The Immortal Hulk #32
Written by Al Ewing
Art by Joe Bennett, Ruy José, Belardino Brabo, Paul Mounts, Javier Rodríguez and Álvaro López
Lettering by Cory Petit
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
Take a moment to think about all of the Hulk stories you’ve ever read, whether they were incredible, savage, smashing, ultimate or even immortal. Think of all of the foes that the Hulk has faced, some of them are heroes and many of them were villains. And then think about all of the different portrayals of the Hulk himself: Some of them were heroes, and some of them were villains as well.
It all just depends on the story being told.
In the first 20-something issues of Immortal Hulk, Al Ewing and Joe Bennett threw the U.S. military at the Hulk. Now Dario Agger and Roxxon have stepped up to plate. The Hulk may have an army, but Agger has corporate lawyers and his own news outlet, as he tries to physically defeat the Hulk as well as launch a smear campaign against Dr. Bruce Banner. But most intriguingly, Immortal Hulk #32 not only shows what that two-pronged assault might look like - especially when Roxxon has psychics on the payroll to help influence the thoughts of the masses - but it explores what if Bruce Banner started to believe the worst about himself. What if he became the worst version of himself that everyone already believes he truly is?
Good guy or bad guy?
It’s hard to pull off paranoid thrillers in comics, because so few artists are up to the task of showing true madness in a character’s eyes. Ewing is writing this story that’s pulling back all of these layers that have built up over Banner going back all the way to the 1960s, but showing how those layers have always been there. This isn’t a deconstruction or a reconstruction of the Hulk as much as it is a reminder of who he has always been. Bennett has always been a solid superhero artist, but he's delivering a smashing success here, drawing Ewing’s story about madness and paranoia with artwork that induces that madness and paranoia in the reader. Bennett’s artwork puts in in the headspace of our unstable protagonist, showing us Hulks who are motivated and confident but a Banner who is barely holding on to reality.
Viral thoughts are the weapons of this battle, changing our stories and our memories. Who is Bruce Banner? Can we rely on our memories to show us the truth? Can he even trust his own self-image to be correct and accurate? We all joke about how we take the bad memories and thoughts and bury them deep in our subconscious, but this issue shows Banner doing just that, forcing down the child-like Hulk, the one many of us grew up with in comics and TV. “The Hulk isn’t that bad,” we told ourselves. “He’s just trapped in a world that doesn’t know what to do with him.” We may not have understood it, but the Hulk has been a metaphor for the parts of society and ourselves that we simply can’t deal with, that we can’t handle so we just try to ignore, shoot off into space and just forget about. He’s everything that we don’t want to deal with on a daily basis and instead bury, hoping and wishing that it will never see the light of day again.
It’s that self-delusion that Bennett’s artwork conveys so well. No one wants to believe the worst about themselves or the people around them, especially Bruce Banner. In Immortal Hulk, Ewing and Bennett have assembled this weird family around Bruce, some who have a long history with him and some who are fairly new to the Hulk’s story, and none of them seems to want to accept who the Hulk is or what they’re part of. Maybe they just do not know. Dr. Charlene McGowan is one of those newer members of the Hulk’s entourage, and this issue confirms that she’s a trans woman who understands what it means not to be in control of your own story. As she’s gone through the process of defining herself, she rightly questions what happens to Banner when he suddenly is even more powerless than ever before to do that.
Ewing and Bennet are deliberately keeping us confused and disoriented in this comic. Who is the Hulk? Who is Bruce Banner? Is he a hero or a villain? The answer may be “yes, he’s both” or maybe “no, and what does that even mean,” and that’s what we have to grapple with. We’ve entered a period when there are no heroes or villains. There are good guys and bad guys, but those are different than “hero” and “villain.” Good and Bad are more complex and nuanced and they are also more morally centered. They tell us more about ourselves and our actions. Bruce Banner and the Hulk (all of the Hulks) are our “heroes” in this story, but what does that really even mean when a “villain” like Xemnu can nudge us just enough to think that Banner is a “villain”? For us, on the outside watching this all happen from outside the comic page, it’s not much of a stretch of our imagination to think that the story of this Hulk is the story of evil, or even the Devil, taking over.
The last couple of issues have felt a bit more like conventional Hulk comic books because we’ve seen a Hulk whose primary role is to smash the bad guys. It’s been a more familiar and more acceptable Hulk than the devilish schemer that Ewing and Bennett have been focusing on. Immortal Hulk #32 reminds us what’s at play here; it reminds us that little separates us from an unleashed and unhinged Bruce Banner and the fear of what he could do next. Ewing and Bennett probably enjoy making us squirm a lot as we look at Bruce Banner and wonder what horrors come from him as opposed to which ones from the Hulk. Immortal Hulk is the most disturbing comic book on the stands, but in a good way — in a way that challenges us and everything we’ve ever thought we knew about the Hulk and what it means to be a “good guy.”