The Horror Inside
Ewing uses The Immortal Hulk to return the iconic character to the horror atmosphere from whence it began. “Part of what we’re attempting with Immortal Hulk is tapping into some universal fears,” says Ewing in a letters column (The Immortal Hulk, #14). He takes this several steps further by incorporating elements of cosmic horror.
A mysterious green door, a motif representing Hulk’s immortality, appears to Banner every time he dies and is resurrected (Bruce Banner can die; The Hulk can’t), and they struggle to understand its meaning. Where can this lead a person to but a strong sense of existential dread? Banner wonders why he keeps coming back to life. There has to be a reason.
This dances around a classic Lovecraftian theme: fear of the unknown. Furthermore, Banner and the Hulk battle with the phenomenal power of The One Below All, a nightmarish eldritch entity, clearly inspired by the work of H. P. Lovecrafthttps://www.marvel.com/comics/creators/506/joe_bennett. Supernatural and extra-dimensional elements have been used here and there throughout the Hulk mythos, but not in such a terrifying fashion.
Joe Bennett leads the Immortal Hulk art team, providing pencils and supported by inker Ruy José and colorist Paul Mounts. Bennett’s depiction of Hulk is typically outraged, but more maniacally and menacingly rather than mindlessly. Hulk’s eyes are small, yet wide, under a massive, jutting forehead. His pupils are yellow and beady. He often shows a lot of teeth, but it’s hard to tell if he’s baring them in rage or grinning. Maybe it’s both.
The transformations are grotesque compared to past portrayals when the artist depicted Banner’s transformation into the Hulk by showing Banner holding his head in pain, ripping through his shirt, and suddenly he’s the Hulk in the next panel. Instead, Bennett illustrates transformations as Banner’s flesh and bones melting and deforming and reforming into the Hulk’s large, green body. There are oblong limbs, mutilation, two heads on a single body, and sometimes dismemberment. Not only does it look bizarre and horrifying, but it also looks painful.
It’s a still moment of body horror akin to John Carpenter‘s 1982 film, The Thing. In fact, Ewing has conceded to his reverence to Carpenter’s beloved horror classic: “The Thing is a huge influence on us, and #9’s resolution came largely out of some notes from Joe [Bennett] on what he wanted to draw.” He’s referring to the brutal splash page at the end of issue #9, wherein a superpowered character’s body is revealed to be ripped in half from head to hips, yet he still stands alive.
It’s not often that you would see art like this in Marvel Comics. There are moments in the past when Marvel used disturbing art in over-the-top ways, but Bennett’s artwork is tastefully done by paying homage to old horror comic art styles as well as schlocky ’80s horror movies. Immortal Hulk is a real page-turner and not just as a compelling story. The creators take advantage of the nature of the page turn by delivering something shocking in the same way that horror movies deliver jump scares.
Bruce Banner and the Hulk: United and Divided
Banner and the Hulk have most often been depicted as two separate entities. This makes sense given that their personalities are so different. The Hulk has opinions on Banner, and Banner has his views about the Hulk. The Hulk has his own motivations that are separate from Banner’s interests. Most often, Banner is merely dragged along for the ride.
The question is, how divided are Banner and Hulk? Are they closer to being the same person than they perceive? How many personality traits do they share? The line between them is blurry.
Banner sometimes describes Devil Hulk as an itch in the back of his skull. He recognizes that this is how Devil Hulk communicates with him. Devil Hulk gives him signals, offers his intuition to Banner. He lets Banner know when something he sees is critical. As separate as they may be, Banner and Devil Hulk at least share awareness.
Robert Louis Stevenson‘s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1886) is an obvious parallel to the Banner/Hulk dynamic and a classic story about duality. The difference here is that Jekyll and Hyde never seem to overlap with each other, while Bruce Banner and the Hulk overlap more than they like to admit.
The Immortal Hulk takes Banner and Hulk’s relationship beyond duality by introducing a system of Hulk alters that work together along with Banner. Ewing defines Banner’s DID more acutely. He wants to explore how Banner’s disorder functions and how he can use it to his advantage. “When I started on this book, I was thinking of the Hulk as a duality,” says Ewing in a letters column. “But as I researched dissociative identity disorder and fell in love with the various alters as I had a chance to write each one, the idea of just Bruce and one Hulk felt too limiting. Writing the whole system makes for a much richer and more satisfying story for me (The Immortal Hulk, #35).”
Bruce and his Hulk alter-ego have to learn to work together, like The Avengers or any other superhero team. As different personalities, Banner and his Hulk alter-ego work through their interpersonal issues, try to understand each other’s idiosyncrasies and focus on goals together. It’s the only way a superpowered collective can function within a single mind and body.
Whether it is Bruce Banner and one Hulk or a slew of Hulks, they have to work as one to succeed. Most of these interactions happen inside Banner’s head. In his mind, and sometimes in an extra-dimensional reality, he is constantly quarreling with Devil Hulk or Savage Hulk or Joe Fixit or whoever else may be present.
This is a big reason why Immortal Hulk stays compelling. It harkens back to the question on the cover of The Incredible Hulk #1 in 1962 (IS HE MAN OR MONSTER…OR IS HE BOTH?). As I read on, I wonder whether this story is about multiple beings struggling to cooperate with each other, or one man struggling with himself.
More than likely, it’s both.
The Immortal Hulk #1, #9, #14, #15, #35, #38. Marvel Comics
The Incredible Hulk Vol. 1 #1, #338, #28 Marvel Comics