For true fans of comics, no detail is too small to matter. Loki might appear in the background of scenes he’s manipulating (The Ultimates 2), seemingly unimportant scenes might reveal the true parentage of the Silk Spectre (Watchmen), and checking the shadows in a Nightwing comic might reveal Batman‘s hidden plan. But even for those fans, there are questions which seem inconsequential. For example: what color is the Hulk‘s tongue, and why does it even matter?
Created in 1962 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby – and depicted by actors as varied as Mark Ruffalo, Edward Norton, Eric Bana, and Lou Ferrigno – the Hulk is the monstrous alter ego of scientist Dr. Robert Bruce Banner. Altered during a disastrous test of his own gamma bomb, Banner was exposed to both radiation and the attentions of supernatural forces, making it so that his already splintered mind manifested in physical transformation, giving rise to a variety of “Hulk” characters marked by their (usually) green skin and immense physical power. Whether manifesting as the Savage Hulk, Green Scar, Mr. Fixit, or Devil Hulk, Banner’s entire body changes to suit the persona being expressed, so what’s so special about his tongue?
Originally depicted as a grey-skinned brute (and almost immediately switched to a green hue, even in reprints of his original issue), Marvel have offered up various potential reasons for the Hulk’s skin color. While the Hulk’s ally Amadeus Cho once theorized that the Hulk’s skin is the sign of a single, unhealed, full-body bruise (explaining some of his rage), few stories have really employed this theory, with the general assumption being that gamma radiation simply results in green transformations (or red when mixed with cosmic rays, as was the case for the Red Hulk.)
This bears out for the majority of gamma mutates, with characters like the Leader, She-Hulk, and Doc Samson all gaining green mutations when exposed to gamma radiation, along with physical mutation. Later stories, and particularly Al Ewing and Joe Bennett’s Immortal Hulk, suggest that gamma’s connection to the The One Below All and the revivifying “Green Door” also mark the color green as a kind of supernatural stamp of association with these powers.
It’s no surprise, then, that at least when the Hulk is green, all of the Hulk is green. In Deadpool #4 by Joe Kelly and Ed McGuinness, the Merc with a Mouth seeks out a blood sample from the Hulk in order to restore his own healing factor, and readers get plenty of examples of the Hulk’s green blood – a trait echoed by future colorists. Likewise, while the Hulk’s hair tends to be black with a green sheen, Doc Samson’s gamma mutation leaves his skin untouched but produces long jade locks, while She-Hulk – Bruce’s cousin – has green hair, lips, and nails.
Combined with his appearances in Hulk: Broken Worlds, World War Hulk: X-Men, Irredeemable Ant-Man #10 (in which the titular hero is swallowed), and covers by luminaries like Alex Ross, Mark Bagley, and David Finch, it’s therefore easy to claim with certainty that the Hulk’s tongue is green… except when it isn’t.
While some depictions of the Hulk do indeed picture him with a green tongue, the vast majority of his appearances show both his tongue and gums to be pink – yes, even when his skin is green. This is especially true in Immortal Hulk – where the Hulk’s gums are on show more often than not – but it’s also the case in alternate realities, potential futures, and even the same storylines where his tongue is green. Notably, while the story of World War Hulk: X-Men #2 shows the Hulk with a green tongue, the cover shows it as pink, and it’s pink in other tie-ins to the World War Hulk event which canonically occur on the same day. Likewise, in the majority of adaptations, and even the majority of high-end toys and figurines, the Hulk has a pink tongue.
Other gamma mutates don’t offer a clearer answer. As Brawn, Amadeus Cho has been pictured with a green tongue, while as the Hulk he was pictured with pink. She-Hulk has been pictured with pink teeth and gums, while the Leader has been pictured with green. If there’s one abiding fact about the tongues of gamma mutates it’s that sometimes they’re pink and sometimes they’re green, so what’s going on?
The simple, obvious answer is that Marvel haven’t been able to standardize the color of the Hulk’s tongue, and various colorists have gone with whatever feels right – the pinkish tongue you’d expect of a humanoid hero or the green tongue of someone who’s, well, green all over, and the same holds true for other gamma mutates. The starkest difference is in the tie-in materials to 2008’s World War Hulk, but this is only because so many artists were drawing the Hulk and, by the law of averages, this meant more divergent depictions than normal. So if the answer is so simple – different colorists tend to take one of two approaches – why is it worth asking the question? Well, because Marvel themselves aren’t happy with that answer.
While the ever-changing tongues of gamma mutates can be explained by a minor error in consistency in Marvel’s dozens and dozens of skilled colorists, any dedicated comics fan is likely to feel cheated by that answer. After all, in a world of magic and sci-fi invention, it’s irritating to have to accept “it’s just a mistake” as an answer. It’s for this reason that, in 1964, Marvel came up with the Marvel No-Prize.
Under pressure to match competitors in awarding prizes to fans who spotted continuity errors or mistakes, Marvel invented a prize that didn’t actually exist. Instead, readers who wrote in with errors would have their letters printed alongside the declaration that they had been awarded a No-Prize. For a short time in 1967, some winners were sent an empty envelope “containing” their No-Prize, but otherwise the informal, non-existent award was intended to nudge fans not just into spotting continuity errors, but rather into explaining those errors through creative thinking and comic-book logic (as explained in the image from Dan Slott’s excellent She-Hulk run, above, drawn by Paul Pelletier). It’s in this spirit that any dedicated Marvel fan is honor bound not just to identify the issue of the Hulk’s tongue color, but to explain it. Here’s our version.
Thankfully – in the Hulk’s case at least – “green” exists on a gradient. Banner’s personae are harder to differentiate than you might think – even the normal Savage Hulk varies in his understanding of language – but as a general rule, the stronger the Hulk is, the greener he becomes. This is exemplified by Mr. Fixit. Making his first real appearance in Hulk #347, Joe Fixit is a weaker, smarter Banner persona inspired by classic gangster movies. On the other end of the spectrum is Worldbreaker Hulk – a persona so strong that his very footsteps cause tremors and who, in Greg Pak and John Romita Jr.’s World War Hulk #5, begins to literally glow with green light at the height of his humongous power.
Between these two points on the spectrum, as well as other less noteworthy forms of the Hulk, it’s safe to say that the stronger Hulk gets, the greener Hulk gets. Since we know his tongue “changes” color even within the same persona, it’s reasonable to assume that it’s simply the last part of his body to go green – the sign that Hulk is nearing his full Worldbreaker potential. Happily, the preponderance of color disparity in World War Hulk tie-ins actually helps this theory, since this storyline saw the Hulk at the strongest he had ever been and arrayed against a host of foes – pink-tongued when slapping around the student heroes of the Avengers Initiative, but pushed into full green-tongued strength when up against the entire X-Men roster. Like a vein bulging in a strongman’s head, the Hulk’s tongue turns green only at the point of maximum exertion, settling back into its normal pink as he settles back to his status quo – and the transitional stage between fleshy tones and outright green can even explain those rare occasions where the Hulk’s tongue looks decidedly blue.
Or at least that’s what we’re claiming for our No-Prize attempt. Ultimately, continuity in comics can be a channel for good or bad – good when it creates a sense of a cohesive world and binds together stories told decades apart, bad when it stifles invention or is used to belittle otherwise impressive art and writing. While Marvel may not have been successful in pinning down a detail as minor as the color of the Hulk’s tongue, comics are better when fans and creators meet halfway, with writers and artists understanding that fans value the time they put into exploring every nook and cranny of a universe, and fans being willing to give their favorite artists the benefit of the doubt and enough creative license to tell the next great story. That’s why the Hulk‘s tongue matters – because it’s an invitation for fans to have a little fun with a world they love.
Next: The Most Unusual Way Someone Tried To Calm The Hulk Down