Art in the Roots,#2: A Superhero Revisited

Since my first post only introduced the series, this is the first real Art in the Roots post, so let’s start at the beginning. My earliest reading memories are Incredible Hulk comics. My brother (three years older) had a bunch, and I’d squirrel them away when he wasn’t watching. Looking back, he probably knew and was just done reading them, but I thought I was getting away with something. Of course, this made reading all the more enticing, and I’d stare at those comic panels over and over, unable to read the words yet but still catching the gist of the story. 

I was also recently nabbed by COVID after two years of consistently following guidelines. (There is no individual in a pandemic, my friends. It’s a team sport.) I’m thankful I was able to work remotely, but I was still isolated, alone all night, which allowed me to catch up on the most recent Marvel movies and shows. (If this blog did reviews, I’d spend the next four hours ranting about how The Eternals has a sequel lined up but Hawkeye doesn’t. Just … come on, man.)

Stir those two elements of my life together, and I got thinking about the Hulk. I’m not even sure how many Hulk movies there are at this point. I’ve started reading Marvel comics again too, using my kids as an excuse but subscribing to a few just for myself too. As near as I can tell, no one is quite sure what to do with the Hulk anymore in either medium.

The Hulk is originally a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tale, an exploration of our id but also a nuclear age anxiety dream. If you’re unaware of the character’s history, the Incredible Hulk was introduced in May 1962. In the first issue, mild-mannered scientist Bruce Banner is exposed to gamma radiation during a bomb test in the dessert, and the Hulk is born. The character has changed many times over the years, but the central element is Banner trying to contain his Hulk side, the conscious brain versus the unconscious brain. 

They help us see who we can be, how we can help others, how we can do the hard things because it’s the right thing to do. 

Art helps us examine ourselves, but as I mentioned in post #1, there’s a prevailing theory lately that people don’t want to examine much these days. This leads me to a new hypothesis: The Hulk has fallen out of narrative favor because he is the superhero most like us here in 2022. 

Image by ErikaWittlieb from Pixabay

We know who we should be. We know how we should be. But then we log on. We go down a Facebook vortex, and the next thing you know, you’re my high-school classmate wishing someone death by vaccination. (To be clear, that ain’t a thing, my dude.) We watch only one news channel, and we become the Hulk. Unchecked id, angry with inaccurate, uninformed evidence. We are a world of ignorant digital Hulks. 

We avoid the Hulk these days because art is a mirror, and we don’t like how ugly we are. We really don’t like the Hulk because his other half, Bruce Banner, uses factual evidence to help others, to be a good person, to be how we know we should be. (He got blasted by radiation in the first place because he was saving Rick Jones, a teenager who had driven into the middle of the bomb test unawares.) This is what superheroes do, ultimately, and it’s why Marvel movies are so indescribably popular: They help us see who we can be, how we can help others, how we can do the hard things because it’s the right thing to do. 

Before we write this off as yet another piece against social media, that’s not it either. Social media has made me massively more aware of the oppressive world Black Americans endure. Of how it feels to be a woman in our country. Of how it feels to be anything other than me, a straight white man. Social media isn’t the problem. We are, with our dark underbellies. We think of racism as some historical element of American history, but the folks yelling at Ruby Bridges in all those photos? Most are still alive. It’s not old history. It’s still now. The Hulk is in everyone, and some let him out gladly and unchecked. 

We can’t fix anything without looking at ourselves in the shadows. We all have a Hulk, ready to smash what’s good. This isn’t really where I meant to go with my first blog piece, but I guess I’m asking us to grapple with why our Hulks are so angry at our Banners, why our ids want to ruin what our scientists have built. We’ve got the Hulk part covered—we need our art to help us appeal to our collective Bruce Banner.

— Mitch Nobis

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