COMIC BOOK ‘TOONS #3: The Incredible Hulk (1996-1998)

Does this cartoon of Bruce Banner’s exploits live up to its title? Ed prepares to Hulk-out…

Although the recent trend for comic book films has been hailed as a modern phenomenon, the 90s were almost certainly a precursor to this, introducing us to the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and Iron Man through cartoons. They introduced multiple and familiar guest characters along the way, with X-Men in particular gaining cult status as one of the best cartoons of the decade. But what of The Incredible Hulk, I hear you say? Well, its the younger brother to the other Marvel ‘toons, with its first appearance coming two years after any of its other siblings. This means that any mistakes that were made in the creation and production of those other series would have been ironed-out pretty quickly. Right?

When we meet our “hero,” it turns out that Bruce Banner (Neal McDonough who went on to play “Dum Dum” Dugan in Captain America) has been The Hulk for a fair amount of time already, which while not a problem for anyone with previous knowledge, makes it potentially confusing for those fresh as The Incredible Hulk foregoes any attempts at an origin story. While this may have the intended affect of grabbing the audience’s attention from the start, it also causes a small amount of puzzlement and doesn’t answer the existential question of, “Why is The Hulk the Hulk?” Leaping ahead of the origin tale means that the storyline starts somewhere in the middle of Banner’s history, and anyone who’s taken an English class at primary school level should know that this is almost always a mortal sin. While some shows slowly reveal the origin of their story which can create a feeling of suspense (like the live-action Arrow is doing right now), The Incredible Hulk just doesn’t bother filling in the necessary gaps.

For the first series, the episodes appear to follow a basic pattern, with Banner desperately trying to keep The Hulk (voiced as always by Lou Ferrigno) at bay while a villain (usually General Ross, The Leader or one of his cronies) causes some sort of trouble which inevitably ends up with Banner getting all angry. We also have Betty Ross (Banner’s romantic interest) begging her father to stop chasing the man she loves and a plot that runs through the entire series, culminating in a series finale. While there are a couple of exceptions to this rule, they’re few and far between. This is a shame, as they’re also generally the best episodes, being more memorable and genuinely exciting than the rinse and repeat formula. There’s also another pattern to the first series only broken on one or two occasions, which is that The Hulk must end up suffering at the end of every instalment. He might have won the fight or saved some people, but an awful tragedy will no doubt occur which will make Hulk sad (cue the violins). Unsurprisingly, this made the first series quite dark, something that Marvel noticed and insisted on changing for the second season.

With this change of direction, we said goodbye to the darker direction and the underlying plot and said hello to an expansion for the savage She-Hulk, who had been introduced in the first season but was given a greater role here. She was even added to the title of the series in an attempt to connect with a female audience. To help gain this female audience, she was put in lots of skimpy outfits, because y’know, women love that sort of thing! The second series also became much more humour-orientated with She-Hulk becoming a sort of comic relief which, while it certainly made the series more accessible, was also a lot less palatable, with She-Hulk basically causing mayhem and chaos wherever they went with “hilarious” consequences. Sadly, it turns out that not only was She-Hulk not actually very funny but she wasn’t much of a ratings draw either, with the audience quickly dwindling, leading to the show’s eventual cancellation.

Although there’s a lot to dislike about the second series, such as the idiotic idea to forego an ongoing arc to keep people interested, there was one idea that was genuinely intriguing, and that’s the “Grey Hulk.” For those not in the know, the Grey Hulk, apart from being the character’s original colouring, also reappeared in the 80s where he gained a personality called “Joe Fixit,” an enforcer and general tough guy. Joe is introduced here as a split personality of Banner and the “Green” Hulk. Depending on Banner’s emotion state, he either turns into the less-powerful but more cool-headed Grey Hulk or the animalistic but immensely strong Green Hulk. When I was younger, I thought it was a ridiculously awesome idea and even as I’ve matured (some might say otherwise), I still believe that the idea behind it was intriguing. It’s just a shame that the outcome wasn’t quite as good as the concept. The personality of the Grey’s Mr. Fixit could have been based on The Thing from Fantastic Four, one of The Hulk’s main rivals, which meant that instead of being vaguely interesting, he became just another stereotyped personality with little original flavour.

The art of the series was very much of the 90s style, with flat backgrounds and uninspired character designs that at least retained faithful to their comic counterparts, although some of the original models, such as the bugs in the first episode, look ridiculously childish compared to those based on established protagonists. That’s just lazy. If there’s anything to really admire, it would be the voice cast which also includes Mark Hamill, John Vernon and Matt Frewer.

The Incredible Hulk should be partially praised for its attempt to bring darker, more serious storylines to cartoons, but the quality of the overall series is generally poor. Its not the worst cartoon adaptation of a comic you’ll ever see, with several good ideas to its credit, but the poor implementation of these elements means that you shouldn’t rush out to watch it. At least its streaming on Netflix…