Very few titles in recent memory have captured readers like Marvel's Immortal Hulk has. Opening with a terrifying arc that seemed ripped straight from Tales from the Crypt, writer Al Ewing and artist Joe Bennett presented a wholly new take on Bruce Banner and the duality of the Hulk, which is now explicitly a product of Banner’s super-powered Dissociative Identity Disorder. Teeming with philosophical concepts and unafraid to get more than a little disgusting, Immortal Hulk rampaged through shelves, gaining both critical acclaim and a very engaged audience.
This week the thirtieth issue of Immortal Hulk hits stands, delving even deeper into the strange, sad tale of the Devil Hulk and the rest of Banner’s alters. On the occasion, Newsarama spoke with Ewingg to talk about the origins of Immortal Hulk, the horror influences of the title, and how he and sBennett decided to go as far as they did.
There is a Green Door Below it All. Now Al Ewing tells us how it was built.
Newsarama: Al, let's start back at the very beginning here - we have to ask, just what the hell does the pitch to Immortal Hulk look like? Bruce is coming off a pretty high profile death in Civil War II. Before that a fairly well-received run by Mark Waid. we can't imagine you walked in and went "I want to cast Bruce Banner in a Cronenbergian psycho drama", right? (But, man, please tell us you did.)
Al Ewing: It was because Bruce was dead that it went the way it did - it all sprung out of how to deal with him in the aftermath of not only his death, but a botched resurrection by the Hand in the immediate aftermath, and then a second resurrection during Secret Empire.
We knew we were bringing him back for good during Avengers' "No Surrender," as something to add a bit of spice to that crossover, so the question was how to do it so it really felt like it mattered - and my idea to solve that problem was just to do... nothing. Because what if Hulk always just eventually came back to life?
I was definitely pushing that as a possibility during the process, and I "called dibs" on the Hulk as part of the collaborative process for "No Surrender" so I could push that horror angle further and lay down some thoughts on what the Hulk could be. That - and basically asking if I could write the eventual Hulk book - was what got me a slot in the later bake-off to decide who'd write the final series.
Nrama: Can you describe for people what a "bake-off" is?
Ewing: A "bake-off" is when a number of people pitch for a series, on the understanding that only one can make the cut.
Ewing: I knew [Marvel Executive Editor] Tom Brevoort was very interested in continuing the horror angle we'd started in "No Surrender." So I was very much paddling along a current we'd started flowing long before.
Nrama: That is absolutely fascinating. And, to you, are the "horror" elements what sticks out about the Hulk? You mention in the letter to readers in the first issue that the cover of Incredible Hulk #1 "echoed in your head for thirty years and change.". Have you always seen the potential for the character in that genre?
Ewing: I think there's always been that horror element - but what I meant when I dropped that particular line was just the strange layout of that issue #1 cover, with that big question mark.
There are things that resonate on a level that you can't quite put your finger on, especially as a kid, and that ends up being very fertile soil for ideas to grow down the line. I'm not saying you should go back to your childhood story ideas if you ever get to write a super-character who's been in your life for a long time, but certainly it's worth interrogating those primal first impressions, because there's probably something interesting there.
Nrama: And we think the critical and reader response very much proves that there is something interesting there.
So you’ve got the pitch approved. You have a thematic idea of what you want to do with Banner. So now, how do you start writing it? Did you have a breakdown of the arcs from the start or some of roadmap? Or was it more a “go where the story takes you” kind of deal?
Ewing: In the original pitch - which I looked back at recently and I've contradicted nearly everything I said in there, so if we do ever use it as backmatter for the final trade or whatever, it'll look very goofy - I pitched the first 13 issues or so, with the first three in page-by-page breakdown detail, the next few a bit vaguer, and then the last stretch extremely vague. But the first three issues each functioning as an issue #1 of sorts was all part of the plan.
What wasn't part of the plan, originally, was getting 30 pages instead of 20 for the first issue, but as soon as I heard about that detail, it crystallized something I'd been playing with in my head, with was that double splash page. I think that's the one beat that sold the comic to a lot of people, if I'm honest, so I'm very glad I overrode my more fearful instincts and went with my gut on that one.
More recently, we've got the remaining arcs and trades of the book roughly plotted out - we're still missing a few details here and there, some of them major, but we know roughly what each trade looks like and we know how the book's going to end. So with individual issues, we're doing what works and feels right, but in the long run we have a definite plan.
Nrama: Was the cast solidified the same way? One of the major strengths of the book is how you've expanded the cast outward so naturally, starting with Jackie, Banner, and the Devil Hulk and then blossoming into this sprawling, engaging cast. Did you have a wish-list of regulars you wanted to get to eventually or did you just pick up who worked for the story along the way?
Ewing: Originally, the cast was Bruce/Hulk, Jackie, and Walter. If you go back and look through the Director's Cut issues, you'll see those three were the first people Joe designed. I didn't want to start bringing other cast members in until I'd established the tone and premise of the book a little, or at least established that it was going to be different from previous Hulk runs - I figured readers would be turned off by having to go back and research all the soap opera, so my idea was that I'd drip-feed in the supporting cast over time, starting with Thunderbolt Ross.
Except as it turned out, the Captain America office had big plans for him, and I didn't want to step on their toes, so instead of Ross, I brought back Reginald Fortean from the old Jeff Parker run - and that was the best decision for all concerned, since it meant I could go much, much further with him. If I'd had the freedom to use Ross, I'm certain the plot would have gone a completely different way.
Anyway, aside from that, I did have a wish list - I felt there were certain regulars that a Hulk book wouldn't be complete without, but at the same time, I wanted to introduce them only when the time was right. Betty had a cameo or two, but when we really introduced her was when I had a clear idea of how I wanted to handle her. Same with Samson, same with Joe.
The only new cast member - and even she's named after someone from the TV show - is Charlene McGowan, who we're still uncovering layers of, but again, as we get deeper into the story I find out more about her. This might sound a little pretentious, but there is that element of characters revealing themselves to you.
Nrama: Speaking of previous runs, did you do any sort of background research into other runs before you started writing in earnest? Or was that something you wanted to avoid in an effort to keep your concept relatively unconnected to past books?
Ewing: I did do a lot of research before and during this run - I wanted to make sure I wasn't completely contradicting anything other people had done before, or if I was, I wanted to make sure I had a good explanation ready to go. I did deliberately avoid mentioning other runs early on, though - I wanted to get to a point where readers were invested in our Hulk, and our story, before we started bringing up other people's.
So with the first three issues or so, which were designed to make good starting points, I deliberately shied away from explaining the circumstances of Bruce's death, or the events surrounding his return. I think if I'd started issue #1 with a recap of Civil War II and Avengers' "No Surrender," it would have made for a pretty dull first issue.
(Not to mention that we'd taken care of that in the pages of "No Surrender" itself - the first time Joe and I worked together was for a 10-pager focussing on Bruce in that book, that was reprinted in the first trade, as I recall. So there wasn't much point in doing it again.)
Anyway, once we got going, I felt freer to start bringing stuff in - building connections to the past, answering some of the dangling questions. If Betty wasn't the first person Bruce called, there had to be a reason beyond not wanting to bring the old supporting cast in just yet - and the only way to answer that question, perversely, was to bring them together again.
Similarly, Doc Samson was alive again and it hadn't yet been explained - shouldn't that connect with what we were doing? The only way to find out was to bring him in. And so on. One by one, the supporting cast re-entered the book, and as they did, I did a lot of research on how to tackle each one.
Nrama: That 10-page "pilot" of sorts is one of the more striking statements of artistic intent we've ever read. And it really does side-step neatly a lot of the groundwork one would expect from a first issue, allowing us to kind of come in clean for #1. Very happy to see it reprinted for the trade.
Without getting into too many spoilers for those that haven't caught up just yet, how did the scope of the latter issues start to take shape? When was the moment you decided to take it as far as you did?
Ewing: The first 13 issues or so were roughly plotted out, give or take. The "jars" issue ended up going further than we imagined, but by then me and Joe were more in sync - we'd discovered that mutual appreciation for body horror, so that was definitely a factor in pushing that angle further and further.
Aside from that, it was just a case of sales and reviews being as good as they have been - I've felt like that gives me a certain amount of wiggle room in terms of pushing things as far as I can, especially in terms of narrative reach. I never want people to think this book is resting on its laurels, or that we aren't taking risks and pushing things forward.
Nrama: So,you recently launched a new Guardians of the Galaxy volume and surely you have other books on the horizon as well. What is something you want to leave with Banner and the Hulk after you move on? Have you given any thought as to the "legacy" of Immortal Hulk or is that something you set aside once you end a title?
Ewing: I imagine it'll have the legacy it has - I can't really control that aspect of things, so I'm not thinking too hard about it.
One thing I do hope remains is Bruce Banner as an explicit system of alters. Dissociative Identity Disorder is often represented poorly in popular culture - I don't know how good a job we've done with it, but I do feel like Bruce is acting more like a system than he was previously.
Each of the Hulks has their role and reason for being, and the ones that are fully present all have their job to do, and I think if there is a direction for the future leading out of this book, it's pointing that way. I really would hate to see the dynamic revert to a simplistic Bruce vs. Hulk scenario. It's more complex than that.