Smash Hits: The 10 strongest Hulk stories

Contributed by
May 18, 2017

Hulk's the strongest one there is, so you know he's not going to let a thing like age slow him down. This month marks 55 years since Bruce Banner first tackled Rick Jones and got zapped by gamma rays, turning him into jade giant, the world breaker, the green goliath, aka the rampaging, the indestructible, the savage, and most importantly the incredible Hulk.

Created in 1962 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Hulk was an atomic age twist on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that was initially short-lived, with the first series lasting a mere six issues. However, after historic guest spots in Fantastic Four and founding membership in the Avengers, it became clear that Hulk was destined to be a mainstay in the Marvel Universe.

The character has starred in many series since and has had a hugely successful television show, multiple animated series and two big-budget movies (Ang Lee's Hulk, 2003, and The Incredible Hulk, 2008). While the character is currently taking a much-deserved respite in the comic books after a lethal run-in with Hawkeye in Civil War II, he's making an explosive return to the big screen in November in Thor: Ragnarok, so the character is set to have another, uh, banner year.

In recognition of Bruce Banner's long history, I’m looking back at ten of the most incredible Hulk storylines, from early classics to modern retellings, cosmic journeys to friendly showdowns, and everything in between. I didn't include Hulks of the Red, She-, Totally Awesome, or other varieties in this list, but it's not meant as a slight. Jen could have her own list and Amadeus' current series is living up to its title, but it's Bruce’s birth month, so we're letting him have this one.

There have obviously been a lot of Hulk stories over the years, so I'm sure I missed at least one of your favorites. Let us know if your list matches mine or if it made you turn green in the comments!

Earth's Mightiest Heroes

Avengers #1-3 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

The Incredible Hulk was one of the founding members of the Avengers, but his membership was a tortured and short-lived one. The team — made up of Iron Man, Ant-Man, The Wasp and Thor — forms in the first issue when Loki tricks them into a conflict with the Hulk, though they are eventually able to see through the trickster's ruse and send him packing. They allow the Hulk to join them to make up for it, but it quickly becomes clear that they don't completely trust him. By the second issue, they are once again fooled into thinking the Hulk is up to no good, and the Hulk quits in frustration. In the third issue he teams up with the villainous Namor the Submariner to take the team down.

It's a really fun series of Hulk-centric stories right out of the gate, and an important moment in the history of the Marvel Universe, establishing the Hulk's outsider role even amongst his super-powered peers.

Hard Knocks

Hulk & Thing: Hard Knocks #1-4 by Bruce Jones and Jae Lee

Stop me if you've heard this one before: a green giant and a rock monster walk into a diner …

That's not exactly the setup for this miniseries, but it's pretty close. Bruce Banner is sitting in a desert diner, as he does, when none other than Aunt Petunia's favorite blue-eyed nephew, Benjamin J. Grimm, walks through the door and sits down next to him, as everyone else promptly flees the premises. The Thing says he wants to reminisce about old times, but he wants to talk to the other guy, so he backhands Banner off the barstool and Marvel's two most beloved monsters sit down to have a chat.

This story is a decidedly different approach for longtime Hulk writer Bruce Jones, who tended to be much more dour and slow, but it pays off. As the Thing and Hulk discuss their differing recollections of their first fight, you can really feel the camaraderie, competitiveness and begrudging compassion between the two, but that doesn't mean there aren't going to be a few choice punches thrown before the day is over. The whole series is done by the incredible Jae Lee, who gives a unique otherworldly look to the destructive duo and a tangible power to the fight scenes. One of the better tales of the Hulk and his most fantastic foil.

Future Imperfect

Hulk: Future Imperfect #1-2 by Peter David and George Perez

It seems like it's something of a superhero rite of passage to have an alternate reality caused by you going evil, but this one is one of the absolute best examples. In the Future Imperfect world, the Hulk has lived for ninety more years, and in that time the Earth has gone through multiple nuclear wars. The only civilization left is a single city, ruled over with a metaphorically-iron-actually-green fist by the strongest one there is, now known as the Maestro.

The modern day Hulk is brought to this hellish future by a small band of resistance fighters led by an elderly Rick Jones who have fixed up Doctor Doom's time machine. The ensuing battle between the Hulk and his future self is glorious — especially under the masterful pen of George Perez. Peter David plays the story to Perez's strengths, giving him all the things he draws best: impressive crowd scenes, futuristic cityscapes and bombastic, muscular action. This story is a fascinating look at the very different type of character the Hulk could be with one too many bad days, which is scary, considering how many of those he regularly has.

Tempest Fugit

Incredible Hulk (1999) #77-81 by Peter David and Lee Weeks

Peter David wrote many classic Hulk stories, but one of his final tales takes the gamma-irradiated cake. The story begins with a very confused Banner washing ashore on a remote and abandoned island. Actually, scratch that: first the Hulk tears a shark in half and fights a giant squid underwater, then Banner washes ashore.

Anyway, as Bruce begins to explore the island, he is confronted by various enemies, including Fin Fang Foom, Wolverine, and … the Hulk? It's a trippy and action-packed mystery that offers readers an exploration of the jade giant's psyche in the most comic-booky of ways. Plus, as you can see from the panel above, Lee Weeks knocks it out of the park on the art side of things. Cerebral and visually stunning: the two things every Hulk comic needs to succeed, and "Tempest Fugit" has them in Hulk-sized quantities.

Return of the Monster

Incredible Hulk (1999) #34-39 by Bruce Jones and John Romita, Jr.

Bruce Jones' entire run is worth the read, but the stage for the whole thing is set in the first six-issue arc, "Return of the Monster." Jones brings Banner back to basics in this run, which is heavily influenced by the 1978 TV show. Bruce is alone, on the road and on the run, traveling between nondescript small towns and dodging the military and shadowy killers who are hounding him at every turn. And while it takes the story structure of the television show (it was also a heavy influence on both movies, in different ways), it definitely has a much more bleak tone.

The emphasis here is on the profound isolation that Banner experiences while on the run, wanting to make connections with people, but knowing as soon as he does, he will put them in the crosshairs. This is exemplified in a beautiful silent issue that has a girl in a diner quietly watching Bruce as he tries to evade the forces chasing him and then is forced to turn into the Hulk.

John Romita, Jr. does a wonderful job conveying the pain and desperation that Bruce feels, with harsh lines and deep shadows, and washed out, depressed colors. If you want to read long-form, serialized and deeply psychological Hulk stories, then "Return of the Monster" is the place to start.

Gray

Hulk: Gray #1-6 by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

All of the 'Color' series of books (which includes Daredevil: Yellow, Spider-Man: Blue, and recently Captain America: White) by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale are worth reading, but this one stands out not only amongst the rest of the entries in the series, but also as one of, if not the, best telling of the Hulk's origin.

The story is framed with Bruce Banner showing up unexpectedly for a therapy session with Doc Samson on what turns out to be Bruce's would-be anniversary with Betty. The scene is portrayed in stark black and white before it transitions into full color, though it retains a color palette that you'd expect, given the name. The flashback sequences detail and flesh out Banner's transformation and earliest days as the Hulk, back when he was gray, not green. It's a somber but engaging telling of the origin, and a thoughtful exploration of the emotions that both Hulk and Banner were feeling when they first began their relationship.

The Battle of the Century

Fantastic Four #25-26 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Over the years, we have become spoiled. The sight of the Hulk tearing his way through a small army of superheroes is not novel; it's a semi-regular occurrence. But there's a first time for everything, and the first time Hulk showed the Marvel Universe who's boss was in issues 25 and 26 of Fantastic Four. Following on from the previously mentioned Avengers story, the Hulk is being hunted through the New Mexico wilderness by the U.S. military when he learns that the Avengers replaced him with Captain America following his quitting and turning on the team.

Never one to let his emotions get the best of him, the Hulk takes this personally and heads straight for New York. Upon arrival, the first people who confront him aren't the Avengers but rather the Fantastic Four, sans the ill Mr. Fantastic. The Hulk dispatches the Human Torch and Invisible Woman without too much trouble but then begins an epic rematch with the Thing that rages on and on across the city.

The Thing isn't able to prevent the Hulk from getting to his target — the Avengers Mansion — but the Avengers were ready and waiting for their former teammate. The Hulk clashed with the combined forces of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four ... and would have beaten them if it wasn't for his old friend Rick Jones giving him a capsule that forced him to revert back to Banner. This could probably be considered the first big Marvel "event" story and it’s well worth witnessing firsthand how the masters did it.

Always On My Mind

Incredible Hulk (1999) #24-25 by Paul Jenkins and John Romita, Jr.

This is probably the most notable clash between the Hulk and his nemesis, the Abomination, and it's a battle of emotionally and physically titanic proportions. In this story, Banner is manipulated by Thunderbolt Ross into going after Emil Blonsky, the man who killed Betty Ross, who has been living in hiding, teaching writing classes at a library. The rage and despair that both men feel when they collide is palpable, each of them with their own reasons to have nothing but pure hatred for the other, and both with nothing to lose. John Romita, Jr. draws it all with brutal clarity and power, with every blow landing like an artistic thunderclap. It's a short, satisfying story with a savagely poetic sense of finality to it, and one of the most visually powerful and crushing fight scenes you'll ever see in a comic book.

The End

Incredible Hulk: The End #1 by Peter David and Dale Keown

This is the story of when Hulk is not just the strongest one there is but also the only one there is. Countless years in the future, everyone is dead except Bruce Banner. He walks the scoured Earth, alone, until the swarms of bugs come, and then he turns into the Hulk, and bugs devour the Hulk, then the Hulk regrows and changes back. Rinse and repeat. It's a horrible existence, and one where the Hulk's rage has no other recourse but to be turned completely inward. More a myth than a simple story, Incredible Hulk: The End will haunt you.

Planet Hulk

Incredible Hulk (1999) #92-105 by Greg Pak, Carlo Pagulayan and Aaron Lopresti

I'm biased to this story, due to my having a terrible letter published in one of its letters pages when I was a kid, but frankly, there's a reason that this is consistently ranked as one of the best Hulk tales ever. Right from the beginning, you have the Hulk lose everything: the few people he may have considered friends, his home world and his status as the strongest there is. The planet Sakaar, to which he is exiled, humbles him physically and he's forced to work with others and to play it smart to survive. He thrives there, gaining brothers and sisters in arms, and even finds love ... only to once again have it torn away from him.

It's a beautiful, powerful tragedy that makes you laugh, cry and cheer, often all on the same page. It has expertly choreographed and massive-scale action balanced against riveting character moments, making every moment feel important, not just like you're waiting for the smashing to start again. And somehow this is all with very, very little Banner. The puny one only appears very briefly, but otherwise, it's all Hulk, all the time, but the story doesn't suffer at all for it.

The World War Hulk follow-up story is a great payoff to this too, but Planet Hulk works perfectly well as a stand-alone tale, so well that I consider it the greatest Hulk story ever told.