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Coercing the Hulk: What Is Up With Rick Jones?

Rick Jones (comics)

Rick Jones (comics) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Journey Into Marvel – Part 44

Extremites, sidekicks are essential and important parts of the Superhero comic. They are the character that creates a connection with the reader by bringing humanity to often chaotic and absurd plots.

Under every Golden Age superhero there is a sidekick. Batman has Robin. Superman has Jimmy Olsen. Green Arrow has Speedy. Captain America has Bucky.

The sidekick acts as a window into the inaccessible world of the hero. How would we understand what a character’s motivations are if there wasn’t a character present to ask a question?

Sure, in some cases the narrator would just tell us, but this is Passive Narrative. It is inactive. It is no fun.

Passive Narrative is less compelling to read.  It is far more fun to arrive at our own conclusions. It’s fun to listen to a conversation and realize an important plot point. I call this the ‘OH SHIT! Did he just say that’ phenomenon.

Today’s Journey Into Marvel is an investigation of one of the most polarizing of figures in the early Marvel Silver Age: The Hulk’s sidekick Rick Jones.

In the Stan Lee renaissance of Superhero Comics at Marvel— circa 1962 — the emphasis was youth readers. DC had made its bones, for the last thirty or so years, writing characters that existed in heightened fantastical situations. DC didn’t care about reality. When the Fantastic Four debuted in November 1961, Marvel transported superheroes to the bustling world of real time New York. They dared to ask the important question: what would superheroes be like if they were real?

Stan came to the conclusion that superheroes would deal with real life situations like fan mail, approval ratings, traffic…. fans who hated them; Yancy Street Gang, I’m looking at you.  He further concluded that a superhero also had to have been a teenager. Out of this, he created,  Johnny Storm/Human Torch and Peter Parker/Spider-Man; two fantastic sides of the same coin.

Johnny is a brash hot-rodding popular kid, who has a tendency to be a bully. He embodies the spirit rebel youth culture of the early 60s. Inspired by James Dean and Surf Movies.

Peter is an intellectual.  A book worm who is ignored in high school; who has the potential to one day take on the world and be a master of it.

During this period, Stan and Jack were working on another new character. A character that had no basis in DC: Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk. The debut, while extraordinarily ahead of its time and fascinating, was received very coldly. This Icredible Hulk feels less like a superhero and more like character from a monster tale. This is mainly due to his similarities with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde. Check out my article discussing this in depth.

In the second issue, Hulk’s character is even more uncontrollable. He’s an instinctual beast that freely attacks whoever he sees fit. This created a problem for the creatives. Hulk is more villainous than he is heroic.

In Modern Comics, we love the anti-hero. However, in the the early 60s, anti-heroes were not allowed.  Anti-Heroes violated the comic’s moral code. All pulp magazines of the period had to adhere to this code. Hulk is a character that cannot headline his solo title without violating it. Seeing this problem, and understanding that the character straddled the line between hero and villain, Kirby and Lee came up with a conceit to control him. In Issue #3, they presented their idea.

1515_4_3Rick Jones has been present in the Hulk mythos since the debut. He is the impetus of Bruce Banner’s act of heroism that created the Hulk. Rick Jones, over the progression of two issues, has become a confidante, out of guilt for his role in the creation of the Hulk, of Bruce Banner. He helps Bruce control the Hulk by locking him up in an underground bunker.

In Issue #3, Rick is given a new role. Resulting from a further bout of radiation, the results of a new weapon created by Thunderbolt Ross, Rick and Hulk are tied together mentally by a psychological connection. This connection means Rick now has the power of suggestion over the Hulk. He can tell him to do what ever he requires, making the Green Monster his slave. However, there is a catch. When Rick falls asleep the connection is lost and Hulk is left to his own devices, meaning Rick can never sleep if Hulk is to be controlled. It’s is a great conceit. But it has a short shelf life. The relationship cannot go on forever because then that means Rick can never sleep and who wants to read about a sleep deprived teenager? Certainly, not other teenagers.

In this issue, the focus changes from Bruce Banner to Rick Jones. In the first part,  Rick is given the power of control over the Hulk, the thought bubbles switch from Bruce Banner, who only appears in three frames, to Rick. Hulk, and by relationship Bruce, are secondary to master Rick. Big Green is reduced to a pet monster. A protective ‘special friend’ that evokes thoughts of ET or The Iron Giant, rather than Jekyll and Hyde. This change doesn’t even reflect the supposed other inspiration of the Hulk which, according to Jack Kirby, was Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo. The Incredible Hulk is now a story about ‘a young man and his magical friend,’ not the internal struggles of a scientist.

This is the beginning of the end. Remember, the end is only three issues away.

RingmasterThe second story focuses on the evil plans of the Ringmaster who heads a up a group of circus freaks. He guides them in a campaign of larceny against an unsuspecting town. The Ringmaster has the power of hypnoses, because like all circus inspired characters of the time, he has a lot of items with red and white spirals on them. Ringmaster uses this power to coerce legions of middle America townspeople into his big top, where he puts them into a trance and steals all their money.

Rick, being the precocious teenager he is, can’t pass up the opportunity to go the circus and soon finds himself in the Ringmaster’s trance.  Because of the mental connection the two share, Hulk hears Rick’s mental anguish when Jones falls into the trap and comes bounding in to save the day.

I love circus gothic.

I also love the idea that the Ringmaster wants the Hulk to headline his new freak exhibit.

I loathe the camaraderie that both Rick and Hulk share.

This camaraderie pacifies the Hulk. No longer is it ‘Hulk Smash,’ but ‘Hulk Love.’

Furthermore, Stan is not confident that the character is working. This is evident in the constant fluctuation of the principle behind Hulk’s transformations. Originally, Bruce changed into the Hulk when the sun went down. This principle is not unlike the changes that the Wolfman or some vampire might go through. Now, Hulk changes whenever he wishes. Hulk, now, has no reason to change. In fact, Hulk never returns to Bruce Banner except for one unexplained instance.

Hulk’s principle of strength is also in flux. One moment Hulk is strong enough the fell an army of tanks, easily repelling an onslaught of shells flying at supersonic speeds and the next moment Hulk is quelled by a common fire hose. There is a tonne of discrepancies across this issue and it really goes to show that Stan is scrambling to attract fans.

None the less, this issue, like the past two has some of the best work of Jack Kirby’s career in it. The vibrant faces of the technicians during the launch sequence is a stunning example of his detailed vision.

All this scrambling to attract fans is the reason why Rick Jones has become the focus. Youth sells, as shown by both Spider-Man and The Human Torch.

Rick Jones is too prominent. He’s no longer a sidekick. This is no longer The Incredible Hulk but ‘The Incredible Rick Jones.’

Perhaps, Jack and Stan think that a teenager would save the ailing title.

The Marvel staff of this period must have been under heavy pressure if they are giving up on a character this fast.

Wesley Crusher didn’t help the Enterprise… and Rick Jones didn’t help The Incredible Hulk.

Until next time, Extremites, I remain: Julian Munds.

The Story I Read:Banished To Outer Space/ The Ringmaster” (The Incredible Hulk #3 Sept. 1962)

Rating: 2 out 5.

Pros: Lovely art from Jack Kirby. Detailed and quirky writing in the Circus of Crime.

Cons: Lack of focus. Youth Exploitation. Huge discrepancies.

Previous Review:The Stone Men From Saturn” (Journey Into Mystery #83 Aug. 1962)

Upcoming Review: Captives of the Deadly Duo” (Fantastic Four #6 Sept. 1962)


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