As a child with only a passing but intense interest in the world of comic books, the Hulk held little appeal for me. I saw no inherent relatable or admirable qualities in a loutish green dummy who always seemed to be running from the military or destroying towns rather than saving the day; I considered myself quite the little anti-authoritarian as a kid, but my heroes were smirking rogues rather than misunderstood brutes.
When I hit my first true comics renaissance at about 11 or 12, writer Peter David was about five or so years into his record-setting 11-year run on Incredible Hulk. At the time, PAD was in the midst of his "Professor Hulk" phase, writing the Hulk as an urbane intellectual who also happened to be a nine-foot tall green superman, and I fell in love with the humor and wit of both the title and its protagonist.
Over the years, I have found Hulk stories outside of Peter David's that I've enjoyed, but whether they star the sinister pseudo-villain Green Goliath of Marvel early's days or writer Greg Pak's "Green Scar" barbarian-type, the common denominator seems to be that I just don't dig the "classic" dumb green guy. It's interesting, since that "Hulk Smash!" incarnation seems to be the default one both in terms of the public's perception and where the character goes in times of creative upheaval, but it just doesn't click with me.
I'm sure there is some sort of interesting psychological profile to be written on me and my since-childhood disdain for the mindless Hulk, but in lieu of somebody tackling that, here are a few of the stories that I have found integral to my enjoyment of the character in his many other phases (ok, and maybe one or two from when he was an emerald idiot).
"The Hulk Vs Thing!" (Fantastic Four v1 #25-26)
Some old comics from the Silver Age that have been ballyhooed for decades inevitably fail to live up to their trumped-up advance billing--this is not one of those comics. This is actually the second clash between the Hulk and the Thing, as Hulk is pissed because he just got kicked out of the Avengers, the Thing is pissed because he doesn't think his girlfried will ever love him if he's not a rocky-skinned monster, and both guys are spoiling for a fight. Hulk pulverizes a New York City construction site and in the process beats the crap out of the Human Torch, drawing the Thing into the fray and you know what time it is (it's Clobbering Time, in case you were wondering). Hulk and Thing proceed to absolutely demolish the half-finished building and each other in a fight so grand and yet so gritty that only Jack Kirby could bring it to life, and "The King" is at the top of his game here, really pulling out all the stops and calling upon every visual trick he knows. On the writing side of the equation, Stan Lee rises to the occasion as well with the purplest of prose and wonderfully descriptive battle narrative for which he is known, and also by really hammering home Thing as the gruff underdog and Hulk as the sneering prick of a bully; it's classic stuff. The second part of the epic sees the Avengers join the fray in an attempt to corral the Hulk, but it's the portions pitting Marvel's two greatest monsters against one another that's really the stuff of true genius.
"Days of Rage!" (Incredible Hulk #300)
Ok, so this would be the exception to the rule I spent my first few paragraphs discussing, as not only is this a story starring the dumb green Hulk, it could well be considered the ultimate dumb green Hulk story, but dammit, I love it anyways. Basically, as the result of a spell by Doctor Strange gone horribly awry, any trace of Bruce Banner has been removed from the Hulk's make-up and he's now a completely mindless, engine of destruction plowing through New York with no goal except to (pardon me here) fuck shit up. There's a video game-like simplicity to this over-sized special issue written by Bill Mantlo as Hulk smashes his way through increasingly more difficult waves of Marvel heroes as his rampage continues. Mantlo masterfully manages to ramp up the action and intensity scene-by-scene and build your sense of anticipation as the Hulk starts out swatting S.H.I.E.L.D. agents then dispatching street level guys including Luke Cage, Iron Fist and the Human Torch en route to the Avengers being called in and all going down until it's down to Thor to save the day. It's pure unadulterated big dumb action, but again, Mantlo's pacing and movie-like sense of how tell a story coupled with wonderful, epic art by the legendary Sal Buscema make it work so well (I also really love the cover of this issue by Bret Blevins).
Incredible Hulk Visionaries: Peter David v1-2
Honestly, I don't think you'd be making a bad investment if you chose to seek out not only the six volumes of Incredible Hulk Visionaries: Peter David currently available, but indeed his entire original run on the title. All 134 or so (I'm not 100% on my math) issues plus Annuals, one-shots, etc. Seriously. If you like one issue, you're going to like them all, and the whole thing has so many twists, turns and game-changers that it's like reading several runs bridged together by a shared author and tone, but almost as if it were a long-running TV series that switched things up as cast members aged or departed and now you're getting the box set. I may be over-seeling it, but I really loved this stuff. However, if you're looking to just put your toes in the pool, the first two collections provide some rad stuff and give you a nice taste while also providing a decent enough jumping-off point if you decide you've had enough. The first volume is PAD finding his footing and getting into the heads of both Bruce Banner and the more sinister grey Hulk he has inherited from the previous short-lived creative regime. David instantly dials the book several shades darker and makes it as much a psychological thrillride as an action-driven fight-fest, mining the twisted chemistry of his cast for a more mature version of the classic soap opera of Silver Age Marvel. In the second volume, then-burgeoning star artist Todd McFarlane really comes into his own and David lets him loose on some truly visceral fights between Hulk and Wolverine, Man-Bull and others that made McFarlane's career and still hold up gruesomely to this day. The whole thing culminates with an intense and disturbing showdown with the Leader that demonstrated inarguably that PAD was playing for keeps. Give it a taste, I have a feeling you'll be back for more.
Incredible Hulk: Future Imperfect
He's gotten some impressive challenges from the Thing, the Abomination, Thor, etc., but at the end of the day, there's only one ultimate challenger for the Hulk--and that's the Hulk. In this two-part classic, we see what would happen if two Hulks each in peak physical and mental condition went at it in a war of not just fists, but of words and ideals as well. In one of his very favorite works of all time (I know so because he told me at dinner in San Diego this year), Peter David crafts the Hulk's most implacable foe of all in the Maestro, a future version of Bruce Banner's dark side who has given into his most base desires, conquering the world, slaughtering the heroes of the Marvel Universe, and enslaving humanity so he can revel in food, women and power. The requisite rebellion group all dystopian futures are required to have throws a hail mary by acquiring the intelligent "Professor" Hulk from the past and pitting him against his elder self, initially with disastrous results as the Maestro humbles his young counterpart not only physically but psychologically. It's a rare Hulk story where the titular character happens to be the underdog and must utilize every tool both physical and mental at his disposal to defeat the big bad he's really been battling all his life: himself. The cherry on the sundae here is that the art is provided by my all-time favorite comic book illustrator, George Perez, who you can tell is clearly having the time of his life from depicting two Hulks trading blows to cramming the trophy room of an elderly Rick Jones with every relic of the Marvel Universe (and elsewhere) that he, PAD and I'm guessing several other folks could think of.
World War Hulk
A lot of folks would pull the year-long "Planet Hulk" epic by writer Greg Pak as their pick for the best Hulk story in recent years, and while I'm a big fan of that yarn as well, I think I liked the blockbuster sequel even a bit more. After over a year in interstellar exile thanks to the Illuminati, the Hulk returns to Earth pissed off and possessing not just his strength and his smarts, but the hardships and skills earned by months of surviving on the battle-hardened planet of Sakaar and an army of allies to aid him in taking his revenge on all who have done him wrong in the past. In some ways, it's almost a book-end to "Days of Rage!" in that it's once again Hulk vs the Marvel Universe, but this time you've got so many cool wild card factors from the big guy actually being arguably in the right (the Illuminati were pretty widely-regarded as dicks around this time) to the Hulk actually having friends watching his back for like the first time ever. It's a timeless tale twisted in enough ways to be novel and it's also packing the secret weapon of the one and only John Romita Jr. on art, and his pairing with Pak could not be more perfect as he draws just as grand as his writing counterpart tends to plot. And for the kid who couldn't be bothered with the dumb green Hulk, there's something cathartic about seeing a smart surly dude with his face and complexion lashing out against a Universe that refused to let him be his true self.
You can find my first two entries in the Hulk vs The Marvel Universe collection.