It's easy to underestimate The Incredible Hulk. Just look at him. He's big. He's green. He wears PURPLE pants. Yet the beauty of the Marvel Comics legend is the complexity within the seemingly simple beast. Back in Cold War '62, writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby fused ''Frankenstein'' and ''Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde'' with atomic heat, and created an American ''Godzilla'' -- a heavily loaded superpower cautionary tale. In Ang Lee's mega-budget adaptation of the comic, actor Eric Bana sums up the character with three words: ''Rage. Power. Freedom.''
Lee and Kirby's first Hulk stories (collected in ''The Essential Hulk, Vol. 1'') are still the best. The symbiotic tug-of-war between emotionally aloof scientist Bruce Banner and his gamma-bomb-spawned alter ego; enemies bent on destroying or exploiting him; a lovely lady who can see the man in the monster -- by the sixth ''Hulk'' issue, these ingredients had settled into a formula still followed to this day.
There have, of course, been tweaks to the template, none more provocative than Peter David's influential 1996 story ''Honey, I Shrunk The Hulk'' (available in ''Transformations,'' a compendium of milestone ''Hulk'' tales), which rooted Banner's simmering rage in his father's physical abuse. (Ang Lee's serious-minded flick, by the way, borrows from and evolves David's innovations.) Alas, pop psych doesn't always look good on Old Green Skin: Paul Jenkins' 2001 story line ''Dogs of War'' (also in paperback) is a clumsy, murky treatment of multiple-personality disorder.
For subtlety, edge, and a leavening dose of humor, try 2001's ''Banner,'' a bold black comedy written by Brian Azzarello and handsomely illustrated by Richard Corben, which offers a suicide solution to the poor doctor's Hulk problem. And the collected issues of current ''Hulk'' scribe Bruce Jones reveal a slow-building masterwork in the making. His creepy-cold yarns have a stoically cool Banner wandering across America ''Kung Fu''-style, struggling to maintain emotional equilibrium while evading mysterious supernatural agents. Jones' moody intrigue is so seductive, you'll hardly notice that the emerald brute is barely in it. Unlike other Hulk sagas, it's a head trip worth taking.