In many ways, the Hulk is a strange fit for a superhero comic. Yes, he has a secret identity and incredible powers, but you’ll just as often find him playing the role of villain as hero. This week’s Immortal Hulk #1, by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett, takes that heritage in its muscle-bound green arms and embraces it tightly, taking Hulk back to his horrifying roots.
The monster inside
Stan Lee, who co-created the Hulk with Jack Kirby, explained the inspiration behind the character in his 1974 book Origins of Marvel Comics. “Think of the challenge it would be to make a hero out of a monster,” he wrote. “We would use the concept of the Frankenstein monster, but update it. Our hero would be a scientist, transformed into a raging behemoth by a nuclear accident. And — since I was willing to borrow from Frankenstein, I decided I might as well from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well — our protagonist would constantly change from his normal identity to his superhuman alter ego and back again.”
The result, 1962’s Incredible Hulk #1, introduces a very different character to the one we know today. In those early issues, Banner’s transformation into the Hulk wasn’t based on his emotional state but took place at sundown, adding a sprinkling of werewolf mythology into the mix. It’s an eerie and unusual comic-book origin story, best summed up in the cover’s strapline: “Is he man or monster or... is he both?”
The horror angle didn’t really survive past the first couple of issues — by the end of #1, Hulk is battling those darned commies, like any other superhero of the age — but it made a real impression on the young Al Ewing, now writer of Immortal Hulk.
“When the comic started back in the sixties, the idea of the Hulk was frightening,” Ewing says. “Bruce Banner would sit in darkened rooms and huddle in caves, waiting for the sun to set, for the night to come and unleash this awful monster from deep inside him. In that context, the Hulk’s incredible strength wasn’t something to envy or be excited by — it just made him more uncontrollable. It meant that if this creature, this terrifying dark opposite of a human being, were to turn against humanity — there’d be no stopping him.
“That’s what we’re getting back to, in terms of the tone of the book,” he says of Immortal Hulk. “When the night falls and the Hulk rises, full of all Bruce Banner’s anger and pain, ready to judge the whole world without mercy... that’s not the hero coming to take the stage. It’s something else.”
Back from the dead
Immortal Hulk is not just a reinvention of the character, but a resurrection too. Technically, Bruce Banner has been dead for two years, killed — at Banner’s own request — by a gamma-irradiated vibranium arrow through the brain in 2016’s Civil War II. Not that this has stopped him from appearing in comics since, of course.
“The Hulk is such a powerful idea that even a dead one had some stories in him,” Ewing says, and since that death, he has been resuscitated three times, each time by a villain wanting to wreak havoc. The Hand in Uncanny Avengers, Hydra in Secret Empire and most recently, the Challenger in Avengers: No Surrender.
It was while working on this last series that Ewing had an idea: “I suggested that, given all the previous resurrections... maybe he was never actually dead. Maybe he can’t die.”
And, true to form, Bruce Banner dies on page six of Immortal Hulk #1. This time it’s not an irradiated arrow that pierces his skull, but a bullet. That’s not a spoiler, it’s just part of the set-up.
Immortal Hulk returns to that original concept, of Banner transforming into Hulk when the sun sets, even if Banner happens to be dead at the time. Constantly coming back from the dead is common enough in superhero comics, but when you really think about it, it’s a creepy idea — and Immortal Hulk fully capitalises on that.
When the Hulk rises, he’s genuinely scary. He fills double-page spreads, and is framed in panels that can’t quite fit him all in, giving the sense that the comic you’re holding is too small to contain the Hulk.
Artist Joe Bennett started out his comics career drawing horror stories in his native Brazil, and that experience shines through here. He pushes Hulk’s musculature to grotesquely distended extremes, and has him fix the reader with his unnaturally glowing eyes.
There’s intelligence in those eyes, too — this isn’t the savage ‘Hulk smash’ version of the character, but a monster who is undeniably in full control of himself. He’s articulate, coldly expressing his rage and batting off any attempts to reason with him, and that only makes him more chilling.
Is he man or monster?
Meanwhile, Banner is largely absent from this comic, on account of being dead, but his relationship with Hulk is hinted at. As Ewing puts it: “If you lock the Hulk and Bruce Banner in a room — or in their own comic — they have to face each other.”
This first issue, however, is all about not facing up to each other, or ourselves. The comic starts with a quote from the psychologist Carl Jung: “Man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be.”
Ewing talks about Hulk as Banner’s shadow self, another concept borrowed from Jung. This is the aspect of our personality, often the most negative or primitive instincts, which we do not consciously identify with our selves. “Everything he won’t admit to himself that he is,” as Ewing says of Banner.
It’s a concept that has long been discussed alongside The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, where Jekyll accidentally creates Hyde by attempting to repress his darker urges. This link is one of the subtler ways that Immortal Hulk brings the character back to his influences, and builds on it a way that wasn’t really possible in the original ‘60s comics.
If you want, you can read all of that into the issue’s refrain — a line first delivered by the man who shot Banner dead, as Hulk takes his vengeance, and later picked up by Banner himself: “I’m not a bad guy. Am I?”
But really, you don’t need to understand any of the above to appreciate this issue. You don’t need it to read the sequence where a vengeful Hulk slowly bears down on his victim, told in a methodical six-panel grid, as delivers his response, the same one he gives to Banner: “What do you think?” As Hulk’s fingers close in and everything goes black, it’ll send a shiver down your spine regardless.
Alex Spencer is a writer about comics, games, technology, pop music and his dog, based in London. You can find him wrestling Twitter’s character limit @AlexJaySpencer.