As the Incredible Hulk Turns Sixty, Let’s Talk About Anger Management

On May 1, 1969, Fred Rogers spoke in front of the US Senate Subcommittee on Communications to urge funding of public television. Senator John Pastore stopped Rogers after he quoted from “What Do You Do with the Mad That You Feel?” a song teaching kids about anger management. PBS got their funding and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood went on to address feelings and emotions via a “neighborhood expression of care” in other ways for decades. 

Sometime afterward, Rogers visited the film set of the 70s television series The Incredible Hulk because children feared they’d turn into the Hulk if they lost their temper. Just like the comic series, the show featured scientist Dr. Bruce Banner (called David Banner in the series), who, after exposure to gamma rays, turned into a muscular behemoth when angry. Rogers talked with the two main actors of the show about anger and filmed Lou Ferrigno’s makeup transition into the Hulk. Rogers believed showing the process might start a conversation about anger and not covering up feelings.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood visiting the set of The Incredible Hulk is a perfect parallel for how therapy helped me grasp the concept of anger management. It reminded me of feeling like a toddler not yet having the means to express my feelings. Through therapy, anger management taught me skills to help control my emotions and give a proper response to a current situation instead of feeling the echoes of a past encounter. Instead of regretting that I lost my temper, I learned to ask clarifying questions about what the other person needed. Rather than let myself get frustrated, I also learned to advocate for time to process something. 

It took me a long time to differentiate anger management from actual anger. I knew people who used anger as a management tool and, to paraphrase Dr. David Banner, “Don’t make them angry, you wouldn’t like them when they were angry.” Before starting therapy, I’d snap “I’m fine” if asked what was bothering me—a red flag for me during times of emotional conflict. I couldn’t explain what was happening in my head due to undiagnosed bipolar depression nor was I raised to talk about my feelings or speak up about something troubling. So, I’d bury a lot of things and outbursts that happened due to brain lock or feeling backed into a corner. Despite this, I didn’t feel I needed anger management. But through therapy, I learned to address current and past traumas that caused those outbursts. I discovered how to better pause and verbalize my thoughts rather than panic in a frozen emotional state. I also worked to constructively speak about my feelings to build a healthy dialogue instead of letting emotions sidetrack the topic. These are skills I use daily.

How does the Hulk comic address anger management over the years when his basic principle and powers boil down to the catchphrase “The angrier Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets?” Since the first issue in May 1962, The Incredible Hulk comic book has explored how much one person can take before losing their temper. For most of those decades, the comic book didn’t deal with anger management. Dr. Banner avoided losing his temper and transforming into the Hulk, but the title character always showed up. The change into the Hulk often happened due to the military chasing down an on-the-run Dr. Bruce Banner à la The Fugitive, or a local monster of the month causing him to turn. Dr. Banner wished to find a cure for the Hulk but never his anger. In The Avengers (2012), when Mark Ruffalo says, “That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry”, moviegoers cheered for this version of the Hulk. For myself, I wished to break the cycle of anger. I never saw anger as “the madder I got, the stronger I got,” but as a moment of weakness. My anger was an inability to slow down, calmly breathe, and be vulnerable. It was a failure to effectively open a dialogue. Anger management taught me to speak openly while creating space for personal boundaries.

Talking through his anger is not a skill associated with the Hulk, traditionally speaking in clipped sentences, but he is known for trying to remove himself from a situation before losing his temper. In the comics, someone attacking the Hulk hears the classic phrase “Hulk just wants to be left alone”, as he would try and take himself out of the situation. Famously, the Hulk once took the act of removing himself from a situation that angered him to the extreme. In issue one of The Avengers, the Hulk is a founding member of the team before becoming an iconic rage quitter in issue two. When faced with his teammate’s opinions of him, the Hulk quits The Avengers.

Like the Hulk, I’ve rage quit. One week into a new job, I got sent out into the worst winter weather to pick up what I had been told were pictures for a client shoot. After driving in harrowing conditions through Chicago traffic, I returned to deliver what were actually my boss’s vacation photos. My boss had lied to me and I quit after discovering it. Through therapy, I realized I grew up being taught that quitting wasn’t an option. If I signed up for something, I had to see it through no matter how unenjoyable or out of place I felt. Lacking emotional maturity as a young adult, I didn’t know how to approach the situation with my boss and snapped after driving through the hazardous, winter road conditions. Much like when we first meet Dr. Banner in issue one of The Incredible Hulk. Working for the military, generals barked at Dr. Banner regarding upcoming gamma bomb testing. Dr. Banner then discovers a civilian at the bomb test site. Unable to speak up, he puts himself in harm’s way to save one person, exposing himself to gamma radiation, and ultimately turning into the Hulk.

Created by a bomb, the Hulk is a metaphor for anger, but bombs and anger prevent the negotiation of balance and boundaries. Bombs also block seeing things from another person’s perspective. In the Civil War storyline, Marvel explored members of the Avengers fighting each other over government regulation. Marvel solved the dilemma of including the Hulk in this storyline by sending him off the planet in a rocket (via Avengers: Age of Ultron for the movies and Planet Hulk for the comics) because whichever side the Hulk took would win. The Hulk represents closing off negotiations and offering a final argument of anger or a last bomb blast to end a disagreement in your favor.

Like the writers of Civil War, I needed to put the Hulk away to work on the hard conversations in my life via discussion, listening, and learning. One of the advantages of anger management was learning to calm my thoughts during a disagreement to listen to the other person’s side instead of simply waiting to speak. The Hulk may be the strongest, but he didn’t have the strength-building techniques I needed to better myself, communicate at my best, and work to bridge divides. I’d read how the Hulk wanted to be left alone or shout when first met with confrontation. In a storyline like Civil War, the heart of the story wasn’t heroes fighting about government control but communication breaking down. Anger management taught me I didn’t have to have an outburst to be heard or leave the room to end a discussion. Therapy allowed for healing dialogues and growth both at home and at work. It helps me bring calming energy for others to match instead of a decibel to be heard over.

The core problem with the Hulk and anger management is that to stay true to the origin of a long-standing character he always needs to be angry. That is both the pillar and crutch that makes comic book characters relatable for multiple generations of fans. “What if the Hulk is here to protect us from Dr. Banner?” is the current pitch of Hulk by Donny Cates and Ryan Ottley. Cates’ run on Venom explored themes of addiction, and Cates bringing their voice to a book dealing with anger encourages me. If the characters can’t grow past their origins, it’s up to the readers to grow and develop using the source material. Reflecting, the Hulk taught me a lot about anger management over the decades. I learned the answer is not to have outbursts and run away from my problems but to grow into myself and my voice. In sharing how I feel constructively at the proper time, I created stronger bonds with those around me and I don’t need to be left alone during rough times. An icon for anger, the Incredible Hulk has the potential to open the topic of conversation about destigmatizing anger management. After sixty years, maybe the Hulk can smash down the walls we have built up in ourselves over years. 

Dominic Loise

Dominic Loise is a bookseller living in Chicago, Il., with his librarian wife and three rabbits. He is open about and advocates for mental health awareness in his writing. Before coming to Brink Literacy Project, Dominic was the Store Manager at Open Books, Chicago’s first literacy nonprofit bookstore. He was also on the planning committee and created virtual sessions for the Ray Bradbury Experience Museum.

Zeeshan Pathan

Image by Zeeshan Pathan from Pixabay