Oh man, where do I start? With a confession - I’m not a fan of Bruce in the comics. At all. I can’t remember the last time I read a book with him in it, if ever! Comic Bruce is very, very different to EMH or Movie Bruce, and how he’s portrayed in Fanon.
I did the same thing as you when I started reading comics, hunted around and read up on the character in an effort to get a grasp on him. So I shall share what I can!
Concerning Bruce’s character, the thing I found most informative was his childhood. Robert Bruce Banner grew up with a mother that loved him very much, but with a drunken father who was jealous of the love between Bruce and his mother. He eventually killed Bruce’s mother and was placed in an institution. 15 years later, Bruce and his father get into a physical fight at his mother’s grave and Bruce pushes his father into the tombstone, where he cracks his skull and dies. (Bruce later reveals he could have avoided killing his father, but didn’t. Yikes.)
So the poor guy never really had a chance at a normal life.
Anyway. Bruce grew up with his aunt and, growing up into a brilliant scientist, started working for the Department of Defense. He was put in charge of a secret gamma-bomb project, and…well. You can see where this is leading.
On the day that the bomb was to be tested, a teenager named Rick Jones (Seriously, check this guy out for a side of the Marvel Universe that few people know about) ran onto the testing field, on a dare from his friends. Bruce ran out to save him, only to catch the full force of the exploding gamma bomb (detonated by a rival scientist - isn’t it always the way). One thing leads to another, and Hulk.
Originally, Bruce would only transform into The Hulk at night, and a geiger counter could be used to predict this transformation. This is kind of where the troubles start with the character, for me personally. The problem with comics is that as characters are passed like wanton whores from writer to writer, editor to editor, changes are made. Bruce Banner has suffered significantly with this, recreated a dozen times over to include different personalities, different superhero teams, marriages, brain damage, etc.
It doesn’t exactly make it easy for new comic fans. You can see why the movies have made significant changes not only to the character, over the years, but to Bruce’s entire backstory and origin.
One thing to remember with Bruce, and this is especially true in his current day comics incarnation, is that he’s very mistrustful. Of the army, of the government, and of other superheroes. He fears what he is and what he’s capable of, and especially fears that other people will want to misuse that. He has a self-depreciating humor that he uses as a defense mechanism, which I think we will see in this newest movie incarnation. These are aspects of the character that exist in every interpretation, and are thankfully prevalent in Fandom.
I like to think of Bruce as someone who has run the full gamut of stress and anxiety, who has been exposed to so much strenuous emotion that he’s come out the other side not only zen, but in exceptional control of himself. He’s had an incredibly hard life, so hard that just the mere fact that he’s still alive and sane is a testament to the incredible strength of his personal will.
As for Clint and Bruce as a pairing, don’t bother looking to the comics for more of this. Most of the inspiration for the relationship comes from the cartoon series Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. In comics, Bruce is rarely around the other Avengers, and even more rarely at the same time as Clint.
Personally, I think that a lot of the inspiration for their relationship comes from their faults. Clint, while not so much as Bruce, is a person that doesn’t have a lot of trust to give due to his own childhood (Which wow, that’s a whole ‘nother story). More than that, he’s a character that clings to his self-made family and will violently defend then against anything that threatens it. for Bruce to have someone defend him, simply because his company and presence are wanted…that has to be a hell of a novel, special thing. Bruce’s general attitude of calm and zen is also a good contrast for Clint’s hot-headedness, and tendency to act before thinking. If I had enough fingers on which to count the number of times Clint has almost gotten himself killed protecting his friends, I’d be that four-armed guy from Mortal Kombat.
I really hope this helps! Bruce is a hard character to get a beat on, because not only has he been shown so differently in years of comics, shows and movies, but because the focus is always on The Hulk. I would ignore the previous two movies - Ang Lee’s Hulk is a total trainwreck and, as much as I love Edward Norton, the portrayal as Bruce as a self-loathing man-on-the-run is frankly stale and boring. I’m really looking forward to seeing Mark Ruffalo play him as a man who has come to terms with what he is, as a scientist, and as an Avenger.
Some further reading!
If you ever need information about a character in a pinch, I find comicvine.com to be invaluable. Here is a link to Bruce/Hulk’s entry, in the hopes that you can find some more answers there!
Planet Hulk/World War Hulk is a great story arc featuring Hulk/Bruce and, while I haven’t personally read it, I hear consistently good things about it. Remember how I mentioned that Bruce doesn’t place a lot of trust in his fellow heroes? Getting shot into space by a group of them didn’t help.
An interesting way to get a good idea of Bruce’s character is to see how he interacts with what little family he has. His cousin Jennifer/She-Hulk is fantastic, and what little interaction he has with his son is very interesting. Note: Clint was at one time very much in love with Jennifer, which has sadly been forgotten about by most writers.
Also, concerning movie-Bruce, this interview with Mark Ruffalo and Joss Whedon is very telling as to the direction in which they plan to take Bruce, and Hulk. A lot of writers and movies have shown Hulk has completely intelligible and nothing more than unintelligent rage, which is, tbh, bullshit. A sentient Hulk is a good Hulk!
And I think…that’s all I can say! Good on you for wanting to know more about the character, outside of movies and fandom. There’s nothing more intimidating than the comic book world to someone who is coming in blind, and it makes me happy every time I see someone giving it a serious try. Remember that, no matter how much research you do, you will never know everything and there will ALWAYS be more to learn…and you will be fine!
(And I hope you don’t mind my answering this publicly, in case anyone else was wondering about Bruce as a character)