Whenever I find myself edging towards misery or self-pity, I start humming the ending theme from The 1970’s tv version of The Incredible Hulk. I think to myself, “David Banner will never have a normal life.” It’s a technique I owe to Carol Borden, who has a lot of interesting things to say about The Hulk.
Having inevitably hulked out wherever he’s just been, David Banner is forced to move on down the road at the end of each episode with nothing but a duffle bag and his own radioactive blood for company. When I imagine that the outcome of whatever predicament I’m in will be that I will never have a normal life, the sheer melodrama helps put it in perspective. Also, I find it almost impossible to take my problems too seriously with the “Lonely Man” theme as the soundtrack.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to have a normal life. It’s so easy to feel like my problems are a sign that I’m doing something wrong, but the more I hear about other people’s lives the more I realize that even people who appear to have it all together usually don’t. We’re pretty much all struggling, and while I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, I admit that I find it reassuring. I’m not about to stop trying to fix what isn’t working – everyone wants to drag themselves as far and fast as possible from the things that are causing them pain – but it reminds me that I don’t have to feel like a freak or a failure while I’m doing it.
But superheroes really never will have normal lives. So much of the superhero archetype is based in that longing for the thing they can never have back once they’ve been transformed by circumstances. For Batman it’s the loss of his parents and the sense of safety that comes from believing you’re protected. For Superman it’s the loss of a world full of people like himself which would allow him to ever be anything other than super. For Spider-Man it’s the loss of innocence when the price tag on a selfish decision is his uncle’s life. And for David Banner, it’s a series of compound losses. It begins with his childhood, then the death of his wife and with it his image of himself as the kind of man who could have saved her, and ends in the loss of dominion over his own consciousness.
The existence of the Hulk makes is impossible for David to make genuine connections. He’s unable to experience strong emotions without losing control of his body and mind, wreaking havoc without any memory of what he’s done. He copes by roaming around, isolating himself from social attachments, searching for a way to re-integrate himself. He will never have a normal life. The central nature of the Hulk, and the dilemma for David Banner, is that he has no control over when he’s being a freak. It’s a metaphor for the dangers of being out of touch with your emotions, but it also works as an analogy for our inability to define who we are to other people.
For me, the experience of being ostracized became tolerable when I stood out by choice rather than because I was failing to fit in. I was both transgendered (although I hadn’t figured that out yet) and hopelessly earnest in a way that precluded being cool. As long as I was trying to be what I thought other people wanted me to be, they were only too happy to make it clear to me that I was, in actuality, a freak. It made me miserable and I tied myself in knots trying to identify and fix whatever it was that was wrong with me, but I think the hardest part was that I couldn’t control it. When I eventually gave up and accepted that I was never going to fit in, I found that the act of simply choosing gave me a sense of agency, even if I hadn’t exactly been given a choice.
None of us really have control over how other people see and define us, but the Hulk literally embodies the experience. David Banner keeps trying to find ways to fit in, but he can’t help behaving in ways that make him an outcast. Everywhere he goes, it eventually becomes painfully obvious to everyone around him that he’s different. And, ironically, he was actually trying to be different, just not like that. He irradiated himself because he wanted to be able to perform superhuman feats of strength, but in his heart what he wanted was to be able to turn back time and use that strength to save his wife, which is something he could never make happen even with all the gamma rays in the world.
The Hulk’s origin story is almost more like a supervillain’s – intentionally transforming himself in a quest for power and having it twist him into something destructive – but his motivation and how hard he tries to handle the outcome responsibly are what make him a hero instead. Ultimately, all the superheroes choose to be heroes. At the heart of their stories is a common human struggle between the desire to be exceptional and the desire to be accepted, to stand apart or be a part of the group. If the price of being uniquely gifted is that you will never have a normal life, do you accept that gift? Most superheroes aren’t given the choice, the way most people don’t get to choose their own circumstances. The only choice we get is what to do with it.
And maybe never having a normal life isn’t a bad thing. I suspect that there may be no such thing as a normal life, and if there was it would be boring. It’s probably easier on some level if you can blame freaking out in line at the grocery store on gamma radiation, and I’m not convinced it’s more painful to accept that your relationship failed because you kept running off to save the world than because you stayed late at work too often. At least if you’re not a superhero, having your loved ones regularly dangled off the edges of buildings is one problem you don’t have.
alex MacFadyen encourages you to try saying it out loud:
“(your name) will never have a normal life.”