I mean, neither can Spider-Man or Superman or Iron Man. Valuable intellectual property is functionally immortal. (What would Batman – whose villains must return, time and time again – make of his oath never to kill if he knew it was driven by market forces more than morality?) In The Immortal Hulk, writer Al Ewing, penciller Joe Bennett and inker Ruy José take this problem as their premise: their Hulk cannot die. Sure, you can kill his “puny” alter ego, Bruce Banner. It doesn’t matter. The Hulk will just rise again when the sun sets, and Banner will be back the next morning.
It’s a canny take on the required immortality of corporate superheroes, making sense of all the deaths that never stick in ongoing continuity. Continuity that’s mostly dismissed here, with Banner’s casual narration saying “It was a complex situation. I'll spare you the fine details”. The Hulk’s status quo suits these kind of shifts. He has transformation in his gamma-infused DNA: man into monster, yeah, but also grey to green, dumb to smart, lone force of destruction to cuddly, collectable superhero. Ewing has fun with the last when one witness refuses to believe the Hulk’s all that bad. “Monster? Ol’ Jade Jaws? Come on, lady. He's a founding Avenger. He's been in movies.”
This Hulk is a different beast again: one that seeks revenge with a sadistic leer. Bennett and Jose’s art tends to focus on wide eyes, open mouths, and a kind of bubbling hysteria that’d suit an old issue of Eerie. Menace is well directed; the first issue knows to show a frightened face reacting to a loaded gun before the gun itself. The colors by Paul Mounts are muted, ominous greens and ambers. The third issue is the most artistically striking as guest artists come on board to represent shifting points-of-view in varying genres: romance, supernatural, indie, and so on. It’s hardly a revolutionary technique, but it’s the kind of formal playfulness that superhero comics can always use more of.
So a homeless Banner searches for injustices during the day – following a kind of instinctual itch – and the Hulk doles out grim punishment at night. Of course, the fact that the Hulk is also “in movies” (and toys, and clothes, and multivitamins, and whatever else will hold a brand) means no matter how many times you call him the devil, he can’t actually murder anyone. This actually leads to more sadism, not less. The Hulk happily buries someone alive instead, leaving them screaming out that “death is better!” This isn’t the first time the Hulk has hinted at this kind of horror. Peter David and John Ridgeway created a self-proclaimed “off-beat tale” back in The Incredible Hulk #335 (1987). There the mean, intelligent grey hulk protects a blind girl from a slasher-movie monster, saying to the villain: “...you’re terrified. Now me... I just terrify.”
These first three issues are mostly standalone stories, following a reporter with a connection to the Hulk as she tracks Banner across America. Issues #4 and #5 a two-parter that connects to more Marvel characters (and provides the first monster versus monster fight scene, naturally). It remains to be seen if The Immortal Hulk’s idiosyncrasies – its opening quotes from Jung and Milton and double-page spreads of its protagonist’s grin – can survive the superheroes surrounding it. That’s the problem with a shared universe: contact between titles tends to grind away any sharp edges. I was reminded of Brian Azzarello and Richard Corben’s out-of-continuity miniseries Startling Stories: Banner (2001). In it, the Hulk’s rampages are allowed to come with a body count. It also presages this notion of immortality when Banner swallows a gun and pulls the trigger but it’s the Hulk who spits out the bullet, unharmed. I wonder if Ewing and Bennett wish for the same leeway. For now, though: if this latest Hulk is smart and sly, then The Immortal Hulk is too.