Immortal Hulk Book One (2019)
Reprints Immortal Hulk #1-10 & material from Avengers #684
Written by Al Ewing
Art by Joe Bennett, Ruy Jose, Le Beau Underwood, & Rafael Fonteriz
When I was a five-year-old living in Central Illinois, I can vividly remember watching NBC Saturday mornings, and my favorite shows were Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends and The Hulk. I would play-act, by myself usually being these heroes, and the transformation from Bruce Banner to Hulk was always one of my favorites. The shoes splitting open as his feet grew, shoulders expanding to split my shirt. Hulk, like dinosaurs, is one of those empowering figures for little kids; they represent an ability to unleash anger & strength in a world where your size and lack of knowledge make you vulnerable. However, as I got older, I didn’t find Hulk to be that compelling of a character. There were moments during Peter David’s epic run that piqued my interest, but after he left the book, it felt like there wasn’t much to say about Hulk other than retread that territory. Then Al Ewing came along.
Before this series began, Bruce Banner is killed by Hawkeye in the pages of Civil War II. An Inhuman with the powers of premonition sees that the Hulk will cause a major catastrophe. Banner secretly plans with Hawkeye to kill him at an undetermined time so that Hulk won’t emerge and stop the assassination. It goes off, and now the scientist and his alter ego are gone. But then Hulk rises from the grave. It doesn’t make any sense; he should have stayed dead. During the day, Bruce Banner wanders the Southwest trying to stay under the radar. When the sun sets, and the moon rises, Hulk emerges. This Hulk is cold & cruel, enacting vicious retribution on those he believes deserve it. Banner gets shot in the head during a convenience store robbery gone wrong, but that night the Hulk rises, hunting down the man responsible.
Following this mysterious path of destruction is reporter Jackie McGee who has personal connections to the Hulk. Meanwhile, Banner keeps getting pulled into the orbit of other people affected by gamma radiation and begins to learn that gamma is something that exists as an element beyond our material plane. Banner’s old college roommate Walter Langkowski contacts McGee wanting to help take out the Hulk. Langkowski is yet another person affected by gamma, operating as Sasquatch with the Canadian outfit Alpha Flight. He recalls glimpsing a green door in the middle of the sky, an image that begins to come up again and again. Gamma seems to breach the walls of the material world and another place, a place much like the mythical Hell. Soon it becomes clear that another entity is using Langkowski to get closer to Banner. And before this first chapter is over, Banner will be forced to confront some horrors from his past as well as his old teammates on the Avengers.
Immortal Hulk is nothing like anything you have read or seen about the Hulk before. Al Ewing has fully leaned into some intense and complex body horror, and it fits the character perfectly. My problem with the Hulk became that standard superhero narratives just don’t fit this type of character. This isn’t Captain America, where the hero symbolizes a more incredible ideal, or Spider-Man, where the protagonist is balancing two sides of his life. Bruce Banner is a victim of a terrible accident and, as revealed by later writers, a childhood of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of his father. He doesn’t want to be Hulk; he wants that side of himself to go away. But only by confronting that part of his mind can he ever hope to have peace. Ewing has spent this series taking a complete survey of the destruction Hulk has done to Banner’s adult life, and it’s a harrowing journey.
Ewing introduces General Fortean as the main antagonist of the first trilogy of arcs begun here. He’s a former officer under General Thunderbolt Ross who now operates a secret government program dedicated to understanding gamma and bringing down Hulk permanently. The Avengers are manipulated into fighting with Hulk as a means for Fortean’s people to get their hands on Hulk in a weakened. The result is one of the most horrific things I’ve read in a mainstream comic. Artist Joe Bennett is allowed to go all out with a vivisected Hulk who is still alive despite his entire body being sliced up and placed in separate jars. Ewing uses that moment as an evocative visual and to signal we are going down a very different path than ever before.
My personal feelings are that Hulk works best when the series leans into the tragedy of Bruce Banner. His transformation is ultimately a curse. We see the physical pain that he would feel every time he transforms, feeling every cell of his body rend, split, and expand. Then there is the psychological toll only lightly touched upon here. Book One focuses more on the innocent bystanders, the strangers in the crowd who Banner will never know by name and probably forgets their faces. However, he remembers the harm he’s responsible for and can’t seem to stop. Fortean preys on the grudge Crusher Creel aka The Absorbing Man, holds against Hulk to make him a living weapon in this war. It becomes yet another story point to see how Hulk is used to hurt other people. By the end of this dense first volume, we will step through the green door, but it will take the next book to explore what lies on the other side.