Thor: Ragnarok comes out this week. Get your tickets here!
Chances are, if you asked a hundred people to describe Marvel’s Hulk, at least a few of them would make a reference to the big, green guy’s limited vocabulary. We tend to think of a two word monosyllabic phrase from the angry man - “Hulk smash” - and accept that this is the character. Sometimes he may sneak in another two word sentence, but we never consider Hulk as having more of a vocabulary than a two-year-old.
The reality is that for a fair portion of his existence, Hulk has been a real blabber mouth. In his first appearance, way back in 1962, the Mister Hyde to Bruce Banner’s Dr. Jekyll was pretty darn smart, belting out monologues about the weakness of humanity and his disgust for his other form.
By the fourth issue of his series, Hulk was made to be just as intelligent as Bruce Banner after Banner conducted an experiment to make himself into a better Hulk. Two issues later, The Incredible Hulk was canceled, but the character continued to pop up in other comics. He became a founding member of the Avengers, but by the third issue of that series, Hulk lost his smarts. Banner overused the gamma ray machine he created to keep his Hulk abilities and in doing so, he turned himself into a savage beast. Over the next few appearances of the character, Hulk’s speech became more and more childish. By early 1965, the character had become the single syllable speaking tough guy we all know and love.
In the early '70s, Hulk regained his intelligence thanks to Jarella, the princess of K'ai. During this period, Hulk helped form the Defenders back before they became a team that only fought in hallways. Bruce Banner was still unable to control when he turned into Hulk, but as an intelligent and angry force, the monster was no longer a danger to civilians, and Banner worked to overcome his control issues. Once he did, Banner was granted amnesty for his past deeds, but because comics are basically soap operas, you know things can’t stay happy for long.
While Hulk recovered from some injuries he suffered off world, a mobster named Max Hammer tried to use a gamma cure on the hero. The cure backfired and the savage Hulk was released. This lead not only to Hulk once again losing his intelligence, but to Bruce learning that the Hulk persona had been in him since his childhood. In what has to be one of the best single issues stories ever told in comics (seriously, go to Comixology and buy Incredible Hulk issue #312) we see that Bruce’s entire childhood was one of abuse, and the more he was abused, the more he held his fear and anger inside. It is an honestly heartbreaking issue written by Bill Mantlo with art by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola.
The next time Hulk would get all smart would be when he took on a new persona, Joe Fixit. After being separated from Bruce Banner for a time, Hulk ran around all rampagy, but when he and Banner returned to being a single being, things went back to the way they worked in his early days - the now grey Hulk was intelligent and came out when the moon rose, no matter what mood Bruce was in. Over time, Hulk stuck around longer and longer until he was finally able to suppress the Banner persona for good. Now forever in Hulk mode, and with an average intelligence, the strong guy went off to Las Vegas and became an enforcer, collecting money from those in debt and being kind of a big jerk.
The early '90s saw the three versions of Bruce battle it out for control of the body. You’ve got super genius Puny Banner, regular intelligence Grey Hulk, and savage Green Hulk all duking it out in a subconscious battle that ended with a compromise - Banner’s intelligence, Grey Hulk’s looks, and Green Hulk’s strength. In a fun twist, when this version of Hulk became enraged, he would revert to the Bruce Banner body, but with the intelligence of the savage green Hulk.
For nearly a decade this would be the basic version of Hulk, and the reason for his change back to a Green Goliath who couldn’t express himself with words had less to do with stories and more to do with Marvel wanting to get back to basics.
In the late '90s, Marvel was struggling. Coming out of the boom of the early '90s with all the collectible chrome covers and shocking changes to characters (something both DC and Marvel did in the hopes of gaining back the market share the newly formed Image Comics had taken), the comics industry was in a slump in general, and Marvel had stretched themselves thin. In 1996, the company filed for bankruptcy. In 1997 they spent a load of cash to pull creators Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee away from Image and onto their biggest titles in an endeavor called Heroes Reborn - a title that would later be used for the return of the NBC superhero drama. In both cases, Heroes Reborn was a flop.
Meanwhile, writer Peter David, who had been writing Incredible Hulk for all of the '90s, was going through a divorce, and filled with irrational anger at women and based on the suggestion of his editor Bobbie Chase who was looking to boost sales, David decided to kill off Hulk’s love interest, Betty Ross. The Marvel heads saw this as a perfect time to make Hulk savage again, something that David was against (David wanted the story to be about Hulk’s grief and his ability to be the man Betty loved, not the monster she feared). In the end, the higher-ups won and David left the book. Hulk returned to the angry green version.
For a while, Hulk went through a long list of writers, none of whom really caught on with readers. Sometimes Hulk could talk again, and sometimes he couldn’t It was kind of an “anything goes” situation. Then, in a move Marvel loves to pull with stories no one likes, it was revealed that Hulk was being messed with by the villain Nightmare, and a lot of the stories for the past six years never happened.
For the most part, Hulk has been pretty intelligent since 2006. He would lose control from time to time, most notably when he trashed Las Vegas, leading to the secret superhero group the Illuminati making the decision that Hulk had to be taken off Earth, which itself lead to the Planet Hulk storyline that Thor: Ragnarok took major elements from. What lies ahead for Bruce Banner in the comics, we’ll have to wait and see, These days, having just come back from the dead (Hawkeye killed him but a ghost brought him back to life. Don’t ask). Banner has handed the Hulk responsibilities to Amadeus Cho while working from the sidelines to help humanity.
There’s no one answer to when or why Hulk can gain intelligence, but there is one thing that continues to take it from him - Bruce Banner’s inability to control his emotions or his ego. As with any good mythology, the real problem isn’t the monster, but the man behind it. In this case, it is Banner’s need to prove himself to his dead mother, his abusive father, and to himself. From the first time he turned into Hulk, we learned what Banner truly thought of himself - that he was weak and unworthy of love. Writer Bill Mantlo turned this into the subconscious reason of the existence of the Green Goliath, and Peter David turned Hulk into the story of recovery. Looking for what comes next, Marvel has spent a decade playing with Hulk (to the point that I think there are now more Hulks than Robins over at DC) and it looks like they’ve finally found a path that will work for them.