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Blow thyself
Religion sloshed liquidly and somewhat unstably around the Marvel universe, whose core was occupied by a radiant God-being kind-of-thing, or at least an infinite self-organizing principle. O’Brien again: “The implied space in which all past and future episodes were linked was analogous to a higher consciousness. At times, as in the Galactus episode of the Fantastic Four, this consciousness displayed itself openly, with the austere eloquence befitting religious art.” But Galactus, eater of worlds, and his herald, the Silver Surfer, were Jack Kirby’s babies — Kirby with his taste for the sublime, and the tremor of awe in his line. Lee was different: his instinct was for bathos, for the contrast — essentially comedic — between enormous power and the nerds and nobodies to whom it has been arbitrarily awarded. “I never believed in religion,” he told the authors of Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book (Chicago Review Press). “To me, faith is the opposite of intelligence, because faith means believing something blindly. I don’t know why God, if there is a God, gave us these brains if we’re going to believe things blindly.”

The key, then, was self-knowledge, self-understanding — to reconcile one’s capacities with one’s circumstances. The Hulk’s great dilemma is the impossibility of such a reconciliation. Peter Parker and Spider-Man share a mind, as do — however contentiously — puny med student Donald Blake and the hammer-wielding Thor. Bruce Banner and the Hulk do not. Each experiences the other as a kind of nightmare. You’re either immensely green and furious or pale and small-chinned and Ed Norton–ish.

So which is it, buddy? Which is you? In Ang Lee’s beautiful but entirely humorless Hulk (2003), Bruce Banner’s dad (Nick Nolte) raspily assures him that the Hulk is his true nature, that mega-gamma-greenness is his birthright, and that “Bruce Banner” is merely “a flimsy husk of consciousness ready to be torn off at a moment’s notice!” Yowsa! Hellboy, similarly, has a ready-to-go demonic identity: Anung un Rama, he of the curling horns. “Your true name is inscribed around the locks that hold you!” whispers nasty Rasputin in Hellboy. All very potent and Marvel-esque (even though it’s published by Dark Horse Comics) — the father seducing the son back to his apocalyptic origins.

The incredible shrinking woman
“I’m a DC Comics person,” says Dr. Robin S. Rosenberg, PhD, over iced coffee at Simon’s in Cambridge. Outside, the afternoon is horizontal with heat fatigue: the cars buzz drunkenly along Mass Ave. “By temperament, I suppose. Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman — they have a lot more moral clarity for me, a more serious code to which to aspire. Marvel is kind of the arena of the neurotic superhero, beginning with Spider-Man, who, of course, is a New Yorker. A neurotic and very introspective New Yorker! Now Batman is thoughtful, too, but he doesn’t think about himself. He broods, but what he’s doing is figuring out what action to take. So it looks like rumination, obsessive thoughts, but it’s actually problem solving. Whereas Marvel characters seem to go around and around.”

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 See all articles by: JAMES PARKER