The Immortal Hulk Finds Bruce Banner Coping with Internal and External Horrors

People think of the Hulk as a dumb green muscle. He gets stronger as he gets angrier and he’s not much for intellectualizing and problem-solving. Did I mention he’s green? In all fairness, that’s how he’s portrayed. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he’s a game-changing weapon for the Avengers, their ace in the hole, a nearly unbeatable beast. Dr. Bruce Banner is a hapless physicist whom sometimes loses his temper, which wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t cause him to transform into a destructive monster. He is brought in to join a superhero team and they use the Hulk to their advantage, even though sometimes they lose control of him.

But the Hulk isn’t frightening in the MCU. He’s kind of a bratty child, which can be endearing. Children are cute. You can be buddies with them. The Avengers treat him as their buddy because that’s how the monster can be kept under control. The Hulk’s childlike attitude is also why he often lacks character depth. His characteristic nuances go largely unexplored, leaving him one-dimensional despite being a part of a duality. He comes off as obnoxiously unintelligent and a wildly emotional brute who is only good for smashing and overreacting. At other times, he can’t be anything other than comic relief. 

This is only one version of the Hulk.

In the comics, this is a version now known as Savage Hulk, the most dominant Hulk. Over the roughly sixty-year span of the character’s existence, the many writers of Hulk comics have reinvented the Hulk in a myriad of forms to not tell the same story repeatedly. Writer Peter David spent 11 years shaping the Hulk’s canon (and continues to write Hulk stories today). He gave us Joe Fixit in the 1980s, an abrasive personality who is essentially the Grey Hulk from the first six issues of The Incredible Hulk by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but as a Las Vegas enforcer. He gave us Professor Hulk in the 1990s, whom we now also know from Avengers: Endgame. Writer Greg Pak created a beloved version of the Hulk named Green Scar. Some iterations of The Hulk are so fleeting within the character’s mythos that they’re barely worth mentioning.

Since June of 2018, writer Al Ewing has been steering The Hulk in another new direction with his ongoing series, The Immortal Hulk. This series places the character into the horror genre, similar to how Alan Moore revamped Swamp Thing in the 80s. Ewing wanted to bring Hulk comics back to the tone of those first six issues. “It was a horror book to begin with,” says Ewing. “Bruce Banner sitting and waiting for the night to come. Waiting to change into his terrifying opposite, the Jungian shadow-self – everything he hid from the world and tried to pretend wasn’t inside him.”

References to psychoanalyst Carl Jung pop up throughout the series, most often through the voice of Leonard Samson, aka Doc Samson, Bruce’s psychiatrist and fellow gamma-mutated muscle man. “The Hulk is the personification of everything we deny we have inside ourselves,” Samson has stated. “Struggling with him means confronting the dark sides in all of us.”

Ultimately, The Immortal Hulk is less superhero sci-fi fantasy. Although it’s still embedded within a genre, the series is grounded in personal issues. It’s a horror story as well as a character study on the complications and intricacies of mental illness, specifically dissociative identity disorder, which is Bruce Banner’s affliction and an aspect of the character not explored in film and TV.

Devil Hulk

Immortal Hulk focuses on a Hulk persona who goes by the name Devil Hulk, a Hulk not created by Ewing, but by writer Paul Jenkins and artists Ron Garney and Sal Buscema in The Incredible Hulk Vol. 3. Unlike the irritable Savage Hulk (the MCU Hulk), Devil Hulk doesn’t need to be eased or mitigated. He’s angry, but not blinded by uncontrollable rage. This is a Hulk who is in control, which is more frightening than one who is nothing more than a singular emotion.

Devil Hulk isn’t childlike or even heroic. He is articulate, often thoughtful like a detective, a bit vengeful, and makes solid moral judgments. He has a clear perception of right and wrong. He thinks in terms of justice. And like the original Hulk, Devil Hulk comes out every night instead of through windows of rage.

Sampson remembers Bruce describing this version of the Hulk as “a demonic, satanic personality that he kept caged inside him. Bruce at his angriest, his most inhuman, his most merciless. A Hulk who, if he ever got out, would be the end of the world.”

This is not entirely true. There is nothing demonic about Devil Hulk. Bruce encountered him when exploring the depths of his mind to figure out what was going on with the Hulk and to take control of his rage and guilt. He was scared of this personality and imagined it as snake-skinned and satanic. But that was Bruce’s inaccurate projection (another psychoanalytical concept). Truthfully, Devil Hulk is protective and loving towards Banner, an unprecedented dynamic between the scientist and his alter-ego.

Love and Hate

Savage Hulk has always considered Bruce Banner, and all humans, to be puny. Likewise, Banner has always thought of The Hulk as a burden, and enough so that it has made him consider suicide as the ultimate solution, however painful it may be for his loved ones. Hate and fear fueled their relationship and the way they struggle with each other over a single body.

This is not the case within the Hulk/Banner relationship in The Immortal Hulk. Devil Hulk loves Banner. He says it throughout the series, and it feels genuine within Ewing’s portrayal, as opposed to Paul Jenkins’s initial interpretation of the character.

Jenkins made it difficult to tell whether Devil Hulk’s declarations of love are genuine or manipulative. In The Incredible Hulk Vol. 3, Devil Hulk attempts to negotiate with Banner, saying, “I merely want control of the body, frabjulous boy… to do with as I please. To exact our revenge upon a worthless world. I’ll make them pay for what they did to us, Brucie — I’m the only one who can. I’ll take their rejection and their smug, fat smiles, and I’ll return the whole thing on them a million times over… It’s a once in a lifetime offer, my love.”

It sounds insincere like he’s buttering up Banner so he can take advantage of him. It seems even more deceitful because he looks reptilian. Jenkins depicted him as scaly and red-eyed, with claws and sharp teeth. We’ve seen imagery like this. Think about the snake in the Tree of Knowledge. The serpentine appearance of Devil Hulk implies sinister motives. It implies a self-centered, cajoling, and devious nature.

Ewing, however, portrays Devil Hulk as a normal-looking Hulk (green skin, muscles, torn pants, bad haircut) but doesn’t ignore the discrepancies between his portrayal of the character and Jenkins’s. He instead presents it as a misunderstanding. In The Immortal Hulk #15, Devil Hulk explains that what he said to Banner in the past was not meant to sound conniving. It was intended to be honest and protective, but Banner’s fearful projection of him skewed his delivery, making Devil Hulk appear to be evil.

One crucial detail should be mentioned about Bruce Banner that shaped his life significantly: he had an abusive, alcoholic father. In the early to mid-80s, writer Bill Mantlo introduced the concept of Bruce being a victim of child abuse by way of his father, Brian Banner. Peter David took this further by making Bruce Banner a person afflicted with dissociative identity disorder (DID), and the trauma of experiencing child abuse being the root cause. Essentially, the different versions of the Hulk are Bruce’s multiple personalities, his alters.

Banner is more than just a genius scientist. He is characterized by his personal suffering. Because of his father’s abusive nature, Bruce can’t understand love without pain. He doesn’t understand love without it being soured by trauma. Therefore, Bruce projected a frightening appearance to Devil Hulk when Devil Hulk mentioned love, and anything coming from a serpentine creature sounds villainous. “I love you. I’ll always be here for you,” Devil Hulk pleads in one of Bruce’s early memories. “He’s not you’re dad. Not a good dad. A dad can’t hurt you and be a good dad. Just let me out, okay?”

Jenkins’s Devil Hulk is a sly, subtle influence. Ewing’s Devil Hulk, however, is more upfront and direct. He’s still vicious, but more tough love.

The Horror

Ewing uses The Immortal Hulk to return the iconic character to the horror atmosphere from whence it began. “Part of what we’re attempting with Immortal Hulk is tapping into some universal fears,” says Ewing in a letters column. He takes this several steps further by incorporating elements of cosmic horror.

A mysterious green door, a motif representing Hulk’s immortality, appears to Banner every time he dies and is resurrected (Bruce Banner can die; The Hulk can’t), and they struggle to understand its meaning. And where can this lead a person to but a strong sense of existential dread? Banner wonders why he keeps coming back to life. There has to be a reason.

This dances around a classic Lovecraftian theme: fear of the unknown. Furthermore, Banner and the Hulk battle with the phenomenal power of The One Below All, a nightmarish eldritch entity, clearly inspired by the work of Lovecraft. Supernatural and extra-dimensional elements have been used here and there throughout the Hulk mythos, but not in such a terrifying fashion.

Joe Bennett leads the Immortal Hulk art team, providing pencils and supported by inker Ruy José and colorist Paul Mounts. Bennett’s depiction of Hulk is typically outraged, but more maniacally and menacingly rather than mindlessly. Hulk’s eyes are small, yet wide, under a massive, jutting forehead. His pupils are yellow and beady. He often shows a lot of teeth, but it’s hard to tell if he’s baring them in rage or grinning. Maybe it’s both.

The transformations are grotesque compared to past portrayals when the artist depicted Banner’s transformation into the Hulk by showing Banner holding his head in pain, ripping through his shirt, and suddenly he’s the Hulk in the next panel. Instead, Bennett illustrates transformations as Banner’s flesh and bones melting and deforming and reforming into the Hulk’s large, green body. There are oblong limbs, mutilation, two heads on a single body, and sometimes dismemberment. Not only does it look bizarre and horrifying, it also looks painful.

It’s a still moment of body horror akin to John Carpenter’s The Thing. In fact, Ewing has conceded to his reverence to Carpenter’s beloved horror classic: “The Thing is a huge influence on us, and #9’s resolution came largely out of some notes from Joe [Bennett] on what he wanted to draw.” He’s referring to the brutal splash page at the end issue #9, wherein a superpowered character’s body is revealed to be ripped in half from head to hips, yet he still stands alive.

It’s not often that you would see art like this in Marvel Comics. There are moments in the past when Marvel used disturbing art in over-the-top ways, but Bennett’s artwork is tastefully done by paying homage to old horror comic art styles as well as schlocky 80s horror movies. Immortal Hulk is a real page-turner and not just as a compelling story. The creators take advantage of the nature of the page turn by delivering something shocking in the same way that horror movies deliver jump scares.

United and Divided

Banner and the Hulk have most often been depicted as two separate entities. This makes sense given that their personalities are so different. The Hulk has opinions on Banner, and Banner has his views about the Hulk. The Hulk has his own motivations that are separate from Banner’s interests. Most often, Banner is merely dragged along for the ride.

The question is, how divided are Banner and Hulk? Are they closer to being the same person than they perceive? How many personality traits do they share? The line between them is blurry.

Banner sometimes describes Devil Hulk as an itch in the back of his skull. He recognizes that this is how Devil Hulk communicates with him. Devil Hulk gives him signals, offers his intuition to Banner. He lets Banner know when something he sees is critical. As separate as they may be, Banner and Devil Hulk at least share awareness.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an obvious parallel to the Banner/Hulk dynamic and a classic story about duality. The difference here is that Jekyll and Hyde never seem to overlap with each other, while Bruce Banner and the Hulk possibly overlap more than they like to admit.

Immortal Hulk takes Banner and Hulk’s relationship beyond duality by introducing a system of Hulk alters that work together along with Banner. Ewing defines Banner’s DID more acutely. He wants to explore how Banner’s disorder functions and how he can use it to his advantage. “When I started on this book, I was thinking of the Hulk as a duality,” says Ewing in a letters column. “But as I researched dissociative identity disorder and fell in love with the various alters as I had a chance to write each one, the idea of just Bruce and one Hulk felt too limiting. Writing the whole system makes for a much richer and more satisfying story for me.”

Bruce and his Hulk alters have to learn to work together, like The Avengers or any other superhero team. As different personalities, Banner and his Hulk alters work through their interpersonal issues, try to understand each other’s idiosyncrasies, and focus on goals together. It’s the only way a superpowered collective can function within a single mind and body. Whether it is Bruce Banner and one Hulk or a slew of Hulks, they have to work as one to succeed. And most of these interactions happen inside Banner’s head. In his mind, and sometimes in an extra-dimensional reality, he is quarreling with Devil Hulk or Savage Hulk or Joe Fixit or whoever else may be present.

This is a big reason why Immortal Hulk stays compelling. It harkens back to the question on the cover of The Incredible Hulk #1 in 1962 (IS HE MAN OR MONSTER…OR IS HE BOTH?). As I read on, I wonder whether this story is about multiple beings struggling to cooperate with each other, or one man struggling with himself.

More than likely, it’s both.