Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance.
This week, it is The Immortal Hulk #5. Written by Al Ewing (The Ultimates, You Are Deadpool) with art by Joe Bennett (Deathstroke, Captain America), inker Ruy José (Teen Titans, 52), and colorist Paul Mounts (Fantastic Four, Harley Quinn), this issue wraps up an exceptional opening arc with a major reveal that changes the course of the narrative. Note: This review reveals major plot points.
Bruce Banner’s curse is his legacy. His father’s exposure to radioactive material fundamentally changed Bruce from birth, imbuing him with a second self gifted with acute intuition, driven by rage, and prone to destruction. This other half eventually gained a physical form when Bruce ended up in the blast radius of a gamma bomb, and the creation of the Hulk inspired others to create new nightmares based off of Bruce’s experiments. In The Immortal Hulk, Bruce Banner is haunted by the ghosts of his past. He’s drawn to people who have perverted his discoveries, uncovering a string of tragedies that have befallen those who have come too close to the “green door” opened by gamma radiation.
Writer Al Ewing goes back to Hulk’s horror roots for The Immortal Hulk, depicting him as an undying monster that rises every night to terrorize evil souls. This creates an existential crisis for Bruce, who is doomed to everlasting life. He’ll never escape his ghosts. He’ll only keep making more. This first arc is a chilling exploration of the Bruce/Hulk dichotomy and how the rest of the world perceives their relationship, and it gains a new layer of complexity in this week’s final chapter as Ewing resurrects Bruce’s oldest enemy.
The Immortal Hulk #5 blends psychological torment with brutal violence as Hulk battles Alpha Flight’s Sasquatch, who is possessed by Bruce Banner’s abusive, insane father, Brian. More than any other writer at Marvel Comics right now, Ewing has a talent for digging into past continuity and finding the seeds he needs to grow a compelling narrative for a contemporary superhero audience. With The Immortal Hulk, the keyword is “monster.” For the first few issues, that meant connecting Hulk to the horror tradition of a monster that makes people pay for their injustices, but the specific label of “monster” gains greater importance once Brian Banner enters the picture.
This issue has deep ties to Bill Mantlo and Mike Mignola’s The Incredible Hulk #312, which explores Bruce Banner’s childhood trauma and establishes that the Hulk existed long before the gamma bomb explosion. Mignola would go on to become a modern master of comic-book horror with Hellboy and his other creator-owned works, and you can see those skills developing in “Monster,” particularly with a title splash page that has a doctor lifting the newborn Bruce up toward Hulk like an offering to a dark god. Throughout this flashback story, a green Hulk outline surrounds Bruce’s body, making Hulk a spectral presence that is more supernatural than biological. That idea informs much of Ewing’s take, which walks the line between the mystical and the scientific. The gamma radiation doesn’t just change a person’s body and mind; it opens a doorway that leaves them vulnerable to infernal forces that want to see the world in ruins.
Brian Banner has made his way through the green door and into Sasquatch, finally revealing himself to Hulk because he realizes he’ll do the most harm if he makes his presence known. But the scariest thing is that Brian isn’t the mastermind here. He’s just a pawn that shows Bruce and Hulk how formidable their new foe is. Hulk may exclaim that Brian is just a puny human with no effect on him, but that’s false bravado to cover up his panic. Like Bruce, Hulk is forever tied to Brian because it was his exposure to radiation that made Hulk’s existence possible, and that connection makes Hulk vulnerable in a way nothing else does. Brian Banner is Hulk’s idea of a monster, and he’s filled with the dread usually reserved for his puny human half when he sees his daddy’s reflection staring back at him from a car window.
Hulk is sort of a good guy because he targets criminals, but he also causes massive amounts of damage to the people and places that suffer through one of his rampages. Through reporter Jackie McGee, we see the psychological impact of surviving a Hulk attack. Jackie’s a local reporter who has crossed state lines to follow the developing Banner story, and she finally reveals why she’s so fixated on her subject when Hulk’s intuition picks up on a deeper motivation. It turns out she’s the latest person to see Bruce’s transformation and want it for herself, which she confesses with tears in her eyes after seeing a police officer get his guts ripped out. Is Jackie going to be the latest person cursed by Bruce’s legacy? Hulk tells her to go home, but it’s unlikely she’ll listen to his advice now that she’s in so deep.
The Immortal Hulk delivers some of the year’s most powerful superhero imagery thanks to the regular art team of penciller Joe Bennett, inker Ruy José, and colorist Paul Mounts. (A stellar line-up of guest artists—Leo Romero, Marguerite Sauvage, Garry Brown, and Paul Hornschemeier—draw issue #3’s Rashomon-structured story, showing a Hulk attack from different perspectives.) The debut issue of this series has no smashing, but Hulk’s power is captured in two consecutive two-page spreads that accentuate his enormous size. The first is a full-body shot from a low angle that packs Hulk into a tight frame, but the big surprise is what follows: a two-page close-up of Hulk looking directly at the reader, the full moon glowing behind him in the only part of the page not covered by his gargantuan body.
As beautiful as they are, Alex Ross’ covers can often be static. He loves drawing a strong character pose, but those posed images don’t always have an inherent sense of motion. That’s not the case with The Immortal Hulk, which features the most dynamic covers Ross has done in years. His cover for #1 encapsulated the central concept of the series in a frightening image of the Hulk rising from Bruce Banner’s grave, lumbering toward the reader with arm outstretched. This idea of resurrection is emphasized in #2’s cover, a breathtaking combination of severe lighting and extreme emotion with a clever Hulk transformation in the pool of water Bruce drowns in. Hulk can’t be killed, and the cover for #3 frames a gunman inside the hole he’s just blown Hulk’s chest. The cover for this week’s issue shows Hulk and Sasquatch hurtling through space in the middle of their fight, with a sloping composition that works with the background coloring to add speed to Hulk’s punch.
The specificity of the storytelling in this book is exemplified by the cover of The Immortal Hulk #4 and its relationship to the interior contents. Ross’ cover shows Hulk about to clap two cars together, and while the readers don’t see the collision, they do see the aftermath when Walter and Jackie arrive on the scene hours later. Bennett makes sure that his image aligns exactly with the scene Ross creates, which takes the energy of that cover image and pumps it into the narrative by reminding the reader that they’ve seen the moment Walter and Jackie can only imagine.
Joe Bennett has had an outstanding couple years with his runs on Deathstroke and The Immortal Hulk, balancing spectacular genre elements with dramatic, nuanced character work. Bennett’s inkers have a big impact on his linework, and the smooth, thick inks of Mark Morales on Deathstroke heightens the animation of Bennett’s expressions and action. Ruy José’s inks on The Immortal Hulk are much finer, with fewer solid blacks and more hatching to add definition to Bennett’s forms.
That attention to detail intensifies the strength of the two oversized fighters in The Immortal Hulk #5’s big fight scene, with the inks drawing attention to the layers and layers of muscle on their bodies. Everything is big and chiseled, including their faces. Bennett leans into animalistic ferocity for Sasquatch’s face while Hulk is more humanoid, albeit with a massive brow and jaw that give him a primitive appearance. That exaggerated bone structure enriches Hulk’s personality, allowing Bennett to push his expressions of fear and fury. As established in issue #1, Bennett understands how effective a good close-up of the Hulk can be, and he lets readers get up close because that’s where the tension and the danger is.
This issue ends with Walter losing all traces of gamma radiation and his ability to transform into Sasquatch, but there are plenty of other characters for Brian Banner to possess. Everyone with gamma superpowers is now vulnerable, which gives Ewing a reason to check in with the many members of the Hulk family as the series continues. Hulk’s old teammates, The Avengers, are showing up in issue #7, but hopefully the plot won’t lose the down-to-earth perspective that made this first arc so engaging. Ewing and his art team have a grip on the tone of this series, and it will be exciting to see how their horror approach shapes the superhero interactions on the horizon.