Using the Incredible Hulk to Teach Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

by | Oct 10, 2019

What makes a monster? This topic was part of 19th century Gothic fiction when Robert Louis Stevenson put pen to paper, but if you ask a fan of Marvel Comics, they may instead respond, “gamma radiation.” Eventually, such a fan might get to the question that is the center of the Hulk mythos: is the Hulk a hero, a monster, or both? This question, in fact, also exists at the center of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Robert Louis Stevenson first published the Gothic novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (aka Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) in 1886. It is a classic example of a psychological thriller, where most of the “action” happens within characters’ heads. In this case, the tension between Dr. Henry Jekyll, a generally reputable (but at times ethically dubious) individual, and the evil Mr. Edward Hyde. It has reached such high acclaim that the concept of Jekyll and Hyde has come to represent a person capable of doing both very good as well as very evil things.

Someone familiar with both The Incredible Hulk and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde could claim that pairing these two works is perhaps obvious. The Incredible Hulk, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, is an ongoing series featuring Dr. Bruce Banner and his alter-ego, the Hulk. The parallels between The Incredible Hulk and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are not coincidental; Stan Lee in 1974 explicitly stated that he was inspired by Jekyll and Hyde along with characters such as Quasimodo, Frankenstein, and Frankenstein’s monster. Effectively, a teacher can leverage the popularity of the Hulk and his appearance in films, games, comic books, and graphic novels to motivate students’ exploration and discussion of concepts initially presented in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Further, the language in The Incredible Hulk is generally more straightforward, the use of images helps create extra pathways towards learning and remembering content from the text, further benefiting students’ learning experiences than were they to simply study Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde alone. The argument for many is sufficient to merit introducing The Incredible Hulk into the curriculum and there are many academic studies that support such a pedagogic position.

Topics that you can teach by pairing the two texts include:

* The antihero and, more specifically, the Gothic double. Antiheroes are protagonists or notable characters in a story that are conspicuously lacking notably heroic characteristics. One classic example is Don Quixote, whose actions certainly look heroic, but can also be attributed to foolishness and a desire to resurrect something that no longer exists. The Gothic double is a specific type of antihero characterized by having both clearly good and clearly bad natures. Jekyll/Hyde is one such character from classic literature; Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights is another. Like Jekyll and Hyde, Banner and the Hulk represent different facets of the same person. While Banner represents a civilized and highly intelligent man of science, the Hulk represents anger, aggression, and is often depicted as simple-minded and more primordial. This duality also opens up topics such as: human vs. animal, civilization vs. barbarism, and strength vs. intelligence. Pairing the two texts further opens up a conversation of the different facets every person has, our abilities to do both good and evil, and how to create a nuanced character. Students can reflect on the dualities they experience in their own lives.

* The dangers of scientific advancement. Jekyll and Banner are both scientists, and the creation of their alter egos is due to scientific experiments gone wrong. Jekyll transforms into Hyde because of a serum he created and experimented with on himself, while the creation of the Hulk is from Banner’s exposure to gamma radiation. As such, these texts can open up conversations such as whether scientific advancement is always a social good. If not, what limits should be placed around science? How do different countries try to regulate scientific advancement, and do you agree with it?

To some degree, what I have listed is a summary of topics that could be covered. They can certainly lead to a rich conversation, and I encourage you to think about what types of conversations you’d like to have with students by pairing these two texts. That said, whenever you pair two texts, it’s also worth considering how that pairing is framed. For example, is one text supposed to enrich our understanding of the other, or are the two texts supposed to be opposing opinions concerning a single issue? Different framings will lead to different classroom conversations.

I will lay out a few ways you can frame the pairing of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with The Incredible Hulk. Each framing will ask students to critically reflect upon Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde along with The Hulk. More specifically, you can use The Incredible Hulk in one of three ways.

  1. Teach The Incredible Hulk as a counterpoint to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. While Jekyll can most closely be compared to Bruce Banner and Hyde is closer to the Hulk, there is one critical difference that can create rich comparisons between the texts. Namely, while Mr. Hyde is generally seen as little more than evil in Stevenson’s novella, the Hulk arguably does more good in the comics than the “civilized” and “good” Dr. Bruce Banner. As a result, the good and evil dichotomy neatly set out in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is challenged within The Incredible Hulk. Rage remains a destructive force, but it can also be a force for good.

With your students, start with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, highlighting the concept of the Gothic double, the antihero, and the nature of the dualities that exist within people. Explore with students what Stevenson seems to be suggesting and ask students to react/respond to that. Then, read The Incredible Hulk and explore how more closely identifying the Hulk as a hero can lead a reader to rethink Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In what ways are the texts similar and in what ways are they different? Then ask students to compose a critical essay, exploring contradictory themes in the two texts, ultimately evaluating which message resonates more with them and why.

  1. Open your unit with The Incredible Hulk, leverage the fact that this comic book series generally isn’t thought of as one of “the great books,” thus making students more comfortable being critical. It takes a lot of guts to say that a book that has served as a cornerstone to Western society got something wrong. It’s easier to say that you disagree with a comic book.

Have students first read The Incredible Hulk. Identify the themes you wish to more fully discuss. It could be humanity’s ability to be good or evil, the benefits and perils of scientific advancement, the challenges of overcoming your own inner demons, or an array of other topics.

Ask students if they think The Incredible Hulk got it right, and where they may disagree with it. Then, delve into Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Have students reflect on how Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde enters the conversation your students were already having with The Incredible Hulk. Does Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde support your argument or pose a problem? In what ways?

  1. Explore The Incredible Hulk as a continuation of the conversation started by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There is something very cool about using an ongoing comic book series. While there is a day when Stevenson finished Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Incredible Hulk as a series is still a work in progress, transcending the work and thoughts of any single person. As a result, the themes and arguments found in the first issue of The Incredible Hulk are probably not the same as the topics writers and illustrators strive to understand in next month’s issue.

Start by reading and discussing The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Discuss the main themes and topics you want your students to be conversant in. Then, as a class, read and discuss the first few issues of The Incredible Hulk, focusing on how the comic picked up and expanded upon Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Finally, as an assessment, have students find and select a more recent issue of The Incredible Hulk that they see continuing the conversation even further, have students compare the three texts, and weigh in on with which text (if any) they most fully agree.

If you try any of these methods, please let us know here at Pop Culture Classroom! And as always, don’t forget to subscribe to our site for more info (in the top right of this window).

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