Immortal Hulk Book Four (2022)
Reprints Immortal Hulk #31-40
Written by Al Ewing
Art by Joe Bennett, Javier Rodriguez, Nick Pitarra, Butch Guice, and Mike Hawthorne
In this penultimate omnibus of Immortal Hulk, writer Al Ewing continues exploring and deconstructing the Green Goliath. The tone of this book has consistently been that of body horror, a subgenre that fits the Hulk to a tee. It’s such a good match that I struggle to see Hulk working in another manner. As good as Donny Cates’ current run on the character is at the moment, it had such a massive shadow looming over it from Immortal. From the beginning, it has been clear that Ewing wants to use the Hulk to explore questions about identity and death and how the two intertwine. Gamma has become a mix of science and spirituality, a force that created Bruce Banner and may have been created out of him via some metaphysical means.
This book picks up with the world suddenly transformed after Hulk’s fight with the evil Roxxon corporation. Rather than the narrative being centered on Bruce Banner, we begin with Dr. McGowan’s thoughts. She was one of the scientists working for Shadow Base, a Hulk-hunting operation within the Department of Defense. At this point, she had switched sides, becoming an ally of Hulk and his friends. McGowan is clearly disturbed by how her memories don’t feel right, and this seems to coincide with the arrival of Xemnu the Living Hulk. Everyone remembers what a great hero Xemnu was throughout history. Eventually, it becomes clear that Xemnu is using one of his essential powers, that of mass illusion.
Xemnu is a fascinating Marvel villain based on his history and use in the Hulk comics. He predates Hulk by about a year, appearing in Journey Into Mystery #62 (1960), a monster anthology book at the time. Xemnu’s name at that time was The Living Hulk, and he was essentially the antagonist of a one-off tale. He would resurface as a villain in an early Defenders story, his first meeting with the Hulk. His powers made him quite different than most. You might expect a large intimidating monster to rely on physical might, but Xemnu made himself out to be a children’s television star and turned the masses against whoever challenged him. In Immortal Hulk, he forms an alliance with Dario Agger, the CEO of Roxxon, and infects people’s minds and memories. Nostalgia becomes a weapon, harming people by hiding reality from them.
Ewing doesn’t slouch on the body horror here, though. Xemnu is presented as a shell for a being resembling the anatomy of John Carpenter’s The Thing. He goes from bipedal to crab-walking as his stomach opens up, revealing cybernetic tentacles and a mouth that grinds his human meals into bits. The grotesqueness of his dining is matched by Agger, an equally vile character. I really love how evil Ewing makes his villain in this series. They are not just bad guys; they are depraved, inhuman demons that want to obliterate their victims physically and spiritually.
The second half of the book reveals that the next big villain of the book is none other than The Leader. It had been teased in the previous volume that The Leader was going to show up, and he does so in grand style. Using Rick Jones’ gamma-irradiated body, The Leader works from Hell to manipulate humanity into believing Hulk hasn’t calmed down but is a threat to them. This leads Gamma Flight, the superpowered team, to attack and try to kill Hulk once and for all. I really love Gamma Flight’s dynamic, especially the relationship between Absorbing Man and Titania. They are both criminals and each other’s lover. Being in Gamma Flight was a sort of volun-told experience but their animosity towards the Hulk drives them. They have a major battle with the Hulk here that is rife with their own relationship complexity and Absorbing Man’s blind hatred of the green behemoth.
But the meat of this collection is the battle with The Leader, who has effectively reincarnated as a part of Banner’s highly broken mind. He’s taken possession of so many things, including destroying what remained of Banner’s father. There’s a wonderful retelling of the villain’s origin that emphasizes why he is such a perfect nemesis to Hulk. The Leader was a dimwitted man who was made into a genius through his exposure to gamma, while Bruce was a genius turned into a physical powerhouse by the same means. When they engage in this story, Bruce is forced to take on all the various incarnations of the Hulk in a battle that makes the body horror of previous issues pale in comparison.
If you are up for reading this volume, it won’t be me convincing you; you’re already on board. Immortal Hulk is a pitch-perfect combination of tone & character we rarely get in comics. Spider-Man works best as a street-level, everyman. The X-Men’s best stories come out of the theme of prejudice. And Hulk’s best stories are right here, a medley of psycho-analysis and metaphysical horror. Unfortunately, there’s only one more volume left before Ewing’s series is fully collected in these omnibuses and man, he will be missed.