The Incredible Hulk was a flop. I’m not talking about Ang Lee’s recent film—which, though it disappointed many studio executives, actually went on to do quite well—nor do I mean the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno television series of the late 1970s–early 1980s, which garnered respectable ratings for most of its run. I’m talking about the original comic book series, which was ignominiously cancelled after just one year. The second of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s new line of superhero comics, it featured a grim, prickly scientist who transformed into a bad-tempered anti-social, monstrous brute. Initially conceived as a cross between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein, the series never seemed to get out of the experimental phase, as Lee and Kirby—and later, Steve Ditko—constantly tinkered with the premise to try to find a workable formula.
As a result, the overarching storyline of the Hulk’s earliest adventures is rather full of holes, many of which have never been closely analyzed or explained. The process of sorting it all out is greatly helped by plugging everything into a chronological timeline, for here some previously-unnoticed gaps in the character’s history become apparent, and the relationship between the various stories becomes a little clearer. Also, perhaps more than many other characters, the Hulk’s origin is tied in to the historical context of the Cold War nuclear arms race, and the story suffers when taken out of that setting. Thus, studying the first year of the Hulk’s existence in terms of the Original Marvel Universe reveals a great deal of behind-the-scenes detail.
Note: The following timeline depicts the Original Marvel Universe (anchored to November 1961 as the first appearance of the Fantastic Four and proceeding forward from there. See previous posts for a detailed explanation of my rationale.) Some information presented on the timeline is speculative and some is based on historical accounts. See the Notes section at the end for clarifications.
Now, in unprecedented detail... The True History of the Incredible Hulk!
January 1962 – Dr. Robert Bruce Banner readies the Gamma Bomb Project for testing at the top-secret Desert Base military installation in northern Catron County, New Mexico. However, Bruce’s research assistant, Igor Drenkov, is a Russian spy. The base commander, General Thaddeus E. Ross, nicknamed “Thunderbolt,” is impatient for the tests to get underway, but Bruce is very cagey and secretive. The general’s daughter, Betty Ross, admires Bruce, but has not yet been able to determine if he is interested in her. The gamma bomb test will be America’s first atmospheric nuclear detonation since 1958, and there is interest in the project at the highest levels.
February 1962 – Moments before the gamma bomb is to be detonated, Bruce spots an old jalopy driving onto the test range. Telling Drenkov to delay the test, Bruce grabs a jeep and sets off to warn the intruder away. However, the murderous spy does nothing, and the bomb explodes. Having gotten the intruder, a rebellious local teenager named Rick Jones, into a protective trench, Bruce takes the full brunt of the nuclear blast, and is bathed in wave after wave of powerful gamma radiation. As a mutagenic change is triggered in his cellular structure, something deep inside Bruce Banner’s mind breaks free.
Heedless of his own safety, Rick Jones drags Bruce to the jeep and drives him back to the base, where they are both taken to the infirmary. As night falls hours later, Bruce is transformed into a hulking gray-skinned brute. He terrorizes the base all night, and is named “the Hulk” by the soldiers. Returning to Bruce’s quarters, the Hulk discovers Drenkov ransacking the place and pulverizes him. Then, at first light of dawn he changes back into Bruce Banner.
The soldiers take Drenkov into custody, but he manages to transmit a report to his superiors in the Soviet Union through a concealed miniature radio. He will be brought up on espionage charges, tried, convicted, and sentenced to a long prison term. Meanwhile, the soldiers spend the day searching the surrounding area for any sign of the Hulk.
The next night, Bruce changes into the Hulk again and frightens Betty Ross. However, he and Rick are kidnapped by the deformed Soviet scientist called the Gargoyle and taken to Russia. When the jet lands, it is daylight, and so Bruce Banner emerges instead of the Hulk. Bruce agrees to help the Gargoyle become normal again using an experimental gamma ray treatment.
During the process, Bruce is accidentally exposed to another massive dose of gamma rays, further altering his cellular structure. Now when he changes into the Hulk, his skin becomes green instead of gray.
The grateful Gargoyle sends Bruce and Rick back to the United States in a special passenger missile. They are ejected before the missile crashes into the Gulf of Mexico and parachute down into the swamps of Louisiana. Each night, Bruce transforms into the Hulk and goes on a rage-fueled rampage as he and Rick make their way back to New Mexico.
Bruce and Rick finally return to Desert Base, and General Ross is suspicious of Bruce’s disappearance. Bruce is checked out by the base’s medical staff, and it is confirmed that he is suffering from an unknown form of radiation poisoning. Bruce quickly creates the ideal prison for the Hulk in a cavern underneath a nearby lake, outfitting it with a huge vault door.
While they are checking the hastily-installed vault, Bruce and Rick are kidnapped by agents of a Tribbitite invasion fleet. Aboard the spaceship, Bruce transforms into the Hulk as they pass over the dark side of the planet. The Hulk subdues the crew and considers using the advanced weaponry to attack the human race. However, a missile assault by the American military causes the ship to crash. It is still daylight where the ship lands, and the soldiers find Bruce Banner aboard. He is arrested and taken in for questioning. No aliens are found in the ship, as they managed to tunnel their way out before being discovered. They signal their fleet and the full-scale invasion begins. The Tribbitite king appears in a worldwide broadcast and announces that they are altering the moon’s orbit to cause it to crash into the earth. As night falls, Bruce changes into the Hulk and busts out of prison. He goes on a rampage, attacking the soldiers and wrecking General Ross’ house. He kidnaps Betty and takes her to Bruce’s lab, where Rick confronts him. The Hulk is about to kill Rick when a Tribbitite-caused earthquake strikes, demolishing the house and knocking them all unconscious. The sun rises before they wake up and the Hulk becomes Bruce again. Hurriedly, Bruce uses his experimental gamma ray weapon to repel the invasion fleet. The government convinces the public that the invasion was a hoax. All charges against Bruce are quietly dropped. By nightfall, the Hulk is sealed in his vault deep inside the cave.
April 1962 – Weeks pass and most nights the Hulk is imprisoned. Occasionally, though, Bruce transforms before he can get to the cave and the Hulk goes on a rampage until dawn. Finally, General Ross convinces Rick to lure the Hulk into a rocket for a “test flight.” Rick does so, and the Hulk is launched into space. The rays of the sun transform him back into Bruce Banner, who is then bombarded with radiation in the unshielded capsule. Realizing he’s been tricked, Rick sabotages the controls, causing the capsule to separate from the rocket before reaching escape velocity. As dawn breaks, the capsule plummets to earth, crashing in the desert near the base. Rick fears that Bruce has been killed, but, to his surprise, the Hulk emerges, stronger than ever. However, the Hulk has now fallen under Rick’s total mental domination. Exhausted, Rick soon learns that if he falls asleep, the Hulk will go on a mindless rampage. The vault door was wrecked when Rick freed the Hulk earlier, so he manages to stay awake all night. The next morning, Rick goes to his aunt’s house in the nearby town of Quemado to wash up and get something to eat.
That afternoon, Rick falls victim to the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime, which has been on a looting spree throughout the Southwest recently, pursued by two FBI agents. They have been hitting towns along Route 60, planning to soon turn south and head for Mexico. However, Rick summons the Hulk, who busts the place up. The two manage to escape when the soldiers arrive to capture the Hulk. The FBI agents arrest the Ringmaster and his cronies.
June 1962 – The Hulk has not changed back into Bruce Banner since being launched into space six weeks ago, remaining under Rick’s mental control. Whenever Rick falls asleep, the Hulk terrorizes the countryside. Wandering west, the Hulk busts up a movie shoot, and even reaches Los Angeles before Rick, placed under arrest by the military police for Banner’s disappearance, summons him back. The Hulk rescues Rick and they return to Bruce’s secret lab in the underground caverns. Rick bombards Hulk with gamma rays and he changes back into Bruce Banner at last. Bruce has a brainstorm while semi-conscious and sets the machine so that he will retain his intelligence while in the Hulk’s body. However, his inhibitions are gone and his hostility keeps increasing while the Hulk. Now subjecting himself to regular doses of gamma radiation, he no longer changes at sunrise and sunset. His strength continues to increase with each exposure.
Then, the Soviets try to recapture the Hulk after piecing together what happened in the Gargoyle’s lab four months ago. They lure the Hulk into a trap posing as an alien invader. The now more-intelligent Hulk sees through the scheme and defeats them, but ends up getting blamed for the hoax.
With the Hulk now more or less under control. Bruce continues his research. General Ross continues to push for new Hulk-busting weapons. Then, Betty Ross is kidnapped by the subterranean caesar called Tyrannus and taken to his underground domain. The Hulk follows to rescue her, but is forced to work as Tyrannus’ slave for several days while Betty is held hostage. Finally, with Rick’s help, Betty is rescued and the Hulk seals Tyrannus in as they escape to the surface. Betty goes into shock and blocks the entire episode from her conscious mind. It takes her a month to fully recover.
July 1962 – Bruce continues to change into the Hulk by gamma ray bombardment, reveling in his strength and power. He is almost captured by General Ross and his Hulk-busting weapons, but the Hulk has become too powerful. Hearing a radio report that the Communist warlord known as General Fang is threatening a Tibetan monastery, Bruce decides the Hulk will put a stop to it. He and Rick travel to Tibet by way of Formosa and China, battling the Red Chinese Army as they go. Arriving in Tibet, they defeat General Fang and his troops, leaving him marooned on the island of Formosa, alone and hunted by American troops stationed there. The Hulk and Rick return to the U.S. aboard a cargo freighter.
The military is on full alert for the Hulk after hearing of his attack on the Red Army in China. General Ross decides to bring in the world-famous adventurers the Fantastic Four. As they arrive at Desert Base, Bruce Banner and Reed Richards meet for the first time. The Hulk is being blamed for various acts of sabotage, but Rick discovers that the real saboteur is Bruce’s new assistant, Dr. Karl Kort, a Communist spy. Attempting to rescue Rick, the Hulk has an inconclusive battle with the Fantastic Four. Then, the F.F. capture Kort, destroy his wrecking robot, and rescue Rick. The Hulk retreats to his lair and changes himself back to Bruce. The F.F. are treated to full military honors before returning to New York.
Desert Base is attacked by a lone alien invader calling himself the Metal Master, who possesses the psionic ability to manipulate metallic atoms. The Hulk battles him, but the Metal Master knocks him out. The Hulk is finally captured by the military and imprisoned. The Metal Master then wreaks havoc around the globe while the Fantastic Four are off in space. Meanwhile, Rick and his gang of pals from Quemado form the Teen Brigade, a network of ham radio enthusiasts. The Hulk escapes his specially-designed cell, returns to his underground lab and changes himself back to Bruce Banner by more gamma ray bombardment. Bruce and Rick quickly hatch a plan to defeat the Metal Master, with the help of the Teen Brigade. They assemble a mock weapon of non-metallic parts, which the Hulk takes to Washington DC, where he challenges the Metal Master. The alien falls for the trick, and the Hulk intimidates him into undoing all the damage he caused and leaving the earth. Thanks largely to the Teen Brigade, the Hulk’s role in the Metal Master’s defeat is made public, which even earns the Hulk a full pardon from President John F. Kennedy. Bruce then returns to work, claiming to have been on a retreat in Bermuda the whole time. Although General Ross is suspicious, it is acknowledged that Bruce has been ill since the gamma bomb explosion. Bruce Banner and Betty Ross finally begin to really date each other, as Bruce now believes he has the Hulk under control, and for the next six or seven weeks, he resists the urge to transform himself.
September 1962 – Bruce finally succumbs to temptation, and the Hulk is once again seen bounding around the desert. However, the Hulk is tricked by the Asgardian god Loki into wrecking a train trestle, and is blamed for trying to destroy the train. Worried, Rick Jones tries to use the Teen Brigade to contact the Fantastic Four, but Loki diverts the broadcast to Thor, hoping to draw him into battle with the Hulk. Unbeknownst to Loki, Iron Man, Ant-Man, and the Wasp also receive the message, and the four superheroes converge on the Teen Brigade’s headquarters in Quemado, New Mexico. The adventurers soon discover the Hulk hiding out at a traveling circus, pretending to be a robot. They attack him and the audience panics when they realize “Mechano” is really the monstrous Hulk. While Iron Man, Ant-Man, and the Wasp fight with the Hulk, Thor defeats Loki and reveals his trickery. The superheroes decide to band together as a team, which the Wasp names “the Avengers.” With Ant-Man, Iron Man, and Thor to vouch for him, the Hulk is cleared of any wrongdoing.
October 1962 – The Hulk and Rick Jones come to New York City with the Avengers and participate, perhaps halfheartedly, as the Avengers set up shop in Tony Stark’s Fifth Avenue mansion, doing organizational work and figuring out their by-laws in a series of meetings, as well as negotiating with the government for special “Avengers Priority” security clearance. Far away from his gamma ray bombardment machine, the Hulk finds he has no way to change back into Bruce Banner as, after months of regular exposure to gamma radiation, his body has become dependent on it.
November 1962 – At their first meeting for the month, the Avengers are goaded into fighting each other by the alien shape-changer known as the Space Phantom. The alien first impersonates the Hulk, thereby sending the real Hulk into the dimension called Limbo. Later, the impostor attacks Iron Man at Stark Industries, then switches out and lets the real Hulk and Iron Man fight. However, the Space Phantom is seen taking Giant-Man’s form and his secret is revealed. A huge fight breaks out in Stark’s weapons factory, and the Space Phantom is finally defeated when he tries to take Thor’s form, but is thrown into Limbo himself. Disgusted at the way the others have treated him, the Hulk angrily quits the team.
The Hulk returns to New Mexico, and Rick soon follows. He finds the Hulk and convinces him to return to his hidden lab in the cave. There, Rick gets him in front of the gamma ray bombardment machine and the Hulk becomes Bruce Banner again at last. However, repeated exposure to gamma radiation has further altered Bruce’s cellular structure, and his transformation is now triggered by his stress level and the release of adrenaline. Tossing and turning in his bed, Bruce’s stress and anxiety cause him to soon turn back into the Hulk. He smashes out of the secret lab and heads off into the desert. The Hulk’s personality is gradually separating itself from Bruce’s again, and as it does so, the Hulk will lose much of his intelligence. This process will take about two months.
Rick summons the Avengers and they are soon battling the Hulk in the desert. However, the Hulk escapes on an eastbound train, then in a truck that dumps him into a river which carries him into the Gulf of Mexico. For days, the Hulk swims out into the Atlantic Ocean until he is exhausted. He is rescued by a passing freighter, but he soon abandons the ship when he spots a small deserted island. Swimming ashore, the Hulk is met by the Sub-Mariner. Namor convinces the Hulk to join him in an attack on the human race, and they form an uneasy alliance. They challenge the Avengers to a fight on the Rock of Gibraltar. The two super-powered misanthropes ambush the heroes, and the fight is going well for them until the stress and excitement unexpectedly causes the Hulk to change back into Bruce Banner. He flees the scene before anyone sees him.
Bruce transforms into the Hulk and makes his way back to New Mexico. His changes come more frequently, and he does not yet understand what triggers them. After many days, he returns to his secret underground lab, but the Hulk smashes every bit of equipment within. Then, he decides to return to New York and take revenge on the Avengers. He goes on a rampage in Manhattan and is opposed by the Fantastic Four. The Hulk and the Thing have their first epic battle. However, the Thing gets tired out and the Hulk goes and attacks the Avengers in their headquarters. The battle soon moves to a skyscraper construction site as the Hulk confronts Rick Jones about his apparent “betrayal.” As the battle rages on with both the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, Rick finally gets the Hulk to swallow a gamma ray treated capsule which Bruce had given him for emergencies. The Hulk dives into the East River, turns back into Bruce Banner, and drifts away.
December 1962 – After a couple of weeks, Bruce manages to make it back to New Mexico and tries to explain away his many long and sudden disappearances as due to his radiation sickness. He discovers his destroyed laboratory and slowly begins replacing some of the equipment with pieces he has stored in other caves in the area. Betty is happy to have him back, but General Ross has a new problem to deal with. A strange, growing rock is pushing up through the ground and causing damage by emitting powerful sonic blasts. Ross assigns Bruce to study the phenomenon, but the Avengers soon arrive and take over. They discover the rock is a weapon being used by the subterranean Lava Men. During the subsequent battle, the stress causes Bruce to change into the Hulk again, and the Hulk immediately attacks the Avengers. However, they trick him into destroying the growing rock. The resultant implosion stuns the Hulk and he staggers off into the desert and collapses, turning back into Bruce. Betty soon finds him and brings him back to the base. Rick returns to New York with the Avengers and Bruce gets back to work on his research.
Bruce Banner continues to change into the Hulk whenever he gets too stressed out, and wanders the desert with increasing paranoia. A week or so after the battle with the Avengers, the Hulk is hiding in a network of caves when he encounters Spider-Man. Thinking Spider-Man has come to capture him, the Hulk attacks and drives him off.
January 1962 – There had been a moratorium on above-ground nuclear testing for several years at this point, which I think significantly ups the ante for Bruce’s project. In the real world, such testing did resume later in 1962.
February 1962 – It is never adequately explained why the Hulk appears gray the first two times he transforms, and then is green thereafter. The “Gray Hulk” was for decades written off as a printer’s error, until being brought back into continuity during John Byrne’s brief run on the book in the mid-1980s, going on to replace the “Green Hulk” for several years. I like the idea that something actually caused the change to occur, and since he was messing around with radiation in the Gargoyle’s lab, it is a sensible deduction that it occurred then. Reading the Hulk’s early adventures, it soon becomes clear that the gamma bomb explosion was only the first step towards creating the Hulk as he came to be known. It actually took repeated exposures to gamma radiation for the popular “Hulk smash!” incarnation to emerge. Upon returning from Russia in the Gargoyle’s “passenger missile,” the Hulk is next seen in a swamp, though how he and Rick got there is never made clear. Hence, I assume the missile actually landed in the Gulf of Mexico. The Hulk would have first come to the public’s attention during this trek from Louisiana back to New Mexico. General Ross and company might not have realized at first that these scattered reports of a “green monster” heading west are describing the same brute they are searching for. Although, strangely, it is never exploited in the comics, the simple fact that Bruce was caught in the gamma bomb explosion serves as an all-purpose excuse for his subsequent bizarre behavior and frequent disappearances. The fact that he had some unknown form of radiation “poisoning” would be unlikely to arouse anyone’s suspicion that he and the Hulk were one and the same, since none of the other characters were even aware that the Hulk had an alter-ego. No one besides Rick knew what he was or where he had come from, until much later. The timeline makes clear that the Tribbitite—or “Toad Men”—invasion follows only about a month after the Skrulls attempted to invade the planet in Fantastic Four #2.
April 1962 – The pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo that Stan Lee employs to explain Rick’s mental domination over the Hulk is unnecessary. It is more likely that it was merely that Rick was the first person the Hulk encountered upon emerging from the crashed space capsule. In his peculiar mental state, the Hulk could have fallen under anyone’s sway. If one of General Ross’s soldiers had gotten there first, the Hulk’s history might have been very different, indeed. The town where Rick was living was never named, but the Marvel Atlas Project gave the general location of Desert Base, and there aren’t too many towns in that area of New Mexico. Of the contenders, Quemado had the best-sounding name. Likewise, a look at a map of the area makes the Ringmaster’s plans more apparent. What else would he be doing out in the middle of nowhere?
July 1962 – The Hulk’s first major crossover appearance is in Fantastic Four #12. The Metal Master attacks in the last issue of the Hulk’s original series, Incredible Hulk #6. The only other heroes who could have opposed the Metal Master were the Fantastic Four, but they were on their week-long trip to the moon and back, as seen in Fantastic Four #13. I’ve speculated on how Bruce would excuse his absences to General Ross in order to keep his security clearance. Things quiet down around Desert Base in the hiatus between the end of the Hulk’s series and his appearance in Avengers #1, and Bruce has time to get back in the General’s good graces, as well as to get to know Betty. However, Bruce’s fatal flaw during this period is that the raw power of the Hulk is just too seductive, and like any nuclear scientist, he is arrogant enough to believe he can keep that power under control.
October 1962 – The admittedly-rather-boring organizational period of the Avengers was never detailed in any canonical story, but the presence of both the Hulk and Rick, as the more serious-minded heroes do all the drudge work of getting an official super-team off the ground, might make for an amusing character-driven anecdote. Obviously, Iron Man and Ant-Man were the driving forces behind the writing of the Avengers’ charter and by-laws.
December 1962 – This takes us up to Avengers #5. The Hulk then makes a surprise appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #14.
OMU Note: The Hulk’s final canonical appearance was in Hulk #377.
Next Issue: The Hulk -- Year Two