Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Fable of the Atomic Age

Back in 1997, I took an anthropology class. One of our first assignments was to pick a children's story from our childhood, one that had a "significant influence" on us, and try to wring out the cultural assumptions it contained, the lessons it tried to teach, and the lessons it actually taught.

After pondering the usual array of fables and fairy tales, I realized that those weren't really my culture, and that those stories hadn't had nearly the influence on me that comics and television had. (No big surprise, there: depending on your demographic preferences, I'm either a last-year Boomer or early Gen-X -- two generations pretty well defined by the subsumption of folk culture by pop culture.)

Early on in my youth, Jack Kirby asserted unequivocally that comics were flat-out modern mythology, that they were the Folklore of Our Times, and had that emblazoned right on the covers of his quintessential work. I briefly considered writing about the Fourth World, about the ideas of Life and Anti-Life that even today shape the core of my personal ethos, but the saga of the New Gods was both two obscure and too inchoate to discuss briefly. I settled, instead, on an earlier Lee and Kirby creation...

Once Upon A Time, there was a brilliant scientist. Bruce Banner was a quiet, unassuming man who designed weapons for the United States Government. He had designed a new kind of bomb called a Gamma Bomb, and, one day, this new weapon was about to be tested. Minutes before the bomb was supposed to go off, however, a teenager drove out to the testing range. Young Rick had driven out there on a dare, having no idea that a test was scheduled for that day. Dr. Banner saw Rick's car on the testing range, and, shouting to his assistant to halt the countdown, drove out to the range himself. Dr. Banner didn't know that his assistant was actually a Soviet spy, however, who saw this as an opportunity to dispose of an important American scientist. The countdown continued.

Dr. Banner reached Rick in time to get him to the safety of a trench, but, before he could take cover himself, the bomb detonated, bathing him in mysterious Gamma radiation. He survived - but ever after, whenever he became frightened or angry, he transformed into a huge, destructive creature of immense power and unbridled rage.

He did not live happily ever after.

The psychological stresses imposed upon society by the Cold War and the even colder realizations of the extent of humanity's destructive potential spawned a rich vein of mythology, folklore, and urban legend. Written in 1962, the story of the Incredible Hulk is an enduring icon of that era, familiar to many children who have discovered it though comic books or television. Stan Lee, co-creator of the Hulk, has written that his primary inspirations were Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He sought to combine the two into the tragic figure of a man who had created his own curse. The narrative that emerged, however, is something more than a simple re-hashing of classic stories. It is a tale rich in the culture of its day, reflecting both the values and the fears of the Atomic Age.

Comic books are often condemned for being populated by "cardboard stereotypes." In more traditional forms of children's literature, however, such figures are considered "mythic archetypes". While later writers contributed depth and dimension to this serial myth, in its earliest form, the tale of the Hulk is no exception. General "Thunderbolt" Ross, commander of Gamma Base, is the blustering, foul-tempered soldier - a "Man's Man." His daughter, Betty, is quiet and passive - and portrayed as desirable. She never voices more than a passing attraction for the quiet Dr. Banner, knowing that her father would disapprove, and eventually marries the vain, arrogant Major Talbot, who, whatever his flaws, meets her father's standards of machismo. Rick Jones, an orphan, is a reckless, irresponsible teenager - who immediately reforms after finding a surrogate father in the unlikely person of Dr. Banner. Banner's assistant is a ruthless, backstabbing, Communist spy. Bruce Banner himself is the stereotypical intellectual: quiet, pacifistic, physically weak, a social maladroit; Ross, on several occasions, refers to him as a "milksop", while his raging, green, gamma-spawned alter-ego would express his unflagging contempt for "Puny Banner."

And yet, he builds atomic bombs.

When scientist Robert Oppenheimer witnessed the very first atomic detonation, it is said that he murmured a line from Hindu scripture: "I am become Death, Shatterer of Worlds." Bruce Banner's tale is the literal manifestation of that event: he has become an iconic incarnation of atomic destruction, mindless and raging, dropping from the sky unpredictably, without warning, without reason. The fact that the Hulk frequently battles and defeats other monstrosities and even more destructive threats mirrors the anxiety caused by the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction: we are protected by that which can destroy us.

Banner's transformation also reflects a subconscious attitude toward science and toward scientists, one closely tied to the undercurrent of anti-intellectualism that has always been a subtext of American culture. The Manhattan Project cast a new light on the scientific community: these quiet, unassuming men, rational and logical, often amusingly eccentric, frequently pacifists, could rip matter itself asunder and raze entire cities to the ground.

Buried inside each court wizard might be a monster.

Banner himself does not realize the enormity of his actions until he sees a hapless teenager about to be vaporized. Then and only then does it become clear to him that he has created something which will slaughter children. His willingness to sacrifice himself for Rick does not wholly redeem his transgressions, however. His transformation into the Hulk is wholly suited to his contradictory actions: he has been granted vast power, but it is beyond his control - an ironic parallel to the very nature of atomic science.

Rick Jones, too, must face the consequences of his actions. His irresponsibility has destroyed Banner's career and any possibility of a normal life. However, his subsequent loyalty to both Banner and to the Hulk has earned him something of a surrogate father in the one case, and the status of (in the creature's own words) "Hulk's only friend." Of course, having the strongest person in the world as one's best friend may seem like every child's dream, but when the behemoth in question has the intellect and emotional maturity of an ill-tempered three-year-old, it becomes something of a mixed blessing. A tantrum, after all, can level a city.

Serial fiction such as the comic book is an unusual art-form. Its tales never really end - they continue to grow and develop and evolve from month to month, issue to issue. Different writers bring different emphases and different styles to a saga. The story of the Hulk is no exception. While it is more unitary than, for example, the innumerable variations of the Batman, it has still garnered layers of detail and complexity over the years. No matter the baroque elaborations of the latest monthly tribulations of Bruce and Betty Banner, however, they still have at their core that central kernel of Atomic Age Myth: the tale of the scientist who discovers, beneath his veneer of intellect, the Shatterer of Worlds.

1 comment:

RAB said...

This is one of those things that's stunningly obvious now that you've pointed it out but never occurred to me before -- specifically, that the Hulk was not the parable of an abused child that everyone today thinks it was, or the Jekyll-and-Hyde struggle between rampaging id and repressive superego eveyone thought it was before that, but was actually a Cold War metaphor. It sounds self-evident once you've said it...but before this, all I knew was that years ago the Hulk became incredibly boring and detached from anything that interested me, and I could never figure out what was missing. Now I get it, and it's so clearly where the recent versions and adaptations in other media have gone wrong. Commence forehead slapping and Homer Simpson-like annoyed grunt!