Hulk?

THE HULK WITHIN ME


Christmas 1983 with my father the coal miner
I was born Winter of 1979, in a small Appalachian coal town in Southeast Kentucky called Pikeville. It was there, I was infused with the rich culture, heritage, music and trades that were handed down from generation to generation; from father to son and so forth. Growing up in Appalachia has advantages and disadvantages, but living in a small rural town gave me a sense of restriction, confinement and an overall closed-in mindset. Our family relocated to Neon, Kentucky, just 35 miles south of Pikeville, where my father worked every day in the coal mines, risking his life daily to make ends meet. Don't misinterpret my town's name, it's anything further from the neon glow of Las Vegas or adorned in bright lights. However, I do think there is a Budweiser neon sign in the local gas station.

There's not much to do for the youth of rural America, especially my hometown of Neon. So, whatever we latched onto as an outlet for capturing our interest, would pretty much define you in these ghost-town societies. I say that because many towns and cities around Appalachia were formed from the coal mining booms of the early 1900's. But today, these towns are skeletons, mere ruin of their former once thriving mini-metropolis'. Abandoned buildings, dilapidated structures, now succumb to endless miles of kudzu vines and less than thriving economies have left communities like my home town, a shadow image of it's former bustling livelihood on the US Map.

My original Hulk Halloween Costume
For me, growing up was painstakingly difficult. I was born a sick child, who inherited his family's curse called hemophilia. Hemophilia is a bleeding disorder in which it's more difficult for me to form clots, stop bleeding and risk of joint and muscle damage. I could never go out and play football or basketball with my friends in the trailer park where I grew up. Instead, my parents insisted I stay inside to protect me from the dangers of injury or worse. At the time, as a young child, I remember arguing with my folks about their decision, but retrospectively looking back now, I realize their instincts to protect me. As an outlet, I remember waking up Saturday mornings to watch cartoons and television shows. I was pretty much a child who grew up on television.

Nothing like going to the pantry, grabbing a bowl of Fruity Pebbles and sitting down to watch He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. But after all the cartoons ended, around 11AM, the networks would switch over from cartoons to reruns. One such show was The Incredible Hulk. It was there, my love for the Jade Giant began. Show after show, week after week, I would watch in amazement and wonder as this scrawny scientist would hobo around from city to city, and when he becomes angry, the beast from within would emerge, and demolish everything in it's path. At first, I didn't think much about the show. But over time, years passing, I still found myself going back to this show to see The Hulk.

Letter mailed to Parents About Possible HIV Contamination
It was around 1983 that the drugs to treat my hemophilia became the topic of global headline news. People who were taking the home infusions were suddenly becoming sick, hospitalized and dying by the thousands. The AIDS epidemic was in full swing, and around age 3, I became co-infected with HIV and Hepatitis C from contaminated blood products to treat my hemophilia. What was to save me, ended up being a certain death sentence. Much like David Banner of the television show, my family and I sought out a cure to help save me from certain doom. There was something living inside me, changing, evolving and killing me all at the same time. Year after year, I grew weaker, and as fate would have it, no cure would ever been found.

The Incredible Hulk #324
Extended hospital stays, long 8-10 hour days hooked up to infusion poles and an endless mountain of pills, drugs and trials became my normal for the next 10 years. I spent half of my life in a hospital bed, for an ill child with multiple diagnosis', I didn't know what a normal life looked like. And then, one day, my father comes home from the grocery store with a book in his hand. The title read, "The Incredible Hulk." Having known I loved Hulk from watching him every Saturday morning, my family thought I would find comfort in reading about him in the pulp paper comics. I never will forget the issue he brought to me, It was The Incredible Hulk #324, The return of the Grey Hulk. My father said, "The cover just looked like something you'd be interested in." He was so correct in that statement. It took me less than 20 minutes to read through the issue, I was blown away. Never before I had I seen or read an Incredible Hulk comic.

Incredible Hulk 25th Birthday Cake
On some strange pathological way, I related to Dr. Banner. He was a small guy, smart but lacking in physical strength and stamina. I too was weak, outcast and secluded from my friends. I had no physical strength or power to define me. Banner had something living within him that was tearing him apart mentally and physically, and separating him from the ones he loves or wants to be with. I have something living inside me, two viruses, that set me apart from those I loved and wanted to be with as well. When Banner became angry, he transformed into this monster of rage and anger. Many times, sitting in that cold hospital room, I dreamed and fantasized about becoming my own hulk, and bashing through the walls of that complex and tearing the walls down brick by brick. The Hulk and I became one, I was able to carry out my emotional and physical trauma through the pages of a comic book, while maintaining my own sanity.

My Favorite Hulk Toy from 1989
I began collecting small items like action figures, comics and collectibles of The Hulk. In some profound way, The Hulk resonated with me, and his parallel story of pain and suffering answered the call I was searching for in my own life. Though in the real world we can't transform into a 8 foot tall, 1,200 lb Goliath, that's just fiction; but trust me, there were times lying in the cold hospital rooms alone and I envisioned what the hulk inside me would look like. But reading those comics and watching the television show gave me the creative mind to step outside of my own reality of despair, and face my own giants in a way I never dreamed possible. This is where my personal faith comes in.

My Favorite Coaster 2017
Around age 14 years old, I found faith as a young teenager. This step towards something unknown and unseen would shape and form the man I am today. Comics are the art of expanding the mind to something fantasy and rooted in fiction. But faith is believing in something you can't see, touch or smell to sustain reason, purpose and worth. I began growing, maturing in my faith in Christ, and was baptized in May 1994. My parents never pushed me to going to church or that is was mandatory to attend. My own interested and curiosity peaked within myself. I began singing in my parent's gospel group and perusing more leadership roles within the church. By age 24 I had been a youth pastor for 2 years at a small country church in Virgina, all the while being a gospel musician in a band that toured the southeast region of Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio and Tennessee. We were regulars on local access Christian Television station WLJC, performing monthly live on the air. In July 2008, I then found one thing in my life that gave me purpose, and a reason to fight even harder, I found my future wife Alexandra. By Autumn 2010, we both were married and relocated to Orlando, Florida so I could peruse a career in graphic design/marketing and she could further her career as a registered nurse (RN).

Public Speaking and Testimonials in local churches
Now, as a middle-aged man, I realize something profound. I did become the Hulk, but not in the ways I dreamed or imagined as an 8 year old child. God had bestowed on me a gift of communication, music and art, and I realized I had been using these gifts all along for His glory. Somehow, someway, God had birthed in me a spiritual hulk (of sorts), one that does not succumb to fear, stress or worry, but rather one who charges head first into battle, no matter the circumstance. Having endured all the endless needle sticks, constant waves of side effects, chronic pain and unfathomable nights lying awake in pain from living with hemophilia, I've in many ways become immune to things like fear and worry. After you've endured hell already, it's often difficult to rattle my cage. Even today, I volunteer at my church, leading men to Christ and counseling those in need of help. Trust me, this is not me boasting about my accomplishments, this is just a fact that God is using me in ways I never dreamed to reach others and share love and compassion.

Me with the Hulk himself, Lou Ferrigno
So for now, the beast is tamed, the hulk for God continues to do work, and the meager nerd that you see on the outside isn't exactly what dwells deep within. When Stan Lee first created the Hulk back in 1962, I'm not sure he could foresee the repercussions of his masterpiece today. To this day, The Hulk is a huge part of my life, from the coffee cup I drink of every morning, to my favorite roller coaster here in Orlando, to me dressing up at Halloween, to me going to the cinema to watch the "Jade Giant" unleash havoc on his foes; "HULK SMASH!" I had the distinct honor to meet Mr. Lou Ferrigno in 2015, shake his hand and share briefly my story with him. It was as if those days staying in the hospital, watching Lou on TV as Hulk all came full circle. I will admit, I had to step to the side after snapping a picture with him, to wipe a tear away.

The Incredible Hulk #420 "In The Shadow of AIDS"
In August of 1994, Marvel released "The Incredible Hulk" #420, subtitled "In the Shadow of AIDS." A very heartfelt story of Banner's friend Jim who succumbs to his illness, and the rippling effect it has on his friends and family. Marvel pulled no stops as they showed the darker side of the crisis, and a side of Bruce Banner people often don't get to see. The comic is profound, and honors those of the era and time, while educating the readers of the real stories and horrors the AIDS crisis caused, especially at Marvel headquarters in New York City. At the end of the comic is an editors corner with many of the writers, producers and staff sharing their own personal stories and accounts of seeing those they love, being affected by AIDS. This issue is a milestone comic in which Marvel Comics has released content that has been topical, and timely. In 1971, Marvel covered drug abuse in "The Amazing Spider-Man" #96-98, and repealed the "Comics Code Authority" to release the issues anyway. In December 2001, "Amazing Spider-man" #36 covered the tragedies of a post 9-11 era, with superheroes and villains working side by side to rescue civilians. "The Incredible Hulk" #420 falls in the same category of iconic human endurance. Written by legendary Peter David, penned by Gary Frank and inked by Cam Smith.

Original Art
Whatever you face in life, be reminded of that which lives inside you. Not the raging beast of destruction, but the eternal heart of love. In the end, it's not about how many cars we can smash, or robots we can bash, but how many lives we can touch. That's the true nature of a spiritual warrior. What you see on the outside is just a shell, but dwelling within is giant that can concur pretty much anything the world can throw at me. My physical arms suffer atrophy and permanent joint deformation, but my spiritual arms continually extend to those who need prayer, guidance or just an ear. My physical skin is weak, easily torn and fragile. But my spiritual skin is thick, able to shield against the fiery arrows of life or the enemy. My spiritual feet are bruised, swollen and my stride is slower. But my spiritual feet rejoice if my sufferings and run towards my band of brothers. That's the Hulk that has grown within me. So be inspired, dream beyond your own conditions, and hold firm in the faiths that have been bestowed to you, because somewhere, someway, somehow, life always comes full-circle, and your life can be a mirror image of that which you believe.