Within the oeuvre of Jack Kirby, the Incredible Hulk arrives as one among many generic engagements with the monster archetype. The Hulk, a military-funded scientific experiment run amok, casts up specters of other works by Kirby. Of both Orion, the protagonist of Kirby’s New Gods and the God of War, and the Demon, a son of a duke of hell, caged in the mortal soul of Jason Blood. What Kirby is able to articulate, visually as much as thematically, is the body as battleground for contesting consciousnesses. Unlike the Fantastic Four’s Ben Grimm or the New Gods’ Orion where essentially kind-natured heroes are a single consciousness trapped in monstrously deformed bodies, the Hulk and the Demon are different consciousnesses vying for control of the bodies they share with their alter egos, Dr Bruce Banner and Jason Blood. Kirby’s first deployment of genre then, with such characters as the Hulk and the Demon, is with the monster as either the schizophrenic (in the case of the Hulk, a genre popularized if not authored by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein) or the monster as essentially human but marginalized from society by physically deviation (The Thing and Orion which fall into this genre also date back to the 1800s, Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo appearing in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, being the most popular example).
Rather than simply re-present popular genre of the monster, Kirby, working with Stan Lee, is able to present a richly textured portrait which uses these traditional genre more as a staging point for psychological wrestlings. With such a rich reworking of the monster genre, Kirby seems able to reposition readers to asking a more elementary question – ‘What, if anything, could be classified as the substance of genre?’. The Hulk, Orion, the Thing and the Demon in no way offer a clear ethical grid-work for discerning heroism from self-interest, or the creative from the destructive, impulses from effects. What then, if anything at all, could be said to be the substance of genre?
Genre is of course, especially insofar as popular characters with a long publication history are concerned, necessarily balanced against questions of continuity. Such concerns become particularly noticeable with DC which required a ‘reboot’ of its properties in the 1980s with Crisis on Infinite Earths to reconcile the multiple histories that had developed both between contemporaneous writers’ visions of disparate characters and historically between different writers of the same character. Batman of the 1960s, that is to say, was not Batman of the 70s. The problem that Crisis tasked itself to, was therefore as much a collapsing of multiple worlds with multiple histories into the singular, as it was a streamlining of the accumulation of generic modifications over the decades. While Marvel has had several minor reboots over the years, the major reboot, the creation of the Ultimate line (coming, as with Crisis, nearly 40 years after the company’s inception), is a similar redefinition of accumulated generic changes.
Not surprisingly, some of the most astute observations on genre are to be found in comments made of DC’s Batman, and perhaps even less surprisingly, these comments are made by a mind as keenly aware of genre as Frank Miller’s. Responding to an interviewer’s question on a possible sequel to the Dark Knight Returns (in an interview republished in the Many Lives of the Batman), Miller points out that while in a possible sequel he would focus on the political, he still however, would make use of ‘the suits and the gloves and the gadgets… because that’s the stuff of it’. Elsewhere Miller comments: ‘I love (Batman), he’s a character who’s story can be told in a few sentences’.
In Batman Unmasked, theorist Will Brooker quotes Grant Morrison’s Batman from DC: One Million: ‘One Batman? You believe there can be only one Batman? Batman is not a man. I’m an ideal’. Brooker goes on to suggest, ‘(w)ithin a ‘Batman genre story’, variation would be allowed, indeed expected, within a set of familiar rules… Some of the codes would always remain – a Bat-costume, gadgets, crime-fighting, Gotham – but some would be missing or altered. Batman might not be Bruce Wayne…’.
The two visions of genre are as startling in their executions as they are in their effects. Miller is able to conceive of genre as articulated by a pool of common traits, and as a story-germ easily retold time and again. Brooker suggests genre as the immanent and the multiple, a trope that can be repeated over and again. A full excavation of genre then, should take into consideration both the character as immanent and repeatable and what Brooker terms ‘codes’; those elements that conspire to produce the character in its popularly recognizable form. This is a set of negotiations that seems to express uniquely the acumen of a filmmaker the order of Ang Lee.
With 2003’s Hulk, Lee confronts the problem of genre on at least two levels. As with Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 and Francis Lawrence’s Constantine in 2005, Lee does not simply recast a traditionally published character on the silver screen. With Lee, the genre that is the Incredible Hulk is renegotiated, producing a unique vision of the intellectual property as much as a vision that is cinematic rather than comics in its emphasis. We are now able to speak of, in other words, Ang Lee’s Hulk, just as we are able to speak of Peter David’s or Jack Kirby’s. To a similar effect, we are unable to discern crucial differences between Chris Claremont’s vision of X-Men and director Bryan Singer’s (except perhaps for the introduction of Grant Morrison’s black leather school uniforms into X2: X-Men United).
More than merely leaving an imprint that makes the intellectual property of the Incredible Hulk as his own, Lee is able to deploy the accumulated genre, Brooker’s codes, that go into producing an Incredible Hulk story. We see in the 2003 film, the requisite battles with military equipment; fighter jets, attack helicopters, M1 tanks and the like. We see also the by-now required battle between the Bruce Banner-Hulk personas, articulated by Lee as the nightmare of a sleeping Hulk. We see the epic final battle between the Incredible Hulk and a villain produced by military science. We see the Hulk leaping through an endless and richly-textured Nevadan desert.
It is the deployment of this last genre that is the most telling. The Incredible Hulk was always at its best when it retold the genre of textures. This is an insight of which Jeph Loeb was acutely aware. In comments made to industry magazine Wizard he suggests: ‘The Hulk was gray for seven issues before Stan Lee changed up to the familiar green skin and purple trunks… this book is Gray because it’s about not having easy moral choices’. Loeb is of course referring to the trio of so-called ‘color’ books he produced for Marvel with Tim Sale; the others being Spiderman: Blue and Daredevil: Yellow. Loeb and Sale are able to, with this trio, suggest not only the colors as characteristic of the superheroes, but also the colors as generic elements for the heroes themselves. So for Spiderman, blue is both the emblematic color and the metaphorical life of extraordinary melancholy that Peter Parker leads as a result of his alter ego. Similarly gray shows the Hulk awash in a world of moral ambiguity and impossibly hard decisions.
As a filmmaker, Ang Lee is able to communicate this understanding of the Hulk as a genre of textures, by renegotiating the media of the cinema and comics. Hulk at no time stops an act of cinema, nor does it rely on the comics-related medium of animation (as does Kill Bill vol.1; although it should be argued that the anime used by Quentin Tarantino remains as a piece of cinema) to communicate the idea of comics. Instead, Lee highlights the Incredible Hulk’s comics-origin by suggesting a cinematic conceptualization of the comics medium itself. Characters are overlaid on shots to which they do not belong, remastering the cinematic shot as a comics-panel. The screen is divided to show movement simultaneously in separate frames, again reminiscent of comics panels, replete with gutters and bleeds.
Lee is of course, not the first thinker for whom the negotiation of one medium within another as a consideration of genre becomes an issue; he follows notably in the footsteps of Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges. Writing in the foreword to Ronald Christ’s The Narrow Act – Borges’ Art of Allusion, Borges himself reminds readers: ‘…the writer must be thankful for being shown that he has gone beyond what he attempted, beyond his intentions./ The fact that I am dictating these lines in the very same room of the Biblioteca Nacional where I first had the pleasure of meeting Ronald Christ makes me feel the reality – or unreality – of that ungraspable substance, Time’.
As with such stories as ‘Kafka and his Precursors’ or ‘The Book of Sand’, Borges is able to articulate two distinct genre, of criticism allowing even the writer’s fuller understanding of the work at hand, and of writer and critic both sharing a four-dimensional history, and resurrect these as media in their own right. In the hands of Borges’ keen intellect, both the meeting of writer and critic, and the act of writing both criticism and fiction become not so much genre, but hidden worlds in their own right. What is ultimately at stake, is ‘that ungraspable substance’.
Such a wrestling is not lost on modern-day writers of the Incredible Hulk. In 2002, in issue 44 of the current reboot of the monthly series writer Bruce Jones a near-impossible feat; in ‘Now You See It’, each page runs as a self-contained short story, a near-perfect index of the various genre of the Incredible Hulk. With the titular character appearing in only two pages of his own comicbook, Jones is able to uncompromisingly depict the varying textures of paranoia, fear, pursuit, observation (clinical, intelligence and military), dusty desert towns, abandoned military bases, espionage surveillance, covert military operations, and more that go into producing the Incredible Hulk. Each page is a single story, each page a complete genre of the Incredible Hulk. Jones breathes new life into the serialized nature of the medium popularized by the newspaper dailies of the forties and fifties.