I must start this article by saying that the Hulk was never one of my favorite comics characters. I was always a more black & white guy, I wanted my heroes to be heroes, and my villains to be villains. But the Hulk is somewhere in the middle: you cannot say he’s a hero in the most common interpretation of the word, but you can’t either place him as a villain.
The Hulk (or should I say Bruce Banner?) is what I would call a reluctant hero. A guy who doesn’t want to be neither a villain nor a hero, he just wants to be left alone and live his life. But he continuously gets thrown into life and death situations that require him to turn into his green alter ego and, somehow, survive.
At least, that’s what happened when I started reading comics, in the seventies and early 80’s. But much has happened since then, and there were many capable authors that gave many twists and turns into the story. Specially when it comes to Bruce Banner’s mind. We see him develop his personality and what’s behind his rage, and that makes it a more three dimensional character.
Unfortunately, the continuous change of collections and numberings has made more difficult to follow the green fellow adventures. Call me old fashioned, but I loved when you knew you could find certain story arc in “Incredible Hulk 433 to 438” instead of now, that you have to check the numbers of which version, with collections that maybe run for 15 issues… To me, that kills the industry, because it makes you not care about it any more. But who am I to say? There are big brains within Marvel & DC, aren’t there? I guess they have read many comics…
Let’s try to clear the fog and review which are the best runs in comics from the incredible Hulk.
The best Hulk stories in comics that you MUST read!
The Stan Lee – Jack Kirby Run
The Hulk made his debut in The Incredible Hulk #1, from 1962, by the pen of Stan Lee and co-plotted and pencilled by Jack Kirby (who else?). The character took elements from classic stories: from Frankestein he took the element of the misunderstood monster, and from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde the two sided persona, the man that turns into a monster and viceversa.
The first series presented the basic elements from the story: the accident that gave Bruce Banner his powers, that were also his curse, some of the supporting cast as General Ross, his daughter Betty and Rick Jones.
The first series run for only six issues, and then Hulk started to guest-star into other titles as The Fantastic Four, Amazing Spider-Man, he became a founding member of the Avengers, and later was published as one of the two features within the title Tales to Astonish.
An interesting fun fact: originally, Stan Lee wanted the Hulk’s skin to be grey because he wanted to avoid suggesting any particular ethnic group. There were problems with the grey coloring at print, resulting in different shades of grey, and even green, being printed in the issue. After seeing the final printed issue result, Lee changed the skin color to green. This fact was later used by other authors to say that originally the Hulk was grey and later turned to green, and so this became the canonical telling of the Hulk’s original color.
Another fun fact is that Kirby admitted that he was inspired by a woman he saw lift a car that had trapped down her baby. This element was used in the first episode of the Hulk TV series to explain how humans may get incredible level of streght under stress.
This is classic material, if you like to dig into the origins of the character, it’s nice to read. Of course, not everybody loves reading this classic material. Consider it’s almost 60 years old, and the graphic design and storytelling styles have changed a lot form that time, so it’s sometimes difficult to digest for newer readers.
But if you want to go to the roots, go here.
Heart of the Atom
Betty Ross is the most widely known Hulk’s love interest, but it’s not his only one. During the 70’s, the Hulk found his true love in Jarella, the green skinned princess of the sub-atomic world of K’ai.
The story starts in Jarella’s home world, and then both characters reunite on Kai and Earth from time to time. Jarella falls in love with the Hulk, and she gets to love him inconditionally, being him with the body or the mind of both the Hulk or Bruce Banner.
The story, as many in the Hulk’s history, ends up in tragedy. Sorry to spoil this to you, guys, the dog dies and you may end up crying on this one. But it’s a real classic story that deserves a highlight in the Hulk’s best comics runs.
There’s a very nice reprint called The Hulk: Heart of the Atom, that includes all the issues you have to read to understand this saga (that by the way, it’s quite long, since it opens with issue 140 and ends with issue 248.
The Crossroads run
The Hulk had been pardoned by the President of The United States and Banner had taken control of the Hulk’s body. Things seemed going straight for the green goliath for a while. But after Nightmare’s intervention, Banner loses his already fragile control, and the beast comes back.
The Hulk ends up in a run-in with almost every Marvel hero in New York City in issue 300, and then he gets exiled by Dr. Strange in a place called the Crossroads.
The important thing about this saga is that here we start to see more elements about Banner’s origins and childhood, the three aspects of his shattered psyche and how the monster within Bruce Banner took shape.
This is the starting point to many of the great storylines to come in the Peter David era, so it’s worth to read!
You can get this whole saga in one nice reprint, Incredible Hulk: Crossroads, written by Bill Mantlo, and with art by Sal Buscema, and even Mike Mignola!
If you want to see the path to the crossroads, Bill Mantlo’s run also has two more books that compile the previous issues: The Incredible Hulk: Pardoned & The Incredible Hulk: Regression.
The John Byrne run
Blazing hot after his runs in X-Men, Fantastic Four and Alpha Flight, John Byrne took the Hulk, right after the Crossroads saga, and he made the impossible happen: he separated Bruce Banner from the Hulk! But without Banner’s influence the Hulk might be more dangerous than ever!
Due to differences with Jim Shooter, Marvel´s Editor in Chief at the moment, Byrne’s run is a short one (it lasted for only 6 issues and an Annual) but it was a powerful one, and it’s worth every single page of it!
… in December 2020 there’s another epic collection announced, Incredible Hulk Epic Collection: Going Gray, that includes the Byrne saga and issues that lead to Peter David’s run in which the Hulk becomes gray again, which is my next recommendation!
The Peter David’s Run
Peter David ’s run on The Incredible Hulk is a long one, and probably one of the longest ones with a consistent high quality along it.
There are many great moments in his run, starting with a cunning, bad tempered grey Hulk, the Mr. Fix-it run as he turns into the strong arm of a Las Vegas’ mobster, coming to one of the best single issues I read in mainstream comics, when Doc Samson psychoanalyzes Banner and makes him finally come to terms with his Hulk persona and control Hulk’s body again.
The art along his run is also incredible: you have Todd Mc Farlane, Dale Keown and Gary Frank here, so you have some of the best artists of the 90’s doing real good work in this book, and making this series even more enjoyable. Maybe the weakest art point is during the Mr. Fixit saga, but it’s so fun that you get to bear it anyway.
If you haven’t read this material… what are you waiting for!!?? This is one of the best Hulk stories from all time. The storyline also presents changes from time to time, and really, you get sad when it comes to an end.
You can get this material in many printings… there are the Omnibus editions, the Hulk: Visionaires – Peter David editions, and also the Incredible hulk Epic Collections. Depending on how much you want to spend, you have the different alternatives.
If you really want to invest on great books for your bookshelves, these Omnibus are really great material!
If you want to have a taste and see if you like it, the Hulk: Visionaires books are a good choice. But remember: these are softcovers, and if you add the price of all these softcovers, you probably overpass the price of the omnibus!
You can also get parts onf the stories in the Epic Collections, such as…
Hulk: Future Imperfect
In this story the Hulk travels to the future to fight a terrible dictator that has killed most of the superheroes, only to find that the Maestro is none other than… himself!
Another great story by Peter David, with also great art by George Perez. Can’t miss this one! You can find it on Hulk: Future Imperfect, or also you have this story included in the Incredible Hulk Epic Collection: Future Imperfect, so if you want to follow this whole run by buying the Epic collections, it’s already included.
The Return of the Monster run
Bruce Jones’ run starts with issue 34 of The Incredible Hulk v3, and returns the character to his errant vagabonding type character from the TV series from the late 70’s.
Through this run, the Hulk is blamed from a crime he didn’t commit, and gets involved in a conspiracy story while followed by a mysterious cabal that’s after the Hulk’s blood. There’s also the mysterious “Mr. Blue”, who communicates with Banner through a secret computer and that adds to the oppressive conspiracy elements of the whole storyline.
This run also includes elements that were used in the second Hulk movie, where Banner uses meditation techniques to control his transformation.
There were many great artists along this run, starting with John Romita Jr. and Lee Weeks, later on with Stuart Immonen and Mike Deodato Jr., all of them making this series even more enjoyable material!
And then follow the rest of the story on these trades:
This was the return of Peter David to the Hulk, and albeit it was a short run, it left us with good stories as this one. Tempest Fugit has many levels to analize it, since David alludes to The Tempest, from Shakespeare, but at the same time shows us more elements from Banner’s childhood makind a statement against bullying, and also referencing to 9/11.
If you want to read a nice analysis on this story, check this article from Doctor Comic’s blog.
Seems to be too complicated? Don’t worry, the story is quite enjoyable, but you must be into Hulk’s history and have read many of the previous storylines to better understand it. If you catch it as one of your first Hulk books… well, you might find it veeery difficult to read and to undesrtand!
Planet Hulk / World War Hulk
Oh, boy this is also a great one! And if you enjoyed the Thor: Ragnarok movie… well, you NEED to read this book!
The story starts when the Illuminati, a group of the top minds within the Marvel Universe characters formed by Tony Stark, Reed Richards, Black Bolt, Black Panther, Namor, Dr. Strange and Charles Xavier, decide that the Hulk is too dangerous to live on Earth, and decide to send him on a ship to a peaceful planet where he can live left alone, as he desires. But something happens along the way, and the Hulk arrives to a completely different planet: Sakaar, a world teared apart by war.
As he arrives to this world, the Hulk is taken as a slave and forced to fight as a gladiator in the emperor’s arena. As you might guess, the Hulk is not an easy one to be kept as a slave… so the story shows us the growth of the Hulk form slave to warrior to freedom fighter to king.
Written by Greg Pak, and illustrated by Carlo Pagulayan, it’s a great, great story, that you cannot miss if you want to really be a Hulk fan!.
The story continues in World War Hulk, where Greg Pak and John Romita Jr. take the Hulk back to Earth, all raged up, to seek vengeance on Iron Man, Reed Richards, Dr. Strange and the rest of them!
This was a huge event at the time, and the storyline affected many titles and introduced elements that were later shown in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as Iron Man’s Hulkbuster armor.
The team of Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale have produced many memorable comics, both at DC & Marvel.
In DC, they produced the memorable Superman: For All Seasons & Batman: The Long Halloween (included in our list of best Batman comic books), and for Marvel they took us to the origins of many of their top characters with Daredevil: Yellow, Captain America: White and Spider-Man: Blue.
Hulk: Gray belongs to this group of books, and retells Bruce Banner’s early days after the explosion of the Gamma bomb that gave him his powers.
As usual, the book is beautifully drawn and it’s interesting to see how Loeb portrays the early days of the Hulk.
If you want to go for all the Loeb / Sale books in just one beautiful volume, you may go and check the Omnibus book that collects all their Marvel participations in just one book:
MARVEL KNIGHTS: Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale: Yellow, Blue, Gray & White Omnibus .
The Red Hulk saga
Here’s where things start to get messy… Marvel opens the Hulk title into two: the Incredible Hercules, that follows the adventures of Hercules and Amadeus Cho, a boy genius character who played an important part in the World War Hulk storyline, and a new title called simply Hulk, by Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuiness.
I’m not completely into this book, I found the story not up to the standards that the Hulk used to give us in the David / Jones / Pak stories, maybe too childish… Almost every character you know in the Hulk universe became a Hulk like character, all with different colors… a little bit too much form me. Seemed like a gimmick to sell more action figures, and I’m too old for that.
But since you might have seen the Red Hulk pop up somewhere else, and may wonder who he was and where it came from: it’s from this storyline. If you want to try it, be my guest. It’s just that it’s not my top pick considering the good Hulk stories you might find somewhere else!
The Jason Aaron run
Jason Aaron took the book in 2011, and gave it a complete new twist: the Hulk and Bruce Banner are now two completely separated entities, but in Aaron’s take, the premise is different to what we’ve seen up to now: the Hulk is the victim, while Banner takes the part of the villain. Banner is portrayed as a mad scientist, creating strange monsters in a lost island in a kind of “The Island of Doctor Moreau”´s fashion.
Drawn by Marc Silvestri at the beggining and then by different artists, Aaron starts to take the Hulk out of the non sensical mess it was being taken through, and brings the character closer to where it should be. Results are mixed: the story improves vs what it was in the Loeb run, but still left me with a strange taste in the mouth…
Anyway, you might want to try it just to see what it was about… but even as I loved Aaron’s run on Thor it’s not at the top of my list.
The Immortal Hulk run
After being murdered a couple times in previous series (including Civil War 2), writer Al Ewing and penciller Joe Bennet resurrect the Hulk and give us a more horror-inspired story, which presents us with an even different premise: the Hulk cannot be killed. You may kill Bruce Banner during the day, but at night the Hulk will resurrect and take vengeance.
There are many quite interesting moments along the run (which is currently running), including a dismembered Hulk which you probably haven’t ever expected to see! The series also goes deeper into Banner’s psyche and connections to his past, so it’s a great run for any seasoned Hulk reader.
Hope you enjoyed all these books! You really have great Hulk stories in these comics. If you have read any of them, I’d love to hear your experience! Did you like them? Which one was the best for you?
Let’s keep together finding good comics to read!