Fifty-three years ago, Stan Lee looked at a freshly delivered Jack Kirby drawing of a heavy-browed man-beast with bad posture and pounded out the following words on his typewriter: "Half-man, half-monster, the mighty Hulk thunders out of the night to take his place among the most amazing characters of all time!" Marvel Comics' first Incredible Hulk series ended up being cancelled after only six issues, but in the end, the green guy caught on. In his latest star turn, the Hulk battles Iron Man in a show-stopping Avengers: Age of Ultron set piece – and also pops up on the new cover of Rolling Stone.
To provide some firsthand Hulk history, we spoke with Lee, the original writer and co-creator of the Hulk (and the entire Marvel Universe); and writer Roy Thomas, who succeeded Lee as editor-in-chief, co-created the megalomaniacal robot Ultron and is now editor of the comics-history magazine Alter Ego.
So we're putting the Hulk on the cover of Rolling Stone – you may remember we last did that in 1971.
Yeah, what took ya so long to repeat it?
When you read the first issue of the Incredible Hulk, it doesn't seem like a superhero title at all – it feels more in the vein of the monster comics you had been writing beforehand. How conscious was that direction?
I was getting tired of the normal superheroes and I was talking to my publisher. He said, "What kind of new hero can we come up with?" I said, "How about a good monster?" He just walked out of the room. I remembered Jekyll and Hyde, and the Frankenstein movie with Boris Karloff and it always seemed to me that the monster was really the good guy; he didn't want to hurt anybody, but those idiots kept chasing him up the hill until he had to strike back. So why not get a guy who looks like a monster and really doesn't want to cause any harm. But he has to in self-defense, because people are always attacking him.
Jack Kirby designed the character while he drew the first issue. What did you think when you first saw the Hulk?
Well, I said to Jack, I want you to draw a monster who's a little bit sympathetic-looking, who the readers can like. He's a man but he turns into a huge super-powerful guy, all muscle and angry-looking — but he's not all that ugly, he's just a very strong, monstrous man. Jack got it right away. He did a great drawing and I decided to make his body gray because all the other superheroes had costumes. I couldn’t figure how or why the Hulk would buy a costume or sew one for himself, but to make him look different I thought I'd give him different-colored skin, and I thought gray would be a nice, scary color.
But the printer couldn't print it well. In one page he looked black, in another he looked almost white, and in one he was medium-gray...they couldn’t get a consistency. So, when you're a comic book writer, you're a little bit like God: "Well, change his skin color. We'll make it green." I couldn't think of any superheroes who were green at the time, and the next issue we made him green; nobody seemed to care about the difference and he was green ever since.
His unique approach to grammar and syntax evolved over time.
I thought that a guy who looked like that wouldn't exactly sound like Laurence Olivier. I thought it would be a good idea to let him talk like "Hulk smash! Hulk angry!" That type of thing.
What's the essential appeal of the Hulk?
Everybody wishes they were super-strong, and here's a guy who's so powerful he can do almost anything. It was easy to identify with him, except he wasn't that bright. So it was easy to think, Boy, if I was as strong as the Hulk and had my own brain, I could do anything. Of course, the green skin might not be too tempting to women, but who knows.
I think its one of the important things about the Hulk, that anybody can imagine that this could be me. We all lose our temper, we all get angry, and sometimes you wanna reach out and smash something — and here we have a character whop can vent his anger on whatever is around him. I think its something that's very easy for other people to identify with.
You chose to make the Hulk an Avenger, at least at the beginning of the series, which you’ve said was because you knew he was a wildcard.
Variety is the spice of life with superhero teams, and what could give the team more variety than a jolly green giant? Having the Hulk in it made it easier to write the issues, because you never know is he gonna be good? Is he gonna be bad? Is he gonna cooperate, or will he be against the Avengers? So, it gave me a lot of little subplots I could use in the stories.
On the Seventies TV show, executive producer Kenneth Johnson originally wanted to make the Hulk red, but you objected. Do you recall that?
No, [though] I do know that after I stopped writing the book, they came up with a red Hulk in the comic books.
Johnson said red was the color of anger. He didn’t understand why the Hulk was green.[Laughs] Well, he may have been right. I like green because I thought it was a more dramatic color. But Bill Bixby did such a good job, and Ken Johnson, who wrote the series, didn't exaggerate him too much. They had a normal man, Lou Ferrigno, who wasn't gigantic, play the Hulk, and the stories had a lot of human interest. They were almost believable.
Why didn’t either of the Hulk movies quite work?
Well, my own feeling is that in the first two, they made him too powerful. I never conceived of him that way, and I didn't think it was necessary for him to be that big. I thought he could've been seven and a half feet tall. That's quite enough.
What do you make of Mark Ruffalo?
Oh, he's wonderful. Nobody could do it better. I think the Hulk is the real Mark. I think he's acting when he's playing a regular human being.
At age 92, you could very easily just retire — but you continue to work at your entertainment company, POW! What keeps you going?
Greed. Pure greed. No, I enjoy working. Being retired is very difficult; how can you do nothing? The company is creating superheroes for China and India, and if other nations can use them, we'll do it for them, too; we're trying not to be selfish. I love working on stories, and luckily that's the one thing that age doesn't really stop you. You don't have to be incredibly powerful like the Hulk in order to dream up stories.
You were a fan when the Hulk comic book debuted. What did you make of him at first?
The Hulk was like a new character in each of those six issues, practically. Stan was trying whatever worked. I've still never figured out exactly how the Hulk turned out to be green by the second issue. [Colorist] Stan Goldberg said he had wanted him to be green in the first issue, and Lee wouldn't let him because grey was such a muddy color.
The Hulk came right after the Fantastic Four and was basically the second entry in the modern Marvel Universe, right?
After two or three issues of the Fantastic Four had come out, obviously, [publisher Martin] Goodman wanted more of it, and I'm sure that the Thing that was garnering fan mail and so forth, so they decided well, let's try another character like that. And that's what I didn't like about it. He just seemed to me like a copy of the Thing in the early issues. Almost everything about him. I didn't care that much for him.
Why do you think the Hulk series was cancelled after six issues?
I'm sure it was mostly sales, but the [censorship panel] Comics Code Authority gave them more trouble than usual, too. If they had been selling well, they would've gotten past that. But the code for some reason wanted a lot more changes on that book than they did, say, with the Thing — maybe because he was scarier looking and looked more human, or because that was the main character. It was very close to having a villain be the hero, which was something that was a real problem. Still, if the books had been selling, they wouldn't have cancelled it. What people were interested in was superheroes. So with Spider Man and Ant Man and Thor, they went back to your straight superhero. You couldn't get a straighter superhero concept than Thor.
How did the Hulk end up briefly in the Avengers?
Well, The Avengers was thrown into the breach at the last second. They were working on the first issue of Daredevil, and [artist] Bill Everett, bless his heart, he just couldn't get it together. It was apparent it was going to be late. So Stan gets Jack Kirby overnight to just bring together this crazy story and they used pretty much whoever was lying around for the Avengers. Stan obviously discovered very quickly that somehow the Hulk didn't work too well, because he really had him leave by the end of the second issue and then come back and fight them.
When did The Hulk become popular among comic book fans, in your eyes?
He just gradually grew. I always think that most of the things that went wrong at Marvel were Martin Goodman's failures of judgment because he was so eager always to cancel anything when it had even a little bit of a problem. The Hulk was never unpopular; he just wasn’t the Fantastic Four. Stan knew he was a good character so he kept bringing him back.
What do you think is a fair way to describe Jack Kirby's role in the creation and evolution of the Hulk?
Well, even if Stan came up with the name and the general concept, Jack still contributed a lot — plus, of course, he came up with exactly what the character looked like. Even if Stan kind of described him as a Frankenstein-ian kind of monster, it's still the artist who contributes a lot by deciding what that means. And I'm sure Jack contributed a lot of story elements as well.
Some people seem want to try to argue that it was all Jack on these things.
Those people are crazy. Stan has got ego and he wants credit but he would credit Jack a lot. Eventually it became not enough for Jack, and I can sort of see both sides of it. It was just one of those things – almost all teams fall apart eventually, you know, whether it's the Beatles or Abbott and Costello or whatever. And when you ask them you find that, of course, in every partnership each side did 90 percent of the work.
You created Ultron with artist John Buscema – what do you make of the movie version?
I've only seen the clips from it at this stage. I made Ultron up more as a straight villain but I think this idea of a more urbane and kind of mad robot, that's sort of a very sensible interpretation. The nice thing to me is that he looks right.
You co-created the Vision, as well, who is also featured in the movie. How did that character come about?
I said, "I want to bring back the old Vision, the 1940s Simon and Kirby character," and Stan said "No we want a new Avenger, but I want him to an android." He never said why! And I said, "You don't care why as long as he's an android?" So I made up an android and I called him the Vision; he hated the red face but other than that he thought it was fine.
Are you happy with your compensation for co-creating these characters?
Yeah, yeah. A couple of years ago Marvel came to me and a number of the other creators. I guess they got tired of being sued by everybody. I got tired of being deposed all the time, too. And they did what I was always telling them, just give them the money and a little credit on the movie, and they will be your biggest fans. So I not only have certain compensations coming by the formula they worked out but they decided that because they are using those two characters — and because they are using the Yellowjacket concept somewhat in the Antman movie that comes out in a couple of months — they ended up giving me a sizeable bonus as well. And they invited me to the premiere.