The Walking Ghost Phase Begins In The Immortal Hulk #2

by Noah Sharma
Primary Cover by Alex Ross

I am not, traditionally, much of a Hulk fan, but I know, when done right, he can be one of the most poignant and meaningful characters in comics. I have only read a few, choice, Hulk stories, so I cannot say with certainty whether it is something new or something recycled, but I think that the first page of The Immortal Hulk #2 is one of my favorite scenes of the character. It’s a scene that must have always existed, but it’s only now clawed its way to the top of the mythical comics subconscious and it sends a message about this issue: that this is what the Hulk is about.

While Immortal Hulk #1 was a lovely issue, it spend most of its time establishing the same premise I had bought it for. I put it down knowing that this book, like its freight train of a protagonist, would only pick up speed. I’m happy to say that it seems I was right.

Traveling the country, Bruce Banner stops in a small little town with an odd affliction. People are drying in droves, seemingly of grief. There is some scientific merit to that idea, but the explanation doesn’t sit right with Banner, especially when he discovers that the town is home to a prominent gamma researcher.

The story is brief, perhaps even slight, as Al Ewing puts his focus on giving us a tour of the town and our lead. The Hulk has taken a lot of abuse but this time is different, this time Bruce Banner died, and he didn’t come back all the way.

There’s something scary about brain fog, dementia, alzheimer’s. Especially as a society of individualists, the thought of being changed without our consent is anathema to us, but the idea of not being altered but merely tweaked, our gifts taken away from us in such a gentle way as to barely be noticeable at first, that’s terrifying. And it’s telling that Bruce Banner doesn’t quite mind.

Banner’s not doing so bad mind you, the excesses of the medium mean that he’s just gone from Marvel smart to MENSA smart, but this revelation quietly sells Banner’s new persona as an unwilling epicurean. There’s a quiet depression about Banner, but one that comes with both hopelessness and freedom. “Does Betty [know I’m alive]? I should call. I will. I’ll pick up the phone. As soon as I’m ready,” he muses.

Bruce’s impediments also set up a frightening new reality for this horror-tinged take on the character. “I think he’s smarter than me now.”

That could mean a lot of things. Is Banner’s brain damage more severe than he’s letting on? Is the Hulk getting smarter? Did he take that processing power from Banner? Personally, part of me find the most disturbing interpretation to be that the Hulk’s wildly shifting intelligence is not, as it seems, a quirk of differing writers, but a stretching, pulsing mutation in itself.

And that intelligence is rather interesting. At first, Ewing seems to hold to the id vs. ego, dumb vs. smart dichotomy, but this isn’t the merged Hulk of the past, instead the Hulk’s intelligence lies in connections. He sees things, understands them on a deep level that doesn’t need a lot of words. Perhaps it was easy in the Silver Age to have a little of that Spider-Man insecurity, to see Dr. Banner as less than the Strongest One There Is. But, robbed of his genius intellect, it’s not hard to finally feel Banner’s impotence, his knowledge that he is small and worthless, save for his ability to transport this horrible behemoth.

The subtext is rich and Ewing’s ideas are fascinating, both in the abstract and execution. But, there’s no denying that the story is simple and it relies a lot on exposition.

With the book still in its infancy and a clear desire to return to the one-and-done horror story model, there’s not a huge amount of room. Ewing’s script reads with the same pulp and excess as his undoubted inspirations. Interesting as it is to see the Hulk doing detective work, this is undercut by the near certainty that Banner’s first instinct – or is it the Hulk’s? – will be correct. What’s more, for any cleverness the book assigns its grumpy green star, the truth tumbles out rather effortlessly. It’s satisfying in the same way as an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, but it doesn’t fully capture human nature the way the remembered installments of those programs did nor does it truly surprise, the overall structure playing out exactly as we’ve been trained to expect it by years of quality and not so quality sci-fi shorts.

Ewing does nail the tone of those anthology programs, however. The Hulk’s voice holds the same omnipotent judgement as a science-horror host, like some furious Rod Serling, unwilling to watch without meting out justice. A little Mr. Fixit charm completes the new Hulk.

Ewing’s tale tries, and in a way succeeds, to wring drama out of a topical issue, but its role in the story isn’t really significant enough to elevate the issue. Instead it’s limited to another clever, but understated, moment that helps explain how our Monster of the Week justified himself and wrings some sympathy out of us before we realize how hollow the sob story he’s selling the Hulk, intentionally, is.

Ewing also offers an odd bit of foreshadowing that is as interesting as it is strange. The Hulk has never had a particularly strong rogue’s gallery, depending on a couple of characters for recurring antagonists. That’s kind of odd for a character whose origin is theoretically repeatable. Just as Iron Man has found a wealth of enemies in foils of his genius and imitators of his tech, the Hulk’s gamma-powered adversaries have seemingly limitless potential. Ewing not only sees and utilizes this to provide a compelling connection between hero and villain, but uses a flashback to imply something darker ahead, a kind of malevolence to gamma radiation itself. It’s an intriguing mystery and one that helps pull readers back for more single-issue adventures.

Joe Bennett’s storytelling feels strong, even when he’s just providing talking heads. There’s always something human about a panel, no matter how simple. Sometimes that’s flatly necessary, as there’s not all that much happening in the moment. The overall aesthetic is nice enough, a comfortable generic given a little extra realism. It kind of feels like late 90s Marvel through the lens of today, Banner even looks a little too much like Clone Era Peter Parker.

Extreme expression is a fairly consistent problem for Bennett. Banner, as our viewpoint, has a number of opportunities to show off some rather drastic faces that fall firmly into the uncanny valley. The underlying anatomy that makes Bennett a natural choice for a Hulk comic bulges and flattens when everyday mortals are pushed to extremes. It’s limited enough that dramatic moments never fall flat, but, even in the moment, you’re aware that it’s awkward.

The first appearance of the Hulk, however, may be one of my favorite panels of the character in a long time. Bennett instantly conveys the size, weight, and the petty frustration of this big, green being of anger. All throughout, glimpses of the Hulk demonstrate Bennett’s retro-iconic flare for bringing the Green Goliath to life. Hulk feels at once a monster and a man, with a distinct face that’s undeniably the Hulk but real enough that it emotes smoothly. And Bennett supports Ewing’s interpretation ably, giving us a Hulk that doesn’t rage but is certainly angry.

While the characters are in the spotlight, the world Bennett crafts around them is really worthy of praise. In taking the Hulk back to his roots, Ewing has made these first two issues something of a walkabout and the nature and culture of these forgotten places in America are characters in the story.

The landscapes of this issue are really lovely and all the more so for Paul Mounts’ colors. From the hues of a desert sunset to the sickly glow of gamma radiation, the colors in this book are top notch. At times they’re a little bolder than you might expect, but that’s far better than too dull and when Mounts is let off the leash, you really see what he can do.

With its second issue, The Immortal Hulk takes a big step from its already solid predecessor that greatly helps it find its stride. Though the plot is nothing we haven’t seen in some form before, Al Ewing’s quiet musings on Banner and the Hulk and retro-horror vibe make this a wonderful addition to the character’s legacy. A solidly told story, full of thoughtful ideas, Immortal Hulk #2 manages to add something new to the Hulk’s legend while staying deeply true to the core of the character.

The Immortal Hulk #2 is currently available in comic shops from Marvel Comics.

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