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Monday, August 10, 2020

‘The Immortal Hulk’ Brings Horror Back to Marvel’s Greatest Monster [Comics]

“Is he man or monster… or is he both?” 

So asks the cover of 1962’s The Incredible Hulk #1, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby. While many of the characters Lee created with Kirby and Steve Ditko had their roots in ‘50s sci-fi, the Hulk was always an unlikely hero. With a look inspired by Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster and a personality inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, the Hulk was the night-dwelling alter-ego of Dr. Bruce Banner, the result of a botched experiment that left the scientist bathed in gamma rays. In his earliest adventures, Hulk was a grey-hued, night-dwelling monster who Banner could not thwart. But by the time The Avengers #1 released in 1963, Hulk was a green-skinned hero, one who fought alongside Thor and Iron Man. A grouchy hero, to be sure, one who almost immediately leaves the Avengers; but a hero, nonetheless.

Over the years, writers have explored the malleability of the character. Child-like beast the Savage Hulk might be the most famous version of the character, and we’ve seen the Hulk as a grey-skinned Vegas gangster called “Joe Fixit,” Hulk as a genius with a ponytail and a muscle-shirt, and Hulk as the gladiator champion of the planet Sakaar. But in 2018, writer Al Ewing, penciler Joe Bennett, inker Ruy José, and color artist Paul Mounts introduced a new version of the Hulk, one that fully embraced the character’s horror roots. The Devil Hulk is stronger and smarter than any version we’ve seen before. And more frightening. Where Banner had once been able to stop his Hulk alternates from killing, the Devil Hulk cannot be controlled. He wants vengeance. He enjoys hurting people. Over the past two years and 35 issues, Ewing, Bennett, and their collaborators have created a masterpiece both grotesque and psychologically unnerving, a story about a monster determined to take our world to the hell it deserves. 

A Mighty Marvel Comic

Anyone reading a plot synopsis of a random issue of The Immortal Hulk might not see anything to set it apart from any other Hulk story from the past 60 years. Across its 35 issues, the Hulk fights against a U.S. military unit, as well as super-villains Crusher Creel the Absorbing Man, the Abomination, and the Leader. He teams up with guest-stars including Banner’s wife Betty Ross, his teen sidekick Rick Jones, and his gamma-powered therapist Leonard Samson. The story takes place firmly within the continuity of the greater Marvel Universe, with references to crossover event Civil War 2 and appearances by super-teams The Avengers and Alpha Flight. 

Many of the plots feel like traditional Hulk stories, especially in the earlier issues. Issue #1 features Hulk destroying a murderous biker gang. In issue #2, Bruce Banner hunts down a scientist who killed his own son with his gamma experiments. As longer arcs develop, Hulk goes up against a U.S. military organization operated by General Fortean, a protégé of Banner’s longtime nemesis General Thunderbolt Ross, and the evil multinational corporation Roxxon. Nearly every variation of the Hulk makes an appearance, as do weirder aspects of Marvel history, such as the reality-bending alien Xenmu. 

The Immortal Hulk delivers all the smashing one expects from a Hulk comic, and Banner seems less tortured and more heroic than he’s often portrayed. No longer trying to control or destroy the Hulk, Banner tries to use his alter-ego for good. He sees an injustice and points Hulk toward it. If they weren’t paying attention, a reader could look at the many scenes in which Banner stares at his reflection and sees only the Devil Hulk looking back at him as a type of partnership, as if both aspects were working together for the greater good. 

The Horror of the Hulk

But in the hands of Ewing and his collaborators, that greater good feels very, very bad. No matter how familiar The Immortal Hulk plots may be, the creative team renders them in a terrifyingly new manner. Take the mournful Dr. Frye, the scientist in issue #2. Driven by a fear of death, Frye follows Banner’s research and accidentally makes himself into a gamma monster who kills innocents until Hulk stops him. Same old superheroics, right? 

Ewing lets us know that we’re in for something more weighty and sinister right at the beginning, with an ominous verse from the biblical book of Job: “All that a man hath will he give for his life.” The story doesn’t focus on Banner or Hulk as much as it does on Frye. Banner walks into the town and gathers information from the locals, but the story foregrounds the despair of a town dealing with death. The climactic face-off between Frye and Hulk is only a flashback sequence, in which the scientist explains how his recreation of Banner’s work killed his son and made him into a monster. Now, he’s utterly alone: unable to touch anyone without killing them, unable to die. 

Bennett and his fellow artists present the story in a manner that recalls classic EC horror comics. When Frye’s son Del gets sick with gamma poisoning, green ooze bleeds from his eyes. When Devil Hulk has heard enough of the scientist’s story, Bennett gives us a POV shot of the beast lunging forward, his gargantuan hands pushing toward the camera. The scientist awakes beneath miles of rock, screaming as he realizes that he will spend eternity there. The issue ends with a shot of Del emerging from the grave, his glowing green skeleton clawing at the air. 

This type of horror marks every issue of The Immortal Hulk. Moving beyond the Jekyll and Hyde dynamics that Lee originally imagined, the Devil Hulk haunts and badgers Banner. It’s not just a manifestation of his childhood trauma, like the original Savage Hulk. Nor is the Devil Hulk a genius embodiment of his Id or a heroic freedom fighter, like his other forms. The Devil Hulk wants to protect Banner by punishing anyone who hurts him. It’s a creature of vengeance lurking in a man who’s experienced nothing but pain, and it wants to get out – even if he has to tear Banner apart to do it. 

Issue #5 features a fight in the Richard Baker Memorial Hospital, where Dr. Rob Bottin practices. More than a knowing wink to genre fans, these references to masters of movie special effects reveal Bennett’s influences. In the past, Banner’s transformation to the Hulk usually looked like it does in the Marvel movies: Banner might moan and writhe a bit, but his body just gets bigger and greener. Here, the transformations are as grotesque as anything found in The Thing or An American Werewolf in London. Arms sprout from Hulk’s torso. Banner’s mouth contorts as Hulk’s teeth jut out from his neck. In one issue, Hulk rips apart Banner’s jaws to emerge from his throat, tossing aside the upper part of his host’s head as he walks away. 

The Hulk isn’t the only one to receive a frightful facelift. In addition to multiple kaiju who attack in issues 29 and 30, classic Hulk characters get dreadful redesigns. The Absorbing Man, usually a bald galloot with old-timey jailbird pants and a ball & chain, has his body torn in half and speaks from a wiggling skull and spinal column. Where Betty Ross used to turn into a sexy red She-Hulk, she’s now a winged harpy with talons for feet. The Abomination lives up to his name better than ever. Gone are the silly batwings on the sides of his head, replaced with clawed hands that cover the twisted face of his host.  

Man is the Monster

Although the Devil Hulk might be the comic’s star, The Immortal Hulk insists that we all are monsters. 

The Abomination and Absorbing Man may become unnatural creatures, but they’re driven by General Fortean, a human being (until the end of his story, at least) willing to take any measure in pursuit of his goal. Roxxon Corporation’s CEO Dario Agger may be revealed to be an evil minotaur, but he only makes his presence known because humanity allows it. “Petitions. Think pieces. Lackluster boycotts of our most obvious brands,” he declares in issue #28; “Nobody cared.” Thanks to the propaganda spewed by Roxxon’s social media presence and its cable channel Roxx News, people get to believe what they want.  

The series’ human face is reporter Jackie McGee, who lost everything as a child – including her father – when the Hulk rampaged through her house. As an adult, McGee has been tracking Banner to prove that the Hulk has reappeared after his apparent death. Initially, McGee fears the Hulk and wants his power: the ability to be considered a hero no matter how many people he hurts in his anger (a right never extended to a Black woman such as herself). But when she witnesses Banner’s trauma manifesting in the Hulk, and when she sees the evil humans will do, she joins with Banner to take on the powerful. 

Through McGee’s eyes, we see Banner as a man broken by the people around him, starting with his father. Banner’s fears manifest in the form of his father, and for good reason. The abuse Bruce suffered at the hands of Brian Banner led to his repressed anger, which took the form of the Hulk. McGee and Banner see a world dominated by cruel systems of power, which hurt people again and again without retribution. A world where the powers of Hell take the form of human beings who destroy human beings. Is it any surprise then that Banner chooses to embrace Hulk’s destiny as the Breaker of Worlds?

Of course, all superheroes right the wrongs that normal people cannot stop. But in the hands of Ewing and Bennett, this never-ending battle terrifies. Like many good horror stories, The Immortal Hulk ultimately becomes a story about humanity’s inhumanity. Every issue leaves us wondering, is this Hulk a hero or a villain? Are humans men or monsters? 

Or are we both? 


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