Characters Appearing: Hulk
Hulk Magazine #23
Issue(s): Hulk Magazine #23
But this issue, which has Bruce Banner almost getting raped by gay men at the YMCA, gets a lot of attention, so i felt like i ought to include it in my collection. Most likely you've read all about it on a million other places on the internet and i don't even need to cover it. But it's notorious enough that i figured i ought to cover it myself. And, having now read the full story, there is actually a lot of additional insanity to look at.
We'll start with the intro essay by editor Lynn Graeme, which starts off talking about how much she likes the 1951 film The Thing, saying "The reason for its impact is that, aside from the vegetable menace, every other detail is quiet and ordinary and commonsensical", and then pivots to discussing the Hulk story:
A VERY PERSONAL HELL, Jim Shooter's Hulk story in this issue, uses this same kind of realistic detail to create versimilitude. 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!
Assuming the menace of the alien in The Thing should be compared to the menace of the Hulk's anger (and not to, for example, the gay rapists, who are actually really incidental to the story), Graeme's comparison couldn't be further off base. Jim Shooter's story is anything but "quiet and ordinary and commonsensical" when it comes to everything except the Hulk. Quite the opposite. This story features insanely over the top depictions of a grim and gritty world of poverty, (gay) rape, drug use, domestic abuse, prostitution, depression, and suicide.
I guess we'll just start at the beginning. Bruce Banner has sneaked into the Library of the Empire University Hospital and Medical Research Center in Manhattan, hoping to find info that could lead to a cure for his Hulk-ism. But the library is restricted to medical students only, and he's chased out.
On his way out, he crashes into a Mrs. Steinfeld, who is impressed with the fact that he doesn't knock her over.
Notice that Mrs. Steinfeld is in the Empire University Hospital and Medical Research Center, and the other people in the building know her. You might conclude from this, as i did, that she is a med student herself, or someone on staff there or something. And since we can tell that she's interested in Bruce, that perhaps she'll later check out the books that Bruce wanted to see, and lend them to him. But it'll turn out that (as far as i can tell) she has nothing to do with the hospital at all, and Bruce's need for the books is forgotten in the end.
When Bruce escapes his pursuers, he goes back to the YMCA where he's staying. And now we get to our gay rapists. Notice the ridiculously effeminate white guy, and the black guy in pink shirt and matching headband calling Bruce a "baby-face dude". Iam a life-long fan of John Buscema, but his art here seems to descend into caricature of both homosexuals and black people, with offensively exaggerated characteristics. But the real problem is in the writing.
Alone in his room, Bruce thinks thoughts that might otherwise have been the beginning of a 1970s porn movie.
So here we go.
You'd expect Bruce to Hulk out at this point, but for some reason he just feels surreally calm. I don't know what to make of that. I have to admit: i know this is a deplorably offensive scene that i should be treating with sensitivity, but at the same time i can't help seeing very obvious "Bruce Banner is gay" opportunities in here. His lack of panic over getting accosted is one. The fact that crushing balls is the metaphor he reaches for is another.
"Oh, Pith!", says Dewey baby, as his partner informs him that Banner may have been foolin' him.
When Bruce escapes the rapists, he goes out and auditions for Accept's Balls To The Wall video.
I mean, this is a really weird scene. What is the Hulk doing to that wall? And why did Bruce not turn into the Hulk until now, and then suddenly Hulk out and start humping a wall?
Then the Hulk, who doesn't remember the incident but is subconsciously angry about it, starts talking about smashing men's junk.
Ok, let's put the junk smashing and wall humping aside. I know someone will come along and say, "Well, why is the gay rape scene offensive? Can't there be gay rapists?". Sure. Let's not get into statistics on male on male rape or anything like that; let's postulate for the sake of argument that there are gay rapists numerous enough that one is likely to encounter them at the Y. The issue is a question of representation. This story was published before there were any hints that Northstar was gay and before Arnie Roth was introduced. And even when we get to those characters, it is all just hints; even those characters weren't allowed to be outwardly gay (Marvel's wiki says that had Shooter declared that there were to be no gay heroes in the Marvel Universe; a quote that i've never seen sourced but it fits the reality of the comics and the fact that the CCA wouldn't allow overt references to homosexuality). But here (in a non-Code book) we have our first outwardly gay characters, and they represent the worst misplaced fears of homophobes, the gay men that force straight men into having sex.
Jim Shooter says that this was based on an actual incident.
The attack at the "Y" was likewise based on an actual incident. A friend of mine at the age of 15 -- maybe 16, not sure -- had been attacked in exactly the same way at the McBurney "Y," and escaped, as Banner did. That scene was a small bit, not by a longshot the focus of the story.
Sure, maybe that happened (although i bet no one said "Oh, pith!"). But when these two stereotypical rapists are your only gay characters to ever appear in a comic, of course they are interpreted as being a sweeping indictment of gay people.
Let me quote a long letter published in issue #25, which i think is useful for illustrating the degree of homosexual representation that existed at Marvel at the time.
Two hours ago, I read THE HULK #23. I still feel revulsion.
Shooter's response is very similar to what i've already quoted above (which was from his much more recent website): just because the bad guys were gay doesn't mean Marvel is saying all gay guys are bad. He also points out what i do think is a muddled point on the letter writer's part, that Banner certainly had every right to feel revulsion about being raped and that his revulsion doesn't have to be at all related to his feelings about homosexuality. But i can also see why the writer gets it muddled, since this is the only representation we've seen of homosexuality in a Marvel comic (and since Banner's reaction is very weird and different than his usual reaction when faced with danger). Shooter also says, cheaply i think, that since the Spectacular Spider-Man issues don't actually say that Kingsley was gay, the fact that the writer presumes it is a "classic case of prejudice on your part".
There are a couple more letters along these lines, including one from the National Gay Task Force, with similar responses from Shooter. The issue was compounded by a concurrent interview with John Byrne where he complained about how Bob Layton's inks on Hulk annual #7 made his men look "queer" (the quote is at the Hulk annual entry); people writing in to this issue also complain about that and see it as part of a pattern.
Well, that's the YMCA rape portion. As Jim Shooter says, it's not the focus of the story, so let's move on. Even if you're only interested in that, it's worth seeing what else is going on in the other "quiet and ordinary" parts of the story.
Still angry, the Hulk wanders into someone's basement apartment, and finds an aged hippie, her mind addled by acid.
She nearly gives the Hulk some tabs, which could have turned this into a different sort of story altogether.
Then her wild-eyed, foul-mouthed, abusive boyfriend shows up.
Everyone is too messed up to notice that their guest is the Hulk, but the Hulk drives "Truth" away and then settles down with "Clear". Note that Clear is also a welfare cheat and is also ready to "make love" with the guy that she's just met, if only she wasn't so tired.
Now that he's calmed down (with a woman?) the Hulk turns back into Bruce Banner and wonders off. His first thought is of suicide.
Then he decides he'll lay low for a few weeks before going back for the books, and decides he'll stay away from the Y. "Got to find a safer place... and for that I need money!" So he tries to get a job.
But the only option he has is hawking for prostitutes.
Finally he bumps into Mrs. Steinfeld, first name Alice, and she hooks him up with a job with her friend, Luigi, at his Italian restaurant.
We then follow Alice and see that she's got a domineering mother and an antagonistic sister, both of whom like to play on the fact that she's dealing with depression.
Alice also contemplates suicide.
Bruce calls her to thank her for the job and she invites him out for a date.
You can see above that Alice is an executive vice president. No mention of why she was at the hospital. I suppose hospitals have EVPs, but it feels like an unconnected thread to me.
Bruce and Alice start getting close, but Bruce is keeping his identity secret, and he starts to feel guilty about it. Alice nonetheless convinces him to stay.
Meanwhile, True shows up to beat on Clear.
Later, while Bruce is at work, Alice comes home to find her mom and sister snooping around her house.
When Bruce finds out about it, it makes him so angry he has to leave before he turns into the Hulk in front of her.
Oh now you're angry!
Hulk goes on another rampage, and then winds up back at Clear's place. And True finds out and sets her place on fire.
The Hulk has a hell of a time dealing with the fire. He barely manages to get Clear out, but he gets buried in the rubble himself. When he finally gets out, he turns back into Bruce and staggers back to Alice's place. But by this point she's killed herself.
At least Alice figured out who Bruce was.
Bruce leaves the money with True, who intends to use it to start a new life away from the city (if she can avoid spending in on drugs; a panel earlier had her begging the doctor to give her some pain killers).
And that's our story! The best i'll say is that Jim Shooter was trying waaaay to hard to depict the "realistic" horrors of the modern city, and instead goes totally over the top. Banner won't just get mugged or pushed around, he'll get raped, and they're not just rapists, they're flamboyantly gay rapists. Not just a drug addict with an abusive boyfriend but a promiscuous welfare cheat totally addled drug addict with a murderous psycho of a boyfriend.
And it's worth realizing that the Hulk that Shooter is aiming for is TV Hulk, so Banner can find the prospect of being raped by some local thugs more terrifying than staring down the Abomination, and he can have trouble getting out of a burning building. His inability to turn into the Hulk in the shower scene is a clunky narrative device, nothing more. None of that makes this a good story - this is a terrible story! - but i can kind of see how it all went wrong, to a degree.
The story nonetheless deserves its reputation as an offensively bad depiction of homosexuality. I think you can only plausibly use the "some doesn't mean all" defense when you've already got a fairly depicted stable of whatever group you're talking about. Today, Marvel has a better representation of non-straight characters, and i still don't think this story would fly, but in 1980, when it was depictions like this or silence, it seems particularly egregious. One thing that interested me was the strong and immediate reaction. It's not like Marvel wasn't getting feedback about this from a percentage of their audience; homosexuality clearly wasn't invisible at the time. But the heartfelt appeal from that letter writer to start adding some sexual orientation diversity to the Marvel universe went unheeded.
This issue also has a more lighthearted, but still not very good, second Hulk story by Roger Stern and Brent Anderson (and there's also a Dominic Fortune story that i'm not covering). Bruce Banner wakes up outside of the village of Bradbury, Iowa and finds that the travelers' checks that he carries around have been damaged.
Bruce gets chased around town for a bit but is eventually invited in to the home of a married woman in skimpy clothing.
Her husband comes home before anything happens, and he quickly realizes that he's dealing with the Hulk.
So that's how Bruce gets a shirt.
Quality Rating: D
Chronological Placement Considerations: The MCP place this between Hulk #253-254. The stories are context free. I won't ask how the Hulk got from New York to Iowa for the second story so quickly if you won't.
Continuity Insert? N
My Reprint: N/A
"Barbra Jean Benson" was probably named after Barbi Benton.
I've got Essential Rampaging Hulk; none of it has any bearing on the regular MU.
The friend Shooter refers to is Mile High Comics owner Chuck Rozanski. Chuck actually told the attempted rape story in detail in his column in Comics Buyer's Guide(during the early part of its monthly phase), but he didn't report it as a shower assault--he feared being raped to begin with, and stacked his comics inventory against the door to his room to stop intruders. Someone actually did attempt to force the door open, but the weight was too big to move.
YMCA shower rape actually was a fairly common trope in sex-oriented media in the early 1970s. Of course, I have no idea how often that actually happened...
One part of that letter bothered me: the writer's minimalization of rape by calling it "making". Uh, NO. If this story was about an attempted rape of a woman, that writer would've been slammed as an idiot immediately.
Posted by: Mark Drummond | February 27, 2015 4:17 PM
Agreed about that part of the letter, Mark- the letter writer was like "How dare Banner be angry and scared after almost being raped?"
Posted by: Michael | February 27, 2015 7:52 PM
Maybe it is just my meeting plenty of those people, but the story seems to strongly hint that Alice was raised disfunctional and emotionally dependent. She is not kidding much when she describes her EVP duties.
Posted by: Luis Dantas | February 27, 2015 8:04 PM
I agree the letter writer handled that particular part of his complaint poorly, but other than that he raised a valid point about the very anti-gay tone of things.
Shooter's "its not all gays" argument really doesn't hold up when you look at the lack of any positive LGBT portrayals, and the shortage of LGBT representation in general.
As for the scene with Bruce/Hulk in the alley after the near-rape, that really is an odd moment. After almost getting raped he runs out into an alley and leans up against a wall, half-naked, and assumes 'the position'? You're subconsciously sending mixed signals there Bruce...
Also, when did Bruce become such a sex object? Leaving aside the two men that want to rape him, he also has the 'desperate housewife' who tries to seduce him, the drug addict who wanted to sleep with Hulk but passed out instead, and Bruce does end up going to bed with Alice!
Posted by: Dermie | February 28, 2015 2:11 AM
The regular Hulk comic also started getting more sexual in the early '80s: Banner Hulk definitely hooks up with Bereet in one issue and I think the relationship with Katherine Waynesboro also gets physical. Maybe the TV show made Marvel think they should play up the "adult" side of the character.
As the letter writer mentions, we had seen Olddan and Asp very strongly but not explicitly presented as gay characters prior to this, so it might be that Shooter-era Marvel thought the magazines were an ok place for depictions of homosexuality but the code books had to be more oblique. Kingsley really is a gruesome caricature, ultimately straight or not, but maybe that was misdirection on Stern's part as he built this unlikely character into the Hobgoblin. Arnie Roth balances the ledger somewhat for Kingsley.
Shooter may well not have realized how homophobic the scene in this issue would seem: it's notable throughout Shooter's Marvel work that he wants his comics to be more "mature"--from the themes here to the Beyonder's encounters with "ordinary" mobsters and hookers in Secret Wars II to the trashy relationships in Starbrand--but he writes all these "adult" themes lke a guy who's more comfortable writing "Legion of Superheroes" than having an adult relationship himself. Pretty much any time Shooter writes about sex, the results are embarrassing, and in this case offensive.
That's no comment on Shooter personally--Gruenwald also wrote relationship scenes like a guy who'd never kissed a girl, even though he was married and had kids--it's more a comment in the debilities of the comics culture in which he was writing.
Posted by: Walter Lawson | March 4, 2015 2:36 AM
'I have to admit: i know this is a deplorably offensive scene that i should be treating with sensitivity, but at the same time i can't help seeing very obvious "Bruce Banner is gay" opportunities in here. His lack of panic over getting accosted is one.'
I'm not really a fan of changing the orientation of an established character, and that goes both ways...making Northstar straight after all, and having been in some way confused/possessed/under some telepathic influence for all these years would be a car crash, at best, and would offend many at worst (though that character has already been subject to terrible retcon after terrible retcon, between his intended death from AIDS, the 'half elf' thing and so on).
Posted by: Harry | June 15, 2015 12:26 PM
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