The issue establishes several essential characters who will not only feature in The Incredible Hulk but will become vital to the entire 616 universe. The events of the day are not in question but the moment Bruce becomes the Hulk will be revisited over and over. Context will be added, small details will be changed. But the basic premise will always remain. Bruce Banner was testing a new kind of bomb. Just before the test was about to happen, a teenager drives out to the testing field. Bruce races to the scene and saves Rick Jones’ life. This will alter the destiny of everyone seen in this first issue of the comic book.
General “Thunderbolt” Ross will dedicate his life to hunting down the Hulk. Betty Ross, Bruce’s love interest will wonder what the connection between Hulk and Bruce is. It’s almost as if she feels the change in the world as in one panel she says, “I feel as though we’re on the brink of some fantastic unimaginable adventure!” Rick Jones will feel he must repay Bruce by protecting Bruce and the Hulk at all costs. This will lead him to eventually connect with most of the Marvel 616 heroes at one point or another.
To this day, things from this first issue continue to be explored in Marvel 616. Hulk appears gray in this issue instead of his iconic green which leads to an epic story arc which will attempt to explain the different shades of color Hulk sometimes appears in. In one panel Lee writes the name given to Bruce Banner’s other self is, “A name which is destined to become–Immortal!” And now, there is a comic book with the title of, The Immortal Hulk, proving Lee to be correct.
What Stan Lee wanted to create with the Hulk was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide style character who would look like a man in human form but change to something akin to Frankenstein’s monster when he changed. For all of Lee’s boasting about The Hulk being a new character unlike anything we had ever seen before, he was truly just an amalgamation of Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein’s monster. At least, at the beginning. Somewhat more original was Lee’s take on the Dr. Jekyll side of the creation.
Bruce Banner was working for the good of the world. His G-bomb was going to be something that could defeat the Russians in the cold war and protect democracy. He was an intelligent scientist who had to coexist on an army base with a General who wanted results. Bruce had to be smart enough and tough enough to know who he could give information to and who he had to hide it from.
The only reason Hulk came into being is from Bruce’s altruism. Hulk is born out of a need to help someone else at a great cost. Much like the accident itself, which was no fault of Bruce’s, Hulk has been misunderstood in his pages since the beginning of the comic book.
In this first issue, Bruce, only changes form at night. This will evolve as the series goes on but Bruce does know he cannot allow Hulk to endanger anyone’s life when he changes.
There is an antagonist in this issue in the form of an Iron Curtain operative by the name of The Gargoyle. Like a good majority of Hulk’s enemies, Gargoyle seems insignificant in comparison to the epic rage and drama of the Hulk himself. The Russians are responsible for the test going wrong in the first place. This idea let Stan Lee tap into the fears of the country at the time. The Gargoyle is the leader of the ring of Russian spies responsible. For all his intelligence, The Gargoyle has been hideously deformed. Even his allies fear him. He quickly understands The Hulk could change the cold war in favor of the Soviet Union. He smuggles Rick Jones and Hulk out of the country and behind the Iron Curtain after shooting them with a special chemical to make them compliant. Little does The Gargoyle know that Hulk will change mid-flight back into Bruce Banner. Still, The Gargoyle is no dummy and he realizes he has in his clutches the leading atomic scientist from the U.S. of A,
What turns the issue and changes the story again is Bruce’s altruism. Despite Rick Jones’ protesting, Bruce offers to cure The Gargoyle. The procedure will make The Gargoyle into a normal man once again. It will be at the cost of his intellect but The Gargoyle is comfortable with that. The reason The Gargoyle is what he calls a freak is because of nuclear testing. The Gargoyle, like many of The Hulk’s enemies to come, is a reflection of The Hulk himself. Banner does help Gargoyle and in return, Gargoyle sends Bruce and Rick back to America on his ship.
This issue is memorable for a myriad of reasons. From Kirby’s kinetic artwork that has The Hulk performing amazing feats from crushing guns, single-handed to breaking through walls to the soulful nature of Betty Ross this issue masterfully sets up the corner of the Marvel 616 universe that has to do with atomic energy. Like the splitting of the atom itself, The Hulk is a force to be reckoned with. Used for good it can save humanity. Used for ill, it could be the death of the world.
In my mind, the question of the day readers must have had after this first issue is, “What will we do if the Hulk turns against us?”
It would have been a frightening thought for a kid living at the dawn of the atomic age during the cold war. Thankfully, for us readers, we can still read about the exploits of The Hulk and will continue to do so for decades to come.
There is one other thing I need to note here. With the introduction of Henry Pym in Tales to Astonish #29 and The Hulk’s triumphant yet troubled entrance, we now have 2 of the founding members of The Avengers solidly established in 616 continuity.
Next on the reading list is Tales to Astonish #32 (D Story).
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