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.