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Looking Back At Hulk #23

This piece was written several years ago shortly after the violent and gruesome death of Freedom Ring, a then newly created character who was gay. Due to a hacker’s successful attack, it and 98 % of the site disappeared. Originally I railed a bit against Marvel for its handling of LGBT characters in the wake of the very public backlash by conservatives following the first Rawhide Kid mini series. The state of LGBT characters is much improved in the years since though still not perfect — whatever perfect means. Peter David made Rictor and Shatterstar a couple with a simple kiss, as well as the first bedroom scene for gay characters since Marvel’s Phat and Vivisector in X-Statix. Moondragon and Phyla-Vel (who’s had one too many code names) pledged their undying love (and tested a little too often perhaps). Teenaged boyfriends Wiccan and Hulkling are mainstays of the Young Avengers. And a gay couple kissing is included on a cover for an upcoming Ultimate Spider-Man.

Thankfully these days are a far cry and a long time coming compared to thirty years ago. In 1980 mainstream comics were still subjected to scrutiny by the Comics Code Authority and there were no positive depictions of LGBT characters in or out of the closet. Several new and smaller publishers such as Eclipse, Pacific, and First were distributed to comic shops directly and were never obliged to follow CCA rules. Marvel sidestepped prohibitions by publishing comics in magazine format such as Epic, Marvel Preview (which had the first male male kiss) and The Hulk.

Ah, The Hulk.

In “A Very Personal Hell” Shooter decided to write about a couple of homosexuals, drug users, and a suicide. Bruce Banner is a wanted man on the run because of Hulk-related incidents from previous issues. Where else is there a better place to hide but in plain sight in Manhattan? Actually, when the story opens he’s actually not hiding so well because a professorial type guy in a white lab coat and a security guard find him in a limited access room with research journals. Bruce hightails it down a corridor and apologizes for nearly knocking over a buxom redhead named Mrs. Steinfeld.

After catching his breath, Bruce partakes of New York’s connoisseur food, the street vendor’s hot dog. Or does Bruce like to play ptomaine roulette? With nothing else to do and no money to spare, Bruce returns to the YMCA where he’s staying. Two questionably looking guys eye Bruce in a hallway

and follow him into the shower room. The two-page scene has to be seen and read to be believed, so here is the first page…

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and the second page…

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Oh, and this page is not to be forgotten…

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Pretty disparaging for what seems to be the first non-coded appearance of gay characters in a comics story from one of the Big Two. This story was followed a few months later by the first of only two stories to my knowledge featuring Paradox. While Paradox kissed another male character, he also had sex with a woman, and writer Bill Mantlo never identified Paradox as gay or bisexual though he had one of the antagonists refer to Paradox as a fairy.

Andy Mangels broaches the topic in the first part of his seminal “Out of the Closet and into the Comics” article for AMAZING HEROES (issues #143 and #144 published in 1988). He recounts that after the story appeared Jim Shooter began receiving negative mail and Shooter hinted in letter columns that the shower incident was based on two true stories, one that happened to him and the other to a friend. Shooter was twenty-seven years old when he became Editor In Chief in 1978, and you have to wonder just when this experience occurred because you wouldn’t think a new Editor In Chief would stay at a YMCA. Maybe it happened during a solo trip to New York from his native Pittsburgh? The more I read through the story, the more I think it reads like an account of Billy Bob Joe country bumpkin who’s led a very sheltered life on his first visit to the big city.

Can you imagine if an out gay man had written that scene? You know Luellen would have stayed with his friend Dewey in the shower. Now I’m not trying to make light of situation involving non-consensual sex. Intimidation and violence are never right except perhaps if they’re used in self-defense. Since Shooter intimated the incident is based on a real experience then it needs mentioning that Shooter, being taller than average, cuts a rather impressive figure himself, and could have used his stature to his advantage. But that would mean there’d be no story, and therefore no way for Shooter to have furthered the stereotype that every gay man is a sexual predator. Maybe if it had been a real situation Shooter was tempted by the thought of gay sex and needed a way to assert his masculinity. The “gay man as sexual predators” is the same lie dressed up slightly differently that was spread and believed about African American men up until not all that long ago.

Wait a minute though. In one panel Luellen says, “Fair’s fair! I went first with that chubby cutie from Akron last week.” [Emphasis added by me.] The phrase “chubby cutie” reminds me of “chubby chaser.” Obviously the phrase can apply to people of both sexes and all orientations. It just seems…odd here to me, almost as if the words had been overheard. That bit of dialog also points to a history of this behavior and infers the pair has been staying at the Y for longer than a week in order to conspire these acts. Notice the bar of soap falls out of Bruce’s hand, too. You know what comes next in that cliché. Look at Dewey’s right ear in the last panel of the second linked page? At the time, only gay men pierced their right ears. The last four panels in the last image show Bruce from behind. You could say doing so emphasizes Bruce’s ass, but I read it as showing a progression from Bruce feeling vulnerable to feeling empowered in the panel that directly follows where he’s transformed into the Hulk, and the pose is frontal.

Hmm. How would the story have been different if Luellen had gone into the shower room instead of keeping watch for Dewey?

As far as I know what hasn’t been discussed much if at all is the rest of the story. Even when I read the story the first time in 1980 I knew it was the literary equivalent of a fly-drawing pile of excrement, and I can attest that it still is today. Won’t you let me share it with you?

After Bruce loses control, and it seems to be issues of control seem to be the sub-text here, there is the requisite transformation into the angry Hulk. Poor Hulkie has only a miniscule hissy fit when you think of the damage that could’ve happened. Here he tosses a full garbage can out of the alley, smashes a car, and assaults a pedestrian with one of the car’s tires before he literally tumbles into the ground floor apartment of a woman who goes by the name of Clear.

Now, Clear is anything but that since she mistakes the big, green giant as a friend of her druggie boyfriend, True. Then again, your perceptions might be a little skewed if you just took six tabs of some drug. She’s so messed up she misinterprets his angry “I am Hulk!” to mean his name is “Sam Hull.” True, Clear’s druggie boyfriend, returns and he must equally high because he refers to Hulk as “this overstuffed jerk” and threatens Clear. Hulk swats puny human. Puny human flees, shouting threats. Hulk likes it when Clear snuggles up close and says, “Wow, am I wasted! But, it’s like, okay, y’know? We can still make love…in a minute.” Would we have seen Hulk’s throbbing, green weenie if she hadn’t passed out? Apparently Hulk is too stupid to understand what making love means or he might have stayed agitated longer after not getting any.

Hmm. The prospect of sex with a tripped out woman is enough to calm Hulk so he can revert to Bruce. A shirtless Banner wanders the streets before getting up the courage to return for his belongings at the Y. Back on the streets he decides to he needs a job in order to find a safe place and try to access those medical research books he hopes contain a miracle cure. Never mind the information will be useless without access to technology. A shady looking character directs him to an address around Times Square, and this is Times Square before its current Disney-sanitized incarnation, At the address Bruce finds a room full of half naked women lounging. He politely turns down the madam’s offer to pass out flyers on 44th and 7th.

Later, Bruce and Mrs. Steinfeld, you remember her – the redhead Bruce almost knocked over trying to escape the hospital – run into each other as she leaves a chic restaurant. After hearing Bruce’s story (or as much as he’s willing to tell), she offers help in getting a kitchen job at the restaurant she just left.

Mrs. Steinfeld’s life is hardly wonderful. She’s going through a bitter divorce and custody battle for her only child; her mother is a conniving shrew, and her sister is a spineless suck up. Oh, yeah, Alice needs her Valium to calm her nerves, too. Bruce takes Alice to dinner to thank her for the job, and they end up back at her “6 rms riv vu” style apartment. He yields to her needs and “the night softly holds their love in its velvet fastness” while far downtown True beats the crap out of Clear.

That “velvet fastness” lasted through the night for Bruce and Alice, but it’s going to be broken. Unknown to Alice, her mother and sister are hovering mere feet away as she kisses Bruce. Later that evening, the callous mother sabotages her daughter when she calmly explains she’ll testify against her daughter in court. Moments later Bruce appears, thinking he’ll get a gourmet meal and more hot sex. Instead, he finds a distraught Alice. Poor Bruce. Anger begins to set in and you know what that means. Yep, he runs out of her apartment before Alice can see him turn into his mean, green self. Hulkie causes more damage for two and a half pages. A delivery truck gets thrown through the air to land on a rooftop, cars in a parking lot are smashed. Typical tantrum behavior.

Instinct leads him back to Clear’s apartment. No surprise she’s high again. At least this time it’s to help ease the pain from her boyfriend’s beating. Clear is afraid for he safety and tells “Sam” he has to leave before True finds him there. Too late! True already hatched a plot. He’s returned with a full gas can and ignites the apartment’s only door. Hulk pounds at the building’s structure, and as the timber falls, an escape route appears for Clear to crawl through. But the entire ten-story brick building has to collapse on Hulk for dramatic effect before he leaps away and changes back to Brucie.

Then he remembers running out on Alice and rushes back to be with her. Alas, Bruce running out was the last straw for Alice. All the luxury she could afford did nothing to dull the pain of her life, and she overdosed on her tranquilizers. Her suicide note reveals she’d figured out Bruce was Hulk (how the hell could she do that?) The note also tells him to take the $1,000 hidden in the blue cookie jar and put it to good use. Bruce has a good cry and a few days later successfully tracks down Clear to Mercy Hospital. He persuades a nurse to deliver an envelope to the recovering woman. Inside it she finds the cookie
jar money and a note that says only “Love, Sam.” Outside, Bruce gazes longingly toward her room and quietly walks off.

What’s Shooter’s moral here? His New York is full of messed up people, reminding me a little of the myth of Sodom and Gomorrah, where everyone’s sexuality is twisted and gay men are out to prey on you and violence as retribution is the only option.

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