Immortal Hulk Book Three (2021)
Reprints Immortal Hulk #21-30
Written by Al Ewing
Art by Ryan Bodenheim, Joe Bennett, German Garcia, Tom Reilly, and Matías Bergara
Al Ewing’s Immortal Hulk run has been an excellent survey of every supporting character, villain, and central plot point of the Hulk. With Book Three, Ewing wraps up the General Fortean plotline while laying the threads for the eventual return of Hulk’s arch-nemesis, The Leader. As with everything that has come before, Ewing puts characters first to evolve the plots and conflicts naturally out of those revelations and details. We get glimpses into Fortean’s past, we get more character bits with Gamma Flight, especially the Absorbing Man & Titania. The book is just as much an ensemble piece as it spotlights Bruce Banner and his struggle with the Hulk.
One of the interesting things about Fortean is the way his relationship with the Hulk is told. We learn about his religious upbringing through flashbacks, where he was taught the dichotomy of light & dark, order & chaos. As a young soldier under the tutelage of Thunderbolt Ross, he came to see the Hulk as the embodiment of that chaotic evil he was taught about. So when he brutally murders those standing in the way of his mission. Fortean’s justification is made crystal clear whether the reader agrees with him or not. There’s a solid argument to be made that Bruce Banner & the Hulk are not heroic figures; there’s a clear wake of destruction behind them for decades.
Some brilliant moments expand the scope of the Hulk, placing the gamma bomb explosion that manifested him and placing it into a cosmic and metaphysical context. We see the event that ended the previous reality where Galactus came from was caused by something akin to gamma in the Marvel U. The Fantastic Four’s transformation by cosmic rays is framed as the light to Banner’s corruption via gamma. When Fortean finally meets his brutal end, he goes into the hellscape glimpsed many times previously; the reader is presented with solid evidence that the soldier was right and the Hulk is a fount of primal evil.
Issue 25 is akin to episode eight of Twin Peaks: The Return in my book. It’s such a left turn, an unexpected shift in narrative that takes us so far outside the realm of traditional narrative and even the kinds of characters we expect. This isn’t simply a visit to another reality, but a glimpse at a possible micro-reality within our own where the properties of physics are transformed. I tend to see this as an homage to the storyline in the 1970s where Hulk ended up in the Microverse for an arc, but it’s even bigger than fan service.
The second half of the book delves into Banner’s new mission to defend himself, and all gamma mutates against humanity if they continue antagonizing him. Of course, that doesn’t sit well with the masses. The main enemy of this next section is Dario Agger, the president of the Roxxon corporation. I have never really meshed as a reader with Roxxon or Agger, one of Jason Aaron’s creations during his run on Thor. Even here, I have difficulty seeing how he gels with the overarching themes and direction of the story Ewing is telling. Thus far, every character that appears has a direct connection to the Hulk mythos.
The parts of this arc that work for me are in the introduction of the Teen Brigade, a deep cut to the early days of the Hulk. The original Teen Brigade was a group of teenagers coordinated by Rick Jones to aid the Hulk in any way they could. In Ewing’s reimagining, they are youths affected by Banner’s manifesto, finding solace in his rage and the fury of the Hulk against a system that is simply not working and leaving them no future. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Teen Brigade gets explored as fully as it deserves, and I wish Ewing had lessened the Roxxon material for this.
Roxxon does manage to set up the next arc, which will happen in book four which involves Xemnu, who fought the Hulk in the 1970s & 80s. He was the original Hulk, a name given to him during his one-off appearance as a monster of the month in Journey into Mystery (1960). His powers are centered around manipulation, and that mental fortitude makes him a compelling match-up for Hulk. Ewing continues to deliver a brilliant look at a character I personally fell out of interest with. He’s made the Hulk fascinating and set the bar very high for whomever writer Hulk next.