Monday, February 1, 2010

Follow the Leader

As I was working on this review for Pop Matters, it occurred to me that lately, the Hulk has become one of the more interesting and relatable characters to me in the Marvel Universe. Just about all successful characters are one or the other, but Bruce Banner, his alter ego, and the supporting cast of the title(s) generally connect with me most often and on more than one level.

Now, in the pages of this here world-wide-web-log, I've already done the daddy-didn't-love-me bit, so I'm gonna opt out on that parallel here, even with the patricidal Skaar being a major player these days. I could also quite easily compare Bruce Banner's temper problem with my own similar lifelong struggle, but if I can be frank, that subject hits just a little too close to home nowadays. So instead I'm gonna discuss that keen rivalry between the Hulk and the Leader and what I see as the age-old battle between the jock and the nerd.

When I was in junior high and high school, I didn't really get picked on or bullied at all, and I simply don't have the words to describe how disappointing this was. I mean, c'mon, fellas, what do I gotta do? I'm runty, I wear glasses, my nose is buried in a book, and I collect comics, for chrissakes. I gotta draw youse a picture?

Nope, the jocks had better things to do, catching lateral passes and getting to third base with the j.v. cheer squad. Sure, I might get called a fag now and again, but then I'd be forgotten about almost immediately. Even though I held a grudge well into my twenties, a rivalry can't really evolve if there's only one party willing to put in the effort. It just doesn't work.

The best comics rivalries, for my money, are between characters who parallel each other. Mr. Fantastic and Dr. Doom, Wolverine and Sabretooth, Spider-Man and Dr. Octopus--these are all guys who match each other in intelligence and ability. The instigator, who is usually the antagonist, may have individual reasons for carrying on this personal war, but it doesn't take much reading in between the lines to see that each feels threatened by the very existence of their adversaries. They've got to prove they're better, and what better way to test that than against a guy who's as smart, or as savage, or as able to walk up walls?

But the tack taken is much different with the Leader. Samuel Sterns was irradiated with gamma rays, not unlike Dr. Bruce Banner, but with a nearly opposite effect. Where puny Banner transformed into the incredible Hulk, the puny-brained Sterns transformed into the super-genius Leader. What challenge to his vast intelligence does the Hulk really present? The big galoot can't even talk in first person, for crying out loud.

It is just this similarity that spawned Sterns's hatred. In their earliest meetings, back in the Tales to Astonish Lee/Ditko era, all the Leader really wanted to do was study the green-skinned
brute. Clearly, they had both obtained their power from the same source, and a man of the mind like the Leader was naturally curious as to why they had been affected so differently.

Of course, instead of simply trying to buy the Hulk lunch and having a chat, he had to send a horde of Humanoids to tackle him. But it should come as no surprise that these nerdy types are not fraught with social graces. And the Hulk isn't exactly Miss Manners either, fighting the androids off and leaping somewhere to be away from "puny humans."

Teenage boys are pretty much the same creatures. And when one becomes isolated from his peers, he does crazy stuff, like spend all his time overanalyzing the plots of comic books written fifteen years before he was born. So when nerd-boy sees a buncha football players gussied up on their way to prom, he may peer down his nose and claim he has better things to do. But he really just wants some of the action. And since we've been irradiated by the same kind of gamma rays, i.e. adolesence, what more do we need to have in common? My hormones are raging, and I wanna make out with cheerleaders, too!

And it would be a while yet before the Hulk and the Leader would even interact personally. The Hulk didn't even know Bighead existed yet. And being ignored is worse than taking a beating. As masochistic as it may seem, at least violence is a form of attention, a justification, a raison d'etre. C'mon, man, I got a heart full of rage, so will somebody please run my shorts up the flagpole so I have somebody concrete to direct it against?

Fortunately, it's looking as though the Leader may finally get his wish. For those of you not in the know, there's a new kid in town, the Red Hulk. No one knows who he is or exactly what he's doing here. He just showed up one day, shot the Abomination, pounded on Iron Man and She-Hulk, and then literally beat the Hulk out of Bruce Banner.
As of late, we've found out that the Leader and MODOK were the creators of this monster, and have recently become rivals of his as well. Perhaps, over all these years, Banner's humanizing influence on the Hulk has kept him from acknowledging the Leader as a true rival, to engage him as such rather than as a nuisance. But the Red Hulk is clearly a big enough jock asshole to finally pants the Leader in front of the girls' gym team.

Then he and I and all of us over-tensed, hot-headed, four-eyed dorks can finally breathe easier, can finally allow our bottomless hatred for the world to take over and to purely direct our actions.

Oh, happy day.