One of the few Hulk comics I own is a 1981 effort by Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema titled “People in Glass Houses Shouldn’t Hurt Hulk!” I was never that into the big guy honestly — though I got a year or something of Peter David’s run whenever that was. But I’ve been asked to do a talk on Marvel’s greenest property, so I thought I’d revisit this story (one of two in the issue), which I still remember fairly clearly after three decades.
Why I remember it is not especially obvious, I have to say. The title does have a goofy charm, I guess, and the story has a kind of inevitable progression which is compelling, if not exactly competent.
The narrative starts with Bruce Banner passed out on a Malibu beach; a woman all in white with a white dog finds him and brings him to her house. She cares for him and shows him her sculptures; all glass statues of men. She then seduces him and keeps him for a month, promising to do his sculpture too. Finally, she reveals that she is some sort of witch (the plot rather breaks down here) and tries to turn him to glass with her magical glass hands. But he turns into the Hulk and destroys everything and escapes; she accidentally touches herself with her own magic hands and ends up a glass sculpture at the bottom of the sea. Hulk bounds away. The end.
So this is obviously a basic noire set up, with Glazier (that’s the glass lady) as the femme fatale and Banner as the dupe she bamboozles. The noire paranoid misogyny is firmly in place, which is also the noire terror of/fascination with female sexuality.
At the top of the page you’ve got Glazier’s nefarious boasting about how she collects men juxtaposed with the image of the glass guy frozen underneath the pond — entrapment imagery doesn’t get much less subtle. (Mantlo and Buscema subtly have Banner give us a thought bubble telling us that the statue looks horrified in case we couldn’t tell from looking at it.) Then, at the bottom of the page, Glazier comes on to Banner, who — courtesy of Buscema’s shaky drawing and some preposterous eyebrows — looks deeply uncomfortable. The caption is odd too: “He cannot resist. He can think of no reason why he should want to.” He’s presented as being both overpowered and as ambivalently acquiescing. The implication is that he should be able to think of a reason not to (like the guy in the pond, dumbass!) but he’s too busy thinking with his dick, or his eyebrows, or whatever.
Then we skip ahead a month, with Banner in his ridiculous white suit (connoting elegance? his captive status? the tail end of the 70s) whining about how he’s a kept man and he’s bored. So far, still noire, with Buscema trying lamely to create some sort of interesting light effect with the moon and the white and the interior glass, though mostly it ends up looking like they’re inside some sort of jello mold.
And then the noir coup de gras, where the conniving evil bitch destroys the douchey guy, to the horror/delight of all.
Except that, as you can see, the grace doesn’t coup (or something like that.) The vampiric consummation doesn’t drain the victim; instead it causes him to improbably and greenly tumesce. The mark walks out, the man walks in, and puts the uppity woman in her place. The masochistic sex fantasy of noire is violently rent like Banner’s stupid white suit, to be replaced by the sadistic violent empowerment fantasy. It’s sort of like rape/revenge with the male rapist replaced by a female succbus and the female revenger replaced by a big green steroidal phallic lump.
The gendered reading is fairly obvious, and even unavoidable. But I think there’s a genre reading as well. Again, we start with noire; which is linked to sophistication, sex, and adulthood. And then suddenly we switch up and have Hulk babbling in his infantile dialect and brutishly smashing up all the high art he can see.
Glazier even explicitly explains that she was trying to catch Hulk in the moment of transformation for her collection; she wanted to turn the comic-book monster into a gallery piece, as if she’s some sort of acquisitive feminized Lichtenstein. But of course it doesn’t work, and moments after she insults Hulk’s intelligence, his gargantuan bulky authenticity smashes the effete museum to smithereens. Your puny art world institutions cannot contain team comics! “Stupid to build a house out of glass!” as Hulk says.
As I’ve mentioned before, Bart Beaty in Comics vs. Art argues that in discourses around high art and comics, comics are always already feminize; they are the weak thing that high art masters. However (as, again, I’ve noted before) masculine and feminine are a bit more fluid in these discussions than Beaty suggests. Here, in particular, higher art (both as gallery art and as the relatively sophisticated pulp genre of noir) are presented as feminine, and the children’s, and even child-like, art-form of comics is presented as victoriously hyper-masculine. Bruce Banner is trying his darndest to find a different, more highbrow narrative, where he gets to have sex (he doesn’t know why he shouln’t) and has cool lighting and is placed in galleries. But Hulk comes along and stomps all that hoity toity namby pampy crap.
The narrative comes across, then, as an extended effort to excuse, or justify, it’s own helpless comic book crappiness. Sal Buscema’s efforts to convey grace, or even style, are utterly ridiculous, foiled by clumsy drawing, clumsy layout, and banal imagination (is that a gallery or a gym?) But grace and sophistication are, we learn through the story, evil, meretricious and not to be trusted. Thick, awkward, clumsy, stupid — those are big, manly qualities you can count on. Fuck high art…or, you know, don’t fuck it. That’s way too dangerous. Just smash.