Immortal Hulk Book Five (2022)
Reprints Immortal Hulk #41-50
Written by Al Ewing
Art by Joe Bennett, Ruy Jose, Belardino Brabo, and Paul Mounts
No Hulk creative run is better than Al Ewing’s Immortal Hulk. When I was a child, around 4 or 5 years old, I would religiously watch The Incredible Hulk animated series on NBC. I had to have been watching reruns as I was only one year old when it debuted, and I can’t imagine I remember anything from that period. This cartoon was my first exposure to the Hulk and the characters that make up his world: Betty Ross, Rick Jones, Ned Talbot, and General Thunderbolt Ross. As I got older, one of the first comics I purchased was Incredible Hulk #341, written by Peter David with art by Todd MacFarlane. At that time, I didn’t really understand what was going on. The Hulk was gray; he seemed to be on the run. He fought a villain named Man-Bull (who I later learned debuted as a Daredevil villain, odd). I just liked the power and fury of the Hulk. This character’s appeal to children comes from the same place as a love for dinosaurs. When you are small and powerless, it can be life-saving to imagine being something with more agency and the ability to crush anyone who messes with you.
But here’s the thing. As an adult, I started to find Hulk comics to be some of the least entertaining. If the entirety of superhero comics is about retelling the same stories over & over, then the Hulk is one of the most repetitive. Peter David wrote the character for 20 years, and when new blood finally came along, they only seemed interested in rehashing everything David had already done. So I wondered, is there even a point to telling Hulk stories in the wake of David? Did he say all there is to say about this seemingly two-dimensional power fantasy? Some people dug Greg Pak’s run on the character, but it never clicked for me. Even Marvel seemed done with the Hulk, killing him off in Civil War II, but we all know superheroes never really die. So when Al Ewing rolled out The Immortal Hulk, I was skeptical, to say the least. I’d recently wrapped up Mark Waid’s Professor Hulk attempt on the book and found it lacking. But Ewing was doing something very different, something we hadn’t seen but made perfect sense. He understood that the Hulk is a body horror story and dropped the superhero pretense, leaning into that genre.
Ewing’s Hulk is a physical space that manifests as a person in the living world. Gamma is a primal element of the universe, a living power, and a conduit to a darker realm of existence. In fact, Immortal Hulk reframes the character as a victim of a Lovecraftian elder god who, through Bruce’s abusive father, created a being that would bring all of this raw anger into physical reality. This leads to the discovery that Bruce Banner, Hulk, Joe Fixit, and all the other aspects of the character that have surfaced since his creation are individual entities all existing in the same physical space, able to shift and change that space thanks to the power of gamma.
This final book continues Ewing’s tradition of bringing back a classic Hulk foe. So far, we’ve seen new takes on the Hulkbusters, Abomination, and Xemnu. In this book, we watch as the UFoes are pitted against the Hulk again, using more brutal, nasty tactics. Henry Gyrich has assumed control of Gamma Flight and sends out these baddies, a shadow version of the Fantastic Four, to do away with Hulk. Rather than focus on Bruce during the opening chapters, he’s indisposed within the Gamma Realm while Joe Fixit wanders the streets of New York City. I have loved Joe Fixit after going back and reading the Peter David arc, where he introduced that facet of Banner’s personality, and Ewing has fleshed him out beautifully. If there was a non-contrived way to have Banner and Fixit operate as their own style of Hulks at the same time in the Marvel universe, I’d be all for it.
In the final act of this series, Hulk faces down familiar foes in the form of Gamma Flight and Avengers. But the vital part of the story is the resolution that awaits in Hell. We get the final conversation between Hulk and Betty Banner, where he reveals he abandoned Bruce in the fiery realm. Despite Betty’s refrain that she and Bruce are done, this news causes her to lash out at Hulk. We watch as Hulk goes to the Fantastic Four, knowing Mr. Fantastic is the only man who can open that ominous green door and lead him into the heart of evil. Jackie McGee, who started our journey in this series, is there and goes with Hulk into that place, both confronting their personal traumas.
But bigger than that, and the big revelation from Ewing, is that of intergenerational trauma. He manages to connect the family histories of the Banners and the Sterns (The Leader’s family) with a simple side moment that touches on the horror that can be attached to legacy. The same domestic abuse that haunted Bruce as he watched his father savage his mother didn’t start at that moment; it has roots in the Banner bloodline. Hulk is a wounded child, an attempt to pathetically lash out at something while tears well up in your eyes and you become increasingly incoherent. I’ve never read a Hulk story that touched so perfectly on the humanity embedded within this monstrous figure.
Donny Cates has taken over the title since this run wrapped, and so far, it’s okay. I do not think it approaches the level of storytelling Ewing reached here, but that is an extremely high bar. Cates has smartly not tried to mimic what Ewing did but built on it to tell his own story. If you haven’t read this series, I highly encourage you to pick it up. There’s no need to read anything before, as Ewing does an excellent job of recapping bits of lore you need to know when it’s appropriate. You’ll get a brilliant story about mental health and how this can affect how we interact with our world and how we see others.