Kalie is living in a state of perpetual business with all her PhD work, teaching, lesson planning, grading, and working her other job. So, sadly, she hasn’t had much time for blogging lately. We haven’t even finished The Haunting Of Hill House yet! (Although we’re close.) However, it’s Halloween and this is a horror blog so I thought a new post was needed. With that in mind, this was the perfect day (and the perfect site) to discuss Al Ewing’s new series The Immortal Hulk, a comic unflinchingly merging the superhero and horror genre to uniquely unnerve its readers. It is legitimately scary…but not in a jump-scare way. The title’s true horror comes with what it forces the reader to consider and the dark, psychological unease rising from such contemplation.
It should go without saying Halloween is, among other things, a celebration of the monster. And the Hulk is Marvel’s flagship monster. From his inception, this character was different from everything else Marvel was doing at the time. He wasn’t like the Thing in Fantastic Four and certainly not like Thor in Journey Into Mystery. Yes, Hulk saved the day but he was never a traditional superhero. On the fateful day teenager Rick Jones stumbled onto a gamma bomb test site, Dr. Bruce Banner exposed himself to lethal levels of gamma radiation getting Rick to safety as the bomb exploded. Bruce survived…but something inside him was released. The Hulk – a physical manifestation of all the hate and rage festering in Bruce Banner from a childhood spent enduring a horribly abusive father – gave Bruce a life on the run, haunted by the very monster he tries to simultaneously hold in check and use to help others.
In his graphic novel memoir – Amazing, Incredible, Fantastic: A Marvelous Memoir – Stan Lee discusses pitching the Hulk to his then-editor Martin Goodman. He writes, “Picture this…! Think about Frankenstein’s monster! Sure, the mob of idiots were always chasing him with torches…but he never really wanted to hurt anybody. We always root for the monsters. Think of Quasimodo! In The Hunchback of Notre Dame everybody roots for Quasimodo, just like The Thing gets the most fan mail in the Fantastic Four. So I was thinking, what if he could change back and forth? A monster with a secret identity. You know…like Dr. Jekyll…and Mr. Hyde.” The secret identity certainly fits with the superhero trope but the Jekyll/Hyde comparison anchors the Hulk – from that very first pitch – in the classic gothic tale of a man tormented by the inner monster he’s unleashed and can’t control.
The cover of that very first issue proclaimed, “The Incredible Hulk – the strangest man of all time!!” and asked the question “Is he MAN or MONSTER…or is he BOTH?” This question forms the core of what Al Ewing has done with his first seven issues of The Immortal Hulk. This incarnation of the Hulk – called the “Devil Hulk” – is the most monstrous persona the Hulk has ever manifested. But while the story stars the Hulk, it’s really about all of us.
The first issue begins with a black page, blank of anything save a quote from Carl Gustav Jung’s Psychology and Religions in white font: “Man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be.” Jung isn’t speaking of any one man in this text, just as this comic will be addressing more than the “other guy” Bruce tries to control. This page is immediately followed by block narration over a scene at a gas station in the middle of the desert. It reads, “There are two people in every mirror. There’s the one you can see. And there’s the other one. The one you don’t want to.” Ewing uses this darkest incarnation of the Hulk to make us ask questions about the monster (or the potential monster) inside all of us. Do we all have something so dark waiting to be released? Are we all, on the whole, less good than we imagine ourselves to be? Do we just not want to see this other side of ourselves?
The thing about Bruce Banner is he lives under no delusion. He intimately knows the monster inside himself and what horrors it – and by extension he – is capable of. However we aren’t always so honest with ourselves, about the one we don’t want to see. But what seeds, to use an old Buddhist analogy, are we watering in our hearts, minds, and souls? Are we nurturing that parts of ourselves that grow love, compassion, and empathy? Or are we nurturing short tempers, fast judgments, anger, and rage? And is it always black and white on which is good and which is bad?
As Bruce wanders a town he’s randomly stopped in he thinks, “But for now…my life is very simple. I walk the Earth and I look for ways to use the power inside me. Ways to use…HIM…to bring a measure of justice into this world. To atone for my sins.” This begs the questions – can our anger and rage, can the monsters within us born of those forces – ever bring about a positive result? Can justice come from anger? Is righteous anger a thing? It can be easy to say “yes,” to feel vindicated and validated in our anger, but The Immortal Hulk quickly strips us of so simple an assurance.
The first criminal the Hulk seeks out is Tommy Hill, a kid who got in debt to the Dogs of Hell gang and tries robbing a gas station to get some money to pay his debts. In the process, Tommy accidentally kills the gas station attendant and a twelve-year-old girl. Bruce Banner is shot and dies as well, but the Hulk will leave the morgue that night with vengeance on the agenda. When the Hulk arrives, smarter and more sinister than the green incarnation we’re used to, he taunts Tommy, forcing him to reflect on the act of killing itself. When Tommy begs for his life, saying he’ll turn himself in and that he has a young daughter at home, the Hulk left “him in the hospital parking lot, in a shallow crater. Like a meteor landed and brought him along. Collapsed lung, internal bleeding, just about every bone in his body broken or crushed. Unresponsive, clinging to life. He’ll never walk again. Might never wake up again.” And the murder weapon was left next to his body, definitively linking Tommy to the killings.
What the Hulk does is monstrous…but what’s really scary is how soothing his actions can seem. Think of just this past Saturday, as the peace of the Shabbat service at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA was shattered by another horrific act of gun violence, another man whose hatred turned him into a terrorist. As I read the news I felt sadness, yes, but I also felt anger. I felt anger at the people who so callously and confidently take the lives of others in this way and I felt anger for the politicians who do nothing about it. The idea of something as monstrous, merciless, and unstoppable as the Hulk coming to make people like that reap what they sow is far more appealing than I feel comfortable with. That’s not who I am and that’s not who my faith calls me to be. But there is a darkness inside of me, waiting to grow if I don’t water the right parts of my heart and soul. I must be cautious of this, lest it consume me. This sort of contemplation and introspection is the psychological horror at the heart of Ewing’s narrative.
But it’s not just the Hulk’s actions that feel like they belong in a horror movie. This incarnation of the Hulk only comes out at night. While Bruce Banner can die, the Hulk can’t…rising from the grave to seek gruesome revenge on those who have hurt Bruce or harmed innocents. The first character to see the Hulk in this series, one of the Dogs of Hell, says, “It was just – just there – so big – it’s the Devil – It’s the Devil, man! The damn King of Hell!” This is a characterization Ewing uses purposefully. As the reader hears ominous recurring references to “the One Below All” and people scared of what’s coming through the open “Green Door,” this Hulk – not the classic Green Hulk nor the Grey Hulk nor the merged personality – embraces his demonic descriptor. When the Hulk is called “the Devil himself” in issue #3 his response, with a nasty smile, is “You’re damned right.”
This Hulk is a monster and he acts monstrously.
We have the Devil Hulk, a creature that can’t die and only comes out at night. We have mysterious, supernatural forces haunting the periphery of the story. And this Devil Hulk has a foot in the supernatural world as well. As the Avengers try to subdue the Hulk in issue #7, Thor Odinson tells Captain America, “He…he is stronger than he was. Vastly so. He…he sees the naked souls of men…smells lies in our hearts, hidden even from ourselves…” Cap objects, saying, “Lies don’t have a smell –” But Thor continues, “Are you sure? You live in the mortal world, Steve Rogers…of science and law, of what you can perceive…but I live in a world of legend and symbol. The world of gods. I am suggesting Captain…that in its RAGE, it’s PAIN, in the shadow of Armageddon…your mortal world may have produced something very close to a god. Or a devil, perhaps.” This Devil Hulk is something more than the Hulk ever was before. And we have this Hulk bringing violence – both physical and psychological – to those he deems worthy of punishment. These are stories that sit in the pit of your stomach long after you read them.
Despite all these gruesome actions, as Stan Lee said, we still root for the Hulk. However this is less the rooting we do for Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame or the Beast in Beauty and the Beast than it is the rooting we, as a culture, do when we see a slasher horror film. Think about it. Don’t we root for the monsters in horror franchises? We get more excited over Michael Meyers, Jason Voorhees, or Freddie Krueger than we do their victims. And their names have certainly become a part of our popular culture in a way most of the victims don’t. We go hoping to see the monsters and the kills. Is that part of the appeal of Ewing’s The Immortal Hulk?
Even if it is, Ewing turns this right back around on the readers and it’s unnerving. We root for this Hulk while at the same time fearing him. While weaving conventions from the superhero and horror genre together in one tale, Al Ewing creates something brilliantly unsettling I’ve never quite seen before in a comic. It’s master stroke is how it always leaves the reader wondering what unseen reality might be lurking in the darkest corners of our own hearts and souls.