The first line of Immortal Hulk’s 2021 was an omen: “Consequences are unpitying.” Part of a longer quotation from George Eliot’s Adam Bede, these three words appeared at the start of January’s Immortal Hulk #42, kicking off a year that would see one of the best superhero runs of all time tarnished by the choices made by one of its creators.
The finale of Immortal Hulk should have been a triumphant mic drop, but the circumstances surrounding its release imbued the issue with an extratextual layer of sadness.
Consequences are unpitying.
February’s Immortal Hulk #43 gained mainstream attention for all the wrong reasons when readers noticed anti-semitic imagery in the artwork: a jewelry shop window displaying the misspelled last name of Jewish filmmaker David Cronenberg (“Cronemberg”), “jewelry” misspelled as “jewery”, and a Star of David. Penciller Joe Bennett posted an apology (which is no longer public) on Facebook, stating:
“The misspellings on the window were an honest but terrible mistake — since I was writing backwards, I accidentally spelled both of those words wrong… I have no excuse for how I depicted the Star of David. I failed to understand this troubling and offensive stereotype, and after listening to you all, I now understand my mistake.”
The dust seemed to settle and Immortal Hulk continued toward its planned finale at issue #50. Writer Al Ewing brought together the threads of his three-year run, and the work of nearly every major Hulk writer before him, into a monumental story about goodness and mercy in a world of endless suffering and chaos. Bennett, along with inkers Ruy José and Bellardino Brabo, colorist Paul Mounts, and letterer Cory Petit, matched the scope of Ewing’s narrative in every aspect of the visuals. Dramatic layouts that felt like they were knocked around by the action within each panel. Meticulous inks that captured every grotesque detail of the monstrous cast. Coloring seared with radioactive intensity and lettering transformed mere text into booming voices fit for larger-than-life entities.
From a craft perspective, Immortal Hulk maintained its astounding consistency through its conclusion. As Ewing’s grand plan entered its endgame, it became clear just how impeccably plotted everything was, with big twists that turned the tide when the heroes were at their lowest and a revelation in the finale that recontextualized every aspect of the dynamic between Bruce Banner and his archnemesis, Samuel Sterns. The series has typically brought in guest artists every two to four issues to give the main art team a break, but after #42, Bennett, José, Brabo, and Mounts stayed on for the rest of the series, including the 80-page final issue.
The series saved some of its biggest creative swings for the end, like a penultimate issue that was entirely composed of splash pages with accompanying prose. That prose, written by the book’s investigative reporter character, Jackie McGee, is a fascinating exploration of the dichotomous mythologies of the Hulk and the Fantastic Four, the group that started the Marvel universe when Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created them in 1961. Kirby and Lee would create the Hulk one year later, replacing the optimism and wonder of the Fantastic Four with horror and tragedy.
Immortal Hulk #49 looks at the ways these concepts intersect and diverge, these two distinctly American fairy tales about pioneers breaking the rules and venturing into the unknown. The Fantastic Four were the rocket of innovation and heroism, the American spirit at its most idealized; the Hulk was the bomb of American darkness, the spirit that destroys endlessly to prove that it is the strongest there is. The issue’s macro lens examined the most fundamental ideas of the Marvel universe, underscoring these characters’ function as modern American fables so that the finale could reinforced Hulk’s place in an even older mythical tradition.
A few weeks after Immortal Hulk #49 hit stands, an image Joe Bennett drew in 2017 was posted and shared across social media. The art depicted Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, on horseback, armed with a sword to cut down the people in front of him, drawn as anti-semitic caricatures. Ewing took to Twitter to address the image, calling it “reprehensible” and stating that he would no longer be working with Bennett in the future. A week later, Marvel removed Bennett from its upcoming series, Timeless, and told Newsarama it was ending its 27-year relationship with the artist.
Real-world events complicated the experience of reading Immortal Hulk #50, a virtuosic conclusion overshadowed by the behavior of its artist and the dissolution of the creative partnership that made the series so special. That chemistry was on full display throughout the issue, which began by tapping into yet another genre influence: a Gothic horror flashback set in 1901 Ohio. The actions of Robert and Samuel Sterns in the past have cataclysmic consequences in the present, and the brutal intimacy of their violence offered a very different type of terror than the fantasy-infused spectacle of Jackie and the Hulks facing off against the One Below All.
The scope of the Immortal Hulk finale was huge. The reveal of the book’s mastermind antagonist came via a four-page gatefold spread, and the climax of the story was basically the Hulk chewing out God. And yet, the conflict at the core of all of this heightened action is an internal one that we all face. Do you break or build? Do you rage or forgive? The flashback epitomizes wrath and vengeance, and the actions of the Sterns brothers reverberate through generations to poison their descendants. But maybe there’s a way to break the cycle of trauma, by extending a hand rather than throwing a fist.
Immortal Hulk was steeped in tragedy from the start, and in the end, the tragedy lived off the page. Bennett’s artwork was a vital part of Immortal Hulk’s success and he produced the most exciting work of his career by collaborating with Ewing, but the celebration was fully quelled by the termination of their partnership. That didn’t stop the series from sticking the landing, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory for the best Marvel comic of the year.