The Immortal Hulk: Vol. 1: Or Is He Both?, by Al Ewing & Joe Bennett — comic book review

Doc Bruce Banner
Belted by gamma rays
Turned into the Hulk
Ain’t he unglamo-rays!
Wreckin’ the town
With the power of a bull
Ain’t no monster clown
Who is as lovable
As ever-lovin’ Hulk! HULK! HULK!

These were the lyrics to the theme song for the 1966 cartoon, an Incredible Hulk segment on The Marvel Super Heroes show.

I dig the way the lyricist bent the word “unglamorous” to rhyme with “gamma rays.” I’m betting that someone knocked off from work early that day.

Even as a child, I wasn’t sold on the idea of comparing Hulk to a bull or a monster clown. The Hulk I knew from the comic books was orders of magnitude more powerful than a single puny bull. Plus, what the frack is a monster clown? John Wayne Gacy and Pennywise weren’t a part of the zeitgeist in those days.

I didn’t like Hulk being labelled with the word “lovable” either. That was the trend, however. Hulk was the misunderstood monster, a gentle giant who occasionally went on a Godzilla-sized rampage. The Hulk would even smile at us from those ads selling fruit pies or Hostess Twinkies, or who knows what all?

This was all wrong. The Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk dynamic is Dr. Jeckyll/Mr. Hyde on steroids. Lots of steroids. The Hulk is a monster, born of rage and gamma rays. More than a little beholden to Frankenstein’s Monster, at least the Boris Karloff version.

I never read any of the early comic books featuring the Hulk, the issues drawn by Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko. I was a sporadic reader during the 1970s, when Herb Trimpe was the main artist. Between the comic books and the 1966 cartoon, I was familiar with the Hulk’s origins and the Hulk “family” that included Betty Ross and her father General “Thunderbolt” Ross, Rick Jones, Doc Samson, and Maj. Glenn Talbot.

Then, the television show came out in the late 1970s, the one with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. It was an odd combination of the comic book, The Fugitive, Kung Fu and The Lone Ranger. Bruce Banner became David Banner, for some reason. It’s been rumored that the name “Bruce” was considered “too gay” at that time. I’m not sure why, and I don’t know what Springsteen and Willis have to say about this. Maybe “Bruce” is a straight name only in New Jersey. It’s also been said—or retconned—that CBS wanted to get away from the alliterative comic book name. I can believe that this was a random studio change that completely disregarded the fan base for a comic-book property. This is the way things were done for a long time. We’re not immune to this problem in the twenty-first century (see the first Ryan Reynolds Deadpool version).

Hulk showed up in other comic books I read as well, but he was still green when I stopped reading all comic books for a decade or so. I understand that he has been gray and red since that time, perhaps other colors I don’t know about. He’s also been smarter than I remember him at times and has gone to other planets. He’s been in several movies now as well, played by at least three different actors.

I feel as if my ignorance of the Hulk’s continuity since the 1970s actually worked out to my advantage in reading The Immortal Hulk, Volume 1: Or Is He Both?, which collects Immortal Hulk 1 – 5 and material from Avengers #684. I have inferred, through my reading, that at some point since I last read a Hulk comic book, the Hulk was actually killed by the character Hawkeye with a special arrow. Only, in the way of comic books and soap operas, he didn’t stay dead. The Hulk, it turns out, is actually immortal, although Bruce Banner is not. I thought this was an interesting take on the character.

This story harkens back to those early comic books in many ways. Bruce Banner is a fugitive from justice, trying to avoid capture. There’s even a homage to the reporter Jack McGee from the television show in Jackie McGee, a female reporter obsessed with the Hulk. McGee never had a comic book counterpart before this, as far as I know.

But, this series taps into something that’s never really come across in the comic books of my childhood. Hulk is a monster. I know, that seems like an obvious statement. What I mean is, the Hulk as depicted in The Immortal Hulk is a horror movie monster that can’t be killed, like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers. This Hulk is cunning and cruel and perhaps, just perhaps, evil in ways that the giant green guy who referred to himself in the third-person never was.

While I am normally resistant to change, I liked this particular take. A lot.

I was sold during the first issue, when Bruce Banner and an innocent girl are both shot dead in a gas station robbery. Bruce can die, and seems to make a regular habit of it. But, at nightfall, the Hulk emerges to exact his revenge, like a gamma-ray-saturated vampire. Bruce’s return to the land of the living afterward is a side effect. I’ve read that Banner transforming at night, instead of only when he’s angry or in distress, was something that was written into the original character, but I don’t really recall that.

This Hulk is scary. Not just because of his green skin, ridiculously pumped-up musculature and savage strength, but because this version of the Hulk uses fear as a weapon. This malignantly intelligent monster often attempts to psychologically destroy his foes before he actually, you know, physically destroys them.

I’m not very familiar with other work by writer Al Ewing or artist Joe Bennett. If this is a typical example, these two are worth following. The writing has a depth and maturity that is 180-degrees from the depictions of the green guy from my youth. This is an adult comic book, with over-the-top violence and destruction, and no Comics Code Authority. The artwork is savagely beautiful. I’ve since looked at Bennett’s work on-line. Not just the incredibly detailed pencils for Immortal Hulk, but also his work for DC Comics. Whatever “it” is, Joe Bennett has it. He’s probably not top-10 in my personal pantheon of comic book artists yet, but he’s definitely made the long list.

Amazon Prime led me to this collection. As a member of Prime, this was “free” to me on a digital platform. This has encouraged me to at least stick a toe out of my comfort zone and read some titles I would not otherwise read. I assure you that I’m not a corporate shill for Amazon, but I’ve discovered that I have enjoyed this perk of being a Prime member more than I ever thought I would. Plus, I get to watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Expanse and The Boys.

Okay, I’m not a corporate shill, but if Jeff Bezos wants to divert any of his wealth into my bank accounts, I won’t turn it down.

Firewater’s Man-or-Monster?-Or-Is-He-Both? Report Card: A

I’m going to leave you with two things. First, this was a solidly entertaining read that I enjoyed and highly recommend. And, second, sad walking-away piano music as I head for the next town.

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