Saturday, February 1, 2014

My Son--The Monster!

When Leonard Samson had the incredible Hulk on his psychiatric "couch" for analysis, he was only able to learn fragments of Bruce Banner's life as seen through the eyes of his brutish alter-ego--fragments which provided clues to the violence and isolation which were present in Banner's growth to adulthood. At the time, Samson was only able to conclude that Banner and the Hulk were "not just two sides of one mind... they are actually two separate beings"--a rather startling statement to make, since it would seem to suggest that there is no "cure" per se for the Hulk as he appears to be a long-suppressed side to Banner that's been given freedom by exposure to gamma rays. In other words, there's no putting the genie back in the bottle--which, in Banner's case, has certainly been tried before.

In a later 1985 story, writer Bill Mantlo probes much deeper into Banner's past, and builds a profile of him which seems to sustain Samson's preliminary diagnosis but also provides much more context for us. And we discover that a gamma bomb explosion has taken the 1886 story, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to its ultimate degree. But instead of "Hyde" we get "Hulk"; and instead of evil and a lack of morality, we get a release valve of Banner's pent-up anger and childhood dreams. And while we come to understand the Hulk bears no real responsibility for his association with the word, this story is still appropriately titled:

Mantlo and artist Mike Mignola take us through several stages of Banner's life--as much as twenty-three pages will allow, but still a wealth of material on a man who, in over 300 issues, we're only just now learning of in any measure of depth. And thanks to the story's beginning, it becomes almost immediately clear who is responsible for setting the tone of Bruce Banner's unfortunate adolescence.

Bruce's father, Brian Banner, is a crucial part of Mantlo's interpretation of the Hulk--not just because of the obvious role he plays vis-à-vis his contempt and mistreatment of his son, but also because of Brian's unwavering belief that, because of his work in atomic research, his son will be born a mutant. It's an important concern for Mantlo to deal with, as "mutant" would be too convenient a label to pin on the Hulk and thus would have this story differ very little from other such stories (e.g. the McCoys, the Franks, et al.) where dangerous atomic exposure was involved. What eventually happens to Bruce Banner will top them all, in that regard; yet Mantlo will provide a different take on that fateful moment, while still keeping Brian's mutant fears a relevant part of the story without necessarily lending credence to them.

With Bruce's infant and toddler years, it's clear that Brian is in no danger of winning any Father Of The Year award. In addition to keeping his emotional distance from a son whom he fears may yet become a freak of nature despite the hospital's evidence to the contrary, he also resents Bruce now taking the lion's share of his wife Rebecca's time and affection.

To compensate, Brian often devises excuses for Rebecca to accompany him elsewhere; and, to make matters worse for Bruce, Brian has hired a stern and unsympathetic nurse to look after him. But Bruce has also found ways to compensate, by unfortunately drawing more deeply into himself.

By the time Bruce is four years old, Rebecca is still a positive presence in Bruce's young life--but during her absences, he's learned to interact with his beloved doll, "Guardian," in order to express his thoughts. So it's no surprise that the doll accompanies him just about everywhere--including a stealthy trip downstairs on Christmas Eve which practically any inquisitive child would want to make.

Mignola is a fine artist for this type of story, and the characterizations Mantlo provides can be seen so vividly in Mignola's depictions of the Banners. Brian almost always appears cold and distant, his temper on a hair trigger; Rebecca obvously holds much love for Bruce, but seems unable to either move her husband to show affection to him or break away from Brian's hold on her in even the smallest degree; while Bruce is seen in constant coping mode, helpless to affect his circumstances, and somehow knowing that his lot won't improve.

You've also probably noticed the ghostly outline of the Hulk hovering near Bruce in just about every panel, which could be interpreted as a prelude of what's to come--the beast within Bruce, biding his time until his inevitable release. Yet to me, it seems more of an indication of the kind of cloud Bruce is constantly living and growing up under--a reflection of the different forms of neglect and abuse heaped upon him, in one form or another, which the Hulk will later subconsciously register. The Hulk and Bruce at this point in time seem very much the same being; but when the time comes when they aren't, and the Hulk's consciousness explodes and comes into its own, these scenes will have given us a better understanding of why.

A crucial point for Bruce's perceptions of home and family occurs during this very Christmas Eve, as Bruce begins to demonstrate his budding intelligence and drive, with no one around to inhibit him.

But it wouldn't be Christmas in the Banner household without an episode that both shatters what could be a happy memory for Bruce as well as reinforces the image of his father as an uncaring ogre. Thanks to Mignola, the dread that Bruce feels at his father's discovery of his efforts is an almost tangible thing for the reader as well.

(A slight oversight in that last word balloon--Brian no doubt meant his vicious wish to be directed at Bruce, not himself.)

Unfortunately, what would otherwise be a source of pride for another parent is instead a red flag for Brian, whose worst fears for his son seem to have been confirmed. And it's not just Bruce he lashes out at:

It would be the last we'd see of Rebecca Banner. Years later, when Bruce is attending a school for gifted science students, we would discover that he's now in the custody of his aunt, and that much has happened to his family in the years between.

The point about Bruce internalizing his rage is of course, in hindsight, a telling concern--particularly in instances where students who fall victim to pranks would normally give as good as they get. But in Bruce's case, these instances only serve to cork up that rage and add to it:

Conflict even follows Bruce to his mother's gravesite, where he visits on the anniversary of her death and encounters the last person he thought he'd ever lay eyes on. A person who hasn't left behind old enmities, and whose resentment has only grown with time.

The scene's purpose appears to be two-fold for Mantlo--giving us further details on what happened with his parents as well as showing that Brian has never let go of his hostile and bitter feelings toward Bruce, but also to put to bed once and for all any notion that Bruce is a mutant. Again, given what we know is coming, it's important at this point in the story for Mantlo to make that clear in no uncertain terms--assuming the story of Bruce's life up to now hasn't already done so.

For those of you who followed the "crossroads" stories--that dimensional "intersection" where the Hulk was exiled when the Bruce Banner persona was seemingly obliterated, leaving the Hulk a creature of pure rage--by now you've noticed the symbols in Bruce's childhood which spawned the triad of beings who were informal companions to the Hulk during that time. "Guardian," his favorite doll and protector; "Glow," which in the beginning hung above his crib and gave him delight; and "Goblin," representing those who were cruel and mocking toward him, such as his nurse and certainly his father.

We haven't seen the last of these symbols, even with Bruce grown into adulthood--and obviously they're playing an important role regarding the Hulk's state of mind while trapped at the "crossroads."

As we know, Bruce Banner goes on to become a renowned physicist, who eventually pursues studies in gamma radiation and, subsequently, the design of the gamma bomb for the government. And so "Desert Base" is our last stop, where he meets two more people whose personalities must seem familiar to him on a subconscious level.

And then, the moment comes, when a creature of conflicting emotions is born, but whose rage is almost always the end result of his transformation:

All of this, the Hulk has come to remember with the help of his "triad"--subconscious symbols of his past that, collectively, have allowed him to heal and bring his past into perspective. Yet the process has also done something else, something more important--it's allowed Banner to do the same, and for the first time to come to terms with the fact that "the Hulk" has been in the process of forming since his infancy, with gamma rays allowing that part of his id to take shape. And the realization allows Banner to recover from his own self-imposed exile within the deepest recesses of the Hulk's mind.

It's something of a landmark issue, which for all intents and purposes ends Mantlo's run on the book (aside from an additional issue to tie in with Alpha Flight) and hands off the baton to scripter/artist John Byrne who would determine what Banner's next steps would be. You would think this kind of revelation would open all sorts of doors to where Banner might want to go from here. When we touch on this story again, we'll see the interesting way that Byrne built on the foundation which Mantlo left with him.


George Chambers said...

Bill Mantlo was the most underrated writer Marvel ever had - probably because they handed him a lot of fill-ins and licensed properties like ROM, MICRONAUTS and HUMAN FLY. (He was fast and reliable, too - great assets in an age of Dreaded Deadline Dooms.) This arc proves how brilliant he was.

Anonymous said...

I'll echo George's comment about Bill Mantlo. I think he was a great comic book writer who spent a lot of time doing fill-ins, probably because he was not only capable in a pinch, but often great! His work on MTU comes to mind.
There have been many versions of the Hulk, but the childlike version, from the 70's and early 80's, has always been my favorite, the most compelling.
He seemed to have the mental capacity of maybe a six or seven year old, prone to both gentleness, fear, and angry tantrums.
That the Hulk's tendency for sudden rage and violence may have something to do with the possibility that Bruce Banner was abused in some way as a small child makes a lot of sense. Like many victims of abuse or trauma, Banner is in some ways stuck in that period, that event, playing it out like an endless loop in his mind.
I know something about this.
The Hulk has often been portrayed as a tragic figure. He didn't understand the world he was in, he couldn't cope with it, he didn't trust it. I think we can all identify. I think if you take that child-like element away, he just becomes another super-strong goon. M.P.

Comicsfan said...

George, I'm in full agreement with you. There have been instances of stories and character treatments which I felt fell short of the mark--but good lord, the man was a workhorse, and there were definitely stories (like this one, as well as his profile of "Thunderbolt" Ross) which simply hit it out of the park. Mantlo was quite an asset to Marvel, to be sure.

M.P., the childlike Hulk is what always stuck with me, as well, though I didn't care for his treatment in The Defenders once Englehart left. I probably liked Roy Thomas's run on his title the most, where the narrative did much of the work of exploring the Hulk's psyche and the simple aspect of his mind wasn't taken to extremes.

Mr. Morbid's House Of Fun said...

I've seen bits of this all over the place, especially in his 30th anniversary issue, #393, but damn, to sit here and read all this.....You can't help but feel absolutely horrible and sympathetic for Bruce Banner, especially with those gut-wrenching scenes of his childhood, and the immense physical and mental abuse he suffered at the hands of his father.
People like that can either grow up struggling to show love or going the opposite way and, and compensating for the lack of love they should've received. Really makes you wonder how Bruce's life would've turned out if he hadn't become the Hulk. Would he have died, old and alone, never married, or would he have inevitably snapped and killed someone?

As for the whole mutant thing, maybe the excuse to explain why the gamma radiation didn't kill him, is maybe that radiation his father absorbed really was passed down and it's what saved him from dying from the gamma bomb, but allowed him to become the Hulk though.

Mantlo is indeed under-rated and its a damn shame we can't enjoy his talents anymore, but at least he left us the work he did do, so there's that.

Have you ever covered that one issue that revealed that expanded upon that graveyard scene, where Bruce snaps and kills his dad?

Comicsfan said...

Dale, I think Banner would have gone on to find some measure of solace in his work as a physicist, finally being able to indulge his intelligence and his aptitude for science which were curtailed and discouraged during his formative years--and who knows? From there, his life might have turned out to be gratifying, even to the point of reaching out to others and finding acceptance and encouragement rather than rejection. All assuming, of course, that he didn't remain in the company of "Thunderbolt" Ross, a virtual force of nature who clearly could trample Banner under his heel whenever he felt the need to vent (which appeared to be often).

I never did pick up the so-called "flashback" issue which builds on Mantlo's story to include another graveyard scene. The circumstances strike me as a bit surreal, with an acting troupe (led by Stan Lee, no less) interpreting more animosity between Bruce and Brian, as father and son confront each other more brutally (and this time, fatally) at the grave site. I may read it someday out of curiosity--but not every human drama is meant to be resolved, and I think Mantlo left things very nicely at story's end without taking things to this kind of conclusion. Brian had already made his grave, so to speak--and despicable family members who are killed for their crimes, accidentally or otherwise, seems too pat an ending for the story that Mantlo built from scratch.