When I started telling my daughter about various superheroes, I thought for sure that the Flash or Batgirl was going to be her favorite. But super-speed and total recall can’t stand up to gamma-powered grumpiness: the Hulk has her heart.
At six years old, my girl child is still in the age range where she can’t keep still. That’s why I thought the Flash would become her favorite superhero. When she asked me to talk about superheroes who weren’t very patient, I told her how the Flash’s powers make it hard for him to wait for anything. She chuckled at the idea of Flash being unable to do a stakeout with Batman because he’d be so antsy. She’s becoming quite an avid reader, too, and it seemed like Barbara Gordon’s past as a librarian would endear Batgirl to her. She loves the idea that Batgirl never forgets anything that she sees, reads, or learns, even after I explained the downsides. For her, Batgirl’s photographic memory makes the heroine was “smarter than Batman.” So what made her go all in on the Hulk?
The versions of long-running characters that I tell my kid about are amalgamations of the iterations I grew up on. Last night, the conversation turned to super-pets and I told her about Krypto, Streaky, and Comet. When I’m talking about Superman or Supergirl in those moments, it’s the Curt Swan/Murphy Anderson drawings that float in my head. For the Hulk, the mental visuals are delineated in Herb Trimpe’s melodramatic linework and the tone I call on is the one set up by the 1970s/1980s stories I read. In those works, the Hulk is essentially an impossibly strong temperamental toddler. He’s got poor emotional control, limited intellectual capacity and a good but extremely gullible heart.
My daughter’s appreciation started with my Hulk voice, through which I channeled all that lovable gamma crankiness. When I first growled out my version of the Jade Giant’s garbled syntax, she giggled immediately. She instantly understood that overheated emotions trigger the change that turns Bruce Banner into the Hulk, ”like when people get so frustrated and they yell and push other people” in her words. But it took her a while to come to grips with the idea that the Hulk didn’t also know he was Bruce Banner. The first time she requested the character specifically, it was by asking “Can you tell me about the strong guy with the baby-talk voice?” As I told her more stories about the Hulk, it was clear that she enjoyed how easily flummoxed and annoyed the character would get by simple, everyday activities.
I have a restlessly curious child who also demonstrates an extroversion that strobes sudden and bright depending on her mood. She’ll listen in on strangers’ interactions and blurt out interjections about how she too got burned one time when she was helping her daddy make pasta. Sometimes I chide her about over-sharing or being a buttinsky but mostly I let her be a free spirit. After I caught my breath after spooling off a ripping yarn about the Hulk going apple-picking with Rick Jones, I spied her smiling to herself. When I asked what was tickling her brain, she said “I’m thinking about the Hulk’s farts.” I’d told her the origin of the Silver Surfer that same night and we debated whose flatulence would be more loud and/or pungent. (I kinda think that Galactus’ former herald wouldn’t break wind at all, since his cosmically powered body no longer needs to ingest solid matter.)
One thing I’m learning about my kid is that she’s hungry for story. She pretty much asks me to be a story machine that explains the world to her over and over. I try my best to always make time for her questions, daydreams, and non-sequiturs because I remember being waved off by a harried, often intemperate single mom. On a recent rainy day, she asked for more Hulk. Rather than just keep on improvising new adventures for her on the spot, I took the opportunity to have her help make one up.
A quick template of storytelling questions came to mind and we went to work.
This wasn’t going to be a traditional multi-panel affair. I just wanted to see what she’d come up with.
Part of her enjoyment of the Hulk comes from feeling smarter than him and seeing the character as an outlet for outlandish behavior she could never get away with. Most of the prompts that she comes up with have to do with juxtaposing the extraordinary and the quotidian, like “What if the Human Torch tried ice-skating? What if your tongue was a fruit roll-up and you could have a treat whenever you wanted by biting it?” I loved writer Greg Pak’s recent spotlight on Bruce Banner and his constant need to tamp down his emotions.
But I think my daughter’s love for the Hulk doesn’t just come from the fact that he’s a dumb gigantic, super-strong galoot. My daughter is hooked on him because of the truth about the character that’s at the opposite end of the notional spectrum. My kid’s affection for the Hulk comes from the idea that he can be a vessel for her id. She doesn’t care so much about the Hulk smashing everything in sight. She just wants to hear about what it’d be like if he did normal things. Like farting.