The continued popularity of Marvel’s Hulk can be attributed in no small part to the character’s versatility as a metaphor - representing the repressed emotions in all of us, and the consequences that could ensue should we set that free.
It’s a metaphor that, from time to time, has been applied to varying situations in the Marvel universe: from supervillains to natural disasters to everyday crises. Yet attempts to make it more “realistic” haven’t always been successful. Witness this scene from Rampaging Hulk #23, in 1980:
Jim Shooter, author of the story as well as Marvel’s editor-in-chief at the time, would explain his thoughts on his blog years later:
The attack at the "Y" was likewise based on an actual incident. A friend of mine at the age of 15 -- maybe 16, not sure -- had been attacked in exactly the same way at the McBurney "Y," and escaped, as Banner did. That scene was a small bit, not by a longshot the focus of the story.
I was a charter subscriber to New Woman Magazine, which had run a series of articles about rape, and in particular one about "Post Rape Syndrome." Many rape victims are in shock during the actual attack, almost numb and disbelieving. Their reactions -- anger, horror, humiliation, the whole emotional gamut, often do not set in until afterward. I thought, what if, for once, Banner did not turn into the Hulk when it was convenient, but only afterwards, when the reactions set in, when it wasn't convenient.
The bad guys, to me, were just that -- bad guys. Marvel was an equal opportunity employer. Anyone could be a bad guy. It never occurred to me that a couple of bad guys could be interpreted as a sweeping indictment of gay people…
A reporter from the Advocate came to interview me. The first thing he asked was why Marvel was anti-gay. I said we weren't. Why then, he asked, didn't we have any gay characters? I said we had lots of them. He asked which ones. I said, "You can't tell, can you?" He folded up his notebook and left. And wrote the story he always intended to write anyway...
When I wrote that scene, I wasn't thinking about "its effect" beyond the way it served the story and established critical things about Banner/Hulk that were germane. As I said, it never occurred to me that there was any "effect" to worry about. Clearly there was, and maybe I should have been more aware. Sorry…
Nontheless [sic], as I said, I stand by that story. I think it's a good story.
Even giving Shooter the benefit of the doubt, and assuming that there was no homophobic intent here, the results certainly don’t reflect that. That they’re “just” bad guys doesn’t remove the anti-gay implications: the villains are hugely flamboyant characters, using terms like “sweetie,” “sweetums,” “sweet cheeks,” and “cutie,” at a time when Marvel had no openly gay characters. Shooter makes this situation worse by implying that they had other non-villainous gay characters, whose sexuality was in no way apparent to readers - a disturbing echo of homophobic rhetoric that gays are better off in the closet than “shoving their sexuality in people’s faces.”
Fortunately, today’s storylines are more progressive. Even if there's more representation we could stand to see, we shouldn't expect to see further visits to the YMCA anytime soon.