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immortal hulk crushes the frickin world Image: Alex Ross/Marvel Comics

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Immortal Hulk is the unstoppable ruler of superhero comics

How writer Al Ewing and a team of artists empowered a world-breaker

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Humans broke the world. Hulk will finish the job.

In the pages of the ongoing Immortal Hulk, Marvel Comics’ raging green giant is on a mission to destroy the civilization that has ravaged the Earth, and break the current systems so that others may build from the wreckage. The book begins with Bruce Banner and his myriad personalities brooding in rural American towns. Twenty-five issues in, Hulk punches through planets as the “Breaker of Worlds.”

Since 2018, Immortal Hulk, written by Al Ewing with art by Joe Bennett, inker Ruy José, colorist Paul Mounts, and letterer Cory Petit, has been the most consistent, surprising, and satisfying superhero comic released by any major publisher. Together, building off the character’s nearly 60-year history, the creative team has established Hulk as the ultimate hero for a bleak age defined by environmental collapse and institutional corruption.

[Ed. note: This story contains spoilers for Immortal Hulk through issue #32.]

Hulk’s face in close up in Immortal Hulk #1 Panel from Immortal Hulk #1 Image: Joe Bennett/Ruy José/Paul Mounts/Cory Petit/Marvel Comics

Hulk has always been one of Marvel’s most malleable figures, a superhero with unpredictability built into his character. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Bruce Banner and Hulk started as a nuclear-powered Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and future creators expanded on the concept by bringing in new personas with different abilities and dispositions. The 1970s TV series, The Incredible Hulk, made Bruce Banner a household name by telling more grounded stories with the character, a take Ewing runs with at the start of Immortal Hulk with loner Banner on the run. Peter David’s landmark run in the late ’80s and ’90s explored these multiple personalities by introducing new Hulks like Vegas gangster Joe Fix-It, the genius Professor Hulk, and the Maestro, who takes over the world in the far future. In the 2000s, mankind launched Hulk into space, where he became ruler of an alien planet that later invaded Earth, though he eventually settled back into a hero role. Immortal Hulk’s apocalyptic interpretation brought all these different versions together for the biggest Hulk story yet.

Since he started writing for Marvel in 2013, Ewing has been publisher’s secret weapon in the writer line-up, taking established concepts in exciting new directions that are still reverent of history. His stories are formally ambitious, but easily accessible, largely because he has so much fun in the telling; his ensembles are full of personality with a sharp sense of humor. Ewing’s five-year run on various Avengers series juggled a massive cast that deftly built on the work of other writers. Whether he’s writing cosmic crime noir with a talking raccoon in Rocket or a Deadpool “Choose Your Own Adventure” story in You Are Deadpool, Ewing creates superhero comics that fully embrace the narrative possibilities of both the genre and medium.

It’s taken a while for Ewing to score a blockbuster hit, but he’s done it with Immortal Hulk thanks to an impeccable combination of high-concept ideas, visceral thrills, deep psychological exploration, and thoughtful collaboration. His scripts bring out the very best in his artists, and Bennett, José, and Mounts take their place as one of the great superhero horror teams with the haunting atmosphere and grotesque gamma transformations they bring to the page.

The drastic growth of Immortal Hulk over 32 issues is like sleight of hand, with the team building stakes and seamlessly shifting between superhero, horror, mystery, and sci-fi genres. Immortal Hulk started small with three standalone stories about Bruce Banner and Hulk encountering different threats in small towns, creating a claustrophobic suspense thriller vibe while hinting at the supernatural threats underneath the surface. Horror took over once fellow gamma mutate Sasquatch entered the picture for a showdown between monsters. Bringing in Bruce Banner’s father as the vessel for an omnipotent evil, “The One-Below-All”, set the series up for a journey to Hell.

hulk jumps in the air, across multiple apocalyptic landscapes
hulk and bruce banner appear to melt into each other
a hulk-like cloud consumes a beam of energy
Hulk smashes a planet in Immortal Hulk #25 Panels from Immortal Hulk #15, #8, #12, and #25 Image: (3) Joe Bennett/Ruy José/Paul Mounts/Cory Petit/Marvel Comics; (1) Germán García/Chris O’Halloran/Cory Petit/Marvel Comics

These fantastic horrors are accompanied by more believable scares involving Shadow Base, a clandestine branch of the U.S. military that takes down gamma mutates while also finding ways to harness their power. The plot brings in more superhero action and expands the Hulk squad with old friends like Doc Samson, Betty Banner-Ross, and Rick Jones, who add complex character dynamics and decades of history for Ewing to mine. For the book’s milestone 25th issue, Ewing pivoted to sci-fi with the help of guest artist Germán García and colorist Chris O’Halloran, venturing into the far future where Hulk has ascended to become a cosmic force of destruction in the next iteration of the universe. It’s a very strange, surreal issue with mesmerizing visuals, exposing the endgame of Hulk’s present-day mission to dismantle the systems holding back humanity.

In the latest arc, Hulk is still making his way to this celestial future, and his current mission targets the forces that are threatening Earth right now like politicians, media outlets, and billionaires that want to uphold a destructive status quo. This puts Hulk in the crosshairs of corporations that don’t want to see their profit margins hit by a growing social movement supporting Hulk and his allies. Roxxon’s CEO, Dario Agger, is especially committed to taking out Team Hulk, using the one-two punch of giant kaiju and media manipulation to sour the public’s opinion. Ewing makes inspired use of comic book history for this Hulk-vs.-Capitalism battle royale, reviving Marvel’s original Hulk, the furry alien Xemnu, to serve as Agger’s mind-warping living weapon. Xemnu has rewritten the world’s collective memory so that he’s the Marvel Universe’s greatest hero, saving the planet again and again as “The Living Hulk”. Xemnu’s influence takes an especially great toll on the already fractured mind of Bruce Banner, and this week’s Immortal Hulk #32 ends with the return of a long-awaited Hulk identity that promises an astounding battle when he goes after Xemnu.

With a heavy emphasis on body horror, Immortal Hulk requires an art team that understands how to morph anatomy in abnormal ways while still maintaining weight and texture that grounds these forms in a tangible reality. Bennett, José, and Mounts excel in this regard, with the inker and colorist enriching Bennett’s intensely detailed pencils. The finely hatched linework from José — along with inking pinch-hitters Belardino Brabo, Marc Deering, Rafael Fonteriz, and Cam Smith — and Mounts’ fleshy coloring give the visuals a tactile quality that taps into the same pleasure centers as practical special effects in old horror movies. There are strong John Carpenter vibes when Crusher “The Absorbing Man” Creel’s body splits in half to leave his gory spine suspended in mid-air. The recent addition of kaiju to the world of Immortal Hulk has Ewing paying tribute to cinematic special effects legends with monsters named after Ray Harryhausen and Willis O’Brien.

hulk fights a skeleton monster
kaiju dragons, squids, and lava monsters attack a city and hulk has to stop them in immortal hulk #29 Panels from Immortal Hulk #10 and #29 Images: Joe Bennett/Ruy José/Paul Mounts/Cory Petit/Marvel Comics

The best creators understand how to use page turns to build and resolve tension, and Ewing structures his scripts to maximize suspense. Unlike a prose novel, where a page turn doesn’t reveal anything until words are read, a comic can immediately hit the reader with a powerful image, particularly in two-page spreads. In Immortal Hulk, the reader can feel the build-up to those huge moments, and might even pause to take a breath before flipping the page and discovering the terror on the other side. Ewing’s creative team displays its mastery of the page turn from the very first issue, revealing Hulk for the first time with consecutive two-page splashes: The first showing Hulk’s full body, so massive it can barely be contained by the page borders, and the second zooming in on Hulk’s face to emphasize how unbelievably scary it would be to get that close to the Hulk’s searing intensity.

Every issue of Immortal Hulk has at least one breathtaking page turn, often used to spotlight a new Hulk ability. When Hulk is cut up into pieces and stored in glass jars by Shadow Base, he snaps his fingers to create a sonic boom that shatters all the jars and sends the pieces flying into each other, where they converge around the body of the mad scientist responsible and swallow him whole. When Shadow Base tries to keep Hulk out of the picture by exposing him to artificial sunlight, Banner’s mobster alter ego, Joe Fix-It, hacks the system and changes the wavelength to gamma beams, supercharging Hulk so much that he grows extra limbs and different heads inspired by previous artists’ interpretation of the character.

Hulk explodes in Immortal Hulk #8 art by Joe Bennett, Ruy José, Paul Mounts
Supercharged Hulk grows extra limbs and different heads inspired by previous artists’ interpretation of the character in Immortal Hulk #17 Panel from Immortal Hulk #8 and #17 Image: Joe Bennett/Ruy José/Paul Mounts/Cory Petit/Marvel Comics

In his introduction for Daredevil: Born Again Artist’s Edition, artist David Mazzucchelli writes about how much he appreciated how writer Frank Miller gave him a script that didn’t require art for five pages when he was under a tight deadline crunch. The anecdote shows what a difference smart, compassionate collaboration makes when working on an ongoing monthly series, and how, in the process of helping their artists, writers often find solutions that enrich their stories. Joe Bennett is not a slow penciller; he draws fill-in issues of other books while still holding down his Immortal Hulk gig. But he can devote his full attention to Immortal Hulk because Ewing gives him a break after approximately every two issues, writing a story intended for a different guest artist.

Editors Sarah Brunstad and Wil Moss have done phenomenal work with the guest line-up, beginning with Garry Brown (Conan The Barbarian), Paul Hornschemeier (Mother, Come Home), Leo Romero (Hawkeye), and Marguerite Sauvage (Faith) tackling four different perspectives in the Rashomon-style narrative of Immortal Hulk #3. Later guest artists include Lee Garbett (Ewing’s Loki: Agent Of Asgard collaborator), Martin Simmonds (Punks Not Dead), Eric Nguyen (Quicksilver: No Surrender), Kyle Hotz (The Hood), Ryan Bodenheim (Black Panther), Germán García (Barbarella/Dejah Thoris), Tom Reilly (Astro Hustle), Matías Bergara (Coda), and Javier Rodriguez (The History Of The Marvel Universe), each artist bringing a distinct style that is fully aligned with Ewing’s script. (Many of these issues still include Bennett and José drawing a few pages.) This roster makes Immortal Hulk a visual feast, but most importantly, it gives Bennett the opportunity to stay on the book long-term without sacrificing any quality, a rarity in a superhero industry where artists are constantly shuffled around to new titles.

a dancing hulk teen heartthrob disco dances
an old timey hulk punches a bad guy as imagined by a security guard Panels from Immortal Hulk #3 Image: Marguerite Sauvage/Cory Petit/Marvel Comics; Leo Romero/Paul Mounts/Cory Petit/Marvel Comics
hulk is trapped in a motel window trying to break the glass
a giant fire demon and skull swirl around the frame Panels from Immortal Hulk #6 and #9 Image: Lee Garbett/Paul Mounts/Cory Petit/Marvel Comics; Martin Simmonds/Cory Petit/Marvel Comics
a woman bleeds out on the pavement after being shot
a kaiju monster tries to eat a black man in a futuristic costume Panels from Immortal Hulk #14 and #21 Images: Kyle Hotz/Paul Mounts/Cory Petit; Ryan Bodenheim/Paul Mounts/Cory Petit/Marvel Comics

This lead-in time allows Bennett to create stunning moments of spectacle, but it’s his expressive storytelling in Immortal Hulk that brings out all of the complexity of Ewing’s story. Rage is Hulk’s forte, but this series greatly benefits from exploring how this emotion manifests in the people around him. For Jackie McGee, a black woman reporter whose home was destroyed by Hulk when she was a child, rage is something she isn’t allowed to feel. “Your anger...it’s indulged. Even respected,” Jackie says while walking through literal Hell with Hulk. “Mine is dismissed—if I’m lucky.” She looks at Bruce Banner with envy, seeing a white, college-educated man who is allowed to unleash all of the destructive fury inside of him and still be protected by establishment figures like the Avengers. She wants to know how she can become like Hulk because she wants that same kind of freedom, and Hulk respects her for being so open about her rage. Later, Joe Fix-It similarly expresses admiration for Jackie when he thinks about her resilience in the face of online commenters, praising how she pisses off puny humans. When she responds that she’s one of those humans, Joe approvingly tells her, “You ain’t puny.”

Betty Banner-Ross is one of the most sympathetic characters in Immortal Hulk, a scorned wife who metamorphoses into a deadly harpy because her resurrected husband didn’t call her when he came back from the dead. Her rage stems from this personal wrong, but like Jackie, it’s tied to an institutional wrong committed by a patriarchal society that refuses to acknowledge Betty’s anger at being treated like garbage by every man in her life. Her spotlight issue presents her as a butterfly who breaks free from a spider’s web, now able to express every aspect of herself without concern for other people. Her inner monologue has a short, staccato delivery that gives it the quality of a slam poem, constantly repeating a mantra of self-acceptance: “This is me.”

In Immortal Hulk #32, Dr. Charlene McGowan exhibits a quieter rage that proves to be illuminating in Team Hulk’s current circumstances. When Charlene first realized she was transgender, she spent a lot of time discovering who she truly was, divorced from the story that was told about her and to her by the world. In the wake of Xemnu’s memory manipulation, Charlene senses a familiar feeling. “It can force its own narratives onto me, even into my head,” she says. “And I’ve had enough of that. Who I am belongs to me.” Immortal Hulk #32 features a special thanks to Crystal Frasier, a trans woman game developer who served as a sensitivity consultant working directly with Ewing to develop Charlene’s character. Frasier’s input brings emotional honesty to this scene and continues to highlight how Ewing collaborates with others to make his story as rich as possible.

a close up on hulk’s squinting eyes Cover of Immortal Hulk #18 Image: Alex Ross/Marvel Comics

Bruce Banner started Immortal Hulk on his own, but he’s gradually surrounded himself with people angry at the current state of the world and desperate for change. These are people who have been discounted and manipulated for their entire lives, and they’re not going to be happy when they find out a corporation hacked their brains using a furry monster. Issue #32 ends with the return of the Green Scar, the aforementioned Hulk that took control of an alien world, putting a new authority in charge with experience spearheading a planet-wide revolution. That promises doom for Xemnu and Roxxon, but Hulk’s longtime enemy, The Leader, is waiting in the wings with a simmering subplot picking up on events from Immortal Hulk #25.

Immortal Hulk has countless psychological layers to peel back with its cast of traumatized characters, but despite the darkness and severity of the narrative, this creative team never skimps on delight. There’s a palpable sense of joy that radiates off the page; not in the content, but in the execution. These creators are having so much fun with these characters, embracing all of the wild storytelling opportunities when dealing with a central hero who has such a vast power set and gone through so many different iterations over decades.

Hulk is on a rampage more destructive than any before, but the journey Ewing and his artists are on has proved to be surprisingly life-affirming in how it approaches identity, companionship, and embracing your personal destiny by smashing any obstacles that get in the way. As far as this book has come, it still feels like this team still has plenty of fuel to drive stories for years to come.

The first five trades of Immortal Hulk are currently available. Immortal Hulk #32 is out now.