O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
In this feature, I will spotlight plotlines by writers that probably weren’t a good idea at the time and have only become more problematic in retrospect. I’ll try to stick with stuff that’s more ill-conceived than flat-out offensive (like racist stereotypes of characters during the 1940s).
Today, we look at “A Very Personal Hell” from 1980’s Rampaging Hulk #23…
Lynn Graame, the editor of Rampaging Hulk (Marvel’s magazine counterpart to its Incredible Hulk comic book series), opened Rampaging Hulk #23 with a discussion about the science fiction film, The Thing, and she states:
The Thing is one of the most effective horror movies ever. The reason for its impact is that, aside from the vegetable menace, every other detail is quiet and ordinary and commonsensical. A Very Personal Hell, Jim Shooter’s Hulk story in this issue, uses this same kind of realistic detail to create verisimilitude. The emphasis is on relationships both between Banner and the Hulk and those with whom they come into contact. By the end of the story you are convinced that there really might be a creature as The Hulk – or that at least it isn’t utterly impossible!
And that clearly was Jim Shooter’s intent with the story – to show the Hulk in a “realistic horror” setting.
And do note that pretty much everyone in “A Very Personal Hell” is awful. There’s a domineering mother/grandmother, there’s an abusive boyfriend – Shooter’s tale is more or less telling us that, like Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote, “Hell is other people.”
That said, one of Shooter’s decisions for a “realistic horror” for Bruce Banner was problematic, as you can see for yourself…
While at the time, Shooter was very defensive about the story (stating in a later letters column that it was based on a combination of two real-life incidents – one that happened to a friend and one that happened to him, and that the story should only be offensive to rapists, and he was okay with offending rapists), over the years he has mellowed a bit on his view of the story, and I recall a recent interview on the topic where he conceded that perhaps the story was a mistake, but he still does not believe that it was offensive.
When he was creating his Valiant Universe, Shooter had a gay teen as the lead of his series, Harbinger, (although Shooter left the book before the character officially “came out”), and I surely do not believe that the above scene was born out of any anti-gay views on Shooter’s part – like I said, pretty much everyone in the story is a terrible person, so I don’t think he intended anything specific by having the two gay guys being rapists. I think it was simply an attempt to tell a “realistic” story (which, as Shooter mentioned, was rooted in a real-life incident) but the story was still a mistake when you take into consideration:
1. The execution of the story – way too much over-the-top stereotypical behavior – and the whole “too scared to turn into the Hulk” bit was pretty sketchy…
and, perhaps more importantly…
2. Marvel, at the time, had had, like, three gay characters ever appear in a comic book story (none of whom came off particularly well, like a lispy stool pigeon that Moon Knight got information from once and then called a “sissy”), so when you have basically no gay characters, to then have some of the first gay characters ever to appear in your comics appear as rapists? That’s a mistake.
To recap, the point of this feature is not to call Creator X a racist or Creator Y a homophobe or whatever. It’s just pointing out some mistakes they’ve made – it’s not a value judgment of the people involved, just pointing out where things turned out bad, hence the title.
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