Writer: Al Ewing
Artist: Joe Bennett
Marvel Comics, 2018-2021
Immortal Hulk has been a very important book for me, a book that has pushed the boundaries of superhero comic books and used the Hulk’s messy and redundant history to its favor in order to create some of the best issues American publisher Marvel comics has put out in a while.
This title has been a personal reminder that, yes, superhero comics can be revolutionary despite the negative tropes and themes that are usually associated with the genre. It has also been an amazing exercise in body horror, juxtaposition and use of Biblical and Kabalistic imagery, an examination of violence, revenge, and mental health issues, and a beautiful tale about a man learning to live with his past.
The last arc of the book saw gamma-irradiated supervillain Leader take over Bruce Banner’s mind, kill Devil Hulk (the version of the character most prominently featured in the run) and become a host to The One Below All, a force of pure hate that plans on possessing Banner in order to spread its destruction across all the cosmos, and even beyond that.
Joe Fixit (the original Grey Hulk) and Savage Hulk are the only two personalities left to stop him, and after confronting the Avengers in the beautifully written issue 49, they returned to Hell through the Forever Door to save Banner from his terrible fate, alongside fired reporter (and fellow gamma mutate) Jackie McGee.
What is interesting about this story is that it doesn’t end in a big bombastic fight against the Leader, but in an excellent exercise in mercy. The issue opens with a flashback to 1901, in which two brothers, Samuel and Robert Sterns (who are implied to be the Leader’s ancestors) meet to discuss matters of science.
After Samuel reveals he’s been experimenting with gamma radiation, Robert confronts him about his affair with his wife Beatrice. Although Samuel defends himself, explaining that both felt alone and that Robert was the one to push Beatrice away, Robert does not listen to reason, and proceeds to force him to swallow the little sphere of gamma energy he kept in his laboratory, killing him. He later forces his wife Beatrice to leave, throwing her out in the middle of a snowstorm and revealing that she’s pregnant with Samuel’s child, as well as her maiden surname: Banner.
This story, which recontextualizes the family trees of both the Leader and Bruce, is told while the main plot unfolds, and serves as a very interesting juxtaposition between the Hulk and Robert. It represents the beginning of the violent cycle that led to the events of Immortal Hulk, both metaphorically and literally; if Robert had not murdered his brother, the study of gamma energy would have advanced at a fast enough pace to eventually avoid the experiment that turned Bruce Banner into the Hulk.
In the main story, Joe, Jackie and the Hulk finally get to the Leader, now possessed by the One Below All and turned into a malformed, gigantic version of himself. Jackie then uses her gamma powers to distract the possessed Leader, giving the Hulks enough time to defeat him. Sam Sterns, no longer the Leader, is then spit out of the possessed flesh construct, and begs for mercy while the Hulks confront the One Below All.
Now, the big reveal of this book is not really a surprise, as it has been teased since the moment the character was first introduced, but it is still a very powerful and awe-inspiring moment to behold: the One Below All is, quite literally, God’s Hulk. He is a personification of destruction in its purest, unrestrained form, and as such it gives power to creatures such as the Hulk to spread destruction around, only so the universe can later be rebuilt by its other face, the One Above All.
This mirrors Bruce Banner’s plan to save the world presented earlier in the series: only by destroying the power structures that hold capitalism in place can the world be rebuilt and allowed to heal. The unbridled hate and destruction the Leader was planning to release upon the universe were wrong not because of their nature, as creation and destruction are two sides of the same coin, but because of their measure: ultimate annihilation allows for nothing to be created.
The only way to put an end to the cycle of violence and revenge, a cycle in which superheroes as a whole have been stuck in for years, the Hulk must do the one thing Robert Sterns could not do: forgive the ones who had wronged him.
And once the One Above All finally reveals itself to the main characters, it is up to Hulk to choose whether he forgives the Leader or decides to punish him. In a panel sequence that mirrors the moment where Devil Hulk first showed care and compassion for Banner issues ago, the Savage Hulk, the less intellectually inclined and more instinct-driven alter of the system, decides to show him mercy. Because, if Bruce Banner can be forgiven, so can Samuel Sterns. Of course, these themes are far more complex than that, and the story does them justice in a very interesting way.
After both Banner and Sterns have been rescued, Joe Fixit has a conversation with McGee. Her main motivation through the entire run has been to seek a reason for the destruction of her home at the hands of the Hulk, during one of his rampages, and it is through this final event that Joe finally addresses her pain.
Joe explains that the alter system he’s a part of destroyed her life, and that even if he personally is not responsible, he is still inside of that system. Even though Ewing explains, through Bruce Banner, that capitalism as a system causes everyone to act in morally questionable ways, there is no excuse for that behavior.
Joe is essentially applying this Aesop to the entire Hulk system: even if he himself is not responsible for what happened to McGowan, that doesn’t stop him from being kind to her and offering her whatever help she may need, promising that they’ll be there whenever she needs them.
I have a few things to say about the ending of the issue, but now is a good time as any to mention how beautiful Joe Bennett’s art is. I’m not going to talk about the recent controversy surrounding him, because this is a comic-book review, but I am truly saddened by his behavior and understand the fact that Al Ewing, and Marvel as a whole, no longer want to associate with him.
Regardless, his art has been consistently breathtaking through the whole run, and he manages to truly elevates already astonishing moments, like the big reveal of the One Above All. I am, at least, glad that the quality of his art continued up until the end, regardless of what happens next in his career.
And about those final two pages, I have to say that I very much expected “we still have a lot of work to do” to be the general vibe of the ending I had envisioned for this run. Because of course, Banner can’t just rebuild the world in a few months, and he still needs a lot of psychological help to deal with all of his traumas, so he’s going to need a lot of time to think.
Seeing him walk towards the sunset, happy that the other Hulks are with him was incredibly rewarding and uplifting, and I sincerely hope whatever Marvel has in store for him allows him to continue to grow as a person alongside Joe, the dumb green guy, and maybe even Devil Hulk.
This last issue has lived up to the rest of the series, and provided a very earned and deserved conclusion to a tale that was promising to be hard to wrap up. There will never be another book like Immortal Hulk, and we will miss it dearly, but I’m glad it ended on the high-note we were all hoping for.