Marvel Comics | Immortal Hulk #1 (2018) | feature image
Marvel Comics | Immortal Hulk #1 (2018)

‘The Immortal Hulk’ Finds Bruce Banner Coping with Internal and External Horrors

Marvel Comics writer Al Ewing dives into Bruce Banner’s disturbed mind and finds Devil Hulk.

The Immortal Hulk #1
Al Ewing and Joe Bennett
Marvel Comics
21 November 2018

People think of the Hulk as a dumb green muscle. He gets stronger as he gets angrier, and he’s not much for intellectualizing and problem-solving. Did I mention he’s green? In all fairness, that’s how he’s portrayed.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), he’s a game-changing weapon for the Avengers, their ace in the hole, a nearly unbeatable beast. Dr. Bruce Banner is a hapless physicist who sometimes loses his temper, which wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t cause him to transform into a destructive monster. He’s brought in to join a superhero team, and they use the Hulk to their advantage, even though sometimes they lose control of him.

But the Hulk isn’t frightening in the MCU. He’s kind of a bratty child, which can be endearing. Children are cute. You can be buddies with them. The Avengers treat him as their buddy because that’s how the monster can be kept under control. The Hulk’s childlike attitude is also why he often lacks character depth. His characteristic nuances go largely unexplored, leaving him one-dimensional despite being a part of a duality. He comes off as obnoxiously unintelligent and a wildly emotional brute who is only good for smashing and overreacting. At other times, he can’t be anything other than comic relief. 

This is only one version of the Hulk.

In the comics, this is a version now known as Savage Hulk, the most dominant Hulk. Over the roughly 60-year span of the character’s existence, the many writers of Hulk comics have reinvented the Hulk in a myriad of forms so as not to tell repeated a story. Writer Peter David spent 11 years shaping the Hulk’s canon (and continues writing Hulk stories today). He gave us Joe Fixit in the ’80s, an abrasive personality who is essentially the Grey Hulk from the first six issues of The Incredible Hulk by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. But this Joe Fixit is a Las Vegas enforcer. He gave us Professor Hulk in the ’90s, whom we now know from the Russo Brothers‘ 2019 film, Avengers: Endgame. Writer Greg Pak created a beloved version of the Hulk named Green Scar. Some iterations of The Hulk are so fleeting within the character’s mythos that they’re barely worth mentioning.

Since June of 2018, writer Al Ewing has been steering The Hulk in another new direction with his ongoing series, The Immortal Hulk. This series places the character into the horror genre, similar to how Alan Moore revamped Swamp Thing in the ’80s. Ewing wanted to bring Hulk comics back to the tone of those first six issues. “It was a horror book to begin with,” says Ewing. “Bruce Banner sitting and waiting for the night to come. Waiting to change into his terrifying opposite, the Jungian shadow-self — everything he hid from the world and tried to pretend wasn’t inside him (The Immortal Hulk, #1).”

References to psychoanalyst Carl Jung pop up throughout the series, most often through the voice of Leonard Samson, aka Doc Samson, Bruce’s psychiatrist and fellow gamma-mutated muscle man. “The Hulk is the personification of everything we deny we have inside ourselves,” Samson has stated. “Struggling with him means confronting the dark sides in all of us (The Incredible Hulk, #332).”

Ultimately, The Immortal Hulk is less superhero sci-fi fantasy. Although it’s still embedded within a genre, the series is grounded in personal issues. It’s a horror story and a character study on the complications and intricacies of mental illness, specifically dissociative identity disorder (DID), which is Bruce Banner’s affliction and an aspect of the character not explored in film and TV.

Is Devil Hulk So Bad?

Immortal Hulk focuses on a Hulk persona who goes by the name Devil Hulk, a Hulk not created by Ewing, but by writer Paul Jenkins and artists Ron Garney and Sal Buscema in The Incredible Hulk Vol. 3. Unlike the irritable Savage Hulk (the MCU Hulk), Devil Hulk doesn’t need to be eased or mitigated. He’s angry but not blinded by uncontrollable rage. This is a Hulk who is in control, which is more frightening than one who is nothing more than a singular emotion.

Devil Hulk isn’t childlike or even heroic. He is articulate, often thoughtful like a detective, a bit vengeful, and makes solid moral judgments. He has a clear perception of right and wrong. He thinks in terms of justice. And like the original Hulk, Devil Hulk comes out every night instead of through windows of rage.

Sampson remembers Bruce describing this version of the Hulk as “a demonic, satanic personality that he kept caged inside him. Bruce at his angriest, his most inhuman, his most merciless. A Hulk who, if he ever got out, would be the end of the world (The Immortal Hulk, #15).”

This is not entirely true. There’s nothing demonic about Devil Hulk. Bruce encountered him when exploring the depths of his mind to figure out what was going on with the Hulk and to take control of his rage and guilt. He was scared of this personality and imagined it as snake-skinned and satanic. But that was Bruce’s inaccurate projection (another psychoanalytical concept). Truthfully, Devil Hulk is protective and loving towards Banner, an unprecedented dynamic between the scientist and his alter-ego.

He Loves Himself / He Hates Himself

Savage Hulk has always considered Bruce Banner, and all humans, to be puny. Likewise, Banner has always thought of The Hulk as a burden, and enough so that it has made him consider suicide as the ultimate solution, however painful it may be for his loved ones. Hate and fear fueled their relationship and the way they struggle with each other over a single body.

This is not the case within the Hulk/Banner relationship in The Immortal Hulk. Devil Hulk loves Banner. He says it throughout the series, and it feels genuine within Ewing’s portrayal, as opposed to Jenkins’ initial interpretation of the character.

Jenkins made it difficult to tell whether Devil Hulk’s declarations of love are genuine or manipulative. In The Incredible Hulk Vol. 3, Devil Hulk attempts to negotiate with Banner, saying, “I merely want control of the body, frabjulous boy… to do with as I please. To exact our revenge upon a worthless world. I’ll make them pay for what they did to us, Brucie — I’m the only one who can. I’ll take their rejection and their smug, fat smiles, and I’ll return the whole thing on them a million times over… It’s a once in a lifetime offer, my love (#28).”

It sounds insincere like he’s buttering up Banner so he can take advantage of him. It seems even more deceitful because he looks reptilian. Jenkins depicts the character as scaly and red-eyed, with claws and sharp teeth. We’ve seen imagery like this. Think about the snake in the biblical Tree of Knowledge. The serpentine appearance of Devil Hulk implies sinister motives. It implies a self-centered, cajoling, and devious nature.

Ewing, however, portrays Devil Hulk as a normal-looking Hulk (green skin, muscles, torn pants, bad haircut) but doesn’t ignore the discrepancies between his portrayal of the character and Jenkins’. He instead presents it as a misunderstanding. In The Immortal Hulk #15, Devil Hulk explains that what he said to Banner in the past was not meant to sound conniving. It was intended to be honest and protective, but Banner’s fearful projection of him skewed his delivery, making Devil Hulk appear to be evil.

One crucial detail should be mentioned about Bruce Banner that shaped his life significantly: he had an abusive, alcoholic father. In the early to mid-’80s, writer Bill Mantlo introduced the concept of Bruce being a victim of child abuse by way of his father, Brian Banner. David took this further by making Bruce Banner a person afflicted with dissociative identity disorder (DID), the trauma of experiencing child abuse being the root cause. Essentially, the different versions of the Hulk are Bruce’s multiple personalities, his alters.

Banner is more than just a genius scientist. He is characterized by his personal suffering. Because of his father’s abusive nature, Bruce can’t understand love without pain. He doesn’t understand love without it being soured by trauma. Therefore, Bruce projected a frightening appearance to Devil Hulk when Devil Hulk mentioned love, and anything coming from a serpentine creature sounds villainous. “I love you. I’ll always be here for you,” Devil Hulk pleads in one of Bruce’s early memories. “He’s not you’re dad. Not a good dad. A dad can’t hurt you and be a good dad. Just let me out, okay? (The Immortal Hulk, #38)”

Jenkins’ Devil Hulk is a sly, subtle influence. Ewing’s Devil Hulk, however, is more upfront and direct. He’s still vicious, but more tough love.