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Al Ewing Hulks out: Why Immortal Hulk is the best Big-2 comic book right now
Traveling to Hell and back (literally), battling with former loved ones now turned into monsters, delivering harsh justice and revealing the secrets of Gamma — the Hulk is on an adventure like no other. A mix of body horror, the supernatural, and superheroes, The Immortal Hulk, written by Al Ewing and penciled by Joe Bennett, has emerged as Marvel's biggest sleeper hit of the past year and has finally started getting the accolades it deserves, picking up an Eisner Award nomination earlier this year.
To better understand the Immortal version of the Hulk, it's important to know that there isn't just one Hulk. Bruce Banner has turned into several different versions of the monster through the years, including Joe Fixit, the Grey Hulk, Professor Hulk (recently seen in Avengers: Endgame), Guilt Hulk, the World Breaker, and Devil Hulk. Each Hulk has its own backstory and personality, but they all stem from Banner's Dissociative Identity Disorder. So how did we end up with an Immortal Hulk? Fans and Marvel characters alike have always suspected that the Hulk could never die — something we'd seen in Wolverine: Old Man Logan and Hulk: The End — but Mark Waid and Al Ewing's Avengers run confirmed it last year when Hulk returned from the dead, after dying in 2016's Civil War II storyline, when Hawkeye shot Banner with an irradiated arrow.
With Ewing and Bennett's taken on the Hulk, they've made the savage, often dumb, monster into a horrific and intelligent force of nature, cursed to be the protector of puny Bruce Banner. He's smart, angry, can smell lies, absorb Gamma radiation, and can never be killed. This Hulk is simply pure horror.
According to Ewing, he was pushing Hulk as a horror character when we brought him back in Avengers: No Surrender, which fit with some ideas editorial was having. But when it came time to actually pitch the return of Hulk as a solo book, he said, Ewing wasn't pitching alone - it was a situation where a whole lot of people were pitching their own takes on the character.
"I had to kind of earn the slot in a way. And the first thirteen issues or so make up that pitch, but in writing those I created a whole bunch of other situations that are forming the longer-term plan," he said.
Ewing said he's been pleasantly surprised with the success of the book.
"Hulk fans have actually been really supportive of this run, even though we're putting their hero through some incredible contortions and convolutions — I can think of other fandoms that would be absolutely appalled by what we've done, but Hulk fans are just happy their guy is getting a place in the sun, even if it's a disgusting alien sun made of writhing, suppurating flesh that's covering the Hulk in a grotesque slime," he said in an interview with SYFY WIRE. Ewing explained why he wanted to bring back Hulk mainstays Betty Ross and Rick Jones (with a twist), what kind of horror films inspired the current Hulk run, and how the next few issues of Immortal Hulk will "change the game."
Can you talk a bit about Joe Bennett's work on this book and how your collaboration process works? A lot of people don't understand how much of a collaboration comics are. The artist is kind of in charge of filling in the missing pieces with his imagination and inspiration, right?
What I keep coming back to here, to illustrate this for people, is the Abomination. Not "the design for the Abomination" — the Abomination being in the book at all. That started when Joe, in an email, said he'd quite like to draw the Abomination. My response was "well, there's a place in the plot for him here." What would have happened if Joe hadn't spoken up? We'd have done something else. Instead, Joe designed the Abomination, and the design was so good — those face-fingers! — that the entire plot began to warp around it.
Not just the most recent issues, but the ending of this entire act of the story is now significantly different, down to the themes, because I'm writing it specifically around and intertwined with Joe's work. If you want a smaller example — issue #17. I asked for the "ultimate Hulk-out" — I knew I'd get something from Joe, but the multiple heads, each head from a different era of Hulk... all him. And, of course, the entire direction of the series after about issue #5, in terms of the amount of body horror we get into, was based on his input. If we had a different artist on Immortal Hulk, we might have had similar plot beats happening, but it would have been a very different style of horror — arguably a less visceral, less imaginative, and less successful one. To say he inspires me to push further is hitting the nail right on the head.
What inspirations have you tapped into for this book? I've seen hints of The Thing, and other horror staples, but I wanted you to delve a bit deeper.
The Thing is the one I keep mentioning in interviews. Early on a fair bit of Jung went in, particularly in terms of the ego/shadow dichotomy. Like a lot of the people I look into for this book, he had a lot of his own unconscious demons, but he was also Agent 488 for the OSS — if I ever pull myself together enough to write a well-researched historical comic, it'll probably be that, but please don't wait for me to get around to it, comics creators - so he was on the side of the angels in the end. I'll probably get back to him and the collective shadow at some point. Anyway, there was also a fair bit of Anna Kingsford, the 19th-century theosopher who wrote Clothed With The Sun, which I dipped into a lot for the Satan stuff. Dr. Elizabeth Sandifer wrote a blog and a series of books called Tardis Eruditorum which makes a great introduction to some esoteric concepts if you're a Doctor Who fan, which I am.
What else? Musically, I recommend "Re:Evolution" by the Shamen — it feels horribly optimistic now, but it's still a banging tune - as well as "Satan" by D.D.Dumbo and "The Sire Of Sorrow" by Joni Mitchell. And at some point, I need to make time to read through William Blake, particularly "America: A Prophecy and The Four Zoas." And watch The Seventh Seal. And obviously, I'm doing a long re-read of old Hulk comics, and some of the best ideas — like bringing back Harpy — often bubble up from there.
I shouldn't give the impression that I'm diligent with this stuff — a lot of this is osmosis, picking up scraps that have particular resonance as they fall into my orbit. Immortal Hulk is actually a very chaotic book, in that it flows together largely through synchronicity, though there is a long-term plan.
What do you love about the Hulk and writing him as a character? Does he work better as a hero or a monster, or both?
He works better as both, I think. I like that he doesn't fit in any boxes — one of the primal scenes of the Hulk is the opening of Avengers #2, where Thor's ranting at him for being nearly naked in a meeting and the other Avengers are clearly disgusted by him. I actually see him as a countercultural figure, and right from the start he has that diegetic appeal to disaffected youth — Superman hangs out with straight-laced Jimmy Olsen, who at his very wildest is "kooky", while Hulk hangs out with Rick Jones, a juvenile delinquent who introduces himself by playing chicken with an atom bomb.
Issue #6 of the original series is fabulous. The Hulk gets a whole fan club of misfit teens, who are enthralled by him despite the fact that he's a surly, half-naked monster who undoubtedly does not bathe. (That entire issue is a psychological minefield. It comes right at the original point of cancellation and as such, it's the most chaotic, and arguably the most important and potent issue of the original run.) Anyway, he's a wonderfully chaotic being in comparison with most of the Marvel universe, so I guess the real answer is that he can work as just about anything.
Can you talk a little about how you've approached the evolution of these characters in IH so far. We've seen a new version of the Hulk, the Abomination, Betty, and Creel. How important was updating these characters?
Creel is the odd one out there — all I'm doing with him is continuing the wonderful work done on him in Saladin Ahmed and Christian Ward's Black Bolt series, which fleshed him and his wife Titania out in a way they hadn't been in a while. But in terms of the Gamma characters — I think it's very important to do something with them that hasn't been done before, or at the very least to examine them from a new angle. So in the case of Betty — as an example — I knew I wanted to bring her in in some capacity immediately after the Hell arc, and I wanted to approach her from a different angle to previously. And this is where diving into the deep past of the Hulk can bring dividends.
I'd read up on the whole Red She-Hulk arc, and I'd seen how that had fleshed Betty out, and informed her personality, but at the same time that all felt fairly safe, in a way. Going back to the original Harpy stories after that — it's the '70s, they haven't aged spectacularly, but at the same time, there's a weird power in there. This is all coming up directly from the mental basement of a bunch of hippies and ne'er-do-wells — Red She-Hulk feels slick, Hollywood, a spin-off of an established brand that's catching fire, while Harpy is... Harpy is a creature from a dream I would hesitate to tell a therapist about.
So, getting back on point, I ended up combining the two with a view to getting back to the feeling of Harpy - something a bit more primal and interesting. And Joe, being Joe, took my somewhat mealy-mouthed direction of "Red She-Hulk with wings, claws, fangs and big bird feet" and gave me what I needed for the story, which is a Junji-Ito-esque horror from the very depths of the id. Which spurred me to go further with her than I was going to. I'm not sure if that answers the question, but it hopefully at least gestures towards it.
What are your thoughts on Hulk's history at Marvel. He's had an odd publishing history with lots of misses but big hits scattered in between. Can you talk a bit about the research that went into this book and maybe what some of your favorite Hulk runs were?
Favorite Hulk runs — Peter David, obviously. I got right into that as a kid. But what drew me to getting the Hulk regularly was the Byrne and Milgrom runs beforehand — I was a Byrne booster in those days, in love with his art, so that's what drew me in, but it was Milgrom's story that kept me there. It was just really strange, creepy, bizarre — you had weird tentacled head-creatures, peaceful giant centipedes, Bruce Banner turning into a gigantic ghostly gas-creature and threatening to dissipate entirely - and all culminating in the return of the Grey Hulk. Looking back at the Milgrom year, it's almost a blueprint for what we're doing now in terms of moving from one status quo to another with maximum strangeness, never knowing what you're going to get each issue.
And before that, of course, we had the Mantlo run. People really need to dig into that and explore it — I think it's all out in trade now. Because of my age and my particular entry-point into Marvel, I think of the David run as something I was around for and the Mantlo run as pre-history, but they're both equally important and revolutionary. Mantlo brought a dark poetic touch to proceedings, and it's his version of Brian Banner — and Rebecca Banner — that I go back to as a touchstone when I bring Bruce's parents into things.
I'll be honest, I could talk for hours about the Hulk. There's so much there, and because people only really think of the surface level — "Hulk Smash," the TV show — it's relatively unexplored, critically. But there's so much there. I would go as far as to say that, as the Superman/Spider-Man dichotomy perfectly represents DC vs Marvel, Batman and the Hulk is another such axis. On the one hand, a fictional universe of order and structure, that reinvents itself in alignment with the times — on the other, a fictional universe of free-roaming chaos, that twists and builds on what came before and contains multitudes. (Although, like the Hulk, Batman is also a dark and endlessly-changing sea, like the void in the book of Genesis. I hope they team up again sometime.)
What's it like to put out a book like this for Marvel, where it borders on horror, and have the reaction be so incredible? Was it a surprise when it started to take off?
I knew it was going to do okay. It was the Hulk, I knew we were doing good work, people were hungry for what we were selling. But what's happening now is far beyond just "okay. It's doing so well now that it's actually quite frightening, because I'm still writing an experimental, chaotic, synchronistic work, and Joe's still having fun and pushing himself to the limit on the visuals, but part of me understands that, to quote the seminal '90s band Take That, there is a road going down on the other side of this hill, and we don't have a map for what happens then.
I do want to make it clear that Marvel have taken a very light touch with this book - the editors I'm working with, Wil Moss and Sarah Brunstad, and before that Tom Brevoort and Alanna Smith, all know they can give me a certain amount of rope and I'll bring it home, and Immortal Hulk is proving that that approach is successful. This isn't Hollywood, and so far nobody's pushing to dilute the vision, and it's possible we might be inspiring other creative experiments of a similar nature. But with all that said, nothing in this world is certain, and either we will come to an end on our own terms or we won't, but nothing is forever. Look at Batman. Stuff happens.
Can you tease a little about the future of Hulk? Will we see a new Hulk emerging from the old one?
Change is a constant in Immortal Hulk, and we're coming up to a big one as the themes we've set in motion play to their conclusion. Issues #23 and #24 have been solicited, and they hint at some big bold moves to be made — but issue #25 is what's going to change the game. People say things like that a lot — it's the hype train — but I honestly mean it. It's experimental in a way I'm not sure we've seen since the '70s. And from there, we plan to go to some very, very interesting places.