‘Hulk’ writer Peter David: Looking back without anger — GUEST ESSAY
On Dec. 30, Peter David, the 56-year-old novelist and comic book writer, was on holiday when he suffered a stroke, a crisis he reported himself with a blog posting that contains the most chilling passages of his vivid career: “We were on vacation in Florida when I lost control of the right side of my body. I cannot see properly and I cannot move my right arm or leg.”
Earlier in December, David had been asked by EW to write a guest essay about the 50th anniversary of the Hulk, a character that David knows better than anyone — his 12-year stint scripting the monthly series The Incredible Hulk is rare in its duration and remarkable in its depth and surprise. David has shaped other universes (he’s filled a shelf with his Star Trek novels and written scripts for Babylon 5 as well as ActiVision’s big Spider-Man: Edge of Time video game) but his green days were special. David is now in physical therapy and monster bills will be mounting in the weeks and months ahead; his family and close friends say this would be an especially good moment to add a David book to your collection. Check out David’s blog below.
It was 1986 and Bob Harras, the editor of The Incredible Hulk for Marvel Comics, was desperate. No one wanted to write the book. At least that’s what he told me when he asked me if I’d be interested in taking on the assignment. At that point in time, I had no other writing jobs. I was Marvel’s direct sales manager, in charge of getting comic books to retailers and distributors so they could sell them. I had some writing experience as the scripter for a Spider-Man title for about five minutes (well, a year) until I was fired off the book. The Spidey editor was trying to save his job, you see, and having some nobody from sales writing Marvel’s flagship character was Simply Not Done. So I was astounded when Bob walked into my sales office and pitched my writing the Hulk. My immediate reaction was a severe lack of interest. I was still feeling bruised from being tossed off Spider-Man despite the critical acclaim my brief run had garnered. Bob assured me, however, that this was a completely different case. Everyone paid attention to Spider-Man. No one gave a damn about the Hulk. My writing the latter title would not send up any interoffice flares.
Also, since I hadn’t actually been reading the title (not making me much different from most Marvel fans), I had no idea what the then-current status quo was. You might figure that the Hulk was Bruce Banner, the atomic scientist who inadvertently unleashed a monster because he was standing too near the explosion of a gamma bomb (whatever that was). But you’d be wrong: The Hulk was now Rick Jones, the teenager whom Bruce had been trying to save from the gamma bomb. Meanwhile Bruce Banner was still a Hulk, but he was gray and shifted only at night. And Bob told me absolutely that I could go in any direction with whatever aspect of the Hulk I wanted. He could be the green Rick Jones, the gray Banner. Could I turn Thunderbolt Ross, the Hulk-obsessed army general, into a new Hulk? “Sure!” said Bob. (Twenty-plus years later, Marvel did exactly that, but Bob was working for DC Comics by that point, so I doubt they got it from me.)
I thought about it overnight and realized I only had about half a dozen or so stories that I could come up with. As far as long-term went, I had no clue as to what to do with the Hulk. But I figured, What the hell? No one else was offering me any writing assignments. Although much of my education had been in writing (I had a B.A. in Journalism from NYC), my job career had taken me in a different direction, and I was more or less satisfied with the day job I was doing. So if once a month I wrote The Incredible Hulk on the side for sixth months or so, what was the harm?
That’s why it breaks me up that over the past few years, Marvel has been putting out a series of trade paperback collections of my twelve years on the book. It’s part of a line called Marvel Visionaries. Hear that, kids? I was a visionary. A visionary who had absolutely no clue what he was doing from one issue to the next.
I made quick work of Rick Jones as the Hulk, restoring him in short order back to his proper place as a mere normal human. (That didn’t last as a few years ago he was transformed into a superhero called A-Bomb. But I did what I could at the time. ) I then went on to focus on Bruce Banner as the Hulk, albeit gray and physically weaker than his fairly invincible green counterpart. He was also perfectly articulate, as opposed to the “Hulk smash!” version that had been his persona for decades. This decision was greeted with mixed reactions from the fans, most of whom wanted him restored to his more primitive incarnation. I ignored them and did what I wanted, sure that when someone else took over the book within a few months, they would go off and do whatever they wanted.
Interestingly enough, that didn’t happen. My first year on the Hulk flew by as I worked with an up and coming young artist named Todd McFarlane. As years continued years to roll by, I worked with a series of progressively entertaining pencilers, and as I did so, an overall direction for the character suggested itself to me.
For years, Bruce Banner spent his time trying to cure himself of being the Hulk and it never worked for long. I realized during my reading on psychology that Bruce displayed all the symptoms of what was then called Multiple Personality Disorder, even when he was younger. The realization suggested that even if he’d never been struck by a gamma bomb, he’d still have serious mental issues. And I thought, “He’s never actually sought psychological counseling, even though we had a psychiatrist, Dr. Leonard Samson, as a recurring character in the book. What if the stories lead to him having a massive mental breakdown, and Doc Samson manages through hypnotic counseling to merge all of the fractured pieces of Bruce Banner’s personality? What we’d have then is Bruce Banner the way he would and should have been, but he’s also huge and green because you can’t really rid him of that.” And that’s what I did, with artist Dale Keown creating the Merged Hulk that was his dominant personality for much of the remainder of my stay on the series.
I actually didn’t know I was going to be leaving The Incredible Hulk when I did go. What happened was that my editor at the time, Bobbie Chase (also now at DC, go figure) had suggested — when we were kicking around future plot directions — that I kill off the Hulk’s wife, Betty Banner. Betty had always been my wife’s favorite character and because of that I’d always sworn nothing bad would happen to her. But then my wife left me so that she could go off and do other things like, I dunno, not be married to me. On that basis, Betty’s safety measure was gone. When Bobbie suggested we plug her, I said, “Sure, why not?” So I killed her off. This got Marvel all excited. See, when I’d started on the book and, over years, doubled sales on it, it caused people to suddenly start paying attention. With the death of Betty, this prompted Marvel to have a Brilliant Idea. Mourning the loss of his wife, the Hulk would now go dead silent, stop talking to anyone, and run around the Marvel universe smashing everything in sight.
When I was told the new plan, I objected. I told them it was out of character with the psychologically complex giant I’d created over the years. I said I wouldn’t write that. And the editorial higher-ups (none of whom still work for the company) said that I shouldn’t hesitate to avoid having the door hit me on the way out.
And that was that. After twelve years, I was gone. Marvel then brought on a series of writers to produce the exact stories that Marvel wanted for the Hulk and, as I predicted, sales tanked. It wasn’t until Marvel brought on British writer Paul Jenkins (who basically started writing the same types of stories that I’d been doing) that sales turned around.
So that was my life with the Hulk. Out of fifty years of his existence, I took up twelve straight years (plus annuals and such) covering the concerns and chaos that the Hulk had to face daily. If I’d known that I’d be leaving the book the issue afterward, I’d never have killed off Betty (although since then she was brought back to life and is now the red She-Hulk, so that made a lot of difference.) I had up periods and down periods. Times where I had the book fully under control and times where I was roughing it and had no clue what I was doing. In retrospect, if I had to draw one conclusion from my time on the series, it was this: Hunh. Nope. I still got nothin’.
The Hulk bounced around in my brain for over a decade, and I in his, and yet in the final analysis I really can’t think of any life lesson that we’ve contributed to each other. I had Betty pregnant for a while and then Marvel editorial insisted that she lose the baby because as far as they were concerned, “The Hulk will never have kids.” Nowadays he’s got like three kids, so what did they know? What did any of us know? The Hulk’s gonna do his own thing, and that’s pretty much that. Because when you’re the Hulk, that’s all you really have to worry about.
– Peter David