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April 16, 2021

Immortal Hulk: Flatline (review)


Writer and Artist: Declan Shalvey

Marvel Comics, February 2021

I believe I’m not being hyperbolic when I say Immortal Hulk is the best comic to come out of Marvel for a long, long time. Not only that, it has managed to keep its quality consistent for 43 issues as of the date of this review, something that longer runs (especially ones that tend to have so many guest artists as this one) struggle to accomplish in this day and age.

As much as I may want to write about this excellent run, however, its longevity (and the fact that it is not over yet) has been keeping me from doing so. I would need to re-read it from the beginning to really appreciate all the subtleties of this existential, psychological and horrifying story. So imagine my joy when I heard one of my favourite artist, Mr Declan Shalvey, would be doing a one-shot featuring the version of the Hulk created by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett.

Immortal Hulk: Flatline doesn’t really require you to have read the main Immortal Hulk book, but I believe it’s more enjoyable if you’re familiar with this new, completely different version of the Hulk, called “Devil Hulk”. This version of the Hulk is smarter, stronger and more sentimental than the original Hulk, but that doesn’t mean his rage is not animalistic and primal in nature. This Hulk instead is incredibly complex. While he is more brutal and twisted than the original Hulk, he also openly admits he loves Bruce Banner, and does everything in his power to protect him despite their completely opposite natures.

This little preface is necessary, I believe, to understand why Flatline works so well despite being completely stripped of the more mystical elements of the main series, as well as of the body horror that characterises it.

The book opens with the Hulk’s alter ego, scientist Bruce Banner, waking up in the middle of Albuquerque with no recollection of how he got here. One of the plot-points of the main Immortal Hulk is that Devil Hulk only comes out at night, as a way to represent the Jungian shadow, the part of Bruce Banner’s ego that he doesn’t truly identify, at least not consciously. Banner explains to the reader that the Hulk has been doing this for a while, dropping him in random places, sometimes even with clothes beside him so that he can at least walk around like a normal human during the day. (The Hulk, for those unfamiliar with the character, is an enormously strong, usually green superhero, with an origin of the Hulk’s alter ego, Bruce Banner, being exposed to gamma radiation during an experimental bomb test.)

While Bruce is working, Professor Noreen Noolan, his old college mentor, shows up to pay him a visit. The issue revolves around her attempts to get through to him, since she wants to understand why he is not seeking help and instead allows Hulk to control him every night. She tries to help Bruce, but the sun soon sets. This causes the Hulk to come out since, as Mr Ewing has reminded us many times through the course of his run on the title, “the night is his time”.

This is when Noolan reveals her own gamma-based powers, as she was irradiated with background radiation from Bruce’s original transformation. Once again, she attempts to dialog with Bruce, despite his identity being buried within that of Hulk’s during the evening. One of the main themes of the issue is miscommunication. It shines the brightest not when Noolan is trying to get through to Hulk, but especially when she shows him his attempts of communicating with Bruce are alienating him from what he really wishes to say.

Noolan sends the Hulk to the same metaphysical space Bruce inhabits when Bruce in control. The next time Bruce wakes up he’s in a hospital, the place where the Hulk took him just in time to see Noolan in her deathbed, her body severely damaged by the gamma radiation. She reveals she used her last bit of strength to make sure Bruce and Hulk understood each other, and passes away after both Bruce and Hulk give their goodbyes.

This issue is the prime example of what a one-shot tie-in should be: a story that ties into the themes of the main plot and, although not necessary to read, proves it has something to say about the overarching story of the original book. This is thanks to writer and artist Declan Shalvey’s storytelling capabilities, and the way he replicates many of the leitmotifs of the original book without seeming derivative, while at the same time adding his own spin on things.

The art, as usual with Mr Shalvey, is clean and concise, but it still managing to depict the ugliness of a fight and the terrifying nature of Bruce Banner’s condition. Mr Shalvey has this way of depicting action in a way that feels completely comprehensible but that at the same time does not take away from the spectacle of it all (something important considering this book features two gamma ray-powered behemoths fighting each other), like he did in Moon Knight or Magneto.

More interesting than the art, however, is the coloring: the use of green is very deliberate in this book. There is almost always something green in the panel, indicating the amount of control or presence Hulk has over any given situation. During the first few pages, very few details of this color can be spotted in the background, but when Bruce and Noolan begin a conversation about Hulk, everything starts to slowly turn a very pastel shade of green. This also foreshadows Noolan’s gamma powers, as her glasses are one of the only things that stay green during the entirety of the story. When Hulk finally appears, the green tinge that impregnates every panel becomes much more intense, more difficult to ignore.

During the first part of the book, the Hulk shows up in place of Bruce’s reflection in the same way he does in the original book, and Bruce repeats the well-known phrase “the night is his time”, tying the characterization of both Hulk and Bruce to Messrs Ewing and Bennett’s work.

The way Mr Shalvey draws the Hulk is also reminiscent on the way he is represented on the mainstream Immortal Hulk comic, which is something to appreciate given not all of the artists that have worked on the title have managed to achieve. Personality-wise, the animalistic, primal rage of this Hulk is mixed with his newfound intelligence and rational, more directed hate, as well as his more compassionate side. This is another way in which Mr Shalvey’s work manages to perfectly encapsulate the heart and soul of the original Immortal Hulk.

The book ends in a bittersweet note, and not only because of Noolan’s death, but because Bruce finally realizes that the only thing that separates him from Hulk is also what keeps them together at all times. As much as the Hulk wants to protect and care for him, they are still completely separate entities kept apart by the gamma radiation that manifested their duality in the first place. The titular Flatline references both of these ideas at the same time, symbolizing Noolan’s demise, and its consequences on the psyche of our main characters even before the book has begun.

All in all, I consider this one-shot to be a success in virtually every level, and not merely because it reproduces what made the original run great, but also because it manages to forge its own place in the Immortal Hulk mythos without feeling derivative or repetitive at any point. As I have said before, despite the non-required nature of this one-shot, it is preferable for a reader to better comprehend the nature of this new, post-modern version of the Hulk that Messrs Ewing and Bennet have worked so hard to create. And to any non-readers of the Immortal Hulk title, this little story may very well be enough to convince them to pick up the main book.

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