After just a handful of stand-alone fables, The Immortal Hulk turns to a grander plot with issue #5. Something is wrong with Sasquatch. He’s demonstrating new powers similar to the Hulk’s own ‘Immortal’ evolution and he’s definitely not acting like himself. The culprit is someone at once surprising and inevitable, the one person the Hulk knows is more powerful than he is.
It’s an all-out brawl this month. The one-and-done structure of the first three issues isn’t completely thrown out – there’s still the firm, pointed segmentation of those issues and the classic sci-fi twist is still in place – but we’re absolutely focused on the showdown. It’s actually one of the cleverest bits of writing in this issue.
Al Ewing toys with expectations, teasing the possibility that this is merely a two part version of what’s come before. Even the Immortal Hulk is fooled, beginning one of his trademark monologues. But there the issue veers off into new territory as Sasquatch turns the table on Hulk, showing him what its like to be on the other side of one of those self-righteous rants. Of course, the Hulk doesn’t intend to be condescended to, much less treated as Banner’s imaginary friend and the issue becomes a battle to decide who’s the hero and who’s the monster.
Despite this very clever structure, the issue drags a little bit for its focus. A great comic fight uses an exhilarating battle to tell you something about the interior tension of its characters, how they differ and what they struggle with. But, while Ewing certainly writes an engaging back and forth, the fight isn’t what’s keeping your attention. The mystery of the Green Door overshadows the brawl, which, while impressive from panel to panel, gets repetitive overall. It’s almost as though the issue is too honest about the fact that the fight is just a mechanism to address the dynamic between the two monsters.
Don’t count this one out yet, though. While I think that the fight lacks some of the elegance of previous issues, it’s also a solid bit of misdirection. The Hulk and Sasquatch’s dialogue flows in an archetypically satisfying way. Those unfamiliar with the, admittedly complex, history of Hulk’s true enemy will get an introduction, not complete enough to serve as a full recap, but subtle enough not to condescend to them or readers already familiar. Likewise we learn a lot about the Immortal Hulk. Up to this point there’s been little resistance for the not so jolly green giant. His immense strength and incredible insight have borne him through everything the series has thrown at him and he’s made an impression as an enjoyable and unsettling new version of the classic character. But here we see some of that facade start to crack and it’s fascinating. I wouldn’t have minded a little more time with the status quo before Ewing started holding a mirror up to the cracks in the Hulk’s new self-image, but there’s both a power and a satisfaction in watching some of that classic Hulk slip through, not as a celebration of the old Hulk but an indictment of the new one.
But the most interesting element of the melee remains the mystery. With multiple personalities possibly existing within each fighter and ambiguity as to where these gamma-powered entities go when they’re dead or dormant there are numerous small clues littered throughout the issue, hidden in the guise of a statement to someone else or an interrupted thought. Ewing tips us off early, with Banner smoothly transitioning between talking to McGee and the Hulk, but, even so, it can be hard to parse out what’s a double entendre or a misdirect. Do our antagonist’s words refer to the past or the future? Are his motives his own or does the promise of some greater threat directly connect with him? And is it Bruce Banner he’s actually after? We don’t know and that’s because Ewing is doing an impressive job of seeding possibilities into his villain’s dialogue without drawing attention to his greater plan. It’s not that the battle here is split between the duties of an action sequence and the expositional needs of the issue, it’s that it’s split between the duties of an action sequence, the expositional needs of an unknown number of issues, and a need to cover its tracks!
In the end this explains, but does not fully excuse, the problems with the prolonged battle. Future issues may well vindicate this decision, but, for the moment, the nonstop action ironically makes for an unexciting core for this chapter of the story. That’s a shame, because the character moments around the fight, and even some within it, are pretty fantastic.
There’s something cathartic about the Hulk’s trauma – a feeling of progress. Often witnessing the hard parts of Bruce Banner’s story comes with a certain silver lining, a feeling that we’re a step closer to working through those ugly memories or, failing that, that this lone green goliath endures, alone but alive. Immortal Hulk has made it its duty to turn that sad solace into an existential nightmare and, as such, it leaves us breathlessly intrigued. as this fifth installment comes to an end.
There are two major moments that really stick with me from this issue. The first is one of those moments that really does benefit from how long its simmered and how it isn’t the main plot. Jackie Mcgee’s question to the Hulk changes everything and it really communicates what’s different about this Hulk series. It’s exhilarating but, at the same time, deeply wearying. This world is bleak and maybe the Hulk isn’t angry or superior, maybe he’s just tired of living in a world that deserves him.
The second is the big cliffhanger of the issue. Ewing really did everything in his power to play fair with this one, it’s almost painfully obvious in hindsight that this was coming but it’s not only a good surprise but the kind of fundamental idea that you kind of can’t believe hasn’t been done before in some manner. The Hulk is a character that can be deeply boring or shallow when handled wrong, but can draw incredible power out of metaphor and honesty. That last panel offers an incredibly potent metaphor, and tying it in with Ewing’s cyclical narration makes for quite a send off.
Joe Bennett remains our penciler, along with Ruy José as the inker. Bennett’s rendition of the Hulk has already proven its power as an iconic and expressive distillation of the character and, with half the issue almost exclusively devoted to the fracas between Hulk and Sasquatch, there are plentiful opportunities for him to show off the sheer mass and power of the figures in his toy box.
Unfortunately, I don’t find this one of Bennett’s stronger issues. Part of the fight’s repetition must be laid at his feet. Overclose framings encourage readers to take in the scene in impressions rather than more careful reading and Sasquatch’s strategy of torturing the Hulk by pressing his claws into his flesh lacks a sense of how visceral it really is, both for a lack of advancement over the course of the fight and the absence of damage on Hulk.
The Hulk also doesn’t look quite as good as he has in issues past. While there are many great panels of lovely Hulk artwork, there are also many that strain the heavy brow and beady eyes of Bennett’s Hulk design beyond where they feel natural (to the point that my kaiju-obsessed brain can’t help but think of this). Both Hulk and Sasquatch are also looking very, very veiny this issue. That’s really par for the course when you’re dealing with a superhero character as massive as the Hulk, but it can really go beyond the point of what’s reasonable or necessary and draws attention to how close the perspective is and how scrunched some of the anatomy can be.
In fairness to Bennett, I suspect that some of this is at least partially intentional. Admittedly Hulk is covered in veins from his first appearance but it seems to get worse when Sasquatch pierces him and the veins that appear seem to be ones that run to the points of contact between the two. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that Sasquatch was doing something to the Hulk and some of the extremity is actually for plot reasons.
The human faces also have a twinge more of the uncanny valley in them this month, occasionally lacking enough shading for definition, but it’s only a serious problem in a couple of places.
For all the criticisms I have of Bennett’s artwork this go around, there’s no denying that he’s well suited to the series. He really makes these monsters come alive and interact with their world. What’s more he is really good at connecting to that metaphorical world where Hulk really shines. Fun with reflections, contrasts of Hulk and Banner, a devilish gleam in the Sasquatch’s eye or the haunting posture of his increasingly serpentine form, Bennett knows how to reach deep down and bring the archetypal power of the Hulk to bear.
Paul Mounts’ vivid but slightly sickly green remains a welcome addition to this series. There are some nice lighting effects in this issue and some more fine examples of Sasquatch colored, but, for the most part, it’s just another solid issue. I do question his(?) choice to have many of Hulk’s bodily fluids be green, it’s not only weird and kind of silly but actually detracts from the clarity of a few panels. Still, his work coloring gamma radiation is lovely and every once in a while there’s a panel that will floor you, largely in part due to Mounts’ colors. I once again point to the Hulk/Banner diptych (Spoilers) I mentioned earlier and there’s one page, including a particularly strong panel by Bennett of Sasquatch rather literally driving a point into Hulk’s head, that becomes really haunting under the cold blue light that Mounts provides it.
Immortal Hulk #5 is a strange issue of a series that wasn’t terribly afraid to be strange to begin with. With just over half the issue devoted, almost totally, to a single fight scene and a significant portion of the rest dedicated to setting it up, the issue suffers when that fight is overshadowed by the developments that follow and the clues scattered throughout it. The art is a little more uneven than usual and the pacing lacks the polish of previous issues, but, man, will it get you hyped about what’s to come!
Though I think some of the ideas in this issue don’t come through the way they could have, the most important ones positively shine, making this a highly memorable issue of a striking series. Al Ewing is doing some clever things with the Hulk’s mythology and some brilliant things with how he’s telling and retelling that mythology. The tone is incredibly distinctive, not to mention specifically very different from Ewing’s other work, and, between some masterful storytelling tricks and a slew of potential hints for future developments, Immortal Hulk is really quite something. Though issue #5 is not the strongest issue of the new series, possibly even the weakest, it does a lot to ensure that the series will remain a must read for a long time to come.
Immortal Hulk #5 is currently available in comic shops from Marvel Comics.