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Banner's Anger Personified

Will-Hadcroft writes about The Incredible Hulk

Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Kenneth Johnson


TV: The Incredible Hulk.
Creator: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Kenneth Johnson

Encapsulated. Would you recommend this? why?

“I’m no longer sure what the curse is. The Creature I turn into or the man that I have become.” - The Psychic, by Karen Harris and Jill Sherman

David Banner metamorphoses into a bizarre man-beast whenever his anger reaches boiling point. He travels across America in search of a cure, helping others cope with their inner demons along the way.

Time and Space: When and where I first encountered it

I know it was originally screened in Britain in the late 1970s, but I remember watching it at 1.30 on a Sunday afternoon in the early 1980s. I was 11 or 12, was struggling to integrate into secondary school life, and escaped into this programme. I loved it.

Recollection and revelations

I’m not talking about the comic book written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby in 1962, nor do I mean the 2003 Ang Lee movie featuring Eric Bana. When I discuss The Incredible Hulk, I am referring to the Universal television series developed by Kenneth Johnson that ran for five seasons between 1977 and 1982.

When asked by Universal boss Frank Price which of the Marvel Comic characters he would like to adapt for television, writer-director-producer Kenneth Johnson reportedly answered, “None of them,” and ran screaming from the room. He had no time for heroes who dressed up in spandex to save the world. Then, he considered The Incredible Hulk and pondered on the Jekyll & Hyde/Frankenstein’s Monster nature of the character. Rather than someone blessed with special powers, this was the story of a man cursed. Johnson took on the Hulk on the proviso that he could completely rewrite the back story from the ground up.

The original comic tells of a military scientist, Dr Bruce Banner, who is working on a gamma bomb. Rushing to the aid of a young man wandering about in the test site, Banner is caught in the blast as the bomb goes off. Like so many real life stories from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, Banner survives the explosion. However, he has not survived unscathed, for the gamma radiation has mutated his cell structure. Now, when Bruce Banner falls prey to rage, he transforms into a huge green skinned beast with limited intellect and an insatiable desire to destroy (complete with “Hulk smash!” dialogue). Dubbed ‘The Incredible Hulk’, he is pursued by General Ross of the US army, and aided by Ross’s daughter Betty, fighting many a mutation along the way.

Johnson had no time for any of this and instead embedded the character in the real world. Rechristened Dr David Banner (Johnson hated the alliteration of comic book names, such as Peter Parker, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Bruce Banner), the principle character is a geneticist who is deeply troubled by his failure to save his wife from a blazing car. When he hears reports of other people during moments of stress tapping into their reserve strength and saving their loved ones, he becomes obsessed with unlocking the secret. Joined by Dr Elaina Marks, Banner interviews a number of subjects. All of them exhibit an abnormality within their DNA cell structure. When he examines his own DNA, he is startled to find that he too has the abnormality, and yet was unable to save his wife.

Banner becomes convinced that there is an external factor operating in conjunction with the DNA to allow his interviewees to tap their hidden strengths. And then he hits upon it: gamma radiation from sunspot activity. Experimenting upon himself, he bombards his own DNA with what he thinks is “three hundred thousand units for fifteen seconds”. Unbeknown to him, a lab technician has upgraded the apparatus to give doses of “nearly two million units”. He feels no ill effects, but is frustrated to find that has not gained extra strength. Driving through a night time thunderstorm, he runs over some debris in the road. Getting more and more aggravated, he jacks up the car and tries to undo a wheel nut. As he heaves all his weight on the lug wrench, it slips and he cuts his hand. Wincing with pain, he tries again, and when the spanner slips a second time, he can take no more.

As he gives a primal yell in anger and pain, his mutated DNA reacts. David’s brown eyes turn white, his muscles swell and burst through his clothes, his skin develops a greenish tinge, and his face takes on a beastlike countenance. His conscious mind lapses, and the Creature he has become is driven entirely by rage. Standing to its full height, it roars with fury and demolishes the car.

Kenneth Johnson was keen not to have the Creature pursued by the army. Influenced by the Victor Hugo classic Les Miserables, Johnson chose to have his Jean Valjean character (Banner) hounded by a version of obsessed government official Javert. In this story, Javert takes the form of tabloid reporter Jack McGee. Irritated by Banner's refusal to be interviewed about his experiments, McGee instead follows up a story about a giant hulking creature that has been attacking people. But his investigations lead him back to Drs Banner and Marks, and he discerns that they are involved, he having witnessed a destroyed pressure chamber and a huge footprint in the wreckage.

Escorted off the premises, McGee is warned by a tempered Banner, “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” Then all hell breaks lose as the laboratory goes up in flames with Elaina Marks still inside. McGee watches as Banner runs into the flames, and then, moments later, is astonished to see the Creature emerge with a dying Elaina in its arms. A fire ball engulfs what is left of the lab. McGee concludes that the Creature murdered Elaina Marks and David Banner. He pens the headline: “Incredible ‘Hulk’ Kills Two”. (Johnson could not bring himself to write the words ‘Incredible’ and ‘Hulk’ in the same sentence until the close of the pilot episode. In the subsequent TV series, it is only McGee who calls the Creature “the Hulk”).

Bill Bixby (Banner), Lou Ferrigno (the Creature) and Jack Colvin (McGee) became instant household names.

Amazingly, Kenneth Johnson succeeded in turning something quite ludicrous into a science-fiction thriller. In the television series that it spawned, the tone is slightly different. Johnson was keen for the show to explore flaws in the human condition. Everybody has their own inner 'hulk', whether it be anger, drug abuse, a guilt complex, alcoholic parents, a gambling problem or child genius. And David Banner meets them all as he traverses America in search of a cure.

For me, the most memorable episodes are “Married”, in which Banner convinces himself he can manage the Creature if he stays out of trouble. He marries another scientist, but their happiness is short-lived when she dies of brain disease; “Mystery Man”, in which Banner has an accident resulting in a bandaged face and temporary amnesia. He is given the pseudonym ‘John Doe’ by the hospital and winds up trapped deep in the forest with only Jack McGee for company. McGee has been puzzling over how the Hulk is able to appear in heavily populated areas and then disappear again without trace. He gets his answer when ‘John’ turns into the Hulk before his very eyes. “Prometheus”, where Banner is exposed to even more radiation and gets stuck in mid-transformation (actor Bill Bixby is superb as the ‘retarded’ Banner-Hulk hybrid). Then there’s “The First”, in which Banner finds another man who changes into a Hulk-like creature, the main difference being that he loves it and deliberately picks fights! Two of the most human stories are “Homecoming”, in which Banner risks showing his father and sister that he is alive, and “The Psychic”, in which he contemplates suicide (“I no longer know what the curse is. The creature I turn into or the man I have become”).

As a youngster, I struggled with a deep seated shyness and a tendency to bottle up rage. Confrontations with school bullies left me feeling melancholy and alone. Later in life I suffered with depression, and would often recall Dr David Banner and his alter-ego. I didn’t just watch The Incredible Hulk for entertainment, I identified with it.

Key images are rooted into my psyche. That famous shot of Banner wrenching himself in the night rain, the DNA cells glowing green, the whites eyes and that intense sound effect denoting the metamorphosis. Today, people laugh at how his shirt rips to shreds but his jeans stay on. But I see a lot more than that.

Before this...

The Six Million Dollar Man/The Bionic Woman

The series in which Kenneth Johnson made his name and proved his worth to Universal TV bosses.

After This

The Incredible Hulk TV Movies

In the early 1990s, Bill Bixby, now a television director, reunited the cast for three lacklustre TV movies, two of which attempted to launch Marvel Comics characters The Mighty Thor and Daredevil into their own series. The third film, The Death of the Incredible Hulk, saw the Creature plummet from an exploding plane, and after impact, revert back to a shattered David Banner. The character breathed his last, leaving all the issues posed in Johnson’s series unresolved. As with many a television series, Johnson and fellow producer Nicholas Corea had devised a final story in which McGee would capture the Creature, discover that John Doe is in fact the scientist he thought the Hulk had killed, and Banner would be exonerated of Elaina Marks’ murder and cured of his bizarre affliction. But it was not to be, as Universal management changed and the series was discontinued in 1982 after five years. Fans like me don’t accept the conclusion presented in Bixby’s last TV movie. For us, David Banner is still out there, thumbing a lift to Joseph Harnell’s ‘Lonely Man’ piano theme, allowing “the world think that he is dead, until he can find a way to control the raging spirit that dwells within him.”

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